Born in Baltimore, Pellington got his foot in the door of the music video biz working at MTV for much of the '80s. By the dawn of the '90s, he was a full-time music video director.
After receiving acclaim for the aforementioned "Jeremy" clip (and working with such renowned acts as U2, R.E.M., and Public Enemy), he made the transition to film and TV while continuing to make music videos. Pellington spoke with Songfacts about how he got started, video concepts, and of course, the story behind "Jeremy."
Mark Pellington: Yeah, I started to intern in '83, and then went to school and started as a PA in '84 in on-air promos, and made promos and all the interstitial stuff from '84 to '90.
Songfacts: How did you make the transition into directing music videos?
Pellington: I was still at MTV, and they would let us do them - freelance - on the weekends. So, I did De La Soul ["Say No Go"] and Information Society ["What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" and "Repetition"], and had a few hits. As long as you were doing it on the weekends, they didn't care. It seemed like the entire promo department were video directors on the weekends - me, Peter Lauer, Ted Demme - we all did them. And then, I was fully into it by the time I left in 1990.
Songfacts: According to Wikipedia, the first music video you ever directed was "Dance Me To The End Of Love" by Leonard Cohen.
Pellington: No, I didn't direct that until 1996. All my videos are on my website. The first one was for a band called Deep Six in 1986, a song called "Stay Right Here."
Pellington: I had done a video in 1987 for a guy named Noel, "Silent Morning," which was a big Latin/hip-hop/summer hit in the clubs. I think it was the same manager that managed Crystal Waters.
I love that song. She was lovely - she showed up, shot it, and did it. In those days, I'd just kind of show up and do it. Up until Pearl Jam, I did mostly dance and hip-hop videos.
"I just remember being nervous. They asked me what kind of clothes I wanted to wear and what was my style, but I was brand new to the label and they were trying to figure out how to market me. I'm not the type of person who likes to show a lot of skin, so back then I used to love to wear suits and jackets and jeans. That's why I'm in a suit."
Pellington: I got a little friendly with P.M. Dawn. I remember them coming to my house, and me playing records for them that they could sample. And Information Society, because I did three videos for them. You become friendly when you work with them more than once. It mostly remained a professional acquaintance kind of thing.
Songfacts: What about when it comes to video concepts? Was it just you coming in with the idea, or would it sometimes be a collaboration with the artist?
Pellington: I would say of all the videos I've done in my career, it's mostly me interpreting the idea, and then sometimes, it's a 50/50 collaboration where we really roll up our sleeves.
The last one was Imagine Dragons ["Next To Me"], which was very much a collaboration with Dan Reynolds. And then I did Damian Marley. I write the treatments and do what I do. That's been all the way back to the beginning of my career. Pearl Jam was a couple of conversations with Eddie [Vedder], and then I wrote the treatment and just did it.
Collaborations happen when they really write a lot of the story or provide the foundation of what the piece is. It always is their song, but a lot of artists aren't interested. A lot of artists just want to see what directors come up with. Like, I remember with Foo Fighters ["Best Of You"], Dave Grohl trusted the emotion and instinct behind it.
Songfacts: You just mentioned Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video. What do you recall about it?
I wrote this extremely long, very passionate, elaborate treatment... which I lost on my computer. But I had all my notes. So, in re-writing it, it became even more freeform, and then it became a little more impressionistic, but they went for it. I still have all my original note cards and stuff for that.
And then the shooting of it, they very much left me alone. We shot the band in England - shot three takes of Eddie singing, which was extremely intense. I still remember shooting it, and I remember his electrifying, intense, almost possessed passion in performing it. The band was like, "We don't want to be in it," so I shot a little bit of multiple exposures of them - walking around and their faces being in it a little bit.
But they left me alone for the concept stuff. They got involved again in the editing when it all became censored and MTV made us edit out the gun going in the mouth. That created the great confusion, which made it appear like he brought the gun and shot his classmates, which was a huge misinterpretation and years later connected "Jeremy" to school shootings, which was not it at all. Yet, people like to make the connection.
I've never seen a video that still gets written about so much. Maybe it was the underbelly of disenfranchised youth. The timelessness of that, if you think about it - from James Dean and Montgomery Clift and those kind of icons. It predated the whole shooter mentality of "angry young white kids." So in that time, a kid taking a gun into a classroom was way ahead of its time. Pre-Columbine. And when there is a school shooting, it often gets mentioned.
Songfacts: In doing research for a book of mine, 100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, I learned that sadly, the actor who played the role of Jeremy in the video, Trevor Wilson, had passed away in August 2016.
Pellington: I sent a long text to Eddie and told him about it. It was a real tragedy - he drowned in Puerto Rico. I corresponded with his mom. It was a shame.
Songfacts: I was surprised - and I'm sure a lot of others were, as well - that Trevor didn't pursue a career in acting after that video.
Pellington: He was a bright kid who had a lot of other interests. I think he would forever be known as "the kid in 'Jeremy.'" He was like the childhood star that no one wants to be. No one wants to be remembered for that role.
Songfacts: But then again, Alicia Silverstone starred in movies after appearing in Aerosmith's videos for "Cryin'," "Amazing," and "Crazy."
Pellington: But she was already a known quantity in Hollywood by the time she did that. She had been in some movies. Trevor was just an unknown kid.
Songfacts: What do you recall about winning Best Direction for the video at the 1993 VMAs?
Pellington: I remember it's 25 years ago! It was a wonderful memory. Occasionally, I'll go online and look at it, because you can see it online. It was great. But it's so long ago that it's like a childhood memory. In relative terms, it was an important event. But in the big picture of life, it was just yet another night.
But the most memorable Pearl Jam moment at the show was a commanding live performance of the song "Animal" (which had yet to be released at that point) and cover of "Rockin' in the Free World" with surprise guest Neil Young.
Pellington: I had done a lot of stuff for them for their Zoo TV tour. So, the video was just the projections for the song, and I ended up making a single-screen video for them. They had made a video for the song already - that Anton Corbijn had done - of them in drag, and they weren't really crazy about it. So, they released mine, and it was out there for a while. It was a very "anti-video": no band, a slow art piece. And they made a third version of the video with Bono singing in a bar.
It always was interesting to me to have more than one video for a song. I don't know why bands don't do that more. I've made videos, and sometimes, they end up being two different versions.
But they are great people, and I've done stuff for them over the years [including directing the 2007 feature film, U2 3D]. I think people just responded to it because it was weird and different. It wasn't the singer... my version wasn't like any video anybody had ever made. It's just an out-of-focus buffalo!
Songfacts: And then you worked on five music videos for Jon Bon Jovi between 1997 and 1998 ["Midnight in Chelsea," "Queen of New Orleans," "Janie, Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Staring at Your Window with a Suitcase in My Hand," and "Ugly"].
Pellington: Yeah, I did a short film called Destination Anywhere. Jon was doing some acting then, so four of them were incorporated into the film that we made with Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon and Whoopi Goldberg. And then we made another one for another song. They ended up releasing them all individually, and also the film.
A super-nice, great guy. It was nice seeing him getting inducted [into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018]. He was exactly the same guy that I remembered working with.
Songfacts: And you mentioned before that your latest video was an extended one, for "Next to Me" by Imagine Dragons.
Songfacts: Are there any artists you have not worked with that you would like to?
Pellington: I'd love to work with Interpol. I'd love to work with the Killers. Lorde. Yeah, there's a bunch more.
I love music. I might do a video in September for John Prine - that would be a great honor. I'm talking to his label about maybe doing something. I get sent all sorts of different tracks from different artists. I'll always keep doing videos - I love them.
Songfacts: Do you prefer directing music videos or feature-length films?
Pellington: I like them both equally. Music videos are sort of easier. But the fact that they're a little abstract, I like them artistically the most. Yet, the satisfaction that comes from telling a story doing a movie is also pretty powerful, too.
July 27, 2018
More at markpellington.com.
More director interviews:
Paul Rachman ("Man In The Box," "Hunger Strike")
David Hogan ("Leaving Las Vegas," "Ants Marching")
Ramaa Mosley ("Superman (It's Not Easy)," "What's This Life For")
Matt Pinfield on 10 of the Greatest Alt-Rock Videos of the '90s
Excerpt from 100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
Fact or Fiction: The Early Days of MTV
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his video for THE CONNELLS 74-75 was his best work