The music video was directed by Mark Romanek and first aired on May 12, 1994, having been filmed in April of that year. It was cut down from its original length to 4:36. Several sections of the video were shot inside the then-abandoned Linda Vista Community Hospital in Los Angeles. The video was popular and helped bolster the success of the band. Set in what appears to be a 19th-century mad scientist‘s laboratory, the video’s imagery involves religion, sexuality, animal cruelty, politics, and terror, including:
- A heart connected to some sort of device; the beat of the heart corresponds to the beat of the song
- A little girl lounging on a chair
- A nude, bald woman with a crucifix mask
- A monkey, scared, panicked, tied to a cross with a picture of Jack Nicholson on the right.
- A severed pig’s head spinning on some type of machine.
- A diagram of the vulva/vagina
- Reznor wearing various fetish gear, such as an S&M mask, ball gag, and long leather gloves while swinging in shackles.
Several times, Reznor, wearing leather pants, floats and rotates through the air, suspended by invisible wires. There are also scenes of Reznor being blown back by a wind machine while wearing aviator goggles. Mark has stated:
We made prints, and I personally spent a couple of days dragging them around the parking lot and spraying aerosol shellac and holding lighters under them. We were just making it for art’s sake, and YouTube didn’t exist then, so it was a pretty ballsy and extravagant thing for Trent to do. But MTV liked it, so that started a long negotiation of how we can get it on the air. I want to go on record about the monkey: That monkey was not in any danger even though he appears to be in distress. The monkey was just munching on bits of banana and enjoying himself. We had an ASPCA person on the set. It wasn’t harmed, and actually got paid more than some of the crew.
These images were inspired by the work of Joel-Peter Witkin, as well as by the Brothers Quay‘s animated short film Street of Crocodiles. For the television version, certain removed scenes were replaced with a title card that read “Scene Missing,” and the instances of the word fuck being edited out were accompanied by a stop in the video motion, making it appear as if the stop was a result of defective film (this was supposedly done to make sure the flow of the song was not affected). According to Romanek, the video was filmed using “a slightly out of date film stock but it was still a contemporary film stock.”
They had stopped making it three years before and we found some of it. All the new color film stocks have this T-Grain, like little Ts that are interlocking. The film stock we used had the original old granular grain. The new stocks are just really modern looking, really sharp, really contrasty, very fine grain. We didn’t want that. Normally you don’t want to use that kind of stock because the colors will be off. It does have a shelf life but in this case we didn’t care, the more fucked up it was the happier we were.
The unedited version of the video was shown on Playboy TV‘s music video show Hot Rocks in 1994. In mid-2002, the unedited version aired on MTV2 as part of a special countdown showcasing the most controversial videos ever to air on MTV. This countdown was only shown late at night due to the sexually explicit imagery of “Closer” and several other videos.
In 2006, “Closer” was voted No. 1 in a VH1 Classic poll, “20 Greatest Music Videos of All Time.”
In retrospect, Reznor said of the video that “The rarest of things occurred: where the song sounded better to me, seeing it with the video. And it’s my song.”
The unedited video is included in Closure, The Downward Spiral (DualDisc), Directors Label Volume 4: The Work Of Director Mark Romanek and Vevo, and it is available for download from the United States iTunes Store under the band’s page. Behind-the-scenes footage with commentary by Romanek is included in Closure (DVD) and Directors Label. It is also available on YouTube, and was previously flagged there before this restriction was lifted.