Steve Barron: How I made the Billie Jean video with Michael Jackson

Steve Barron directed the music video for ‘Billie Jean’, the chart-topping second single from 1982’s Thriller.

The video sees Jackson portray an enigmatic figure with seemingly magical powers, trailed by a shadowy “private eye” type character, and is very in keeping with Barron’s other work from this time, where fantasy, familiar iconography and technical innovations fused with pop culture. His brief time working with the King of Pop left an indelible impression.

“The idea was that he was a magical character and everything lit up around him, an idea that I had had for a Joan Armatrading video based on the idea of the Midas Touch,” Barron says.

“Michael had seen my Human League video and he wanted a cinematic fantasy of some sort. He really liked my idea.”

The budget for the video ($50,000, miniscule compared to the $2 million budget for ‘Thriller’, shot just months later) didn’t allow for all the floor tiles on set to light up as planned, and Barron had to apologetically point out to Jackson which tiles to walk and dance on, an inconvenience that Jackson took — quite literally — in his stride.

Also improvised was Jackson’s dancing: “His manager said that he had some dancing in mind but that he was practising in front of the mirror and would show us on the day. I left a couple of frames free where he could just dance; I didn’t see it until the day, which made it an even more amazing moment indelibly burnt on my brain.”

“Michael had a brilliant idea for another scene where tailor’s dummies would come alive and dance with him. This was the first single they shot a video for so the record company wouldn’t give us any more money to do it anyway, but then Michael rang me up the night before the shoot, in the middle of the night, and said, ‘I’ve been thinking, let’s go back to your idea on that.’ It wasn’t until I saw ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’, which were all about choreographed dancing, that I realised he wanted to save that idea.

“There is nothing like that moment when he actually danced. He’s up on his toes spinning around and I’m looking at this superhuman creature through the camera and it was steaming up with the intensity of what I was seeing.

“I just put the camera down at the end of that take and it was just… wow. Wow!”

Music video legend Steve Barron to helm new series on Gerald Durrell

Steve Barron made many of your fave music videos and now he’s directing a new drama series based on the life of Gerald Durrell, writes Ellie O’Byrne

THEY were fantastic to do” — Dublin-born director Steve Barron is talking about making series.

“You didn’t have the uncertainty of release and it wasn’t all about test screenings and interference from studios, but that was in a period where people still looked down their nose at television; I got that ‘oh it’s television’ reaction to most of the miniseries that I did.”

Barron made his name as a music video director in the 1980s, working with everyone from Bowie to Madonna, Michael Jackson to ZZ Top before moving on to features like 1990s’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and TV miniseries like Merlin, as well as his 2012 Emmy-nominated take on Treasure Island.

In the era of binge-watched high-end productions like House of Cards and Making a Murderer, it’s become fashionable for writers and directors to praise the series as a discrete art form, and with Barron’s new series The Durrells currently airing on UTV Ireland, he’s happy to discuss his prescient and long-term love affair with a form that he says used to be considered “the poor man’s movies”.

“What I loved is that you weren’t on this 90-minute track of having to tell a story with no diversion,” he says. “Series allow you to leave things open-ended. You get to have more fun with characters and explore the relationships without knowing that it’s all going to have to be wrapped up in a bow.”

The Durrells is based on naturalist Gerald Durrell’s best-selling autobiographical accounts of his childhood on the island of Corfu in the 1930s. Although the maternal character of Louisa Durrell is rarely more than an irritant and occasional comic relief in Durrell’s books, scriptwriter Simon Nye has focused on Louisa’s experience of being a bankrupt UK widow in the interwar period, who decides to move her family to the Greek island in search of a new life.

Steve Barron directs new ITV series, The Durrells

“It’s quite different and a bit special and it’s had a great reaction so far,” Barron says. “But when you have really good scripts you can’t really go wrong. They were just fabulous, really delightful screenplays, some of the best I’ve read. They are so relatable in terms of family; even though it’s 1935, nothing has changed in terms of family dynamics.”

Born in Terenure to filmmaker Zelda Barron and actor Ray Barron, Barron left school early with aspirations of becoming a footballer. Growing up in London, his Irish connection was kept alive by summers spent with his grandparents in Dublin, but after the death of his grandmother while he was in Dublin to shoot Rat with Pete Postlethwaite in 2000, he says he feels the connection has faded somewhat.

In his 2014 autobiography, Egg ‘n’ Chips & Billie Jean: a Trip through the Eighties, he describes the emerging MTV-driven demand for music videos as an exciting time full of creative possibilities.

“I was in this curious learning phase and the 1980s were strange and open and moving so much faster; everything was speeding up and nobody knew what was going to happen next. There were lots of possibilities. You could really throw anything against the wall and see if it would stick.”

Barron always found himself drawn to stretching the limits of the possible. “I loved effects and animation and I’d look for anything extraordinary or fantastical,” he says. Following the success of his work with Michael Jackson on ‘Billie Jean’, he worked on A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’, a ground-breaking rotoscoped animation mixed with live action sequences won six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.

He also directed the video for A-ha’s Take On Me

The Durrells feels like a departure from Barron’s usual predilection for scripts and scenarios that suspend reality in favour of imagined realms; is he moving away from fantasy as he ages? “Maybe I’m growing up a bit,” he says, “but you change all the time. There isn’t one thing I’m desperate to do now. When you pick up a script and you really love it like I did with The Durrells, it’s time to do it.”

Refusing to be limited by genre and only being bound by the authenticity of a project may not have worked in his favour, Barron believes.

“It might have been a problem career-wise that once I’d done one thing I wouldn’t want to do it again. Maybe it’s the lack of challenge or maybe I’m stubborn, but I just have an aversion to repetition. And there’s something inside that makes me run from what I’ve just done. If something’s a success, I’ll run and try and make something else successful.”

The Durrells shows on UTV Ireland on Sundays at 8pm


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