It was around 2am and I was asleep, in London, the first time Michael Jackson called me. He told me how much he admired my film An American Werewolf in London and asked if it would be possible for me to direct a music video in which he could “turn into a monster.” I explained to him that London was eight hours ahead of LA. I said I would call him when I got back to LA in a couple of weeks. Then I went back to sleep.
We spoke on the phone four or five times before I returned to California. Michael told me he wanted me to make a music video for the song Thriller, and that in the video he wanted to go through the same kind of transformation from a two-legged man into a four-legged beast that was in An American Werewolf in London.
Rick Baker – who won the first-ever Academy Award for best makeup for An American Werewolf in London – and I showed Michael movie books filled with photographs of monsters. We soon discovered that he hadn’t seen many horror movies. He found most of the pictures “too scary”. We came to the conclusion that if Michael was going to dance, it would be a hell of a lot easier for his monster to have two legs instead of four. I was adamant that whatever he was going to turn into, he couldn’t be too hideous or unattractive. Scary – yes; creepy – yes; but NOT ugly. I ultimately suggested that Michael turn into a Wolfman like the one in 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Hence the 1950s setting in Thriller’s “movie within the movie”.’
Rick eventually came up with his elegant “WereCat” design for Michael’s monster. It was Michael’s suggestion that we include zombies.
I hoped that Michael would go along with my plan to make a proper two-reeler (a cinema-release short) and not just a “needle-drop” rock video. He loved the idea of making Thriller a real motion picture event that could play in cinemas all over the world. So we created a budget that reflected our ambitious production, much bigger than anything spent on a music video before. The problem was Michael’s record company had no interest in another video from the Thriller album. The album had been No 1 for more than a year and the company thought it had peaked. Michael put me on the phone to the president of CBS Records, Walter Yetnikoff, and I had never heard such profanity at such volume. Michael asked, “What did Walter say?” I told him “Walter said ‘no’.”
Mike volunteered to pay for the film himself, but we decided to make a 45-minute making-of film that – added to Thriller’s 15-minute running time – meant we had an hour of film we could sell to television and so finance our production. This was an elegant concept – except no television network wanted it. To them, Thriller was last year’s news. Even MTV, which had had great success with Billie Jean and Beat It, the first two videos from Thriller, turned us down. (MTV never had to pay for videos because they were considered by record companies to be marketing costs.) But Showtime, then a new pay cable channel, agreed to pay half the budget, and MTV suddenly changed its mind, justifying the expenditure as a “motion picture”, not a video.
We were ready to make our movie. I asked my wife, Deborah Nadoolman, to design the costumes. She created that red leather jacket for Michael to wear. It became as iconic as the leather jacket she had earlier designed for Indiana Jones. Michael brought in choreographer Michael Peters, with whom he had worked on Beat It; people are still dancing to the moves the two Michaels created for Thriller. The making-of film – directed by Jerry Kramer – documented just what a brilliant performer Michael was, and we added what material we could: an 8mm home movie of young Michael dancing, which was found in a closet at his parent’s house, footage from the Ed Sullivan Show, and Michael’s legendary performance at the Motown 25th anniversary special. Watching The Making of Thriller now, after three decades, one thing is clear: Michael looks so happy.
The earth-shattering success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was a surprise to everyone but Michael. My memories of him are naturally shaded by his tragic end. But I recall the Michael I collaborated with in 1983, and that Michael was joyous, hard-working, relaxed and determined to do his best. And Michael’s best was truly fantastic.
• The restored version of Thriller and The Making of Thriller has its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on 3 September.