Saturday, July 23, 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH RUSSELL MULCAHY (PART 1 OF 2)


Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy found early success as the most in-demand and groundbreaking music video director of the 80s, working with artists like Duran Duran, Billy Joel, Elton John and many many others. His 1984 horror film RAZORBACK (1984), set in the Australian Outback, is now a cult classic, as is his 1986 fantasy adventure HIGHLANDER, which starred Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, and launched a huge franchise of films and TV series. Russell's career has had its ups and downs, but he has travelled the world, worked in a variety of genres, and directed films such as HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING (1991), the revenge thriller RICOCHET (1991) with Denzel Washington, the spy thriller BLUE ICE (1992) with Michael Caine, the heist thriller THE REAL McCOY (1993) with Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer, the superhero film THE SHADOW (1994), and the horror film RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007). He is now one of the most successful directors working in television, and is currently an executive producer and recurring director on the hit show Teen Wolf. In part one of our interview we talked about his early years, directing DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN (1979) with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, his brilliant work on music videos in the 80s and beyond, and making his feature debut with RAZORBACK.    

What were some of your favorite films growing up? 
From an early age, it was usually genre films, from Hammer to anything Universal was doing. Up until 1969, a lot of the Hammer films were banned in Australia because of some strange censorship rule, so I had a glut of films to catch up on, and I watched whatever I could get my hands on. In my teens I went through a major European phase where I became a huge fan of Fellini, Bergman, Bertolucci, and Ken Russell. It was usually the films that pushed boundaries that interested me. 

 When did you first start making your own short films? 
I picked up my first camera, a standard 8mm camera, when I was 14, and made a short film with my friends with it. When it came back from being developed, I sat down and scratched around the images with a pin to create a ghostly image around the people in the film. I worked on it every night for about three weeks. I guess that's why I wear glasses now! My love of film and photography, and of the power of the image, came at an early age. 

When did you start thinking of becoming a filmmaker in a serious way? 
I was still at school when I was making the short films. Later, I got a job editing the news at the TV station Channel 7 in Sydney. It gave me the opportunity to creep into the editing rooms at night and edit my own films. I was also doing some acting onstage. At one point I couldn't decide if I wanted to be an actor or a film director. I think in my heart I felt more comfortable being a filmmaker. By this time I was shooting on 16mm. Two of my films won the City Film Festival Award for Best Independent Short Film. It was the delight and the hunger and the escapism that really drove me. 

How did you get involved in making music videos in Australia? 
During this period, no-one else was doing them in Australia, so I started a small company, which was me and another guy in a station wagon with a camera and a tri-pod. We would go around and film Australian bands like AC/ DC. These videos would be shown on the Australian music shows like Countdown. Still wanting to be a filmmaker, I made a short film called Rape the Rutherfords, and I sent it to the Australian Film Academy, with the idea of getting into Australian Film School. But they said ''This is not quite the film we are looking for. '' It wasn't politically correct. It was the best thing that happened really, because it allowed me to carry on doing my own stuff. I learned from my own mistakes and taught myself. 
 
How did you make the move to England? 
I went to England for two weeks to make a small video and I ended up staying two years. I did the video for Buggles, 'Video Killed the Radio Star', which opened up MTV. Before I went off to do RAZORBACK I did a whole series of videos in a row - True with Spandau Ballet, Total Eclipse of the Heart with Bonnie Tyler, I'm Still Standing and That's Why They Call It The Blues with Elton John, and The Reflex with Duran Duran. 

Why do you think the Buggles video took off the way it did? 
Nobody knew the impact that the video would have and how timely it was when we were shooting it. We went into the video with no concept of what it was going to do. It was a catchy, well written, well produced song. Trevor Horn went on to produce many more great hits. It was a one day shoot. I just had this idea of it being set in a strange laboratory, with a girl coming down a tube on a wire. The girl was a friend of mine and wouldn't talk to me for a while because she couldn't walk for about six days afterward! 

Your videos encapsulate much of the 80s, which is an incredible achievement. 
It was the beginning of the MTV era. It was a whole new thing. When people were first asking me to do videos, there was never really a need or a request for a concept. They would just send me a cassette of the song. I'd listen to it with my eyes closed, come up with some ideas and write something down. We'd shoot the video the next day or two days later. It really was just grab what you can and do it. I was very naive in many respects. I had gone back to Australia for Christmas, and Ultravox gave me a cassette of their song Vienna. I listened to the song and told them ''I have this idea of you guys in gondolas. '' I was a typical Australian, not knowing anything about Europe. They said ''No, it's Vienna, not Venice!'' We ended up shooting the video in areas of London. We went to Vienna for just one day to get some shots in the cemetery and Town Square and whatever. I'm proud of that video because it's so operatic. 

Your videos were memorably cinematic. 
It was a time of experimentation, both in storytelling and video making. I never wanted to be literal in the videos. I wanted them to be little mini-dramas of themselves. I would cheat in a way by cropping the images on the top and bottom to make them look more like widescreen films. I remember on one video, MTV called and said ''We have a technical problem. There are these black stripes on the top and bottom of the screen. '' I said ''No, the black is meant to be there. '' The cropping of the videos was a little unusual in the early days. It stemmed from me being a frustrated movie director. 

Why do you think you collaborated so well with Duran Duran? 
The first video we did together was Planet Earth. I did some very rough storyboard sketches for the video and there were some unusual images, and the band said ''Yeah, let's go for that.'' The guys turned up on a bus from Birmingham, and arrived in their New Romantic clothes. I had my surfer hair and was in a T-shirt and jeans. But we just hit it off. They were young and brave, as was I really. From then on, we just had this bond. I remember for Hungry Like the Wolf, we were in Sri Lanka and just before the shoot, Simon wanted to lighten his hair. The hair colorist was a local and screwed up quite a lot. He had made Simon's hair yellow. I was wearing this big hat, and Simon said ''Give me your hat. Let's cut down the rim. '' We flew in a new hair colorist, but in the first couple of shots of the video he's wearing my hat. Simon and I had a brotherly relationship. We just became very good friends, the whole band and I actually. We travelled the world together. In those days I was a tourist with a big camera. 

When they were released, your Duran Duran videos were events. Videos like Girls on Film and Rio. 
I remember when we were shooting The Wild Boys at Shepperton, Sting was next door filming THE BRIDE (1985) and came to visit us just as we had Simon strapped to a windmill. It was an event for someone like him to come and say hello. We ended up becoming friends. It was also an event when the windmill got stuck at one point with Simon underwater! 

Which videos that you had previously seeen had captured your imagination? 
One of the videos was Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, which was directed by my friend Bruce Gowers. I joined Bruce's company in England before I formed my own. The friendship and collaboration that Bruce and I had was very important because through him I met Queen. I had visited the set of FLASH GORDON (1980), and I loved the music they did for that. I had the idea of getting them to do some music for HIGHLANDER and I showed them rough footage of 20 minutes of the film, and they said yes. I thought they'd do one song, but they said they wanted to do each write a song. It was a great collaboration, and a true friendship grew out of it. I remember many nights with Freddie during the recording of some of that material. I don't think I have ever crashed at somebody's house like Freddie's. I crashed in the guest bedroom, and he woke me up and said ''You want me to make you breakfast?'' I go downstairs and there he is making some bacon and eggs. I am sitting there thinking ''I am having breakfast cooked by Freddie Mercury. This is insane. '' The great thing about that period was that many great friendships were formed with people like Freddie and Elton, and Duran and Rod Stewart. 

How was working with Billy Joel on the videos for Allentown, Pressure and She's Right on Time? 
I remember the first time I met Billy. I had been doing a video for another artist, and I flew on a planeat 5am to met him in New York. I thought I was going to go to a hotel and freshen up before we met, but I was driven straight to Long Island where he lived. He opened up the door and the first thing I said was ''Do you mind if I have a shower?'' He said ''No problem.'' So I took a shower, freshened up, and we started talking about the videos for Pressure and another song. 

How would you characterise your working relationships with the artists you worked with? 
I always had a relaxed relationship with them. It was very much a collaboration of ideas, and doing something that was true to the song and as cinematic as possible. It's hard to be truthful to the intent of the music and to not be too literal to the lyrics. The lyrics are usually ambiguous and have many meanings. I was more interested in being faithful to the central concept of the song. 

How did you come to direct DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook? 
I was a friend of Richard Branson's, and I was doing some videos for Virgin Records, with bands like the Sex Pistols. This was the very early stages of me being in England on my two week gig that ended up two years. He came up with this idea of filming Derek and Clive, and I was a huge fan of their previous records. We basically recorded them doing one of their albums over two nights. We had three cameras running, so if one camera ran out, we could keep filming. We would start the cameras at three minute intervals just to be safe. It was fun, and Dudley and Peter were just wonderful guys. 

What are some of your favorite memories of working on the film? 
Dudley Moore was on the fence about doing the recording because he was just about to go off and film 10 (1979), but Peter egged him on, which comes across in the film I think. It was a great couple of days. Peter and I would sit in the editing room for many hours late at night. He taught me one great lesson about gambling. We went to the casino at the Ritz Hotel late one night after editing. I had never been to a casino before. Peter put down about 5, 000 pounds on black at roulette, and it came up black. He took the 10, 000 pounds he had won, and put it in his pocket. That taught me that in life sometimes you have to jump in the deep end and learn to swim quickly. 

How did you come to direct RAZORBACK? 
I was in England shooting videos for Elton John and I got a phone call from the producer, Hal MacElroy. He liked some of the videos I had been doing and he asked me ''Do you want to come and do a feature film?'' That had always been my dream since I was a kid, so I immediately said yes. He then told me it was about a wild boar terrorising people, and I said ''That sounds great! ''

I got off the plane to Australia, and the producer said ''Do you want to go for lunch?'' I was so zonked, because I had just done the Elton videos back to back, that I slept on the on the couch right there in Brighton. We were to start pre-production on the Monday, so I had to edit the Elton videos over the weekend. While we were shooting RAZORBACK a lot of the songs I had been making videos for became No.1 hits in America and the videos were playing on all the TV stations. I could hardly remember making them because I was so immersed in the chaos of shooting the film. 

How was the transition from making videos to making a feature film for you? 
I was blessed to have Dean Semler, the cinematographer, who had just come off THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981). I brought my production designer, Bryce Warmsley, who had done a lot of my videos. I knew Ivor Davies from Icehouse because I had done a few of their videos and I got him to do the score. I do remember the first day of the shoot. We were in the Outback, in a little town near Broken Hill. I woke up at 3 or 4am, and went and sat on the hill in the dark. I started thinking ''What have I got myself into? I'm making a 35mm anamorphic feature film. There's 110 pages of a script. '' I ended up throwing up.

We started shooting and I think I realised at that point that the whole thing was like a rollercoaster. There's that moment when the rollercoaster goes up – creak, creak, creak – and that's when you start throwing up, and the nerves and the butterflies in your stomach start happening. Then the rollercoaster goes over the edge, and as long as you're prepared during the creaky ride up, and you have a good concept and a good group around you, you'll be okay. From my videos and continuing on through RAZORBACK and after, I've always made sure I have a group around me that are as important as me, and people whose expertise and talent I want and encourage. I want them to be part and parcel of the team and to be proud of their work. I guess there has to be a captain of the ship, but it only takes one crew member to screw everything up. You just encourage everyone to do their best and have fun. The more they feel part of it, and the more fun they have, the day goes faster, and the better the work is.

I am directing and executive producing the TV show Teen Wolf at the moment, and sometimes it's an exhausting shoot. You're shooting 14 hours a day, it's freezing cold or it's raining, and there is all this craziness going on. When people start questioning the reality of certain things happening in the script , I say ''Guys, it's a show about werewolves. Let's just have fun and go for it. '' 

How was working with actors for the first time? 
On Day 1, Scene 1, I had the older actor Bill Kerr and David Argue doing a scene together. David was a more improvisational, spur-of-the-moment stick of dynamite, and Bill was a trained thespian. David was improvising a little and went off on a tangent, and Bill was waiting for his cue. Bill looked at me and said ''When do I say my line?'' It was a very quick lesson in collaborating with actors. We came to some understanding that there would be some improvisation but there would also be at least a couple of takes where we stuck to the script. I told Bill ''I'll warn you when we are not sticking to the script, and you just jump in when you want to. '' That worked out very well. 

The film has some distinctive and memorable camera movements. Were these always planned beforehand or did you sometimes come up with them instinctively on set? 
A lot of it was worked out on the location scout, and some of it just happened when we were blocking the scene. You always have to think very fast on your feet and have different options ready if for whatever reason you can't shoot it the way you want to. The sun is going down and you're losing time. But the scene where we tracked across the car and the tree, and the truck is coming through the karangoo hunt, for example, was worked out on the location scout. We shot that on my 30th birthday as it happens. 

How was working with Dean Semler? 
He was such a gentleman and a genius with his lighting. One day an assistant cameraman had a Panavision Gold camera on a tripod and hadn't set it up properly. The camera fell on the lens and destroyed it. The kid broke down in tears and Dean just said ''Just get another one. It's called insurance. It was an accident. '' Dean was very much a man of the moment as much as I was. I remember I was shooting a night scene and I was trying to shoot it in order. I would shoot in one direction, and then turn the other direction for the next scene. He taught me that you shoot everything you need in one direction, and then turn around. You save yourself an hour. He taught me a lot. 

In the way you kept back from revealing the monster too much, were you consciously thinking of JAWS (1975) and ALIEN (1979)? 
Yes, I loved those films and I learned from them that the less you see, the better, although I didn't have the advanatage of being able to hide my creature in the ocean or on a spaceship. In RAZORBACK, it was definitely better that way. It's a film I'd love to remake actually. The creature was very basic. We had an animatronic head that looked pretty good in close-up. We had a mechanical boar which unfortunately had been built before I had even come on to the film and had cost some stupid amount like a quarter of a million dollars. It's in the film for about two seconds. The most effective shots of the boar in the film were of a real pig running around with a blanket on it and some rubber tusks. I said to Dean ''Just shake the camera a lot. '' Whenever we brought in the model it was tough. 

Did you have much interaction with the writer, Everett De Roche? 
We got along well. We had some great meetings when we were developing the script. He was terrific. The script was taken from a novel but we had to take out a whole part about diamonds being smuggled in the pet food because we didn't want to make the film too long. A friend of mine, a famous Australian personality called Ian Meldrum, had read the book on a plane and after seeing the film called me up and said ''Where are the bloody diamonds?'' To this day he complains about it whenever I see him. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.