Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Very Candid Conversation with David Engelbach

In 1979, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli filmmakers, bought Cannon Films. Throughout the 1980s, they released many low-budget films until they went bankrupt in 1987. Their most successful films were the films that starred Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Recently, a documentary on Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo  was released. I have already interviewed one Cannon alumni, James Bruner, who wrote most of the Chuck Norris films. That interview can be read here. David Engelbach is my second Cannon alumni in this blog. Engelbach wrote two of Cannon’s most well-known projects: Death Wish II, and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling picture, Over the Top. However, his scripts for both films were much different than what finally appeared on screen. He also wrote and directed another Cannon feature, America 3000. That film is a futuristic comedy set in a post-apocalyptic age when there is a literal battle of the sexes: women and men are at war with each other. In addition to Cannon Films, David also wrote some episodes of MacGyver.

While fans of Cannon Films are familiar with Engelbach’s work, they may be surprised to learn some of the other people he also worked for. David assisted Steven Spielberg on Jaws and helped with the US government  after the 9/11 attacks.

Today, David is a screenwriting professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He recently appeared as an interview subject for the Electric Boogaloo documentary.

In this candid conversation, we discuss David’s time with Cannon Films and the three films he made with them. We also discuss his work on Jaws and with the US government. In addition, we discuss his current days as a professor. I want to thank David for taking the time to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: All right, so how did you get into writing?

David Engelbach: Well, it was the route to become a director, which is what my background is in. I had an undergraduate background in theater and drama, and I went to USC Cinema for grad school to learn film. One of the routes to become a director was to become a writer, and one of the ironies of my career was that I ended up becoming more of a writer than a director.

JC: What had interested you about going to film school?

DE: It was a choice to either go into theater and direct theater, or to go to film and direct film. I always loved movies, and I had that kind of assumption that a lot of young people do, which is that somebody has to do it, so why not me? I went off and found out that one, I seemed to have a talent for it, and two, I was pretty good at it, so I pursued it.

It was also a time when I was in school, which was a period where there were young filmmakers getting into the business before it all became about the latest $400 million blockbuster.

JC: So what did you do in the industry before you came into contact with Cannon?

DE: Well, I had sold some scripts to the studio, as well as a few development projects and a couple original ideas. I had previously done some work after I got out of school. I worked for a couple of smaller production companies shooting commercials and directing commercials. Later, while I was doing some additional documentary shooting, and I met Steven Spielberg. He had seen a film I had made when I was in film school. I ended up working with him on Jaws.

JC: What exactly did you do with Spielberg on Jaws?

DE: I was Steven’s assistant.

JC: Oh, you were his assistant?

DE: I wasn’t his assistant director, but his assistant. Not a personal assistant—he had a gofer for that. I did background action. I did local casting. I worked with the casting director. I supervised some of the original tests that were done on the shark, which didn’t work, and a lot of the dialogue. For example, from Robert Shaw, who plays Quint, I found an old Yankee fisherman who had this very colorful way of speaking, and I spent a lot of time recording him and transcribing. That became a lot of the basis for the rhythms and the expressions that Quint used in the film.

I had met Steven earlier before he did Sugarland Express, and he wanted me to make a documentary on the making of Sugarland, which I was prepared to do and I created a budget for him. He said later that Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who produced Sugarland, didn’t want to spend the money on a doc. I mean, it was not common as it is today—everybody makes a film about the making of something.

That was kind of unusual then. So, he went off to Sugarland, we stayed in contact, and then he was about to do Jaws. I was going to do a documentary on the making of Jaws, which probably would have been fascinating given the problems that they had. And again, Zanuck and Brown didn’t want to make it or put up the money. So Steven said, “Well, why don’t you be my assistant and come out to Martha Vineyard’s with me?”

JC: The problems with Jaws, as I understand it, was that the shark models were not working.

DE: Well, part of the issue was the fact that the shark had originally been designed by Bob Mattey, who had done the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He was brought out of retirement to do this shark and he designed it to operate with hydraulics. A lot of the shark was designed to have a lot more articulating parts. When they finally picked the location on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the State had passed some really stringent antipollution laws.

They would have been fined so heavily if there would be any leaks from the hydraulics, which happens—it’s oil and water. So he had to remodify the shark to run on compressed air, and, consequently, that’s part of the reason that it didn’t work the way it was designed. It didn’t have the same dynamic pressure to articulate some of the things in the shark it was supposed to work, like the eyeballs and teeth and mouth, because it was dealing with the resistance of the water. The shark didn’t work as well as it was intended, which turned out to be to the benefit of the film actually. The less you saw, the scarier it was. Had it worked originally the way they intended, I’m not sure the film would have been as successful as it was.

JC: What did you do after Jaws?

DE: I was at Universal as a potential television director and worked on a couple TV series and discovered that I really didn’t want to direct television. I wanted to direct my own work, so I started focusing more seriously on writing. The way that Cannon came to connect with me was that I had written a movie called Over the Top, which was supposed to be produced as a low-budget movie. Columbia was going to distribute it, but it turned out that the original producer, who was also supposed to star in the film, didn’t have the money to make the movie. I only found that out after spending a year on the project.

A couple of years later, somebody who had been involved in trying to finance the film—after the original producers failed to do so—had introduced the script to Menahem Golan and he fell in love with it and we went ahead. I ended up writing Death Wish II for him in return.

JC: So it was Over the Top that had led you to write Death Wish II?

DE: Well, they wanted to make Over the Top, but they could not make an agreement initially with the original producer/actor. Menahem had called me up and said that they still wanted to make a deal with me and have me write and direct something for them. But before I would write and direct for them, they had this project they had gotten the rights to. Menahem described it as a sequel to one of the big films of the 70s, and I said, “Are we going to do Godfather III?” He said, “Close.” He wanted to do Death Wish.

I had actually turned it down the first two times. I didn’t want to do a sequel, and I didn’t want to do a sequel to that movie. I didn’t dislike the original film. I thought it was okay for what it was, and I had always been a fan of Charlie Bronson, but they made me an offer. If I did the film, they would finance a film for me to do, so I did that. Have you ever seen the film?

JC: Yes, I have seen the film.

DE: To be honest, I was kind of appalled by Michael Winner’s work on it. I have said this before. He added that totally gratuitous rape scene with the Hispanic maid, which I thought was unnecessary and turned off a lot of people, particularly any women who would be interested in seeing the film. Michael Winner was an all-around bad guy. I don’t know anybody who worked with him who had anything good to say about him, but Bronson would not do the film unless Michael Winner directed it. Originally, Menahem wanted to direct the film, but neither he nor Globus had a hit before, and they had only just acquired Cannon from its original owners. They really needed to have a box office success to put them on the road, and so Death Wish II was their film. [Click here to watch the trailer for Death Wish II.]

Death Wish II poster

JC: Well, first off, you’re not the first person on my blog to speak ill of Winner. One of the people I have interviewed on my blog, Sally Kirkland (who got an Oscar nomination for Anna), worked with Winner on a film. She had this to say about Winner: “I never knew what a misogynist was till I met him.”

DE: That’s correct, absolutely. That was my opinion of him at the time, and that was before I knew that was apparently a sure belief. You saw the Cannon documentary Electric Boogaloo?

JC: Yes, I did.

DE: The comment that came from a lot of people was that he was a misogynist. In fact, the original cameraman for Death Wish II, quit after they shot that scene. He said he wouldn’t have anything to do with that. Winner later said that he fired him, but as far as I know that was not the truth.

JC: On YouTube, there’s a discussion of Winner with an English critic and an actual rape victim about the Death Wish II rape scene. Needless to say, the victim is appalled by the scene and tells Winner how offended she is by it. I don’t know the exact words of Winner’s response, but I do know he isn’t going for sensitivity here.

DE: I think the reason he made the film was so that he could do that rape scene.

JC: It’s obvious once Winner came in he took control of this project. What was your script of Death Wish II like? Was any of it similar to the finished product?

DE: Well, let’s put it this way: he took pieces of my script and cobbled them together to make his film, but the original script was more about the idea of lightning striking twice and that the character really resisted falling back into becoming what he became. That is why I created a relationship with the woman. In the end, he sacrifices his relationship with the woman to indulge his vengeance. He had to make a choice, and the choice was to pursue his vengeance, and he would never be the same again.

I did like the one last image of the film with the shadow of Bronson against the stark downtown wall and this kind of ominous figure. I think that was an image Winner came up with, but my film puts it in context. It was originally set in San Francisco, first of all. So the idea of finding a place where these punks hung out and tracking them down was a much more believable situation because it was a much smaller city. In Los Angeles, they could have been anywhere. I believe they chose LA for budget reasons, because it was cheaper to shoot there.

The other thing is that there was a whole subplot involving the fact that the character that emerged, the Bronson character that I was writing in the sequel, was an amateur the first time. The second time, there is a sequence after his daughter dies and he goes off to the woods. His friend, who owns the radio station, says, “Ah, take my cabin and get some time away.” While he’s there, he encounters some hardcore survivalists who are waiting for the future race wars to happen. They recognized the character from a newspaper about his daughter having died and having been the victim of something. They erroneously assumed he was a kindred spirit, but the net output is that they end up outfitting him with body armor and road-killing weapons, and he is no longer running around with a little pistol.

They did keep the thing where he sets up an alternative identity for himself in a rundown apartment somewhere, but he was no longer just walking around with a little pistol and shooting muggers. He was a guy who was seriously out to find the people who did this and destroy them no matter what it took. Apparently, some of those ideas found their way into later Death Wish movies. To be honest, I never saw the other sequels. I have seen pieces of a couple of them, but I really wasn’t interested.

I didn’t have the rape scene. I did have where they broke into his apartment. He struggles with them, and the daughter, who is having her day out from an institution, throws herself out the window and gets impaled on the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the Bronson’s property. I’m not sure I remember this in the movie or not, but the police say that she threw herself out of the window because of her mental state, and that even if they’d found the guys responsible for it, they probably wouldn’t charge them with first degree murder. He decides not to help the cops go after them and find these guys himself.

JC: Can you talk about some of the other projects you were involved in with Cannon?

DE: There was a script called Déjà vu, and a French producer had the rights to some project. I had actually developed this script from that idea. It’s about two old detectives who get together on a case because of a woman they were both in love with—the femme fatale who broke both of their hearts twenty years earlier. Her daughter, who marries a very wealthy man, has been kidnapped and the ransom demand was a priceless necklace that neither of the two guys was ever able to find. They both get reconnected with this woman, and it turns out that the daughter is one of theirs but we’re never sure who.

It was originally intended as a property for Yves Montand playing this former European detective and Robert Mitchum. The script was set up funny, but it was kind of in the noir style. Mitchum had a manager for many years—a woman whom he later left—and she didn’t want him working for Cannon because they had not quite established a reputation. It’s ironic because he later ended up doing a couple of movies for Cannon including The Ambassador, which Menahem had also offered me to direct and then later changed his mind about. He said to me, “You should do something more personal.”

JC: Is that how America 3000 came about?

DE: That was actually a script that I had originally written and the original title for that movie was called Thunder Women. It was one of my earlier scripts. It was kind of a comic book adventure set in the future. I always wanted to make it, and when Déjà vu couldn’t come together because of casting issues, I told Menahem that I had this project I wanted to do. It was kind of a farfetched funny, futuristic comic book and I wanted to reacquire the rights. The original producer, who owned the rights had left the business primarily. Yet I wanted to reacquire it, not even for the subject matter, but I wanted to get the title back. I always thought Thunder Women was a great title for that kind of tongue-in-cheek story. The irony, of course, as you know, is that it’s called America 3000, which I thought was a dreadful title. I had serious discussions with Menahem, and he said, “No, no, no, films with women in the title don’t make any money.”

He was dead wrong, but that’s another issue, so I reacquired the rights. I was trying to finance the original story and shoot in the US. He basically gave me two choices, which was to shoot it in Israel. He said, “Desert is desert,” or to shoot it in South Africa. At the time, South Africa was still under the old apartheid government and I didn’t want to do anything in South Africa then. Now, looking back on it, I should have. It would have been a different kind of film. I rewrote the script and then we went ahead and did it. It was quite a difficult shoot. It was very physically stressful.It was very hot. We were shooting by the Dead Sea in June. It was 130 degrees. It got down at night to about 100 degrees. [Click here to watch the trailer for America 3000.]

JC: With all that heat, it had to be a real problem for leading actor Chuck Wagner wearing that nuclear radiation suit.

DE: The real problem was the character who played the monster Aargh the Awful.

Aargh the Awful

JC: Oh yeah, I forgot about that.

DE: That costume had been made in LA and the guy we got to do it was a basketball player. He was a very nice guy. After the first time he wore it, he was sweating so much that I thought that he was going to have heat stroke. We tore a lot of the stuffing out of it, and the minute we finished a take, he would take it off and we had this big fan, like you would use for making small hurricanes. They would hold it up to try to dry out the inside, so you could put it back on. Yeah, that gold lamiae president’s suit was not the most comfortable thing for Chuck to be walking around in, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Aargh the Awful.

JC: You’ve also invented language for the film. The only translated word from this new language the viewer gets is “Woggos,” which means “crazy.” I could follow somewhat what the characters were saying, but I couldn’t understand every word because of the new language.

DE: I assume you saw it on either VHS or—

JC: YouTube.

DE: They recently released a DVD as part of another package. It was released with the wrong soundtrack.

JC: Oh.

DE: The film that you had seen and most people have seen was not the same soundtrack as the original release print. I didn’t like the original mix. I didn’t like some of the voices of it. I was very unhappy with the original music that had been created for it, so I went to Golan and I said, “Look, I would like some more time to recut this. It’s not so much the picture, but the soundtrack. I wanted to make some changes too.”

He said, “Okay, we won’t pay for any new music, but you can use anything in the library that we currently have.” I did re-voice a couple of the actresses mostly. Victoria Barrett, who is kind of a heavy-set blonde, was actually Menahem’s girlfriend at the time. He was married, but she was his girlfriend. She had this West Virginia accent, so I re-voiced her and changed some of the narration. I got to pair some of that down and I changed some of the other elements, mostly the soundtrack. The picture track was pretty much the same and that was the theatrical release. When they went to go to video, I told them, “Look, contact me. I’ll supervise the transfer because I wanted to make some color adjustments and things like that as well.” One day I swung into my local video store and I started to play it, and in the first couple seconds I realized it had the wrong soundtrack on it. It was too late; that was cast in stone.

It irks me that it’s popular in video and weird cult markets. Apparently, it’s very popular in places like Finland. But they are seeing it with the wrong soundtrack. Some of the narration helped to clarify some of the language. I made up a language for it. Part of the visual design of the film, which was a little harder to do well, was impossible to do in Israel actually. I wanted the film to look like it was surrounded by wrecked Americana, but not the good stuff, only the garbage. You know, the really good stuff didn’t make it, but the trash did.

So, for example, the original design I had for the encampment—the camp where the women were—there was this big gate that was supposed to protect them and I wanted to make it out of Cadillac tail fins, which was impossible to find in Israel. Also, the design of the camp itself was a much more imaginative design than what I ended up finally having to work with. Cannon built sets that were so heavy that nothing could be moved, so I was kind of stuck with the productions. The visual qualities were not what I wanted for the film, but at that point, we were all pregnant together, so I had to go work with what I had.

I had designed a marketing plan for Thunder Women and I still call it Thunder Women because that’s what it was to me. In fact, I had even hired a company to do title search. They had done one of these research things where they talk to people who are standing in line for movies and did titles with them. It was like an 87 percent interest in seen something called Thunder Women. There was like a 21 percent interest in seen something called America 3000.

I didn’t want them to release it as they did their normal release pattern. The film was already in profit before it was finished. I was starting to shoot the film when Golan and Globus were at the Cannes film festival. I front-loaded my first weeks shooting to really push the action stuff. My editor put together a quick cut, which we sent to Menahem in Cannes, and he showed that, so they basically presold the film. They were in profits in the movie before it was ever released.

That was part of it that helped me get it made, but it worked against me. Once I was done, the guy was running the distribution for Cannon—I forget the guy’s name—looked at me and I said, “You have never seen my film.” He said, “I don’t have to see your film to sell it.” And I said, “Well, actually you do.” I just wanted to do midnight screenings for it for a couple weeks to build up some word of mouth for this kind of funny, offbeat adventure movie, and they just threw it out there as another one of their B movie action films. It never hit the audience it was intended for.

JC: Actually, the movie, I thought of when I saw it was not Mad Max. I was thinking more of that Ringo Starr movie Caveman, a pre-historic comedy, where they invented their own language for that movie.

DE: You’re not wrong. It was closer to that. It was funny because Caveman was written and directed by Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the shooting script for Jaws. Carl and I were living in Spielberg’s house during Jaws, so it was Carl, Spielberg, and I living in this rented house he had in Martha’s Vineyard. I always appreciated Carl’s sense of humor. Yeah, it was closer to something like that. It wasn’t supposed to be a straight-ahead action movie. It was never supposed to be sold as that. It was really supposed to be sold as kind of a goofball six-pack movie or smoke-your-favorite-thing-and-watch-this type of film.

Cannon never paid any attention to it, so I was pretty bummed by that point. Also, Cannon was running into money problems. They were stealing money out of release for films to spend the money to make offers to keep themselves alive. At this point, I believe they were burning the candle at both ends, although they did not foresee anything about that. It was part of the reason that led to their demise.

JC: Around that time, Cannon made Over the Top with Stallone.

Over the Top movie poster

DE: Yeah, Stallone did a rewrite on the script and so did Stirling Silliphant and I had nothing to do with it. I saw the film at the screening and was very upset about it. [Click here to watch the trailer for Over the Top.] The script was actually much more focused on the relationship between the father and son and that was originally the script that Stallone had committed to. It was more like Rocky and less like Rambo. But Rambo had just been a success for him and I think his managers had said, “You can’t have a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old as your nemesis,” so they built up the part of the grandfather and had ridiculous scenes where he drives his truck into the grandfather’s house and stupid stuff. I was really disappointed with it because the script was very different than what the movie was. I mean, Death Wish was Death Wish—it was never going to be anything other than kind of a revenge story or a cowboy movie set in the contemporary environment.

But Over the Top is actually a much more heartfelt story about this strange relationship between this father and son. For example, the truck driver character that Stallone played was not your typical truck driver. He was a guy who recognized what he didn’t have in his life, so he would listen to book on tapes in his truck, not country music. He was a guy who was trying to educate himself and confront the fact that the break up between him and his wife, which he always blamed on the kid’s grandfather, played a part in that. He let himself be bullied by this guy and so the grandfather was a presence in this story, but I didn’t have some of the B movie White Line Fever stuff that they subsequently added because they think they felt they had to pump up the action on it. I think it was a mistake, but to fully explain the difference, they would have to make a movie on my script and then compare the two movies to see the difference.

JC: In your script, was Stallone’s character an arm wrestler? Did it also have an ending at an arm-wrestling championship like the movie did?

DE: Well, the original script did have his fixation with the arm-wrestling thing and he would hustle along the way. I think there is a scene in there where he’s with the kid and he’s at the bar. He hustles some guy at arm wrestling to pick up some extra money. But the reason he wanted it was to buy this little island he saw when he was in the merchant marine, so the whole idea was going to be his big payoff. And he realized that through the process of the story that the real payoff for him is this relationship with his son, and that’s really what’s important to him. And not this island, which he probably would never be able to get to anyway.

But the payoff and also the cast was different when I was in the process of preproduction for Columbia initially. The kid in the finished product is a sweet, little, nice, gooey thing. The kid I had in mind had a chip on his shoulder. I had casted a young actor in Chicago who never had done film. He was really terrific and it would have been a very different film, because it would have been a much stronger part for the kid, and when he challenged the Lincoln character, he had to come to grips with his own failings.

The last act was the arm-wrestling contest. The kid is with his grandfather after his mother’s funeral in the end of second act two. In the third act, Lincoln is selling his truck, wanting the money, trying to win this arm-wrestling contest. The real payoff is still the payoff that they have, but the kid finally comes and cheers on his dad and that’s the end of the movie. So that part was right, but they took the heart out of it and kept the bones.

I was very disappointed when I saw the film.

JC: Cannon imploded with that film and Superman IV. Did you have any involvement with them before they finally close their doors down?

DE: Not with them.

JC: What did you do next?

DE: I did some television.

JC: I noticed you wrote for MacGyver.

DE: Yeah, my agents at the time specialized in television and they had gotten me a gig on MacGyver. I had never seen the show, but my mom watched it. So I called my mom up and said, “What’s this MacGyver show? Who is this guy MacGyver?” She kind of gave me a distinct and accurate description of the show. I called the producer up. They shot the show in Canada outside Vancouver. I think it was in January or something, and I said, “What are you guys looking for? You know, in your episodes.”

And he said, “Snow.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We got a lot of snow and we want to make use of it.” So I came up with an episode that depended on snow.

I ended up doing a lot of development and original writing. I made some serious studio money, but I didn’t get to do another movie again the way I wanted to.

JC: I remember those days when screenwriters were paid very well. When I was a dramatic writing undergrad in the early 90s, I was constantly hearing these stories about screenwriters getting millions for their original work.

DE: I was one of them.

JC: You were? Good for you!

DE: Post Thunder Women, yes, so I was one of those people paid for those million-dollar original scripts.

JC: Was there a particular script that you wrote that you would have liked to seen hit the big screen?

DE: Yeah, I have got a few of them, actually. Some of them are different. One of them was a romantic adventure that Matthew McConaughey was going to do.

JC: Oh really?

DE: Yeah, but he went ahead and did Sahara. I have a film that’s very different from that, which is actually based on a true story in Hawaii in World War II, but I rather not talk about that because I still have somebody who is trying to get it set up somewhere. I’ll let you know what happens and I’ll be happy to give you a follow up interview.

JC: Okay, sounds good.

DE: Most writers have one or two or three or four projects that didn’t get made, that didn’t fit in, or whatever that narrow window was for that hour that Hollywood is looking for that are still substantial or worthwhile. I have a couple of projects that I would like to see get made, whether I direct them or not at this point. I don’t have the same energy or interest that I did when I was younger, but I would like to see the movies made.

JC: There is something I read about you. It’s quite a coincidence to mention after Paris, but I read that right after 9/11 you and Joe Zito, another Cannon alumni, and maybe a few other people were called in by Washington to think of creative ways of how terrorists might attack.

DE: That is correct. There was actually a group of about twenty people who were asked to participate in this group to kind of brainstorm outside the box since the government, the CIA, the FBI, and all the agencies were stunned by 9/11. There is an organization in LA called the Institute for Creative Technologies. It is actually run out of USC but was funded by the Pentagon, and it was originally set up to use technology to train leadership, and brief military leadership on how to deal with issues. For many years, they were teaching people how to drive tanks or fly airplanes using trainers, but how do you apply emerging technology to teach a lieutenant on how to deal with a riot while they are on some kind of peace mission? So they had this entity there that existed. They asked them if they would contact people in the film industry, mostly producers and writers and directors, to come together and make an ad hoc think tank to come up with some ideas about potential terrorist activities. Joe was there for one or two meetings. I don’t really remember Joe being that involved.

But there were people there . . .  I’m trying to remember his name. The guy who did Training Day and Fury, the tank movie with Brad Pitt.

JC: Oh, David Ayer?

DE: David Ayer, yes. There were some other people, and our number kind of got wheedled down. It finally ended up with a small core group. Two years later, we were asked to go to DC and meet with George Tenet, who was then head of the CIA, right about the time we got involved in Iraq, to discuss ways to deal with what they saw was this growing Jihadism across the Middle East. They asked if we had any ideas and we came up with a number of ideas. Most of the work that we did, from what I understand, was actually well received by the government agencies. Whether it made any difference, I don’t know. I have no idea.

It was challenging, and I was impressed at the time. A lot of people joked about it, and I know it was mentioned on the Daily Show. I think it actually showed that they were willing to look in different places to come up with ways to deal with issues that they had not thought up before. It was literally outside their comfort zone and they said, “There are people who make their living coming up with these kind of ideas,” so it was kind of a natural connection.

JC: Today you are a teacher at Savanah College of Art and Design. How did you become a professor?

DE: I spent nearly forty years in the film business, and I was seeing that the kind of films that I had been working on writing and wanting to make were becoming harder and harder to get financed. What we see now are sequels and superheroes.

JC: Yes.

DE: These were not the things I wanted to do. My wife and I were talking about other options. You know, leaving LA. I had been in LA for a number of years and no longer wanted to live there and the environment had changed. It was becoming Manhattan with palm trees.

A close friend of mine had been a producer and had ended up teaching at Savannah. He invited me to come and visit, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. While I was there, he asked me to give a guest lecture to his class. I did and it was fun. I didn’t think anything about it, but a year later, there was an opening for a position for somebody to teach screenwriting at the college. He called me up and said, “You should think about that.” I said, “Well, teaching was never anything I was interested in doing. It wasn’t on my bucket list, let’s say, and certainly not living in the South.” He said, “Well, are you happy with what you are doing now?”

And the truth was, no I wasn’t. The business was changing. I was tired of chasing money as so many people do. I said, “Well, okay.  Let’s see what happens.” He gave my résumé to the then-chair of the department, and he said, “Call me up. We would like to meet you and talk to you. We think you would be great for here.” I thought about it and talked to my wife. She said, “We’ll try it for a year and see how it works.” So we went east instead of west. I enjoyed the experience of it and I liked the connection with the kids and the energy I got back from them. I thought, You know, this is not bad for a second career. I have been doing it for a few years now. It is rewarding in ways I never thought it would be.

I have been teaching long enough that I have students who came in as freshman and are now out in the business. They still ask me questions and people send me notices that they have sold their first script, or they are getting to make a movie, and it’s kind of nice to know that I have been able to make a favorable impression on the next generation of filmmakers.

JC: That’s good. It’s interesting because you are my fourth screenwriter I have interviewed for this blog. Two of them went into teaching. One of them is Barry Sandler, who wrote Crimes of Passion with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. He’s teaching in Florida now and he’s been teaching for a while. It started the same way like you did. There wasn’t really much going on with him in LA. He was a little burnt out and he initially started out in Florida for one year, but he’s been there for a while, so it’s very similar to your story.

Likewise, another Cannon alumni, James Bruner, who is another guy who did work with Cannon, he wrote the Chuck Norris movies.

DE: Yeah, I know James, as our paths crossed as they tend to in that kind of Cannon environment.

JC: Right, he taught for a year at a film school in Jordan.

DE: That’s funny. It’s just strange, and the business that I got into is not the business that exists today. It was losing its rewards and like anything you do long enough, you get a little burned out. This is a way to keep me engaged. By helping my students with their scripts, I can engage in part of the same part of my creative energy that I had as a writer, only I don’t have to deal with the existential dread that happens to all filmmakers, where you are halfway through a project and you know you have to start working to sell your next one.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Very Candid Conversation with Meiert Avis

Meiert Avis is an Irish music video, commercial and film director. Meiert started directing videos in his native Ireland with a then-unknown U2. He came to America in the eighties and directed videos for many other musicians, such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Van Halen. In addition, he has won a MTV music video awards for U2’s “With or Without You” and Sakamoto/Iggy Pop’s “Risky.” He also won a Grammy for U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." Even when MTV was no longer the video channel it once was, Meiert continued to direct videos for other artists, such as Jennifer Lopez, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne and The Pretty Reckless. [Click on this Wikipedia link to read a partial list of the music videos Meiert has directed.] While Meiert mostly directed videos, he also directed commercials for various clients, such as Lexus, Yamaha, ESPN, and Coca-Cola. He has also won the Cannes Gold Lion and Clio awards for his work in commercials. 

In addition to his impressive music video and commercial résumé, Meiert directed two movies, Far From Home (1989) and Undiscovered (2005). Far From Home starred Drew Barrymore in her first teenage role. In the film, Barrymore and her father are on vacation when their car runs out of gas and they are stuck overnight in a trailer park town. Undiscovered is a love story between a model (Pell James) and a struggling musician (Steven Strait). Ashlee Simpson plays a mutual friend of the model and musician.

Currently, Meiert works on the web now. He is helping to build and launch Nativeflix which streams videos to Native Americans.

In this candid conversation, we discuss Meiert’s long directing career, which includes the videos, commercials, and the two movies he directed. We also discussed the changes, from watching videos on MTV to watching videos on YouTube, that have changed the music industry. Please note that this interview is not about the many musicians Meiert has worked with. (If you are reading this interview to learn more about U2, you’ve come to the wrong place.) This interview is about Meiert himself and the history of what it is like to be a music video director. I personally want to thank Meiert for taking the time to share his history with me.

Jeff Cramer: How did you get started as a director?

Meiert Avis: I started an editor, which is a good place to learn, because you see everybody's mess-ups, and you learn how to put something together in a way that avoids the mess-ups. From that, you learn what you need to shoot and what you don't need to shoot. It's a good way to learn how to be efficient as a director, and it's a lot of fun. Editing is kind of like writing. It's much more like writing than directing is, for some reason. Or, it's like playing chess or making a patchwork quilt. I find it very soothing.

JC: Do you still edit?

MA: I used to do it all the time with my videos and commercials. I eventually learned that other people found things that you probably couldn't find yourself. I got too obsessive about editing, so I find people who are good and train them. I can’t keep all the fun for myself.

JC: What made you decide to get behind the set, on the camera, and become a director if you found editing to be soothing?

MA: I don't know . . . trying to get chicks, probably.

JC: [Laughs]

MA: Everybody wants to be a director. It’s just like dogs, you know? You get a pack of dogs, and one of them wants to be the head dog. When you're the director, you're the head dog. You've got the mound. You can sit on top of the mound and bark at everybody else.

It's great. It's just primal instincts to be heard, I guess. But, I'm very shy, so—

JC: Oh, really?

MA: Yeah. It became a way of having enough authority that I could speak quietly and people would listen. You're the one carrying the gun, so people are gonna listen to you. They have to—they’re being paid to listen to you. That’s very therapeutic. I think, if they’re lucky, people find whatever their weakness is, and they try to find a way in their life of addressing that or mitigating it through work some way that helps their development as a person. For me, directing took me out of myself because it gave me an arena that I could perform in.

JC: Did you start with videos, or did you do anything before videos?

MA: I directed documentary pieces. One beautiful thing I remember was working for the newspaper in Dublin called The Irish Times. They had one of the last hot-lead typesetting machines. In the old days, you'd sit at a typewriter and hit the letter "K," and this little blob of molten lead would drip down into a mold. The mold had a "K" on it, and that would harden and then drop down into the page onto the block of type that was going be printed as the page. It’s like you're in a typewriter printing in molten lead. This machine is a beautiful, old piece of mechanics, like a musical instrument. You’re able to type in words in hot metal. It's just fantastic.

They were gonna take that out and dispose of it; it wasn’t needed anymore. Everything was going to electronics. They wanted to document the machine before they disposed of it, and I shot fifteen minutes of that. It was a lot of fun just to shoot something that's purely beautiful in its own right with no purpose.

JC: How did you start off with music videos?

MA: I got started off with music videos by making a video for a friend of mine that has never been seen by anyone. Then I made a few videos for a theatre in Dublin called the Project Theatre. Jim Sheridan was the director of the play. You've heard of him?

JC: Yes. He directed My Left Foot.

MA: Jim and his brother used to run that theatre. There was one show they put on that needed a lot of video material, so I made that material, which was quite trippy. That’s how I got started directing.

I helped Brian Masterson build the music studio that U2 recorded in. When they weren't recording, they'd come upstairs to my edit bay. It would be three in the morning, I'd be up there playing with images. When it came time to do a video, the only person they knew who knew anything about video was me, so then I got to shoot it. We got money to shoot their first videos. That's how that all began [Click here to watch a promo music video by U2, “New Year’s Day,” directed by Meiert.]

JC: At that time, it was 1980. You had no idea MTV was coming around the corner.

MA: I don't know. It seems like it was inevitable, even at that point. I would disagree with you and say we all knew exactly what we were doing. Something in the water maybe. There were quite a few other directors—not in Ireland, but in England and the USA—who were working away, making weird stuff.

There were other influences. What was lucky about Ireland is that we lived in a little island bubble of our own, you know? The English record companies didn't really like coming over because they might get into trouble with the IRA in a bar or something like that. So, they tended to stay away. U2 pretty much got left alone to do what they wanted, and that was good.

JC: What is it like to direct a music video?

MA: A difficult question to answer. It’s all kinds of things. Mostly you answer creative questions all morning, then you get to shooting and find out if your answers were right. If the world you have created is magical and resonates with the song and the artist, the images sing, then it’s the best feeling on earth. You feel like Beethoven conducting an orchestra, hair flying, feet dancing, your magic wand conjuring up movement, colors, and magnificent performances without apparent effort. Like a God.

The end of a good day on a video shoot is fantastic because the time goes by like a rocket. Seventeen, fourteen, fifteen hours are gone and you haven’t been bored for one moment, but it's still a day's work. It's all the angles, the shots, the ideas, the setups, and everything you need to be able to build an airplane. That's fun. That's what the director does.

Of course it can be hell as well.

I used to sit there for days scripting down little storyboards, trying to imagine each shot and how it would fit with the next shot. I tried to map everything out with little scribbles, and I stayed up way too late trying to understand what I was trying to do for the next day and have it really match. Then you arrive on the set already burnt out, no confidence, no flexibility, no passion, and just fear. If you are lucky, the cameraman or the Assistant Director and the artist will save you and get started with the shots and reassure you, till you are able to trust the concept again. Occasionally they turn on you it’s all: "Right then, governor, where does the camera go?" Then you don’t feel like a God at all. Abject terror. More than once, I’ve sat in a taxi on the way to a set, praying we would get sideswiped by a truck. You get through it, it’s a team process and you don’t have to carry it all, just the glory and the blame.

Being a director isn't, "Where does the camera go?" It's much more about knowing the feeling you want and knowing the ideas, and where your ideas came from and how they relate to other people's ideas. Then it’s putting a world around the artist that you're directing, whether it's an actor or a musician, in which they can feel safe to express themselves.

JC: Eventually you left Ireland and came to America. When did that happen?

MA: I think the first time I came to America I went to Chicago to do a video with the Thompson Twins. Tom Hanks was also in the video. It was for a movie called Nothing in Common. I did that video, and then I came back several times to shoot different videos. Apart from U2, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for a music video director back in Ireland. I used to go to London, work there, but English people are very insular; they don't really like to open their arms to foreigners, especially Paddy’s.

In ’86 or ’87 I moved to America, because I was shooting there a lot but never seeing my family, so we just moved over to America. That's one of the big problems with directing or being a cameraman, or working any of the great jobs in the film industry. It’s very difficult to keep a family and keep a career. You just travel too much.

That's the wonderful thing about Los Angeles is that you can actually shoot and go home at night rather than shoot and have to get on a plane the next day to go home. That’s why my family and I came here. I often wonder what would've happened if I'd stayed in Ireland, and a large part of me wishes I had, I think. But, here I am, so . . .

JC: And then you would be both directing videos and commercials.

MA: Well, you can't really earn a living as a music video director unless you make commercials. That's what pays the rent.

When music videos started, it was viewed as part of the marketing effort of the band rather than a product in itself. The band gave away the videos to MTV and didn't really get any money. Sometimes MTV would give the bands some kind of token just to make it a transaction, but MTV was basically created out of free programming. It all sounds reasonable, but when you look back on it, the budgets for those videos could be fairly high relative to the other costs of the band, and the band would have no way of recouping that cost. So, it becomes part of the band’s debt to the label that they can never get out of. The financial contractual structure of the music video was really flawed.

It's a bizarre business to exist in. Most video directors have to have a fairly time-consuming TV commercial career. The music video industry is completely parasitical on the commercial industry. There would be few viable music video directors without a commercial industry. You think of yourself as being creative or artistic, but in the same week, you might be making a TV commercial with the same crew. When you go into a TV commercial, your crew is paid based on an hourly rate that can pay the bills. A lot of crews will work on music videos at reduced rates simply because they love music, or they love being creative. Suddenly, there was a bottle of soda pop on the music video set. Nobody's being paid commercial union rates to shoot it, but you still have to shoot it as if it was a commercial. It's got to be lit up and made to look pretty, but the bottle of soda pop is being imposed on the crew. The crew signed up to do a video. They didn’t signed up to do a commercial for soda pop. The soda pop just ends up trivializing everybody—the artists, the crews, the directors all get trivialized by this sort of bogus financial structure that doesn't respect anybody. That's not the way people make art. The musicians are trying to make something from the heart. The audience is trying to get some feeling from the heart that lights up their lives and gives them information and ways of looking at their lives. The soda thing is bogus.

It reached surreal heights with Beats. Ultimately the artists became more or less unwitting hucksters and the Beats brand became more valuable than music itself. Twenty years earlier, I had been offered serious cash if I would sneak a specific bottle of beer into a Springsteen video. I declined, of course. Now we are doing essentially the same shit, for free. It seems harmless enough but it is the trivialization and destruction of art and creativity.

JC: You went on to direct other artists aside from U2 throughout the eighties. How did you get to direct those other artists?

MA: It's a weird process. I mean, they send you the song, right?

JC: Yeah.

MA: And they need the idea by Tuesday, and its Friday. Usually, you don't get that much time. So, you're racking your brains, trying to come up with something that has some kind of emotional resonance with the song and the artist, and something that can be done for the amount of money they're going to give you. Something that matters to you. You have to come up with something that hasn't been done a thousand times before, and that you're going to be able to communicate in words, because you're going to have to write it down and send it to who knows what whom. The whole process is bogus, because you’re bidding—you're sending in ideas for free. You're not paid to write. There’s all these people trying to become directors, giving their ideas for free. It’s like putting a bunch of dogs into a pit and then they'll have to fight it out for your amusement, and they pick the best idea. The only one still standing at the end wins, but all those other ideas are just left bleeding on the floor. To be stolen later. This is the future.

You have these ideas and discussions go around at various levels in the record company, the artist, the director, and other creative advisors in the circle. Then you and your producer do a budget. Or your record company tells you what the budget is, and suddenly, you get a call, "Oh, your budget's approved, but there's just one problem, its cut by 20% and we need the video in ten days, or five days, or two days." Once or twice it has been, "Can you shoot tomorrow?"

By the time all those highly paid people have kicked the ball around for weeks, there's no time left. Suddenly, you've got two or three days to prep a whole production, crew it up, find the locations, build the sets, cast it. An endless amount of work has to be compressed into the tiniest amount of time, and that's really stressful, but it makes it a very plastic form. It’s like playing fast jazz with reality, with immediate consequences. It’s a very, very spontaneous art form, fun like nothing else, if you can deal with the stress.

A music video is not really designed. It's a live art performance in front of a camera. The whole crew and the talent and the extras and the lighting and all that have never been there before goes—[swishing noise]—and you erect this circus tent and put all these things in motion for ten or twelve hours, and then you'd rip it all down and it's gone. Whatever you did is either good or bad, and it's either on a hard drive or you missed it. It’s a very energetic, creative process. Instantaneously reduced to ones and zeros. There's nothing sculptural about it. That’s a curse and a blessing.

You've just got to do it as best you can under the pressures that are there, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Most of the time, you don't even know if it worked. Even today, with YouTube, I can look at videos I did twenty years ago and say, "Oh, that wasn't as crap as I thought it was." Or vice versa.

It's very exciting. As the director, you really are the only person who really knows what's going on. You are in total control of it, but nobody can really help you if you mess it up. You're doomed if you screw it up. But I can't think of a better way to spend a day than shooting a music video.

JC: Given the competition and pressure out there to direct a video, was there ever a video you directed and felt, "Hey, this is really what I wanted! This was my vision one hundred percent!"?

MA: Not really, no.

JC: No?

MA: I mean, there's always just the process. The kibble itself fighting you —what the film is capable of, what the performer is capable of, what the focus puller is capable of, or you ran out of time. It’s always about pushing out the boundaries in every way. The directors are all watching what one another does, trying to be more extreme, more groundbreaking.

The closest I have yet got to that feeling is with Bruce. Bruce Springsteen is an unusual guy because the man and the icon are more or less the same. He's not an asshole pretending to be Bruce Springsteen. What’s in his songs is more or less him. The way he treats himself and the people around him is consistent with that myth of Springsteen.

 [Click here to watch the “Brilliant Disguise” video directed by Meiert.]

The entire crew (Meiert standing next to Bruce) on Bruce’s “Brilliant Disguise” video

It’s very hard to know whether a video is successful or not. As the creator of the video, you can’t separate what you made from the song and the artist and what they made. I've always tried to base my work on what the song needs or what the song says to me. But at the same time, you do want what you do to be measured. It's really weird for your creative work to exist in service of something that came before you. Sometimes you'll make a video as the musician(s) is recording the song and that's fun, but a lot of the times it’s like you're in a religious ceremony, but you're not really sure what your part in it is, but at least you're in the ceremony. Pretending to know the words.

JC: I guess I'll just say it in the most polite terms: What happens when you get a chance to direct a video but you don’t personally care much for the music and the artist? It’s just a job.

MA: You know, back then I'd just do a commercial instead.

JC: You wouldn't do it. So, you've always felt something for every song you've directed?

MA: Yeah.

JC: Every artist, every song?

MA: Yeah, sometimes there are strategic or other considerations. I mean, you wouldn't do it for the money because the money's not good enough. It's too much work. Look at the work. It's a month of work. How would you do that if you didn't have some connection with some part of it, you know? But are you gonna do something you don't wanna do for $10.00 an hour? Videos are physically hard work. Four minutes is an eternity.

JC: Okay, let’s talk about what does pay the rent: directing commercials.

MA: They pay you properly and it's only thirty seconds, so it's really easy. They're mostly written before you get there. You're basically fulfilling someone else's creative view, which just makes it all easier. You've gotta have a certain understanding of visual language, I guess, and a good understanding of politics and a good crew, good relationships with the people, the creatives in the agency so that it doesn't become a bloodbath on the set. And, you know, the ability to shoot things over and over and over again until everybody's happy. With digital, you can do one hundred takes. Sometimes you just move the camera a few inches to the right so you can get a fresh slate number or you might lose your mind. Sometimes you just keep shooting the same thing because you don’t quite know how to approach the next set up yet. In the film days, there was real world chemistry involved, each take you did would cost money, so there was a certain point where you could sort of say, "I think we've got it, guys." Today, it’s just photons on a chipset. The editors never even look at most of what we shoot. It's a very weird process, but it keeps the consumer consuming, so I guess it has some function.

JC: While commercials are less stressful and pay the rent, you continue to stick with music videos that pay less and are stressful?

MA: Right now, I don’t do many videos, or commercials for that matter.

JC: In the late eighties, you went on to direct your first feature, Far From Home. How did you get the job?

MA: I'm sure they just wanted a cheap director. If you're a producer and you don't have a big budget (there wasn’t a big budget with Undiscovered, for that matter), you have to find someone who can direct but doesn’t have a heavy fee. The cheapest director you can get is a music video director because they're already working for free.

JC: What was it like directing motion pictures?

MA: It's not much fun once you get over the, "Look, Mom, I'm directing a movie" feeling. For any director, that’s a big step in your career. Once you get over that, it's amazing how little control you actually have because you're working to a script that you have committed to delivering. You’re committed to delivering two, three, four, five, six, seven pages a day. They make a schedule before you shoot, and you sign off on the schedule. You do it with the Assistant Director and the producers, but you're committed to delivering on that schedule.

Every day, you go in, and that's what you have to do, shoot those pages. The compromises you have to make to get through that day can be quite hard to deal with, but you have to do it. If things aren't working with a video, you just change ’em on the spot, you know?

JC: Right.

MA: In some ways, it's good to have a roadmap—you're a taxi driver getting from A to B. In other ways, it’s more like, "You know what would be more interesting? If we took the mountain route to get there.” But you can't do that on a movie, and that's the way it is. Unless you are David Lynch, of course.

The other part, especially as compared to videos, is learning to pace yourself. You tend to push yourself very hard on a video set. We’ll shoot twenty, thirty-hour days on videos quiet often. You can't keep that kind of pace up for eight weeks or six weeks on a movie. The pacing in terms of your personal intensity is completely different. If you go in caring for every little thing the way you would on a music video, you're just going to run out of whatever mojo it is that keeps you running.

Far from Home was a pretty tough film to make. The location is right where Burning Man happens. People were dropping like flies. Drew kept it all together. Funny as hell. She always had her lines well prepared, full of life. A professional. Matt Frewer is the funniest man on earth. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a comedy. If it was a music video, we could have just changed it around on the set and it would have been a great comedy classic.

JC: Far From Home was the first time I had heard of you. I’ve seen the videos you directed, but they don’t often list the music video director’s name. What had intrigued me about Far From Home was the exploration of a taboo subject “sexuality of fourteen to seventeen year olds.”

First off, the invisibility of video directors is not an accident. Even now, video directors rarely get credit on YouTube. It would be so easy. The record companies do not want directors to build their brand, and they don’t want any kind of creative rights for directors being established.

As for the movie, I didn't write that, but when you're from outside of America, your view of America is what you saw in movies and television. So when you come to America to make a movie, you are sort of reflecting back a fake perception of American teenage life in a way.

That movie was shot in the Black Rock Desert. If it'd have been made a few years later, or if the actors had been a couple of years older, it would've been easier to make more of a slasher film. It’s kind of a thriller, but it doesn't really have any violence in it. The violence is really understated in a sort of 1950's fashion. Certainly not an 1980‘s style movie. Apart from the jeans.

What I've learned is that you have to know exactly what the genre is, what kind of a film you're making, what context it lives in, and then all the publicity has to be consistent with that. In the first five minutes of the film, you have to tell them what they are expecting to get out of the film. If you walk into a McDonald's and you order a burger, you want a burger.

Far From Home movie poster

If you walk into a slasher movie, you want slash and blood and gore, and you’re not getting it with this movie. The way we made that film, and I think the way it was written to a large extent, was much more of a Hitchcock movie than a teen slasher movie. [Click here to watch the film’s trailer.]

JC: Wasn’t Vestron, the studio, in financial trouble at that time?

MA: That was another problem. Vestron was already in Chapter 11 by the time it was released. [Laughs] Which is not a very good thing for a moviemaker. It was very strange; we were making that movie in the desert and we were very isolated, but you'd sort of heard rumors of the larger picture going on. Decisions are made higher up the organization and you just get echoes. The result was that the movie was never properly marketed . . .

JC: Yeah, I read on the web that Far From Home, in its theatrical release, only played in four theaters.

MA: Yeah, Vestron was deep in Chapter 11 by then. They just needed to try and recoup as much as possible for as little Prints & Advertising investment as possible. They needed the theatrical reviews to sell the VHS. Anyway, I quite liked that movie. I don't know if I’m proud of it, but I like the mood.

JC: The one big criticism of the film—this is coming from many people aside from myself—is that we figure out which of the boys is the killer.

MA: Yeah, but that isn't the point. It’s when Drew’s character figures it out, not the audience. I mean, watching someone who doesn't know that they're in love with a killer is meant to be the interesting part of it. It’s not a whodunit. It’s Psycho for teenagers.

JC: I’m going jump to 2005 because that’s when you directed Undiscovered. One thing I noticed on both films is that you really get a lot of energy out of your supporting actors. In Far From Home, Richard Masur and Susan Tyrell make as much of an impact as Drew Barrymore. In Undiscovered, Peter Weller, Carrie Fisher, and Fisher Stevens steal the film from the leads.

MA: Well, I don't know if that's the writing or the leads or me. Maybe that's the editing. Who knows? In Undiscovered, I let Peter Weller run riot over the lines.

JC: Peter Weller, Carrie Fisher, and Fisher Stevens looked like they were improvising their lines. The leads looked like they stuck to the script entirely and really didn't deviate.

MA: It could be. There’s always circumstances going on behind the camera that affect all of that stuff in different ways. Perhaps the core relationship—the love story, the chemistry—isn't powerful enough to drag you into it. [Click here to watch the trailer for Undiscovered.] However, we would probably have been able to suspend disbelief if it hadn’t been for Saturday Night Live.

Undiscovered poster

JC: I would agree with that. As you know, Ashlee Simpson was in this movie, and all the bad publicity around her drummer’s SNL slip overtook the film.

MA: Well, exactly, and she had done a great job.

JC: She isn't bad in this movie. To be honest, my initial reaction, and I’m sure other people had the same reaction, was “Ashlee Simpson in a movie? I’ll pass!”

MA: Well, yeah, I mean, it was like the Titanic by that point in time. Doomed. But when I cast her, Ashlee was a huge star.

JC: Right.

MA: She was Miley Cyrus, of that era. I got a call from the studio saying that they wanted to cast her. So we met and talked about it, and I thought if that's what it would take to get people into the cinema at that time, that’s what I would do. If a movie came out with Miley in it right now, who wouldn't pay for that?

JC: Right.

MA: So off we go. Ashlee does a bang-up job, in my opinion. "Smart in a Stupid Way,” that song that’s in the movie. It's brilliant, her duet with Steven is fantastic, and that's her voice. “Undiscovered,” itself, is a great song, one of hers. She wasn't faking. And then she goes on Saturday Night Live.

JC: Right.

MA: I could be wrong, but the drummer triggers the loop—the backing track— which is normal and they sing/lip-sync the first song, and off they go. Then at the end of the show, he triggers the wrong backing track. It's the same song she's already performed. So she’s flailing around, helpless. It was her turn to get destroyed, because the way this thing seems to work is that you build people up and then destroy them. It's like the Sun King, you know? That's the ritual that we're engaged in as a culture. And Ashlee was the next one to go.

The media just piled on top of her, and then we're left with, "Okay, we've got a movie where Ashlee's one of the core characters." So what do you do? [laughs]

JC: Ashlee’s career was a selling point, but now it’s a stake in the film’s heart.

MA: I remember the day we had to do a press day, where you have to meet all the top movie critics. We're in some hotel on the top floor in Beverly Hills, and the actors are all there, and I had to go from room to room, meeting all these critics.

JC: Yeah.

MA: I’m explaining the movie, or trying to give them material that they can write up. They’ve obviously all already agreed with each other that this was a movie they could just shit all over. It was one of the weirdest afternoons in my life. I mean, that was years ago, and I still haven't even gotten my head around how critics have to rip something apart every so often in order to give them believability as critics. It's weird, you know? Is it really that bad? Is the movie you gave a good review to the next day really that good? No, it isn't. That was a weird experience.

I mean, it's a just a piece of pop. It's not meant to be a great movie.

Meiert at premiere of Undiscovered

JC: That’s interesting. On IMDb, a lot of user reviews of Undiscovered said, "First off, I did not find this to be as bad—after hearing so much negative words, it's not as terrible as I was thought it wasn’t going to be.” That’s usually a universal theme of it—they didn't love this, but they didn’t hate it either.

MA: That's exactly right. I think one of the mistakes I made was in the first five minutes. We didn't really establish that it was meant to be a light-hearted romantic comedy. The photography and the performances are kind of edgier than they should be for a romantic comedy. There are certain colors and techniques that you use that make you feel like you're watching a romantic comedy, and I avoided doing that because I wanted to make it edgy. I think that was a mistake because the audience was like, "Well, what am I watching here?" Then it takes them too long to get into the fantasy of it. I hadn't really put them in the right frame of mind to have that kind of fantasy anyway. I think that was an error as a director. You really have to lead your audience into the suspension of disbelief very carefully. After they're in there, you can shake ’em up again and play games with it, with the genre and all that, but you can't do it in the first ten minutes, you know?

JC: Right. I think the other thing was that there was so much publicity around Ashlee. Many people thought she was the leading character and she’s not.

MA: The magnetic force of marketing kind of wobbles the field that we're all circling in that everything is drawn to the celebrity vortex. The celebrities are trapped in it as well. They're rotating around their own celebrity persona and they can't get a word in edgewise for themselves. It's tragic, really, celebrities.

I love all the actors in Undiscovered; they did a great job. I loved the crew I had. They were great. It’s just one day . . . "Hello, we're on the Titanic, guys. Sorry." Do you know what I mean? [Laughs] Good things came out of it. Good relationships came of it—people, children. You know, from a human, real-world point of view, most of the people survived that journey and learned to go on. I did.

I was peeing blood by the end of Undiscovered. You've got to learn some way of pacing yourself; otherwise, it'll kill you. It’s actually a dangerous job. A director friend of mine just died in his hotel room the other day. Making a feature film is much more demanding than you think it’s going to be. That’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect of it is how wonderful it is to have dialogue to play with. In music videos, people are lip-synching songs over and over and it isn't interesting after a point. It's very difficult to get a different interpretation of a song's words when you're lip-synching. Being able to direct an artist, an actor, and their delivery on the interpretation of the words, and how they fit together and what they mean, is an interesting way to spend an afternoon. I love it. However, a movie takes a year of your life. You'd better make sure that it's worth it, you know? I have a family. Features are not helpful for that, but I have some other stories that I'm trying to do. Hopefully, I’ll get a couple more, so we shall see.

JC: Okay, let’s jump back to the mid-90s when MTV stopped playing videos.

MA: Well, you know why that is?

JC: Why?

MA: Because the label people started saying, "Can you pay us?" Suddenly, the programming wasn't for free anymore, so MTV thought, "Well, fuck it, let's find some new programming that we control rather than the record companies," and they came up with the reality show.

Reality shows are the cheapest way to produce an hour of entertainment that you can imagine. You don't have to pay anybody. They're all desperate to degrade themselves in front of the camera just to get noticed. There's no production value. It's cheap—it’s easy to produce, easy to edit.

JC: Is that when it all changed for you, when MTV stopped playing videos? Was that the end of the golden era?

MA: No.

JC: No?

MA: No, the golden part is just being on a set with a good song and a good performer and a good idea and a good cameraman. I could make my best video tomorrow. It's golden if the song is good, the performer's good, the idea is good, the cameraman's good, and you're feeling good. But that could be any time. I guess I see videos very much as individual pieces that I make. I don't think of it as a stream of anything, you know? Some of them are very difficult to make, some of them are extremely painful to make, and some of them are a lot of fun to make. The golden time is the one that's fun. The last ones I did with Pretty Reckless, we made two videos in one day for almost no money, and one of them is spectacular—for me, anyway. [Click here to watch Pretty Reckless’ “You” directed by Meiert.]

But at the same time, myself and a couple of other directors were trying to get the Directors Guild in Los Angeles to represent music video directors, so we could have some union or guild to represent us to negotiate director’s rights together, rather than individually. I put a lot of work into that, with a few other directors. We had tried to do it before six or seven years ago, and this time, we tried a lot more visibly.

JC: When did you recently try to negotiate with the Directors Guild?

MA: A couple of years ago. This is because of YouTube. Originally, music videos were conceived of as a marketing tool that didn't have any income value. The costs could then be billed to the artist, and there was no way they could ever recoup that expenditure. The record companies kind of like to keep the artists in debt, because they have this company store plantation business model. A model that we're going to have for the whole world soon enough, by the way.

The logic was, "Well, there's no point in arguing for directors' creative rights on the music video because it's just a publicity tool and we're not selling it to MTV; we're giving it to MTV." There's no flow of income directly from the video.

That all changed with YouTube. Suddenly, people are watching specific videos specific number of times, in specific territories. All the data is collected by Google. From those statistics, the record companies are getting money. Theoretically, the record companies are paying a split of that to the artists.

Now is the time, one would think, where the directors should gather together behind the director's union, which is the Director’s Guild of America, and start to say, "Well, hold on a minute. Our art form, which is one of the few new art forms in the twentieth century, has evolved to the point where there is an income flow. Would you mind helping us put out our bucket to try and get a little bit of it?" Even just a credit would be nice. That seems logical to me, but it's met with resounding apathy in the Director’s Guild, and the record companies didn't want to hear about it.

JC: Are you in the Director’s Guild of America?

MA: Yeah, I'm in the Guild, but they won't proactively represent music video directors.

JC: Okay, so you got it from your movie credits?

MA: Movies and commercials.

MTV not playing videos didn’t change things. What changed for me was when the Director’s Guild folded for a second time and didn't support our attempt to get representation. That was a huge blow. I was very disappointed. People who'd been supportive suddenly stopped taking our calls, and it was clear that the decision had been made somewhere in the Director’s Guild, that this wasn't a battle they were prepared to fight. I think it's a strategically poor decision for the Directors Guild. I think it was very bad for music videos and bad for all directors’ creative rights in the near future. YouTube should've been the battleground where directors, with the support of the Director’s Guild, fought for guild representation and residuals on all kinds of digital streams. This year, for the first time, online advertising production, called "Viral", was larger than traditional advertising production. Most of that viral production is non-Director’s Guild work. Broadcasting is over and the Director’s Guild missed the boat by dissing video directors. They could have had YouTube and online sown up from the beginning. It’s not too late. The Director’s Guild thinks they are bullet proof, but the kibble will eat their lunch very quickly if they don’t control the new creative battlefield online. Director’s rights were hard fought by many directors over the years. Now, the same defeat that decimated creative rights in the music industry is about wipe out all that hard work. Cinema is about to be replaced by a thousand foot-wide virtual reality screen streaming content from somewhere offshore. TV network are history. Director’s rights will be swept away with the old deal structures and technologies. I don’t think they get the immediacy of the danger, or the damage that the erosion of creative rights in music has done to their medium under the waterline.

Everybody is trying to control what's happening in the digital world, and music video was and still is the perfect battleground for it because the income stream on YouTube is clear and measurable and auditable. You could never really audit the value of a music video before, but with YouTube, you know exactly how many views it has, and the value of that in advertising terms or attention terms is already established. What needs to be reestablished is the concept of creativity itself have a value beyond just passing fame. You can’t eat fame.

In my opinion, the Guild had a perfect arena to establish creative rights in the digital medium, but they just dropped the ball.

JC: Yeah, I noticed it’s not just you, but artists now are having trouble getting any money out of streaming music, which is why Taylor Swift is the only one who has the clout to get out of it. Likewise, your old colleagues, U2, try to give away their latest album free for anyone who has an iTunes account.

MA: Well, it's a way of trivializing art. We can't sell it, so we're gonna give it away free. But you will pay for the technology that allows you to listen or watch. Value has been moved from the content to the distribution platform, which they own.

JC: The funny thing is that U2 gave it away free, and people still didn't even want it for free.

MA: Conditioning? I know how hard those guys work. I know their great albums; I watched them record them. There's nothing trivial there. This is four people trying to make the greatest rock record that's ever been made. I know they’re a lot older now and probably less diligent than they were, but it's—[laughs]—I mean, you don't give this stuff away like it is stale bread. What kind of a message are they sending to people?

As for Taylor Swift, Taylor’s left on her own selling her own creativity, but the industry is not selling creativity; they're not selling art. They don't want to be seen to be in the business of human endeavor or humans being creative. They want to be seen to be in the business of disposable, trivial fashion, because there's more profit in that and you don't have to administer all the payments. But why is it important to trivialize creativity? Why do we want that as an industry as a culture?

I think the business has been taken over by the prison industrial complex mentality. To some extent, the whole culture has. I have had record company people say on the set, "Yo! Meiert don’t forget, you're my bitch!" to my face. These are middle class executives. Why are we talking to each other as though we are in the prison yard, all of a sudden?

JC: But the music industry always had crooks. What is different now?

MA: There were more people in the record companies whose motivation in life was to make the creative process work for people. They were people who understood music. Many of them could play music and had been in bands. There was a sense that music was part of our culture; it was going to change and evolve our culture, and that music was to be valued, and that people's creative rights as musicians were to be valued.

Even the heads of many of the companies back then were inspired people who loved music and loved musicians and loved culture. So even someone like a music industry titan as David Geffen—back then, anyway—was a man on a mission. I'm sure he was motivated financially, but he definitely had a mission to provide the best service he could for his artists, nurture them. If they got into trouble, they'd be looked after. They were treated with respect.

I can't think of anybody like that anymore. Maybe they're there, but they wouldn't last long.

JC: What have you been up to since you haven’t been directing music videos?

MA: I started writing a blog. [Click here to read Meiert’s blog.] It was to get the story onto paper with the idea of writing a sort of magical realist autobiography. That’s kind of why I did it, but there's so many things you can't say because the people are still alive, and people are still gainfully employed. You just can't say what you really think about some of these situations.

JC: No, I understand, some are very big names that you can't talk about.

MA: It's not a matter of how big their names are; people’s names you've never heard of are an issue, too.

Apart from the blog, I am trying to make a movie called The Third Policeman and a few other difficult projects. The most difficult of those is a reality show called Yale or Jail. We have more people in prison per capita than the Soviets managed at the height of the gulag. Two million, every night, in a freaking cell. Easy to change, if anyone has any interest, let me know.

What else? Writing and keeping up with my fascination with virtual reality. That’s been a wizard’s journey. Way back in 2007, we customized the technology to do immersive virtual reality for a Papa Roach video. I think that was the first virtual reality music video. A lot of that early experimentation was done in the music video world. Now Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality is going to be the big media story of 2016. And then there’s the endless battle for music video director’s rights. We are all headed back to the Brill Building Plantation if we don’t take a stand together.