The Nick Willing Interview
In early 1991, Kim released her second solo single, G.L.A.D. and Nick Willing, who had previously directed clips for Bob Geldof and Eurythmics, was called upon to direct his first ‘dance video’. Though new to the dance world, Nick had already forged a strong reputation for his innovative and experimental approach to film making and his treatment for G.L.A.D. was certainly no different. Here, the award-winning director, producer and screenplay writer shares why he "admired Kim enormously", and why he still loves the video despite the threat of legal action that it brought him, after its release.
Hi Nick, it's great to talk to you. You have directed some fantastic videos for the likes of Eurythmics, Kirsty McCall and Debbie Gibson. Can you take us back to 1991, and how you became involved in directing Kim for G.L.A.D.?
Yes, I remember making that video extremely well. I was with Propaganda films, who were one of the biggest video companies around at that time, and they asked me to do it. They wanted something fresh and bright and fun and cool, and Kim wanted to dance, so it was to be a video that was more about style and dance rather than story. I really wanted to do a ‘dance’ video so I was really excited to do it.
How did you approach the visual treatment for the track?
I approached it like a fashion show - beautifully lit, and I came up with an idea to use a combination of visually arresting images and visual effects to emphasise the dance. I think they [Propaganda & Kim] liked that because they didn’t want to get bogged down in trying to tell a story - and particularly not a personal story, because of the tragedy that had occurred in Kim’s life. They wanted something that was celebratory and something that felt redemptive and born again in a sense, so I wanted to make sure I did that for them and for Kim.
And that certainly comes across in the video.
Oh, thank you. As I say, they wanted something positive, and Kim wanted something positive... because I think she felt that that is what Mel would have wanted.
So, you obviously knew of Mel & Kim then?
Oh, of course. Mel & Kim were hugely famous! They had some huge hits.
The G.L.A.D. video has a very clear Pop Art aesthetic, that feels reminiscent of the work of Roy Lichtenstein...
(Laughs) Oh yeah. That actually got me into a lot of trouble. The series of huge sets I had built for the shoot were ‘inspired’ by the paintings of Lichtenstein, although they weren't exact copies or anything but, after we did the video, a gallery in London wanted to sue me. I remember going to Propaganda and them saying that this meant big trouble for me. I asked them ‘What do you mean, for me?’ , and they said, ‘Well, the law here says it is down to the director. You're the one who'll bear the brunt because it was your idea to do it!’ Now, in 1991 I was not a rich man (laughs). You didn’t make much money directing music videos so the idea of possibly getting sued for God knows how much was extremely worrying, but in the end, I think they didn’t feel they could make a case and they were benevolent enough to say, ‘Well OK, we’re not gonna destroy this young kid'. I was young, you know? I was 29 at the time and I was terrified! (Laughs).
The G.L.A.D. video also contains some unusual visual effects, before such things were as easily produced in post-production.
Yeah, we had to be… creative! (Laughs)
How did you achieve this?
Well this was in 1991, before computers, so we didn’t have today’s ‘visual effects’. We knew that they were kind of on the horizon - in the way that we possibly knew that a mission to Mars was on the horizon, you know? (Laughs). But at that time everything was shot on film and so to do visual effects, you did it all on film in an analogue way. Back then we were experimenting with film and pushing the boundaries all the time, trying to come up with new things that people had never seen before. We were really trying to push the envelope and so there was a lot of very elaborate processes going on with chemicals and stuff. The shaky, rippled effect that we used to enhance the dancing you see in the video was one of my ‘innovations’ (laughs). The way I did that was… I filmed a tank with mercury… (laughs) and I put a camera looking down into the mercury and then an angled mirror on top of it, and then I filmed the dancers.
Really? Wow! Wasn’t that kind of dangerous?
Yeah, it was actually very dangerous because the lights on the mercury create fumes which you would breathe in and mercury is extremely poisonous. Nobody would do it except me but I’m still alive (laughs). Mercury acts like a mirror so, as they were dancing, I’d hit the side of this tank and the dancers would ripple as if they were reflected on a rippling mirror. We then intercut that with normal dancing and I remember it being very attractive at the time. It was like wow, what a cool effect. Of course, now you wouldn’t even think about doing that, now you just press a button on a computer (laughs).
You also employed a very fast editing style during some of the chorus/dance routine footage, which gave the clip a real visual pace to equal the track itself.
Well, the idea of the video was that the world around you changes but you stay constant - so the way I presented that was by filming the same dance, and Kim’s performance against lots of different backgrounds with different paintings and stuff, so the background would keep shifting but Kim stayed constant. It is really fast but you put up with it because Kim stays the same.
That must have required a lot of work on set filming, as well as editing in the cutting room.
Yes. It meant a lot of work in the cutting room and I was one of the few directors at the time who was doing that. It was another one of my inventions or ‘innovations’ (laughs). It also meant there was a lot of measuring and stuff between takes and Kim had marks that she had to hit. Kim was amazing actually, to do that in a day and to learn it so quickly. I remember there was something that had happened not that much earlier, that she had to recover from, I don’t remember what it was but there was this ‘oh, will she be OK doing it’ and, in the end, she was fantastic. It was a difficult thing to do, dancing like that over and over again and doing lots and lots of takes.
How was Kim to direct on set?
She really was fantastic. With a dance video like that, my job was to make the environment work but I don’t remember having to directing her a lot. Kim had an idea in her head of what the dance should be and she was committed and really preoccupied about getting it right. She liked the ideas I had and she understood that we had to have visually arresting images so it was very easy.
Was she also involved in the filming process?
Not in the film making but definitely in the dance, and how it looked on film. I remember she came into the editing room and I had the feeling that she really wanted to get it right. When Kim saw the film, she was very concerned about the dance and whether she was professional-looking enough. We had used a silhouetted effect and Kim felt it highlighted the slightly out-of-sync-ness, if there was any, between her and the trained dancers and you could see the slight discrepancies. I couldn’t really see the discrepancies but she had such a keen eye for such things that it bugged her if it wasn’t right. She wasn’t a trained dancer so she had put in a lot work to get herself to that point and she had really worked hard to be that good but she was also therefore sensitive about whether the dance looked completely right on film.
It sounds as if Kim was putting a lot of pressure on herself.
Oh, definitely. Kim was a natural but that’s different to being a trained dancer. She had gone away and rehearsed that dance for days before shooting so when she arrived on set, she was well drilled, but she knew she wasn’t a trained dancer. I think that’s why she came into the cutting room and was so concerned to look absolutely in sync with everybody. It was flying through so quickly you couldn’t really tell, in my opinion, but she saw it. She was dancing with really good trained dancers so she kept saying, ‘Oh, my arm is not exactly where it should be’, and so we went back and frame-by-framed it, to make sure it was all exactly right. Kim was very meticulous, painstakingly going through each one. She was very keen that it look completely right and she thought she had a responsibility to do her best.
So, you sensed that feeling of responsibility from her?
Yes. I found Kim to be a very interesting woman. She was obviously still nervous about being on her own, being a solo artist, and how that was portrayed, so the video was very important to her. In those days, bands didn’t tour much so it was the video that went everywhere, so Kim was just concerned that it was done properly. It was clear to me that Kim had to have real confidence in me as the filmmaker, in that it was going to be done as she wanted it to be done, and I think she felt the responsibility of doing it on her own. She was very single minded and committed to what she was doing and very professional and, you know, not all artists at that time, in the 80s and early 90s, were that well-behaved (laughs).
Oh, I’m sure! (Laughs).
Yes. Being professional wasn’t seen as being that cool, so instead you acted abysmally all the time. I remember doing Boy George… he was horrendous (laughs). I mean, people could be just awful because they would get into the position of doing a video and they would act impulsively, like children, you know? But there was nothing like that with Kim, she was great. She was very grown up about it and she was extremely polite and well-behaved, very committed and professional and well-rehearsed. Kim wanted to get it absolutely right and she had a vision for her art.
That’s interesting that you say ‘art’, rather than career.
Yes. I wouldn’t say ‘her career’, because I don’t know that she was in it for that, but I could tell that she wanted to do it right and to honour her sister as well, to make sure that she got it right for Mel. I think that was why I found her so interesting. It had been a little over a year since her sister had passed away and that’s no time at all when you are grieving. I felt that Kim was a young woman who was carrying an enormous burden and some pain, and she was trying to do right for herself - and her sister, even after her death. I admired that enormously and I felt for her, you know, it must have been hard.
You spoke of Kim’s focus being on ‘the dance’ during the editing process, but pop stars are often known for having big egos and being a little vain, especially when it comes to their looks on film. Was Kim happy with the way she looked throughout the video?
Oh, I didn’t think she was vain at all. That’s very interesting actually because... you’re right… most rock stars are obviously very vain and are very worried about how they look. Mmmm, actually, now I think about it, that is an unusual characteristic [to not be vain] but Kim wasn’t like that at all. She was concerned about her dance moves and whether she was good enough but I certainly didn’t feel she was vain.
Were you happy with the final video?
I loved it! I wanted it to be something that was right for Kim and her single at the time, which I think I did and it got played a lot. Each video I have done has been different and I remember shooting all of them, but ‘G.L.A.D.’ was really memorable because the dance was so good. I didn’t do that many dance videos, so that one for me was a great experience and I absolutely loved it!
Nick, thank you.