Against All Odds

John Naughton is a journalist and author. He's a commissioning editor for the British edition of GQ, a contributing editor on Empire and film editor of Q

"Hello, everybody. That was Kevin's fault," Phil Collins says with a laugh, pointing a finger of mock-blame at music-video director and former 10CC drummer Kevin Godley. A rare Godley glitch has interrupted shooting of the video for "You'll Be in My Heart," the first single to be released from Disney's forthcoming "Tarzan" soundtrack, but Collins doesn't look like he's about to walk off the set just yet.

Instead, he perches contentedly on top of a packing case, trading jokes with the technicians who swarm around beneath him and staves off the incipient boredom with short bursts of impromptu hand drumming on the side of his makeshift seat.

It's midafternoon on the final day of shooting, but the atmosphere in the west London studio remains relaxed. Collins, 48, dressed in dark Armani, sits in front of a blue screen, rigidly still, lip-syncing his lyrics repeatedly as rotating lights whirl over his head, illuminating those thinning locks now worn in the style of a mini-Mohican.

The sound of hailstones--the latest weather installment in a typically English four seasons in one day--reverberate off the studio's roof as Godley moves on to the next stage of shooting, which requires Collins to mime his words at double speed. As Collins motors through his song as if he's got a plane to catch, there seems to be something apt about seeing him work at twice the normal tempo.

This, after all, is the drummer who preferred to be in two bands rather than one (Genesis and Brand X); to have a skyrocketing solo career at the same time as belonging to a touring supergroup; a man who supposedly only had enough free time to read two books (both jazz biographies) in two decades; to be the only person to play in two sites, London and Philadelphia, during Live Aid; and--perhaps not unrelated to the above rota of relentless ambition and application--the man who has two wives and two divorces already behind him.

But if Collins could understudy James Brown as the hardest-working man in show business, he's had to apply himself to an altogether tougher task of late. Learning to accept that the public doesn't want him quite as much as they used to. After four hugely successful solo albums beginning with "Face Value" in 1981, his last two albums of original material--"Both Sides" and "Dance Into the Light"--sold relatively disappointingly, giving him time to pursue his beloved vanity project, the Phil Collins Big Band.

Meanwhile, as the British press has moved on to newer and juicier targets, after attacking Collins over his divorce from his second wife, Jill, he has been able to live out of the spotlight in Hermance near Geneva in Switzerland with his girlfriend, Orianne Cevey.

Collins seems to have adjusted to his new position.

"It's quite possible that maybe I've had my 15 minutes of fame--well, I've had a couple of hours, not 15 minutes, really," he reasons. "I haven't done badly. And I'm quite well-adjusted philosophically to that idea. I'm not craving the success. I'm not craving the attention."

Collins speaks these words sincerely enough and talks engagingly about his contentment with Orianne and the pleasure he takes from having seen more of his three children in recent years, and yet it's difficult to believe him entirely.

Not least because as the "Tarzan" project nears completion after four years' labor on his part, Collins senses that maybe he might have a hit on his hands. Lighting engineers walk around the studio whistling "You'll Be in My Heart's" undeniably catchy refrain. More tangibly, the single is picking up strong radio airplay.

And Collins himself can't resist showing his excitement at the prospect of signing on for a few more minutes of fame. "I can't help feeling," he confesses, "that I could be on the crest of a wave."

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"Tarzan" boasts the latest innovation in animation, a technique the animators call "deep canvas."

Explains the film's co-director, Kevin Lima: "We integrated three-dimensional and two-dimensional animation so the camera can move in this movie in much the way it does in a live-action movie, not just flat against the artwork but into and around the artwork." It gives the ape man's movements a startling kinetic credibility.

Even if the film boasts the latest technical innovations, Collins is as aware as anyone of the importance of songs to a successful Disney film and also of the heritage of the Disney back catalog.

"I know what those songs have meant to me in other films," he recalls, "and the effect they've had on my kids, and I didn't know if I'd be capable of the same thing."

When Collins confronts a challenge that takes him out of his depth, his typical response is to redouble his efforts, and he admits he has "gone the extra yard" on "Tarzan." In particular, he's recorded the five songs he contributed to the soundtrack in five languages--English, French, German, Italian and two versions of Spanish, one for South America and the traditional Castilian ("They're very similar but with Castilian apparently the king had a lisp and he made everybody speak the same").

Collins achieved all this without being able to speak a word of German, Italian or Spanish. But then again, he can't read music, so such improvisation shouldn't come as a surprise. With the help of his half-Thai, half-Swiss girlfriend--who was working as a translator when Collins met her back in 1994--he made a second translation of his lyrics (he was unhappy with the first version supplied him) and then used a phonetic technique honed over 25 years of world tours.

"I had a pretty bullet-proof phonetic method, but I was still flying blind a lot of the time," he admits.

Along with "You'll Be in My Heart," Collins' other new songs for the film are "Two Worlds," "Son of Man," "Trashin' the Camp" and "Strangers Like Me." All five songs work integrally within the film, advancing the story line and character to a far greater extent than in traditional animated features, although none of the characters sings them. Collins becomes almost the film's narrator, so closely is his voice linked to the film.

"I was a little taken aback", he admits, "because the audience is so used to characters singing and, suddenly, what is this, it's like a rock video, you know. It took me a while longer to get used to it than it did them."

Collins also had to adjust to the new demands of writing for an animated soundtrack. His involvement began with an initial meeting with executive music producer Chris Montan, directors Lima and Chris Buck, along with Tom Schumacher, Disney's president of feature animation and the man largely responsible for bringing Collins on board.

To hear Schumacher tell it, "It was originally the idea of Chris Montan to get Phil involved, and I said, 'Oh, these big famous guys, they make me so nervous because they're really hard to get to timewise.' But it just wasn't like that with Phil, and when Chris gave me Phil's demo, I listened to it and I burst into tears and gave him a big kiss and said, 'We have the right guy!' "

Montan said he certainly was impressed by the amount of effort Collins put into his work.

"Phil made a contribution that people of his stature don't normally have the time or the inclination to do," Montan says. "Most stars don't get in the cutting room and see what we're up against.

"We originally wanted characters to sing all Phil's songs, although we never wanted Tarzan to sing; that seemed wrong to have your loinclothed hero break into song. But it started to feel fresh to have him be more of a narrator thinking the thoughts of the characters. We felt it was important to give the audience something new, so that it wasn't, 'Oh, here comes the two sidekicks' funny song.

"The night that I received four of the five songs that he wrote for the movie in demo form was just a magical night, to hear his inspiration. He always says, 'Oh, I'm just a drummer,' which is like saying Baryshnikov is just a dancer."

In a burst of rapid creativity, Collins wrote those first four over two weeks, but then realized that the hard work was only just beginning.

"The mixes, the endless mixes," Collins says and laughs, putting a hand to his brow, imitating a distraught diva. "There's the film mixing, there's the album mix, then there's my version of the song, then there's the mix of that version of the song. So you've got to try and clear your mind every now and again. Me and Chris Montan just couldn't stop laughing whenever we started talking about it, because you answered a question but it just only asked another one."

There's no hint of complaint in Collins' words--he's delighted to be presented with a new and difficult challenge. Certainly, he seems enthused both by Disney and this new direction. He's keen to emulate "Tarzan" composer Mark Mancina and make his next project a full-fledged soundtrack, while he is generous in his praise of all involved and dubs Schumacher a "genius."

Collins is undeniably upbeat about "Tarzan"--"there's warmth in the story, there's relationships, and you care about the characters"--but possibly the recent commercial disappointments he's experienced have introduced a note of caution about the outcome.

"It's like no one ever thinks they've made a bad record," he avers. "But, you know, in a few months' time we're going to find out whether . . . it's actually as good as we think it is."

"I think it's going to be an unexpected animation film," says co-director Lima, "in that you go into it expecting an action-adventure movie and when you come out the other side, what you really get is a touching emotional tale as well as the action-adventure.

"I've always been a gorilla fan and I've watched a lot of gorilla films, and what that reaffirmed for me is that what you are talking about here is families, and they are communities. Phil really embraced us as collaborators and his voice became the emotional arc of the characters. He would call me on Saturday mornings and I would shout to my wife, 'It's Phil Collins on the phone, I can't believe it. . . . "

From an executive standpoint, Schumacher explains, "There isn't really a moment where we say, 'OK now we're green-lighting this.' Usually we get it going, we staff it up and, if anything, there's a red light and we say, 'Let's stop this.' I've been involved in that twice.

"When Phil got involved, he knew our commitment was profound. When you come in and see 400 people working on a movie, it tells you someone cares about it. Plus there's a sense of legacy about a movie like this. It will outlast all of us, and that's a fun thing."

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The youngest of three children himself, all with artistic leanings--his brother Clive is a cartoonist, sister Carole was an international ice skater--Collins at 14 went to a stage school where his mother worked and "where my education kind of ground to a halt." He appeared as an extra in "A Hard Day's Night," played the Artful Dodger in the stage musical "Oliver!" and found film fame later as another London thief, Buster Edwards, in the 1988 movie "Buster."

His persona on screen was East End working class, while in reality he's a middle-class boy from the west of the city, but either way his identity is that of the quintessential Londoner.

This caused many to wonder how he would adapt to life in serene Switzerland, home, as Orson Welles once remarked, to 500 years of democracy and the cuckoo clock.

Cynics have pointed to the tax advantages Collins enjoys living by Lake Geneva and certainly he has a considerable fortune to protect. The Sunday Times recently assessed his wealth at 105 million pounds (about $169 million), making him in their judgment the 221st richest person in England (the queen is 87th). Collins doesn't dispute the figures.

Taking the negative attention along with the praise, Collins has been around a long time and is an unquestioned part of pop music's firmament.

"Tarzan" and the success it looks likely to give him could be about to make him burn a lot more brightly and bring an end to his Swiss sabbatical. Once again--and it's a familiar theme in his life--the pressure will increase on him to deliver another solo album, to tour and to promote. Collins may of course choose the quiet life. But don't count on it.

"I'm sure marriage and children are in the offing," he confirms. "So it's a question of priorities, really. I don't want to stop, and yet I know what it means if I don't stop." *

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday May 9, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Page 83 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction Photo credit--A photograph of Rosie O'Donnell and Phil Collins in last Sunday's Calendar should have been credited to Rob Kinmonth.
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