‘The camera literally steamed up’ – how I made the video for MJ’s Billie Jean
By Rupert Hawksley
Producer and director Steve Barron tells the inside story of one of the most influential music videos of all time
Steve Barron is responsible for some of t he most iconic music videos ever made. The roll call of artists he worked with in the Eighties is impressive: A-ha; David Bowie; Fleetwood Mac; The Human League; Madonna. Top of that list, however, sits Michael Jackson. Here, Barron tells the inside story of how the video for Jackson’s 1982 hit, Billie Jean, was made.
‘By this stage , I had done 15-20 music videos, including the one that was number one in the UK at the time: The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. Michael Jackson’s name wasn’t on everyone’s lips. Remember that this is a few months before Thriller came out. There was, of course, a magic in Michael Jackson ringing you up, but in a way I was more excited about Human League. My wife was really pregnant with my first child at the time and my initial reaction was, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that.’ It wasn’t a case of, ‘we’ve got to do that.’ It was my wife who persuaded me.’
‘Michael Jackson’s manager said that Michael wanted the video to be magical, that he’d [Michael] seen Don’t You Want Me, and he liked the cinematic look and that whole vibe. Michael wanted this to be a piece of a film, as opposed to a music video with a story.’
‘$50,000. It was double the budget that I’d ever been asked to work with before. To put that in perspective, though, when Beat It was shot five weeks later, the budget was $300,000. And when they shot Thriller, it was $2 million. So, in the space of three months, the Billie Jean budget had become minute.’
‘I’d come up with the idea [for Billie Jean] based on an idea that I’d had for a previous video for Joan Armatrading: the Midas Touch thing. So the plan was that everywhere Michael went, everything would glow and turn to gold in the light. I wrote the concept down in a fax and we faxed Michael this page and a half of content and they said, ‘Michael really likes it, he really wants it to feel like a Peter Pan thing’. So, it was a case of, ‘yes, you’re on, come and do it, we like the concept.”
‘We used 16mm film. The reason we didn’t use 35mm – I’d just shot Don’t You Want Me on 35mm – is that there wasn’t enough in the budget.’
‘He was sweet, super quiet, super soft, and really inquisitive about the plans for the video and then later, he wanted to know more about me.’
BEFORE THE SHOOT
‘I’d got a really good friend of mine to do the storyboards, and I sat down with Michael and showed him the frames and there were two blank frames in the chorus because the manager had said that he might be doing some dancing. He explained that Michael had been practising in front of the mirror.
I talked Michael through the idea of this private eye following him, which was loosely based on what he had told me was the basic concept for the song – something he’d read in a newspaper about a private detective.’
Steve Barron on the set of Billie Jean with the private detective
MICHAEL’S MOMENT OF GENIUS
‘So, we ran through it with him, scene by scene. And when it came to the scene with the camera store, with the cameras all firing off, triggering his energy, triggering the Midas Touch again, Michael said he had this idea. ‘What about if one of the other stores in the street is a tailor shop with some mannequins in the window. When I go past it, before or after the camera store, how about the mannequins come to life, and they jump out behind me and they dance with me?’ I absolutely loved it, I thought it was an amazing concept, it enhanced everything. It was right on concept, right on story and just a genius idea.
After that meeting I got onto my producer and said, ‘Michael has come up with a great idea. We need to change that store, the third one along or whatever, we need to get some mannequins in, get some dancers in, do rehearsals. We need to get a choreographer, a costume designer, and I need a couple of hours more to shoot this in a certain way, because this will be after the first dance.’
My producer worked out that this would cost $5,000 dollars more and CBS [Michael Jackson's record label] said no. They said, ‘No, we’re not paying you a penny more, we’ve told you, you’ve got $50,000 dollars and that’s it.”