We met on the Madonna shoot. Despite many trials and tribulations we have remained friends. We worked together with Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, John Lennon and Yoko, Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Britney, Shakira, and Beyonce, and that was just the celebrities. I once asked Michael how he (and his partner Don Schneider) did such special work. They said they would put thirty ideas on a board. Select the best one. Thirty more, thirty more, thirty more, until they had five or six. Now, if someone has AN idea they think it is great.
Michael is a stubborn Sicilian. He should have been in THE GODFATHER. We fought constantly over everything, always to the client’s benefit. When we were going to do the Pepsi commercial SECURITY CAMERA, the idea was that the Coke delivery man be caught by a little old lady getting a Pepsi out of the cooler. I asked him how he sold that idea to the client because it sucked.
Why does it suck?
It sucks because it’s too subtle.
What do you mean subtle?
You see everything from a grainy security camera, right?
You see virtually the whole scene from a funky, awkward viewpoint, the guy and old lady, the cases, the store, right?
How are you going to get the subtlety of the performance?
It’s what we sold the client.
Well, you better have something in your back pocket.
That’s when we decided to have all the cans fall from the case when the Coke guy touched them. Michael still made me shoot the original script, over and over.
Can’t you see that this doesn’t work?
It’s what we sold the client.
I’m getting hungry. Let’s shoot the cans falling. It’s going to be a tough one for timing. The effects guys will take forever to reset.
First take. Perfect timing. Hysterical.
Let’s go home.
What was wrong with it?
I can’t just have one take.
Okay. We’ll do one after lunch.
Let’s talk about it during lunch.
I can’t. I’m going out to lunch. You’re eating here with the crew.
I went to Chinois to have lunch with an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen for a while. I didn’t get back to the set until late afternoon.
Where were you? It’s getting late.
I thought it would take them longer to set up.
How was your lunch?
Good. Especially dessert.
We shot another take, just about exactly like the first one.
I’m never satisfied.
Well, another take will be on overtime.
You took too long for lunch.
Let’s save some energy for the next spot.
The spot is the highest scoring commercial to run on the SUPER BOWL in the (in)famous USA Today Poll.
We had constant battles like this. They were worse than the ones with Riney because we were open and honest with each other. If I argued openly with Riney, he would sulk. With Michael, I didn’t have to hold anything back. The work benefited.
I had worked on an idea for the Beatles’ FREE AS A BIRD for several months and was coming up empty. Paul McCartney had given me an idea and I couldn’t make it work for the complete length of the song. I had to fly to London to discuss where the piece was going and asked Michael to rearrange his schedule to go there with me. Michael was a Beatles fanatic, having an encyclopedic knowledge of their work. The only condition was to keep quiet until we got the lay of the land. McCartney asked us to watch a documentary that Linda (his wife) had made on the Grateful Dead that used the technique he suggested. Michael and I went to the screening room and shook our heads and tried to keep awake. It just proved that I had wasted months of thought and effort on the idea.
We then went to meet at the Abbey Road recording studios. Neil was there with Paul, George Harrison, and George Martin. Michael was speechless. They were listening to the old Ampex master tapes of the original recordings, preparing for the Anthology Television Special. Neil showed me some of the cover art for the proposed CD collection and I saw an idea there for the video.
We went back to Neil’s office to discuss the (lack of) progress. I showed Neil some of the experimental work I had done on Paul’s idea and he agreed that it wasn’t something that we should pursue. He asked what I had in mind and I bluffed my way by saying that a bird should take us through the elements of the Beatles’ life in Liverpool. The album cover I saw earlier had a series of torn posters that took you through the albums. I said, It’s similar to the album cover you already have. Neil asked how far the idea had been developed and I said that it hadn’t since I wasted so much time on Paul’s idea and I didn’t want to explore the new idea until we had this meeting. If you like it, Michael and I will have something for you in a day or two. Neil liked it (did he have a choice?).
Michael and I took the Concorde back to New York and with the help of the champagne and Michael’s great Beatles knowledge we came up with the rough structure of the piece. Michael and I also decided that his partner, Don Schneider, could also help. We spent the next several months grinding out ideas based on the origins of Beatles songs. I think their Pepsi work suffered a bit during this time but the video FREE AS A BIRD became a classic.
STARTING OVER had a rocky start. Yoko had called me to do a video of WORKING CLASS HERO and, of course, I called Michael. We worked on ideas for several months and finally had something we liked (mostly his). Before we could meet Yoko, she called me and said she was going to use stock footage for that video and wanted me to do STARTING OVER instead. I was shattered. I loved WORKING CLASS HERO and wasn’t that thrilled with STARTING OVER. I called Michael and said:
I have bad news and worse news.
What’s the bad news?
Yoko doesn’t want us to do WORKING CLASS HERO.
That is bad news. What’s the worse news?
She wants STARTING OVER.
That’s great news.
It’s a better song.
It was the last song he did before he was murdered.
I don’t want to do it.
I’m exhausted and I don’t feel like putting in the time.
We should do it.
There’s no money, I’m tired, and I don’t like the song.
We should do it.
Look, if you come up with an idea, I’ll do it, but I’m not working on it.
A while later (days, weeks, months, I can’t remember) Michael calls:
I got it.
He explains the idea.
The idea was the notion of John and Yoko going through a scrapbook of memories.
It sounds like a bad Hallmark commercial.
No, fuck you.
Fuck you. Their memories are fabulous. The pictures of them together will be wonderful. The public has forgotten how important their lives were…
Shut up. Let me think about it.
The important element in Michael’s idea was the quote from John in Rolling Stone Magazine about their ‘scrapbook of madness.’ After I hung up the title resonated with me. I had shot on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland and seen an amazing cottage there once. I found the source and things started to happen. There were always high winds there and there was an ever-present danger of being blown into the sea from the cliffs. I called Michael back.
I like it.
You like it?
With some changes.
I explained about the Cliffs of Moher and sent him some reference. I also added the notion that the winds would come through the open windows and blow all the photographs away, all the memories.
Prepare a presentation for Yoko. Call me when it’s done and I’ll set up a meeting. He did an amazing job, except he put on a coda that I didn’t think the piece needed, ending at the Dakota. The coda was extremely expensive, having to be shot in New York with a crane, permits, etc. That may have been why I didn’t like it. It was mostly my money.
We go to our meeting with Yoko. Michael is transfixed walking through the apartment full of John’s memories and images. We sit in the kitchen/screening/meeting room. The first frame of the presentation is a shot of the cottage on the Cliffs of Moher with the Lennon quote. Yoko immediately says, ‘Perfect.’ That is exactly what the song meant. Michael is having a blast. He explains the details that are brilliantly shown on the boards and Yoko is agreeing with everything. Michael had put his final idea into the boards and we had agreed not to show it unless the piece depended upon it during the meeting. At this point, Yoko had agreed upon everything and was thrilled. I looked at Michael. He looked like a little boy. I said, “Show the final part.” He flipped over the board and showed Yoko the final section, the finale at the Dakota. Yoko loved it. What the hell. It’s only money.
We walked across the park and over to Cipriani for lunch. It was a glorious day.
These two works, FREE AS A BIRD, and STARTING OVER, were better than everything else we had ever done together. The experiences we had, the arguments, the battles, the fact that we could be completely frank and honest with each other, made work happen without compromise. It was like working out. Each argument lead to a stronger viewpoint about the work, making whatever we did better. If either of us ever backed down the process would suffer. It was never a matter of winning or losing. We both won. The work won. Especially with the work we did with the Beatles and John and Yoko.