MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
In cities big and small this weekend, people will gather as they do every Halloween weekend for an annual ritual. Saturday night, from Johnson City, Tennessee to Midland, Michigan, zombies will emerge to reenact the "Thriller" dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")
NORRIS: Nearly 30 years after it debut, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is still hugely popular. In addition to the annual Halloween gatherings, people are still making remixes of the song and a quick search of YouTube reveals dozens of tribute videos.
To talk about "Thriller's" remarkable staying power, we tracked down the man who produced and directed Michael Jackson's seminal video, John Landis. He joins us now from London.
John Landis, welcome to the program.
JOHN LANDIS: Thank you.
NORRIS: Take me back to when you actually filmed this.
LANDIS: The album, "Thriller," was already out for over a year and was the number one selling album of all time already. They had made two videos, "Billy Jean" and "Beat It." Michael was really the first black artist played on MTV, a huge star, and "Thriller," the album, was now like number seven or six when Michael contacted me.
He had seen "An American Werewolf in London," a movie I made that had remarkable makeup effects by Rick Baker. Michael contacted me and he just wanted to turn into a monster. And I thought about it and I thought, no. I don't want to do a rock video. They're just commercials for records.
But then I thought, you know what, Mike? How about a theatrical short? And he said, sure.
NORRIS: When you were filming this, was it hard to cast dancers who could dance beautifully, but do so as zombies and wear all that makeup, which had to be, you know, heavy and take a lot of time to put on, also?
LANDIS: Well, we actually got wonderful dancers because dancers were very anxious to dance with Michael. Michael was an extraordinary dancer and, I mean, working with Michael Jackson at that time was really nuts. I mean, Fred Astaire came by. Gene Kelly came by. Jackie Kennedy came by. It was - Marlon Brando came by. I mean, it was insane and, you know, they all felt - they really kind of felt privileged to be working with him.
And at that time, Michael was 20 years old and he was wonderful and full of beans and, I mean, he was great. He did everything I asked. I remember when I wrote it, I said, Mike, you know, this line, I'm not like other guys, is going to get a laugh. And he said, why? And I said, well, because, Mike, you're not like other guys and people will laugh. He said, that's OK. I mean, he really was terrific to work with.
NORRIS: When you were filming this, was there any sort of tension in trying to walk a fine line to make a video that would be spooky, but not too spooky? Because you were also trying to reach out to young people. I had a chance to talk to Quincy Jones about the filming of this video at one point and he said that there was a concern about kids who would see this or young - you know, Michael Jackson always had a special relationship...
LANDIS: You know, Quincy was there for about two hours one night.
NORRIS: Ah. OK.
LANDIS: So he may have been concerned.
NORRIS: He touched on it lightly.
LANDIS: I don't know, but you know, I have to tell you that the music in the video is quite different than the record. I mean, that's a story I'll tell now because the statute of limitations is up, but the engineer, Bruce Swedien, and the brilliant Quincy Jones - they wouldn't let me have the original tracks and I tried to explain. I'm going to do a movie mix, which is very different than needle drop, which is what videos were and still are.
And in order to do that, I needed the original tracks, so I told Michael and he said, oh, we'll get them. So George Folsey and I and Michael went in Michael's car. He had a big Rolls Royce. We went to the recording studio in Studio City about 3 o'clock in the morning, walked through the lobby and Mike waved to the night watchman. With a big suitcase, we went in the back. We took the reels off the racks, went out, drove across town to Todd-AO in Hollywood, duped all the tracks and then returned them. The whole thing took an hour.
NORRIS: You're kidding.
LANDIS: And if you watch the video, people never noticed the song is 11 minutes long in the video and it's the same original tracks, totally re-cut and remixed. In fact, Vincent Price rerecorded the narration for me because I couldn't use the record narration because it was mixed with a synth track. And Mr. Price very graciously came in and redid it.
NORRIS: John Landis directed and produced Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, as well as many other classic Hollywood films, including "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers." His new book is called "Monsters in the Movies."
John Landis, thanks so much.
LANDIS: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.