interview with ross harris, director of elliott's videos coming up roses, miss misery and heatmiser's plainclothes man
while fans of elliott's might know ross harris as the person who is trying to sell us a robot hand in steve hanft's film 'strange parallel' or as rossangeles, the friend of chance (rory cochrane) in southlander, ross also directed elliott's first solo video for coming up roses, a heatmiser video for plainclothes man and the miss misery video. this multi-talented artist (director, photographer, writer, actor and jammer) was kind enough take time from jamming and answer a few of our questions about his collaboration with elliott and thoughts about elliott.
how did you first meet elliott?
i first met elliott in person at lax airport at the baggage claim. he flew down to work on a video for "coming up roses" with me. we had talked a little on the phone before and that was it.
was coming up roses the first thing you did elliott?
yeah. his manager back then knew me from my photography work for beck. when she was looking for someone to make a video for elliott she gave me a chance to come up with an idea for it. some other video director friends were asked too. they wrote some pretty involved things and turned them in. before i did that i had a chance to talk to elliott on the phone and i quickly realized he was not the kind of person who is into some elaborate pre planned scenario. so, i just told him that i did not live in l.a. (which i think was a big plus) and that he could come down and hang out and we would make a video just me and him and it would be fun and not a big hassle. he said "cool" and that was that.
how did it happen where you guys decided to work together?
when i got elliott from the airport. i took him straight home and we had a nice meal with my family. later we had a beer and maybe a joint and i told him my loose idea about him pawning a guitar to buy some food. i told him we could film it in this town nearby called oxnard that was really colorful and full of pawn shops and dive bars. later daniel lanois bought a theater a couple stores down from the pawn shop and recorded bob dylan and u2 there, so i guess we were the first wave of scroungy white music dudes.
where in l.a. was it shot?
it wasn't. it was shot about an hour north of l.a. in the colonia district of oxnard and in saticoy and santa paula.
did you have to rent the hearse/limosine that follows elliott?
while we were filming "coming up roses" a friend came by in a big black hearse he had just bought and i said "let's do a shot with the hearse following you down a country road". while we were shooting it the hearse broke down ,so i did a follow up shot of elliott walking by the hearse broke down on the side of the road on his way back. kind of like "ha ha" cheated death today. didn't get me this time. which looking back now, is very powerful and bittersweet for me.
who comprises elliott's backup band in the coming up roses video?
the people backing up elliott in that video are grace marks on drums. she played in the band sukia with me and a guy named raul that i knew from around the neighborhood. not sure of his last name. also my friend jaime colindres comes in at one point and takes the drum away. jaime makes another appearance in the "miss misery" video as one of the guys singing "ahhhhhh" waiting at the bustop. my friend j sun and my uncle sam harris comprise the rest of the chorus. my nephews join elliott for some sodas at the end of "coming up roses" too. so all in all it was a friends and family affair. we had a lot of good times making that video.
who is it that takes the drum away from the drummer in the video?
that is my friend jaime colindres whose studio we were shooting in at the time. he is an amazing painter from guatemala. i told him to go and take the drum away during the shot. it kind of reminds me of an old bob dylan video when that happens for some reason.
how many times did elliott fall down in the video and were any injuries sustained?
elliott fell by accident. i was filming from a car and he had to run real fast to stay in the shot. all of a sudden he disappeared. i don't think he got too hurt, but it was a real fall. it turned out perfect for the video.
how much input did elliott put into the videos or did he pretty much trust in what you had for ideas?
he pretty much just went with what i had in mind and would add his own things he wanted to do. most of my ideas were real simple, so it wasn't like i suggested these high concept ideas with an army of elliotts being attacked by toys and shit. i really wanted to strip it down to just elliott cruising around and just reacting to everyday stuff. so his input would occur naturally as we went along. he would suggest things and encourage certain ideas and not others. a lot of it was accidental.
how different was the collaboration when you worked with heatmiser on 'plainclothes man?' it seems a little different since the band was performing more than being a part of the story. was that your uncle in that one too?
on "plainclothes man" it was not just for elliott, but all the guys in heatmiser. so that made it more challenging. i wrote out an actual idea about a guy down on his luck kind of daydreaming about a better life. i wanted to include the whole group so i made it be more of a traditional rock video with them performing as well.
how did you end up doing that video too?
i guess elliott and neil and the heatmiser guys liked "coming up roses" and gave me another shot. it was more difficult because it was for a bigger label, with a crew and a camera man. not just me and a super 8 camera.
where was it shot?
plainclothes man was shot entirely in santa paula, california. a lot of movies shoot there because it has a real classic main street usa look to it. we shot the band performance in a mexican discotheque there. there is an old haunted hotel there that used to be owned by charlie chaplin. i had the whole group stay there. i didn't. i was too scared.
any particular meanings behind the older gentleman's daydreaming (boating, looking up at the lady/cop in the window/staring at condoms) in the video?
the idea was to have a guy who was down on his luck and he sees these different everyday objects and they cause him to get lost in a daydream. i always thought the sunset romantic scenes on condom boxes were really funny and i wanted to show that for some people they were cheezy, but that some people might look at them and get all nostalgic and swept away by the imagery. i actually took the photo we used on the condom box. it's a picture of my wife and my neighbor walking on the beach. the lady and the cop was a prelude to the cop paranoia that we were to explore again in "miss misery". we thought it would be funny if you saw this beautiful woman looking at you from afar and then all of a sudden she is being romanced by this uniformed police officer. i don't know what i was thinking with the boat. i didn't really get to pull that one off too well.
elliott tackles one of the members of heatmiser in the video. any story behind that? was anyone injured?
that was heatmisers idea. they just wanted to be wrestling each other. i think maybe it was a joke about the supposed tensions within the band at the time. i don't think anyone was injured. they were all pretty healthy guys. they weren't to my mind typical musicians who never go outside. they all had pretty physical day jobs and liked basketball and stuff. elliott despite his reputation of sensitivity was a pretty strong guy. he was no stranger to physical labor.
did elliott really steal toilet paper?
yeah. that's funny. he didn't really steal the tp, but we thought it would be funny since it was so big and he was wearing such tight clothes. it looked really funny doing it. the owner of the store really did not enjoy us shooting there and he made us feel really uncomfortable the whole time, so it felt like we were stealing. on "coming up roses" the pawn shop told us not to film there, so i hid in the bushes across the street and had elliott go into the store set down the guitar case and walk out really quick.
miss misery is a funny and beautiful video. can you talk about why the labels didnt want to let you do it and how did elliott stuck up for you?
first, thanks. i like the video a lot too. well, i ran into elliott in l.a. and he said that he had a song coming out on a soundtrack for a movie and he needed a video. would i be interested in doing it? elliott would ask you to do something that you would love to do, but he would ask you like "i know it's a hassle, but would you consider doing this." i had just seen a friends new video for a movie soundtrack song and they had cut a bunch of scenes from the movie into it and i really did not like it at all. first of all the video had a bunch of gags and quirks in it and then there were all these unrelated shots of movie stars doing movie stuff. it was a mess. so i told elliott that i did not want to have any shots from the movie in his video. which in the entertainment industry is close to impossible. elliott agreed and that was that. i thought.
so we started to prepare for the video and the people from good will hunting and dreamworks checked out my other videos for elliott and they are like "these are pretty lo fi" we were thinking about something with a bit more production value. i told them that the production value was low because the budget was low. if they gave us some decent money it would look good and everyone would be happy. but, i think elliott just told them i was doing it end of story. which was really cool. a lot of funny things happened making that video. pretty much instantly they shot down my idea about not having any clips from the movie in the video. i left it up to elliott and he said he didn't really mind if the movie clips were in it.
so i decided to make the video as simple as possible so that when the clips came in it wasn't an overload of stuff happening. so the producer of the movie has me into his office to discuss what clips to use and i had to confess that i had not even seen the movie. he told me to go out and see it and come back 9:00 am tomorrow morning. so i went to a midnight showing that night (which i walked into for free somehow) and thought it was all right. so i go back the next morning 9:00 am and the producer sits me down in his office in front of a tv and puts on a videotape of the movie. so i tell him i saw it just a few hours ago in a theater and he says "sure you did" and walks out the door. i felt like i was back in high school and i was in the principals office. anyway the producer comes back when it was over ( i guess he didn't feel like watching it again) and asks me what i thought i could fit into the video. i told him i thought that all the stuff with matt damon and minnie driver, the romance would fit good. i wasn't so sure about the stuff with robin williams cause he is always hugging matt damon and stuff and it might come out a bit homo erotic. i told him i was happy to go in that direction but i didn't know if he was. i was joking but sure enough, no clips of robin and matt buddying up were provided in the editing room.
so we are getting ready to shoot and elliott gets the oscar nomination. all of a sudden it's a big deal and everyone gets real nervous and starts telling me that there is more pressure now. more money too. the budget gets doubled from 20 to 40 thousand. i don't change a thing though. i am gonna shoot it the same way. more money to me meant more people running around making elliott uncomfortable and getting on my case. i decide to shoot it out all out doors and we hire the camera man from the show er to use one of those steady cameras so we can follow elliott through the neighborhood as he walks and sings. so we start to shoot and elliott shows up in his white suit and he looks good and is not bothered by the big crew at all. i think the nomination had him in good spirits and his confidence was pretty high.
we shoot the shot of him singing behind the locked fence in an alley in silver lake. it was an homage to a serge gainsbourg video i really liked where serge just stands behind this fence and sings this love song all in one long take. then we get ready to shoot the footage of him walking down hoover street and elliott and i see the motorcycle cop that is controlling traffic on the set and he looked so typical cop that we both start to laugh. we mutually decide that he should be following elliott down the sidewalk. we ask the cop and he says yes. elliott wanted him to be following him down the sidewalk on his motorcycle. the cop says he can't do that because he can't do anything illegal. he kept his helmet on by choice the whole time which really made it look funny. i would tell elliott to look over his shoulder from time to time and the one we used in the video is really cool. elliott nailed that look of annoyance and paranoia. maybe from experience. to be able to use it in the video turned out to be really expensive because right when elliott gave that amazing look there is a huge banner for some beer company right in frame. we had to digitally remove it with some expensive machine frame by frame.
to do the shot where he crosses the street and the guys at the bus stop sing ahhhh was challenging. the camera was across the street and we were filming at double the speed so that when you slow the film back down everything moves real slow and dreamlike. to do this the music playback that elliott and the back up singers had to sing to was playing at twice the speed too. we also had to time it with the traffic so that when he steeped into the street he didn't get run over. elliott pulled it off real good but the back up singers, who had been doing some drinking waiting around to shoot where having trouble with it. finally i just told them that when i pointed to them to open there mouths real wide and say ahhhh like when you go to the doctor. it came out real nice and is my favorite scene i have ever done. we then shot some close ups of elliott standing in the doorway of the smog cutter which is a famous dive bar in l.a. it's the close ups with the red background.
like i said before i wanted it to make it real simple and had story boarded everything in my head so we were done well before the sun went down. the guy from the production company wanted to keep shooting some extra bullshit just to use up everyones time, but i told everyone that we were done and we were all going to go home early and have a beer. that made me real popular with the crew but not the production company. when i went to edit it, the editor took the liberty of doing his own cut before i got there. he showed it to me and it was full of fast cuts and jumping back and forth between the locations. he asked me what i thought and i told him it was not really what i had in mind. he asked me where we should start and i told him to start by erasing everything he had done and to lay it out according to my story board i had brought. directors have to be dictators sometimes. i made a edit without any film clips and one with. the one without only has 20 some cuts in it. it's real sequential and i like it a lot. after i turned in the first cut, i got back this list of notes from the good will hunting people, capitol records, dreamworks people, elliotts management etc. etc. just a bunch of notes. i told everyone that there were so many notes that they negated each other with opposite suggestions. i said that i was only taking elliotts suggestions and that pretty much ended that. elliott didn't like some of the super close ups, but i told him he was a handsome stud and to just deal with it. later on they made a pop up video out of it and had all these pop ups with little info about this and that on it. i guess the simple video got crowded anyway.
one of the great things about the work you did with elliott is that in some aspect of the videos, there is something funny and it totally reflects elliott's humor. can you tell us more about how about how funny he was and what made you laugh the most?
elliott was just a real real down to earth person. he would just poke fun at pretentious behavior of every stripe. it wasn't really jokey so to speak. he would just give you a look or a dry comment whenever the occasion would merit it. kind of deflate the situation. he would be recording at a expensive studio and just go out into the parking lot for a spastic skateboard session for an hour. everyone would be wearing wigs all day. i just tried to bring that into the videos. nothing too over the top. we just went out to shoot a real simple idea and all these amusing things would just present themselves and we would fit them into the video. one funny thing is when elliott was staying with me my neighbor was living in his yard behind a big bush. his parents had told him to move out, but he only moved as far as the front yard. a few months later i saw elliott and he said to say hi to my family and to "the guy who lives in the bush". his humor is hard to relate because it was the way he would say things without any hint of irony.
a lot of elliott fans know you from the infomercial about the robot hand. ive heard a few stories about people making robot hands to give to elliott or to have elliott sign them. can you tell us more how that storyline came about in strange parallel?
the robot hand was all steve hanft and elliotts idea. i think elliott had a dream about it and steve brought it into the movie. steve asked me to do it, because he knew i acted and could maybe do the infomercial thing. i improvised all that on the spot. the one thing i could say is that every time i worked for him he was totally concerned about me being payed well. he would always say "i hope you made some money ross, you worked so hard". this is something you don't ever hear. no one has ever said that to me that before. on "miss misery" they did try to shortchange me and i told them i would sic elliott on them and i got payed right. i knew he had my back.
can you please tell us more about elliott was casted for the bus driver scene in southlander and his contribution of splitzville and snowbunny's sernande?
steve and i wrote southlander and we just asked everyone
we knew to
i heard southlander has had many versions/edits and it was rumored that elliott had another scene in the film in maybe a dream sequence. can you please tell us more about it if that is true.
actually elliott hands are in the snowbunny sequence. he plays the moletron during "snowbunnies serenade". he came out of the studio down to the set to be stunt hands for rory. all of a sudden rory's arms have a lot less hair on them. other than that. his only other stuff is on the bus.
did you have any unfinished projects with elliott or ideas you hope to work out with him?
well, i had been over to his new studio and we had plans to mix some songs i am putting out in september for a benefit for autistic charities (dimensionmix.com). when i asked him how much it would cost he told me that his studio was free to use and that he had set it up so that bands that couldn't afford to go into a good studio could have a free one to use. once again. totally amazing.
do you have any extra footage or outtakes that you cherish from working with elliott?
i always shot just what we needed and very little more. elliott did not really like being filmed and so i did not want to make him do anything more than needed. also budget wise we couldn't afford it. on "coming up roses' i use the same performance footage 2 or three times. i had the same footage colored 3 different colors so it would appear to be different. i can check the footage for extra stuff some day.
can you please share your favorite thoughts about elliott?
he was and is a really remarkable soul. just over and over again would just give and give and give. he was someone i looked up to as a person and an artist. people like elliott work on such an honest no bullshit level that it raises the bar for everyone around him. you couldn't work with him or hang out with him and be an asshole. it just wasn't possible. i am sure he had his low moments for sure but i never saw them. i never saw him doing all this bullshit you hear about him being so caught up in. to be honest we would go long periods of time and not see each other, 6 months or more and then we would hang out or work a little. i just let him do his thing. because of that it's hard for me to adjust, because i feel like it's just one more of those gaps and i am going to see him again soon. i know that he was an intelligent aware person and he had his reasons and all that. i am just sad for myself i guess. i know he is getting another chance now. he's got a "brand new game".
if you are looking for these videos you can buy them here: coming up roses (video), miss misery(dvd), southlander (dvd)
ross harris was emailed questions from jim, spongepeterosepants, rob and charlie. we thank him so much for doing this for us :) big thanks to jim for this wonderful idea and helping us get in contact with ross. thanks again to ross for doing this for us.