August 30, 2009

The Story Behind "Thriller"

As far as I'm concerned, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is the greatest music video ever made. I'm old enough to remember when it first came out, and it really did revolutionize the entire genre. I recently posted about John Landis, who directed the video, and that led to me picking up a recent book about him (John Landis by Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan) and subsequently I discovered some interesting things about the making of this landmark video.

First of all, like many big success stories in the entertainment field, nobody had any interest in making "Thriller" at the scale and scope it was made. Jackson, after seeing the jaw-dropping werewolf transformation scenes in Landis' horror film An American Werewolf in London, contacted the director and said he wanted him to turn him into a monster as well. Landis, at the time, was a very successful film director, having already made Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places. No
major film director would stoop to directing music videos, (though the huge success of "Thriller" would quickly change this, soon after Brian DePalma directed "Dancing in the Dark" for Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese was behind the camera for Jackson's "Bad".) Landis was intrigued by the idea of working with Jackson, an entertainer who was a year into the runaway success that his Thriller album brought him. "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" had already made the album mega-successful, with the record spending over a year at the top of the charts, but it had slipped to the number six spot when they decided to issue the title track as a single. Despite the appeal of working with Michael Jackson, Landis also had another incentive to accept the offer. His last film, Twilight Zone: The Movie, almost destroyed his career. A horrible helicopter accident on the set of the movie killed the films star Vic Morrow as well as two child extras. Landis would be hauled into court and charged with involuntary manslaughter as well as child endangerment. The accident - and subsequent trial - was a black cloud over Landis (even well after he was cleared of all charges) and he insisted on working as much as he could while the case crawled through the court system.

He accepted the offer to direct the video on two conditions: First, Jackson would need to have a love interest in the video ("Beat It" and "Billie Jean" both ignored that angle and Landis wanted to sexualize Jackson - and he did, casting a former Playboy Playmate as a female lead) and secondly, he wanted the video to be more of a short film and proposed a 15 minute "theatrical short" in lieu of the more traditional music video format. Landis brokered a very unique deal with Jackson, he agreed to make the short only if it was actually released in movie theaters instead of heading straight to television. The record label was not pleased with the deal Jackson arrived at, and when it came time to pay for the extravagant shoot, they balked. In 1983, the biggest budget ever for a music video was $70,000. Landis projected "Thriller" to cost closer to $700,000. The label refused to fund it, despite Jackson being the biggest star in the world at the time, and it was up to Landis and Michael to find an alternative way to foot the bill. They also found little support from the album's producer, Qunicy Jones for their ambitious project. The video would require a new version of the song. The album cut runs nearly six minutes, but the video would need a running time of closer to eleven minutes. Jones not only refused to extend the track, but he wouldn't turn over the master recordings either. Jackson and Landis, under cover the night, arrived at a studio and stole the master recordings. Landis recently described the cloak and dagger effort as "very illegal, but the statute of limitations is up."

The first fund raising idea was to simultaneously shoot The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller which would require them to create forty five minutes of "behind the scenes" footage that could be packaged with the finished video allow them to sell an hour to a television network for the entire project. Landis and his crew dismissively called it Michael Jackson's Filler, because thats essentially what it was. The idea would prove to be more successful then they ever imagined. They sold the exclusive hour long special to Showtime, who would air it after it debuted in theaters. When MTV (who had only recently began showing African American acts on the network because of the massive success of "Billie Jean" and "Beat It") caught wind of the sale, they wanted a piece of it too, so they also forked over a huge wad of cash to buy an exclusive three week window that they could air the special after Showtime had premiered it. Suddenly they had more money then they would require for the shoot.

The music video made it's world premiere in movie theaters attached to, of all things, Walt Disney's Fantasia. It must have terrified many children in the audience, and after a few weeks, it then went to Showtime, then to MTV. By that time, it was such a massive pop culture phenomenon, the record label - who didn't want to make it in the first place - started to send it out to all sorts of television stations free of charge because it was essentially a free one hour commercial for their recording artist. To absolutely no one's surprise, the Thriller album went back to number one.

However, there was still more money to made. An upstart home entertainment company called Vestron Video wanted to secure the rights to sell "The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller." Landis thought the idea was absurd because the video and the special were widely available for free on television, but he underestimated how huge his little short had become. At the time, the notion of buying something on VHS for home viewing was unheard of. Feature films cost $90 a pop, which created the entire industry of video rental stores. Vestron set the price for "Thriller" at $24.99 and as a result, created the first ever "sell-through" video tape, and a very popular Christmas present. The music video that nobody wanted to make continued to pump cash for its creators.

Perhaps the most interesting footnote of the whole thing is that Jackson himself ordered the negative destroyed before anybody ever saw it. Jackson's grandfather was a Jehovah's Witness minister and shortly after production wrapped on the shoot MJ had a nightmare where he was visited by the Devil. The next day Michael ordered his lawyer to destroy the negative, but Landis intervened and saved the project by writing the silly disclaimer at the beginning that informs the viewer that the video in no way should be interpreted as Jackson endorsing the occult.

Earlier this year, Landis, who worked with Jackson again directing the video for "Black or White" sued Jackson over unpaid "Thriller" royalties. The suit claimed Landis was owed four years worth of royalties from the very succesful video. Now, with Jackson's untimely passing, the suit will now continue against Jackson's estate. Despite the lawsuit, it appears Landis held no ill-will against Jackson; he travelled from London to Los Angeles to attend the stars memorial service last month.

Check out the video here.