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The Making of Jesus, Lord and Thriller

I came up with the idea around 2005, having just heard Thriller on the radio en route to Easter Mass.  The idea really didn’t take off until 2007, when Eric Kelly and I went skydiving, and wrote the lyrics while we waited for a break in the weather.

Tumbling out of the plane.

Falling at terminal velocity = song parody writing.

THE CHOIR

It wound up taking 7 years to come to fruition simply because we needed the music to be done before anything else—and the biggest hurdle was simply finding a Gospel choir to sing it.  And you know what?  Finding a Gospel choir that’s both good and open minded enough to sing a parody of Thriller is HARD.

I’d spend the first 6 months of the year searching for a choir, and then come Fall, having come up empty, I knew I’d have to wait another year.  That’s what happened several years in a row.  Finally, through a mutual friend provided by producer Maggie Crowe, I contacted Dr. TeRence Brown, director of the St. Benedictine University gospel choir.

Our first shoot day was on a Saturday in June of 2011- meaning these students came in to sing on their day off when they were already gone for the summer.  Most college students wouldn’t have done that, so I give them a ton of credit.  Plus, they were enthusiastic and patient, and did a great job.  Big accolades to the choir and TeRence Brown.

Posing with the choir

Benedictine University's Student Gospel Choir. These people made it happen.

THE DANCING

I rented costumes from Chicago Costume on Belmont ave. in Chicago.  At first, I felt a little strange asking if they had a bunch of biblical costumes, until I remembered that the staff have probably seen way weirder scenarios.  (I asked to make sure, and yes, they had- mostly involving bizarre sexy parties.)

This only was after I considered going to a fabric store and making my own costumes to save money.  Which, believe me, would have been a complete and total disaster.  I tried making one on my own and subsequently  burned through 20 dollars.

Chicago Costume is great.  Use them for any Biblical costuming needs (Also, your everyday costuming needs).

Once again, this short film is the product of donated time by my friends and colleagues.  Without them, none of this would have happened.

Dances in costume

Admit it. Even the women look good in those beards.

We shot the dance sequences, religious zealots, and walking scenes in the same day- first thing in the morning on a Saturday.  It only looked like night because we’re actually indoors in an underground parking garage.  A couple of tree branches strapped to c-stands, as well as scattered leaves, helped created the illusion of being outside.

Owen operating a jib

Definitely not outside.

Respectfully to anybody in the cast or crew, the real star was the tree branch strapped to a c-stand.  We named him Frederick.  He was in a lot of shots.

Tree on a c-stand

The heart and soul of our shoot. Also a total diva.

OWEN THE HOMICIDAL PSYCHOPATH

Getting the leaves took an unexpected turn.  I borrowed a van to get the branches and the leaves, which basically meant taking them from one of Chicago’s forest preserves.  I loaded a couple of large branches in the van, then headed back into the woods with a couple of garbage bags in hand.

While I was in the woods, a jogger had stopped to stretch nearby.  When he saw me, I can’t really describe his face- but it was exactly the face a stranger would have if he saw a guy emerge from the woods carrying two overstuffed garbage bags, throw them into an unmarked white van and drive away.

I don’t want to attempt to post a photo to describe this.  The thought alone might be horrific enough.

 

MOST FREQUENT COMMENTS (SO FAR)

Why did you make this?  Are you trying to make some sort of a religious or political statement?

Not at all.  All we wanted to do was make a silly video.  If we’re making any statement at all it’s against zealots who exploit religion for money, and mindless protesters who warp the Bible into hatred.

You went too far / You didn’t go far enough.

The most important thing I’d like viewers to know is that we’re coming from a neutral standpoint, and every lyric is intentionally walking a line.

We simply took a great song like Thriller and sang about the story of Jesus.  We’re not trying to be preachy, nor are we trying to attack Jesus or religion itself in any way.

If you like it, great.  If you don’t like it, that’s ok, too.

Hey, Zombie Jesus!

We really didn’t want people to watch it and think we’re making a “zombie Jesus” joke.  It’ s understandable since Thriller featured dancing zombies- but we deliberately avoided making Jesus looking deceased or zombie-like in any way.  It really isn’t the point.

We wanted the zombie references to correlate directly to the religious zealots.  They’re the “zombies” we wanted to vilify- exploiting religious beliefs for monetary gain or condemning people simply because they’re different.

And then we had them get struck by lightning.

What’s the story with the fire trucks in the outtakes video?

I’ve done countless shoots in various locations, and one of the biggest rules of production lighting is: “Don’t mess with the ceiling sprinklers”.  It’s simple- production lights get really hot.  Ceiling sprinklers are activated by heat.  If the two get together, everybody’s going to be soaked, cameras and computers will be destroyed, the building will be evacuated, and everybody’s going to be really pissed at you.

So a lot of gaffers will take a Styrofoam cup and put it over the ceiling sprinkler, to insulate it if the temperature around it rises.  The sprinklers aren’t disturbed, the lights can go up and the shoot will go as planned.

We filmed the Benedictine University Gospel Choir in their student chapel, which has a drop ceiling, and of course, sprinklers.  Cups went over those sprinklers so that everything went smoothly.  Before we started shooting, we busted out the fog machine to get a dramatic, hazy feel.  All was well until the fire alarm activated.

Rehearsing with fog

Pre-evac, oblivious to my impending error.

And here’s what I didn’t know:

A smoke detector doesn’t have an objective opinion if it’s “real smoke”.  If there’s any sort of weird crud in the air, including fog, it goes off like a banshee.  I felt like an idiot for a while, waiting for building maintenance to shut off the alarm, but I also didn’t realize that if you legitimately activate a fire alarm, there’s only one way you can shut it off:

THE FIRE DEPARTMENT.

And upon hearing the sirens, I noticed they sent a fire truck to the building.

Wait, correction.  They sent THREE fire trucks to the building.  THREE.

Fire trucks outside of building

{face palm}

I’m not going to comment on the rest, except that you don’t want to piss off a fire chief.  No, sir.  Especially around a city like Chicago, which once completely burned to the ground.  Firefighters don’t dick around.   Respect.

Also pissed off: all of the occupants of the building we evacuated.

In the outtakes video, I appear pretty relaxed, because if you’re running a shoot, you have to keep it together.  But honestly, I felt awful for the false alarm.  All things considered, I think  I took the heat well, only because I’m used to going onstage and have people glare at me.  And of course I need to give props to the cast and crew that had my back, particularly producer Maggie Crowe.  It would have sucked to go through that alone.

The Moonwalk on Water: How did you pull that off?

…We sort of didn’t.  The initial goal was to avoid using any CG on that to make it look as real as possible.

Dustin Thomas, Eric Kelly and I went to Loyola beach in Chicago before sunrise in the Fall of 2011- to achieve both dramatic, colorful light and calm water.  The first difficulty was finding a shoreline that didn’t drop off sharply- but the biggest hindrance?  The water.

I know it sounds obvious, but that water was really a pain in the ass.  We put a bunch of cinder blocks just under the surface of the water, with a piece of plexiglas on top of it, on which Eric would moonwalk.  The cinder blocks pressed into the sand, so we put a piece of particle board beneath them.

Then the water started pushing the plexiglas away, so we held it down with bungee cords, which bent the material. Then the waves kicked up too much.  So we moved the whole setup towards the shoreline.  Then, since water isn’t a lubricant of any kind, the moonwalk made Eric’s feet stick to the board.

Dawn at the beach

Dustin Thomas and Eric Kelly, in a futile attempt to moonwalk on water.

In the end, graphic designer Steve Stroud did the effect for us in After Effects, once we shot Eric moonwalking on green screen.  I gotta admit- sometimes you do have to fix it in post.

We did use a bit of video from that early morning: the still water background, and a tiny bit of the foot splashing down at the end were from the actual shoot day.

Is that marquee shot at the beginning also After Effects?

Nope!  All in camera.  With the help of the Skokie Theater in Skokie, IL, we were able to change the marquee and shoot the interior theater scenes.

Skokie Theater Marquee

That marquee: Legit.

Shooting outside the Skokie Theater

The exteriors were the last thing we shot- early December 2011. Cold.

Where can I buy a t-shirt?

Selling a t-shirt would be completely hypocritical to our main point: don’t exploit religion for cash.  So no Jesus, Lord and Thriller merchandise.

 

Thanks for reading!

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