Premiere: How Relics From Past Breakups Became the Music Video for Katie Toupin's "I Want You Back"
Interview by Katelyn Rebelo & Gretta Wilson
Gretta and I have been collaborating since our first week of college, when she told me my watermelon purse was “the ugliest thing she’d ever seen” and asked if I wanted to help her with a photography project.
Over the past five years, we’ve worked on all our projects together in traditional director/cinematographer roles, though we often threw around the idea of making something as co-directors. We had come up with this vague idea of shooting a film in an old house and focusing on how space changes for different people over time, but nothing ever solidified.
Then everyone we knew started breaking up. My relationship of over three years ended, becoming another in this wave of breakups that came over our circle of friends and left a driving urge to do something with all the pain. So we gathered a small crew, drove to New Hampshire, and made a little film about the tiny details of heartbreak. And it became the music video for Katie Toupin’s (formerly of Houndmouth) “I Want You Back.”
Gretta Wilson: I guess that was where it all began.
Katelyn Rebelo: Yes! I feel like it really started to form the moment I called you that night and was like, “I think I just got dumped?”
Gretta: Yeah I remember coming home that night and sitting in your room with you. It was days after an ex mailed me a book of sonnets—a thing we did years ago, but completely out of left field—and I was just left really shaken. Seeing you sitting there, just surrounded by [your ex’s] stuff... it just sparked a discussion about the power of objects.
Katelyn: I remember right before we broke up I had made drinks, but the relationship ended before we got around to drinking them. Instead of pouring them out I just left them exactly where they had been on my bookshelf. They went completely untouched for days. Even though it was so painful to look, I didn’t want to get rid of them. But it wasn’t just with objects, I think so much of that, and this film, is about the relationship to space after somebody leaves. This person had helped me move into that room, so much of our relationship existed in that space and then the relationship very quickly and unexpectedly ended in there as well. Suddenly I was just in this place that I had very recently loved so deeply, but I couldn't stand to be inside of it anymore. I remember that was around the time when we were deciding whether to renew our lease for another year, and I texted our apartment group message and was just like, I think I need to move out.
Gretta: So while this was all happening we also started moving out, packing those things away and seeing them end. It caused this whole new reckoning with objects so we decided to make this film about love—what happens when it ends and what happens to the things that get left behind. So we made an Instagram post.
Katelyn: So we made an Instagram post and we basically just asked people to send us relics of past relationships. I think we got way more responses than I was anticipating, and really strange things.
Gretta: And really strange stories.
Katelyn: Super strange stories. I think one of my favorites was my sister’s, who had kept a piece of fabric [her ex] had rubbed his deodorant on so she could smell him. And she still had that, which I found insane. She had moved across the country with a new partner, and still decided this was something in her life she wanted to keep.
Gretta: Yes! And people just came out of the woodwork with stories of the strangest things they didn’t know why they kept. Like my little brother’s ex girlfriend’s best friend DM’d me and was like I have a shot glass that I never gave to my ex, it just sits on my shelf and I look at it all this time. So the objects sprinkled throughout the film are real relics from our past relationships and our friend’s and family’s past relationships. Like these easter eggs of broken hearts.
Katelyn: [So] we drove to New Hampshire in the middle of the night.
Gretta: Yeah, we left at midnight, Kate (the actress) didn’t actually know what the project was.
Katelyn: We forgot to tell her.
Gretta: We forgot to tell her anything until we were in the car, and she looks up and was like “Wait, so what are we doing?” She’s such a trooper, she’s not even an actor.
Katelyn: I mean yeah she’s just our friend, we lived with her, we had seen her dance so many times.
Gretta: We watched her dance and be beautiful for years so we were like yeah.
Gretta & Katelyn: You’d be perfect for this.
Gretta: And you’re going through a breakup like the rest of us so let’s see what happens.
Katelyn: Overall it was also just a much different environment for a film shoot than what I’m used to.
Gretta: Oh me too.
Katelyn: We were all close friends, we didn’t have any equipment other than a camera and a tripod. we decided the choreography the day we got there, I sat watching the light for the entire day before.
Gretta: Katelyn didn’t leave the house. She just walked around the with her little super 8 camera watching how the light moved.
Katelyn: It was honestly so meditative. We wanted the entire house to feel like it had been this couple’s house, and using only natural light, having so few people, and truly tracing the time of the day really helped with that.
Gretta: We thought a lot about it narratively—our idea became [that] there was this couple who moved to this house, and before they could start their life, he left. The house that was supposed to be theirs became hers, and she’s just surrounded by this unsung potential, but as she grows and finds herself, that house becomes her space. That was inspiring to us.
Katelyn: And I think that was the exact opposite of what I had done. I so desperately needed to get out that I didn’t give myself any time to make the space my own again. I felt like I had to be in a new place in order to do that. And this was all about her being able to reclaim the space that was once for the two of them, but make it her own.
Gretta: And she grew into it.
Katelyn: I think at the time part of me wished I could have done that.
…We’ve been saying we kind of made this video backwards. we started with this impulse and this need, and then we shot it and as we were editing we decided to see what songs fit. At first it really was vaguely just an experimental film. We wanted to make something and get all of these emotions out.
Gretta: Before the house was gone, before the feelings were gone, before we were dating new people and things changed. So katelyn found this song by Katie Toupin that honestly wasn’t what we were originally picturing narratively.
Katelyn: At the time, I thought so much of the video existed in the last minute of what it is now—like her jumping on the bed, her moving freely, the moments that make it seem like she’s “over it.” Those are the moments I really wanted to explore, so I thought the music was going to follow that feeling of release a bit more. We had a cut and were playing around with different songs, and as soon as I played it with “I Want You Back” I was like holy shit, this is the sadness and desperation that it needs to be paired with. This is what I had been trying to ignore for so long. It’s crazy to look back on it now and realize this subconscious feeling was captured in a way that I wasn’t even able to fully process at the time.
Gretta: And there’s something so universal about that. Like we mask break ups with “I’m fine, I’m just angry, or I’m better off without this person.” But even when you move on it’s impossible to delete the part of yourself that was in something for so long. I often wonder if it’s possible to completely get over an ex. I know eras of my life have been so defined by heartbreak and pain and, even years later, parts of myself are still stuck in specific moments of hurt. I think that’s what makes Katie’s song so beautiful and why it worked so well for this.
Katelyn: That’s also what I realized when talking to so many other people about heartbreak through this process. Before going into the shoot we were trying to come up with a defining moment in the video where she was “over it.” And the closest way we could even begin to describe it was by saying you don’t realize you’re over someone until the moment you realize you haven't thought about them in a while. But with that, it’s still admitting the person crosses your mind. and acknowledging there probably won’t ever be a point where that doesn’t happen once in a while. That’s what a lot of this video is about. Yeah she has all of these memories, they’re all jarred up, but they’re always going to be there.
Gretta: So what’s the strangest thing you’ve kept from an ex?
Katelyn: I still have this old holey sweater, and I still wear this old holey sweater which is the weirdest part.
Gretta: Yes! And I have an envelope full of letters that one specific ex wrote me—it’s almost like a map of our relationship, but eerily one-sided because I only have the letters he sent me. It’s like I have the whole trajectory of our relationship saved through his eyes, and when I look back on the letters, it’s so easy to see his perspective but I forget about all the pain that occurred in mine. In the same envelope I also have a coaster from a smoke shop in Amsterdam and a stone from a river in Venice. These tiny symbols of moments in our relationship that don’t like have a utilitarian purpose, but to throw them away feels like throwing away a part of myself.
Katelyn: That was one thing when we asked people for their relics… we asked if we could destroy them because we were planning on soaking them in water. And so many people said no you can borrow them, but I need it back, you can’t ruin it.
Gretta: I think because it feels like these past relationships preserve an era of your life and your identity—like you grow so much with a person, and then suddenly they’re just cut out of your life. There’s one particular relationship that has just been so hard for me to get over, because I feel like my life changed so much over the course of dating and parts of myself are still lost in him. Him, the objects he left behind—those are all relics of a past version of my life. I think that’s what I keep clinging to.
Katelyn: I think that was also very similar to our old apartment. I feel like so many parts of us are stuck in that place. We moved in when we were nineteen, twenty, so much happened in those years.
Gretta: You said that when we were moving. I’ll never forget we were sitting in our giant empty living room with the last few boxes waiting for a moving truck, and Katelyn turns to me and goes “I just keep thinking how we're never going to feel the span of emotions that we felt in this apartment.” There were just so many firsts in our lives.
Katelyn: So many things were changing around us, so many people were coming and going.
Gretta: So many relationships. I figured out that everyone I've ever slept with—before and after living there—has gone to that bagel shop on the corner.
Katelyn: (laughing) It was a really good bagel shop.
Gretta: So how’s your heart now?
Katelyn: It’s there, it’s working. It’s honestly feeling more love than it knows what to do with.
Gretta: See this all was a testament to striking when the fire is hot. When we started this we didn't even have music to pair it with yet.
Gretta & Katelyn: We had nothing.
Gretta: We had a mini van.
Katelyn: My mom’s mini van, your mom’s house, a few friends, a free weekend, a free camera, and a lot of emotion.
Gretta: It was this thing where we just poured all of these feelings in this moment of heartbreak and everything else fell into place. We hadn’t really made art before in that way, of feeling something now and knowing you had to make it.
Katelyn: Yeah, we didn’t give ourselves time to overthink it. We just made exactly what we felt while we were feeling it and I think there’s a lot of vulnerability in it because of that.
Gretta: So shoutout to all the boys that broke our hearts. couldn’t have done it without you.
Directed by: Katelyn Rebelo & Gretta Wilson
Cinematographer: Katelyn Rebelo
Starring: Kate Metcalfe & Devin Mojica
Production Designer: Anna Siftar
Choreographer: Brendan Gosse
Animator: Asia Hunt
Editor: Kyle Andrews