Industrial Scenes: Director Simon Maxwell on working with Nine Inch Nails, DC Talk, and Michael Jackson

Music

15.06.2016

Industrial Scenes: Director Simon Maxwell on working with Nine Inch Nails, DC Talk, and Michael Jackson

David Farrier tracks down the man behind some of the most iconic music videos for Nine Inch Nails and DC Talk, and finds him... in Tauranga. 

I spent a great deal of my acne-ridden years living in Tauranga and, like so many other ‘90s teens, found solace in the music of Trent Reznor. While Blur and Oasis battled it out for supremacy, I sank into the murky depths of The Downward Spiral.

Nine Inch Nails was a gateway for me into so many things, including places on the internet I’d end up calling home for more than a decade. One of these places was a forum called – get this – Perfect Isolation. It was a Nine Inch Nails message board, but we also talked film, religion and cats.

At some point I discovered that one of the people on the message board lived down the road in Otumoetai, and had a VHS copy of Nine Inch Nails’ Closure. This double VHS box set was extremely rare and contained all the music videos from the band to date. YouTube hadn’t been invented at that point, so this was the only way I’d be able to see them. I turned up at this stranger’s house, we talked about our favourite band, and he lent me the tapes.

Those videos had a huge effect on me, mainly because of their shocking, beautiful and bizarre imagery. It was on those tapes, for example, that I learnt that Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant named Topsy just to prove the effects of AC electricity

But one video stuck in my head unlike anything I’ve encountered since. It was the video for 'Hurt':

The concept was simple: Trent Reznor performed live while stock footage of death and decay was projected onto a giant screen in front of him. Occasionally he'd be seen though the light, but it was never about him. The whole music video was about a mood and a feeling; much bigger than one guy who happened to be a rock star. Those images have stuck with me to this day - but it was only recently that I started poking around to find out more about who had made my favourite music video of all time. 

I was surprised to learn that the director, Simon Maxwell, had followed up ‘Hurt’ by directing a video for the biggest band in Christian music at the time, DC Talk. The song was ‘Jesus Freak’, one I was incredibly familiar with, having grown up in a Christian home with Christian friends: 

‘Hurt’ and ‘Jesus Freak’: two videos, made in quick succession by the same man, for two bands that couldn’t be further apart. Who was Simon Maxwell, and what happened to him?

Well, it turns out that Simon Maxwell is a New Zealander who lives in bloody Tauranga.

He teaches at the local Polytech and makes TV commercials for small businesses. They're about as far removed from grungy rock videos as you can get.

What the hell was going on?

In early 2014, I sent him an email, pitching an interview. He eventually got back to me only for it to fall through. I contacted him again, but never heard back. I texted him and didn’t get a reply. I emailed. Nothing. More recently, I called the Bay of Plenty Polytech’s PR department, thinking if they put the pressure on, it might help. It was a dirty move, but I had to try something.

He emailed back the next week. We finally met up in my old home of Tauranga. It had taken two years, but it was worth it: his story is truly bizarre, featuring lost footage, Michael Jackson, and a ditched video for ‘Hurt’

*

David Farrier: Thanks for your time. I’ve been fascinated by you for a long time, because I’m this old Nine Inch Nails obsessive, so of course when I saw your name associated with the ‘Hurt’ video, my ears pricked up. And I thought, here he is living in my own hometown, the man that made that video!

Simon Maxwell: Yeah – “What’s he doing here!”

I mean, where do we start?

Well, I was born in Auckland, educated in Auckland, grew up in Auckland. I went overseas on a big OE and never came back. Well, I came back eventually. But there are a lot of Kiwis that do that, they find a niche somewhere in some godforsaken part of the world. So I found a niche in central London doing creative stuff.

How did you get into video production, or editing, or directing?

I was into video post-production. That’s my background. So I trained here - I did a little bit at TVNZ in the very early days, and then I worked for a company called Vidcom, back in the ‘70s. And then I went over to England with some mates.

How old were you?

20? And I must have struck it at a good time as they were looking for people. I guess I was just lucky. Right place, right time.

What were you doing at TVNZ?

Editing video. Just TV stuff. I didn’t stay there very long, I moved to Vidcom. It was quite good there, because the staffing at that time was all from overseas, so you had a lot of people from the UK and Australia and America. And I was learning production techniques that weren’t widely practised in this country.

So what was the first music video you directed?

Well I got very heavily into the whole underground club thing in England in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I was doing a lot of experimental stuff and indie stuff, and I got in with MTV. And of course MTV at that time was quite a major force in the industry. I was lucky as I got in early before it became a corporate entity.

It was just based out of a warehouse in Camden, probably with a staff of 20 or 30. I used to do a lot of work for them, and then through them, all of this other stuff started to pop up. Like, “Are you interested in doing this?” and “We’ve had enquiries from that” and you know, it spread from there.

Nine Inch Nails came about because I’d moved out of the whole post-production thing. I used to work with really good directors, and they would go, “Oh I’m not available next week, can you do a shoot for me?” and they’d go, “We know if you screw it up, you’re good at editing, so you’ll save it in the edit!”

Yeah, if you fuck it up in the shoot, you can save it in the cut.

Yeah, because everybody knows at some stage, you do screw it up on a shoot, and it’s usually the editor that pulls it around for you. So that’s how I got into directing.

And so how old were you at this point? Early twenties?

Yeah, 25 or something.

What a blast.

Yeah. Right time, right place. 

What was the first video directing job for a music video where you were like, “Oh my god, this is actually quite a big deal”?

I had a long stint with Michael Jackson as a director of post-production. He did a world tour in ‘88, ‘89. It was meant to be a one-off thing, and then it turned into, like, eight months while he was on the European tour.

So were you dealing with live visuals, or documenting the tour?

Everything. It started off as just like, “We’ll bring in some tapes, and you can cut it together,” and then, “Oh, by the way, we have another hundred tapes coming in, so how about getting a team of editors together, and you can be director of post-production,” and, “Oh, and by the way, can you come out and shoot some stuff while you’re at it!”

But that’s how it works, if you’re part of that whole creative community. It’s a bit like that in Tauranga or Auckland: if you’re in that creative community and build up relationships with people, eventually something will come.

The whole industry is based on personal relationships. The way in is by hanging around and picking up the bits and pieces and working the graveyard shifts, and eventually you get a break. Someone will be sick, or can’t do something, and they’ll go, “Oh there’s that guy that’s been hanging around, and he seems quite good and seems to know what he’s talking about, maybe give him a shot.”

How was the Michael Jackson experience, because that time was like the ultimate excess of everything - budgets, money. What was it like being in the middle of that?

Well, it was an education. I think stamina was the thing that came out of it most, because he never slept. So, you know, he’d start at 9 or 10 in the morning and work through to 3 or 4 the following morning, six days a week. Seven days a week!

And the thing about those sort of guys - and it carries through into working with Trent and various other people – they’re so focused. That’s what makes them stand out from the rest of the crowd, and that becomes quite an addictive thing when you’re involved in that. And they are receptive to ideas, which is good, but they are absolutely driven and they know what they want. And they won’t rest until they get it, so there’s no point in going, “Oh, she’ll be right!” That doesn’t exist in their environment.

[Michael Jackson] never slept... he'd start at 9 or 10 in the morning and work through to 3 or 4 the following morning, six days a week. Seven days a week!

So he was incredibly driven. What was the atmosphere like? Was it relaxed, or would you all be yelling at each other?

He’s very quietly spoken. Very polite. But emphatic that “This is the way it’s going to be done.” And of course they all have their inner circle, so they all hang around. And they make sure that whoever they’re with, their wishes are realised. So the inner circle with those people - Trent had some, Michael had some, they all have them - it’s quite a political arena. You have to please everyone.

So how did the meeting with Trent come up? Because you did the video for ‘Hurt’, and also some other live videos from that tour – ‘Eraser’ and ‘Wish’.

I suppose it was just evolution. I got more involved in directing, and less and less in editing. And people kept saying to me, “There’s more money in the States. Go to the States and get representation.”

And so I tapped all my contacts, and went to LA with a portfolio and contact numbers, and did what everyone else does, which is meet people and meet people, until this production company called The Underground picked me up. They were looking for someone with that underground, gritty, ‘90s grunge thing, which is what my look was.

Trent was looking for someone to do some stuff with him, and they put my name forward. I never met him at first - I talked to him on the phone a lot. He was doing the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers when I started working for him. So he was based down in New Orleans, and I was in London. We talked a lot on the phone and he gave me some ideas of what he was thinking of, and it was just luck in a way. Creatively we were looking at the same thing.

So what was your role? Because it’s essentially a very simple video - it’s mostly a big wide of the performance. Did you have anything to do with the visuals that were actually being displayed?

Yes.

So it was all you! Because that stuff’s iconic!

It just evolved. We had a few goes trying to make the video. At that time he didn’t - I suppose he didn’t like the look of himself, or something about his appearance. He was going through a phase where he didn’t like the way he looked. So, from the video point of view, we had a go: We shot a video in New York at Silvercup Studios. And he didn’t like it.

So it was a band performance?

Well, it was a solo performance, really. We shot one day, we looked at the rushes, and we decided it wasn’t the right route. So we thought we’d use the elements from the live performance and all of the screen projection stuff, and see what we could make out of that.

So we re-shot it. I shot the whole tour, the tour across the States. I had masses of footage. We shot it in New York, and all over the place. Places I can’t even remember. We had miles and miles of 35mm footage of him performing and all sorts of things. And then we went back to Madison Square garden and shot it all again.

OK. I have to show you this thing. I did my research. I have been on Nine Inch Nails forums since the late 90s, and this great post popped up on a forum about three years ago. Just read it for your own curiosity, really.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––– 

Alright, so let’s step away from the interview for a second here. Three years ago, someone made a post on the biggest NIN forum, Echoing the Sound. The board goes back to the early days of Nine Inch Nails, and Trent Reznor occasionally posts on there himself. It was the main competition for the board I spent the most time on, Perfect Isolation.

Anyway, I’d printed this post and just handed it to Simon. It was written by a guy who says that in 1995, he was working in the library of a production house in London, when this reportedly happened:

one day a whole stack of films tins arrived. There were scores of them - close to a hundred, I guess - and they were all marked 'Nine Inch Nails'. Well, my curiosity was piqued, 'cause I was a fan; so when, a few days later, the director turned up in an edit suite to put all this stuff together, I went down to ask him what he'd got. 

He told me it was footage from a recent NIN concert, and the reason there was so much of it was that it had been shot by far more cameras than usual, to get as many different angles as possible. There was backstage stuff too, shot on handicams. In short, it all sounded pretty awesome. I paid regular visits to the edit suite as the guy worked on, watching over his shoulder whenever I could. 

The director came back a couple of weeks later totally crestfallen, telling us that Trent had changed his mind - rather than wanting an epic production shot from all angles, he now wanted the record of the concert to be more intimate. So the completed movie was shelved, and we never saw the director again. 

But... wait. If you've been following me, I know what you're thinking. Doesn't that mean that the extended version of this concert footage is still hanging around? The one that the original director took to Trent Reznor? The one with all the angles? Someone must have the master tape, yeah? 

I wish I could remember the name of that first director. Ginger hair, is all I can recall. The name totally escapes me. It was a long time ago! I thought it was such a shame he got the rebuke from Trent, after all that hard work.

Could the ginger haired guy be Simon Maxwell? I got in touch with the board’s admin, Matt, and asked if anything had ever come of the post:

Some of the regulars thought he was sketch, but I traded a few private messages and he seemed legit. Never turned up again though.

So… time to find out, I guess, about the dumped video for 'Hurt'.

[Simon reads the post]

[“Yep”]

[“Yep”]

[“Yeah”]

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––– 

That’s you?

Yeah, that’s interesting.  

So that person came into the forum, dropped that bombshell, created a huge uproar, then left. And it went dead. So when I found out about you, I went, “Fuck, that’s probably Simon!”

Yeah. I shot all this footage. This is a really funny story, actually. We shot all this footage, and put it all together, and sent it over to Trent, and.... I don’t know what was going on. But anyway… he didn’t like some of it. For various reasons. I have no idea why. So we cut three or four of the songs, and they were okay, and then… we didn’t hear from him anymore.

So to clarify, you were cutting songs from the tour, not from that studio shoot in New York you did?

From the live tour. We were going to do a whole live thing. So we shot all across the States. And we recut it several times, and then there was – I’m not sure if there was a falling out between management – with him and Interscope? There was some politics going on in the background. And so, yeah, that was probably the last time I saw him.

So he said “no” to that stuff you’d shot with a million cameras.

Well, it was the editing side of it. Because it was such a huge thing, we had three or four editors working on it just to get through it all. So from memory, there were three or four songs that worked really well, but some of the others.... I dunno.

So from there, you all decided to cut it back and make it much simpler, and we have the ‘Hurt’ video we know today?

Well that was done earlier. That was done about six or eight months earlier.

Then Trent wanted a documentary-style thing of the tour. So we shot loads for footage of the tour. We had 35mm cameras on the main performance, and then Super 8s on the audience. There was reams and reams of footage.

And from what I remember, someone stole all the Super 8 footage! It just disappeared. It was shot all over the country in the States, then it was shipped to LA and then it was shipped back to England. When we came to put it all together, a lot of the Super 8 footage had disappeared. I knew we had it – I had seen the rolls of film – but when we came to put it together – you know, we had these rolls sitting next to the telecine machine - I am going, “Where the fuck is all the Super 8?” Because that was the idea, capturing the essence of the whole gig on Super 8, and intercutting it with the high production, 35mm stuff. But – it disappeared! 

How weird.

That kind of put a spanner in the works, and we were really short on that footage. It’s not something you can go back and repeat again. So yeah, that did cause a problem. And we didn’t reshoot anything as the tour had finished.

So the ‘Hurt’ video was done and dusted before then, and that was quite a straight-forward process. And it evolved a little bit, but effectively that never changed.

Well that video turned out great, at least.

Yeah I was quite happy with it.  It was quite an interesting creative path, because it was quite different from how I imagined it was going to be when we started.

It was a mixture of footage I shot, and stock footage. A lot of the abstract stuff I shot. It worked well. It took on a life of its own after it had been projected on this operatic gauze, semi-translucent. As the light changed on the screen, it became translucent and opaque so that worked out really well. 

There is that really iconic moment where the snake head pops up, and the crowd just goes crazy. Why did the crowd go crazy there - were they used to that shot happening in the tour and reacting to that, or was it just the image itself?

It was just that image. It was projected on a huge screen, a 50-foot screen, and after a few beers, it gets quite disturbing, I imagine, in an arena. And I chose it deliberately because it is quite frightening, and has that pose to it, the way they look before they strike, they kind of fix you in their stare, and wave back and forth before going in for the kill.

My interpretation of it was like an homage to death. That was the whole point of it. So rather than be overtly blatant and make it from a human perspective, I chose that nature can be more cruel than we can, even though humans can be quite cruel to each other. And so that’s why there were a lot of nature shots: Dead and dying animals, animals eating animals, and that sort of thing. 

This concept of using stock footage in a way it wasn’t intended - where did that come from? Was that you?

It was me. I remember I struggled with the whole concept for ages and ages. I remember Trent’s management would phone up going, “How’s it going?” You know, the usual management question:

“How’s it going?”

“It’s going well.”

“Can we see anything?”

“Oh, I’ll have something for you soon.”

And I remember the whole timescale was moving towards that brick wall we have as creators, and I remember one night not being able to sleep, as I hadn’t come up with an idea, and it had to be delivered next week. And I suddenly had this thought: “I know exactly what it is - an homage to death!”

So I got up at two in the morning and went down to the edit room and downloaded some stills – this was in the old days of the Internet – of this nature stuff, and dead bodies, and all this kind of shit – and just sat there for a few hours editing it together until the sun came up, and showed it to a few people, and they went, “That’s the one. That’s what you need to do. That’s fucking brilliant!” and so we had, I dunno, five days to pull it off, to get it all done.

It came out of nowhere. 

I mean that’s where all the best ideas come from, right?

I think they come at 3am when you’re desperate. I think so. Did with that one, anyway.

What was the experience like touring with Nine Inch Nails during 1995? That was a crazy tour - Trent Reznor had this giant record and fan-base on his hands thanks to The Downward Spiral. It must have been a madhouse!

Well, being on the road in America in the 90s was, you know, quite an amazing experience. The first thing that was overwhelming was the number of fans he had in the States. I think we toured mainly university towns, and many arenas - so up to probably 4000?

And to a lot of these students, he was a god. I remember we did this gig in an ice-skating rink that had been converted over. We had a track set up in the middle of the mosh pit, and the fans just went wild. They trashed it. They trashed everything. They trashed a 35mm Panavision camera, everything. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear that just got trashed.

Because on that particular tour, because of the way it worked and because they were right in the middle of the audience, we used Panavision cameras with the larger magazines, I think 20-minute run-times on them, and they just went wild and trashed it all. They ripped all the gear off the tracks.

We had a track set up in the middle of the mosh pit, and the fans just went wild. They trashed it. They trashed everything. They trashed a 35mm Panavision camera, everything. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear that just got trashed.

Gosh. I mean, the band’s big thing back then was trashing their own gear on stage, so in a way they’d be almost inciting it. Trent’s suddenly smashing his keyboard, his guitars, so the crowd gets stuck in as well...

Yeah, they got stuck into all the camera gear.

Well it was called The Self Destruct tour…

It lived up to its name! It was always full on. There was always an after-gig party of some description that took place afterwards.

That tour is when Trent was at the height of drugs and excess. Was that mad?

Yeah. The honest truth is, they’re just like normal people. They weren’t into the whole pretentious rock ‘n’ roll excessive thing that the press claim they were. In fact, none of the people I’ve been in contact with have been like that. Once you get away from the outside circus, it all becomes quite normal. Coming up with ideas, thinking about this and that, and talking about this and that.

I feel in a way that’s why someone like Lorde is so successful and great in that way. She’s the driving force. Like Trent. Or Michael Jackson. They know what they want.

They’re focused. They’re lucky they have that vision. They can see a creative path for themselves. And they bring people in to help them realise that. 

And then… after the whole Nine Inch Nails experience, who wants to hire you but the biggest Christian band in the world, DC Talk! I grew up in a Christian family, so of course ‘Jesus Freak’ was a huge. So here’s a band that wanted to be edgy, and so you create the biggest Christian rock video of all time.

They came through and said, “Can you make a video for us?” And I said, “You do realise I’m not Christian and it’s gonna be a little bit dark!”

Oh yeah. There was an uproar in Christianity! They made websites

They wanted to cross over into mainstream. They were smart enough to recognise that if they were going to make an impression, they had to cross over into the mainstream. I still kept the essence of Christianity and their message. I think there were two versions of that video. Two or three. I’m sure I did one that was very provocative just to see. That never saw the light of day. It was too far over the line. And that one, that MTV ran, is like a cross between that and being entirely safe. The whole point was to be provocative.

I mean, the guys were really open for genuine ideas. They realised they were a Christian band and they realised I was the last person on earth who should be directing a Christian band. So we pitched the idea of a hard-hitting video that used controversial images that questioned persecution and things like that.

They realised they were a Christian band and they realised I was the last person on earth who should be directing a Christian band.

Things sometimes associated in a negative way with Christianity?

Yeah. And they were up for it. And part of the creative process - I sent them various stills and illustrations. The race riots in the States, and the treatment of Jews during the German uprising. And the whole look of the video would be quite dark, as opposed to colourful and bright and happy. And they were up for it.

And the way I wanted the video to work – rather than making a statement on it, it was just showing some provocative images and let you draw your own conclusions.

I mean the way I see it, DC Talk were driven in a similar way to Trent, in that they were genuine about their work.

Yeah for sure.

I’d like to see the uncut ‘Jesus Freak’ video sometime.

I’ll have to see if I can find it. I lost a lot when I moved over her. It was before the digital days so I had it on Beta SP tape.

It must be a in a box.

Thing is, some of them got damaged. They won’t play.

Any Nine Inch Nails stuff hidden in boxes?

Not that I can find. I should have kept more of it. It’s kind of like – you do these things, and you think, “Oh, I’ll keep a final cut”, so the DATs and the outtakes and stuff… I don’t know what happened to them.

Alright, so when did you come back to New Zealand?

About eight years ago. So, I mean, family took over after that. It’s a good place to raise a family. Not so good on the career front, but there you go.

What was the last video you directed before you got out of that game?

I did a stint with Mick Jagger. I did a solo thing for him. And then I was going to do some more with him, and he changed record companies and it was all put on hold and there were various other political things happening in the background. And I decided I’d had enough of commuting back and forth to the States, so I based myself back in London when I was 35 or 36.

It was a start of the whole desktop revolution, so you could do more stuff from the desktop than you could do before. I got heavily into experimental post-production.

The whole underground film movement is great for trying out ideas. You don’t have the multi-hundred thousand dollar budgets and high expectations and egos and all the stuff that goes with it.

So, do your students realise what you’ve done?

Yeah, pretty much.  I run workshops at the Polytech for music students, and graphics and media students. I just teach them underground video-making and help them realise their ideas.

‘Cause the whole idea thing, technology changes - it’s always changing - but fundamentally the creative side of things doesn’t, which is coming up with an idea.

I’ve watched some of the ads you’ve done locally. I’m a huge Tim & Eric fan, and they do some quite subversive content, and I almost get that vibe from some of your work. Like that paving ad, you have cat noises and insane sound effects. Is that your sense of humor coming through there? If that was running at 2am on Adult Swim that would go off.

It depends who I am working with. They’re generally quite conservative down here. Totally straight. So that gritty, grungy music thing won’t float. I tried it, it didn’t float. But occasionally you meet clients who are a bit more open-minded.

So that one with the cat: Because I work at home, there was a cat fight going on outside the window where I was editing, and the guy was coming in, and I think his dialogue was, “I’m home, honey!” and I heard this cat fight outside, and I thought, “I’ll put a fucking cat in there, that’ll work, that’ll be funny.”

And the client loved it.

Is it surreal for you being in the Bay of Plenty? Tauranga's a very reserved, quiet town. You’re doing these corporate videos as well as teaching… do you find it weird how far removed that is from cutting a Nine Inch Nails video?

Yep.

It’s insane.

It is insane. It took a while to get used to it. When I first came to the Bay, I came straight from living in central London for 30 years and at first it felt like I was in holiday, and then I realised it was actually my life.

So after the euphoria of landing here and not having police helicopters flying overhead, and the space, it’s beautiful. I just went, “I am too young to retire”.

The Polytech has been great. Since I got involved with it - and I know it sounds a bit lame - it’s the creative hub in this area. There are a lot of very creative people who have come to the Bay from all sorts of interesting backgrounds. And they all seem to gravitate towards the Polytech. So it’s not quite the same as being in central Auckland or central New York or whatever - but it’s not bad. 

Was there a moment in the music video-making business, besides family, where you thought: I wanna get out of this?

Yep. I woke up one morning and thought: if I keep doing this, I’m going to die. Just because of the whole lifestyle thing. Not because of the excesses – allegedly – involved in that sort of stuff. I just think it’s a useful experience... but I don’t think it’s ever a career. It’s just something you pass through.

Your website which shows your local ads you’ve made in the Bay… you don’t ever get tempted to put Mick Jagger or Nine Inch Nails in there?

I thought about it.

Just put one in! Mess with their heads!

I dunno, it doesn’t have much relevance for what I am doing at the moment. I have thought about it, and everyone goes, “Do it, do it, do it!” Half of them say that, and the other half say, “No, don’t do that because you will scare them off!” They are so conservative here. They’ll see Nine Inch Nails stuff and go, “No, no, no”.

Nine Inch Nails is not going to help me sell lawn mowers and mobility scooters.

*

So, about that studio shoot that was going to be the 'Hurt' video. This seems like a good time to show some footage I have on my hard-drive. I don’t think it’s been seen before, but this seems like a good time to show it. In the video, you can see Simon Maxwell directing a young Trent Reznor. This appears to be the shoot that got away:

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