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 second part of a three-par interview, I spoke to Lowenstein about what Michael got out of the solo Max Q project; whether he believes Michael would ever have left INXS; whether he was worried being a hugely in-demand music video director would negatively impact his feature directing career; how he got the gig directing the Desire video for U2, and what it was like working with them; what the original impetus for making MYSTIFY was; how he balanced making a subjective and objective documentary on Michael; how Michael still remains an elusive figure and person; whether there was a longer cut of MYSTIFY that he was happy with; and the process of editing the film.     

Part one of the interview.  

When you worked with Michael on the promo videos for the Max Q project, did you get the sense that he was happy to be able to express himself in ways he couldn't with INXS?
Yes. Kick had been a huge success, and they had toured for two years. It's no coincidence that after that, Michael changed everything. He broke up with Michele, he had the freedom of being single for a while and then he got with Kylie. The band took a year off, and at this stage it was over ten years of being with the band. INXS knew they wanted to keep going, but Michael needed a recharge. Michael wasn't going to get a recharge by sitting on a beach for a year, or raising a family like the others did. He would recharge by exploring new things, and doing something without the constraints of the commercial world and the record company watching his every move. At the same time, he did want Max Q to be a hit.

It seems that the band, management and record company were all scared Max Q being a success might lead to Michael leaving INXS. Do you think that Michael would ever have left the band?
Michael never made it easy for anybody. He never let anybody feel secure. You were insecure as a partner, you were insecure as a band member. Sting had left The Police, Peter Gabriel was a successful solo artist, and both the band members and management were absolutely terrified that if Michael had commercial success with Max Q, he would suddenly become Michael Hutchence the solo artist and everything that they had worked so hard for with INXS would collapse. But honestly, from knowing him, that was never going to happen. Michael would never have left his INXS family. He expressed frustration sometimes and might have said ''I'm gonna leave you guys, you're driving me crazy'' a few times, like in any normal family fight, but he was addicted to what happened on stage when they all got together. There was an indefinable magic. But he also wanted to spread his wings.

You became quite famous as INXS's go-to video director, particularly in the Kick era. Were you worried at all that your success in this field might overshadow your feature directing career or take you away from feature directing opportunities?
Yes, I was, but it was very hard to say no to them. You're sitting there trying to get a film off the ground but your last one, DOGS IN SPACE, didn't do well commercially, even though it did well critically and got a wide release, and they call up and say they have three videos they want you to do. I'd say ''Can we do them in Prague?'' and they'd say okay. How can you say no to that? Later on I would start giving the jobs of the third or fourth singles to my other director friends, and I regret not doing some of those videos. Then of course, people like Pete Townshend and U2 would then call me up, and I can't say no to great experiences like that either. A lot of video directors of that era would make a video in a week and move on, but the videos were always labors of love for me, and it would be three months before I was finally finished. Then I would get my head back into a feature script.

I did find that the videos were a big distraction, but in hindsight there are experiences there that I wouldn't change for anything. I could have said no to U2 or no to Prague and Never Tear Us Apart and sat there in my room bashing out a script that never went ahead. On the other hand, it might have gone the other way and I'd have a Hollywood contract by now! I'm glad I had those experiences, that's for sure.

Did you get the gig to direct U2's Desire video through Michael, who was friends with Bono?
No, although everybody thinks I did. I actually introduced Michael to Bono. I knew the U2 guys totally independently, going back to even before I was offered Burn for You by INXS. They were touring in Australia when the Hunters and Collectors video I did came out, and they loved it. They rang me up and said ''We'd love you to see our show'', and the next thing you know Lynn and me and my team were all backstage with them talking about art, music, film and everything, not in a green room situation, but in a private meeting. They said ''We are gonna work together one day'', and it wasn't until about five years later that we did. I'm sure the success of the Kick videos helped a lot. If I had disappeared into the wilderness, I'm sure they wouldn't have dug me up! But yeah, I had a connection with U2 before INXS.

What was it like working with them on Desire, Angel of Harlem and the Lovetown TV special?
They were great. They were different, very Irish. We were all Bohemians, and like a lot of bands of that era, had grown up with David Bowie, who I also loved. We shot Angel of Harlem at the Apollo Theatre in New York, and Desire in LA. The band were more forthcoming with ideas that did make their way into the videos. They knew where they were going, and knew what they wanted. In Desire you could see they were already playing with media, grabbing blips and bits off cable TV. I remember Bono sitting with me, flicking through the 25 channels on the American TV set, going from infomercials to bits of TV shows, saying ''This is what we want. '' I told him ''You've come to the right guy'', since I was really into this kind of filmmaking style, and I'd do more with it on my Max Q videos. The band were very friendly and we've formed a strong friendship. They obviously came from a more Irish, poetic space. They were very well read, quoting Dylan Thomas, and everything was thought through. They were also in competition at that time with INXS. The Kick videos had beat them at the MTV Awards that year and they wanted the guy who could make videos like that for them.

I'd love for the Melbourne concert that you filmed for the Lovetown TV special to be released one day.
We filmed and edited the entire concert, but it was cut down for the TV special. There's also a lot of behind the scenes stuff with BB King in the rushes. There was a symposium of U2 fans on the last tour who dug up the concert and played it. I don't know how they got it. I don't know if U2 will ever release it officially. I think at the time it clashed with the video release of RATTLE AND HUM (1988).

It strikes me that you are the equivalent to INXS of Russell Mulcahy to Duran Duran. Do you guys know each other well?
No. I think we've been at the same parties but we have never bumped into each other and chatted.

MYSTIFY was going to be a feature film in the beginning. What was the original impetus to do a film about Michael?
It had been ten or fifteen years after his death, and nothing in the mediascape, be it books or dramas, spoke of the person or musician that I knew. It wasn't just because he was a friend. He was quite a remarkable performer, composer and singer, which I had seen up close when I worked with him and saw him in the studio. I felt it was a bit of a crime. I spoke to a few close friends of Michael's, and we would talk about how dreadful a particular documentary or drama about Michael was. We all decided we owed him an honest portrait. I called up all the people that knew Michael and asked them if they would talk to me if I made a film, and they all said ''Yes, of course. You're the only one we would speak to. ''

There had been so many scurrilous documentaries. My phone would be off the hook with so many of his close friends going ''Who was that about?'' So, I knew I had some people on my side. When Mandy Chang at ABC said ''We'll back you if you make the documentary'', she didn't know that I had already filmed some twenty interviews since 2009, with people like Bono and Nick Launay when they came through town.

The Channel 7 TV mini-series Never Tear Us Apart had kind of put the end to the idea of doing a drama. I saw it, and ultimately, it's just a bunch of actors pretending to be the real people, and I felt in the end that I owed it to Michael to tell his own story in his own voice and with his own face. I'm glad that the miniseries was made and prevented us making a feature, because I would have hated making a feature about Michael when a good documentary about him didn't exist. It was around 2014 when I realized that I had enough good footage in the archive to seriously make a documentary.

It's interesting that the common conception about documentaries is that they need to be objective and distanced, when with MYSTIFY what was needed was a subjective portrait where you got to be the caretaker of his memory in a way.
You get into this dubious area of whether the film is just going to be a lovefest made by people who loved him, but we did try to be as objective as possible and I think we achieved that. I don't think this is a film just for the fans. We are showing Michael warts and all. You can easily slip into things like ''And then he became an arrogant rock star. '' We tried to explain how these things happened. Helena Christensen, if she hadn't trusted me, wouldn't have told us the full story of what happened with Michael's accident, and we wouldn't have gotten the reason why he became this cliched rock star kicking photographers. He's not really himself at that stage, there's something actually wrong with him. A lot of his friends of that last two years wouldn't talk to me because they'd say ''The Michael I knew was the full Michael, and I'm not going to talk to you if you're going to make a big thing about this accident, which really was just a knock on the head and didn't change anything, because you're saying that the Michael I knew wasn't the real Michael. '' It's ridiculous to put your head in the sand and say that the Michael after the accident was the same Michael from before. No wonder people come up with all these weird theories about why he killed himself. They don't have all the information. The friends that knew him from the 80s right through to the end, people like Michele, Terry Serio, Nick Conroy and members of INXS told me ''No, he was absolutely a different person after that accident. We don't know the full details, but he was not the same. ''

It's also remarkable that even though the film is intimate, and revealing, about Michael, he still remains a charismatic, elusive figure at the end.
I think that's why we called it MYSTIFY. I think he was elusive, even to himself. You could be his friend, especially a male friend, and he'd put on a show for you, take you to parties and show you what it's like to be a rock star. He didn't really enjoy himself unless he was sharing his good fortune with his friends, especially if they didn't have much money. It's interesting that going into it, I thought I was making a simple portrait of the guy and then as I found out more and more and more, especially about the secrets he kept and so on, you still end up with rather an elusive figure at the end. Even for those who knew him very well it is hard to say what he would be doing today. He juggled so many things and started keeping secrets, like what really happened with the accident, which he even kept from Paula.

What was the process of editing it like, going through all the footage you had?
I knew it was something I couldn't do by myself as a lone filmmaker. I needed other opinions and other sensibilities, so I opened it out to a group of us. I was sort of the adjudicator. There were sequences being edited all over the place, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It was a collaborative edit, and it would have done my head in had I tried to do it on my own. We had teams of people looking at all the rushes from the archive and all the stock footage, pulling out sections they thought were great. There were many collections of the best bits of the ten hours of footage we had. It was a very long, organic process of trying to find how best to tell the story, and how linear or non-linear to make it. Where is the best point to cover his childhood, for example? There were many questions, and I was open and would take notes from all my investors, friends, strangers even. Not that I would listen all the time, but I would hear everyone's opinion.

There were lots of problems. The beginning was a huge problem and the ending was a huge problem. The story in between was hard too, but some of it was actually easy. The twenty minutes of Kylie footage just fell together instantly because we had a great interview with Kylie and all that great footage. That section was pretty much untouched from the over one and a half years of editing. We only got the INXS music at the last minute, and we only got the Wembley footage at the last minute. It was a very protracted and agonising process.

Was there a longer cut that you would have been happy with?
We had an English producer, John Battsek (SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN), who had won a couple of Oscars, and he kept saying ''95 minutes, 95 minutes. '' He is probably still saying ''95 minutes'' out there somewhere. (The final run time is 102 minutes. ) We did have cuts that were 120, 130 minutes long, but to be honest, we would screen it for friends and it did seem like it was going on too long. There would be comments like ''He's sexy, but he's not an icon of music. We're here because of the Paula story'' etc etc but I always thought it was a much bigger story than just the Paula story. A lot of the stuff we cut out is in the DVD extras. One chunk we cut out was his acting career. To tell that story, you had to stop all the other stories and go back to telling the story of him growing up on film sets in Hong Kong, where his mother worked as a makeup artist, and later making DOGS IN SPACE and other bit parts in films. A lot of interviewers seemed relieved they had something else to ask him other than ''Tell us about your latest album … ''

I could have watched hours more. I recently watched the four hour Tom Petty documentary RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM (2007), and I never wanted it to stop!
We were aiming for a cinema release, and the distributors had very strong ideas about how long it should be. You don't want to overstay your welcome. If we had released it through streaming, we could have done three or four one-hour episodes, but we had to speak to audiences who weren't fans as well and tell the story of the 'unknown rock star'. I'm sure the fans could have handled a three hour cinema experience no problem.

There's something great about it playing in cinemas.
Yes, and we mixed it in Atmos for that whole cinema experience. It was our selling point: 'Hear the music like you've never heard it before. ''

Part three of the interview.

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.

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