Behind the scenes in Paris: the contest experience
For the HBO special U2: iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE, U2.com held a contest where fans who had been pulled on stage previously during the tour could win a trip to Paris for the event. As seen on the special each winner was brought onto the stage during Elevation, leading to a mass dance-party during the song. But we wanted to learn what happened behind the scenes, so we asked participants Amra Merdanovic and Mark Baker for their thoughts on the experience...
So... I don't want to spend too much time on the background, but you were one of the five contest winners. You were pulled on stage twice during the tour; which shows were those?
Amra: Actually, there were 9 winners! Most of us knew about each other, but there were some surprises once we all met in Paris. Positive surprises, may I add. I got pulled on stage in Berlin (4) and London (3).
Mark: There were 9 contest winners… I was pulled onstage 3 times during this tour. Montreal 1, Toronto 1 (my full band Acrobat played Desire), New York City 7. Of the 9 contest winners…. they appear to have been chosen from all over the world. Italy, Holland, Spain, Canada, USA, Sweden, England originally from Canada....
And were you allowed to bring someone with you to Paris? Who did you bring?
Amra: Yes, we were all allowed to bring a plus one. I brought my husband.
Mark: The first go round… the contest was just for one winner only. Later that day they changed it so that each winner could bring a plus one. I brought my wife to Paris. My wife speaks French, and it has been her dream to go to Paris. So it was quite ironic that finally she would get to “benefit” for putting up with all the years of my U2 craziness.
Did he go onstage with you, Amra, or was that reserved for the winners?
Amra: He didn't go on stage in Paris, although he did play with the guitar the band in Barcelona (2). We had a special area reserved for us, at the top of the E-stage. We were separated from the rest of the people in GA and had our own security! We walked in with Bono. They brought us to the area and on the second night gave us more specific instructions- for example, they wanted winners on the actual rail, and our plus ones standing behind us.
Mark, you were able to fulfill your wife's dream because of U2... that's a lovely thing to see. Did you get to spend some time around the city before the concerts?
Mark: We left Toronto on a Saturday night… arrived in Paris Sunday morning….. then left Tuesday morning. On Sunday my wife and I toured around to the Eiffel Tower and Christmas market during the day on Sunday. On the Monday during the day, our co-ordinator organized for the contest winners to do a bus trip. 2 hour bus trip…saw the whole city... didn’t really go in anywhere... We also had an incredible, French, 3 course lunch on the Monday.
Did the group have a chance to talk with Bono and/or the rest of the band before the concert began?
Mark: Both nights the contestants were whisked to and from the concert via private vehicles. We were placed in a room both nights prior to the show. We thought for sure that we would have a visit from the band… or a at least a band member. We only spoke to people in charge of the show and Bono’s bodyguard, Brian Murphy. So.. no …. no contact with the band at all. Apparently they were super busy with rehearsals and camera blocking.
Amra: Unfortunately, we didn't. We arrived to the venue around 7 both nights and chilled at the lounge. Being backstage was incredible. All the crew members were lovely to us, and we met with Brian who gave us more info and further instructions. I should probably explain that we were in the VIP area for U2.com people, next to the dressing rooms and Cedarwood lounge, catering, etc. Going to the actual backstage was not in the agenda I suppose.
On the HBO broadcast you can see the contest winners lining up against the rail after Bono goes on stage. Can you describe what it was like entering the arena like Bono does?
Amra: We were lined up there both nights. I'd say we were all very anxious, over excited, overwhelmed .. so the whole walk towards the E stage felt like a dream. I'm pretty sure I'm not exaggerating and all of my fellow contestants/friends would agree! We were walking right behind Bono, through the separated area, and people from both sides were cheering us on and showing their support and I have to admit, that felt great. We needed a bit of encouragement.
Mark: It was an unreal feeling. Both nights, we were told to wait in the hallway. We were told Bono will pass….and then… when he enters, we will follow him to the rail. The 2nd night we were instructed to do the same thing, however the 2nd night, all of the contest winners were asked to be in the front row of the rail. We still didn’t have any idea of what was expected of us or what was going to happen. And when Bono passes…. you can see he has his game face on. I have some video of him passing us and then us walking up to the stage. It’s bananas to hear the crowd cheer as he appears.
When did you find out you would join the band onstage?
Mark: During the time Trish was onstage during Mysterious Ways. So… two minutes before we all appeared. U2 is great at surprises and not committing. So it truly was a surprise for all of us to find out right at the moment. Brian instructed us to go on stage and go down the ramp. It truly was an impromptu and non-rehearsed moment.
It seems like even Bono wasn't sure where he wanted everyone; on the video it looks like he calls everyone back to the e-stage and it turns into a giant dance party.
Mark: Exactly. It’s somewhat true to the magic of U2. Taking chances… spur of the moment…
Amra, you were the only contest winner in Paris at the time of the attacks. Mark, you were on route when it happened. How quickly was U2's team in contact with you?
Amra: That's right. We actually landed on the last flight before the airport was closed. About 20 minutes before the first shooting. The team contacted me instantly, offering any support/help and we kept in touch throughout the whole night via email.
Mark: The first time round, my flight was from Toronto to Montreal, then Montreal to Paris. Before I left the runway in Toronto, I saw something was up. When I landed in Montreal, I knew that things were definitely not good. U2’s team called me in Montreal at that time and put us up for the night. They flew us back home the next day. Some contestants were still in the air. Some had just landed. Other contestants heard the news prior to getting on their plane. I’m thankful for that Montreal stop. I’m also thankful how U2 team put us up in Montreal and flew us home.
Amra, you made it home safely and pretty quickly, which is the most important thing. But then just before the second trip there was that mass shooting in California. From your tweets, that event made you reconsider going to Paris. What convinced you to go as planned?
Amra: I have to say Carol Brock, from the production team, and her colleagues worked nonstop the next day to help us (me and my husband) go back to Dublin. As you can imagine, all airports were chaotic, so in the end we opted for a fast train to London, then a flight to Dublin.
The mass shooting in California affected me a lot more than I would have imagined. I guess by that time I haven't properly dealt with everything that happened in Paris, I kept ignoring it. It reminded me a lot of my childhood [in Sarajevo]- that was my life for 4 years. So I tried not to let the fear get the best of me. I failed in the end. The day before travelling back to Paris I was panicking, but talking to my family helped calm me down. They all pointed out that Paris was probably the safest place to be. And I just knew that U2 would never put their fans in danger.
Is there anything you'd like to add about your backstage concert experience?
Amra: I can just say that we were treated to a fantastic trip to Paris and two incredible live shows.
Mark: I’m still in disbelief that my favourite band of all time, flew myself and my wife out to Paris. It was a show that was never on my radar to attend. The last show was my 10th of the tour and my 41st show of my lifetime. Never could I have imagined that I would be part of U2 history by being included with other winners on this HBO special. I’m truly blessed to have experienced the experience of a lifetime. That Paris 4 show was an emotional show with the Eagles of Death Metal making an appearance. U2 did an incredible gracious gesture and the fans responded. Paris will always have a special place in my heart… I managed to witness a city over come tragedy with the power of music… it was an incredible and emotional experience… like witnessing rock and roll history. I’m humbled to have had a very small part in the final show.