Today’s Score is coming straight from the lips of Steve Barron, one of the foremost music video directors of the 80′s, and a director with over 20 titles under his belt. Credited with bringing some of the first CGI scenes to people’s TV screens, he’s worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Dire Straits, A-ha, Madonna, The Human League, David Bowie, ZZ Top (the list goes on) and brought the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Coneheads, Mike Bassett: England Manager and Electric Dreams to the silver screen (again the list goes on). More recently his epic Treasure Island aired on Sky 1 last year.
Steve, it’s a pleasure to have you talk to us today, where in the world are you?
I’m just in Vancouver at the moment editing a mini series I’ve been filming for a few months. We’re hoping to get it edited in the next few weeks and maybe get it aired at the end of this year or the beginning of next.
Sounds great, can’t wait to take a look at it. So, I suppose it’s appropriate to start by asking how you got into the industry?
My dad was a sound man who was on TV initially, and worked for Granada TV. My mum (the late Zelda Barron) was a production assistant originally and then went into continuity and script supervising. She became (probably) the top script supervisor in the world at that time because she brought into the job not only the continuity and watching out for errors, but the looking for nuances for performance and story-keeping – story-keeping being very close to directing. It’s sort of become a lost art in directing, but back in it’s heyday she was a massive part of the movement so the directors she worked with were reliant on her as a sounding board and another set of eyes directly on the project. She worked with Michael Apted from his first jobs and continuously through his career, John Schlesinger on Yanks, then with Warren Beatty – with whom she was very close – on Reds. He recommended her to Barbra Streisand and her career went on from there.
Anyway, I sort of got in because I was rubbish at school and wanted to leave. I got up to about 15 years old and flunked my exams, I didn’t even turn up – very bad student. Basically the only thing I was interested in was art so I picked up a Super8 camera on an art course that only existed for one year because the course was so expensive to run. Other than my parents being in the business, making my first film was certainly what inspired me to chase a job in the industry. I got a role as tea boy at a camera hire firm and I was really young, so it meant that for the first few years I was just gaining experience learning about the cameras and how they work, getting into the technical side of it. But not film-making, just the cameras themselves. What you could do with the equipment was more important to me at the time.
You’re well known for being at the forefront of the golden age of music videos, what was it that drew you to the experimental spectrum of videos?
When I started out doing those videos it was all about doing something no-one had ever done before, it came with the territory – it was almost the inspiration. So when I was lucky enough to get a job in the industry the motive was always to make something you’d never seen before, rather than replicating things. In post, I was always asking ‘what does this button do’?
I’d uncovered quite a lot of state of the art MIT stuff when I was filming Electric Dreams, so I knew that people were building these computer graphics but there was one room I was going past where this guy called Ian Pearson doing titling for companies like IBM. I’d just pop in there and one day asked him if he could make people out of these blocks and he said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah man’ – he was one of these guys that would stay up all night making things!
So I guess it was just natural to take that knowledge into music videos?
Yeah, around that time along came Warner Records and they explained they had Dire Straits, ‘they hate music videos, they think they’re ruining the world of music, the image’. They’d written this song that was about MTV but needed something extraordinary to try to convince him. So I put the two together – it was about MTV, about television, it’s about pixels and the make-up of television so if the characters somehow came out of the television there was somehow irony upon irony. It’s a long story but I talked Mark Knopfler into it (ha!).
And how about actually breaking into being a director?
You know it’s funny, there was never one part to becoming a director. I met a guy in London doing music, it was more ‘Ok, I can get a camera and we can try to make something’. I think the moment was that I was doing something for The Jam for ‘Strange Town’, so they gave me £2500 as I knew what equipment, crew and location to get. When we turned up someone asked ‘So who’s the director?’. It’s kind of ridiculous but I just shrugged and it was me.
Were there any guidelines or briefs you had to stick to?
Through the 80′s you had a blank page and very rarely would you get a brief. Adam from Adam and the Ants was the first one to come to me with an idea but right through everything else it was part of your job. It was assumed that the director was the writer and everything would have to come through them.
Ever encounter any big egos?
Yeah! (he says with a smirk). The egos, there were always big stars who do create big egos, but it was generally created as a result of their defensiveness.
Who was your favourite artist to work with?
The A-Ha guys were the best, because they were very open to interesting stuff and it was quite inspiring. I did about 7 or 8 videos for them and they were always interesting to do, and because the first one did so well we got a good budget and time to do something cool. And knowing those guys from when they first came to London staying in one room in a youth hostel hoping they’d turn into something great, I just got to know them really well.
Was there anyone in particular who was an influence on you in your career?
Well I think that I was inadvertently inspired by Ridley Scott – I worked on his first movie and was a clapper for 10 weeks. I was 19 and my ambition was to be a camera operator because I was into the equipment not the language of film – I also wasn’t really sure what a director was. He added filters to his camerawork and I thought it was extraordinary. He’d go out with baking flour on a track to make it look the way he wanted. He was physically painting pictures for the lens.
As a director of commercial videos, what’s your view on streaming sites and downloading?
I think the piracy thing is a real problem – not having anything come back to the producers and distributors is a real problem. Things like Netflix are certainly better, it’s a step in the right direction. You can approach them for funding for projects, but it will never be full funding. I’m doing a mini-series at the moment, and compared to a few years ago, the budgets are a quarter of what they used to be. In the music industry I think it’s so sad – musicians can live hand to mouth and yet 15 million people can be obsessed with an album they think is genius.
In the 90′s and 00′s on, when the internet was coming along when you could access things readily, the music and film industry were so stupid and so slow to charge so much for DVDs and CDs for years, and they overcharged the public massively. The real price was much lower – probably around what the pirates were selling them for. I think that if there was a cheaper price a lot of this might not have happened. I mean can you blame someone for wanting to get something for free or a lot cheaper? A lot of my sons mates and his generation grew up not knowing or appreciating that it was illegal to download, and it still astounds me that the industries didn’t pour money early on into education – that’s all it needed. So a mixture of education, policing and realistic pricing probably would have helped but unfortunately it didn’t happen that way and I don’t know if it’s too late, but it’s not ideal.
Outside of filming, do you have any other passions or former aspirations?
To be honest, no. Most of my days are filled with everything film and video but when I was 12 or 13 I really thought I was going to be a professional football player, I was convinced. When I was 10 I saw Bobby Charlton score that goal from outside the box against Mexico in the ’66 World Cup, watching it on the black and white TV. And when I saw it go in, I was euphoric and I looked at the TV and said ‘I’m going to do that one day’. And I was sure I was going to do it, had no doubt until I was 14 and played against some really brilliant footballers and realised I wasn’t. My skill was way down, a million miles away, and everyone else thought the same too!
But then, I think when you wish for something really hard it kind of happens. So when I was 44, I was directing a film called Mike Basset: England Manager and we begged and persuaded the FA to let us have Wembley before they knocked it down. So we went in, cut the grass and played some games – we mocked up some England matches, and at the end of filming we had a Cast vs Crew game. And after 2 minutes, I got the ball in the same spot at the same end that Bobby Charlton scored that goal at Wembley. And something happened to me, literally, I just smacked the ball, it went in the net like Charlton’s did. And we had some semi-pros in the cast who turned around and just sort of looked at me and said ‘where the fuck did that come from?’.
Thank you very much for your time Steve, all the best with your next projects. You can find out more about the projects Steve has worked on at IMDB and Wikipedia among other places like your local video shop.
The YCC x
Posted in: Weekly Score