It was a little over 22 years ago that the music industry sadly had to say goodbye to INXS singer and flamboyant musician Michael Hutchence. While he’s tragically gone, he’s absolutely not forgotten.
Director, writer, editor and close friend of Michael, Richard Lowenstein (“He Died with a Felafel in His Hand”, “Vi strejkar!”) is now honouring this eccentric performer with his latest documentary “Mystify: Michael Hutchence”.
We sat down with Lowenstein and talked about Michael, making the documentary, pop music and Australia. This is part one of our long, exciting and intriguing interview.
Liselotte Vanophem: Hi Richard, how are you doing?
Richard Lowenstein: I’m doing fine. I just arrived last night from Australia so I’m expecting that the jetlag is going to kick in soon.
LV: Congratulations on your beautiful documentary “Mystify: Michael Hutchence”. When did you decide that Michael was going to be the topic for this new documentary?
RL: It was about ten years ago actually. There was no real feature about this man I knew, the big international rockstar. A whole new generation had probably never heard of him or neve dug up his music. There were some documentaries about him but I didn’t recognize the person who they made the documentary about. Initially, I was going to make a drama film like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or something like that but we had a terrible time during the casting for that possible movie. I knew Michael personally and I already a lot of footage and I didn’t see anyone (not even the most famous actors) that could play him. Investors always want to see the big names but I didn’t find anyone who could capture that charisma that Michael had. So then I was “Who better to play Michael than Michael himself”.
I knew that I tons of footage in my archive, alongside music videos and the film we made together. I decided to use his voice and his images to tell the stories through him and the people that were very close to him. This would be his girlfriends, family, band members, and friends. I was interested in the emotional and intimate story rather than the musical story. I spoke to the bandmembers but I didn’t want to know how they wrote that song or this one. It was a story about the man and not the band or not necessarily the music.
LV: You said that you knew Michael. When was the first time that you met him?
RL: I’ve met him on the set of a music video that we did in 1984 when I was a music video director in Melbourne who just came out of film school. Upon that point, I made one feature film and a couple of music videos for Melbourne bands. In Melbourne, we didn’t like INXS music because it’s too commercial, too mainstream, too much on the radio and they’re from Sydney. It was all about the sun, surfing, and girls. One day, we got a phone call from the management and I didn’t know much about INXS themselves but they seem interesting.
They said “that’s alright. Just come up to Australia and just bring a small camera and do what you can”. I was expecting that I should hire professional cameras, grips, gaffers, and everything. However, I just grabbed one of those portable cameras. It was even 16mm back then. I met him in Queensland just outside the hotel near the swimming pool. The band was laying on those chairs. He just came up and shook our hands and the next thing we know, we’re making this video and snorkeling alongside the barrier reef.
Then we met up at the Cannes Film Festival and partied through the night. That was the start of a pretty strong friendship and that eventually lead to me directing him in a film and the numerous music videos. I didn’t know that they were going to take off as they did and become number one in America.
LV: How was it for you then that they came back to you for making more videos with them?
RL: The videos I did for them made them going up the charts. Yes, the songs were probably better but we made videos that were designed to shock people and make them go “What the f…!”. MTV was just starting and so video became more important. It was very time consuming to make those videos. I said to them “Look, you can write the song but if you want to stand out of the crowd, then you have to make a special video. If you want to make something special it might take up to three months but we can do it”. I think the first one we did like that was “What You Need” and that just went through the roof. It won all the video awards.
I loved Michael but I didn’t need to work with him anymore. However, they came back because they wanted another one like the video for “What You Need”. We made “Need You Tonight” which also became number one. Afterwards, I just exploited the situation because they kept on asking for more videos. I say that I wanted to do it if we could go and shoot in Prague that at moment was ruled by communism. They agreed on going to Prague and so I arranged the shoot. They loved it again. I’ve got to admit that it got to a point during the ‘80s where I got a little bit lazy and I started thinking of easier videos. At that same time, I was also making another film. That’s when things started to backfire a little bit. I wasn’t putting the same sort of love and attention in it as I did at the beginning. I was also trying to do things too quickly and now actually I regret that. I should have just kept going.
LV: With this documentary you made up for that as you honour Michael in the best way possible. Before making this documentary, you already had a lot of footage and videos. How did you decide what would go into this documentary and what wouldn’t?
RL: Well, I had a lot of footage and some of the footage, I didn’t know what it was anymore. It was until we got the funding of this film that I discovered what was actually on the footage. Things like the footage of Kylie Minogue and Michael in the boat were footage that we found in my attic without my realizing that I had it. Michael took that footage and gave to me. We had hours and hours of interviews. We had a team of people saying “this is a good bit. This one as well” and they made a documentary of five hours. We cut it down to one.
I had three main editors: Myself, another filmmaker/director/editor called Lynn-Maree Milburn and a young editor Tayler Martin. The three of us would start putting together the stories: Childhood, love, etc. Little stories within that one big story. I might do “early days of the band” while someone else would do “childhood”. When you’ve done that, you try to arrange it all. We’re trying to tell his story more psychologically and in an intriguing manner and not just from birth to death. The order of the mini-stories will tell you something more about the whole story.
LV: What was the first time you saw the film completely then?
RL: I have a friend who runs a cinema in Melbourne and he would run our film in between other movies. He would get other friends and sometimes also strangers to come and watch the documentary. We would ask them some questions (“what did you understand”, “what didn’t you”?,..). That process would go on for about six months, after that there were three of four weeks of more editing and then a few more screenings. After that, we send links to our investors like BBC, ABC and our funding partners and they could all have their comments. Comments from a non-Australian perspective were very helpful.
In Australia, we expect everyone to know a lot more about Michael and his story and so I needed to make sure that this documentary would work for people outside Australia as well. You have to explain things that people might not know. It was obvious that a certain young generation had no idea about how he was. There was no written script that we used when putting everything together. His life was the script and then we had to work out how to tell it in the best way possible.
For example, when Kylie talked about her breakup with him, she told us that something was going on inside him, something psychologically. I took that element as a starting point to tell about the relationship with his mother. I also showed the parallels between his parents’ breakup and the breakup with him and Kylie. This led to the story about his childhood.
Read part two of our interview here.
Read our review of “Mystify: Michael Hutchence”