How did you cast the real gang members?
It was Michael. He went out and he got ‘em through, I guess, the LAPD’s gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn’t like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.
So he tried to use the video to foster peace between them?
Michael was always about peace. He was always about some sort of peace offering. That was his idea and the cops did go along with it and as history has it, we were almost shut down the first night because, as you know, film sets get to be very boring after the first hour.
I guess the Crips and Bloods started to get on each other’s nerves – they are mortal enemies – and we had a few incidents and two cops came to me and said they wanted to close it down. I somehow convinced the cop squad guy to just let me [shoot the] dance. I was gonna hold the dance for the second night of shooting. I said, ‘The only thing I can think that’ll save this is to let me just blast the music. I have a feeling it’ll calm everything down. Can’t get any worse, just give me a chance.’ And the cop was cool, he looked at me and said, ‘OK, not much more.’ I couldn’t go much more because it was volatile – no question about it – and scary. So we were in that warehouse, change of plans we’re going to do the dance, get Michael out of the camper, here we go.
What happened next?
The gang members couldn’t dance so they formed the ring and watched. And the [dancers] all started to dance with Michael Peters and Vince Paterson. When Michael Jackson comes down and does what he does, I remember looking at the faces of all the Crips and Bloods lined up and their expressions as they listened to that music and watched those kids dance. Those kids were basically, most of them were gay… and when they started to dance, the Crips and the Bloods had that look like, ‘You know what? With all our wars and vendettas and stuff, that’s cool right there. That’s something we’ll never be able to do.’ And that’s what made that evening work.
What impact has “Beat It” and working with Michael Jackson had on your career?
I met a man who I have total respect for. One of the most interesting things he ever said to me, I’ll never forget, we were arguing, he said to me in that very high-pitched voice of his, ‘You use the F-word to much’. That always stuck with me. I thought that was smart to say at a time like that.
I watched a man dance better than anyone I’d ever seen in my life and I watched a man talk softly and carry a tremendously big stick, get what he wanted and get his way. And as we know now 25 years later, perhaps he got his way too much. But nonetheless, I watched him get his way but always using the softest, quietest approach you could possibly have used. I was influenced not only by his talent, but by his personality.