Mark Pellington's versatile, fascinating resume as a filmmaker includes the paranoid thriller ARLINGTON ROAD (1998) with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins; the horror mystery THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002) with Richard Gere; the innovative concert movie U2 3D (2007); the offbeat, thoughtful comedy HENRY POOLE IS HERE (2008) with Luke Wilson; the unforgettable, coruscating I MELT WITH YOU (2011) with Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane and Jeremy Piven; and his latest film, the comedy drama THE LAST WORD (2017), with Shirley Maclaine and Amanda Seyfried. Getting his start in MTV, Pellington is also one of the most exciting, innovative music video directors working, with U2's 'One' and Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy' amongst many memorable, game-changing highlights. He also directs short films and documentaries, and executively produces the TV mystery series Blindspot. The breadth of his work across different formats speaks to his talent, passion and great interest in the world around and inside him. In the first part of a three-part interview, I spoke to Pellington about the early years and how he became a filmmaker, the genesis of his 'One' video for U2, and his experiences making his debut GOING ALL THE WAY (1997), and ARLINGTON ROAD.
I can't say that I'm a filmmaker that was weaned on movies and who grew up saying ''I want to be a filmmaker.'' I think I fell into it. But I do remember seeing, at an age earlier than I should have, STRAW DOGS (1971) and NETWORK (1976). Those were the two biggest movies that shook me up. They weren't like the typical movies I would see with my friends at the time. JAWS (1975) and THE EXORCIST (1971) also had a profound impact on me. The first film I saw that made me think ''Wow, this is a world that I might be interested in creating'' was BLUE VELVET (1986). It powerfully transported me to a place. I was 24, living in New York and was two years into working for MTV, immersing myself into the world of visuals in a serious way. But even then I had no dreams of being a 'filmmaker'. I was interested in music and collage and editing.
I did an internship there after my third year of college in 1983. MTV was about a year and a half old. I lived in New York for the summer, and I was really gobsmacked by the city and the music and the art. My whole world was just turned upside down. I was lucky enough to get a job with MTV after I graduated from college as a production assistant on on-air promotion.
Yes, I was. I am from Baltimore, Maryland. My father played pro-football, but I was kind of like a preppy jock, really into punk rock and New Wave music, which went against what was expected of me. I just loved that music, starting in 1976, when I was about 14. It really spoke to me, and that fuel really set me apart from the other kids. Music just guided me. I wanted to write about it or be an AR person for a record company. That was my interest.
Did you quickly find you had a talent for music videos and collage?
In my first year at MTV I was going to these edit rooms and audio suites. I ended up being an assistant, lugging tapes to studios where people were putting together stuff. MTV taught you to mix the audio and the voice and all the music and cut picture to it, so that foundation in 'audio first' was how I was trained. I made a promo when I hadn't even been there a year. I watched every video that came in, and at that time it was like twenty videos a week. You would look at them and see these really great shots and powerful images. They weren't the really mainstream videos that MTV was playing. I would cut them all together as one piece and put some text over it and make my own thing. It was a collage, but at the time I didn't even know what a collage was. I didn't know anything about Dadaism or John Hartsfield or anything artistically. But pretty quickly after living in New York I got turned on to William Burroughs and within a year I had immersed myself in cut-up theory. I found that the idea of chopping things up felt good to me and I just kept on doing it. I did my first video in 1986, and at that time MTV would let you direct videos at the weekends. I had success directing videos with people like De La Soul and others, and before I knew it, I had a reel.
I left MTV in 1990 and I had done a show for MTV and Channel 4 in London called Buzz, which was a 30 minute collage show. I did a bunch of stuff for U2 because they were fans of Buzz. And then 'Jeremy' was a big success. It was the first video I ever did that had any degree of narrative.
After 'Jeremy', did you start to think that directing films would now be an option?
People started calling after 'Jeremy', and I did have a screenplay that I was writing that I wanted to make. I had also already done a documentary about my father and his struggle with Alzheimer's, and I spent two years travelling the country making these beautiful short films about poets for a TV project. In 1995 I was 31-32, I had gotten married and I decided that making a movie was going to be my next challenge.
Would you consider yourself a restless person given the different genres and formats you have worked in and continue to do so?
I don't think it's restlessness. I just love doing different things. If I just made movies, I'd be in trouble because they are harder and harder to get made, unless I just make any script that they send me. I think my career has just evolved from one thing to another. I will always do videos because I love them, and they are very subconscious and they are free. But after doing a bunch of them and working on the abstract you want to work with actors and play with story in a different way. So my career and my body of work and my art are all intertwined. I've had successes and I have had missteps. I've made movies that I loved that were annihilated in the press. In my personal life, my wife passing away changed my art and my being and what I was interested in. The next thing you know, I'm in my 50s. I hope when I'm in my 70s I can look back and see that I had the chance to make a lot of the things I have in my brain and on my computer.
I did a bunch of stuff for them for Zoo TV. I did three songs worth of material for the video screens. About a month after I had finished they sent me the song 'One' from Dublin and said they needed something for a video. I made images of flowers, of text and of buffaloes looping. They asked me to make it into one single-screen video. We tried intercutting with footage of the band but that didn't work. The version with the buffaloes was just one of three versions we made. I got the inspiration from a still they sent me of buffaloes falling over a cliff, and Bono saying it was about love. We found stock footage of buffaloes, we blurred the footage and slowed it down, and it took on a life of its own with the song and the edit.
Was moving to feature films an easy transition for you?
It was very difficult actually. I wish I had done a short with just a master/ close-up/ close-up, using the basics of film grammar. My first movie, GOING ALL THE WAY, was a coming of age comedy and I really learned a lot on that. Film is a different beast, a different pace. If I knew then what I knew now! But everybody's got to make their first film and go through those growing pains.
I learned not to shoot 132 page scripts. I have a three and a half hour assembly of the film. I'd love to recut it and make a new version of it. I learned to listen to my AD and people that had made movies before. I was the most stubborn first-time filmmaker on that movie. I learned a million things. But I have to say it was fun making it.
Did you find you had a natural affinity with actors after doing so many videos?
I had also worked with poets and I had done commercials, and I did not feel uncomfortable talking with actors. My casting director was a wonderful woman named Ellen Chenoweth, who brought in tons and tons of young actors. It was a Who's Who of people who have gone on to great things. They would come in and afer they had read, I would pick their brains and learn from them. Ron Eldard, who had just done Barry Levinson's SLEEPERS (1996), came in, and I was trying to describe something to him. But I had never studied acting or theater and I was struggling with the terms. I ended up playing him a piece of music. He said ''You know, a director can use any tool at their disposal. There's not just one way to direct. '' To this day, I remember that as a good piece of advice because it loosened me up to just be myself. I knew the script, I knew the story, and I knew the characters, so I could just be myself. My storytelling skills have improved over the years, and it's only over the last few years that I feel like I've mastered that side of it. Something clicked in.
I see ARLINGTON ROAD as one of the most underrated films ever.
It was a great script and a great movie. I was very lucky to have fallen into that. I was in the right place at the right time. I worked really hard on it. It was a big step going from a $3 million movie to a $22 million movie with movie stars. I recently saw it again for the first time in many years. It's very straight, and static and controlled; probably more so than I would do now, but that was then.
What was your initial reaction to the script?
I was horrified by the opening. I think the way we used the sound and the score in the film added even more to the horror of it. The ending was just a fucking punch to the stomach. My heart was beating and I thought it was going to head one way and then the rug just got pulled out from under me.
Did you encounter any resistance from the studio to change the opening and the ending?
A European company, Polygram, financed it, and they were cool with the way it was written. But we did end up having to shoot two alternative endings. In one of them, Jeff Bridges gets pulled away, and his partner, the black FBI agent, opens the trunk and Jeff was the culprit. I thought it was a complete joke and I only shot one take of it, with a grip stand and a ladder in the shot. The producer said ''Just shoot it, so we can say we did it contractually. '' The scripted ending that Ehren Kruger wrote was that Jeff's kid ends up living with Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. We tested it and it was perfect, but it tested really badly with women who said ''You killed the hero, and the villains take away his kid. Are you kidding?'' So we went with the other ending, where at least the kid goes to live with some relatives.
We offered Tim Robbins either role, and he chose the villain because it was a shorter amount of time and he had never played a villain before and thought it might be fun. We all put our heads together and came up with Jeff for the lead role. He was very 'cool' at the time as opposed to 'hot', but we all loved him and had huge respect for him. He was amazing in the film, and is a great guy that I am still in touch with. I learned a great deal from him.
What were some films that you looked at when preparing the film?
The only movie we watched and studied was ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), which we did over and over again. I've learned it's better to study one or two movies really well than to try and study twenty movies. On some of my TV work I don't like to look at anything else at all, and just go with my gut.
Part two of the interview.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.
Part two of the interview.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.