RICHARD LOWENSTEIN ON 'MYSTIFY - MICHAEL HUTCHENCE' (PART 1 OF 3)

Richard Lowenstein is the Australian filmmaker behind motion pictures STRIKEBOUND (1984), DOGS IN SPACE (1986), SAY A LITTLE PRAYER (1993), and HE DIED WITH A FELAFEL IN HIS HAND (2001), and the documentaries AUTOLUMINESCENT (2011) and ECCO HOMO (2013). Lowenstein is also one of the music industry's most brilliant promo video directors, working with the likes of INXS, U2, Pete Townshend, Hunters & Collectors, Cold Chisel and Crowded House. His latest film is MYSTIFY – MICHAEL HUTCHENCE (2019), a documentary celebrating the INXS frontman. As well as being a close friend of the late singer, Lowenstein collaborated with Hutchence on numerous promo videos and live films, both for INXS and Hutchence's solo projects, including the groundbreaking and influential INXS videos What You Need, Need You Tonight and Never Tear Us Apart. Lowenstein also cast Hutchence in the lead role in his vivid recreation of the Melbourne punk era, DOGS IN SPACE. MYSTIFY – MICHAEL HUTCHENCE seeks to show a more accurate picture of the complex, warm-hearted talent, and explain the circumstances that led to his all too young death. In the first part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Lowenstein about how he got into making music videos; how he began working with Hutchence and INXS; his friendship with him,    and casting him in DOGS IN SPACE.   

How did you get into making music videos?
I studied Film at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and when it comes to one's prospects after finishing film school, it's going to be a long time before you make a full-length feature film. You usually have to make a 20-minute film, a 50-minute film or whatever, and then if it's all good enough, then they'll let you make a feature. But even your short films would need scripts, lots of applying to different places, and months of trying to get the money and trying to convince the government that you have the talent and so on. They'd give you 5, 000 dollars, or if you're lucky, 10 or 20, 000 dollars, to make a short film, and then you get your career.

At the point of time I got out of film school , I had already done a couple of really rough music videos for friends that I was living with, and what started happening was that a band would come along and say something like ''We'll give you 5, 000 dollars to make a short film. You can be as arty and as experimental as you like, it's just got to have our music on it. We're ready to go tomorrow. ''

Music videos seemed to be this extraordinary canvas of getting to be a short film filmmaker, getting experience on set and experimenting with techniques that I had seen in films at the Melbourne Film Co-op. I wasn't just thinking ''Oh, I'll just make some nice little story film and I'll get to make a bigger film '', I was really into experimental cinema and everything. Music videos were this great fast track, and you could work out your feature film aspirations on something like Listen Like Thieves. A lot of filmmakers in the 80s were treating music videos as if they were mini-films.

Making music videos was also great because unlike when you were making a feature, you didn't have to harangue people for money or wait six weeks to see if Screen Australia, for example, would give you any money. It was this amazing opportunity that happened to me again and again for me to learn my craft, with very little effort, and get paid as well.

It's not always the case with music video directors, but all this was happening while I was also making films. I made the Hunters and Collectors video (Talking to a Stranger) first, and then I went into my first feature film STRIKEBOUND, and continued to do music videos, commercials and features. It was great having all this parallel processing because I wouldn't have to wait two years to get on a set after finishing a film, and spend all my time writing a script and trying to get funding. You could have three days on a set and have a great time and learn about shots and about your craft. It was usually extremely relaxed and very creative. A lot of the people I collaborated with back then I am still working with today. The videos started a lot of great creative collaborations that I am very thankful for.

Before you did your first video with INXS, Burn for You, how aware were you of their music? Were you a fan?
I was a follower of a Melbourne band that I lived with called The Ears. I remember one night in 1979 or 80, I was with some people downstairs in in a multi-venue place called The Crystal Ballroom in Melbourne, watching a band play when someone came in and said ''You need to go and watch this band playing upstairs. The singer is imitating Sam (the lead singer of The Ears). '' We went upstairs and there was this guy throwing himself around on stage in a very similar way to Sam. That guy was Michael (Hutchence) and the band was INXS. Because they were a Sydney band and The Ears was a Melbourne band, we were very dismissive of INXS. They were commercial, their music was catchy and their lyrics made sense instead of being stupid! We thought that was really boring. That was my experience with INXS until I got a phone call about doing Burn for You.

Is it true that it was especially Michael who wanted you to direct the video?
Michael was watching the video we did for Hunters and Collectors (Talking to a Stranger) on Countdown one day, and he turned to his girlfriend Michele Bennett, and said ''Who did that video? We want one like that. '' Michael had stolen Michele off one of the members of Hunters and Collectors, Greg Perano, and Greg was still pissed at him and pining for her. Michele said ''I'll ask Greg. '' Greg told her it was Lynn-Maree (Milburn), Andy (Groot) and me, and Michael told his management to get on to us. And it went on from there.

Around that time we had also done a video for Cold Chisel called Saturday Night, which I think was what really showed Michael and the band what we could do for them, because I don't think they really wanted an arty video like the Hunters and Collectors one. The Cold Chisel video showed that we could also be commercially-oriented as well.

The band called me up about a week before I was going off to the Cannes Film Festival with my film STRIKEBOUND. It was only my second big trip overseas, and I was nervous, and they were saying ''Come and do a video for us. '' I said ''I can't do this. I've got to hire cameras and tracks and all that. '' They said ''No, no. Just grab one of your portable cameras and come up to Queensland. '' I said ''I shoot on 16mm. There's no such thing as a portable 16mm camera. '' Luckily I did have a little portable camera that I had bought in the Trading Post for 300 dollars called a Bolex. So me, Lynn-Marie and our stylist Troy flew up to Mackay in North Queensland with our little Bolex camera and little hundred feet rolls of film, which was all we had. We were there to make a video for Burn for You, but we filmed what we could and did stuff for other songs as well. As Michael says in one of the extras on the DVD, we would be driving through mangrove swamps and I would say ''Let's get a shot!'', and he would get out of the car and we would film him running through the mangroves. Of course, I would stay in the car. We would do lots of funny things like that. We built up a collection of different images, and finished the job off in London. After I came back from Cannes, we edited it together.

Of all the members of INXS, was it Michael who was the most interested and got the most involved in the videos?
For the first few videos at least, the band would have these serious meetings where they sat down amd discussed their various ideas. I'm a very passively determined person, so I would listen to them all and nod. Andrew Farriss would say ''The song is about (this)'', and someone else would say ''I see dinosaurs'' or something, and I would say ''Uh-huh''. I would look at Michael and he would roll his eyes!

Michael would sometimes make suggestions but usually he would just say ''Look, I trust you, and it's not really about what we think should be in the video. We're not filmmakers. What have you got?'' And then I would say something like ''Well, the music speaks this to me, and I imagine this happening, and this could happen. '' In the case of something like What You Need, that was a concept that Lynn-Marie and I had thought up. Before we had even heard the song ,we saw a collage in Face magazine that was half Xerox and half real image. We thought ''Woah! That would be great in a video one day. '' The next video that came along was What You Need, and we said ''This is what we are gonna do'', and the band just went ''Yep, love it. '' Michael would have the most connection, but honestly the other members had more physical ideas. I can't say any of the ideas would ake it through to the final video, though, because I would just say ''I'll see how it goes with that idea'', and then the idea would just disappear. Invariably, the band made a joke of it. They'd say ''We say all this stuff to Richard and he just ignores us, but we always love the end result. '' The band loved the film AFTER THE FOX (1966), where Peter Sellers pretends to be a film director, and they would always take the piss out of me on set as if I was Peter Sellers not knowing what he was doing!

Was Michael really interested in learning about filmmaking or the equipment you were using?
The only thing that he really focused on was the Bolex camera. Once he got some money in the bank he came up to me and said ''I want one of those cameras. It has an incredible look. '' I would say ''Well, it's quite expensive to process the film '', but he wanted one. They were also difficult to find, and at this stage, everybody in the filmmaking business wanted one. I had to wait until my next trip to Los Angeles to get Michael one. There's a famous old camera store in Los Angeles, and I found him one there, and then about two years later I had to buy Bono one because he didn't want to be outdone by Michael. Michael was really fascinated by the Bolex, and thank God he was because the footage we found of him and Kylie Minogue that's in the film is from the camera that I bought him. The Max Q footage too. Michael would shoot stuff on the Bolex when he was on holiday or doing a video shoot, and then the next time we met on a video shoot or something he would hand me these 100ft rolls of Kodak film and say ''Get this processed for me?'' I would just throw it in with all the rushes from the videos we were making. and then put it on a VHS for him, which he was more than happy about. The film he gave me just stayed in our archive in my attic, and I had totally forgotten about it. It turned out I had put all the rolls of film in with a lot of Max Q stuff so he didn't have to pay upmarket fees, and after I sent the Max Q tins to a computer scanning service to see what we had for MYSTIFY, they rang up in the middle of the night and said ''There's twenty minutes of Michael and Kylie on holiday here. '' I didn't expect that.

When you worked with INXS on Burn for You, did you have any inkling at all that this might lead to a long series of collaborations? 
No, not at all. I knew instantly that the band were lovely. We all bonded and we were friendly. They are all eclectic characters and not all of them wanted to connect on the level that Michael did. A lot of them had girlfriends, so as soon as the job was done they'd disappear off with them, but Michael was more inclusive, so by the time we were filming in London on Burn for You, we'd partied in Cannes together and he was definitely open for a friendship that went beyond just working together. The Burn for You shoot and video went well and at the end of it, I was thinking ''Oh, they might ask us again'' but I never expected it to keep going again and again and again. Later on when they started asking other directors, I sort of got miffed. I'd look at the videos they did for the last few albums and think ''Geez, I could've done a better job than that. '' But, it was fair enough though. Other influences and looks came into play and they were trying to reinvent themselves, so they went looking for new imagery.

Why do you think you had this special connection with Michael? 
Well, he was very curious about Melbourne people. Melbourne had that Nick Cave kind of credibility thing. And we looked strange. We didn't look like the members of INXS. We had two-tone hair and wore make-up. Lynn-Maree looked like a young Mia Farrow with short red hair. We all looked like something out of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976). Michael loved the Bohemian lifestyle, the ''Let's not be boring and middle-class'' kind of attitude. He had a very strong connection with his girlfriend  Michele, but there was no danger of him settling down like the other band members and having kids pretty quickly. Michael very much wanted to be a part of this Bohemian world that these Melbourne people, including our friend Troy (the subject of ECCO HOMO), who was an outrageous gay guy and an hilarious comedian, were a part of. 

Whenever he was in Melbourne, Michael would call up and say ''Are you going to take me to the Razor Club?'' or another club that was way cooler than the Sydney clubs. He just loved that whole sensibility that Melbourne represented to him. The same would happen in London. I had connections to different people and places in London and he would love going out and meeting all kinds of people. I knew people at Faber and Faber and he would come to parties of theirs and have fun mingling with all the different writers and academics. He'd say ''Wow, this is certainly different from being on the road with my band. '' I think we also got on as well because I wasn't a sycophant and I was my own entity. I would get to hang with Michael, and I'd be interested in the girls that he didn't want to spend time with. He loved the film world, as you can see in the DVD extras, hanging around on sets, the whole community. He wanted to do more than INXS. He kept saying ''I want to produce a film'' and ''Let's do a film together. You find a good script and I'll get it funded. '' One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn't take him more seriously on that front, you know? He would have been a great producer, funding unique things like George Harrison did with the Monty Python films, for example. Michael would have loved to have put his money into really special things like that.

How quickly after working with Michael did you start to consider casting him in DOGS IN SPACE?
We went to Mackay to do Burn for You, and then I had to go to Cannes with STRIKEBOUND, so we couldn't finish the video. They were playing in Nice, so I went to see them play a week after Cannes. Me and Michael went back to Cannes to party all through the night. Literally the next morning, I had a meeting with a big Australian producer I couldn't hope to have got to see in Australia, but it was possible in Cannes. I was seeing him about a different film, a political thriller, but I had a rough idea of DOGS IN SPACE up my sleeve in case the main film didn't go. I hadn't discussed DOGS IN SPACE with Michael at all, but he said ''I've got nothing to do. I'll come to your meeting. ''

I was doing my pitch for this political thriller film and it wasn't going so well. The producer was looking bored so I said ''I've got this other film, which is about a whole bunch of punks and hippies living together in Melbourne, and Michael's the lead. '' Michael was half asleep and this was the first he'd heard of it. He said ''Oh, am I?'' And I said ''Yeah. '' At this point, the producer woke up as well and looked like he'd had an injection of speed or something. He said ''Woah, I'd be interested in that one. '' This was summer of 1984, and INXS had just had a number one in France that very week with Original Sin. We finished the Burn for You video in London, Michael and I discussed the movie further and he said ''OK. You go off and write the script. I'm in. '' And that was it. So, you could say it was two weeks after meeting the band that I cast Michael in DOGS IN SPACE, which I hadn't even written yet.

Michael is amazing in the movie. Were you at all nervous about casting somebody who wasn't an actor?
No, because by the time we got to do the film about a year later, I'd gotten to know him really well and I'd been to so many dinners with him where he would do impersonations of people. He'd do his manager really well and take the piss out of him. He could pick up people's traits really well, and then throw them right back. His favorite was to do all the Eddie Murphy sketches of that era. He would have me in stitches, and there's certainly a comedic element to DOGS. I just knew that he would be excellent, especially if I had other actors around him. I was also of the view that we could do some method acting. The role was something he could identify with, plus he knew Sam, the real guy that he was playing, the lead singer with The Ears that I had lived with, from playing together and things. I had already seen Michael do what I thought was an imitation of Sam on stage, and in person, and I thought it was pretty good. To give Michael credit, he really took the role on and went beyond imitation. He read all about Robert De Niro and method acting and everything. He lived the role for the seven weeks that we filmed. I wasn't worried about Michael at all, but I was worried about some of my other actors, that's for sure.

Was he a guy who always threw himself headfirst into anything he did?
He certainly threw himself into anything that smacked of Bohemia, because he was a repressed Bohemian. Whether it was an interesting party full of drag queens or all different people. He would've been ecstatic in pre-Hitler Berlin. He just loved the eccentric and Bohemian kind of life, being amongst the artists, the painters, the filmmakers and the poets, and being a part of that. And that's where I came from as well, so whenever there was something that came around with some artistic interest, he jumped on it. It was partly I think because once the managers and the record company got their claws into what INXS were doing, they just wanted more and more mainstream stuff and while Michael absolutely wanted the roar of the crowds, he also wanted to be respected like Nick Cave and Bowie for doing interesting stuff. That's when he started separating from INXS and doing stuff like Max Q, instead of trying to turn INXS into something art-rock like U2. He decided it was easier to separate into two different streams. There was no surprise when I interviewed his first long-time girlfriend Amanda, and she told me that their dream when they were 18 or 19 was to go to Amsterdam together and be Bohemians, to suffer in the garage and write that great novel, or in Michael's case, write great poetry. 

Mystify: Michael Hutchence is available on disc and digitally. The trailer.   

You can read about the work of Lowenstein and his production company here.   

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2020. All rights reserved.