The Simon West Interview
Plans to shut down Milton Keynes, shoot-halting press calls, 'flying' sports cars, and imaginary seagulls! All are just another day at the office for Simon West. Now a successful Hollywood movie director, Simon first directed the girls as complete unknowns on Showing Out, and then - only a few months later - in the grip of huge and sudden success with Respectable. Here, he shares his memories and his personal photos of “two big hearted girls” who, despite the pressures of sudden fame, “were loving it right up until the last minute.”
Hi Simon, thanks for taking time out from working on your new movie to speak with us.
My pleasure. It’s great to be nostalgic and reminisce.
We obviously know you for your work in music videos - and of course, as a hugely successful movie director - but you've also had a lot of success in British television...
Yeah, I started at the BBC, straight out of school. I really wanted to get into The National Film School, but they only took 25 people, and you had to be post graduate, um... so I wasn't eligible (laughs). Luckily for me, I saw that the BBC were advertising for assistant film editors, to train in their film department, so I went up there and somehow managed to talk my way into that, at 18.
As one door closes...
Oh absolutely! And the BBC training was amazing. They taught you everything, from lenses to lighting to sound to editing - all the departments - even if you were just going to be an editor. After that, I worked at BBC Films, doing everything from documentaries to drama to current affairs. So, yeah! That was my way of getting into the business.
How did you move into directing music videos?
While I was at the BBC, I started my own underground film studio with a group of friends and, one day, I saw these three girls busking on the London underground. They were called Dolly Mixture, and I thought they were great, so I got a group together and we started filming them busking and gigging in pubs, and stuff. Before I knew it, I’d shot lots of footage, so I chopped together what I had and showed the London Arts Council, and they gave me a grant to turn it into a 30 minute music documentary. By sheer chance, when we were filming the girls, they met up with Captain Sensible, from The Damned, and he asked them to sing with him on a song called Happy Talk, which went to number one. So, in the year I filmed them, Dolly Mixture went from busking on the underground to appearing on Top of the Pops (laughs). It was like the perfect journey for my documentary. Out of that, Captain Sensible asked me to do some music videos for him, and I slowly started getting noticed. I was still working on programmes for the BBC during the day and then I was editing my music videos and documentaries through the night, but it got so busy that I couldn’t do it all anymore, so I resigned from the BBC and set up my own little company, making music videos.
Mel & Kim pictured on the set of their first video - Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend - in August 1986
And, from there, you became involved with PWL?
Yes, somehow Pete Waterman's company noticed me. They asked if I would come in and do a video for The Three Degrees, who they were just re-launching with an updated dance song, and they liked what I did, so they started asking me to do more. I did videos for Princess and Sinitta, and even Mandy Smith (laughs). All the people they were launching in the dance world. With Mel & Kim, I was asked to do Showing Out, which obviously was a hit, and then they asked me to do the second one for Respectable, which was even bigger, and was number one everywhere. I was going to go in to do the next one, for F.L.M., and that was gonna be a massive production. We were gonna shut down the whole of Milton Keynes and do helicopters and goodness knows what else, but unfortunately it got cancelled because of Mel’s illness.
We definitely want to ask you all about the Respectable video shoot, and the original treatment you planned for the F.L.M. video, but lets start with Showing Out. Did you meet Mel & Kim, for the first time, on set or had you met the girls before then?
No, I think I must have met them first at PWL, 'cause I was in and out of PWL a lot back then. I knew Sinitta had had a bit of a career before I met her but, I remember, I didn’t know where Mel & Kim had popped up from. Funnily enough, when I was having one of those meetings (about the Respectable video) there was a runner around the studio, who was getting us sandwiches and tea, and then, a couple of weeks later, Pete Waterman said, 'we want you to do this next song, if you would like? It’s by this guy, Rick Astley' - and he was the runner from the studio! I said, 'but he’s the runner', and Pete said, 'I know, but he’s got a fantastic voice. Listen to his voice.' So, I listened, and he was amazing, but two weeks before that, he had been getting us tea and sandwiches (laughs). But that was PWL!
So, we want to ask you some details about the Showing Out video. There appears to be a number of scenes that were filmed, but didn’t make the final cut; for instance, there are shots of the girls on set, sitting in a sports car. Can you tell us more?
You know, I hadn’t seen the video for years, but I looked it up on YouTube, after you contacted me, and I had forgotten that we had cut out the sequences with the car. It’s actually my old sports car - a Sunbeam Alpine - which I still have! My original idea for the video was that it was Mel & Kim having a day out, so I had the girls sitting in the car, and we shot them fake driving it. We couldn’t afford proper blue screen or green screen, so we just had to shoot against black, and we were doing a very crude key into the black with a moving background. We also filmed a whole sequence of them flying in the air, but it was just too ambitious for the budget.
Flying? In the sports car?
Yeah (laughs), I shot all the angles and everything, ready for it, but we just couldn’t afford the post-production to have them flying around in the sky, and so I remember we did a simple version in the end. We did Showing Out in a day, very cheaply, I think the budget was around 10,000 pounds, and when you are doing a shoot in a day like that it is just go, go, go, go, go. PWL would usually only give me four days’ notice to put a video together, so a lot of ideas for what to film were thrown together really quickly, and then we would try lots of stuff on the set to see what would work and what would not. Of course, you then stay up the following three nights editing it and you turn it around in a week, so you don’t sleep for a week or so (laughs).
Mel & Kim and Simon, pictured on the Showing Out video set - melandkim.com Exclusive!
With your original video treatment for Showing Out in mind, what backgrounds and ideas did you plan to add in post-production?
Well, initially the background was going to give the impression that they were driving through the city lights at night, on a night out. Then it was gonna get more silly, where they would end up in the countryside with fields and blue sky behind them... and then it was gonna get even more crazy, where the car would take off and they would be up in the sky, and there were clouds going past, a hot air balloon in the background, and a near miss with a seagull (laughs).
Flying cars, hot air balloons, and seagulls? Wow! (laughs). That would have made for a very different video. Was all of that stuff story-boarded from the start?
Well, I knew some of what I wanted to put in there in post-production, but as I said, we also tried lots of ideas on the day. On set, I remember shouting out different things to the girls so that they would know to react, trying to get every possible reaction out of them. They were 'driving' and I'd be shouting at them that they were now going down a country road, and it was beautiful, and now they were flying in the air and something was skimming past them'. 'Oh watch out, a seagull!' (Laughs), you know? That kind of stuff.... and of course, they would be ducking and screaming!
That sounds like so much fun. I guess the girls were laughing?
Oh yeah (laughs), they loved that stuff, especially Mel. Mel was a big giggler. Kim would laugh with Mel as well, but she was the older sister, and so she played the older sister role and would say ‘Okay, we have gotta get on with it’, and be the big sister telling the younger sister to behave and get back to work.
Mel between takes of the filmed, but unused, 'shop scene' melandkim.com Exclusive
Another of the scenes you shot that didn’t make the final edit features Mel, wearing a white overall, standing by what looks like an old-fashioned shop till.
(Laughs) That’s so funny, I am just looking at the picture you sent me. I vaguely remember that we did have a weird little shop set up with Mel wearing that white thing, and then having her pulling it off in the video to go out for the night. It was the scenario where she had a dull day job in a shop, and then at the end of the day, she would pull off the white coat and she would have her club gear underneath, ready to go clubbing. We were just throwing ideas out there and trying anything, and a lot of these ideas are fun, but Mel & Kim were so great to watch that you really just wanna have as much of them singing and dancing as possible. That’s why I think that a lot of these storyboard ideas fell by the wayside. The girls were just so watchable and so good that, at the end of the day, everybody just wanted to watch them sing and dance.
Despite it being their first video shoot, Mel & Kim look super-confident on film. Were they as confident off camera?
Yeah, they were very confident! They were not shy about that sort of thing at all, and they weren’t introverted in any way, so I didn’t really have to work to bring that confidence out in them. Both Mel and Kim were total performers, so it was playing to their strengths. They were really, really good and they were certainly enjoying it. I could see them being in the West End, in a musical or something, because they were so brilliant. I don’t know what Kim has done since, I know she has sung, but obviously she was a great musical artist, singer and dancer.
The shoot sounds like great fun, and that energy and vibe really comes across in the video.
It was. They were lovely girls and they worked hard, but they also knew how to have a good time, and so it was like they were having a party there with us on the set that day. It was like, they could either have been going out for a party that night, down a club singing and dancing, or they could do it in front of the camera, you know? But either way, they were gonna have just as much fun. They were working hard, but they hadn’t become ‘pop stars’ by then, so they couldn’t believe that they were actually there doing it (laughs). It was great!
Were you with the sisters when they watched the Showing Out video for the first time?
No, unfortunately. I really just showed it to Nick East, and then he took it to PWL and Mel & Kim, and I was on to the next shoot. It would have been great to sit with them as they saw it for the first time though, and to have seen what they thought, but knowing them, I’m sure they squealed and loved it. They do look like they are having fun in the video, and hopefully they liked it. Did Kim ever say what she thought of the videos?
Yes, Kim often speaks really highly of the videos, especially Showing Out, which she has said is “100% Mel & Kim”.
Ah good, good. That is nice to hear.
After the huge success of Showing Out, you then went on to film the video for Mel & Kim's second release Respectable. Was that a similar process and budget to Showing Out?
No, it was a much bigger number! Showing Out was done on a shoestring but, ‘cause Mel & Kim were now on the rise, Respectable had a much bigger budget. It might have been 40,000 pounds, or something like that. We shot on 35mm film and shot for longer, and we had proper choreographers and all that sort of stuff. It was shot in some warehouse studio on the Thames, called Bankside, or something like that. I’m sure its long gone now but it was a well-used studio. We called it a studio but really it was a huge burnt-out warehouse and I shot videos for Princess and Sinitta and lots of others there. Anyway, for 'Respectable', the set took up most of the space. We built the whole street set, with that big billboard at the end that they go up to and push and it spins around to reveal the stage with the two catwalks, where they come out in a different outfit, as one long set. It was huge.
Everything had changed since you first directed Mel & Kim. They were under new management and were suddenly hugely famous, the budget was larger, and the stakes were higher. With so much at stake, did this create any challenges that were not present when you shot the video for Showing Out?
(Laughs) Well, sometimes there can be a bit of a clash between the music biz and the film business about understanding the technology, and I do remember Nick East wasn’t used to the film world, and was really frustrated with the process. As I said, we were shooting on 35mm film, which is obviously absolutely beautiful and gorgeous - it’s what feature films are made on - but only the camera man can see what is actually happening through the camera. Everyone else has to look in this monitor, which is just a video tap that gives a rough check and only shows a black and white, grainy picture, for reference. Nick couldn’t understand why the quality was so bad on the monitor and so there was a lot of frustration on his part as he wasn’t sure that the quality was gonna be really good. I assured him that the film would be absolutely beautiful once it was developed and the quality would be much better than on Showing Out, but he couldn’t quite get that from watching on a grainy monitor.
That must have added to the pressure.
Yes, it was a bit frustrating (laughs). I also remember Nick saying he wanted a ‘full length close-up’ of the girls and he couldn’t understand the difference between a ‘close-up’ and a ‘wide shot’, and how we would edit them together. He didn’t really understand that you cut between the angles. For instance, when they did a great dance move, I would cut to the wide shot and when we wanted to see them do a vocal in a beautiful close-up, we would have a beautiful close-up, and I would just cut in between. Nick was saying he really wanted me to shoot ‘full length close-ups’ but I was explaining that this is two different things, so there was a little bit of misunderstanding. It was very frustrating for Nick and there was a little bit of film schooling going on (laughs). Then, at the same time, I remember, there was also a lot of press on set as well.
Mel & Kim, during their Press call, on the Respectable video set - February 4th 1987, from Simon's personal archive Exclusively licenced by melandkim.com.
Yes, we are aware that there was a press call during the video shoot for promotional photos and interviews with the girls. Was that normal practice on set back then?
No. It is now but not back then. These days, whether it’s music videos or commercials or films, press and publicity is so important, and you quite often have to stop for these things, but in those days it was quite strange. Most of the time we were off doing our videos down dark alleys in the backstreets of London, or a studio somewhere, and we were just getting on with it. It was quite unusual to shut down right in the middle of shooting that day and say, ‘oh we have got to have pictures taken, and they have to do interviews’, and have photographers shouting at them, ‘over here’, ‘over here’, you know,? So yeah, it was very unusual, and we were seeing it for the first time as well, but the girls were really well known by that point.
With all this added pressure, did you see a difference in Mel & Kim’s behaviour and attitude on set?
No, I think they were just even more excited (laughs). At that point, they were the new 'hot thing' and they were on Top of The Pops, and they were glamorous, so they were really being followed and hounded by the press, but they were just the same as always. They were honestly such lovely girls. I don’t think they had had a chance to get worn down by the business or the paparazzi or anything like that yet, and that’s why it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they had gone on for years after. It would have been interesting to see how they would have dealt with fame and the press, and everything. It was such a short career and it was such a shame, but at that stage they were loving it, right up until the last minute.
It is good to hear that the girls kept their feet on the ground and were happy, despite all that was going on around them. You hear horror stories of entertainers being late to set and refusing to be filmed from certain angles etc. How were the sisters to direct this time around?
Oh no, there was none of that business (laughs). They were great. There was none of that typical movie star or pop star stuff - which I have had in both music videos and films - where they are just very difficult to work with and make the whole process painful and slow. Mel & Kim were still just two young girls who were really excited to be there, and I am sure if their career had gone on longer - knowing what they were like - they would never have been like that, you know? They were just too big hearted, that’s the thing. They were just nice, kind, big hearted girls and so, from our point of view, working with them was really easy. They were both jumping to whatever we wanted, however fast we wanted it, however many times, you know? They were excited and energetic, they never got tired or complained about anything. No, Mel & Kim were great.
On-set photos from Simon's personal archive - Exclusively licenced by melandkim.com
Tell us a little more about the sisters' personalities?
Well, as I said, they were both great performers, but they were also proper sisters. It was lovely to see them together ‘cause they obviously did really love each other and were very close. Mel was definitely the gigglier one. She would crack up laughing a lot when she made a mistake with the dance routine, or when they would bump into each other, or whatever. She was definitely the giggly one who would crack up easiest and would take longer to sort of settle down again (laughs). Kim was laughing too but I got the impression that she was a little more the serious one and very much the older sister, making sure that they were keeping in line, as it were, and that they were following instructions and listening to me.
One of Mel & Kim’s co-stars in the video was a small dog. Was he/she yours?
No, I think it was probably a movie dog, to be honest with you. I must have needed a small dog that would do something on command, and I wouldn’t have risked it being a friend’s dog, so it was a hired, trained, movie dog. A professional (laughs). I’ve worked with a lot of animals on various things, so I was used to calling up the trainers and them going ‘Oh what do you want this week, a snake or a bat or a…’?
An invisible seagull?
(Laughs) Oh yeah!
And of course, the video for Respectable won ‘Best Video’ at the 1987 Montreux IMMC Awards Gala (part of the Montreux Pop & Rock Festival, where the girls were also performing). Were you there to receive the award?
No, unfortunately I didn’t hear about that until afterwards, when there was press in the trades. As I said, I was a bit of a gun for hire, so I would come in and come up with the ideas for the videos, design them, film then edit them, and then I wouldn’t really be involved. I did interviews after the fact, but I was from the film world and didn’t really know anything about the music business, so I didn’t know about the Montreux Music Festival. Some people come to music videos from the music side and know everything that goes on, but it was a mystery to me. I just came in and shot the videos as filmically as I could and that was it, so I was a bit naive and ignorant of the music business.
Mel & Kim’s third single F.L.M. followed, and you were originally called on to film the accompanying video. However, plans stalled when Mel became ill and you didn’t end up working on that video, did you?
No. Respectable was number one all over the place and so we were going to go into the next one. I had story-boarded it and scouted locations and everything, but then we heard that Mel was not well and that we couldn’t go ahead. The record company were still committed to releasing the single and so they did a cover video for F.L.M. where they used puppets and things like that, which was obviously not my field, so I didn’t do it.
Can you tell us what you had envisioned for the F.L.M. video?
F.L.M. was going to be even bigger than Respectable - a bigger budget again - and it was gonna establish Mel & Kim as a huge act, as if they were playing stadiums. We were gonna shut down the whole of Milton Keynes and use helicopters and goodness knows what else. It was gonna be a massive production.
Wow, that would have been amazing! Why did you choose Milton Keynes as the setting?
There was a new (at the time), big, modern building in Milton Keynes, which was like a pyramid, with coloured beams of light which shot up in the air, so we were gonna make that look like a massive stadium. There was a long road leading up to it, so I was gonna have the girls driving in a limo up that road, singing and making their way there to perform, with helicopters chasing them along the way. I am sure there would have been some funny little story things going on along the way, which would have evolved on the day. Then they would arrive at the concert, which was gonna be a really big stadium concert with huge lighting. It was gonna be on a huge scale and make them into stadium mega stars.
It is so sad that Mel & Kim didn’t get to make that video and take the next step in their career, as planned.
I know, and it was just by a couple of weeks. It’s such a shame that it didn’t happen. ’Cause Mel’s illness was kept confidential, we didn’t even know what had happened. We just heard that she couldn’t do it, that she was on tour and had had severe backache, and I didn’t hear the exact details until much later. It was totally out of the blue and she was so young, I mean she was 21 and the most energetic person that you could imagine, so there was absolutely no hint of anything like that. It was such a shock and such a tragedy.
Absolutely! Finally - notwithstanding how things ended, what is your lasting impression of Mel & Kim?
What I remember most is two very raucous, really nice, fun, young girls who were having fun, and giggling and laughing about it all and having a great time... I remember two sisters who obviously loved each other and were definitely older and younger, even though there’s not that much difference in age. More than anything though, I just remember Mel’s laugh! I mean, the windows would rattle when Mel laughed, and she did find a lot of things funny (laughs). So, that’s what I remember most. Mel's laugh was.. huge!