At the end of 1999, MTV aired a special video countdown: “MTV’s 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was chosen as the #1 video of all time. During the special which was aired on MTV USA December 11, 1999, MTV showed excerpts of this exclusive interview with MJ and Alex Coletti
MJ: The idea is to umm take it a step forward and to innovate or else why am I doing it. I’m just … I don’t want to be just another can in the assembly line. I want to you know, create.. do something that is totally different and unusual.
I hate to say it, but it’s like what all songwriter’s say and it’s true it’s like “you don’t write the song, the song writes itself”. It just kind of falls into your lap. It’s like you say, “gee whiz, did I do that?” (laughs). It’s that sort of thing.
AC: Is video the same, or is video more ….?
MJ: Umm, kind of. I think so. It’s a cousin of the same creative intent, I think. You let it create itself really. I know I do.
MJ: In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining and have a sense of, a linear sense of continuity as far as …. I like to have a beginning, a middle and an ending and have it follow a story and not just be a collage of images, you know, and sometimes that’s ok too but it depends on what the director, as a visionary what he sees.
AC: How much faith or trust — how much do you let the director decide in bringing up the concepts. ?
MJ: Oh, I’m very much involved in the complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be from, you know my soul. Usually it’s the interpretation of the music so, I would think so, yes.
AC: I hear a radio next door, they picked the wrong time to be playing the tunes. Do you hear that? (Michael laughs)
MJ: I love working with John Landis because we laugh a lot. We are never serious on the set (laughs) so it’s fun working with John. I used to throw water balloons, and stink bombs and everything at him. That a ritual for me after we wrap up each video, I throw a lot of stuff at everybody (smiles) so that’s funny.
AC: How did you first meet John?
MJ: I met John right before doing “Thriller” I called him on the phone, I think he was in London, and I told him what I wanted to do and what the concept was and we came together and we wrote it, the two of us.
AC: Did you envision it a being a movie or did you or a see it as a music video, it seems like it’s more of a film.
MJ: No, my idea was to make a short film, you know with conversation in the beginning and make that kind of linear and to bookend it with conversation at the end. But John and I and he’s such a fun guy I really love working with him, we just sat together and the chemistry just started working, you know. It was fun.
AC: Do you remember… were you a fan of horror movies?
MJ: Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies (laughs) honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I would be involved in making that sort of thing, but I am.
AC: And the two movies.. the werewolf scenario and then at the end “The Night of the Living Dead” had you ever seen those movies?
MJ: No. I did see “An American Werewolf In London” which I thought was really fun but I haven’t seen the classic werewolf movie.
AC: When was the last time you saw “Thriller”?
MJ: Gee, I don’t know. I thought about watching it again, but I don’t because I don’t want to scare the children (laughs).
My idea — I always try and be a pioneer and an innovator in whatever I do and my dream was to always make short little films, because I’m a big fan of the Three Stooges, and I love watching Curly, who I think is wonderful. They make these 15-minute shorts, and I said, ‘Gee, I would love to do something like that one day,’ and you know with a linear story so this [“Thriller”] was my opportunity.”
Rod Temperton who wrote “Thriller”, that was one of the first raps actually and he thought of having a rap at the end of it and we called up Vincent Price and he said “yes” right away so Rod was taking the taxi from his hotel, he’s a German fellow, from his hotel to the studio and he wrote it within transit and he did a great job.
AC: Did you ever meet Vincent?
MJ: I’ve known Vincent Price since I was 11. The first time I met him, it was at NBC studios. He said, “come here” like that (MJ pointing his finger to beckon) in his kinda gruesome voice, and I started to cry because I was – I thought he was serious. I used to see him by turning the channels and those kinda things. I think he was in “The Raven” and “House of Wax” or something, so he scared me.
AC: Was there ever any talk of getting him actually into the video?
AC: To get Vincent actually into the video?
MJ: No, there was never any talk about that. No.
AC: Okay. Some of the dialogue — we were watching it the other day — do you remember any of the dialogue from some of the scenes or anything that jumps out at you from the film at all?
MJ: From “Thriller”?
MJ: Umm, gee umm (shakes his head)
AC: Favorite line, favorite part?
MJ: Oh, I like the scene when the girl — all these zombies are coming toward us and she thinks she’s safe with me, you know, being her boyfriend, and she looks over to me and I become one. And then we do that famous pull in and pull out movement. The Hitchcock move. I love that moment, then I become one. It’s fun.
It was a delicate thing to work on because I remember my original approach was, “how do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” So I said, we have to do just the right kind of movement so it doesn’t become something that you laugh at but it just has to be, you know, take it to another level. So I got in a room with Michael Peters and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move by making faces in the mirror and I used to come to rehearsal sometime with monster make up on — I love doing that — so he and I collaborated and we both choreographed the piece and I would just start (Michael doing the zombie shoulder and neck move) that kind of thing (finger snaps) go into this kind of jazzy step you know. (Laughs) (does the arms side to side move) kind of gruesome things like that. Not too much ballet or whatever. (Laughing)
AC: Right, right, it has that stiff movement to it.
AC: You know the length at the time of music videos was pretty much unheard of, did you worry at all about that?
MJ: No, because I knew if we did something with substance and content that people would watch and it had great entertainment value and if it held you, I knew we’d be okay. That was the idea.
AC: When you made the video, when you were making it, when you finished it, did you realize just what you had accomplished and that this was going to be this groundbreaking video?
MJ: When I was in the editing room I knew I liked it, I enjoyed it. It has to be satisfying for me and I had enjoyed what I had seen when I finished it so I was happy with it. Never totally satisfied but I was happy.
AC: What about it would you have changed?
MJ: I’m not always happy with certain cuts and angles and timing (finger snaps) you know. Those sort of things, you know.
AC: You’re your own worst critic.
MJ: Yeah, it has to be just right.
“Beat It”. It makes me think of the song and working with all those wonderful people, I love Quincy. He’s a wonderful guy to work with and I remember him telling me to write a song that I would enjoy with an edge so I went in my room and wrote “Beat It”, I don’t know why but I did – about two gangs coming together and the song is so self- explanatory that it’s so easy to make this short film and I’d seen, I think it was a McDonald’s commercial and I said, “God, I like the rhythm and the cut of this commercial”. I said, “I want this director for this piece so I reached out to him.
AC: So that was Steve.. not Steve, Bob Giraldi?
MJ: Bob Giraldi, better than me, good. Yeah, Bob, Bob was cool.
AC: That’s awesome, I didn’t know he came from that world.
MJ: Yes, he started in commercials.
AC: Well that certainly gave him a big opportunity.
AC: Was there a time when MTV wouldn’t play the video. Was it “Billie Jean” or “Beat It” that broke the racial…?
MJ: I think it was “Billie Jean” because that came before “Beat It”. It was between Mickey Schulhof and MTV. I don’t know the whole story (laughs).
AC: You don’t have to say anything but still how did you feel to be the one, to kind of be the first?
MJ: Makes me feel happy. It really does. I was glad.
AC: “Billie Jean” was kind of different because it really doesn’t have anything to do with the lyrics and the video, it was kind of a whole different thing. How did you come up with that?
MJ: It’s kind of surreal and it’s different. I didn’t come up with that concept. It was – I think a British fellow – Steve Barron – he just had all these different – and I thought he had wonderful ideas but I let him go with it. The only part I wrote in the piece was – I said: “I just want a section.” I said, “Give me a section here I can dance a little” because he said no dancing in the whole piece, he said, “no dancing” . I said “just give me one little moment”, so that whole section where you see this long street and this billboard of these two girls, one of them is Billie Jean and I’m dancing – that’s the only part I contributed.
I wanted to do a dance number where I umm — I told my sister, Janet, I said, “you remind me of a black panther, why don’t you do something where you transform into a black panther and you transform into yourself again”. She said, “I like it”, but she didn’t go with it — because the two of us, we always think alike– so I told her I was going to do it so I DID IT! And in the dance (laughs) I said, “I want to do a dance number where I can just let out my frustration about you know, injustice, and prejudice and racism and bigotry”, and within the dance I just became upset and I let go and that’s what happened. At the time people were concerned about the violent content of the piece but it’s like (shrugs his shoulders) easy to look at.