Although renowned music video director (and forthcoming DJ AM documentary creator) Kevin Kerslake cut his teeth in the D-I-Y punk trenches, his work with Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots made his name on MTV as a director with vision. We caught up with Kerslake to get his recollection of helming a video for the late Prince Rogers Nelson. He had a few stories to tell about directing the video for “My Name Is Prince.”
Kevin Kerslake: So I get a call because Prince asked Warner Brothers for a recommendation, and my name came up. So he flies me out to Minneapolis and I still have no idea what I’m doing there. I get to the Paisley Park facility in Chanhassen, and Prince and his assistant start walking me around. He says he’s got three options for me. At first we go into these very sterile offices, one then another, all very foreign, and I finally ask, “What exactly are we doing?” (laughing) and yeah they’re really lovely people actually, but they’re very mysterious about the entire operation. It turned out he wanted me to pick up the ball on a music video he was doing, then travel with him for a year or so doing a documentary. First stop was meant to be Egypt, with a performance at the Pyramids or something like that. So, so finally Prince walks me into the third ‘office’ which was a dance studio with a pole. And he says, “Yeah, well you can work in here and my girl will come in and dance for you three times a day and —
GAMV: Wait, wait. He said that?
KK: Yeah, like, what? I said, I don’t know if that’s going to work all that well. (laughing) But because I edited all my own stuff at that time, I was going to shoot whatever needed to be shot, then come back to Paisley Park and start putting everything together there. And so, you know having an edit system in the dance studio with that pole, that really wasn’t the most ideal environment.
GAMV: That sounds like definitely that only happens in Prince World.
GAMV: So, how did the process with making a music video for Prince begin?
KK: So I went to Minneapolis, but I didn’t really want to spend an entire year there. I had a full life in Venice [California], and I also had some other jobs coming up. I was booked to do an R.E.M. video within month, plus some other stuff, so the idea of just abandoning everything was somewhat problematic. So despite the advice I got to pack for a long, long time away from home, I packed light (laughs). Prince tells me he’ll rent an edit system for me, and Paisley Park can be home for the duration.” I was like “Yeah, I don’t know if they’re going to have the system I’m used to working on. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find it in Minneapolis.” At the time, nonlinear edit systems didn’t really exist, and the edit system I preferred was pretty cumbersome. And Prince goes, “No, it’s a big production town, just do your research and we’ll get it in here.” So I went back to my hotel and tried to find an edit system in town. When I told Prince there was nothing available, he comes back with “Just get your edit system over here, then.” I go, “That’s gonna be really expensive, you don’t want to do that,” and he’s like, “No, just give me a bill and I’ll do it. I’ll ship yours out.” So —
KK: — I got a bid that was pretty pricey, I mean from the production world where I came from. I put the bid on his desk expecting it to be rejected and we’d have to figure out another way around it, but he goes, “Fine.” It was like something ridiculous like $25,000. For shipping only.
So my guy Wesley came out the next day from California with the system. He sets it all up, and I come into Paisley Park the following morning to start going through all the material, and there’s a note on my desk saying, “Prince wants you in LA immediately. We’re shooting tonight. Oh and bring your edit system. We’re going to finish editing out there.” (laugh)
GAMV: What! (laugh)
KK: Total about-face. I rush to the airport, hop on the next plane, take the taxi right to the set where there were already hundreds of people. Cast, crew, everyone. It was all put together, what, that day? Kirstie Alley was in the video. She played a newscaster reporting from a riot, and it was just total chaos. Helicopters buzzing overhead. Cars overturned. Total fucking mayhem. Like you just had to jump in —
GAMV: So wait, was there already footage that had already been shot?
KK: Randy St. Nicholas had shot a handful of scenes for the video, and then I was going to pick up the next leg – it was almost like an exquisite corpse game where I was going to build on the footage that she shot, and we’d finally unveil something that resembled a music video. And so I gathered that’s basically just how things worked in Prince World.
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GAMV: So when you walked onto the set, who told you what was going on?
KK: He did, actually. I mean obviously, when you drive onto a set with that many people on it, you need to come up to speed however you can real quickly. Who knows if this was all set up before I came on board or if it was put together last minute, but he obviously had a plan of sorts. I hadn’t seen anything on paper, so everything that I learned was communicated verbally. Mind you, this is Day Two for me in the Prince universe. Total chaos. Then I just started picking apart different elements in terms of what to shoot and in what order, the various angles, etc. And, you know, you just start to do your thing in terms of getting the coverage that you need to be able to tell the story.
GAMV: Now was it helpful that he had that weird thing that he was wearing over his face the whole time?
KK: Yeah, we’re going to need to see your face, Prince! But it came in awfully handy in the edit for slipping sync. So they shipped [the editing suite] back out to California, then we just jumped into the edit. He would come in every day or so. It’s funny, with music videos versus narrative work I don’t have a lot of preconceptions whenever I begin an edit. I shoot my own work, so I know every frame of footage, but in terms of edit structure, I always try to stay open to doing things in a way I hadn’t seen before. Otherwise, you run the risk of falling into those formulas that kill the spirit of music videos. It’s not quite improv, but I tend to be open to a lot of different options in the edit. Prince didn’t come from that world. I think he came from that world musically, but he didn’t come from that world filmically. Even though at this point he’d done a lot on film, I think he liked the formality of having a battle plan, a paper edit, where at the beginning of each day, you know exactly the edits you’re going to make throughout the day, sort of like connecting the dots. Well, this was the opposite of how I like to work in music videos, so we had some pretty animated discussions (laughs).
GAMV: That sounds very diplomatic (laughs).
KK: (laughs) I think that there was one point when we were still pretty new into the relationship, still feeling each other out a bit, and it was totally civil, but passionate, that at one point I said that I believed my approach to editing music videos was probably a lot more similar to his approach in the music studio than he thought. He said, “You know, you’re right!” And he even came back the next day and said that he’d thought a lot about it that night and that the analogy was spot on. The man could play every instrument under the sun and run circles around the best of them, but he didn’t seem to have that same innate confidence in his film chops, so his approach was more cautious, or measured. I think that just being able to make that sort of association to something that was a lot more familiar to him ended up changing how he approached post. Then something happened with the world tour which was getting held up for some reason, and I had to go on to the R.E.M. job…
GAMV: During the edit when you were working with him, were there certain points where he said, “I really like this” or “I really like that”? Is there anything that comes to mind at all?
KK: You know nothing on the molecular level really stood out. It was a pretty ordinary edit. Prince came in with Mayte, and it actually felt like the spotlight was on the spectacle of the edit as opposed to the functionality of it. Their relationship was pretty new. They were madly in love, and there were a lot of intimate whispers behind me, as he was introducing her into the mystery of the filmmaking process (laughs).
GAMV: Was there any communication with Warner Brothers during the shoot or the edit?
KK: I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary, but it’s just a formality that you have to go through. There was no question who was in charge. There wasn’t a lot of third party activity. It was mostly just me and him. He was incredibly kind, articulate and soft spoken. But completely engaged, and totally charming. And he had no ego.
KK: And that was super refreshing. I’d heard all these horror stories about Prince on various productions just not showing up and then having to scrap the shoot and all the ensuing calamities. But I got nothing of the sort, other than the fact that Prince was impulsive. But all that was in service to the creative, which made my one-on-one experience with him actually very magical. One story that is sort of funny: I cut a lot of my stuff back then at a place called On Time Off Line, which was housed in the industrial section of Santa Monica, which felt totally abandoned at that point. RedBull is just across the street nowadays, but back then you’d never see a soul around. I got word that Prince was coming over so keep an eye out for him. So everybody’s got their eyes out the window and then all of a sudden a purple metal-flake BMW and a blue metal flake BMW drive up and they park in the middle of the street. Prince’s brother – I think he was his bodyguard – and another bodyguard get out and draw their guns! This is in the middle of the afternoon by the way. In the middle of nowhere. This area is like a ghost town . We’re not even outside. We’re looking through the window and we’re like, “What the F is going on?!” They sort of stalk around the car like the wild, wild west, scoping out the situation, ready for an ambush. And then they pull open up the back door and Prince pops out. Struts inside.
GAMV: From working so closely with him, do you feel like you had any insight into his work process or how his brain works?
KK: Well, I think it’s just remarkable that he built this universe. This is where I appreciate some of the impulsive behavior because it was all in the name of being creative – whether you stay in the studio all night or whatever. Everybody knows the stories that his band was always on call, and at 2 or 3 o clock in the morning, he would ring them up, “Lets jump into the studio.” That’s such a luxury for an artist to be able to do that, and for him to him to have created that possibility of being alive to his creative whims at any moment was just magical. At one point, there was what I felt to be a very strange resistance in the music video scene to the virtues of that type of lifestyle, just because it was an inconvenience. And this is from people in the arts, who would give anything to be able to do that. He did it! Nevertheless, a lot of the chatter in the music video community really was pretty dismissive. Whatever reason someone was going to give for not showing up was never going to be enough, even though he may have spent the entire night crafting his next “Purple Rain.” I think that it’s such an ideal state to live in for an artist, being able to act upon most, if not all, creative impulses, as though all the world is your studio. The fact that he created that life for himself, in spite of so much resistance coming from every conceivable angle, it really is a tremendous accomplishment. Next to the actual substance of his output, and the creative genius behind it, that stands out the most for me.
GAMV: When it is all about a creative product, does that it keep your focus a bit tighter, or does it keep your focus a little bit looser and open to possibilities?
KK: Well, I think it can lead to a certain type of purity that isn’t diluted by some of the other forces artists typically grapple with, whether those are financial or political, at a label, for instance. The work environment that Prince created was bereft of all those concerns. He had this freedom to really explore those creative impulses unhindered by things that have nothing to do with art or being creative. This doesn’t always lead to a masterpiece; I’m sure there are plenty of duds in that vault. But that’s not really the point. It’s about an artist being able to live in the moment, liberated from some of the concerns that hold us all back from being able to tap our full potential as artists. Free.
Check out the trailer for Kevin Kerslake’s new documentary on DJ AM, and don’t forget to join us for DANCE MUSIC SEX ROMANCE: A Prince Video Dance Party in Tribute on Saturday May 7 at Rough Trade in Brooklyn.