Walter Yetnikoff (then president, CBS/Columbia Records) I used to get calls from Michael in the middle of the night. ‘Walter, the record is not Number 1 [anymore]’ – and this is ‘Thriller’ – ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘We’re going to go to sleep and deal with it tomorrow.’
John Landis (director, ‘Thriller’) ‘Thriller’, the album, had been in the Top 10 for a year, and maybe Number 1 for most of that year, but now it was going down – but still, in the Top 10 after a year! There had been two videos made, Billie Jean and Beat It, and both of those had been very successful.
MTV used to have a policy, no black acts, and Michael ended that because Walter Yetnikoff, he basically said, ‘I’m pulling all the Columbia/CBS acts if you don’t play [Jackson’s videos]. Michael saw [Landis’s film] An American Werewolf in London and he contacted me and asked me if I would make a video with him. And I said ‘No,’ actually – because they were basically commercials, right? But he persisted and said, ‘No, no, no – I really wanna make it.’ So when I returned to LA I called Rick Baker, who had done the make-up effects for American Werewolf? and said, ‘Rick, Michael Jackson wants to become a monster.’
Rick Baker (make-up effects) John told me about the idea but I was reluctant. I got a call from John and he was like, ‘You know who Michael Jackson is?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, kinda. He’s the guy from the Jackson 5, right?’ And he said, ‘Well he’s got this song called Thriller and he wants to do this short film.’ At first I said I didn’t want to do it. It’s not the most popular job – it’s like being a dentist in a way: they have to sit still in a chair for hours while you work on them, it’s uncomfortable – it’s not something actors look forward to.
John Landis Basically, I thought about it and my intention was to exploit Michael’s unbelievable celebrity at that point to make a theatrical short, a 14-minute short. George Folsey Jr, my producer and editor on a lot of things, and I, worked up the budget. I insisted it would be a union shoot – almost all videos at that time were non-union – and I also insisted the dancers have at least 10 days of rehearsal, which is also never done because it’s so expensive, and we put it all down and the bottom line was that we worked out it would cost about half-a-million dollars. Which was a huge amount of money, because at that time the most a video had been was, I think, $100, 000.
[Jackson] called Walter Yetnikoff and he talked to him for a couple of minutes, telling him what I wanted to do, and then he handed me the phone. I said, ‘Hello?’ And then this, this blast of flaming – ‘You motherf—er! What the f—‘s the matter with you?’ The one conversation I ever had with Walter Yetnikoff – you know in movies where they hold the phone away? It was like that. He was screaming.
The essence of Yetnikoff’s rant was: the album had already become the most successful album, it’s had a year at Number 1, it’s now going down and it’s still selling respectably, and f— your video and f— you. I handed Michael the phone back and he said, ‘Oh that’s OK, I’ll pay.’ And I said, ‘Mike, I can’t spend your money…’
George [Folsey Jr]’s idea was: why don’t we film us filming it, and then we can make a 45-minute documentary called The Making of Thriller, then in total that’s an hour. And then sell that [to cable television] to get the money to make Thriller. [In the end they initiated a bidding war between cable companies.] The record company had no money in it, Michael had no money in it; and MTV and Showtime each put up $250k, so now we had the money, and it was fun.
Kim Blank (dancer) I think Michael Peters, the choreographer, called me directly about Thriller… I remember Michael had already done Beat It and I remember him calling me about it and me being really thrilled about it, but that he said something to me to the effect of, ‘This isn’t going to be a glamour job.’
Rick Baker You start with the casting of the actor’s face, then the latex, the contact lenses… Michael’s make-up started more as a werewolf and then became more cat-like. Normally you would make a cast of every actor’s face, but we’d only have three days from meeting the dancers to finishing their faces, so we couldn’t do it that way. I wasn’t too happy about that, but in the end we made three sizes of zombie mask.We couldn’t do the teeth how we normally would, either. I suggested that myself and the crew be zombies, so that we could have a few that were done properly – because we could have more time to work on the make-up.
Michele Simmons (dancer) We rehearsed it in Debbie Reynolds’s dance studio [in North Hollywood]. Michael Peters called me up and said, ‘I’m getting ready to do Thriller with Michael and I want you and Lorraine [Fields] to flank him, to be on either side of him’ – because Michael Jackson knew us. We worked on television with him all through the Seventies and early Eighties.
Vincent Peters (dancer/choreographer’s assistant) Michael Peters just wanted great dancers. He was a wonderful choreographer and I think he captured the zombie aspects of the movement really well. His choreography had eclectic rhythms, a sense of humour and a finger on the pulse of what was coming ahead in the world of dance.
Rick Baker Michael was great and very shy. I remember the first time John came over to shoot us working on Michael’s make-up for his behind-the-scenes stuff – which I wasn’t too happy about and Michael wasn’t too happy about – Michael was so nervous that, as soon as the cameras came in, he ran off and hid in the bathroom. So different to when he was performing – Thriller was happening during the making of the Motown Anniversary Special, when Michael first did the moonwalk, and one of the guys bought a tape of the show in and said, ‘Watch this.’ That was him, when he was performing; that was when he came alive.
Deborah Landis (née Nadoolman) (costume designer) It was a dance that took place in a graveyard setting, it was dark, foggy, and I needed Michael to pop out of that picture. The shoulders of that jacket gave him some virility – this man, Michael, only about 99lb, he’s 5ft 6in or 7in – and then he wore the red jeans and his trademark white socks and black shoes… I can look at my career and know that I designed Indiana Jones and know that I designed the Michael Jackson Thriller look. Those two things just seemed to become part of the fabric of the culture.
Brian Greenberg (cameraman) This was a much bigger production than Beat It had been. It had a definite beginning, middle and end to it. Beat It was done by a commercial director, Thriller was done by John Landis, who’d directed all these movies. He really covered it, like, Old Hollywood style – we had all the toys we needed to do it with.
Marty Thomas (props assistant) It was a long job and it was secret, you know? I remember we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and not to tell anybody what we were filming, not to tell family or anything… very, very rare for music videos back then. What they would do is print up maps to the location and leave them around, but they were false locations. Somebody from the press would sneak on set and steal these maps and they were just sort of locations of the shopping mall that’s closed, way way out in the Valley.
We couldn’t believe it was just for one music video. It was a small city everywhere we went. There was a lot of police, a lot of security. And Landis, he would let people who made it there get pretty close, but behind a barrier. They had third and fourth and fifth assistant directors handling the crowd, which would be in numbers of two, three to four hundred, who had figured out where to go or had heard from one of the film crew or whatever, there watching on the set.
Lorraine Fields (dancer) This was before the internet, so I don’t know how people found out. It was like dancing on stage, it was like doing a concert. We didn’t start taping until the middle of the night. Every night it was like, he came out and people were screaming. It was like being in concert with Michael Jackson – it was very exciting.
John Landis It was amazing working with Michael at the time because it was at the height – it was like working with The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania or something, it was extraordinary being with him, because he was just ridiculously famous. It was like being with Jesus I used to say, because people used to see him and go into hysterics. Also, Michael’s friends – it was so nuts. It used to be like, ‘Michael, William [son of Walt] Disney’s on the phone,’ or Fred Astaire, who Michael had known very well since he was a kid. ‘Mike, Henry Kissinger’s on the phone’; ‘Mike, President Reagan’s calling.’ Bizarro shit all the time.
My favourite moment during the making of Thriller, and one of the few times in my life I’ve ever been speechless, was when we were shooting the graveyard set in a meatpacking plant in East LA, a dodgy neighbourhood, by a freightyard. And we’re shooting away and Michael’s assistant comes to me and he says, ‘Michael would like to see you in his trailer.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll be out in 20 minutes.’
So I go out – and it’s like 3.30 in the morning – and there’s a Winnebago out there and there’s loads of security there, so I step up and I knock, and Michael’s like, ‘John, do you know Mrs Onassis?’ and it was Jackie Kennedy…
Marty Thomas I was having lunch and Michael came and sat at the head of our table to talk to somebody else. It was just a crew table, and usually he was pretty separated – in fact, they told us at the start of the shoot, if anybody talks to Michael, you’re fired. So he sat down and we’re like, ‘Oh, God,’ and he started talking with us, and he had with him a mayonnaise and beansprout sandwich, and he said, ‘Anyone wanna finish this?’ and I said, ‘I’ll finish it!’ So he gave me half of his mayonnaise and beansprout sandwich.
I ate a few bites and after he left I didn’t finish it, and one of the guys said, ‘Why’d you take that?’ I said, ‘Actually, I just want to be able to say when I’m 80, I just want to say, I ate half of Michael Jackson’s sandwich.’ Like, mayonnaise is supposed to be so bad for you now – he won’t eat meat, but he’ll eat all that lard.
Kim Blank I was in make-up, dancing in the street, all night, all night, for two nights in a row. I remember it took, like, two hours to put the make-up on and it took a long time to get it off. And I remember the next night, coming to get that make-up off again, my face was literally swollen at least 50 per cent. I wasn’t expecting to look cute…
Lorraine Fields I remember at one point they got some dirt on the floor and stuck it on my face – ‘This looks good.’
Michele Simmons They took moulds of our teeth for the dentures that they put in our mouths. When they made the extra dentures, you put those in your mouth and now you can’t close your mouth, and when you can’t close your mouth, the saliva falls out. And they just said, ‘This is great! Let’s just put some food colour and dye in there and that’ll make it really nasty-looking!’ That was part of the deal.
Marty Thomas One day, they were yelling, ‘No flash pictures, Michael is very, very sensitive to light.’ And I was like, that’s so funny, you know? He’s more sensitive than I am? He’s standing in front of these 10 kilowatt lights all night long, man – but he can’t handle a flashbulb? So we’re all set – everybody ready? – and ‘OK Mike’; ‘No flashbulbs when Michael comes out.’
Michael comes out and he’s got this gigantic bodyguard walking with him. And as he walks out, somebody flashes a shot, ‘Snap!’ And Michael, you might as well have hit him with a whip. He cowers down and he’s like ‘Uh… I just… that was right in my eye’ and he’s talking and he’s leaning on the bodyguard and the guard’s holding him up because he might fall down in a pile and melt… and he’s saying ‘Uh… I just… I just’ and he turns around, and he starts being helped back into the motorhome. We’re like, what?
The bodyguard looks around, he opens the door and helps him in, and somebody else comes out of the motorhome and helps him up the stairs, and the bodyguard looks at everyone with a look of death: how dare you? And he goes in and he turns around and he slams the door – at which the entire crew burst out laughing… I think he was really tired and he was punchy and he didn’t like it that the set wasn’t controlled – and he didn’t like his picture being taken, so he was making a point.
Mike Wilhoit (sound editor) They didn’t have sound when they shot it, just the song and some dialogue. We had some of the dancers come into the recording studio [afterwards] and record the sound of their feet… The biggest thing was the sound of the monsters and the zombies, to get them to sound all scary and weird: voices were changed around, reversed, played slower…
John Landis We put all the footage together and we saw it was, like, only 26 minutes long. Oh shit… I said, ‘Do you have any other footage you own? What do you own? I literally went into the closet at Mike’s house. I said, ‘Mrs Jackson, where do you keep all your home movies?’ ‘I don’t know.’ And I found a box of home movies – and now everyone’s seen it, that amazing 8mm footage of Mike dancing at five years old. I found that in a closet so I said, ‘OK, we own this too…’ We called it ‘The Making of Filler’.
Michele Simmons I knew it was gonna be fabulous, but I was also of that mindset that we shouldn’t have done it as a video [contractually speaking]… they show Thriller, still, all the time, and we’re not paid a dime because it was considered publicity for the record company. So it was a huge rip-off. For the amount of people that were in Thriller and the amount of money that was made from it, they could have easily paid us.
Marty Thomas In one day I made over $1,000, which back then was a lot of money.
John Landis Vincent [Price] called me about a year later and he said, ‘Look, the kid made the most successful record of all time and I made less than $1,000 dollars… Michael won’t take my calls… I’m very upset about it.’
Sales of ‘Thriller’, the album, tripled after the Thriller video aired, sending it on its way to its current certified worldwide tally of 55 million sales (though some estimates put that figure at double). In February 1984, it won eight of the 12 Grammys for which it was nominated, and in 1999 VH1 viewers voted it the greatest video of all time. A new version including remixes by Kanye West and others is due for release in February.
John Landis We had a première – which was a riot – because Michael wanted a première. I’ve been to the Oscars and I’ve been to the Baftas, I’ve been to the Emmys, I’ve been to the Golden Globes, and I’ve never been anywhere like this première. It was incredible. There was everyone from Diana Ross and Warren Beatty to Prince. It was nuts. Amazing… got a standing ovation and all that stuff and they’re shouting, ‘Encore, encore,’ and I said ‘Encore? There is no f—ing encore!’
Then Eddie Murphy got up and shouted, ‘Show the goddamn thing again!’ So they sat and they watched Thriller again. Why not? It was just amazing, it was just amazing…
[Afterwards] Walter Yetnikoff said, ‘OK, we own this music,’ and I understand why he did it for his company – they had technically fulfilled their obligation to me with the theatrical release – so it went on Showtime, and two weeks later it went on MTV – and they showed Thriller and The Making of Thriller, like, 24 f—ing hours a day. [Yetnikoff] then took Thriller and gave it to every TV station in the world…
And so that was so extraordinary that it made MTV, and it made the video business become a real business. They priced video very high then – to buy a movie then was like $85, and that is what created the video rental market. The way it worked then, video stores, Blockbuster and Broadway video – they’d buy thousands of copies and then they would rent them, so the studio got nothing from the renting but they got their money up-front.
A guy name Walter Furst, he ran this company called Vestron Video, he called me and said, ‘I want to put it out on VHS.’ I said, ‘We can’t sell it for $90, it’s on TV for free every five seconds.’ He said ‘No, no, no – we’ll price it for sell-through’ – the first time I ever heard that expression – ‘We’ll sell it for $24.95.’ I thought, who’s gonna buy it for $24.95?’ But they shipped a million of them just in the United States. And what Thriller did, it created the sell-through video. It changed everything.
Thriller by the numbers
55m Estimated total sales of ‘Thriller’. It’s the second-biggest-selling album ever, after ‘Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975’ by The Eagles.
24 Michael Jackson’s age when ‘Thriller’ was released. It was already – counting his solo, Jackson 5 and The Jacksons work – his 19th studio album.
3 The number of tracks Freddie Mercury recorded with Jackson in the early 1980s. Yet, to Mercury’s great regret, not one of their collaborations made it on to ‘Thriller’.
2 The number of calendar years in which ‘Thriller’ was the world’s biggest-selling album. It achieved this ‘double’, unmatched by any other record, in 1983 and 1984.
1,000 – 10,000 The estimated, one-off fee (in American dollars) that Horror film veteran Vincent Price received for his narration on the Thriller song and video. He had opted for this form of payment, rather than a percentage of all album sales.
0 The number of music videos better than Thriller, according to MTV’s ‘100 Greatest Videos Ever Made’ list. It beat Madonna’s Vogue to top spot.
1 The number of Playboy spreads that actress Ola Ray had featured in, before starring as Jackson’s lover in the Thriller video. According to John Landis, Jackson had no idea what Playboy was, at the time of casting.
14 The length of the Thriller video, in minutes. It remained the world’s longest music video until 1996, when it was surpassed by another Jackson video, for Ghosts.
2 The number of Jackson’s siblings to appear on the ‘Thriller’ album. Janet and LaToya sang backing vocals on ‘P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)’. Guitarist Paul Jackson wasn’t a relation.
4 The number of the album’s nine songs written by Michael himself: The Girl Is Mine, Billie Jean, Beat It and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin. These were also the first four ‘Thriller’ tracks to be released as singles.