In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan looks at the recently published book by filmmaker and special effects wizard Colin Chilvers, specifically the chapter that tells the story behind the making of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” short film which Chilvers directed.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today L (14-02-2020).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 6, no. 3 (2020). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-l/.
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“Like a Comic Book Adventure Come to Life”: Colin Chilvers on directing Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. By Kerry Hennigan
The title of Colin Chilvers’ book “Believing a Man can Fly” relates to the 1978 Superman movie for which he won a Special Achievement Oscar for his visual effects work. But, as one interviewer put it, “it was a slew of toy commercials… that brought Chilvers together with one of the greatest entertainers in the world.”
My interest in Chilvers’ recently published movie memoirs was sparked by his having directed the “Smooth Criminal” segment of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker film (1988).  It was a project that Chilvers says started out as a normal length music video, but as Jackson continued to contribute his ideas during the development of the script, “the project became increasingly ambitious.” Eventually “Smooth Criminal” grew in scope and length to a 40-minute special effects song and dance spectacle. 
He describes the project as “a creatively-charged environment where Michael’s imagination was allowed to run wild.” While different personnel were in charge of various aspects of the project, in the end, Chilvers says, “Michael had the final word on everything.” If he wanted something changed or added, eventually he would get his way, even if he needed to go through his manager Frank DiLeo to get the message across.
Knowing the “Smooth Criminal” footage as Jackson fans do, I found it interesting to read Chilvers’ account of the project’s genesis. Michael, who loved the movie Back to the Future with its time-travelling DeLorean, wanted his video to feature himself transforming into a car, a robot and a spaceship – “like a comic book adventure come to life”, Chilvers says. It was Kevin Pike, the special effects supervisor on Back to the Future, who recommended to Jackson that he ask Chilvers to direct his video. Michael had already tried some feature film directors he admired, but they were engaged on other projects. “A lot of top Hollywood directors can be booked solid for two years in advance,” Chilvers explains.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Chilvers’ story is his take on Michael’s way of working on a project – a method employed by his cinematic idol Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin would shoot, watch the footage and make notes, then reshoot over and over, until he was happy with the scene. “Michael would often change his mind and ask for things that weren’t in the original plans,” Chilvers recalls. “After viewing footage we’d shot, he’d think of ways to make things even more spectacular.” Of course, this is completely at odds with Hollywood’s preferred way of working, which is usually in deference to time and budget constraints. But Chilvers understood it was Michael’s baby, and the money was ultimately coming from him anyway.
The early meetings between the director and star took place at the Jackson family home in Encino. Chilvers’ reflections on these meetings, and on Michael’s demeanour around people he didn’t know well, are a reminder that, despite being a dynamic performer who OWNED any stage he stood on, off-stage he was shy and guarded and preferred to avoid conflict. However, Chilvers found that once Michael got to know and trust you, he would be open and relaxed.
Eventually Moonwalker including “Smooth Criminal” hit theatres in Europe and South America towards the end of 1988 while the King of Pop was still on his Bad world tour. But in North America the movie went straight to video. Chilvers admits he was “disappointed to say the least.” Being denied a theatrical release in preference to the home video market usually meant that the film wasn’t of sufficient quality to be shown on the big screen, “but that certainly wasn’t the case with Moonwalker or ‘Smooth Criminal’” Chilvers asserts.
Chilvers maintains that to this day he doesn’t know why things happened the way they did, though he has heard a couple of stories. Nevertheless, just being involved with a superstar like Michael Jackson was a great boost to his career. “Thanks to this experience, I went on to direct movies for television and episodes of various TV series.” But after the “Smooth Criminal” project wrapped, he never got to speak to Michael again. “Such was the reality of working with the King of Pop,” he writes.
The “Smooth Criminal” story occupies just 29 pages of a 266-page book, in a chapter appropriately titled “Walking on the Moon with the King”. Nevertheless, as Chilvers relates his first-hand account without resorting to tabloid spin, his memoirs provide valuable source material for students of Michael Jackson studies. The chapter concludes with the director admitting that Jackson’s passing had been very upsetting for him. He realised the world would never have the opportunity to enjoy a new Michael Jackson song, “and I would never have the opportunity to share another laugh with him.” Participating in Spike Lee’s Bad 25th anniversary documentary (2012) brought back the sadness of Michael’s passing but, Chilvers adds, “it also brought back my sense of pride about the work we did together.”
It was a period of his life he recalls as “amazing in all ways.” 
In March 2019 an article appeared on the website for the Canadian publication The Standard. Titled “Niagara man who worked with Michael Jackson disturbed by recent HBO series”, the article by Kris Dubé provided Chilvers with an opportunity to comment on the “Leaving Neverland” four-hour TV show, which he stated he doesn’t intend to watch. “It would annoy me. I’ve got better things to do than watch something I don’t think is truthful,” he said. 
 McClellan, Michael. “Colin Chilvers – Movie Magic” on the websiteFifteen Minutes With. Published online 19 May 2019 https://www.fifteenminuteswith.com/2019/05/19/colin-chilvers-movie-magic/
 Moonwalker. Warner Brothers. 1988. IMDb entry https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095655/ Available on DVD and Blu Ray and on some streaming platforms. https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Jackson-Moonwalker/dp/B07FJNJVPS/
 Chilvers, Colin and Lam, Aaron. Believing a Man can Fly. Memories of a life in Special Effects and Film. BearManor Media. 2020. https://www.amazon.com/Believing-Man-Can-Fly-Memories/dp/1629335177
 McClellan, Michael. “Colin Chilvers – Movie Magic”.
 Dubé, Kris. “Niagara man who worked with Michael Jackson disturbed by recent HBO series.” 13 Mar 2019 in The Standard. https://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/news-story/9213333-niagara-man-who-worked-with-michael-jackson-disturbed-by-recent-hbo-series/
Additional Reading and Viewing:
Fordy, Tom. “The making of Moonwalker: what Michael Jackson’s oddball cinematic folly tells us about his mind” in the Telegraph 1 Nov 2018. NB: the author gets some things wrong in this piece, including Jackson’s real intention behind his song “Leave Me Alone” as revealed in his biography “Moonwalk” (1988). However, the article features some worthwhile comments from Chilvers and others involved in the making of Moonwalker. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/making-moonwalker-michael-jacksons-oddball-cinematic-folly-tells/
Bad 25. Directed by Spike Lee. 2012. Limited season cinematic release in some US cities. Released on DVD 2013. Directed by Spike Lee. In his book, Chilvers incorrectly identifies Lee as the director of Jackson’s This Is It film. In fact, Kenny Ortega directed This Is It (2009). Lee directed Jackson’s short films for the song “They Don’t Care About Us” – both the “Prison” and “Brazil” versions (1995). https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Jackson-Spike-Lee-Bad/dp/B00FKYJ6WO
“Smooth…”photo montage compiled by Kerry Hennigan. No photographic copyright infringement is intended in this not-for-profit educational exercise.