Bruce Springsteen “Brilliant Disguise”
It’s my birthday, October 7th 1987.
I am in a phone booth outside a crab shack off the New Jersey Turnpike begging some Wall Street guy for mercy. Nowadays of course one would know better, but this was way before they took the gloves off and destroyed the global economy with a controlled demolition of derivative fraud. You may not remember phone booths, but they were everywhere before cell phone. This one was useless, its plastic half dome did nothing to keep the rain off, especially when you are literally on your knees begging for mercy.
His wife had agreed to rent the kitchen of her mansion as our location. Wall Street had just come back from a business trip and freaked out when his wife told him that Springsteen and a film crew were coming for breakfast. He was having none of it. His wife and I worked on him in turns. She was a nice woman and a huge Bruce fan. He clearly didn’t give a damn.
“You don’t understand what the effect of this is going to be, I am on my knees begging you to reconsider, please… its my birthday ….. please reconsider…..”
At the same time I could hear his wife pleading with him in the background. Eventually he just hangs up on me, leaving me on my knees, his dial tone dead in my ear, as the trucks on the turnpike steamed through the Jersey rain.
It’s now 8pm, the night before the shoot. The NY teamsters are already loaded up for their 6 AM call. We are proper fucked.
“Is that me baby or just a brilliant disguise”
Two months earlier, late summer 1987.
I get one of those dream phone calls out of the blue. It’s Jon Landau asking me to go to New York and meet Springsteen to pitch ideas for a video for the first single from the new album, “Brilliant Disguise”.
I had been a Springsteen fan since since first hearing him sing the line “.. and the elephants dance real funky” against Garry Tallent’s daft tuba part on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” in 1973. Here’s a beautiful live version of this song .
Here I have to confess that I had shot two videos with Nils Lofgren’s for his Flip ” album in 1985. The less said about them the better, and I have to assume that Bruce had never seen them. Nils is a guitar genius in his own right, eclipsed by the shadow of a giant, or two. One good thing that came out of that experience was a day climbing in the Wicklow mountains with Nils. We climbed Mullacor and looked down into Glendalough, the Omphalos, navel of the world.
Now it all makes perfect sense to me, as I understand that Ireland is a magical microcosm of the rest of the world, the meta-universe in a sod of turf. Back then I didn’t know that that Co. Wicklow was the spiritual mini-me of New Jersey, and Bray was Asbury Park. Fossetts’ Circus had the same mangy characters. Springsteen is half Irish. Madame Marie’s father was a traveler from Tinahealy way.
I had always dreamed of running off with the circus. Now was my chance.
By ’87 Bruce was the greatest rock artist in the world. He had retreated from public view following the record breaking “Born in The USA” albums and tours. “Brilliant Disguise” was to be the first single from his new record. Feature film legends Brian de Palma and John Sales had shot previous Springsteen videos. Everyone and his monkey wanted to shoot the new videos. This was a a life changing opportunity for a director fresh off the boat. The only chance I had was to to come up with a perfect and unexpected video concept that was true to the song, the singer, and the times.
I do a lot of research and strategic thinking about videos. The choice of this dark, introspective song as the first single was a clue to Springsteen’s frame of mind. He clearly wasn’t interested in going head to head with his prior work, especially “Born in the USA”, which had paced Michael Jackson’s Thriller with 7 top ten singles. This choice of lead single was a position statement to a worldwide audience who saw Bruce as a rock and roll god. The human cannon ball was now back on earth, beginning over. The lyrics were intensely psychological and personal, a total departure from the archetype rich, mythological American narrative song cycles of his past.
For me the treatment writing process starts with getting rid of as many blind alleys as possible. Strip out the unlikely, the unworkable, the unoriginal, and what remains is what you have to start from. The clues were there. If Springsteen had wanted a story video he would choose Sales or any number of great movie directors to shoot it. The new album was billed as a solo project without the official E Street Band, so he wouldn’t want a band performance driven video. Visual effects were out of place. I don’t usually like masks and theatrics in videos, and I really don’t do well directing videos with mimed soap opera narrative and “illustrated radio” in general.
It was rumored that Springsteen wasn’t comfortable with the artifice of the video production process itself. That narrowed down the possibilities, and left me with nothing.
I go to work on the complex lyrics. A video should serve the song first, then the artist, and finally marketing. Springsteen was using song writing as therapy, a tool for personal growth. The lyrics were about marriage, but also a metaphor in the wider context of his public image. The song is about deception, doubt, and ultimately staring down one’s fear of the shadow lurking behind one’s persona, both onstage and in private. With Springsteen everything is connected, inside and out, this is what makes him a great artist and a great man.
The trigger to the video concept was in the choruses:
So when you look at me
you better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby
or just a brilliant disguise?
Springsteen is a master of song structure. Among other techniques, he will sometimes subtly change the chorus to advance the narrative, or peel away its meaning to reveal a new one. The words of each chorus can have small but progressive differences. The phrasing remains the same, so you don’t consciously realize what he is doing. The chorus in “Brilliant Disguise” starts as a defensive, heavily armored question to a partner, but ends as a narcissist’s dark mirror reflecting his own doubts back on himself. Providing the soul-birthing realization that you are unable to fool yourself, without someone else there equally willing and able to be to fooled by you.
“Brilliant Disguise” is a very Jungian lyric.
I imagined watching the man as he wrote and sang the song for the first time to a lover. This was one of the great performers, doing an autopsy on both of the corpses in the relationship, with words as his scalpel.
So what to pitch? Sometimes all the director needs to do is get himself and his bag of tricks out of the way. I only had to provide a safe creative performance environment for Springsteen, and then have the camera relentlessly scrutinize his face for the truth, just as a deceived lover does. Catch the tension between deception and honesty in the lyrics shattering the singer’s persona. Catch his growing recognition of the darkness inside as it plays out on the iconic landscape of his own face. Watch the brilliant disguises being cut away right in front to us.
Who in the audience could resist the opportunity to peer right into Bruce’s eyes, and ultimately recognize themselves there. What I was watching in my mind was one long camera move, starting as the POV of the woman to whom the song is addressed, then imperceptibly becoming a mirror in which Springsteen confronts his own part in their inability to love.
I knew instantly I was now officially a f#cking genius, and that this anti-concept was the one that would unlock the project for me. I was going to pitch Bruce’s face, to his face. I instinctively felt that Springsteen would love the idea. It was ballsy, it had not yet been done as far as I knew. It was true to the song and to the man at that moment. It turned every expectation its head, would make everything else on MTV look overproduced, and would free him from the impossible expectations of topping Born in The USA, which by now was becoming a prison of doubled irony and misinterpretation. There would be no way to escape the meaning and truth of this song.
Best of all the final lines of the song:
God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.
… would be delivered in an extreme close up, become the dark redemption of the video, rather than wasted on some throwaway shot of an ending.
Looking at his earlier videos, I got the feeling that lip syncing wasn’t Bruce’s strong suite, and this resulted in the video performances feeling less authentic than the song itself. This was probably where his discomfort with the video process came from. A fake performance would be a fatal problem with this concept, as there was nowhere to hide and the disguise had to be brilliant. I had shot a live vocal video with Mike Scott of The Waterboys. I wondered if shooting Bruce’s vocals live might be viable, especially given the one take visual. Most album vocals are not recorded in one take, even on “live” albums. There would also be some technical challenges as I did not want a microphone in front of his face, but hey, this was normal in the film industry and we had boom operators and directional mikes.
Letters at 3AM
The idea for the setting came easily. Michael Ventura, great, largely unsung American writer, writes a a series of essays called Letters at 3 AM, then for the LA Weekly. Conscious writing on many subjects. Out of that title came the image of Springsteen, writing the song downstairs in his kitchen in New Jersey at 3 AM, while his wife sleeps alone upstairs. The kitchen was archetypal, everything good and bad in family verbal interaction happens in the kitchen. For the set dressing I saw post-war mythological Americana, formica and aluminum. In some way it is also Springsteen’s parent’s kitchen. Certainly this was an older and wiser Bruce Springsteen we were going to shoot.
I get on a plane from LA to New York with a light heart, looking forward to meeting the man. It’s my first visit to New York, and its visually overwhelming from the bridge on. NY still gives me vertigo every time.
The taxi drops me outside Jon Landau and Bruce’s office.
To my surprise Bruce is in the elevator when I get in. White T Shirt, blue jeans, boots, every inch Bruce Springsteen, in person. He is at a disadvantage, having no idea what I look like, but we work it out on the way up to Landau’s office. Springsteen in person is exactly what you would expect from his lyrics: warm, direct, funny, perceptive and gracious. Thankfully his self-confidence is infectious.
When I have to talk to more than one stranger at a time my Social Anxiety Disorder kicks in and I suffer an unpleasant dissociative tunnel vision effect. It’s quite trippy but not conducive to verbal communication, especially combined with its matching acoustic FX. Many people have the same problem.
Landau, Barbara Carr, and Jack Rovner were waiting in the office for us. Their warmth and humor dissolved my discomfort.
The pitch went well. For once I knew how to describe each shot. This didn’t take long. as there was only one. My understanding of the psychology behind the lyrics was accurate. Springsteen jumped on the idea of shooting the vocals live, rather than having to lip-sync Both Rovner and Springsteen shared the same general strategic agenda for the video. They wanted to keep it as simple as possible. I had read their minds from a distance. Bruce embraced how performing the song in one uninterrupted take would leave him, and the viewer, with nowhere to hide. They even agreed to shoot in black and white with Carlo Di Palma as DP.
Next thing, I am back on the sidewalk with my head in the clouds, with some first world cinematic problems to sort out.
I knew I wanted Bruce sitting in a real kitchen, and the camera move was going to be defined by optical physics and the location itself. I wanted the shot to end on an extreme close up of Bruce’s eyes. The on screen zoom isn’t a purist’s tool, but it would be necessary to get the extreme close up at the end. The change in focal length would also change the compression of the image and subtly transform the feel of the viewer’s experience from someone in the room’s POV, to a private introspective self scrutiny.
Carlo Di Palma
I had researched Carlo Di Palma’s choreographed takes for Woody Allen, and was a fan of Antonioni’s Red Dawn. Di Palma was an expert at shooting long scenes, avoiding coverage and cutting. Carlo also had a reputation for liking zoom lenses, rather than the primes that many fashionable DP’s are more comfortable with. He was now living and shooting in New York, and had a solid New York crew.
I meet up with Carlo in the Algonquin Hotel. The man is a legend, and like Springsteen, has no pretense about him. His father had been a camera operator, and he had grown up on the set watching his father at work. Carlo had lived though the glory days of Italian cinema. He had shot “Blow Up”, a film that created a new way of telling stories. That was just the beginning of his life’s work.
I am in awe, but he graciously takes me seriously, and our music video project to heart. Carlo approached it as a scene from a movie. He wanted to understand the lyrics, the performer’s motivation, as well as the wider context. He must have wondered why I boarded a single shot video, but kept a straight face throughout.
There are two types of DP. The first kind asks: “so where does the camera go?”. This can be a threatening question, and always floors me for a moment, especially after only a few hours sleep. A handy reflex answer to this question is: “Give me a few minutes to block the scene, and we’ll work it out”.
The second kind of DP actually directs the photography. Meaning he takes creative responsibility for all aspects of the image itself, and becomes your partner and best friend on the set.
Carlo is clearly a real DP, and a generous collaborator. I leave the image in his hands.
We work out the math: what speed the camera move needed to be, what kind of crane and track we would need, what focal lengths would be appropriate, and therefore how large the kitchen would have to be for the equipment and crew required to make the shot.
The logical answer was “we had better build a set”, but instinctively I know Springsteen is going to feel and perform the song way better in a “real world” kitchen setting. We just had to find one large enough.
Scouting New Jersey
One of the best parts of the director’s job is that you get to visit all kinds of places and people that you would never see otherwise.
Ben Dossett and I scout locations all over New Jersey. A multi-day caravan of mansions, schools, and hospitals. Eventually we find a mansion with a large kitchen that could just about work. The woman who owned the house was a fan and happy to have Bruce come over.
Meanwhile the budget was hammered out. It costs a lot to look this cheap. To put it another way, once you start down the one shot path there is zero tolerance for error of any kind. You have to budget for perfection. Which brings me back to that dial tone.
8 pm, the night before the shoot.
I am in a phone booth by the Jersey Turnpike, seriously considering suicide.
The location has fallen through. What do you do? Ben calls everyone we can reach in production in NY to see if they know somewhere in the Tri-State that might work. Eventually, a cop car pulls in and we explain the problem. The cop suggests calling the National Guard and gives us their number. Not a terrible idea, especially as by now they are about the only people still answering the phone. Of course they turn out to be fans and within two hours we were standing in an old kitchen in an empty officer’s house on a mothballed army base.
It was perfect in every way.
The huge kitchen opened directly into the even larger dining room. Total security, loads of parking for the trucks, no valuables to damage, no neighbors to annoy. A blizzard of phone calls follows. We fax out new call sheets from the base. Suicidal ideation slipped into the shadows to lurk for another day.
That was by far the worst crisis I have ever had on a production. Music video production is like running a circus, except each show is the first show. You are driving a fresh cast of clowns down the midway, while the clown car falls apart beneath you. It can get very scary, especially on location.
You have to be a self-destructive, risk taking clown to survive it. That night I learned that almost anything can be fixed if you just don’t give up. Since then, when the wheels fall off, I remember that night, and honk the clown car horn. Don’t ever give up.
We get back to the motel at 2:30am to find the manager has barricaded himself into his office, with our room keys, and passed out.
The shoot was initially about solving the human and technical practicalities of the four and a half minute move. I wanted the camera to have no presence at all, the move so slow as to be unnoticed. It’s a crane move. Jibbing down as it dollies in with an imperceptible zoom nested in the move.
Carlo lit the shot in a classic cinematic chiaroscuro style, a single key in the only possible place. There was no eye light, yet there is light in the eyes. There’s no crane or camera shadow, yet the camera is right in Bruce’s face at the end. Simple genius.
The crew were all experienced feature people and enjoy the challenge of making difficult crane shots. This one was, and still is, unique. To make the shot a dozen people would have to do everything right, in perfect sync with each other, for every moment of four and a half minutes.
Bruce’s performances were almost all perfect.
The rest of us struggled to do everything right. The first challenge is the stability and smoothness of the move. The crane is a massive steel girder balanced on a pivot, the camera on one end heavily counterbalanced with lead weights on the other. Its a beast pushed by two, but its mass makes it surprisingly forgiving once on the move. Then this trebuchet has to be brought to an imperceptible stop on a dime, inches from the performer’s eyes.
The camera meanwhile is gently descending and adjusting on two axes. Focus has to be corrected continually. Accurate focus is critical, especially on Bruce’s eyes at the end of the move. Consider that the f-stop is wide open for maximum Bokeh, the depth of field is less than an inch or two, and Bruce is inevitably moving back and forth as he sings. Doing it in one shot, without cuts, had seemed like a good idea, but I now fully understood the risk we were taking. Up on the high wire without a net.
The physical and psychological tension in the room was palpable. Everyone in the camera, grip, and lighting crews had something at stake in each take. The live vocals added a whole other electrifying dimension to the room . The crew let out a sigh of relief and applauded at the end of each good take. Springsteen picked up on this energy immediately, a master in his element as a live performer, not a lip-syncing muppet.
Toby Scott, Bruce’s sound engineer was beginning to relax. Landau was affably inscrutable, but I have learned that this is a good sign. Terry McGovern gave me a smile, and suddenly all was well in the world.
We shot twenty four takes, with a just a few good for camera. Bruce nailed it on most.
I like directing best when I can help the artist re-define the lyrics. Just a smile or a glance in the right place can change the whole meaning of a verse. As we got into it, Springsteen re-interpreted the song in various ways, ranging from sadly humorous to bitter and angry. Like any good story it improved with the telling, even though the words remained the same. Almost thirty years down the road if you watch Springsteen sing “Brilliant Disguise” live, with Patti Scailfa’s harmonies, the song reveals depths of human fragility. It’s no longer a breakup song, but has become a compassionate and very moving love song.
As for the video, it stands the test of time. When I watch it, its just me and Bruce face to face. The spell never breaks. There is no clue that there are thirty people in the room and a ton of metal inching its way down the track towards Bruce. Film making.
There is no feeling in the world quite like wrapping a shoot when its gone well.
Editing the video was an unexpected challenge. Nothing to cut, just one choice to make. Of the four or five takes that were good for camera, each vocal was a unique interpretation, so selecting the best involved dropping others that would never be seen again. In the end I choose the take where Springsteen’s self-awareness was most present and the camera was least present. It would be great to see it remastered in HD. There are performance details on the negative that have never been seen.
Tom Freston and John Sykes dug it. MTV played the hell out of it. The video confounded public expectations, as planned, and yet still connected with the MTV audience. It opened up the genre to all kinds of more artful videos. I went on to shoot several videos more with Bruce.
Flashing forward to 2013, this video could probably never happen now. Record companies like to keep artists and directors apart. Video concepts are filtered through commissioners and marketing departments, subject to commercial priorities.
Risky ideas are safely disposed of before they get to the artist. As a result, directors now tend to write to target marketing objectives rather than serve the song itself. It’s also a bad time for rock music in general. Rock bands are expensive to maintain compared to rap or solo artists. Rock music is more expensive to record. To a large degree popular taste is molded by this kind of cost analysis.
Today Springsteen might well have been dropped before Born in the USA was ever recorded.
Hey son, you want to try the big top?
Bruce is one of the most human of beings I have had the good fortune to meet among the lost clowns and freaks on the Midway.
All aboard, Nebraska’s the next stop
Written and Directed by Meiert Avis
Producers: Sigurjón Sighvatsson, Ben Dossett, Steve Golin
Director of Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Sound: Toby Scott
Camera and Lens: Panavision