Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ at 35: A Look Back at the Iconic Music Video By Those Who Made It
12/2/2018 by Karen Bliss – via Billboard.com
Sunday (Dec. 2) marks 35 years since the debut of Michael Jackson’s ground-breaking “Thriller” music video, which premiered on MTV and launched a dance craze, a red-jacket fashion favorite, and more pricey and ambitious videos by other top-tier artists.
The 14-minute “short film,” as the late singer preferred to call it, was shot on 35mm in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night. It was directed John Landis (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), and written by Landis and Jackson.
The title-track from Jackson’s 1982 album was written by Rod Temperton and produced by Quincy Jones, and became the seventh single after such hits as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” The landmark film went on to win three MTV Awards, two American Music Awards and a Grammy, and is the first and only music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
The 3D version of the music video and restored documentary Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, directed by Jerry Kramer, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. This September, it became the first music video released in IMAX 3D. The song re-entered the Hot 100 on Nov. 10, 2018 at No. 31, the highest it has been since April 7, 1984.
Billboard spoke with John Landis, and entertainment lawyer John Branca, who brokered the deal with MTV and Showtime and is now co-executor of Michael Jackson’s Estate, about getting the $1 million to make the music video, its impact on the business, stealing the tracks from Quincy Jones without his knowledge and more.
That was pretty ballsy to go to a television station to try and cover the costs of making a music video.
John Branca: At the time, most music videos cost about $50,000 [to make], and Michael and John Landis had a budget of $1.2 [million] for this project, and the record company refused to pay for it, for good reason [laughs]. So I said to Michael, “You know, it’s a million two?” and he basically said, “Branca, figure it out.” So I came up with the idea for a “making of,” a long-form, 60-minute piece. It was the first time MTV ever paid for a video, and Showtime paid for it, their sister station, and then we put it out with Vestron [Video] and we actually ended up making a profit.
What do you remember about the time on set and the amazing masks and prosthetics?
Branca: At that time, I was Michael’s main business advisor/manager and so I really focused on the business. Now, when running the estate, I have to do the creative also, but at that time Michael and Landis did all the creative. The one thing that I did do — because growing up as a boy, I loved monster movies, so Werewolf, Lon Chaney, Dracula, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Frankenstein — when Michael felt pressure from the church, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, he told me to get the film canisters and destroy them, before the “Thriller” video was ever released. So I held them in my office for many, many days and he would call everyday.
To destroy the whole thing?
Branca: Yes. So the world would never have seen it. Finally I said to him, “You know Michael, Bela Lugosi played Dracula” — I kinda made it up, I said, “He was very religious.”
He wasn’t religious?
Branca: No. Who knows? So I said, “We’ll put a disclaimer on it.” That’s why you’ll see the disclaimer [at the start of the music video] that due to his personal convictions it doesn’t reflect Michael’s personal views.
John, Michael called you because he was a fan of your film An American Werewolf In London?
John Landis: Everything in Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller is accurate.
Good thing he wasn’t a fan of Animal House or we’d be having a much different conversation.
Landis: He wanted to turn into a monster, and the first discussion with [special effects make-up creator] Rick Baker, he wanted to turn into the werewolf from An American Werewolf in London, and it took me a while to talk him out of it because I was saying it’d be really hard to dance with four legs, you know. That’s why he became that Werecat thing, because I suggested the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, [starring] Michael Landon, in the letterman’s jacket. Rick’s first design, which was great, was too ugly. I said, “Look, it’s Michael. He can’t be ugly.” I think what he made was very elegant, that sort of cat creature.
Branca: It’s scary, though.
Landis: Oh, it’s scary. It’s meant to be scary.
Right from the start you weren’t interested in making a music video. You wanted it to be elaborate.
Landis: Music videos at that time were always just needle drop. Some were pretty good, but most were not, and they were commercials. Michael’s such a huge star that I said, “Maybe I can bring back the theatrical short.” I pitched him the idea, and he totally went for it. Michael was extremely enthusiastic because he wanted to make movies.
Branca: He came to refer to his music videos as short films, and he instructed everybody, “These are not music videos; these are short films.”
What did you both notice after “Thriller” came out? Record companies probably weren’t very “thrilled” with you because all the other big artists probably wanted to make million dollar videos.
Landis: Absolutely the opposite.
Branca: They were thrilled, actually.
Landis: You have to remember, nobody wanted it. We had to figure out a way to finance it because it was a union shoot in Los Angeles. I demanded the dancers had at least a week’s rehearsal, all that make-up, so it was expensive. CBS Records basically said, “[The album has] been No. 1 for over a year. We made ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It,’ with [directors] Steve Barron and Bob Giraldi [respectively] — hugely influential important videos, which cost very little, and you’re coming to us? You already have the most successful album of all time, and now you want to do this vanity video so you can turn him into a monster? Go f–k yourselves,” was essentially what they said it to me. They didn’t say it to Michael, but that was the same thing. So we had to figure out a way to make it, which is why Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller was done, so we’d have an hour and we could sell the hour. Do you know what happened when the video “Thriller” came out on TV? The No. 1 selling album in the world, already out for a year, tripled its sales. So everybody jumped on the bandwagon.
Branca: It changed the way people make music videos.
Landis: It raised the standard. Everybody became much more ambitious, and tons of big directors came out of music videos.
Branca: “Thriller” remains the most influential and most important video of all time. Everybody’s acknowledged it, so kudos to John.
Landis: It’s always called those things and I don’t make those claims, but it certainly had a huge impact not only on the music business — and it made MTV. Their viewership went nuts.
As a filmmaker and someone who’s just had the sound quality and visual presentation of the “Thriller” video upped [in 3D and Dolby Atmos], how does it make you feel that people today watch videos on YouTube, on computer and phone screens?
Landis: I’m not crazy about it.
Branca: You should talk about the sound.
Landis: The sound. Okay. “Thriller” was just stereo, left and right. The soundtrack for Thriller, I said, “This is a movie; this is not a rock video.” Rock videos are always needle drop. A record at that time was mixed to sound good on your car radio, so, I said, “This is a movie.” So I asked Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien, “Can I have the tracks to ‘Thriller’?” They both said no. I explained to Michael we needed them. So George Folsey and I and Michael, at like 2 in the morning, went to the recording studio, walked in the lobby, the guard, said, “Hello Mr. Jackson.” “Hello.” We went in the back, found the tracks on the racks, took all of them — there were a lot — put them in two big duffel bags, put them in the trunk in a car, drove them over the hill [to the engineer], where they [duplicated] them all. We put them back in the duffel bags, went back with Michael over the hill, and put them back [laughs]. I’ve always been amazed that Bruce Swedien and Quincy have never said anything because “Thriller” is very different than the record. I only used a third of the lyrics. It’s a 3-minute song; in the film, it plays for 11 minutes. Well now, through new technology called Atmos, you can put sound anywhere in the house. It’s amazing: I had to relearn that because music is always left-right-center, and suddenly how the f–k do you mix this because its everywhere. But we were able to bring it up and it’s astounding.
That story should have been in the documentary.
Landis: I discussed it with Quincy. Do you know that they didn’t notice? And Quincy was at the premiere [of the 3D version] and I said, “What did you think? “I loved it. It was great,” and everything and I just thought to myself, “You motherf–ker, you said ‘No,’ you bastard.” [laughs]
Branca: Quincy said you’re not allowed to remix his tracks ever without his permission, so be careful.
Landis: Too late.
21 Thrilling Facts About Michael Jackson’s Thriller
By Roger Cormier – November 30, 2017 via MentalFloss.com
RVA80s.com disclaimer – The accuracy of this article is unknown.
Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller needs no introduction, but here we are. It’s the all-time best-selling album worldwide. It was also critically acclaimed, bestowed with a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards. It launched Michael Jackson into superstardom, and the artist—and the music industry—were never the same again. Here are some facts about the album, in case you want to be startin’ somethin’.
1. JACKSON WAS INSPIRED BY THE NUTCRACKER SUITE.
While he already had the popular solo album Off the Wall to his credit (also produced by Quincy Jones), Michael Jackson had a dream of making the biggest-selling album ever. He wanted Thriller to resemble Tchaikovsky’s suite, where “every song is a killer.”
2. HE TOLD HIS MUSICIANS TO THINK LIKE MICHELANGELO.
Keyboardist David Paich of Toto was one of the musicians hired for Thriller. He remembered Jackson telling the instrumentalists in the Westlake Recording studio in Los Angeles, California to think of “Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel—do whatever you need to do here. Sky’s the limit.”
3. THE ALBUM’S TITLE WAS ALMOST MIDNIGHT MAN.
Quincy Jones asked arranger/songwriter Rod Temperton to come up with an album title. He wrote down 200 to 300 possible titles in his hotel room before deciding on Midnight Man. The next morning he woke up and the word “Thriller” popped into his head. “Something in my head just said, this is the title,” Temperton said. “You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller.'”
4. THE SONG “THRILLER” WAS ORIGINALLY TITLED “STARLIGHT.”
Temperton wrote the music and lyrics, with the chorus: “We got to make it while we can / You need the starlight / Some starlight sun / I need you by my side/ you give me starlight / Starlight / tonight.” Jones liked the melody, but asked Temperton to come back with something more like Edgar Allan Poe. The album title Thriller was already on the table, so matching it to the song was relatively easy.
5. VINCENT PRICE MADE LESS THAN $1000 FOR HIS WORK ON THE TITLE TRACK.
Jones’ then-wife Peggy Lipton knew Price. The horror movie legend managed to record his part in two takes. Once the album got big, Price expressed frustration over his meager paycheck and said that Jackson had stopped taking his calls.
6. JACKSON WAS SUED FOR “WANNA BE STARTIN’ SOMETHIN’.”
Cameroon musician Manu Dibango recorded “Soul Makossa” in 1972. The song, sung in the Cameroonian language of Duala, elongated the phrase “mamako mamasa” as “ma ma ko/ma ma sa/ma ko ma ko sa.” Jackson changed it to “ma ma se/ma ma sa/ma ma ku sa,” but the similarity was obvious. A compensation arrangement was hammered out in an out-of-court settlement.
7. “BILLIE JEAN” WAS ABOUT ONE SPECIFIC GIRL.
Quincy Jones claimed that Jackson told him “Billie Jean” was based on a girl who climbed over his wall one morning and accused him of being the father of one of her twins. Jones wanted the singer to change the title to “Not My Lover” to avoid possible confusion with the song being about tennis player Billie Jean King.
8. “BILLIE JEAN” ALMOST KILLED MICHAEL.
In his autobiography, Jackson wrote about the time he was driving his Rolls-Royce down the Ventura Freeway during a recording session break. He was thinking about the song so much that he didn’t notice the bottom of his car was on fire. A kid on a motorcycle warned him in time.
9. JACKSON ADMITTED TO DARYL HALL THAT HE RIPPED OFF HALL & OATES.
As Hall remembers it, Jackson approached him during the “We Are the World” recording and admitted to cribbing the bass line from “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” for “Billie Jean.”
10. “BILLIE JEAN” WAS MIXED 91 TIMES.
Quincy Jones then requested, “‘Let’s go back and listen to mix number two,'” recording engineer Bruce Swedien said. “And we did, and it blew us all away! I had overmixed that song right into the pooper, so the mix that went onto the record was mix number two.”
11. “THE GIRL IS MINE” CAME FROM A REQUEST FROM QUINCY JONES.
Jackson revealed during testimony that successfully fought a plagiarism allegation that the producer directed him to write a song about two men fighting over a girl. He later woke up in the middle of the night and sang the song into a tape recorder. Jones also later requested he add the rap verse.
12. “BEAT IT” WAS INSPIRED BY “MY SHARONA.”
Jones told The Telegraph he wanted a “black version” of The Knack song.
13. EDDIE VAN HALEN PLAYED THE GUITAR SOLO ON “BEAT IT.”
He did it while the rest of his band, Van Halen, was out of town, not thinking anybody in the group would ever know.
14. “HUMAN NATURE” WAS DISCOVERED BECAUSE TOTO DIDN’T GO CASSETTE SHOPPING.
David Paich worked on demos for Jones to potentially use for Thriller, sending him cassettes virtually every day with songs. One day, his then-roommate and Toto bandmate Steve Porcaro was tasked with recording Paich’s demos onto a cassette. Porcaro reused one of his own tapes because they were out of blank cassettes. Jones didn’t like the two songs of Paich’s when he heard them, but he loved the next song that came on—Porcaro’s early version of “Human Nature.”
15. THE TITLE “P.Y.T. (PRETTY YOUNG THING)” CAME FROM PEGGY LIPTON’S LINGERIE.
Jones noticed his wife’s lingerie said “pretty young things” on them, and tasked his songwriters to come up with lyrics for the title, “Pretty Young Thing: Tender Loving Care.” Singer/songwriter James Ingram came up with the winning version.
16. THERE WERE SOME STRANGE RECORDING TECHNIQUES.
Bruce Swedien recalled recording some background vocals in the Westlake shower stall. The “Don’t think twice!” lines in the second verse of “Billie Jean” was Jackson singing through a five-foot-long cardboard tube.
17. CBS RECORDS AND MTV CLASHED OVER THE “BILLIE JEAN” VIDEO.
In March 1983, Billboard Magazine noticed a sizeable delay between the video’s delivery to the fledgling cable network and its first airing. MTV claimed they only played rock artists, but were accused by some—including publicly by Rick James—of being racist. CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all videos made by the label’s artists off the network if they didn’t play “Billie Jean.” At first, the video ran two to three times a day for one month, before being put into heavy rotation for the next three months.
18. BLOODS AND CRIPS MADE CAMEOS IN THE “BEAT IT” VIDEO.
The video cost $150,000 to produce, and was directed by Bob Giraldi, even though “Billie Jean” director Steve Barron was initially set to direct it. Jackson and Barron intended to set the video on a slave ship, with Jackson as the slave master.
19. THE “THRILLER” MUSIC VIDEO COST $500,000.
The Showtime cable network footed $300,000 of the budget for the rights to first air the music video and the “making of” feature, with MTV paying the rest to broadcast it after Showtime. Jackson asked John Landis to direct the video after seeing his work on the movie An American Werewolf in London. “I want to turn into a monster,” Jackson told Landis. “Can I do that?” Landis wrote the disclaimer that appears in the beginning of the video because Jehovah’s Witnesses (a group which Jackson belonged to at the time) told the artist that “Thriller” endorsed Satanism.
20. THE “THRILLER” VIDEO PLAYED IN A MOVIE THEATER SO THAT IT COULD QUALIFY FOR AN OSCAR.
For one week in a movie theater in Westwood, California, Thriller served as the opening feature before showings of Fantasia (which didn’t sit well with a lot of parents).
21. MANY FANS THOUGHT THE UPC BARCODE ON “THRILLER” WAS MICHAEL JACKSON’S HOME PHONE NUMBER.
The rumor spread so much that a hair studio in Bellevue, Washington received up to 50 phone calls per day. A woman in Youngstown, Ohio who also had the phone number said that while the kids that called were nice, some of the adults were “pretty rude and ignorant.”