‘This Is It’ as his personal thriller
On June 25, just hours after Michael Jackson died, Tim Patterson drove from his home in the Santa Clarita Valley to downtown Los Angeles with $60-million worth of film footage in his trunk.
As he sped down Interstate 5 in his green Lexus convertible, Patterson carried virtually all of the 140 hours of rehearsal footage from the late singer’s planned “This Is It” concert series that would eventually be whittled down to the 112-minute movie that opened last week to a decent $34.4 million domestically and a much stronger $69.5 million overseas through Sunday.
Patterson, a commercial director who has occasionally worked in music over his 29-year career, was one of two camera operators hired by concert promoter AEG Live to record “This Is It” rehearsals.
Every night after work, he transferred hours of video shot by himself and collaborator Sandrine Orabona to two hard drives in his home office. The afternoon that Jackson died, Paul Gongaware, a producer of the concert and movie, called him with an urgent request: The footage, which had suddenly become uniquely valuable, had to be delivered to AEG’s downtown offices immediately.
“I could have easily gone to TMZ and made a few million dollars,” Patterson recalled with a laugh.
Instead, he began an unlikely odyssey in which a commercial director who had never worked on a feature film before became the only person besides Jackson’s close artistic collaborators involved in “This Is It” from beginning to end. Together with longtime collaborator Brandon Key, also a commercial director and producer, Patterson worked on every cut of “This Is It,” from the original footage given to the news media days after Jackson’s death to DVD extras just recently completed.
“This will be the most important and incredible thing I do in my career,” the 53-year-old said from his home office in the rustic environs of Castaic. “I never imagined I would get involved in concert rehearsals and end up making a motion picture.”
Patterson’s involvement began in May when he e-mailed Gongaware, whom he has known since the early 1980s, to ask whether there might be some role for him in preparations for the “This Is It” concert while he was on a break from other work.
Gongaware was by chance looking to start compiling behind-the-scenes footage. He hired Patterson and Orabona and put together a budget of $80,000. Over the next six months, using two $6,000 Sony cameras Patterson bought for the project, they worked six days a week, often until midnight, shooting performances and candid moments and interviewing dancers, musicians and others working on the concert.
It was a simple, almost amateur production, since it wasn’t intended at the time for anything more than promotional Internet videos and Jackson’s private archives. Many important moments were shot by only one person and when the performers’ body microphones were turned off, fuzzy sound was captured with a boom mike attached to the camera (thus the prevalence of subtitles in the finished picture).
“If we had known it was going to be a movie,” said Patterson with a laugh, “we would have shot with nine or 12 cameras and gotten coverage on everything.”
The week after Jackson died, Patterson and Key were working in a makeshift office at AEG headquarters with equipment strewn on the floor, rapidly trying to figure out just what they had. Within a week of the singer’s death, they cut together the initial 97-second clip from “This Is It” that was released to the media and became a cable and Internet sensation.
“We laid off 10 copies on DVDs and five minutes later my wife told me it was on CNN,” said Key, 44.
Over the next couple of weeks, the pair continued sorting through the clips, editing together rough cuts of several different performances and backstage discussions. By mid-July, a parade of top executives from studios including 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures came to one of the cramped rooms where they were working and Patterson showed off what they had.
A couple of weeks later, Sony agreed to pay $60 million to turn the footage into a movie.
It took more than two weeks from the time the deal was struck among the studio, AEG and Jackson’s estate until it got probate court approval that allowed production to move to Sony’s lot in Culver City, where they worked in tightly guarded rooms on the top floor of the Gene Autry Building.
In the interim, Patterson and Key worked with Don Brochu, who edited director Kenny Ortega’s “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” to assemble a first cut of about two hours and 45 minutes -- 2 1/4 hours of performances and half an hour of discussions
Patterson, who had come onto the project as a behind-the-scenes cameraman, and Key, who’d responded to an urgent call from a friend to help make sense of the footage, had unexpectedly become editors on one of the highest-profile movies of the year, one created entirely in the editing room.
As they made a film that had no script and on which the director had rarely paid attention to what was being shot, Patterson was in the incredibly unusual position of being the only person present who knew just what they had to work with.
“There were no tape numbers, nothing was logged; I just sort of knew what we had shot and about when,” he said.
In the course of about a month, the duo worked seven-day weeks at Sony, clipping and tweaking their 2 3/4 -hour cut into the finished movie. To allay concerns over piracy, there was no Internet connection in the offices and only those with special passes were even allowed into the rooms where four editors and five assistants were putting together the movie, code-named “Industrial.”
There were debates and disagreements about what to include, but the editors pledge that, contrary to some rumors, nothing was deleted to make Jackson appear healthier than he was in the months leading up to his surprising death. The only question was how heavily to weight the film toward performance versus discussions.
“We could have shown more behind-the-scenes stuff, but Kenny felt strongly that Michael would have wanted to include more songs for the fans,” explained Key. “It was also Kenny’s decision that we wouldn’t do it like a documentary with interviews and new footage.”
After a final version of the movie was done in mid-September, Patterson and Key went on to edit and shoot additional content for the DVD, which is expected to ship in January or February with several hours of new footage, including performances of songs such as “Stranger in Moscow” that didn’t make the theatrical release.
The two have now returned to the lives they were living six months ago, far away from feature films and studio lots. But as they took a break from commercial work to discuss the “This Is It” experience in Patterson’s home office, it was clear they’re eager to work on another concert movie and yet aware that nothing can live up to their physically and emotionally exhausting experience this summer -- creating a tribute to a pop legend’s life.
“I never imagined,” said Patterson, whose biggest regular gig is making ads for a golf equipment company, “that I’d ever work on a project where I would break down and cry in the edit bay.”