Song Writing

Director Nick Morris ("The Final Countdown")

by Carl Wiser

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By 1986, MTV was five years old and their videos were getting a little stale, with the same tired performance pieces achieving diminishing returns. Nick Morris came to the rescue, delivering an innovative video-within-a-video for Europe's "The Final Countdown" that made Joey Tempest look like the biggest rock star on the planet (make that the universe - he was "heading for Venus" after all). Hair bands took notice, and soon Nick was working for the likes of Cinderella and Warrant, using his corpulent budgets to do things like shoot Tom Keifer from a helicopter playing grand piano on the beach at a national park. Without Nick, there's no way we would have reached the apex of excess that was the Guns N' Roses video for "November Rain."

After conquering the world of music videos, Nick took to live events, directing concert films and other performances. It's a tricky task - consider AC/DC's Stiff Upper Lip Live. With 26 cameras to work with, Nick had to capture the concert experience for the home viewer, knowing just when to iso Angus or cut to a cannon.

Nick took some time to explain how this works and tell the stories behind some of his famous music videos, including the one where he almost replaced Ronnie Spector with a lookalike.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Nick, I'm really intrigued by what you do and how you do it. Can you talk a little bit about what goes into making a concert film?

Nick Morris: Well, the trend more recently is to shoot concerts "as-live," sometimes five or six hours after the action. And it's quite exciting in many ways, because most of us, like myself, started off wanting to make movies, and in some ways it's even more exciting because it combines cinema and music, which are two of my favorite things.

What goes on now that didn't used to happen quite so much is you need a bit more preparation and basically everything has to be double thought through, because of the people sitting there watching it as-live. In the earlier part of my career, there were film crews with maybe nine cameramen, all of whom you've worked with before. You brief them, they go off and shoot it, and you edit it afterwards - you don't actually have to talk to them during the show, because with film cameras there was never a great link to the footage they were producing anyway - it was all just a black-and-white approximation of what was going into the lens. So you'd tend to use the expertise of the film guys and 99% of the time they got exactly what you wanted anyway.

And now it tends to be using a lot of cameramen who are used to working as a team, which is great too. They are very used to multi-camera, but they expect to hear what's about to happen in their ears from a production manager. So it's quite a weird scenario having AC/DC tearing the place down in Munich and then the calm voice of the English lady in the background going: "Now Angus will reach for his guitar and play a solo." But it's how it has to be done because those cameramen need that little cue to get these amazing shots.

I've always been a fan of capturing live performance. Part of me thinks that in 20 years' time it will be the live shows that we remember more than the wacky music videos.

Songfacts: Are you cutting cameras in the control room when you're doing this, making a live cut as the production's going on?

Nick: Absolutely. Everything is Iso'd to individual recording stations to play around with later for fine tuning, but that's a fairly amazing thing to do: remain detached enough to speed look at all the cameras at the same time and being technical enough to make sure that nothing gets cut up, like when a cameraman does a re-position. It's almost like watching a football game when you're shouting, "go, go for it," only this time, when you start shouting at the TV it reacts and gets you the shots you want. It's a funny kind of interactive TV.

We revisited some moments when we shot Les Miserables: The 25th Anniversary at London's O2 Centre, and it was obviously a huge kick for me and a huge show actually for the producer, Cameron Mackintosh, to get 600 people on stage to celebrate the anniversary. We had a truck that was parked just behind the stage that was providing pictures for the cinemas, but also it was providing pictures for the three or four giant screens above the stage, which were kind of conveying this reaction to the people. And on the very first beat of the music, on the matinee, the whole electrical system died. The whole of the backstage at the O2 went dead. This wasn't the one that was going live, it was our last rehearsal before the one that was going live that week, and not only did it stop us recording anything - even the cameramen couldn't look down their lenses - but it meant that up on the stage the color bars appeared just at the crucial moment as the convicts walk in.

We were sitting in this completely dead truck, as there's nothing in this TV truck that was working. The PA turned on her torch and looked at the script. And just in case the cameramen could still hear her voice, she said: "Five convicts walk on in sync."

Cameron understandably completely freaked out. When we did the show, the cameramen had only seen the show with their own eyes, they'd not set the angles up. The first song came in of the evening show and they nailed every single line. That's one of the benefits of working with a team of people that's used to covering each other. We've certainly had our moments.

Songfacts: Let's talk about how you did some of these videos that ended up being very popular on MTV and how they ended up leading to these live productions. "The Final Countdown" is remarkable. Can you talk about how that came about and your concept for shooting it?

Nick: Yes. Actually it was funny because we knew nothing about this band, Europe. Nobody did in England at the time, and I think we were given it by CBS because we'd just done a job with Nena and they thought we might be good at working with a foreign act.

They wanted initially a space shuttle to launch and people inside the vehicle, and all that sort of thing. They started talking about that, and it clearly looked like they didn't have that kind of money.

They wanted them to look big, and they said, "You know, they're really good live. They're huge in Sweden, they're like The Beatles." And I said, "That'd be great. Let's film them live in Stockholm."

Two days later I got a phone call saying, "It's all off. It can't happen." I said, "Why's that?" They said, "Because it's being filmed by Swedish TV. There's going to be cameras everywhere."

And to be honest, I had my mind in that classic BBC sequence in A Hard Day's Night when The Beatles are on performing and Victor Spinetti, a classic English actor, plays the director and is going manic trying to cut to all the cameras. It's the climactic 20 minutes to A Hard Day's Night, and I just thought, Maybe if there's cameramen there, and if it's anything the usual sort of TV shoot, there'll be cables, there'll be clocks, there'll be the countdown and that sort of thing. Let's shoot it that way.

And that's how it came to be. It was wild - they were playing two different nights in this place in the south of Stockholm, and literally next door to the venue was a gym. There were 20-30 girls just lying there being kind of resuscitated... from fainting, not from death. They were just completely hysterical.

A whole bunch of surreal things happened on that shoot. We had a helicopter that the band got. We had some sort of concession because the pilot was a policeman - it was a police helicopter. Somehow, they painted the word "EUROPE" on the roof of the venue, so myself and the cameraman and the producer got into the helicopter and the pilot flew over the venue. There was nothing going on, so it didn't look very impressive, but it was still an hour to go before the fans started to come in. So the pilot said, "Do you want to get coffee?"

"Oh, Ok then."

So we went back to Stockholm, went around the clock tower a couple of times so we could film that, and just landed in a quiet local square. All these guys were sitting there, bent doubled, watching this police helicopter land. We get out, he locks up the helicopter, and we walk across to get cappuccinos. A couple of minutes later he says, "There should be people there now, let's go." We took off again and got the shots that you see in the beginning of the video.

It was an interesting experience, and they were great lads to work with. In fact, I think we did five or six videos with them. We never once shot them in England. We shot them in Paris, Tokyo, Spain. It was quite an experience, and what was also very nice is that I saw that they were really talented guys having fun.

I think the third or fourth video we did with them was "Cherokee" in southern Spain, Almeria, and that was the end of the sort of the cycle of stuff they'd done from that album. As we came off the shoot, everyone was completely exhausted because it was hot and dirty and we'd had a major fire in the middle of the shoot. The band had arranged this kind of cocktail party - they had a marquee in the middle of the desert with waiters and ice cubes and all that sort of thing. We kind of stumbled into this netherworld with free vodka after having been shooting all day. It was wild, and it was very generous of them to do that for us.

Songfacts: Where did you say the "Cherokee" video was shot?

Nick: It was shot in Almeria, which is the same place where all the classic Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns were made. It's a southern point in Spain, and a lot of the cacti were actually put there for movie shoots and never taken away. So, when you go into that landscape, you see what appears to be Nevada or Arizona, but when you get up closer they're actually just bits of polystyrene that no one wants to take down because they're useful for the next shoot.

It all went really well except we wanted a shot of the Indian village all devastated with smoke, including the wreckage and so on. This was way before anyone had an iPhone with a compass, so we worked out that we had to be there at dawn, because the sun comes up and it's so hot during the course of the day. You've got very much a magic hour, so the crew set off at 4 o'clock and we set up pointing the camera at the Indian village. And the sun came up behind us. By the time we got the gear around, the sun was already in the air. The next day I did it properly, but that was a classic moment there. It was intensely hot with the sun breaking behind you. That was before we all had these really sophisticated toys.

During the Indian raid sequence, there was a fire that got started because it was stone dry. The Spanish crew just dropped their gear and ran away, and the English crew thought, What are they doing?

Well, the Spanish guys knew what they were doing because they ran like 100 meters farther down the road to where the fire hadn't reached yet and started making the fire break, because they knew they couldn't stop the one that was right on top of us. If they hadn't done that we probably would have had to pull the shoot because there was a lot of crew cars and equipment parked very close. It made the papers - double page spread in the local paper.

But then again, on the first night of the very first shoot I ever did, me and my producer flooded a shopping mall, so maybe burning the desert wasn't terribly out of character for us.

Songfacts: You did some American hair bands after that too. You did Warrant's video for "Heaven."

Nick: It's a bit of fun, isn't it?

Songfacts: Yeah. Tell me about that video.

Nick: Well, that was funny because they were so wild and so rock and roll, and then when we did the video, the image they wanted was sort of soft, soft babies. We shot that in a sound stage in New York that was quite small, and we couldn't actually fit the whole band in without a pillar in the middle. So you never see a wide shot of the show because we had to keep on trying to give the impression it was big.

And, Al Pacino was shooting pick-ups for Sea of Love next door. It was quite strange: they had to stop playing the Warrant song every now and then whilst Al did a bit of testing next door. Then we actually brushed shoulders with him as we were walking up, and said hi. I thought, This is it, I'm in New York and shooting next door to Al Pacino.

The live stuff is shot on tour somewhere in the South, and we used a trick that we used on a Cinderella video later as well: shooting the band from the stage looking out.

We got on well with them, and Jani was a character. Then we did quite a surreal, longform video called "Dirty Rotten Stinking Filthy Rich" down in Florida with them, where we kind of brought the character off from the album cover, which was called Fugazi. He was a caricature of a businessman.

Anyway, we did about three or four videos with them. They were funny guys, wild in their groupies, rock and roll, and all the rest of it, but at the same time they were very quiet.

I enjoy working with performers who are willing to just go for it, and give you whatever happens. My belief is to try and get as much as you can out of the shoot.

Songfacts: You mentioned Cinderella earlier. You did the "Don't Know What You Got" video, where you put a piano on the beach. That can't be easy to do.

Nick: No, it wasn't, because that's a National Park and we weren't allowed to damage it or move anything natural aside. The commissioner of that video, Len Epand [Vice President of Music Video at PolyGram], said, "We want to do two videos with Cinderella, you've got this much money," which was quite a lot of money. They wanted an exotic shot for one of them, and that was a song called "Gypsy Road." We shot both videos back-to-back more or less in 10 days, so we had to go down to Mexico, down to Cancun and the Chichén Itzá.

Funny story there: got to the pyramids there and our Mexican contact said, "Hope you don't mind but they would never let you have permission to shoot a music video here, so I told them it was a documentary." I said: "Really?" as Cinderella get out of the truck with their guitars and their leather jackets and cowboy hats.

So, we walk with the band into Chichén Itzá and the Mexican guys are not fooled. They said, "Go away. That's not a documentary, you're trying to shoot a music video." And we were trying to quietly shoot with the cameras, like the cameraman having the camera under his arm filming. They saw the red light on the back of the camera, and they practically tried to take it off of us. So on the first day of a 10-day shoot we discovered we didn't have permission to shoot in the major location. But we luckily drove off and as we were driving away we noticed another ruin in the jungle with no one looking after it. It was virtually identical, so we managed to sneak onto it and shoot it.
This is where Nick and his crew tried to shoot the "Gypsy Road" video: the El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá. It's a popular tourist destination but also a sacred historical landmark, so you can understand why Mexican authorities didn't want Cinderella shooting a video there.
This was in the days before Google, so both these locations were found by me using one of those big photo books with beautiful shots of beautiful locations. In this book, I saw Mono Lake at Bodie National Park, which also has a fantastic ghost town virtually right next to it. So for "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)," I thought, That's got to be it.

So I bought the book, photocopied it, sent it to Len Epand, and he said, "That looks good."

We turned up there in numbers, and luckily because it was a National Park, in a way there was quite a good protocol. We shot it over three dawns and three dusks. It's horrible to shoot in the middle of the day there because it's just overhead lights, so we got up at four, brought the piano down there, made sure it didn't make any marks. There was always something underneath the piano to stop it from scraping the ground.

And I believe the reason that Mono Lake looks like it does, is because the water has been taken to Los Angeles, which could kind of echo the story in Chinatown - the whole ecosystem being driven by the water company.

Songfacts: I see the challenge here: You've got a helicopter in a pristine park.

Nick: The helicopter pilot was an ex-Vietnam guy, and one of those guys who is just a bit odd. He didn't charge it properly or something, so the second morning we were about to shoot there, it wouldn't start. So the truck driver gave the helicopter a jump start off the terminals of his truck. That was quite surreal watching the rotors go round about an inch above the truck.

We had a lot of people who were just there to carry stuff because we weren't allowed to drag anything down to the water's edge, so we basically had to assemble in the car park and then walk it back and forth. But we were getting some really good stuff and the band were really up for anything. They were standing around for hours sometimes waiting for the sun to come down, and then suddenly I'd be screaming at them: "Keep playing the song!"

[The film crew on the Cinderella shoot in Mexico: Julio Macat, who would be the Director of Photography on Home Alone a short time later; Romeo Tirone, who is now a director on Constantine, and had been DP on Dexter and True Blood; as well as Byars Cole (the Associate Director) and Nick.]

Songfacts: You also did something on a beach for the "Kyrie" video.

Nick: That was actually my first video in America. It was an odd one because they were supporting Tina Turner at the time and they were playing this really obscure place in Florida called the Hollywood Sportatorium. I think it was called "Hollywood" because there used to be a film studio there. And the arena, although it looked kind of nice, it was totally waterlogged and there was actually pockets on the stage. We were very lucky because Roger Davies who manages Tina was a friend of ours, and I'd edited stuff for Tina before. In fact, her comeback video I did the editing on. He let us tech all the lights and everything Tina was using, which is highly unusual for that kind of show, so it was a bit of a gift. We had a big stage, all the lights, and the beach just down the road, and he was really a nice guy.

Two things I remember: one is that Richard [Page], the lead singer, the day we started the shoot, he read something in the LA Times that said, "We thought Mr. Mister was a credible band but in fact they're just absolute puppets of the rock music industry." His face dropped and he was in the saddest mood all day thinking he'd come to the end as a credible musician. I remember thinking, I won't let my musicians who I'm about to work with read papers on the day of the shoot.

And the other thing was, we went on the beach and we saw these older guys watching the band, and there's some nice shots of them interacting. We got them in a thoughtful vibe, and because I was young and naive to the whole business I didn't realize that we were supposed to go up to these guys and get their signatures on a release to be allowed to be in the video. So we got back to London and we delivered the video, and everyone at the label said they loved it. And then: "By the way, have you got the blank consents? The signatures for those guys on the beach?"

Whoops.

We had to send the local production assistant back onto the beach to try and find them just in case the video was a hit - which it actually kind of was because the song got to #1 - that they weren't going to jump out and ask for money. Amazingly enough these guys were in a chess club or something, so they did meet every day on the beach. We were being threatened with having to pay the budget back to the label if it wasn't cleared because it had already gone out to all the TV stations too late to cut it out.

So, you know, that's one of the things you learn as a young director: get the talent to say they don't mind being in the video.

Songfacts: When you shot the performance footage, was that before their show?

Nick: It was. It was actually the last show of Tina's Private Dancer tour in America, which had been going on for about a year and a half.

Songfacts: OK, so the crowd was there then?

Nick: The crowd was there, yeah. We did shoot some stuff on the crowd.

It was a very strange auditorium. There was like one road through a swamp to get there and, of course, every time a band played the roads got totally stuck.

Songfacts: It's funny Nick, a lot of these videos, they tend to be the band in some kind of performance setting and then there's some other storyline where you're taking an ENG [electronic news gathering] camera somewhere and shooting another plot line. Was that a directive at the time? I'm wondering how you guys came up with these concepts.

Nick: I think it's because of the first few videos I did. The Paul Young one actually was a mixture of live and the band backstage having a good time. I thought my job was to make an exciting music video, but also to try to capture a bit of the personality. And although I like dramas a lot, I didn't think it was very interesting to try to make a Hollywood movie storyline in between the live stuff. Some people did it brilliantly, but I was trying to capture the band attitude and look.

Paul Young, I'd seen him loads of times as a student because he used to play all these club nights at universities and so on. I knew he was a really good live, sweaty, rock and roll guy, and I wanted to capture that. That's why we used the slow motion, that's why we used the backstage stuff.

I think once you get a reputation for doing a certain type of video, that's what people want. In fact, the bands would often bring it up. Like on that Warrant thing: "You know we love that video for Cinderella and they're rubbish, so if you could do the same thing for us, that would be fantastic." Cinderella saying much the same thing: "We loved that video you did in New York for Robert Cray but if it had been us it would have been even better."

I was quite proud of the videos that captured a vibe of the band. Some directors walked in and just dropped a concept on a band, which I think sometimes made them feel they were being used.

There's a funny story associated with that Paul Young video. I was in Los Angeles, scripting away and trying to get work and so on, and I got a phone call from the label Polydor. They said there's this band called Bon Jovi who have a very hot album coming out and Jon Bon Jovi would like to speak to you. Would you be free to make a call with him?

I said, "I've heard of Bon Jovi, that'll be fun." I called up and had Jon on the phone and he said, "Listen man, I love that Paul Young video," and I think, Well, that's interesting, I wouldn't necessary expect those two genres to be the same.

And he said, "We've got a song called 'Wanted' on our album, and that's going to be how we do the video. We're going to do it in slow motion, we're going to show how rock and roll is as exciting as it is exhausting. But first we've got to do this video for 'You Give Love a Bad Name.'"

I thought, OK, that'd be great.

Unfortunately, I had a good conversation with him, but then I was persuaded by the management that they wanted to be very comic and muck about. I said, "Is that right, is that what you really want? Because the conversation I had with Jon sounded a bit different to that." And they said, "No, no, the drummer, he throws sticks in the air and like five sticks come down. Ask him, it's hilarious."

OK, so I scripted along those lines and I learnt to my cost as I watched the Bon Jovi video that what they wanted was something a bit more like Jon had originally discussed. That taught me a lesson to go with your instincts and not necessarily the advice you get.

Songfacts: Well, I can see how in your style, you're really presenting an image for the band, which was a very big deal before the Internet, since for many people this was the only way to see the band unless you saw them live.

Nick: Yes. And one other little coda is that in the UK there wasn't an MTV. There was no cable, there weren't any shows that showed music videos from end to end.

Most music videos got shown as a 20-30 second extract either on Top of the Pops or on Saturday morning kid shows, where they'd normally have a couple of pop stars voting thumbs up or thumbs down. So, the demand was to make a video where any 20-30 seconds of it could be shown and it would be representative of the whole thing. You couldn't hold back until the last 30 seconds then set the whole stage on fire; chances are that wouldn't be the bit that would be shown, it would be the first chorus.

They could be seen in any kind of context, like they might even be seen behind a comedian on a kids' show, but it was still worth it from the record company's point of view. National television meant getting that much more exposure. So, making a narrative video meant the band might not be featured in the bits used as the TV clips. That's why we were under pressure from record companies to deliver things that would be representative in any given sample.

Songfacts: So pretty much the whole video has to be a hook because you never know what portion is going to be shown.

Nick: Yes, but people do talk about the golden age of videos, and to me that was the ultimately restrictive thing: You couldn't have knives, you couldn't have anything sort of sinister - there was a whole bunch of things you couldn't do. Maybe that's creative to have restrictions or the other way around.

You know, if I look at videos now I often think to myself, If I'd sent that to the record company they would think I was out of my mind. You can't have anything that's going to be sinister, because it rules it straight out of the children's TV shows and 30% of the outlets.

Songfacts: Well, I'm learning that the challenge here is that you have these restrictions, and there's also only so much you can shoot. You can shoot the band on stage, you can shoot them mugging for the camera, that kind of thing, but then every band is probably going to want a different look. So, you end up having to do things like put Toto on the roof to shoot the "I'll be Over You" video.

Nick: Yes, that was a funny one. That one we got thrown off the location on the morning of the shoot. We were all set to shoot it on the Bekins building, which is right in the middle of Hollywood. You might know it, it's the only tall building in the whole of downtown Hollywood.

Helicopter licences had changed, and on the morning of the shoot, as we were driving toward the location we get the call saying, sorry the Bekins company in New York are saying, no it can't be done. So we had to stop, tell everyone to go home and wait for a phone call while we continued trying to find another location and one with the helicopter. Not the easiest thing, especially when cell phones were not the norm.

There was a whole more complicated storyline involved in that video based around the album cover. They were very professional guys, but they weren't impressed. It was a funny experience, actually, because when we shot the video, it all looked very nice. When we had the rainfall on it there was only part of the guitar that could be seen to get wet because all these guitars were worth a fortune and couldn't be touched. We said: "Why don't we just get some replica ones?" They said, "Oh no, we play these special guitars and if we used fakes, all our fans will know."

Anyway, that was one where there was a whole bunch of concepts in it to do with a girl who was in the painting on the cover of the album, and quite a lot of stuff that didn't get used. Initially we sent them the rough cut and they said, "Hey man, it's no good, we hate it. It's a terrible, terrible video, but I'm sure you can do better. Take out all the crap of all these other people and just put us back in it. Alright?"

"Oh, OK."

I was in New York at this point and we literally took everything out apart from what you see in the video now, and then next time we had a phone call they said, "Hi Nick, how you doing? Yeah, we love it, love this video, yeah you're the man..."

Songfacts: It seems like you could come up with these incredible concepts, have this acting and all this cinematography, but all the band wants in the end is to see themselves.

Nick: Yeah. I think you can be conceptual, but I didn't want to make too many stories that were not really that interesting because they were just me trying to do a "Drama of the Week."

I think the Cinderella video for "The Last Mile" shows their gifts when they were at their peak and live, and Paul Young, I'm still very proud of that. And Europe, that was a moment in time, because they were just breaking through. Although Joey Tempest does give me a hard time about the close-up of him going ooh-ooh-ooh in the first vocal shot. He said, "That's too girly," but I think the record company actually loved that, and of course they knew their market.

The Eddie Money one we shot in Las Vegas with Ronnie Spector, "Take Me Home Tonight," if we'd shot that as a storyline, I don't think it would have been as interesting as the video that we made. It was half performance and half concept. Those kind of things hopefully get the energy of the artist and are also visually different enough so the viewers don't think, "Oh god, it's just another band on stage."

Songfacts: Well, that was also interesting because Ronnie Spector hadn't been on TV hardly at all over the previous 20 years or so. For a whole generation that was the first time they were seeing Ronnie Spector.

Nick: Yeah. Ronnie at the time had a manager who was also her boyfriend, and he had some sort of dispute going on with the record company. There was some kind of cash dispute going on and he was saying, "Ronnie, they haven't filmed you yet, you're not going to be in the video until they've given you that extra $2,000," or whatever he wanted.

And I said to my producer, Fiona, "Well, we've got no more money and if we don't shoot Ronnie in an hour's time, you're going to have to do it."

We went into the arena and a person from the record company said, "Yeah, Fiona could do it. She looks pretty similar." Fiona was my producer and wife at the time.

So, we thought, OK, are we really going to do this? Yeah. She's only in shadows for most of it anyway.

So, we started. We put Fiona in the dress that Ronnie was going to wear, we put a wig on her, and we started doing a camera test where Ronnie and her manager could see it. Her manager was going, "They're just bluffing, Ronnie, they're not going to do it. They're not really going to do it, Ronnie." And Ronnie was like, "They are going to do it and I'm not going to be in the video!"

In the end, she saw sense, and she performed it. The whole crew applauded. But that was a wild and wacky thing to do, and maybe a bit cruel to do, but we were English in Los Angeles making our third or fourth music video, and if we'd come away having paid Ronnie extra money, that would have crashed our budget. But my producer didn't get to be in the video.

June 18, 2015
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Comments: 1

  • Katy Jolly from LondonGreat interview! I love those videos. What a nice director....
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