Behind The Lens: Director Jim Yukich

It’s safe to say that with 250-300+ (more like 500) music videos to his credit, saying Jim Yukich is a great director is wildly understated. He’s accomplished a lot more as well, directing 1500+ episodes of “Chelsea Lately” over 7.5 years, over 60 episodes of ET over 6 months, plus 2 feature films. Add in his numerous awards, and he’s truly a force to be reckoned with.

We spoke for nearly two hours over a couple days, and with such an interesting, well-informed subject, it felt like 5 minutes. He was so gracious and kind, and answered every question, and then some. Rather than write my views, I am printing his vivid and very articulate responses.

  1. What was it that inspired you to enter the music and entertainment field? 

The Beatles changed life as we know it and were what originally interested me in music. I played in bands since 5th grade… I still play with 2 different bands.

Somehow my family had a super 8mm camera and I always liked filming all our family events.  When I reached high school, I was pretty good at filming and editing so I turned that skill into an easy way to fulfill the class required term papers and reports. Super 8 had no audio, so I had to film, then edit the film, then sync up a separate reel to reel deck that I used to create the audio and sound design.

At Purdue, he started as pre-med. “I originally had thought that I wanted to be a doctor but after one semester of Calculus, Biology, Chemistry and Physics I decided that wasn’t for me.” He left for a couple years to play in local Chicago bands, then went back to Purdue. “I didn’t think ‘entertainment’ originally, it just happened.  I took classes in Art, Graphics, Music, Film, Television, but really had no idea what it would lead to.  Finally, after graduating with a communications degree (with a major emphasis on Film and TV, and a double minor of Art and Music), I decided that I needed to work in some form of Advertising…. Perhaps creating TV commercials.” (Originally, he wanted to write jingles for commercials.)

Heading back to Chicago post-graduation, he applied for a job writing jingles at Dick Marx Productions (Richard Marx’ dad) but he didn’t get hired. (Richard Marx later profusely thanked his dad for not hiring him, as he worked on several outstanding music videos in Richard’s career.)

Finding that there were very few opportunities in Chicago, Jim moved to Los Angeles in the very early 80s, where a cousin gave him very sage advice. The cousin told him to “apply to everything music related and follow up often. Be persistent.” Jim took that advice to heart, applying to every record label, studio, etc., and following up daily until he finally caught a break. Capitol Records needed someone in the mailroom, and Jim persuaded them he was the perfect fit for the job. Initially, he took the job to score some satin jackets for himself and the sage cousin, however the job quickly morphed into his dream come true. 

Jim met the guy who was in charge of the recording division at Capitol while delivering mail. He pointed Jim up to the 11th floor Film & Video department and as luck would have it, he was the only one that understood and could program VCRs.  By setting a timer to record Anne Murray on the Tonight Show, he was awarded a position up there. For most of the next year he shot and edited in-house promos and commercials for the label in addition to running the 11th floor video production suite.

His big break came shortly thereafter, when he was tapped to produce and direct a video for the band Red Rider in Toronto as his 1st project. A few days later, he was given the Kenny Rogers & Sheena Easton video for “We’ve Got Tonight”, and his star began ascending. His big break, however, came with David Bowie for the “Modern Love” video.  Jim flew to Philadelphia to act as the producer for the video that David was supposed to Direct. After Jim worked up a shot list for Bowie and began instructing the cameras, Bowie made him the director on the project.

2. Who are your mentors and/or heroes in it? 

Paul Flattery – he was my former business partner. Paul was a legend, and it was great to always have him watching my back. As far as heroes in the Music Video field that was Russell Mulcahy.  Russell was and is my all-time favorite.

I also liked the Godley & Creme videos… They had great ideas. Check out ‘Two tribes’ – Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Great stuff. In later years a young punk director David Fincher blew me away with how great his stuff was.

3.         What is your process for scheduling/shooting a video?  

Typically (back in the day), the record label or the Artist or their management would send us a cassette tape with song.  Usually, we’d check to see the type of videos that they just did and determine if the idea needed to be a concept, stylized performance, or a combination of the two.  If everyone approved the idea, we would book the location, or a studio then put together the best crew for the particular project.  We would always try and get the best cinematographer/DP available since so much was based on ‘the look’ of the piece.  Some of my DPs over the years were Daniel Pearl (Billie Jean, Every Breath You Take) Tony Mitchell (Don’t Come Around Here, Wild Boys) Dean Semler (Don’t Lose My Number, Take Me Home).  Dean was the DP on all the Mad Max movies then later won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves.

In the early days a video usually went to one director, no one was asking multiple directors for ideas… unless there was a major problem, that director was the guy that did the video.  I was always considered a “safe choice” for videos, the Artists and labels knew that I would give them something mainstream that they could work with.  Russell Mulcahy and David Fincher were always more stylized (daring). One of my strengths was I rarely ever wrong about what would be a hit/what would not. When I got the cassette and popped on my headphones I could usually tell if the song was going to be a hit or if it was going to need a video to help it stand out. A good video could make a song a hit. If the song was going to be a big hit, I would make sure the video didn’t get in the way.

Jim would also “bank” ideas for certain artists, but sometimes used them for another video. For example, ‘Don’t Lose My Number’ was an idea that Jim had originally for David Bowie but went to Phil Collins. After working with Phil Collins on multiple videos over the years, Jim and Phil developed a special method of working together.  Jim would send Phil multiple video ideas before even hearing any of the new songs and Phil would match up an idea with a song.

4.           Who was the music artist/group(s) easiest to work with? 

Phil Collins rarely questioned anything and went along with almost any idea I would come up with. He paid for his own videos, then sold them to his record companies… that afforded us the freedom to do what we thought would be best. The same held true with Genesis. That gave me free reign with videos. In the early days of working with them they gave me direction as to what NOT to do but let me run with it for the most part.

5.           Who or what music artist/group(s) who were the most challenging? –

I did a video for an unnamed pop band… it took all day to find the lead singer. They had to hunt for him, get him to the studio, and clean him up in order to shoot the video. We had to send a production assistant to Ralph’s to get a carpet steamer to get the gunk out of his hair. Sheena Easton wasn’t a favorite. It was the second video I ever directed so I wasn’t prepared to deal with ‘big star’ issues. It was a duet with Kenny Rogers, and Kenny showed up sicker than a dog (had stomach flu) but remained a total professional throughout the day. Sheena complained about absolutely everything. Michael Bolton was always a prankster and would always give the record company a hard time, which created delays, but in a good-natured way. He was so opposite of what people thought of him… he was an incredibly funny guy. Bottom line was I always appreciated the talent in front of me. I did everything I could to keep the mood lite, get them laughing and have fun.

6.         Who was your favorite producer(s) to work with?

Paul Flattery (music videos), Paul Morphos (TV Specials). Barry Ehrmann (live shows) and the amazing team of Tom Burnelle & Brad Wollack (Chelsea Lately/Chelsea Handler).”

7.          Who was your favorite actor(s) to work with? 

-Bruce Willis – very talented, unique, and funny.

-Chelsea Handler was incredible to work with, funny, extremely bright, and a sweetheart. 

-Jeffrey Tambor and Richard Belzer were kind enough to play a part in many of my videos. 

-Ally Sheedy, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Dreyfuss were incredible. They knew all their lines and could recite ten minutes of dialogue without missing a word.

-Dennis Miller could do an hour show exactly the same every time, no matter how many takes. 

-Liberian Girl (the Michael Jackson video) had a ton of great actors, really fun to shoot. Just an incredible experience. Steven Spielberg actually called and asked to be in the video and brought (wife) Amy Irving along. (Look up the cast list – mind-blowing).

8.         Who gave you the big break for your 1st feature movie, Double Dragon in 1994 

The late Alan Schechter. He hired me for the film, went to bat for me, fought for me to direct and got it all approved. I owe it all to him. He was one of a kind. We had to overcome many obstacles along the way. The original DP was Tony Mitchell who got injured on the set the 1st week of shooting, he hurt his back and had to be replaced for the rest of the film.” 

9.         How has the industry changed since you began? What do you feel is missing in   the entertainment industry today?

The way it was done originally worked best. One director was chosen, and it went from there… when the labels started asking multiple directors to write treatments for each video it all went down the drain.  There’s a big difference between ‘writing’ a treatment and actually achieving what you promised.  I used to read other treatments and laugh at how far directors would go with the current ‘hip buzzwords.’  My favorite was “the video will have an edge”.The Record companies all going away is very sad. They gave the general public a direction for new music to be aware of. Now it’s very hit & miss trying to find music that you might like.

I could have listened and asked questions all day. What a truly intelligent and interesting subject. Thanks again Jim – this was fun! 

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].