Music Video Director Mark Kohr (Green Day, Alanis Morissette, Cake)

by Carl Wiser

On making Green Day's first music videos, staging a parade for Alanis Morissette, and getting abstract for Cake.

No Doubt in "Just A Girl"

You still see the look from Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" all over movies and TV: Quick zooms to slow-motion shots of pensive people with a kind of vibrant tint that lets us peer into their thoughts. It's a challenge even with high-resolution digital cameras and studio lighting, but Mark Kohr pulled it off with film cameras on a frenzied three-day shoot around New York City.

Kohr was the first to shoot a Green Day video: "Longview." He became their go-to guy, helming "Basket Case," "When I Come Around," and several others. Kohr built a reputation as a brilliant creative and fantastic collaborator, always seeking input from the artist. He made clever and insightful videos for boundary-busting artists like Alanis Morissette ("Hand In My Pocket"), Cake ("The Distance") and Tori Amos ("Talula"). He did great work for No Doubt and Shakira, but one of his most fruitful partnerships is with Primus - he was behind the lens for the off-the-wall MTV favorites "Mr. Krinkle" and "My Name Is Mud."

In this comprehensive interview, Kohr takes us deep into the process and inspiration for some of his most memorable videos and explains what it's like to work in the industry at the highest level.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When you set out to make a music video, where do you even start?

Mark Kohr: Well, first of all, I acknowledge the fact that there are complex equations, and I think that's a really cool thing. It's like calculus - you're trying to come up with some answer in the end, and music videos are kind of like that. There are people who love complex math equations, right?

I ask: How much money do I have to work with? What does the artist look like? What is her physicality? What's her hair? What's her skin look like? How can they move? And this is of course if I'm going to have an artist in it, but that may not be the case. Where is culture now and where might culture be willing to go? What's the bridge to that place that it might want to go and that it might be willing to go?

There was this educational philosopher back in the beginning of the 19th century, this guy Lev Vygotsky. And Vygotsky had this whole notion of the bridge of proximal development. What that means is that a person will learn a new thing if the gap is X big, but if it's bigger than that, they won't learn. So you want to hit that sweet spot with learning where they'll be able to bridge that gap, and I think from a cultural standpoint, artists are in kind of the same boat. How far are they willing to go?

You're trying to create something new, but you look at what that artist has done in the past. Can I see them on stage? Can I hear them talk? What's their vibe and what are their notions about life?

So I'd take all that as information, and then do what most music video directors do, which is listen to the song over and over and over and over again. And when I would do that, I had a method of doing it, like a process, and I'm going to sound kind of wacky here, but "process" is essentially the word "professional." When you're a professional you go through a process of doing something, and that's why you're hired. You're not making it up as you go along, you're not discovering it, but you have a process. And so mine was basically, I would sit down, listen to the song over and over again, and I would just write out whatever came to mind, and it could be anything. It could be a car, it could be a movement, it could be a technique, it could be a story. Maybe a photographer had done a certain photoshoot that's in my memory.

I just write out lists and lists of fragments and long bits, because I discovered that if you hold what you think is a good idea it would be to the exclusion of the new ideas that may come into your head that may even be better. And now I understand from a neurological standpoint why I would do that, because at times I was looking for the best working methods. Then I hit a point where I'm not coming up with as many ideas, and then I would pull out the books and the magazines - essentially still imagery. I would start with famous art photographers, but then also graphic design - it could be a cookbook, it could be a geography book, it could be a history book, just all kinds of stuff. I'd leaf through and look at different images, and sometimes there'd be some kind of relationship between the image and the song.

I would do that for about an hour and a half to two hours, and I wouldn't be breaking down the song or anything through that first part of the process. Then I would essentially exhaust myself with looking at the song in that way.

So I'm not writing out the words, I'm not going to the net, I'm not looking at a screen. I would just be having my intention on the song - the vibe of that song - because everything should come out of the song, all my decisions. So then I would start writing ideas with my attention at the song's hook, so if the song is "Ocean Eyes" and the hook is, "He's got those ocean eyes," I'd go with what ideas come through that hook. That part of the creative process I do for maybe 45 minutes. It's always less than that first part.

Then when I reach a mental or creative exhaustion point with that, I make another shift and I write down every word of the song and all of the musical breaks, but I don't go to the internet and I don't get the words. I would listen, and I would listen over and over again, just combing through it. I'd have all the words for it now, and then I'd go through that process again. I'd listen to the song but I'd look at all the words, every word, and I'd know all the words, and sometimes ideas would come out of a phrase that wasn't a hook but somehow there's resonance and ideas that will come out of the different phrases.

I'd reach a point of exhaustion with that usually about three hours into it, and at that point I would have page after page after page of all these random ideas, but they came onto the page through a relationship with the song and me and different things I would look at that would seem to resonate with the vibe of that song.

It's divergent creativity. You're coming up with many ideas, having divergent ideas, and then at that point, I would read through all of those ideas again because I allowed myself to forget most of them because you need to allow yourself to forget. One thing humans developed that is unbelievable is forgettery. We villainize our forgettery as this horrible thing, but the forgettery is beautiful. So I would allow myself to forget as I went through the process. I'd read back over through all of the lists and I'd look back through the patterns, and I'd be like, "ah-hah, interesting, that's so wild." I would come back to dirigibles, like balloons, kangaroos, and this crazy turntable set that was like a zoetrope for the performer. And I'd be like, "What the hell am I going to do with that?" OK, now work on it, Mark, try to put these things together.

Inevitably, I would be like, "I can't do it, I just can't figure it out." And then I would take a nap.

Even when I was in Hollywood, it sounds like propaganda, but I had a sofa in my little office for napping. When I nap, either when I was falling into that state between sleep and awake or when I was waking up or during the nap, I'd have a dream where it would all integrate, and I'd know what to do with the zoetrope, the kangaroo, and the blimp.

I would write it out, and it would be the bones of an idea, and then I would just have to put flesh on it - I would have to develop it. That was basically how I worked on all my jobs. I trained my brain to be this music-video-making brain. I know it sounds kind of insane but it was my job, so I made it my process. It is what I loved to do, so I just narrowed out on it in the heady way that I just described.

Green Day in "Basket Case"

Songfacts: You said you would try to write down the words to the song, which seems impossible when you're listening to "Salvation" by Rancid.

Kohr: Oh yeah. It's true. Sometimes I would get it wrong.

And then also I would have times when the band would give me ideas and I would basically develop their idea, like with "Salvation." Tim Armstrong - at the time he went by "Lint" - he said, "We want to do a video where we're chased by the Man."

That's as much as I would get from certain artists, and I'd be like, awesome, because I knew that there's the nugget, there's the bone.

The first Green Day video I did, for "Longview," when I went to meet with the band, I said, "Do you guys have any ideas, anything you want to do?" They were laughing - they were really young and had this silly energy to them. Billie said, "Well, we thought it would be funny if we made a video where we're just sitting on the sofa watching TV."

They all laughed, but I was like, "There it is. There's something in there."

I grew up as an artist, and when you grow up that way, everyone gives you shit because you're the person who says the king has no clothes. I can see it, they're naked, look at it right there. And then, you're pushed down, so you realize you can't just say it like that anymore, you have to do it in a way that is socially acceptable.

I can't help but see what I see and feel what I feel, so I have to do it as a joke. I teach my students this. I say, "If you're talking to an artist and you're asking them what they want, a lot of times you will get it as a joke, and that's where you have to listen.

Songfacts: So, the "Longview" video, you start with a concept that we're sitting in a room watching TV, but then you need more than that. Can you explain how that particular video developed from there?

Kohr: I went through my process but it was earlier on in my career. I was trying to feel what the song was about and understand it, and I know it may seem obvious when you listen to it but I was listening to it for the first time and I just felt that it was about boredom and being in a state where you're watching afternoon television in the middle of the week. Television was different back then because we didn't have a lot of choices and what was on the screen was pretty bad shit, so that was what it was about: being very, very bored in that kind of state.

I was working with that idea and then there were all of these things that I wanted to do. We shot it at their ground-floor apartment in Berkeley, and the ceiling was really low, like six feet high. You felt like you're in this cramped quarters.

At that point, I was 32 and I had worked in film for seven years and I had been an electrician and a grip and a busboy and a gaffer, so I knew light really well. I also helped in the art department with props and building sets and all that jazz, so I knew production really well.

I went into the practice room, and it was tiny. Maybe 10' by 10', and it had that pressboard on the wall made of wood fiber that was coming apart. I had read a lot about color theory because I'm color blind. I really got into color theory because I thought I better understand color if I'm going to be a music video director. I love color but I'm going to crumble if I can't talk about color, and insecurity will immobilize me. So I tend to do a lot of color and color relationships.

With that video, in the practice room I made one wall red and another blue. I wanted them to push against one another and push their skin forward because Billie had the black hair and the light skin, so I wanted him to be defined against both the red and the blue because red is good with black and a light skin tone.

I think about the lead performer: What's their physicality like? What's the relationship in terms of color between their skin and their hair?

The lighting was very raw and the DP was really at odds with me. He was like, "Mark, what do you want me to do in here?" And I said, "I want you to put a 12mm on that 16mm camera, then put two Kino Flo 4x4s vertically alongside the camera. I want you to shoot right through them. Put an inky - which is a very small light - in back of the drummer as a backlight, and we'll see it in the shot - it's fine. That's what we're going to do."

And he was like, "That's going to look horrible." And I said, "It's gonna look how it's gonna look."

I wanted that flat look. This was a new kind of music, so I wanted a new look for this music. I didn't want heavy metal style, classic key-fill-kicker kind of light. I didn't want it to blend in, to be like rock, because it's not, it's something different, and I don't want it to look like grunge because it's not grunge. We wanted it to be this East Bay punk thing.

In the room with Billie on the sofa, in the shot you might notice a mirror in back of him. It's a cheesy mirror tile that people used to put on the wall in the '70s. I wanted these mirror tiles in back because he's on the sofa against the wall, but I still wanted depth to the shot because the human visual system likes depth - it helps to define space.

If you're going to shoot in a flat space, play with it and do cool graphic stuff. I didn't want it to be hyper-graphic - I wanted it to be based in a real situation.

Songfacts: Then you have a monkey in the shot too.

Kohr: [laughs] Yeah, I do. I have a monkey in the shot.

Billie said, "Can we get a monkey?"

I tell my students, as long as you can define what the heart of your piece is as you're going into production, everything should pivot off of that idea, and that base of an idea should be essentially hidden from everything else, so as long as it connects you're OK. If it doesn't, throw it out.

I know it's weird having a monkey in there. Normally I don't like literal stuff but sometimes literal works if you break it just right. There's a line in the song, "And I lost the key," so I had the monkey go and pick up the key, so it's kind of like the monkey is the one who loses the key - it's not Billie who loses the key, it's the monkey. But then in a way, you could say that Billie is kind of the monkey - he is kind of like the masturbating monkey. All this stuff is sort of associative poetry, right?

Songfacts: Yeah, but it all has purpose and meaning. I am struck by you telling me you're color blind. Do you mean that literally? You cannot see color?

Kohr: Well, I have a red-green deficiency so I still see color but it's an identification issue. I grew up loving the MGM musicals and the color they used in them - the color is different and the color palette, I loved it. And it hasn't been until recently - the last three years really - that I've gotten some handle on seeing colors, because recently in Berkeley a company that's called EnChroma started to make glasses that make colorblind people with my deficiency able to see and identify color, so I have these glasses. This morning, I went on a walk and I just tripped out on all the beautiful colors.

Songfacts: Well, in the "Basket Case" video, I was always struck by how Technicolor that video looks in this mental institution that you would normally associate with plain white walls. Can you talk about making that video?

Kohr: Yeah. Of course it pays tribute to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But there was another director who did the Nirvana video for "Heart-Shaped Box" where he colorized it, and at the same time there was a controversy with Ted Turner doing the colorization, and I was just so taken by how dramatic and arresting the color was. I loved the MGM musicals - I loved the whole thing of being decisive in terms of choosing a color palette and having it be somewhat unnatural.

So I wanted to colorize it because it's so arresting. I wanted it so if somebody is flipping through the channels and comes across it, they stop and go, "Wow, what the hell is this?" I think it worked with the idea.

I knew we could shoot it at 35, but I shot it 16mm black and white because I wanted a rough look. I wanted it to look gritty even though I have this slick color.

In the end, the answer is to arise consciousness in the viewer and questions in the viewer and a vibe in the viewer. To me, that's an incredible equation.

Alanis Morissette in "Hand In My Pocket"

Songfacts: How did you get the dentistry shots on the "Geek Stink Breath" video?

Kohr: That one came in kind of a funny way. We did all the videos for their first album, then they didn't want to make videos for the second album.

I got evicted from an apartment and was moving. My sister was helping me move, and the phone rings. She answers the phone and it's Billie. He says, "Mark, I have this friend and he's getting all his teeth pulled out because he took too much crystal meth, and I was wondering if you could film it." I said, "Sure, absolutely."

We didn't have really high-definition small video cameras at that time - it was still film. But I worked on a job where somebody was working with this long metal rod that had a lens on the end of it and a little light, and you could hook it up to a big 35mm camera. So I called up Julia Roberts [not the actress], who was the video commissioner at Warner, and I said, "Julia, Billie called me and he said he wants me to shoot his friend who's having a tooth taken out because he took too much tweak. How about I write up a budget for you in case they want to complete the video?"

Of course they wanted videos because they wanted promotion, and I wanted videos because that's what I loved to do, so I wrote up a budget. We bought a jacket and tie for their friend who was having his teeth pulled. He wasn't actually having all his teeth pulled out - it was just one. We actually shot it where he was having it done, which was at the UCSF school of dentistry, and we got permission to shoot it.

We shot a little bit of him in the waiting room, walking, and then we shot the tooth. Billie and his wife Adrienne were there with their new son, and we talked about maybe doing these things to round out the other part, like a performance, but have it feel like you're on speed and grinding away. So I did all this layering. We had that little set built - the red room - and I shot it this time with a little camera on a stick. It was like a selfie-stick camera but no one had selfie sticks at that time. So it had a different look.

We got that video and we had it played on a television on its side and then we shot that with the film camera. We used this big magnet to bend the television information, like a hoop magnet degausser, and then we got the film and we processed it in buckets in a bathtub so it was all gnarly, like pieces of emulsion were chipping off. It was like, scabby. I said to the editor, "I want you to edit this where your edits are off - where your edits are too soon or they're a little too late. Like you're on speed and you can't press the button at the right time."

Songfacts: How did you pull off "Redundant"?

Kohr: "Redundant," we made the set and we dressed it with all the props, then we marked all the props and locked off the camera. We pulled everything out and we painted it blue, then we put in props selectively depending on the person and their path through the set, and then we had everyone shoot their action in those paths. Even though they weren't shot together, we didn't want them to have collisions.

Then somebody went through the great pain of keying them all back in, in these layers of action.

Songfacts: Wow, so it was all composited. I wasn't sure if some of it was real life.

Kohr: Yeah, I wish I did a better job on that. If I had that to do all over again, I would do it with the camera move.

Songfacts: Yeah, but it looks really good. I'm surprised how well the compositing holds up because in many cases they don't.

Kohr: Yeah. The idea takes a little while to pay off because we're stuck in repetition and then at the end the repetition is broken by the girl, and she's terrified. That adds to it, the whole thing of how when we break pattern we become scared.

Songfacts: We see Green Day all grown up in the "Good Riddance" video, and that has a pretty clever concept. Can you talk about that?

Kohr: Yeah, I can. I wrote an idea that was about connection. I was going to have three or four different people or combinations of people - four different scenes - and in the distance, they all see fireworks and stop to look. I was going to have some people in line at the supermarket, a couple driving along Central Park, and then an undertaker dude doing makeup on someone he's preparing for burial - doing makeup on a corpse. The couple sees the fireworks through the trees and they stop the car, sit on the hood and they watch and are comfortable together. Then the people in line in the supermarket, they're kind of in shock, all watching the fireworks together. And then the guy who is doing the makeup, he stops, and then the corpse, you see in the reflection of the eye, the fireworks.

I wrote that and sent it off to them and they went and got other ideas from other directors. At that point Roman Coppola and Kevin Kerslake had also done videos for them. I got word back, "Mark, they don't like it. They don't like any of the ideas. You all had dead people." They said, "But Mark, here's the deal. They're going to be in New York for three days and they want you to hang out with them to come up with an idea."

So I tagged along with them for three days, and it was incredible. They did two or three television shows. They were on 120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield. They were on Conan, and then they did a show at Tower Records and they did a show at Roseland, so they were very busy, and it was really fun.

The show at Roseland was the last thing. It was an incredible show and it ended with the song "Time Of Your Life," which was just wonderful. And when we were on the Conan show, we were waiting there in the greenroom and Conan was in there playing the guitar with Billie. He's a really great guy, a real social guy. Conan went off to do the show, and Billie said, "OK, I want everyone out of the room except for Mike and Tré [his bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool] and Mark because we're going to talk about the video. I'm going to come up with an idea."

We hadn't talked about it at all. Billie said, "Maybe we make kind of like a Pogues video with people who are working-class people that are in their scene. They look really great and it looks really beautiful even though it's really ordinary, and it's kind of like they're drunk."

And that was it. Bang. That was as much as I needed.

Tori Amos in "Talula"

I worked on the idea and wasn't too crazy about the drunk part because it's such a fricking beautiful song, but all the other stuff I allowed. Then I remembered there's a Wim Wenders film called Wings Of Desire that's about an angel. Like, this guy is an angel and can move around and listen to people's thoughts and hear their conversations and so forth. It's a really beautiful film.

So how did he move around? He kind of pops around, but there's this one part of the film where they do this hand-held thing with a slow shutter speed where they run around really quick at night, like here's a person - vroom - and here's another person - vroom - here's another person - vroom. And that little bit, it just hung with me. I felt like it was a metaphor for connection, so I was playing with that idea.

I defined it like this. I said, "There's moments in your life - and they can be really ordinary - where everything seems really vibrant and alive and open and it's just clear. You are connected."

Later I came to hear from different philosophers that the term for that is "satori," which is the feeling of universal connectedness and the clarity and beauty in that. So I was working with that. All these people are connected in their consciousness and in that kind of feeling of satori, and the individual is fully connected. So the visual technique and the metaphor had to arise that feeling in the viewer.

I took a big fucking risk because it was a lot of money. We had three days to shoot and each one of those scenes, except for the girl who we open with, is only seen one time, and yet when we shot it we were moving from location to location shooting with 35mm cameras, dolly tracks, high-speed film, going through the camera and then hand-held and doing really nice lighting in these ordinary situations. I was trying to have reflections be seen through the windows and so forth, so there's just that little bit of information, and then sew it all together in this piece.

When we were shooting, the assistant director would say, "Mark, are you sure you don't want to shoot any coverage? You don't want to shoot anything else?" I was like "No, it's not that kind of video." I didn't shoot any coverage because I didn't want to spend that kind of time and I didn't want to lock myself into that creative, so I took the risk and luckily it all worked out, and as far as my career as a music video director, that was my greatest gift because afterward the visual technique showed up in television, in commercials and in movies. Art is a conversation, and we all add to the conversation and we all take from the conversation as it has preceded us, so I was really honored that other people were inspired enough to integrate that technique and that look into their pieces as well.

Songfacts: Did Billie Joe have a chipped tooth?

Kohr: He did. There was an incident. I can't remember it in total, but just prior to shooting they were horse-playing and I think maybe a television was going out the window, and in that activity, Billie said, "Hey, I think my tooth is chipped," and in fact it was.

Songfacts: Did you have to stage the parade for the "Hand In My Pocket" video?

Kohr: Oh yeah. We did full-on.

Songfacts: Oh my goodness.

Kohr: Yeah, and it was great. In fact, I saw Alanis just recently. My life is very different now. I wish I was directing at that level. I loved doing it, it's what I really trained myself to do, but my wife and I have a daughter who had medical issues that took us both out of the business. She was a commissioner at Sony and she worked with Beyoncé and huge artists like Mariah Carey. We live in Northern California now, but we came up here for the health care.

But anyway, Alanis had that idea. She said, "I want to do a parade where I'm driving the car that the beauty queen is driving in." I thought it was a great idea and it worked with the song, so we shut down a street in Brooklyn and had a parade.

Songfacts: One of your more interesting videos because it has a lot of disconnect with the song is what you did for A Perfect Circle with "The Outsider." Can you talk about that video?

Kohr: Yeah, that video was at a hard point in my life because my daughter was having a lot of trouble with seizures and stuff, but at the same time I had this really great working relationship with this guy Steve Grasse out of Philadelphia, who had an ad agency and he just did this wacky, crazy stuff. He did work that was absolutely hilarious, very punk.

"Punk" essentially is the joker aspect of the universe - it's the trickster. There's some stuff that's punk that's kind of for sale - it's like "color me punk" - and then there's the stuff that's really punk.

There is this heterodox economist who I love, Max Keiser, and to me he's punk because he just says what's there, and he's hilarious. But that's how this guy Steve was, and he would make stuff that was just hilarious. He would have me direct stuff for him from time to time. I did a commercial for him for Puma in Italy in Rome with this 75-foot tall woman attacking Rome. The army comes in and they can't quell her, then they bring in the national football star, Buffon, and he gives her a shout and she falls in love.

So with A Perfect Circle, that was Steve's idea and I was doing my best to realize it. Maynard, he's tough in his own way and he is particular and an incredible artist. He had just prior done the piece with with David Fincher ["Judith"]. I think I could have done a lot better if I was in more of a calm emotional space, but my daughter was having seizures and my wife was working, so it was just tough.

Shakira in "Ojos Asi"

Songfacts: I'm sure you're being far too hard on yourself. The whole concept of these bikini bandits in this strange song - that was Steve's concept and you were just executing it?

Kohr: Yeah. Steve had made these films called "Bikini Bandits," and the woman who is the lead in that video, she was in some of those. He gave me the skeleton of the video idea and I fleshed it out.

Songfacts: Another one with rather abstract lyrics that has a suitably abstract video is "The Distance" by Cake.

Kohr: Oh yeah, yeah, I loved that one.

Songfacts: Can you talk about it?

Kohr: Yeah. John McCrea, he's a brilliant songwriter and his stuff, as you can tell, doesn't come out of thin air. His work is based on really knowing music and human nature and history.

He was dating this girl that lived above me in the apartment that I got evicted from, so one time I went upstairs to a party and I met John there. They weren't that big at that time but also I had a connection to the trumpet player in the band, Vince. I said to John, "Hey, if you ever want to do a video, give me a call," because I liked their stuff.

I was of stature at that point because I was the guy who was making music videos for Green Day. So I got a call from their label, and they were like, "Hey Mark. John and Cake want you to do a video, but we don't have any money." And I was like, "No problem, don't worry about it."

The budget was $59,000, and the lowest budgets I was working with at the time were like $125,000. So I shot it with my Bolex, because I had a Bolex with a sync motor.

I ran through my whole process and decided it's about human nature, it's about human insanity. And then there was a film that I saw when I was a kid with the Lemmings going over the cliff. There are these things called Lemmings that are like mice, and they have a population explosion every so often and then start running like crazy in one direction. Lemmings would gather and they would just be running across the open landscape in hordes, and at the end of the film, they come to the cliff that's over the ocean and they run off the cliff and they fall into the ocean to their deaths en masse.

I thought that would be perfect for this song, so that's why all those metaphors are there: the businessman symbolizing civilization and futile activity, cracking and then running for no reason towards destruction. Obviously it's what we do when you look at climate change.

So all of that stuff in the video is a metaphor for that and supported it. He's passing the animals, and some of them are even wearing numbers like in a race, but he's beating them like we just lucked out. And there's that shot of him with the tapestry in the background of Greek people, which I thought was great because it's the continuance of human endeavor and how we've propagated in these ways where we think that we're the winners, but where is it leading us?

A lot of times, I come up with these ideas, I throw them out there, and I don't get into it too much. I don't tell the band and they're kind of hidden. That's how good poetry is supposed to be: It's where you don't define a clear answer. You make something that people feel and that they'll be able to have their own personal interpretation of and describe that feeling, and they're all pretty close, but not all the same. And I feel like the best thing we can do is inspire people and kind of activate people that way.

Songfacts: How did you shoot Gwen Stefani for the "Just A Girl" video? I believe that was, for most of us, the first time we saw her.

Kohr: That was their idea. I went to Anaheim to Gwen and her brother's house. Tony [Kanal] was there, and the other two guys, and Tony said, "We had an idea that we thought would be kind of fun, where it's like we go to a gig, but instead of there being a green room, we have to load into the bathroom and we play in the bathrooms. And the girls' bathroom is really clean, and the guys' is a mess."

I worked with it, trying to develop a look and an aesthetic and a message and a transformation, because all this stuff, you have a simple idea but you need to have some kind of change. You need to have it start like this and then go here and then end like that. So I added what I could as a filmmaker.

Songfacts: How about the Tori Amos video for "Talula"?

Kohr: That one, I got that song and I was really wrestling with it because it's sort of a tricky song. I was thinking about women holding their power as people and broadcasting that, communicating it - like the propagation of that.

And, I had read a short story by Ray Bradbury called "Powerhouse." There is a couple in there, and they are traveling and night comes upon them. They need to go someplace because it starts to rain, and they sleep in this powerhouse, an old power station. No one is in there and the dynamos are turning and so forth. And somehow as they are in there they become broadcast through the wires all over the world. It's like a metaphor for unity or the power of oneself and connectedness.

So with Tori's video, I really liked that idea so I wanted to shoot it in a power station. I wrote this power station idea and she liked it.

We were going to shoot it in London and we had done some research before I had gotten to Britain. I wanted to shoot in an old powerhouse that was built a long time ago at the turn of the century or like in the 1920s, so I wanted arches, I wanted tiles, brick and the big machines. Tori was this powerful, impressive person and even though she was a small factory, she had this great energy about her.

So I got on a plane to go over there and when I was in the air there were these terrorist bombs that were blowing up in London. They blew up a bus and something else, and there were pictures of this bus where all of the windows were blown out, and it was on fire and all these people were hurt and killed, so the whole country went on kind of a lockdown. I met with Tori and the reality hadn't hit us yet. I started looking around and it was like, "No, you can't shoot there, you can't shoot there, you can't shoot there..." so we started looking at power stations that aren't functioning anymore. I didn't want to shoot the Battersea power station, which was the Pink Floyd one, because it was all cut up - they didn't have the big generators in it anymore, only the control room which is super cool because I actually went and looked at it. There was one on the Thames, but the Tate Gallery had just decided to move into it.

So I had to make a call. There was pressure because I'm over there, the production company wants the video and Tori needs a video. So I get on the phone to Tori and I'm nervous because I didn't grow up around rock stars but I have to talk to these people from time to time, and they are at this point in their career which is somewhat fragile. I said, "I'm sorry Tori, I'm really in a pickle here, I don't know what to do," and she goes, "Oh my God, Mark, you can't be telling me this because I'm in a pickle too because I have this harpsichord on this album and I need to play it on stage, but what we're finding is when we get the harpsichord on stage, my people tune it when the heat is on before the audience comes in, then they turn the heat off when people come in and moisture goes up and it goes out of tune. I'm pulling my hair out, I don't know what to do."

I said, "You know what would be kind of funny and kind of cool? You should have a plexiglass box made with a door and your harpsichord is inside. It's climate-controlled in there, and at the beginning of the show you get out there and do some performances and then you go into the box and you perform inside the box on your harpsichord."

And she said, "Oh my gosh, Mark, that's it!" But she had this tone and I didn't quite know what she meant, and she said, "That's the idea for a video. She can't get to her voice. It's right there but she can't get to it, and she can't quite touch it." So I worked with that and tried to develop it into the odd video that you see.

Songfacts: You talked about how you get nervous around global superstars sometimes, but you got to shoot a Shakira video ["Ojos Asi"].

Kohr: Yeah, but she was brand new at that time. It was her first video in America and she was nervous with me, so I had to keep her calm.

She had no profile in America at that time other than in the Latin American market. I saw a poster of her, and I was like, wow, that woman looks amazing. I thought she looked like she had incredible power and energy and style.

My heritage is half Latin American - Gonzales - and half German-American - Kohr. My dad was from Pennsylvania and my mom was from New Mexico, so I have real respect and admiration for Latin American people. My grandparents had a Mexican restaurant.

So, I was just taken by that image of her. I was on my way to work, and when I got there I said, "Hey, I saw this poster for this woman Shakira. I want to do a video for her. Can you look into her and see what the deal is?" Because I had never heard of her.

She had just been signed to Sony, so they were looking to do the first video for the MTV-type of English-language audience. She had done this song in Spanish and English, and I thought it was great.

They were excited about me doing a video for her because I did the first video for No Doubt at that point and I had the video for Alanis Morissette, so I had kind of a rep for imaging female artists where they had both their power and style. That was kind of my thing: I wanted to be a part of a change in the way that women were imaged, that they weren't just good-looking and objectified in their presentation, but like the women in Fellini films - complex, powerful, intelligent, stylish. There was that great fullness, richness of the image of female artists, so I wanted to have that for Shakira too.

I came to this sort of Burning Man idea, where we do an all-night festival thing where there is a fire event at the end. There's a big eye we made, and in the video the story is that it catches fire and everyone still continues to dance. That was like the Burning Man thing where it culminates in the burn.

And even then, which was in '98, Burning Man hadn't fully hit its stride, so I was just playing with those ideas and doing the best I could.

Songfacts: Where did you get the performers for "Mr. Krinkle"?

Kohr: Most of them were friends of the band. Les [Claypool] and Larry [LaLonde] and Herb [Alexander], they were all barrier people, so they had a history with all of these really amazing, wonderful performers. So we started with those folks but then specific people we did cast, like the tightrope walker and the man on fire - he was obviously a stunt man, a total pro - and there were a few other select people that were cast for their specific skills. We wanted certain things in the video, so we put the word out and they came to us.

Songfacts: Did you really do it in one shot?

Kohr: Oh yeah - just one shot.

Songfacts: That's remarkable.

Kohr: Now, I wish I had done a little bit better of a job at it. Michel Gondry did a wonderful video, this one-shot with a steady-cam, and it was so inspiring, I was like, damn, why didn't I do something more like that?

But still, it was a lot of fun. And I'll tell you, from a one-shot standpoint, it was a lot of work. I had to do the timing of all of those events - meaning all of those people coming out - and have all that happen at the right time. It was a real challenge.

It was a little terrifying. I had all these people and we had a rehearsal the day before. I was like, don't freak out, just keep moving, because it's going to turn out the same in the end whether you worry and crumble or not. But it was one of those times when I felt like my skin was on fire because there was so much riding on the whole situation. But that was a really fun piece to do with a lot of great people.

Songfacts: Did you ever have a video fall apart during the shoot?

Kohr: I've had a few that came close. When we did the video for "Riddles Are Abound Tonight" by Sausage, we had this big tower with people on it and kids down below. Toward the end of the shoot, the bassist, Todd Huth, he's up on top of the tower riding an exercise bicycle with this claw stretched over him along with the rest of the band, and we had this light that went from the back of their heads on a wire like the fish in the deep sea with the light that hangs in front of their face [angler fish]. He is performing and the light is just touching an old-style radio microphone in front of him, like one of those grill/chrome type of microphones. And the art director, who had the lights made, this rig, he neglected to insulate the connections for the electricity, so the light touched the microphone and it grounded, causing the wires that were going down this guy's back to heat up and fry.

So he had electricity shooting out of his costume, down his spine, but he was able to move to be able to yank the light off. But we called cut, and Les was like, "Hey Mark, I don't know if you can see it but Todd's frying up here." I stopped the shoot and told everyone to get down.

We still needed one or two shots on the shot list, but I said, "We need to shut this shoot down right now because we're going down a bad road. We could get somebody hurt or killed because we're in a hurry." And Les said, "Let's take 15 minutes and think about this."

So we stopped and took a breather and we talked about an approach to shoot it safely and then without the last two shots we finished up. So that was the closest to one that didn't finish.

Songfacts: What's the best music video by another director?

Kohr: There are so many that are just wonderful, but I'll go with "Let Forever Be," which Michel Gondry did for Chemical Brothers. There's a girl and she wakes up in bed and then she ends up sort of multiplying into a fantasy world and into multiple dancers. Then those dancers reunify into her as she crosses through these different environments, and then she ends up back in bed. KK Barrett was the art director of the video.

And then another one that I think is as good as it gets is DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What." That video is just genius. In fact, in my music video class, I show that when I have a new class. "I'm Mark Kohr and I'm your music video instructor for MPT 450 'Making a Music Video.' Why don't we start this way: Let's watch a music video."

And I put that on because it has all the pieces that make a wonderful music video, and then I break down all the different pieces. I talk about different principles that I feel really make a strong music video.

Songfacts: You talked about how you had some medical issues with your daughter. How is she doing?

Kohr: Well, it's very difficult. She's doing really well considering the disorder that she has which is called Dravet Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder - she has a mutation deletion on one side of her second chromosomes. Chromosomes come in pairs, and on one side of the second chromosome, she has one mutation deletion in the SCN1A gene, and that gene sequence is responsible for producing the sodium channels in the dendrites of the nerves, so 50% of her dendrites have a mal-shaped sodium channel.

Because of that her speech is slow and her cognition is slow, and her body, the formation of it in some ways has been a little altered. She has seizures that come every week and during those seizures she's in a sort of catatonic state for an entire day, and that's been for 19 years. We didn't have a diagnosis for her first eight years, and that's what knocked me out of the business.

It wasn't just a choice. I grew up with a great, wonderful, supporting mom and dad, so that's what I did: I took care of my wife and my child at the expense of my career, but at the same time, I didn't have a choice because Hollywood is tough. When you're the director you're kind of the party host, and it's good not to have a distraction. If you have something that's very difficult going on in your life and you're the party host, people receive and understand a certain emotional osmosis that maybe things aren't great, and who is it not great with? Is it not great with them, or is it me?

My parents didn't grow up as Hollywood people at all - I didn't grow up with money. I worked my ass off to be a music video director. That's what I wanted to be and I did it, and then that stuff happened. But life is curious, you know. It gives you gifts and those gifts are very odd, but they are gifts nonetheless and if you are able to see them as such, you receive amazing things.

I've learned a lot about other stuff since then - I would not have if I had stayed a director. And I still direct to an extent, but it's all very low-level stuff where I shoot and do the sound and I edit and I color correct. I have to do everything and I don't make the same kind of money. I do miss working at that high level. I love making music videos for people. I love going into that equation. I trained myself for that, but life is a curious thing.

Years ago, way before I became a music video director, I had a friend who did tarot cards and she was so good at it, she just had the gift of gab. I pulled this one tarot card and it was The Tower, and what's funny about the tower is it's two people, a guy and a girl, falling from a tower that's on fire. And it's basically about falling from power, but somehow I know that there's a gift in that because the thing is, we all can climb up these towers where we're powerful, but you can't stay there forever: Waves build and then they crash. And the gift is to know that our life experience is divine and to experience all aspects of being human in the moment.

It was wonderful working at that very high level and working with all of those people - I can't tell you how much of a gift it was and how grateful I am. But I also know that my daughter's difficulty and the things I've learned from it are also a great and wonderful gift.

September 10, 2021

Mark's website is markkohr.com

Further reading:
Matt Pinfield On 10 Of The Greatest Alt-Rock Videos of the '90s
Director Mark Pellington ("Jeremy," "Best Of You")
Director Ramaa Mosley ("What's This Life For," "Superman (It's Not Easy)")
Director David Hogan ("U Got the Look")

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