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The MTV Kid

by Monte R.

Along with being a “Kid Spielberg” making backyard movies in the 80s, I was also a big music fan (primarily new wave/English goth rock).  MTV had just started up in the early 1980s. Music videos had become the primary form of music promotion – they were everywhere – a band was ‘nothing’ until your video premiered on MTV. 

At the same time, unlike the 70s film school era filmmakers like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, music videos gave new aspiring filmmakers a new outlet to train their visual style.  So many of today’s feature filmmakers (like David Fincher) came out of directing music videos in the early 1980s.  Others included filmmakers like Russell Mulcahy, Spike Jonze, Anton Corbijn, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, McG – the list is endless. All of them got started doing music videos – it was a better training ground than film school.

I was inspired by what was being done in music videos – the visual creativity paired with music I found to be amazing.  The visual possibilities were endless.  David Fincher’s videos for Madonna and Billy Idol blew my mind on creative interpretations of music – it was a new art form.

So not seeing any real path for me locally in the ‘movie business’ which was non-existent in Ohio at the time, I decided to take a stab at doing music videos. Unfortunately, in the late 1980s, I lived in what was then called ‘Cowlumbus’ Ohio – not exactly the epicenter of the music business either. 

Getting opportunities to direct music videos for bands and get paid for it was a pipe dream of mine, albeit one I pursued for a long time before giving up in failure, even though I thought I was pretty good at it.

I got my hustle on and just sought out local Columbus, Ohio bands that would let me (a sixteen-year old kid) direct a video for them – albeit I would always have to offer to do it for ‘free’ and pay for any expenses myself.  I was just happy to do it. Most videos I made cost about $500 that I saved up working at the local movie theater.  All were shot on video (I used higher end video cameras with better resolution than my Sony 8mm).  I rolled all of my savings from my job into my music video work thinking it could lead to a career.

The very first video I did was for a local band The Bellows “There Was a Time” – they were like a straight up rock/pop band. 

I then followed it with a video for a local goth band, The Wake, and their song “Locomotive Age,” which turned out pretty good. The Wake, strangely enough, grew in stature over the years and is considered one of the pioneering American goth rock bands. Anyhoo —

I directed several others. With no grand design, I ended up with several videos in different genres of music, which I thought would be good calling card to actually get commissioned by a label to direct music videos – and like get paid for it – and start my career. 

Unfortunately, this was all before email and the internet. My ability to even market myself was limited to random phone calls and mailing my VHS reel to music video production companies in Los Angeles and NYC in hopes of being ‘discovered’ – I doubt anybody even looked at my VHS reels.  Without being in NYC or Los Angeles, I was just a nobody kid from nowhere making cold calls.

I did win several awards for my video work, even on my limited budgets.  By the late 1980s, music videos were becoming the ‘vanguard’ of filmmaking and the styles were changing rapidly every couple years, so having like a real ‘budget’ and doing constant work was an important part of it. 

There is only so much I could do with $500 bucks, too. I was competing artistically with budgets for music videos on MTV which, at the time, were being made from $50k to $1M dollars. Self-financing music videos from local bands for $500 was not a long term plan – I had to get like a real commission from a record label or else give up. But there was no absolutely nothing happening in Columbus, Ohio.

While spending one summer in Los Angeles on an internship in 1991, I happened upon an up-and-coming band I admired, Human Drama. I convinced the lead singer to let me do a video and spent every dime I had saved shooting it on 16mm film, which I thought turned out to be my best video – which, in a twist of fate, got me accepted into NYU Film School.   Johnny Indovina, the lead singer/songwriter of Human Drama, told me it was the ‘best’ video of his songs, which made me feel pretty good. 

Random side note – one year earlier in 1990, Johnny Indovina had discovered director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) while Singh was still in college, and chose him to direct Human Drama’s first video for their debut RCA album “Feel,” against the wishes of label execs. Johnny and Tarsem moved forward for their “Death of An Angel” video concept until RCA nixed the video budget entirely at the last minute. Tarsem was then immediately hired to direct R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video, into which Tarsem incorporated aspects of scenes Johnny Indovina and he had discussed for “Death of An Angel.” The “Losing My Religion” video went on to win critical acclaim, including video of the year at the MTV awards. 

Like Johnny Indovina, I was always so close but so far away, never getting the right doors to open.  I knew I had great creative instincts but I could just never get that first paid opportunity despite beating on doors.  I gave up soon thereafter, perhaps wrongly, I’ll never know. I just couldn’t do it anymore without a real budget commission. I was tired of being broke, making cold calls and begging for favors to get my videos produced.

I never directed another video until nearly ten (10) years later, when an off chance come up to do one for a band my brother, Taylor, was working with – Gene Loves Jezebel.  My brother gave me a real budget ($10k) and I shot it on 35mm for their song “Welcome to LA”.  I got a real producer Bettina Lee to help me, who was working at a major music video production company, The Oil Factory.  I had so much fun directing that video.

The video for “Welcome to LA” turned out well and everybody liked it but, by that time, my older videos from ten years prior had aged and visually weren’t up with the era.  Having only one modern spec video on my reel just wasn’t enough. I simply couldn’t figure out how anybody got a career started intentionally directing music videos, which I later concluded was mostly randomized luck (or else you were rich and could self-finance your own demo reel).

Having worked in so many areas of the entertainment business, I’ve concluded there is no ‘grand design’ as to why some “make it” and succeed and others with great talent and perseverance fail to even get going. So much of it depends on being in the right place at the right time aka “luck” – just the way it is.

Later in life, I befriended a very successful music video/commercial director who, despite never having directed any music videos, nor attended film school, got his first opportunity to direct large budget music video almost by accident (aka “luck”) which then started his entire career. I wanted to punch him in the face!

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