April 1, 2017 Michael

The Presidential Suite and Live TV

If I were going to be accurate, completely accurate, then the first time I directed a “live” TV show was in 1995. It had to do with Pete Townsend and asking a camera operator to walk backwards for 3 minutes… but really it’s not all that fascinating. So the second time I directed something live is going to be the story here and I’m going to refer to it as:

The First Time I Ever Directed Something Live:VH1 Presents: The Concert for Witness. Hosted by Tim Robins with musical guests Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant, Don Henley, Joan Osborne, Tony Rich, Nusrat Ali-Kahn, Gloria Estefan, Beethoven, Rod Stewart, Pete Townsend, Bryan Adams, and lots(ish) more. No, Beethoven was not present, because if he were, the President of VH1 at that time would think him very un-hip, part of the “old” VH1. But I digress, now on to the tale…

VH1 in 1994 was in the crosshairs of change, big change, the regime of Ed Bennett would be replaced by the appointment of not only a new President, but I believe John Sykes actual title was Emperor, or perhaps Supreme Ruler? Either way the change that occurred inside VH1 land was pretty remarkable. The usual bloodletting of the old executives of course occurred, but on the bright-side, actual money seemed to be available to spend on productions.

How I kept working at VH1 is a bit of a mystery as I look back. I think Sykes was conflicted by my presence. On the one hand I was clearly pretty good at what I did and well respected in many circles, and I lived two floors under his boss Tom Freston down in trendy Tribeca. On the other hand, I was a “pre” John Sykes person and therefore very, very suspect. Perhaps in the end this was all projection, and he spent little or no time thinking about me.

So there I am an eight-year veteran of VH1 where I was the go-to guy for everything that had anything to do with music performances. I produced and directed a slew of series, concerts and specials, and was starting to build a name for myself. However, I was very frustrated when I would see MTV directors- well one MTV director in particular- get to do the VMAs and other really big stuff. In 1994 VH1 launched it’s first big live show VH1 Honors. I was not in the mix* to direct it. I took this as a personal affront and vowed to change it for 1995. Well, 1995 was not to be the year either.

*the phrase “in the mix” I probably never used but agents have repeatedly used the phrase so many times. Translation “in the mix” = you have a very small chance to get the gig. In Hollywood no means no, maybe means no and in the mix means most likely no.

VH1 Honors was produced by Ken Ehrlich and directed by Bruce Gowers, both of whom had done over seventy-five thousand live network specials and award shows between them; to that point I had watched several. So I was not asked in 1994 or 1995 or for the VH1 Fashion Awards of 1995, which was particularly galling because Gowers was not available and I was still not even “in the mix.”

So now 1996’s VH1 Honors is being planned, and well, this time I had a plan. I would demand VH1 push Ken Ehrlich to hire me to direct the show. The VH1 executives, I demanded this of did not include Mr. Sykes, but fate and budget cuts would look kindly on me and in secret negotiations, which did not include me, I got a call that I would in fact be directing the 1996 version of “VH1 Honors” from Los Angeles in April, 1996.

My fee would be zero, literally, but the gig would necessitate my joining the Directors Guild of America, and in an effort to keep me from losing money, something very legal and ethical was worked out (wink).

So there you have it, my wife and I had a little baby girl, Chloe, a loft in Tribeca, a dog named Riley, a salary that hit the very low six figures and now I would direct a big live TV special, life was ok.

Dissolve to a few months later…

My wife, daughter and I arrive in Los Angeles seventeen days prior to the April 18th live telecast. We checked into the Universal Sheraton right near the venue, and were placed in a pleasant suite, nicknamed the “Telly Savalas” room because the actor housed his mistresses there. About three days into our stay, the hotel manager asked my wife if we would mind moving to a different, nicer suite. In fact, the nicest suite, the “Presidential” suite. My wife decided she would answer for the family and said “yes.”

The suite was two thirds of an entire floor, with views on all sides. It had three bedrooms, a large dining room, a living room, and four baths. In other words about 3x the size of our humble loft on Duane Street in Tribeca. My left-wing brain was in direct conflict with my oversized ego. My ego won in straight sets.

Now there was a live three hour show to prep for, and the next two weeks I prepared, prepared, and than kept on preparing. I would say by the time we got to actually have cameras for two days of rehearsals- I was fucking prepared. I loved shooting music and had a blast working with the “A” variety crew in LA. Some of the things I imagined in my head were starting to materialize on the screen.

Shooting music and specifically “live” music on “live” TV is about a lot of things, but to me it must start with the close-up. No matter how many lights or big wide jib shots, we’ll never 100% capture the feeling of being there. Ah but close-ups are something which bring the intimacy and emotion to the screen. This was the show I learned the value of close-ups. I look back now and like some stuff I did, at other things I cringe, but I will always remember this special time.

I vomited next to the production truck right after dress rehearsal and four hours prior to the live show. It was not the catering, though the Line Producer demanded I eat something other than bread. I was nervous, so puking was good.

We started the show with Rod Stewart performing “Every Picture Tells a Story,” than he did “Reason to Believe” and even though it was not expected, we just rolled on.

When it came time for Don Henley the Hammond B3 was down. Coming back live in sixty seconds, Ken Ehrlich tells me to take a handheld, and when we get back on the air, host Tim Robbins will walk around and give a play by play of the situation. Well it was funny, at first, but when Tim got back to the non-working Hammond, there were five crews guys with backsides bent over and there were several butt cracks displayed on the screen. Great TV, Emmy deserving.

The Henley set finally included him playing a song, and it was fine. He was about to play his second song and guess what? Something in electronic land failed and this time I had no host and no band. Good ol Live TV! I cut to a very wide moving jib and told the operator to very slowly go forward. In about twelve seconds (or five years in live TV time) the music started.

Then it was Peter Gabriel’s turn. Up until that point in my life I had never had a better time shooting an act. It was one of those moments where I can’t imagine doing anything else. It felt like I was part of the performance, and in a sense, directing music live is performing.

I have my musical tastes, and like my political opinions, I share them very freely. However I will say that I have nearly universal respect for every musician I have ever worked with, music to me is as close to a god I don’t believe in.

Here is a link to the show.
Enjoy.

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