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Although the Beastie Boys had spent almost a decade distancing themselves from the childish image of their 1986 hits Fight for Your Right and No Sleep Till Brooklyn they had still retained a sense of humour. Their fourth album, 1994’s Ill Communication, had become a critical and commercial success that had seen the trio experimenting with a variety of different sounds and genres. Up until this point their videos had been largely performance based, in which each of the band members take turns rapping into the camera as they had done on the promos for Pass the Mic and So What’cha Want, but Sabotage – the first single released from the album – would mark a change of direction in which they would focus more on narrative and visuals, a decision that would have an impact on their subsequent videos.
The man responsible for the Sabotage video was Spike Jonze, a young, up-and-coming filmmaker who had begun to make a name for himself due to his unique style, energy and imagination. He had first entered the industry in 1987 as a photographer and editor for BMX magazines Freestylin’, Go, and BMX Action, before eventually launching his own magazine, Dirt, alongside two friends. Jonze’s first shot at filming was for the 1989 video Rubbish Heap, a skateboarding film funded by World Industries, followed two years later by Blind’s Video Days, the latter of which would feature professional skateboarder Jason Lee, later known for his acting roles in Mallrats and My Name is Earl.
Having honed his talents as a photographer Jonze shot his first ultra low budget music video for Olkahoma-based Chainsaw Kittens, sleeping on the band’s floor as he had assembled random footage to be edited together for the clip High in High School, mainly consisting of the group performing in a club and shots of a car driving around town. With a portfolio of photographs in hand Jonze found himself at Satellite Films, a division of Propaganda, who had also severed as a training ground for David Fincher, Alex Proyas and Mark Romanek. His first video at the company was for the Sonic Youth track 100%, in which he was hired to shoot skateboard footage of Lee. The majority of the video was directed by Tamra Davis, who had previously worked with the band on the clips for Kool Thing and Dirty Boots.
Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon contacted Jonze soon afterwards to co-direct the video for Cannonball by the Breeders, the new group from former Pixies bassist Kim Deal. Jonze’s earlier music videos as sole director included Luscious Jackson‘s Daughters of the Kaos, Teenage Fanclub‘s Hang On and Time for Livin’ by Beastie Boys, but it would be the video for Weezer‘s Buddy Holly that would launch his career. The piece would feature the band members performing at Arnold’s Drive-In, with footage from the show Happy Days mixed in. The video was a hit and received regular airplay on MTV and with Jonze’s name listed at the beginning he soon found himself in demand. Having worked once again with the Breeders, alongside Richard Kern and Gordon, and MC 900 Ft. Jesus on their minor hit If I Only Had a Brain (humorously featured in an episode of Beavis and Butt-head), Jonze’s next break would come with Sabotage.
‘I met them when I was really young, even before I started making videos, and even before I knew them they were always a big influence on me,’ recalled Jonze to Hulu on how he first crossed paths with the Beastie Boys. ‘As we became friends in my early twenties, there was really nobody like them, they just had a way of doing things that was so independent and their own. Back then they were just putting out Check Your Head and they did things entirely independently and even though they were on a major label and instead of taking a big advance and spending it all on expensive studios, they took the advance and built their own studio out in Atwater Village in this sort of sleepy little neighbourhood near Glendale. Rent was cheap and they just spent very little on making their own studio and could spend as long as they wanted making their own music.’
The concept for the video had first been conceived by Adam Yauch, known to fans of the Beastie Boys as MCA, who had suggested for a magazine shoot that they dress up as ’70s cops with fake moustaches and wigs. Jonze had been the photographer on the shoot and the idea of a music video was soon suggested. Ill Communication had yet to be released and Sabotage was to be the first single from the album and, at just short of three minutes, seemed like the perfect track for the faux opening credits. Jonze wrote a treatment for the video and submitted it to Satellite Films on 8 April 1994 while Yauch, who was always conscious of wasting money, insisted that the video was low budget.
‘We all watched VHS video tapes of Streets of San Francisco and other shows and we were like, ‘Okay, that would be awesome if we could pull off our own version of that?” band member Mike D told Vanity Fair many years later. For Jonze, the chance to parody old TV shows was too tempting to resist. ‘The next week we’d go to the moustache shop and buy all the moustaches and be shooting it. It was more like getting your friends together and making something and it was like that right up until the last thing we did together. There wasn’t a lot of overthinking anything or dealing with the record label. It was just coming up with something we thought was funny and just going out and making it.’To assist with the wardrobe Jonze brought in Casey Storm, a friend who he paid $100 a day to provide the video’s key ingredient – the costumes. Once Mike D tried on a wig and moustache he began shouting at his bandmates and was soon dubbed The Chief, while Yauch and Adam Horovitz would also soon find themselves slipping easily into character. Storm would later work with Jonze as production designer on his excellent 1997 short How They Get There before becoming his costume designer on the movies Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. The video would be shot in Los Angeles with a crew of just six people, resulting in everyone taking more than one role (Jonze would act as his own director of photography), while Yauch would perform the majority of the driving.
‘The FBI, they were surveilling us. They would come by the studio and dress up as other people, trying to conduct surveillance on the studio,’ joked Mike D during an interview with Rap City while promoting the album. ‘So that’s why we started really getting into the disguises, so they wouldn’t know when we were coming or leaving the studio or what we were up to. So that was the start of it.’ While remaining straight-faced and seemingly sincere throughout the interview, Yauch pushed the theory of why they chose cop disguises even further. ‘We started going undercover and we started going dressed as cops into the police station and checking their files to see what they had on us. We were doing the double-sneak on them. And then we started getting into the vibe of what it was like being a cop, once we were in the cop uniforms.’
Due to legal problems Jonze would sometimes fill in for Horovitz by obscuring his face behind cups of coffee or whatever props were at hand, as well as being Yauch’s stand in when he was driving. With the video featuring several stunts, equipment would get broken, most notably during a chase scene in which the magazine from a camera (which was mounted on the hood of the car) smashed to the floor, causing film to roll out. Another incident required Jonze to shoot in Mike D’s pool, in which the lens of a camera was placed inside a Ziploc bag which was submerged underwater. But when the actor jumped into the pool water splashed inside the bag and ruined the camera. After his assistant director managed to dry the water off the equipment Jonze returned the camera to Satellite and told them that had simply stopped working.
‘We literally bought a car that was about to die and we had some loose shooting permits, but it’s not as if we had the fire department or any of the stuff we should have had with the car and we just drove the car ourselves,’ explained Mike D. ‘We almost killed the car a couple of times but we definitely didn’t come close to killing ourselves.’ Jonze’s independent, DIY-approach to filmmaking would prove to be an ideal match with the Beastie Boys method of working. ‘I remember when we were going to do the Sabotage video the production company that I was working at made a budget for the idea that was twice what we wanted to spend and had cops and it had permits and it had the proper way you’re supposed to do stuff and I kept telling the production company ‘No, we want to do it this way without cops’ and they were like, ‘No we can’t do it this way, that’s an insurance risk,” said Jonze.
‘They had all their sort of bureaucratic right way to do things and anytime someone told Yauch that it would make him bristle and ask why. So we had this meeting at the production company and Yauch said, ‘If you guys don’t want to do it the way we want to do it then we’ll just do it with another company.’ And they said, ‘Hold on a second’ and came back to us with the budget that we wanted it to be and we did it the way we wanted to do it, which was just us in a van driving around. I think Yauch was definitely a big influence on me with his fearlessness to do it our own way and not let someone else say this is the way it’s supposed to be done. That was a big influence on me as a filmmaker.’
The video would be edited by Haines Hall, who would later work with Jonze’s then wife Sofia Coppola on her directorial debut The Virgin Suicides, as well as the Arie Posin’s black comedy The Chumscrubber. To promote the video and perhaps due to the band’s enthusiasm for the costumes, Jonze shot a seven minute fake chat show interview with the trio in character called Ciao L.A., in which Coppola and Zoe Cassavetes co-starred as TV hosts. Sabotage would become another major success for Jonze and while it would lose out to REM‘s Everybody Hurts at the MTV Music Video Awards, the promo would win Clip of the Year at the 1994 Billboard Music Video Awards. ‘It’s a brilliant parody of ’70s shows. Its washed-out colour is reminiscent of the Streets of San Francisco and Starsky and Hutch,’ declared Jonathan Bernstein of Spin.Fashion and taste moves in circles and each era eventually become retro and popular once again and by the mid-1990s it was the macho action movies and disco glamour of the 1970s that was making a comeback. ‘I remember when we made a video for the Paul’s Boutique album called Hey Ladies and that was 1989 and people were really not ready for that,’ remembers Mike D on their earlier attempts to parody other decades. ‘Because they weren’t comfortable yet returning to the ’70s, it was still gross to them, the whole polyester and bellbottoms. The whole aesthetic, it hadn’t come of seller age yet.’ For Jonze, Sabotage would become a major turning point in his career and would allow him to push the medium of music videos through his subsequent collaborations with Björk, Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim. ‘It was just inspiring being around them because they were truly independent artists and did what felt right to them and did what they thought was funny,’ stated Jonze.