One on One with David Minasian: A Q&A
June 10, 2015 by Taran Berkeley
Taran: Hi David. Our readers know you as the director of Justin Hayward's most recent videos "Spirits… Live", "Watching and Waiting", and "The Story Behind Nights in White Satin". But you're actually quite the Renaissance man - musician, photographer, director. Can you tell us about your varied background and how you eventually came to work with Justin Hayward?
David: I begin classical piano at age 5 and then started making films at age 11. So those two activities became my passion while growing up. When it came time to decide my career path, I figured we're only here once. So I chose to follow my heart and pursue those passions. I was asked to become a professional classical pianist at the age of 15 but turned it down since I really didn't want to commit to practicing 4 hours a day. But I continued to play on my own and even began writing songs. While attending film school, I simultaneously tried to get a record deal, but this was during the 1980's and none of the labels were interested in progressive rock which was the style I loved. I found it much easier and less frustrating to find work in the film industry.
I first met Justin in 1981 backstage during the Moodies' LDV tour, and then our paths crossed again in 1983 while I was working for Jerry Weintraub's Management Three company (who handled the Moodies) directing music videos for bands like Three Dog Night. In addition, during the mid-80's, I had gotten to know Patrick Moraz while he was doing various film soundtracks. One afternoon while he and I were waiting in a hotel lobby near the airport in Los Angeles, Patrick played me The Other Side of Life album prior to its release (at the time, the running order was different from the final LP and the song he had co-written with Graeme was titled Best Yet, which was changed to The Spirit prior to its release).
Cut to 2007 - I had gotten to know Robert, the Moody Blues' booking agent and we began discussing the idea of me producing a video for the band. Shortly thereafter, I began recording a new album myself called Random Acts of Beauty and Robert kindly forwarded one of the tracks to Justin to see if he might want to appear on the album as a guest vocalist. It didn't work out at the time (besides being busy with his Spirits of the Western Sky album, Justin thought the vocals I had recorded as a guide track for him were good enough to keep) but plans were made for us to work together on a future project which ultimately became the Spirits…Live DVD. Justin and I both enjoyed the experience so much, we decided to do more.
David with Justin and Mike Dawes from the Spirits…Live documentary “On The Road To Love” (2013)
Taran: Wow - you started working in music videos during the big heyday. Tell us about how you were affected or influenced by what was happening? Also - where did you attend film school, and who are some of your favorite movie directors?
David: Yes, this was the beginning of the MTV era, a crazy time. Music videos were quickly morphing from cheap little throwaway things shot with a video camera into epic mini-movies complete with scripts and huge budgets shot on film by established directors. I happened to be in a meeting over at Management Three one day and I distinctly remember hearing someone discuss the Moodies' promo videos which had just been produced for The Present album which included Sitting at the Wheel, Blue World, and get this, Running Water! I'm not sure if that last one actually exists, but it was being talked about that day as if it did.
Everybody was telling me to go into the music video business because I had a background in both music and film. So I gave it a shot and actually formed a music video production company with Bartholomew Bishop whom your readers may recall was the leader of a wonderful band called Providence that had been signed to Threshold Records. But frankly my heart wasn't in it. I felt if I was going to be involved in the music business at all I wanted to do my own music. In fact, the first music video I directed was my own. It was a strange pre-Weird Al style video for a song called It's Driving Me Crazy off my first album Tales of Heroes and Lovers. That video was shown on MTV which led to me getting additional music video work, but nothing ever happened with the album. So I moved on to doing other types of things such as documentaries before returning to concert video production in the mid 90's.
I attended Cal State Northridge film school. Those were the days when directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Brian DePalma were happening. Me and my film school friends would go to their movies and sit through them twice in a row - the first time to enjoy them, the second time to study them. Today, with less free time, I've had to learn to combine my enjoyment/analysis into a single viewing.
Taran: What are some of the other projects you've done?
David: I recently totaled up the number of things I've worked on and it came to over 200 projects! These include films, television programs, music videos, documentaries, books, albums, and commercials. One favorite I remember was a feature I did 2nd unit directing on called The Joyriders with Martin Landau, Kris Kristofferson, and Elizabeth Moss. That was fun. Right now I'm working with the widow of Academy Award winning actor Rod Steiger on a biography. Throughout the years, I have had the privilege of meeting and working with countless celebrities and wonderful people. And just like Justin, I'm busier now than I ever have been.
Taran: What was the most challenging or difficult project you ever worked on?
David: I've been fortunate enough to be able to work with a wonderful UK progressive rock band called Camel on eight of their DVD releases (if you're a Moodies fan, you owe it to yourself to check them out - they were Decca label mates with the Moodies for many years). A few of these projects have had their share of technical problems which have been frustrating, mostly during the DVD mastering process - mysterious clicks and pops showing up on the audio track; layer change freeze ups, etc. But we've always managed to sort them out.
In 2003, I was asked to produce and direct a behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of the Mel Gibson film The Passion, to be used as a television special and also as bonus footage on the DVD release. The film was being shot in Italy and I only had one day to apply for and get a passport, gather together all of the equipment, and locate various Italian to American electrical converters that would be needed for the shoot. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch.
The shoot itself was surreal. They had reconstructed a portion of the city of Jerusalem on the set at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. The walls were 30 feet high which completely blocked the view of the rest of the studio. So when you were standing on the set with your back to the camera equipment and hundreds of extras were standing there in front of you all dressed in the costumes of that period, it literally felt as if you had been transported back in time. But then suddenly, a centurion would walk by on a cell phone and you'd instantly be snapped back into reality. Of course, Mel was quite the character on the set, always playing practical jokes on the crew. He had a habit of carrying around a red clown nose with him wherever he went and would frequently put it on for no reason just to lighten to mood.
Frankly it's the closest experience I've ever had of feeling as if I was dreaming while being fully awake. You know how celebrities sometimes show up in your dreams, and also how you can sometimes go back in time? Well, here I was in first century Jerusalem talking with actor Jim Caviezel who was pretending to be Jesus. And then Mel Gibson would walk by wearing a clown nose. Very surreal. Plus, there was the thrill of being in Rome, Italy… wow. Every night after a long day, the crew would be hungry. "Hey, what sounds good for dinner tonight?" Of course the running joke was "How about Italian?"
David Minasian on location with Mel Gibson (2003).
Taran: Have you continued with your still photography or has video production completely replaced that for you?
David: I'm afraid my still photography days were rather short lived. Coincidentally, one of my first jobs involved shooting the Moody Blues at the Forum in Los Angeles in 1978 during their Octave tour. However, once I got into film, there was no going back. I love the whole creation process involved in making a motion picture which is much more involved than still photography of course. The movement of the camera, the lighting, the staging of the actors, the editing, the scoring, the sound design - there's so much that goes into making a film, and all of it is fun.
Moody Blues at the Los Angeles Forum
Taran: When you attend a concert, do you instinctively step into director mode and think about how you'd film it?
David: No, definitely not. I'm there to enjoy it. If I know I'm going to shoot an upcoming concert, I try to arrange to attend a show the night before if at all possible, and that's when I do my homework.
Taran: Building on the last question, I’d like to ask for details about how you set up and shoot your video projects. Do you follow a tight, traditional process of filmmaking or do you work a bit more loosely within the structure?
David: It all depends on the budget and what you'd like the final result to be. For Watching and Waiting I wanted the scenes to flow seamlessly into each other in order to match the atmosphere of the music, rather than do a series of quick edits that I'd be more apt to use for a heavy rock and roll band. When filming a concert, lighting is very critical. You have to light things very differently for cameras than you do for concerts that aren't filmed. Generally speaking you need more light and the lighting needs to be more consistent. I always try to get light on the audience between songs so we can grab some audience reaction. Normally the only time lights are turned on the audience is when the show is over, so I usually have to argue with the lighting director to get them to do it.
Taran: Have you always worked with seasoned performers? If not, what do you find are the challenges and advantages of working with veterans vs. newbies?
David: So far with the concerts I've done, it's all been professionals. Although with some of the documentaries, I have had occasion to interview novices, people who simply were not comfortable in front of the camera. During such interviews, it quickly becomes obvious that what I'm shooting is not going to be usable. In those instances, I just try to wrap things up quickly and politely thank them for their time.
Taran: Did you study old Moody Blues videos before working with Justin? As an artist as well as a director, what were the different considerations that ran through your mind as you planned how you wanted to capture his performance?
David: In actually fact, I did look at lots of Moody Blues footage before we began, but not for the reasons you might think. The first project we were supposed to do was a compilation DVD of all the old footage that had never before appeared on DVD. It was a massive undertaking to try and locate all of the vintage clips. But that project came to a grinding halt when obtaining the rights became an issue.
We then decided to shoot a concert and Justin just happened to be getting ready to embark on a solo tour. I suggested we simultaneously shoot a behind the scenes documentary in addition to the concert, which he was all for. Justin wanted to tape a show late in the tour so that the band would be well rehearsed by then, since this would be his first time working with these players doing this type of acoustic solo show. There were lots of unknowns on that first tour. As it turned out, we ended up recording the very last show of the tour in Atlanta. Which meant that by then, the band would certainly know what they were doing. But it also meant that if something went wrong, there would be no safety net. Fortunately, we got what we needed.
However, this was not a concern for the next shoot we did in Florida, as we ended up filming one of the first stops on that tour. There had been some major changes since the previous tour. Julie's keyboards had expanded greatly since she was now covering all of Alan's parts, and the band were performing some songs for the first time. Remember, this was the first time You Can Never Go Home had been performed live. But ultimately everything worked beautifully.
Taran: You’ve worked with Justin on several projects now. What gets easier, and what are the creative challenges with each new project? How did you and he collaborate on the two PBS videos?
David: As you spend more and more time with someone, communication gets easier. With time you're able to understand better where the other person is coming from. My admiration and respect for this man, which was high to begin with, has grown since we began our collaboration.
With Spirits… Live, I put together a rough cut and sent it to Justin for his approval. We got together in October of that year on one of his free days while the band was passing through Southern California and went through the film scene by scene. Justin made a few minor suggestions but for the most part, he liked what I had done. By the time we did Watching and Waiting and The Story Behind Nights in White Satin however, he completely trusted me and was happy with the way I had put things together. In fact, the only thing that had to be changed on the master were the closing credits, and what I'm about to tell you will likely come as a surprise to your readers. In the credits, I had listed the song Watching and Waiting as being co-written by Justin and Ray. Well apparently, Ray was not involved in the writing of the song and was erroneously listed as a co-writer on the original To Our Children's LP. Justin noticed the error in the credits of our DVD and as a result, both he and Ray contacted the publisher and managed to clear everything up - after 45 years!
Taran: I’d like to ask you some questions specifically about the “Watching and Waiting” video. Fans are noticing there's something 'special' about the look and quality of this DVD. What do you think you captured? Did you notice anything particularly special going on during the filming?
David: Watching and Waiting provided a challenge in that it followed so quickly on the heels of Spirits… Live. Therefore it had to be significantly different. The lighting for Spirits… Live had been very colorful, therefore I wanted Watching and Waiting to have a different look and feel, so we went with something a bit darker and more subdued. Also, it was important to me that the set list be different, since we knew the DVD would be offered as a companion piece to Spirits… Live by PBS. As you know, I had suggested You Can Never Go Home to Justin as it was one of the few remaining early songs written by him that had never been performed live. I was thrilled when he called and said that it had worked well during rehearsals with Mike and Julie and that they would be adding it to the set list.
I knew something magical was happening during filming when You Can Never Go Home and Watching and Waiting were performed back to back. I don't think the audience was expecting to ever hear those songs live. Also, I had asked Justin if he would be so kind as to include a couple of extra solo acoustic numbers specifically for the taping, which he was happy to do. He chose No Regrets and December Snow which I initially thought were odd choices. But when he sat down and played them in the middle of the set, the atmosphere in the auditorium was electric. I certainly got goose bumps. Justin himself mentioned afterwards that he felt it had been one of his best performances, and I agree.
If that weren't enough, Justin surprised me by playing two of my personal favorites, Who Are You Now and Blue Guitar, solo - just for me - backstage, prior to the Orlando show. How often does one get a private concert like that? Fortunately I had my camera rolling and those two tracks were added to the Watching and Waiting DVD as a bonus.
David with Justin and the video crew
Taran: I thought the lighting and camera angles were very flattering in that video. As someone who just photographed the band under the worst possible conditions last month (blowing wind and extremely contrasting lighting) I looked at your work with great admiration and envy - Any trade secrets you’d like to share about lighting and camera angles?
David: We used five cameras for the Watching and Waiting video. There was a center camera at the back of the auditorium, zoomed in and focused mainly on Justin; a camera in the middle of the audience off to the left; and a camera in the balcony off to the right; and I was literally running around all over the place with a hand held camera, getting shots in front of and behind the stage. But to me, the most important camera was the one mounted on the crane on the left side of the stage. This "jib" was constantly moving, panning from Mike to Justin to Julie, weaving itself into the audience, adding a flowing movement which complimented the music perfectly. It takes a skilled operator to handle such a device and Christian Cashmir from Litewave Media out of Tampa, Florida did an amazing job.
Taran: For the techies out there – please give us a technical run-down of the equipment you used for the PBS videos.
David: I'm afraid you'll have to ask Christian Cashmir from Litewave Media to answer that. I hired him and his crew to do the shoot down in Clearwater, Florida with me. I think we all used Sony cameras but you'll have to verify that with him. And of course the crane was a very integral part of the shoot. I will say that it was a very long day. Besides shooting lots of behind-the-scenes footage earlier in the day, we also filmed an extensive interview with Justin after the show which was used as the basis for The Story Behind Nights in White Satin video. We didn't get out of the Capitol Theatre venue that night 'til after 2am.
Taran: Something I immediately noticed was the way you included audience shots—the level of the camera and placement—gave the video a very intimate feeling. Was that something you deliberately were trying to convey?
David: Actually, the venue had a lot to do with it. If you notice in the On the Road to Love documentary from the Spirits… Live DVD, we had to place the crane on the stage itself in Atlanta, which put the camera about four feet above the audience. This meant we could fly the camera above their heads, which was nice, but we could not get down to their level. However, at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, we had room to place the jib right on the floor itself on the same level with the audience. This allowed Christian to get right in there with the audience. This indeed made for a much more intimate experience.
Taran: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about the making of this video – anything you’d do differently, number of cameras, things you did in post-production, other songs you would have suggested, etc.?
David: I think the mix that Justin and Alberto did from the Capitol Theatre show was breathtaking. I have never heard such magnificent acoustic guitars recorded live before. And for that reason alone, I think the Watching and Waiting video is a must have. Regarding what I would have done differently, there's always room for improvement. Once I finish a project though, I just have to let it go or else I will continue to beat myself up over what I could have done differently. Having said that, I do think that the Watching and Waiting DVD is about as close to perfection as you're gonna get.
There are a few gems from the Hayward catalogue that I would love to eventually hear performed live: Visions of Paradise, Dawning Is the Day and I Never Thought I'd Live to be a Hundred/Million from the original albums; newer tracks like Foolish Love, We Can Fly, and Never Blame the Rainbows; solo tracks like This Morning, Remember Me My Friend and One Lonely Room; and rarities like Eternal Woman, The Angels Cry and Forever to Be Alone. Who knows what the future may bring...
Taran: People are asking if there will be a CD – any info on that?
David: Well that's the big question, isn't it? Right now, I don't know where things are headed. We recorded the entire show and only part of it was released for the PBS project. I also shot lots of behind the scenes things during the tour. It would be a shame if the audio and the rest of the video remained in the vault so to speak, but I just don't know what's going to happen at this time.
Taran: Can you look at (any of) your own work yet and enjoy it from an audience perspective, or do you still look at it with a critical technical eye?
David: Frankly, it's pretty tough for me to look at my work and not be critical of it. Also, there is the problem that when I make a video, I end up viewing it hundreds of times during post production, so that by the time it's finished, I'm usually rather sick of it, lol. But honestly, I find the Watching and Waiting and Story Behind Nights in White Satin videos to be quite enjoyable even after so many views.
Taran: Has anyone ever suggested filming a Moody Blues cruise documentary yet?
David: Yes, me! So far it hasn't worked out yet, but...
Taran: What's in the future for David Minasian?
David: I'm planning to do some more things with Justin and the guys, which is very exciting. I'm in the middle of recording a new album myself, a follow up to 2010's Random Acts of Beauty. The new album will follow the same pattern of Mellotron-drenched symphonic rock. I'm working on a new feature film, writing and producing it. I'm also writing a book. Yes, things are very exciting and busy at the moment. Frankly, I don't understand how people can ever feel bored. There are so many wonderful things to do in this life.
Taran: I went to Amazon and tried to purchase your CD, “Random Acts of Beauty” but they’re out of stock. Would you like to recommend a link where people can purchase it?
David: Unfortunately, the label I was with, ProgRock Records, went bankrupt. So the CD is temporarily unavailable. My plan is to do a re-mastered version with some possible bonus tracks and re-release it on a new label when the new album I'm currently working on comes out. So be patient, there are lots of new things on the horizon.
Taran: This was such an interesting
and informative interview. I'm sure our readers will appreciate all of
the information you've shared. If people submit additional
questions, would you mind if I forwarded them to you for responses?
David: Sure, be happy to!
Taran: Thank you, David, for your candor and sharing your valuable time with us! I'm sure everyone will be very excited to see more from you in the future!
are some links for further information and current news from David Minasian:
Official website: http://davidminasian.com/
Amazon (MP3 samples and downloadable copy of Random Acts of Beauty): http://www.amazon.com/Random-Acts-Beauty-David-Minasian/dp/B00JSCX0DA/ref=tmm_msc_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1433551519
All photographs are used with permission