How Michael Jackson's Movie Dream Turned Into A Nightmare
Michael Jackson's 'One More Chance' music video should have marked the beginning of his triumphant return to the limelight, but his comeback fell at the first hurdle when detectives raided his home and the project was abandoned. Charles Thomson speaks to the performers colleagues, collaborators and co-stars about his little known final music video.
November 2010, Sawf News
In Summer 2003 Michael Jackson and his team were quietly plotting an extraordinary comeback. Amid the tranquil setting of his sprawling Neverland Ranch, Jackson was meeting with his business partners, advisors and publicist on a regular basis to devise plans for a multi-faceted comeback that would re-launch the star into the stratosphere. The comeback was being plotted to rehabilitate his image and extend his business empire.
The past few years had not been kind to Jackson. His 2001 album Invincible had received a mixed critical reaction and had been derided by the press as a commercial failure, compared to past projects. In the Summer of 2002 Jackson had blamed low album sales on his record company, Sony, branding label boss Tommy Mottola ‘racist’ and ‘devilish’.
He claimed the label had sabotaged Invincible by failing to promote it and, in a series of speeches, announced his intention to leave the label. However, his public fall-out with Sony had led to tabloid mockery and his campaign had ultimately fallen flat.
Jackson’s confidence had been rocked by two further incidents. The singer found himself at the center of a global scandal in November 2002 after pictures were beamed around the world of him dangling his son over a hotel balcony in Germany. He was dealt another blow in February 2003 when Martin Bashir’s documentary Living with Michael Jackson caused uproar, showing Jackson holding hands with young cancer patient Gavin Arvizo and admitting to sharing his bed with other people’s children.
It was at this point that Jackson’s camp decided enough was enough. Jackson's name had become little more than a punchline; an accepted target for relentless mockery and abuse. His image was in desperate need of repair.
The fightback began with damage control. Jackson’s camp released a rebuttal to Bashir’s documentary, featuring secretly-recorded footage of the presenter contradicting the views expressed in his own film and proving he had omitted vital answers from his subject.
After exposing Bashir’s duplicity Jackson’s camp followed up with a second documentary, Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies, in which the star presented funny and interesting clips from his archives.
An appearance at the BET Awards in June 2003 to present his idol and mentor James Brown with a Lifetime Achievement Award contributed to the wave of good PR Jackson was receiving. The star’s brief appearance on the show saw audience members burst into tears of joy and it served Jackson well to be seen humbly presenting an award rather than receiving one for once. Things were beginning to look up for the King of Pop and now his elaborate comeback plans could really be put into effect.
“Michael was regaining much of his self-esteem and self-confidence after dwelling in the shadows of public scandal and scorn,” says publicist Stuart Backerman, hired by Jackson in 2002. “In the language of marketing, Michael was about to be re-branded.
“The comeback plan was called the MJ Universe project and it was all about ‘the People’s Michael’, if you want to think of it in political terms. That’s what was underpinning this whole scheme. It was about being accessible. After all the years of living as a partial recluse and a tabloid target he wanted to reach out and be seen in an objective way.”
The first step towards making Jackson more accessible would be to create a link between the star and his fans. In Vancouver a web design company called Blast Radius was secretly working on a brand new official Michael Jackson website (his old one was owned and controlled by Sony). The website would contain what Stuart Backerman describes as ‘the most unbelievable interactive videos’ and would serve as a medium for Jackson to communicate with supporters.
The next step was to open up Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. After the Bashir documentary, his sanctuary was seen as a sinister place. In order that people could experience Neverland themselves and enjoy a brief glimpse into Jackson’s world, the star planned to open the ranch as a resort for short breaks, which would have the added benefit of generating income.
Jackson’s merchandising had ‘dried up’ in recent years, says Backerman, and loose plans were in place to launch new products, beginning with a Michael Jackson clothing line. He was also in talks with a Japanese investor to design a theme park.
But the jewel in the crown of Jackson’s comeback plans was a deal he and his camp had recently struck with a motion picture company in Montreal. For years it had been Jackson’s desire to move away from the music business and into the movie industry. In 1993 he had a deal in place with Sony to begin making movies but the plans were scrapped after Santa Barbara DA Tom Sneddon raided Jackson’s home and the star found himself accused of child molestation.
In recent years Jackson had made baby steps towards launching himself as a player in the movie world, first making a cameo appearance in Men In Black II and then guest starring in low budget comedy Miss Castaway. Now he was ready to make the leap.
“He didn’t want to really start again with the music,” says Dieter Wiesner, the German businessman who served as Jackson’s manager from 1997 until 2003. “After he was done with Sony, he had a whole other plan. His focus was just not that much on the music part anymore. His feeling was that he had really made the best in his life for the music part. He created everything. He made Thriller and things like that and he knew it could be very hard to top these things. For him it was very important to be successful as a director and an actor, directing movies, making short films, things like that. He was really into it.
“He knew he had to do something for the fans but it was
very clear that he couldn’t go back on tour because he was mentally not into it anymore. He wanted to do big concerts, say, at the pyramids in Egypt – big places – over two or three years. He agreed to do something like that because the fans really wanted to see him, but he felt his real future should be in the film business.”
After months of negotiations, Jackson’s camp had managed to secure financing to purchase Cinegroupe, a Canadian animated features company, which Backerman says Jackson wanted to turn into ‘a whole Pixar type thing’.
In anticipation of the takeover, the company had invited Jackson to begin contributing ideas to an upcoming picture, Pinocchio 3000. A decade after his film-making dreams had been squashed, Jackson was finally about to begin making the transition from music to movies. But before that he had one burning priority, and that was to release himself from his Sony contract.
“He wasn’t ever really right back on good terms with Sony,” says Backerman. “The Beatles Catalogue is one thing but after the whole Tommy Mottola business, it was over. It was not gonna really be happening with Sony again.”
According to Wiesner, Jackson had no plans to move to another label after he fulfilled his contract with Sony. The focus was squarely on movie-making and all signs pointed to the fact that Jackson was serious about achieving his goal. One morning at Neverland Ranch, during the comeback discussions, Jackson presented Backerman with a signed fedora as a thank you for all his hard work. Inside he had written the inscription, “Dear Stuart, many thanks for your kind help and please don’t make plans for the next decade.”
* * *
In October 2003 Michael Jackson flew to Las Vegas to begin a series of in-person appearances that would mark the beginning of his elaborate comeback plans. In keeping with his new accessible image he took part in several autograph signing sessions, the proceeds from which went to charity. On Saturday 25th October he was presented with the key to Las Vegas at the Desert Passage Mall and three days later he appeared at the Radio Music Awards to debut his new charity single, What More Can I Give.
But most excitingly for his fans, Jackson was in town to record a new music video. A new greatest hits compilation, Number Ones, was due to be released on November 18th and, thinking it would fulfill his contractual obligations to Sony, Jackson had contributed an unreleased track, One More Chance, and agreed to promote it as a single.
Seeing the opportunity to fulfill another contractual obligation at the same time – he owed CBS a performance - Jackson decided to record an accompanying music video. The video would debut on November 26th at the end of a CBS special about the star and then go into rotation elsewhere.
After recording the video Jackson was set to embark on what Stuart Backerman describes as a ‘triumphant publicity tour’ across Europe, Africa and South America.
“We were going for three months,” he says. “We were going to do all kinds of autograph sessions, record signings and fan events and we were going to do something at Harrods in London, too.”
“He was going to give Muhammad Ali an award at the Bambi Awards in Germany,” adds Dieter Wiesner. “We also had a plan to do something with Nelson Mandela.”
Nick Brandt, a seasoned Jackson collaborator, was scheduled to direct the new video. Brandt had worked on numerous short films with the star in the past - most famously on the Earth Song video, which combined Jackson’s strong environmental views with the director’s acclaimed wildlife photography. Their most recent outing had been 2001’s Cry, a video Jackson had reportedly refused to appear in due to his conflict with Sony.
The shoot would take place at the CMX Productions studio and the concept was simple. The song was a yearning ballad about lost love in which Jackson pleaded with an ex-girlfriend for ‘one more chance’.
The video would feature a unique role reversal in which an audience would stand onstage and watch Jackson as he performed the track in an empty, upscale nightclub, hopping banisters and jumping on tables. The set-up seemed to have little correlation with the song and appeared more of a comment on the press and public’s perpetual invasion of Jackson’s privacy – a common theme in the star’s work – essentially showing a crowd of bystanders watching over Jackson in an intimate, off-stage moment, transfixed by his heartbreak.
Jackson technically owed CBS a performance so the aim was to create a hybrid that would satisfy the broadcaster and also work as a music video. An idea was hatched to give the video a live feeling by following Jackson seamlessly through the club rather than cutting from scene to scene in the typical music video style.
“We had five cameras rolling on him at all times,” says a senior crew member, speaking anonymously, without record label permission. “The idea was to try to capture Michael, as much as possible, doing one routine through the club, to give it kind of a live feeling. It would literally flow from one camera to the next. We also had kind of a limited time with Michael because he would set his own schedule, so we also decided to capture it that way to make sure we could get it all shot cohesively.”
Running the production on a tight schedule and a tight budget, the crew got just one rehearsal day with Jackson.
“Michael came in that day to do dance rehearsals with Nick and to work out how he would move around the club,” says the crew member. “That was where we determined which tables he would jump on so we could light them properly and so on. So that was probably about two to three hours of just Nick and other key crew members working with Michael – maybe four hours.
“Watching his process with Nick was quite inspiring. He really liked to create with Nick. He was involved in everything. He was obviously an experienced artist in music videos and knew what the process was all about, knew who the key people were to talk to.
"I mean, he and the crew had a definite conversation about composition and lighting and how to capture various dance moves with the camera and what angles to use. He was truly an artist. He didn’t just show up and not care. He was definitely excited to be there and involved in the process and really wanted to create something special.”
Wiesner, however, says the singer wasn’t as excited as he may have seemed; much of the video had been devised in the star’s absence and he was annoyed by the modest budget.
“Michael was not too happy about it,” he says. “It was a relaxed situation but it was not what Michael really wanted to do. He looked still for the biggest thing and this was not something he would pick. It was not one of his high class things he did before.”
Wiesner says Jackson was also unhappy with the set’s resemblance to one of his best known videos from the 1980s.
“When we arrived there, the set was already done. He was saying, ‘This is like Smooth Criminal’. But he did his job. I think when he started to do something, he did it right. He was not so happy but he had to deliver something and that’s what he did.”
* * *
On Monday 17th November 2003, a crowd of extras waited in a holding area at the CMX studio. They knew they were there for a music video, but that was all they knew.
“We auditioned on the Friday and knew we were going to shoot at the soundstage on Monday,” says Ken Yesh, one of the extras chosen for the shoot. “We went the entire weekend wondering who the video was for. Then, when we got there, we signed some papers and on the back page it said ‘Michael Jackson, One More Chance, Sony Productions’. We all just flipped.”
“That right there was such a moment,” says fellow extra Juliette Myers. “As we were going down the line we were cheering because wow, you know, what an iconic moment. We were going to be a part of something that’s history.”
But the excitement was short-lived.
“When we went into the soundstage they told us that ‘Yes, this is a Michael Jackson video but he will not be here’,” says Ken Yesh. “So we were all pretty disappointed. He had a body double that was doing all the camera sets and all the arrangements. We thought that that was all that was going to be there – just a lookalike.”
The extras were put in bleachers on the stage in a choral arrangement while the crew tinkered with the lighting. A few extras were selected to look into the distance or look amazed and the crew panned the audience a lot, but the extras spent much of their time standing around.
“If they weren’t going to use us for a scene then they’d take us back out to the waiting area,” says extra Stephen McClelland. “I remember us waiting outside while they were trying to set up some of the table things to get a rough idea.”
“Being extras, we started early but we didn’t really have to do much,” agrees Myers. “They’d set us up, they’d do some lighting and cue the music and we’d stand and do our part, then we’d cut for a break. There was never really much work. There was a very free, fun and fancy type air about the day.”
Several hours into the shooting day, Michael Jackson, wearing dark jeans and a white t-shirt, slipped onto the set through a back door.
“When he made his entrance it wasn’t anything grand,” says Yesh. “It was kind of on the down low - really hush-hush. We were onstage at the time so there were a few whispers of, ‘Oh my God, I think that’s him!’ The room was pretty dim. The whole ambience was the nightclub scene so there were some lamps on the tables and the stage lights were very dim, but he’s pretty hard to miss.”
“It was like electricity through the air,” says McClelland. “Everybody was getting really excited.”
“We weren’t even prepared for him to come out,” says Myers. “We were standing in the bleachers and I was talking to somebody and all of a sudden I heard cheering. I looked up and he was just there.
"It’s weird how you don’t even realize how powerful he is until he’s there. It’s like a presence. I couldn’t stop screaming. I tried to be professional but that didn’t work. We were all screaming our heads off. But he let us have our time. I’m sure he knew that he was going to have fans so he gave us time to just embrace him - and then we got to work.”
The crew had spent much of the day preparing in order to avoid keeping Jackson waiting once he arrived. With everything in position and ready to go, Jackson launched into his first performance almost immediately, meandering around the nightclub and showcasing his famous dance moves.
“I think they told us he wasn’t going to be there because they wanted to see our responses on film when he started dancing,” says Yesh, “because when he first came in, it wasn’t five minutes and he jumped right into it. He started going into the sequences, walking through the tables at the nightclub, going up to the stage, singing, jumping onto the tables and onto the chairs – and I was looking at everyone else and their faces were like mine. It was just disbelief.”
“It was amazing,” agrees Myers. “Part of our reaction was supposed to be shock and awe, but it was real. We were just like ‘Oh my gosh, he’s here. This is him in real life. He’s right in front of us’. It was so easy to be happy and to have the wondrous looks in our eyes. He did a move standing on a table right in front of us and it was like, ‘Wow. There it is. This is what we grew up with’. It made that reaction and that moment real.”
“They had genuine surprise on everyone’s face,” says Yesh. “Everyone had a permanent smile across their face. They couldn’t believe it. I think we all understood what it meant. We were in the presence of one of the best entertainers ever on the face of the earth. I mean, who has the chance to do something like that?”
“It was like seeing Elvis perform live, or the Beatles,” agrees McClelland. “You’ve got a legend in front of you performing. It was magical. All those rumors about him being past it were, I believe after seeing him, completely unfounded. He was still perfectly capable. He was truly magic. Truly blessed."
Each time Jackson finished the routine, shooting would pause while the crew fixed the set for continuity; in each performance Jackson would kick lamps and wine glasses off of the nightclub tables. Between takes Jackson would interact occasionally with the extras, says McClelland.
“We’d all been standing there for a long time. He’d say thing like, ‘I hope you guys aren’t too uncomfortable back there’, because the lights would come up on us and we were standing really tight together and we couldn’t move. Between takes we had to stay there. So he was just feeling for us a little bit. When he started to perform he was very focused but then he would go back to being just casual. He’d say things to us like, ‘I hope you all liked that one’. He was being funny, witty.”
Mostly, though, Jackson kept to himself.
“He was kind of separate,” says Myers. “I think he was just really shy. I remember there was direction that he was very shy so they didn’t want us to look directly in his face.”
“I was extremely surprised at how humble he was,” adds Yesh. “But when the camera started rolling and the music was on, it was like electricity. The guy was completely amazing. He would do the same dance sequence five or six times, flawlessly.”
“Michael was soft spoken and kept to himself,” confirms the anonymous crew member. “But when the cameras started rolling he just became Michael Jackson instantaneously. The moves and the walking and everything, it was just Michael Jackson through and through. It was amazing. I remember him jumping up on a table and doing a spin at one point and his hands went up in the air and it was just 100% pure Michael Jackson. I’ll never forget that memory.”
After performing the routine five or six times across roughly three hours, Jackson made his exit.
“He was really sweet with all the extras,” says the crew member. “When he was leaving he said a great big goodbye to them and thanked them for all their hard work. He was such a gentleman.”
“He didn’t just scurry out,” says Myers. “He respectfully said thank you. I don’t even know what he was thanking us for, though.” She laughs. “He was the star. We were just backdrop.”
Jackson was scheduled to return the following day to film frontal shots and close-ups.
“Our intention was to shoot from behind Michael towards the audience and then, to save money on all the audience members, the following day we would flip around and shoot Michael’s close-ups,” says the crew member. “So pretty much everything we got on the first day was head to toe and shot either in profile or from behind, with the audience in the background.”
The day’s rushes showed Jackson on good form, leaping energetically from table to table, running around the club and looking genuinely happy as he high-fived the crowd.
He paid subtle homage to older videos; a shot in which he pulled his jacket down over his shoulders before the excited audience was reminiscent of the Dirty Diana music video, while his kicking the table decorations as he danced called to mind his controversial short film for Black or White.
At the end of each take Jackson had nodded and bowed to the audience, turned his back on the stage – an enormous grin on his face – and walked out of frame. This shot would serve as the end of the music video and the moment was loaded with connotations.
Jackson turning his back on the stage - and on his audience - was symbolic of his intention to leave the music world behind and embark on a new career path. Perhaps smiling with as much relief as happiness, he was also turning his back on his final music video for Sony and, he thought, walking away from the contract that he so desperately wanted out of. In essence, he was turning his back on his old career and walking away from it, ready to follow the dream that had been snatched from him ten years previously. Michael Jackson was finally going to make movies.
* * *
At roughly 8.30 next morning Stuart Backerman and Jackson cohort Marc Schaffel spoke on the telephone to discuss their departure for Europe the following day. Their conversation was interrupted by an incoming telephone call for Schaffel from Joe Marcus, a security coordinator at Neverland.
“It was a weird hour for Joe to be calling,” says Backerman, “so Schaffel said he would call me back.”
A short while later Backerman’s telephone rang.
“You gotta turn on the television,” said Schaffel.
Backerman switched on his TV and saw the now famous helicopter images of police swarming Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Led by District Attorney Tom Sneddon, 70 sheriffs from the Santa Barbara Police Department had been dispatched to raid Michael Jackson’s home.
“Honestly,” Backerman recalls, “You would have thought it was an army battalion going into an Iraqi village. There were so many of them.”
His heart sank.
“At that moment I realized that the European trip and the whole MJ Universe project was finished, because by that point Diane Dimond was on, revealing that it was all over a second charge of child molestation.
“Michael was just getting ready to leave the 1993 allegations behind and rebrand himself. We’d just finished dealing with the Martin Bashir scandal and here it was again.”
“Here it was again.”
In Las Vegas, it fell on manager Dieter Wiesner to break the news to Jackson.
“Michael was still in his room,” Wiesner explains. “He was sitting next to the fireplace when I came in and he was very quiet. I had to tell him and it was not easy to tell Michael things like this because he was in such a good mood. He saw a future. When the Bashir situation arose he was very down. Now everything had changed and Michael was ready to do new things. Then, to go to his room and tell him such a bad situation… it was a disaster.
“I told him, ‘Michael, there is bad news but on the other side you have to see it as also good news. The bad news is the police are on the ranch.’ Michael was completely shocked. I was sitting next to him; I had my arm on his shoulder.
“He looked at me and he was really... You could see the blood going out of his face. He was deeply shocked. But I told him, ‘Michael, now you have the chance finally to clear up everything. Once and forever you can clear up everything'.”
News spread quickly amongst the crew.
“I saw it on TV that morning and by the time I got to the hotel lobby, everybody else had already found out,” says the crew member. “So we went to work as normal and waited to see what was going to happen.
“Of course, when we got to the soundstage it was a complete zoo with paparazzi and fans. It had leaked where we were shooting. The day before, nobody knew we were shooting or anything.
“We waited that entire day for Michael to come and I think we went back a second day. Then he called finally and said, ‘I’m just not going to be able to come’.”
Jackson spent much of those two days crying, says Wiesner.
“I was sitting with him day and night," he recalls. "He was shocked; he was crying… he didn’t know what to do. It was such a bad situation. We were supposed to go to Europe. He was ready to move on in his life and everything was prepared. It was just a beautiful situation and this news shocked him deeply. Really, it killed him.”
Two days after the Neverland raid Jackson’s depression turned to anger. says Wiesner. When it emerged that the boy behind the accusation was none other than Gavin Arvizo, the boy whose hand Jackson had held in the Martin Bashir documentary, Jackson was ready to go to war.
“You know, when it was clear that this allegation was because of the Arvizos, then he started to really fight the situation,” Wiesner explains. “Michael told me, ‘Dieter, you know what? They should bring this young boy into a big place, invite all the press and he should look me in the eyes and tell me that I did this.’ So he was ready to fight.”
That the allegation had come from the Arvizos made the ruination of the MJ Universe project even more galling for Stuart Backerman.
“Sneddon didn’t have anything except the word of Janet Arvizo, and she was totally crazy,” says Backerman. “And I know that because I was there and I saw her. She had a track record as long as my right arm. Sneddon just wanted to get Jackson.
“It’s very frustrating to this day. We had the world’s greatest celebrity and he was more focused than he had been for a long time. But the whole thing got cut off by Sneddon.”
Almost unbelievably, Sneddon had managed for the second time to steal Jackson’s movie dream away from him just as he was on the cusp of achieving it. Prior to the 1993 allegations, moving into the movie industry had been Jackson’s greatest preoccupation. His chances ruined by the scandal of the Jordy Chandler debacle, he’d wound up back on the road – the one place he’d least wanted to be – and grown ever more weary of the music business.
Movie success was the one type of success which had always managed to evade Jackson and it had long been the one type of success he truly longed for.
“I really have to say, he was a very sharp guy. He knew exactly what he wanted,” laments Wiesner. “I think if he would have had the time and if nobody had come in-between, he could have been very successful in the second part in this career, with the movies and the animated videos. In my opinion, he would still be here today.”
With movie success set firmly in his sights, Jackson was merely jumping through the necessary hoops before he could pursue that goal with one hundred percent of his attention and energy. One More Chance, he had thought, was the final hoop. Michael Jackson had believed that the single and music video would win him back his freedom. It is one of life’s cruel ironies that the next time his fans saw him, he would be in handcuffs.
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