The “Thriller” Shooting Diary

The world certainly thought so, and apparently still does. The campy horror-fest with dancing zombies that is “Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” originally conceived as a 14-minute short film, is the most popular and influential music video of all time. In January of this year it was designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry.

Unlike forgotten favorites from MTV’s heyday (Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” anyone?), “Thriller” is thriving on YouTube, where one can view, along with the original, scores of “Thriller” dance tutorials and re-enactments by Bollywood actors and Bar Mitzvah celebrants. The dance has become an annual tribal ritual in major cities around the world, with initiates in ghoul makeup aping Michael’s moves en masse; the current record for largest dance of the undead is 12,937, held by Mexico City. A YouTube 41-million-hit sensation features more than 1,500 inmates in a Philippines prison yard executing the funky footwork as part of a rehab program designed to “turn dregs into human beings”; the prison, in the city of Cebu, has become a T-shirt-selling tourist attraction.

More than any other artist, Jackson ushered in the heyday of the music video, demonstrating its promotional power, raising the bar creatively, and paving the way for greater acceptance of black musicians on MTV. But the Thriller campaign, concocted by the album’s brain trust—Jackson; his lawyer and closest adviser, John Branca; CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff; and Epic head of promotion Frank DiLeo—did not include plans for a third video, and certainly not a video of the title track, which wasn’t even going to be released as a single. “Who wants a single about monsters?” says Yetnikoff, summing up how the group felt at the time about the song’s potential.

But in June of 1983 the album, after four months as No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, was bumped from the top slot by the Flashdance soundtrack. It briefly regained the top position in July, then was toppled again, this time by Synchronicity, by the Police. The three remaining planned singles—“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” just released in May, “Human Nature,” scheduled for July, and “P.Y.T.” for September—were not expected to drive album sales as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” had, nor were they suitable for videos.

Jackson was upset. Obsessive about tracking his sales figures, he compared them constantly with those of his competitors in the top echelon, including Prince and Madonna. “He enjoyed being on top,” says Larry Stessel, Epic’s West Coast marketing executive, who worked closely with the star. “He reveled in it. He didn’t like it when it ended.” With his own album making history, Jackson yearned to shatter records held by the Fab Four. “It was all about the Beatles,” says Stessel. “He knew in his heart of hearts that he would never be bigger than the Beatles, but he had such tremendous respect for them, and he certainly wanted to come as close as he could.”

In the summer of ’83, Yetnikoff and Stessel answered calls at all hours of the night from Jackson. “Walter, the record isn’t No. 1 anymore,” Yetnikoff remembers Jackson saying. “What are we going to do about it?” “We’re going to go to sleep and deal with it tomorrow,” Yetnikoff told him. It was DiLeo who first mentioned the idea of making a third video, and pressed Jackson to consider the album’s title track. “It’s simple—all you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary,” DiLeo recalls telling Jackson.

Although CBS/Epic had ponied up $250,000 for the “Billie Jean” video, Yetnikoff had refused to underwrite “Beat It,” so Jackson had paid $150,000 out of his own pocket. When Folsey and Landis worked up the budget for “Thriller,” they put it at an estimated $900,000. Landis and Jackson placed a call to “Uncle Walter,” as Jackson referred to him, to explain the “Thriller” concept and what it would cost. Landis says that Yetnikoff screamed so loudly that the director had to hold the phone away from his ear. “I’ve only heard three or four people swear like that in my life,” he says. When Landis hung up the phone, Jackson said calmly, “It’s O.K. I’ll pay for it.” Eventually Yetnikoff agreed that the record company would contribute $100,000 to pay for the video, but that left a long way to go and Jackson’s collaborators didn’t want the star to be on the hook.

It was Folsey and John Branca, Jackson’s lawyer, who put their heads together to solve the budget shortfall. Although cable TV was a new phenomenon and the home-video market had yet to explode, they decided to film behind the scenes on 16-mm. for a nearly 45-minute documentary, Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which, bundled with the “Thriller” video, could be sold to cable. MTV agreed to pay $250,000 and Showtime $300,000 for the one-hour package; Jackson would cover some up-front production costs and be reimbursed. Then Vestron came in and offered to distribute Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller as a $29.95 “sell-through” video on VHS and Betamax, a pioneering deal of its kind. (Most videos were then sold for far higher prices to rental stores, rather than directly to consumers.) “You have to remember, back in those days none of us realized quite what home video was going to become,” says Folsey. “The studios treated it pretty much the way they treated television in the 50s and 60s, with total disdain. They had no idea that the home-video business was going to save Hollywood—it never crossed their minds.”

via The | Vanity Fair.

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