Steve Barron: A Career Retrospective in Pictures
A final raid on the archives for now. Here’s the text that accompanied a photo-based feature on Steve Barron which featured some pretty amazing images from each of these projects.
Steve Barron, the mastermind of three of the most defining music videos of the Eighties, returns with Choking Man. Balancing psychological realism with a fantastical edge, Choking Man focuses on the lives of the immigrant workers employed in a New York City diner. Barron tells Clash more about the film’s inspiration as well as looking back on his body of work.
“I was sitting with my son in a diner and I felt strongly that I wanted to work in the New York indie field,” says Baron, citing the similarly toned Raising Victor Vargas and The Station Agent as examples. By law, all New York restaurants need to have a graphic demonstrating the technique behind the Heimlich Manoeuvre on show and that image dominated Barron’s inspiration.
“At the same sort of time we were looking in the kitchens and at the immigrant world over there and thinking about the illegal immigrants who come over and work as busboys or as dishwashers. It seemed that there was a real quiet, internal life that was going on with these people that didn’t look like they felt like they belonged in America. But nor did they belong in the places they came from; they were caught in this little trap and were also pointedly very anonymous to most of the American public. So we put the two anonymities together.”
Further inspired by a couple of people he knew with “mild autism or Asperger’s” and “acute social inactivity”, the idea being Choking Man took shape “under the umbrella of communication.”
Eager to do something that differed in feel from other films, Barron was also keen to show that first impressions can provoke a mistruth. “Choking Man’s bully, for instance, you might look at yourself later and say I judged him, but that’s not quite how he is. Because I think that’s what you do in life, you see people, form an opinion and sometimes that can be quite wrong.”
Completed for just $400,000, Choking Man also highlights a magical score from Phillip Glass associate Nico Muhly.
Michael Jackson: Billie Jean
“I remember the moment that I realised what an amazing performer this was, and that was obviously when he started dancing. When I did the ideas for the video and presented the storyboard, the manager said to me, ‘He’s been doing some practising in front of the mirror, so maybe leave a chorus or whatever you think to some dancing.’”
So with two blank frames in the storyboard, Barron hatched a plan for Jackson (“A lovely, mild, soft-spoken, very personal, amiable, shy character”) to utilise his new found skills. The original plan was for each paving stone to be triggered into light by Jackson’s famously fleeted feet, but budgetary restraints limited them to eleven slabs now prompted by an electrician’s swift reactions rather than the King of Pop’s swift movements.
“I saw the most incredible performer I’d ever been in the room with, dancing this dance on his toes and everything we all know now. But then I’d never seen anything like it. To see it in front of my eyes…” Barron pauses, still lost for words twenty-five years later. “Literally the eye piece steamed up, which was pretty hard to do in those conditions. As soon as I cut, the whole crew just erupted into applause.”
A-Ha: Take On Me
As hard as it is to believe now, Take On Me had twice failed to set the charts on fire when Barron was approached to make something a little special to help make it a hit. The song’s original performance video was extremely dull, so Barron’s insistence on a decent budget and plenty of time was bound to be an improvement.
“The image that came to my mind was that animated hand coming out of the table reaching for someone. I did a lot of videos through those years and not very often did the idea give me goose bumps like that did. I knew I was onto something, but I don’t remember much fuss about that video at the time aside from a few awards.”
The video, of course, is now as definitively Eighties as Back To The Future or Rick Astley, helped in part by parodies stretching from Family Guy to the recent version with lyrics explaining the video’s plot. As Barron surmises, “These videos are filled with naïve hope and expectation but some of them really work.”
Dire Straits: Money For Nothing
Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler hated music videos. Steve Barron was given the task of persuading him to make something palatable for the MTV generation. His lengthy pitch appeared to be falling on deaf ears, but Knopfler’s girlfriend loved the idea so much that Barron’s task was fulfilled.
“I wasn’t even sure that was a big hit song. I’m not a very good A&R person!” he laughs. “But I liked some of the Dire Straits stuff and that wasn’t the one that got me. It grew on me with the video, it kind of put it in context and gave it a spirit. It was obviously already there, but I hadn’t related to it.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
“It was mainly a great experience. But it was a struggle to get it made,” says Barron of his film adaptation of the comic book and TV franchise.
That struggle encompassed many things; Barron’s preference for it to be animatronically based rather than the studio’s desire for animation integrated with live action, a struggle for funding and a lack of interest in releasing the film that spread as far as The Jim Henson Company. Henson’s Creature Shop had created the actual turtles but the Company deemed it too violent to release – understandable considering their projects around that time included Labyrinth and A Muppet Family Christmas.
But New Line Cinema paid $2 million for it and the film reaped $135 million back from the box office alone.