Mounted on a wall at the back of the workspace was a Calder-like sculpture of a metal circle hovering beneath a metal bracket, and looped onto a metal triangle with a rope. Willems said that it was one of his “magnet doodles.” He took up metalwork after Cher suggested that he needed a non-remunerative hobby; soon he had made a grill for the back yard, a window guard for his daughter’s room in the shape of a large metal snake, and a car-size red metal elephant that lives at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst. Willems’s magnet doodle recalled the magic of science shows from childhood, but I’d never seen anything quite like it. “I used to feel that when I turned the lights out it collapsed,” he said.
Was it always important for you to have a creative outlet that was not connected to music making? Something outside the world of R.E.M. that was just for you?
Music was always like a beautiful fog around me. I’m very susceptible to music. Anyone who has been out to dinner with me, been out in public with me, will tell you how distracting music can be for me. It blocks out all other input. In a way, the band blocked out all this input for me for a long time. It made it very hard for me to be able to focus on other things, like reading books.
I was doing all these other things, I was learning all these other skills, either through the band or in conjunction with the work that I was doing with the band. At a certain point, I found myself surrounded by amazing and unemployed film people who wanted to do things. So Jim McCay and I put together a production company and started working with people like Jem Cohen and James Herbert. Through River Phoenix I met all of these other amazing people and eventually we started Single Cell Pictures and started working on films.
I love the phrase “non-remunerative hobby,” for it describes so much of what I spend my time on. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do only one thing, all the time, every day.