Michael Jackson's 'monster' ambition

The music video Thriller was made because Michael Jackson wanted to be a monster, director John Landis says at the Venice Film Festival.
Singer Michael Jackson in the music video for Thriller.
Singer Michael Jackson in the music video for Thriller.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

VENICE • One of popular music's most influential videos, Thriller, was not the product of a brilliant idea, but was made because pop star Michael Jackson wanted to be a monster, director John Landis said at the Venice Film Festival on Monday.

Landis was in Venice to present his new 3D version of the 1983 video. The 14-minute video was screened at a special event in the out-of-competition section.

Thriller "was nobody's good idea, it was no brilliant business plan", Landis told journalists. "It was a vanity video because Michael wanted to be a monster. And everything that came, evolved from that, was spectacularly successful and I was totally surprised."

He said the late Jackson first approached him about making the video because he liked his work on An American Werewolf In London (1981) and the two, along with make-up artist Rick Baker, met to look at photographs from old monster movies.

The star told the director he wanted to go through the same kind of transformation, from man to four-legged wolf-creature, in the video.

But "we realised it wasn't going to work - if Michael was going to dance, it would be a hell of a lot easier for his monster to have two legs instead of four", Landis said.

As a result, the monster sequence in the video ended up being inspired more by I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957).

"Turns out he hasn't seen many horror films, they were too scary," Landis said, laughing.

Asked about his first meeting with Jackson, the child star turned King of Pop, Landis said he was "joyful" and "childlike" and quickly became a close family friend.

"He would come over to my place and we would stay up till 4am watching cartoons."

It was different when they met again to produce another video in 1991. "On Black Or White, I was working for Michael. It was different. We were still fine, but... he was much more guarded," Landis said. "I know it's not easy being a celeb, but to be the most famous person in the world, to have that kind of celebrity is bizarre.

"And here's someone who was already working from a young age... he never had a childhood. That's one of the reasons he was so interested in pursuing one as a grown-up."

Jackson died in 2009 at the age of 50, not long after Landis and producer George Folsey took legal action against the star over royalties and rights to the video.

A settlement was reached with Jackson's estate in 2012, and Landis said the legal issue had no impact on the shock of the singer's untimely death.

"It was a tragedy - for his children, for his friends, for the whole world," he said. "Truly great performers are rare. I was horrified and I am still upset about it."

Landis, director of films including The Blues Brothers (1980) and Coming To America (1988), said he jumped at the idea of converting Thriller into 3D. Using modern technology, he has remixed the sound, enhanced the visuals and made the 1983 recordings 3D compatible.

"When you watch it on YouTube, you don't see how it is supposed to be. Now you can see the way Michael intended it to be," he said. "My only disappointment is that he is not here to see it, because he'd love it!"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'Michael Jackson's 'monster' ambition'. Subscribe