Paul spent the rest of the '90s doing innovative videos for Kiss ("Unholy"), Anthrax ("Who Cares Wins"), Pantera ("Cowboys From Hell," "Mouth of War"), Joan Jett ("Backlash"), The Replacements ("When It Began"), Sepultura ("Territory") and many others. In 1994 he helped launch the Slamdance Film Festival, a counterweight to Sundance that helped kickstart the careers of Christopher Nolan and Lena Dunham. In 2006, he released the seminal documentary American Hardcore, an unflinching look at the domestic punk music scene from 1980-1986. His latest project, still in development, is Lost Rockers, a look at eight musicians who made big impacts but were never given their due.
We spoke with Paul on May 18, 2017, the day we learned that Chris Cornell had died.
Paul Rachman: Sure. That was in 1990, and Soundgarden had already been around for six years or so, and Chris was really a rock star. And the other guys, the Pearl Jam guys, weren't Pearl Jam yet. I remember first meeting Chris up in Seattle - it was the week before we shot the video. I had to go up there for creative discussions because the Soundgarden guys and the Pearl Jam guys had different ideas for the video, and they were dealing with a dead friend [Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone]. They wanted to get it right, but it wasn't really a commercial endeavor, that whole album and that whole idea.
So I remember going up there, and you could tell that Chris was on solid ground as an artist. He had written a lot of those songs, if not all of them, and he knew what he wanted. He knew what he didn't want, and he knew where he wanted to head towards creatively for the "Hunger Strike" music video.
So it was great working with him, because there was some clarity there. I kind of looked up to him. He was a great singer with a great voice. He was a frontman, he had his own band that was hugely successful at that time, and he just had that solid steadfastness in terms of how to move forward creatively for this music video. So we were just throwing ideas around.
I'd worked with Alice In Chains previously, but we'd shot that down in LA. I'd been to Seattle once before, but I'd never really spent time in Seattle, so I was quizzing him. I said, "This is a Seattle thing. Why don't we integrate Seattle into the imagery, keep it outdoors and find some great locations." That clicked with Chris and he became my location scout, in a way. He said, "I know just the place. Let me take you there," and he brought me to Discovery Park. He wasn't as arrogant or bold as to say, "Let's shoot here," but he chose these locations in this park that were just perfect.
The crux of it was that the Soundgarden guys, Chris and Matt [Cameron], didn't necessarily want to be in the video - they wanted to make a little film to Andrew. Whereas the Pearl Jam guys wanted to be in the video because they wanted the exposure. A Pearl Jam record was going to come out within six months or something.
So it was truly inspiring to collaborate with him on the creative, and then when we went out to shoot, as you can tell in the video, he was a pro. I told him, "Use your guitar and go stand here. I'm going to shoot from the back of you and just look out towards this great vista." It's not the most comfortable thing to do, to kind of fake it with a guitar as a rock star out on a sand dune, and he just nailed it every time. He really was able to let the music transcend his actions in those moments, and in the playback he becomes Chris Cornell. In all those shots, he's giving it, he's putting out. It was amazing footage to work with.
The Pearl Jam guys were in there, too, but you could tell in the video that they were less experienced at music videos and in terms of being big rock stars. Chris was solid. He was really great, too. He was kind, he was collaborative. He was a pleasure to collaborate with.
Songfacts: At what point did you decide to put Eddie Vedder in the reeds?
Paul: I picked different parts of the park for different parts of the song, and it was just during the scout. That night after the scout, I did a shot list and I decided to do that there. I thought it would be great to have somebody singing, whether it was Chris or him, standing in these tall reeds.
He was a little uncomfortable with lip syncing, so I told him not to look at the camera, to pick something in the distance and just look at it, and that's what he did. It's a mesmerizing performance.
Songfacts: The Alice in Chains video doesn't look like it's shot in Los Angeles.
Songfacts: And somebody had to find that for you?
Paul: Yeah, that's location scouting. LA is a movie town. Other things have been shot at that location. Back then, nothing was digitized, so you'd get these big folders of locations around Los Angeles. I was looking for a farm and that came up.
Songfacts: You said that Chris Cornell had this kind of clarity. What other artists that you've worked with have had that kind of vision for their videos?
Paul: Well, when I say clarity, he was clear with the direction he would want to take things creatively, and he would pick a path to solve the creative problems to get a great piece of work. It was a discussion, an effort to find a way.
He was a musician, a songwriter, and he had a good sense of the presence of his friend, Andrew Wood. I was the filmmaker, so I was the one who needed to come up with a lot of options and find a way to tell this musical story for his poetry.What was great about him is he was confident and smart enough to stay open to ideas, and then his inner tuning, his inner instinct, when he heard and felt that something was right, he committed to it. It was great - there was no iffy, wishy washy kind of worry. We'd just go for it once it felt right.
So other artists who are like that? That's kind of a hard question. Layne Staley, who's also not with us, a lot of the imagery was in his songs. I worked with Roger Waters, who was always very meticulous and specific about what he wants. And then there are bands who really don't have a clue. They're not visual in that sense or at least back then in the '90s when music video was a growing art form. It's not like everybody was visually in tune with making a film about their songs.
I worked with Kiss several times, and it's not like they had distinct ideas of what they wanted. They were really open to directors' ideas, but they were very specific in choosing the idea they liked. With them, it was a bidding process. I remember bidding against a lot of other directors who were at the time bigger than me, and I just came in with the right idea for them. I went in to pitch to Gene and Paul for the "Unholy" video, and they liked my pitch, I could tell. And apparently when I left the meeting, they cancelled all the other bids after me, all the other meetings. They just said, "That's what we're doing." They knew it, and they didn't even meet with other people at that point. That's just the confidence of making a choice.
Paul: Yeah. That was his song. And that album [Revenge] was the last album they did without the makeup. I did three songs from that album, and while I was working with them they already knew they were going to be putting the makeup back on. That was already in the works as an idea.
And that was coming back to hard rock, that record. Their previous records were a little more pop metal. This was different, and there were a lot more Paul Stanley songs. That first track ["Unholy"] was hard rock, and it was Gene's song. He was confident in the idea.
And Chris was confident, too. Chris was really a beautiful person to have worked with, because he was just kind, polite, and giving, but he knew what he didn't want to do. He knew what he wanted, but he was willing to find that path with me. I think he was a very giving soul when it came to art.
Songfacts: I think you also did the "Domino" video for KISS, didn't you?
Paul: Yeah, I did.
Songfacts: Are you OK with it?
This happened a lot in the music video era: The record company sends the song out to radio the same time as they're planning to do the music video, and if the song acts weak at radio at first, the music video can't always come and save it. That was the situation with that music video. That was creatively a much more difficult video to do.
Songfacts: Yeah, there were a lot of challenges there. And when you do what you do, you're not going to be able to create a strikingly original piece of art every single time. There are times that you have to dig into your bag of tricks and do things that you've recycled and learned through your experience.
Paul: Yeah. You can clearly see the work I've done that was truly inspired by original ideas and inspired by the music. And then there's some that were just like, Eh, you know, it's a job.
Paul: Well, a lot of times there's other factors. We had to do "I Just Wanna" while the band was on tour. We only had one day with them in London while they were touring, so I had to come up with an idea we could do in one day. It was a Paul Stanley song, and it was pop-y. The previous song was really, really dark - it was a dark void kind of atmosphere - so I went in the opposite direction. And that video was accomplishable to shoot in one day on a stage in London.
Songfacts: Which of the ones that we haven't talked about are some of your best work?
Paul: I like the work I did with Pantera, The Replacements, Joan Jett, Anthrax.
Fans of metal are used to this kind of treatment, which to this day bugs the hell out of Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante, who in our 2017 interview railed against "that mainstream mentality that so much is so overlooked."
Paul: The look of that video was an early experiment of the look I applied to the Kiss video years later, but it was technically a lot more sophisticated in the Kiss video.
But the Anthrax video, that was a novel idea. I was shooting a Method of Destruction video - it was a small video that was live. They were on the same label, Megaforce, through Island Records, and they had the same manager, Johnny Z, and the Anthrax guys were there. They'd already decided to hire me for "Who Cares Wins." They wanted to work with me.
They had this homeless idea. In the mid-to-late '80s, the homeless situation, it's dire now again, but back then it was very dire. They were everywhere, and it was intense. New York hadn't fully recovered from the fiscal crisis and the crime of the late '70s. It was still slowly emerging from it. The Tompkins Square Riots happened around then. Union Square had been closed off because it had become a homeless city. They surrounded Union Square with a giant chain-link fence and boarded it up just to keep people out so they could renovate it. So gentrification was starting, and it was really squeezing the homeless. In "Who Cares Wins," Anthrax really wanted to showcase the homeless problem.
That was a difficult video, because that's not an easy story to tell. It's a sad story - it's not like happy, cool, let's rock out. It's a serious issue, it's a serious song, and I treated it that way. So it had a dark heart, that video, rather than maybe a hopeful heart.
Scouting for that was very interesting, because we were basically scouting for homelessness. There are two versions of that video. The version that most people have seen, there's just an interview bite at the very beginning where this homeless person who we interviewed is talking about what it's like being homeless, and then it kicks in for the song with images. But there's another version of that video where I intercut interviews throughout it, where the music goes now, and then the sound comes up again.
We went to the shelter and interviewed a bunch of people there. We were shooting film back then, we weren't shooting video, and it was hard because you'd do these interviews and you'd just want to keep the camera rolling, but that's expensive with film. And I remember the first guy we interviewed, he was so poignant. That's the character who opened the video, the homeless person. You don't want to cut. You can't say, "How does it feel being homeless in three sentences?"
So I remember just shooting out a whole roll of film on him, and that's a lot in a music video. That's a lot of film, and it's expensive. So I remember thinking, OK, I have to recalibrate how I do this.
And I remember going to the West Side Highway when it was still kind of half of an elevated highway. It was before Trump got his hands on it and knocked it all down and built his towers and built a park and all that. It was kind of like what the high line is - it was like an abandoned elevated highway. And it was like a homeless city. There were homeless people in tents, and we shot there, too.
So that was an exploration of homelessness in New York in 1988, and it was serious. MTV was taking on kind of a political voice in the late '80s, early '90s. You know, Rock the Vote. They were trying to politicize youth a little bit or motivate youth to care about issues. There was Farm Aid and all this stuff going on. This came in, and it was unexpected for a band like Anthrax, who had done several songs like that - their collaboration with Public Enemy was all about racism and fighting the power.
It took time for people to accept them on that serious tone. It's not Phil Collins.
Paul: That's one of the best live videos. I watched that not too long ago again, because Pantera re-released the first two records or something, so they cut together all these little commercials and stuff using those videos. It prompted me to look at those videos again, and that band rocked. That was their hometown. I went to a small club in their hometown and it was amazing. That was really what that band was about.
Songfacts: Was it a real show?
Paul: Yeah. It was a real show. We did both. We did some playback during soundcheck and then in the afternoon just getting some close-ups, some specific shots. And then it was an actual real show with their fans later that night.
Songfacts: I think you shot "Psycho Holiday" very similarly.
Paul: Yeah, we did them both the same day. Same two days. Same club. Same everything. And I shot the close-up of Phil singing "Cemetery Gates," just his close-up on that same stage. You can't tell, but I shot that that day, too.
Songfacts: That one has a concept.
Songfacts: What's going on in that storyline with the kid and the priest?
Paul: It's basically about dying and about transitioning over. I liked the imagery of a cemetery and the story of a young kid.
Songfacts: Did you go to Israel with Sepultura to shoot "Territory"?
Paul: Yes. In 1992.
Songfacts: And what were your instructions for this video?
So we just chose that as the backdrop for this particular song, and I tried to be very fair visually in that video, because I realize I can't take sides here. MTV was global at that point, and it's playing on televisions in people's living rooms around the world. This isn't a news thing, so I tried to balance it - if you count the amount of footage of Palestinians and Arabs and Israelis, it's almost even. It was all about the coexistence of these two cultures at odds over land and territory. That was really the idea: to show how they could coexist.
MTV played it, but I remember MuchMusic in Canada banned it at first. There was a news show on MuchMusic where the issue was brought up and I had to call in to participate. Max and the guys were on MuchMusic live, and I called in to talk about the video and what we tried to do. After that discussion, they started playing it.
Songfacts: Just taking on that topic is politically charged in and of itself.
Paul: Absolutely. But it was a really incredible time to go there. We shot all over the country, including the northern border with Lebanon, which was a war zone, basically. Just a couple of years before was when Israel had pretty much invaded southern Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the West Bank, the Dead Sea, we went everywhere.
Nigel Dick, who did the star-packed clip for Do They Know It's Christmas?, was brought in to direct the video along with Paul. The song and video were released on schedule; the military action began with air strikes on January 16, followed by a ground attack on February 24. On February 28, the operation ended with Iraqi forces driven out of the country.
Paul: Well, I was represented as a director at a company called Propaganda Films. I signed there in 1988 after I did Anthrax. I was at another company before that called N. Lee Lacy and Associates, which was New York City based. I had signed there in '86 and I was there from '86 to '87, and then Propaganda Films, which was basically David Fincher's company. Along with a few other directors and producers, he started this company in early 1988. They had Michael Bay and people like that who were very pop music or R&B oriented, and they wanted a few more people to do hard rock. I was bidding against them all the time and winning the bids against some of their other directors, so they approached me and signed me, which is what big companies do. I guess it wasn't that big. When I went there, I was maybe the 12th director.
So I had pretty much moved to LA and I'm at this great company that's changing music video. David Fincher was at the top of the heap and he's doing "Express Yourself" and "Vogue" for Madonna. It's an incredible place to be, with this camaraderie amongst all these directors who are basically changing the business of music video, heightening it, where all of a sudden the commercial industries take a look at this. It became a go-to place. At one point, almost 90 percent of the music videos on MTV were being produced by Propaganda directors. Everybody wanted to work with that production company.
So when the Gulf War broke, Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon wanted to reintroduce John Lennon's song as a protest voice against the first Gulf War. Lenny Kravitz and Sean collaborated on re-performing the song, and Lenny was signed to Virgin Records, so Virgin was involved, and Yoko I think was partially funding this. She was at all the shoots - she was everywhere.
Propaganda got involved really as a producer, and this was a massive shoot. Nigel Dick was another director at Propaganda at the time - he's well known for the early Guns N' Roses videos. He and I directed it, because he was shooting in New York and in LA, and then there were more people to shoot all the time, and he had other jobs and I had other jobs. So he was shooting in New York for a couple of days and had to leave, so I came to New York for a day. Then there was an LA shoot. This was set up at a studio and you just had all these big artists come in and sing a verse.
So the New York set, if you look at the video, there's a dark set and then there's a white set, like a white background and a darker background. It's all intercut. The darker background was the set in New York, the white background was the set in LA.
We would pick a verse, pick a chorus. Iggy Pop would come in, boom, we'd do three takes. Next, Sebastian Bach would come in, boom, three takes. We just did that, and then all the postproduction landed on me. It was a massive post job. That's where it became really expensive.
And there was a timestamp: This video had to come out before the invasion started. We knew a war was going to happen, and it had to come out before, so it was, like, 24 hours of postproduction. It was like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Who do we put in? We shot way more people than would fit. A lot of big stars were cut out. We just squeezed everybody we could in, where some people just sang one word.
I remember being up for three days straight editing this with an editor at I think the Post Group. We were going right to online, meaning we weren't offlining it. You used to do an offline edit, which was cheaper, off of three-quarter-inch cassettes, where we'd work everything out, then go to the online room to do the master. But we were just cutting in the online room, because we didn't have time for that.
So it was super expensive. I remember finishing it at, like, 4 in the morning and then I woke up a few hours later and it was playing 24 hours nonstop on MTV.
And then there was a big fiscal crisis around that, because all of a sudden Propaganda Films was left with the final bill. Some money was put up for the shoot, but the real costs ended up being the postproduction, and it had gone enormously over budget. There was a documentary crew shooting the making of it and all this other stuff was going on.
MTV and CNN and all the news outlets ran stories about the video that broke the same day, and Propaganda Films got all the credit for it because the bill was unpaid. The music video was credited to Propaganda Films, which got this global advertising by having their little lower third [credit] on the video as it aired.
But that's how I got to do that. I happened to be at this company, they asked me if I would come in to help direct this, I said yes.
Songfacts: Do you have acting experience?
Paul: I do. Why do you ask that?
Songfacts: Because I'm wondering if that's something you learned in order to become a better director.
Paul: Well, I did do that. I trained as an actor in 1993, '94 when I was leaning out of music video a little bit. MTV became enamored with rap music, and I wasn't really a rap director. Pop, rap, soul, R&B came on in the mid-to-late '90s, and that was the big thing on MTV. Nirvana happened in the early '90s, but flavors change.
I started making short films and doing television stuff and working with this artist, Joe Frank, who's a radio storyteller. I visualize some of his stories. And I really got into making movies. In '94 I co-founded the Slamdance Film Festival, which happened at the same time as Sundance. But in '93, '94, I took two-and-a-half years of Meisner training, which is a very well-established method of acting. I never did it with the intent of becoming an actor - it was really to become a better director. But I submitted myself as if I wanted to become an actor.
I've always been a little more eclectic with my career - I've never really done the same thing over and over again. I try to explore. I take time between projects sometimes. A lot of my work is very different in terms of its visual style. It is connected, but I never do the same concept twice.
A lot of my peers, directors I competed with, kind of did the same video over and over again, so I like to explore and find new ways of doing things, and that takes more time, it's a little riskier. You do what you feel comfortable with.
Songfacts: You also seem to be doing things you have a passion for. A lot of directors end up working with artists and projects that you can tell they're not really into, but it's work, so you can't blame them for doing it.
Paul: Yeah, I have a few of those. They're not on my website, but there's always been a few of those because it's a business, and you have dry spells and you have to take work. So I have a few videos that I did where maybe I didn't love the song as much, but there was a good budget.
You try to do something. I never took a job going, "Oh, fuck it, I'm just going take the money." I never, ever did that. But I would be challenged sometimes to apply my inspiration or my ideas or my taste to a band that maybe a different idea might have been better. That's happened to me.
Paul: I believe we're going to finish it this month. The last two years of Lost Rockers, it really got stuck in licensing and rights. A very, very difficult film to finish with respect to that. But I have found the money to finish it up, about 80 percent of what we need, and that should be worked out over the summer.
But that's been a hurdle. Part of it is that Lost Rockers is not about any celebrities. It's not about famous people. It's about people who are connected to famous people, who should be known more, but they're not. So when you look at the movie business right now where it's so competitive and so crowded and there's so much going on, it's really, really hard to find financing and distribution for something that is not as easily marketable as something else.
This is not a super expensive film, but it's not a film you can do for 100 grand. It's just impossible, because the licensing alone is over a couple hundred grand. We're dealing with eight artists, none of whom own any of their music, some of the music written by other people all owned by record companies and publishing houses. So it's very different than American Hardcore. Very different than making a film about one single artist. It's very costly for the genre.
But I'm experienced and smart enough and patient enough with the movie business to know that this is not something you should just rush to finish, because then myself or somebody else is going to lose a ton of money. You really have to have the patience to stitch it together, to find the money in the right places to make it happen, and that's why it's taking a long time. But the movie's timeless. It's not a movie that needs to rush out. Music documentaries are very difficult films because of the rights.
Songfacts: Did Jake Holmes explain to you why he waited so long to sue Jimmy Page?
Paul: He hated the music business. His answer was like, "I wrote him a letter, I never heard back. I was disgusted with the fact that he did that, I couldn't believe it."
He was a little timid and he just really despised the music business. He kind of recused himself from it - he wanted nothing to do with it. It was that he didn't want to fight it, he didn't want to deal with it. He wanted to walk away and not be bothered, and that's when he started writing commercial jingles.
Songfacts: You started off shooting on film. Can you tell me the progression of your gear and what you shoot on today?
Paul: Well, I started with Super 8 and 16mm film. Mostly black and white back in the early hardcore punk days. Between 1979 and 1984 it was all Super 8 and 16, and then when I started getting a little more money and making videos with record companies and stuff, I was shooting 16mm with Arriflex. Then I went onto 35mm.
The first thing I did all digital was American Hardcore, and I started that film in 2001. I started with the very early interviews of it being an idea, but I shot it all on MiniDV and DVCAM, which was MiniDV tape at the time. And since then Lost Rockers was shot with XG-CAM. We just keep moving on.
The narrative film I plan on doing, I'd love to shoot on film again. It depends on the budget, but 35mm film is beautiful.
Songfacts: Is there a reason why you would shoot in black-and-white stock instead of just desaturating it in post?
Paul: There's something about the inherent quality of capturing in black and white, which is a little different. You can get pretty close to the look now with all the technology, but if, as a director and a producer, you shoot it in black and white, then the distributor can never go back to the color. If you shoot it in color and you just desaturate it, and you don't own that movie anymore, someday somebody's going to say, "Oh, let's re release it in color." That's happened to a few directors I know. So that's kind of the guard against it.
Songfacts: So if you had shot "Man in the Box" in color stock, on YouTube there could be a color version of the video today?
Paul: Possibly. The record company might have said, "Let's re-edit it in color."
So in a way, you get to lock in the original intent. Alexandre Rockwell made a film that won Sundance in 1992 called In the Soup, which was a black-and-white movie, but he shot it in color. A few years later this distributor re-released it on VHS in color, and it's like a completely different movie. He was appalled they did that. The tone of the movie completely changes.
June 2, 2017. Info on Lost Rockers and other projects is on Paul's website: paulrachman.com.
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