“You look at a lot of those clips, and there’s a frustrated film director in there,” says filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, taking a drag on a cigarette while looking out across the Sydney skyline from the balcony of a ritzy inner-city apartment.
These days, video clip directors crossing over into film is nothing new. Talented, precocious filmmakers like Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Mark Pellington, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer and many more have jumped from MTV to indie and studio filmmaking. Back in the eighties, however, it was a no-go zone. Australian-born Russell Mulcahy was the pioneer who picked the locks and blazed the trails. After a highly successful career directing clips for the likes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Elton John, Mulcahy made something of a watershed switch when he was brought back to Australia to helm Razorback, a homegrown horror flick about a rampaging boar tearing its way through a small outback town.
It was a big move, but then Russell Mulcahy has always played it fast and loose. After experimenting with amateur Super 8 filmmaking as an eighteen-year-old – literally hand-cutting and glue-editing film in his bedroom – Mulcahy conned his way into a job with Channel 7, and almost immediately found himself cutting the nightly news. He was a quick study, and from there found himself helming video clips (at the time still a nascent art form) for Australian artists such as Marcia Hines and AC/DC. Showing obvious talent and visual style, Mulcahy was scooped up by the American music industry, and was lured to LA to direct the clip for Kim Carnes’ smash hit “Bette Davis Eyes”. From that moment on, Mulcahy was a mainstay in the world of music video, and didn’t return to Australia to work professionally until Razorback in 1984.
“There were no rules,” the director says of the world of video clips in the eighties. “The record company would send a courier with a cassette and I’d sit with it for a couple of hours. Then I’d ring them up and give them my idea and they’d go, ‘Okay, can you shoot next week?’ Then we’d just put it together. There were no big rules during the shoots. You did try to break as many barriers as possible though, while trying to keep within the realm of letting it be shown on music TV.”
Though he was the top of the tree when it came to music videos, Mulcahy will forever be remembered as the man who contributed so heavily to the visual style of British New Romantic pop heroes Duran Duran. A mammothly successful band at the time, they were also groundbreaking in their use of videos to pump their songs, and Mulcahy was instrumental in that. From the saucy sexiness of the controversial “Girls On Film” to the sun-drenched silliness of “Rio” and the post-apocalyptic thrills of “Wild Boys”, Mulcahy’s videos defined the band’s image and changed the way music videos were made.
“Duran Duran were probably one of the most conscious visual bands that I worked with,” Mulcahy says. “I remember when I did their first video, which was for ‘Planet Earth’. It was in Camden in winter, and this bus turns up and the band gets out with all these frilly shirts and big hair. They’d driven all the way from Birmingham on this bus and we did ‘Planet Earth’. It was very homoerotic in a way and a lot of the videos that they do are very homoerotic.”
The group’s fame became so huge – and Mulcahy so intertwined with it – that the director found himself in a very unique position. “There would be times when I would come to Sydney,” he laughs, “and I would get mobbed by fans! It was very strange.”
At the time, music videos were largely uncharted territory, not defined by the kind of rules running through feature filmmaking. In working with such hugely popular artists, Mulcahy was given almost free reign. In many cases, the artists were bigger than the record companies they were signed to, meaning that they called the shots. Money was not an issue, but the director still imposed his own set of rules. “It’s almost like storytelling,” he says. “As long as you establish at some point what the boundaries are and what the rules are in this game, then you can do what you want. But I don’t think you can do that and then just suddenly with no reasoning say, ‘Oh, I’m just going over here for a bit too.’ You’ve got to be careful and set your boundaries. Everyone can be painted blue and have purple penises or something crazy like that, as long as it’s all within the rules that you’ve set.”
Mulcahy found a stricter set of rules when he made his debut as a feature filmmaker with Razorback. It was his video for Duran Duran’s steamy, jungle-set video “Hungry Like The Wolf” that got him the job. Legendary Australian producer Hal McElroy had seen it and responded to its sense of drama and excitement. “I was very surprised to get offered the film,” says Mulcahy. “It was very brave of Hal, so kudos to him. The man had guts and took a chance. Maybe the video showed that I could do action and create atmosphere, because I think – and this is not a criticism – but I think apart from George Miller, most of the other directors in Australia were perhaps a bit more cerebral, which probably wouldn’t have worked for this project.”
Though Australian, it was Mulcahy’s longtime separation from the country that proved most valuable when he visualised the film. On the page, Razorback was a straight up, bite-and-shred, animal-on-the-rampage film, complete with big action set pieces and a large, fake wild boar. “I’d been overseas, to Paris, Amsterdam and wherever, and all these places had affected me,” Mulcahy says. “Now I was here doing this film set in the outback of Australia and it’s very much Deliverance meets Jaws meets Wake In Fright, and I felt like I was a stranger in a strange land. Everything looked odd to me even though it was normal. Everything looked a little surreal to me: landscapes, characters, the whole lot.”
With a cast of quality Australian actors assembled (Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, David Argue, Judy Morris and the late Arkie Whitely), along with American import Gregory Harrison (stepping in after dealings with first choice Jeff Bridges never panned out), Mulcahy suddenly felt out of his depth and with a fistful of new challenges in his face. “I remember the first morning in Broken Hill on the first day of the shoot,” he explains. “I woke up before dawn, it was freezing cold, and I walked up on to the top of a mountain and threw up. I thought, ‘What have I done? I can’t do this!’ And then the next thing I remember was having a cup of tea, the shot was set up, and action was called. The train had left the station and I was on board.”
Despite the usual on-set hiccups (old hand Bill Kerr and young turk David Argue butted heads over their very different approaches to acting, while the creation of the much touted mechanical boar chewed up money and time at a hard-charging rate), Mulcahy has a real fondness for his experience on the film. “I celebrated my thirtieth birthday on that film,” laughs the now fifty-something filmmaker. “During a big night shoot, I was presented with a lamington with a birthday candle in it!”
Exciting and imaginative, Razorback was a solid success in Australia, but failed to crack the American market. Seemingly like all works of originality, the film became a cult success in France, and subsequently pushed Mulcahy onto a successful international directing career. His career boasts smash hits (Highlander), cult curios (Ricochet), disappointments (The Real McCoy), genre work (Resident Evil: Extinction, Give ‘Em Hell, Malone) quality TV (Queer As Folk, On The Beach, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles) and the occasional strong drama (Swimming Upstream), and for now, music videos are a thing of the past.
“I made it pretty clear years ago that I’d retired from that,” Mulcahy says, jamming another cigarette into his ashtray. “I did my time and it was fun. Look, I’ve done a few decent films, and I’ve done some crap too, but I still think I have a really good film in me.”