EXCLUSIVE: Steps director David Amphlett chats to GenSTEPS
To celebrate 20 years since the release of It’s The Way You Make Me Feel, we called up legendary Steps director David Amphlett who was behind its iconic music video. In total, David directed seven classic Steps videos including One For Sorrow, Heartbeat and Stomp. (He also filmed the live action part of Words Are Not Enough.) He spoke to reporter Chris Fox via video call.
CHRIS FOX: How did you come to work with Steps?
DAVID AMPHLETT: I’d known Vicky Blood and worked with her for probably eight years before doing the first Steps music video. For two or three years I was head of production at BMG. At that time, a lot of record companies had video labels and they were publishing monthly video magazines that they sold on VHS tape, with varying degrees of success.
I produced and directed those video releases for BMG and did other projects for them as well, so I already had a good working relationship with Vicky before she left and set up Byrne Blood with Tim Byrne. Vicky’s extremely experienced as a marketer and also an extremely intelligent and visually literate person.
One For Sorrow
Were you aware of Steps when you came to make the One For Sorrow video?
Yes, very aware. I’ve got a feeling I may have been at some of the very early rehearsals, even before they’d put the whole band together. Lisa and H were there from the beginning and they brought in Claire, Faye and Lee later. I think Vicky was looking for opinions and validation when they went through that second phase of casting. My first memory of them was that they were all extremely proficient, which made them so easy to work with.
Who came up with the idea for the One For Sorrow video?
I think Vicky had a concept to go somewhere on location… and a lot of it was done on the hoof! We had chosen where to shoot, which was in northern Italy, and we had some vignettes but not specific places for them.
The house where Claire does her main vocal was all sorted. So was the garden. But we shot for maybe three or four days and a lot of it we recce’d and shot as we went. Claire singing on the swing was not planned. It would have been something we found, where the light was really nice dappling through the trees. It was going to hit her nicely and be a great way to get some movement into the vocal.
The sunflower scene I think was planned at least in the abstract because it was late August so you can pretty much guarantee Tuscany sunflowers that time of year. I watched that scene again this morning and I’m not happy with it because the camera angles are not quite how it should be. It looks a bit scuzzy in the wide shots at the bottom and I wish I had pushed the group further into the field. But that’s quite usual for us: any creative person is never totally happy with anything they do.
How did you plan and structure your music videos?
The challenge with Steps is there are several different lead vocals and a dance routine – and in most of the songs every one of them has a particular motif line or an adlib or a really sweet little vocal figure that they put in. It’s like a game of Tetris, you’ve got to get all of those pieces in the right place and make sure you don’t miss anything. They all obviously want to make sure that some of those nice lines that they have done are captured on video as well. And then because of their fan base you need to make sure you’ve got all the dance moves and that you’ve weighted them relatively evenly.
Typically I’d pick out all of those lines and have them highlighted to make sure I got each bit crossed off. Unless it was something very tight like It’s The Way You Make Me Feel and Say You’ll Be Mine, I didn’t work to a strict pictured storyboard, but you have all the pieces mapped out.
Your second Steps video was Heartbeat. Where did the idea for that video come from?
Sometimes the management would come up with a basic idea but it wouldn’t necessarily be fully fleshed out or even practical, so I’d have to come and make it work. With Heartbeat, we used a combination of green screen and library footage.
We built the large Ice Queen’s Palace set, and we built the barn that they end up in. A friend of mine was a ski instructor so we brought him on set to give the group a chance of looking as natural as they possibly could. We also shot the baddies arguing in their chariot because it was all so cheesy and silly and fun and we thought… why don’t we make it that the baddies don’t get on.
What did you think of the video at the time – and do you think the effects hold up today?
Oh not at all! At the time I think they were probably OK. Maybe if we’d had more budget and more time in post-production they could have been finessed more. But the whole concept was so cheesy anyway. If it was a Christopher Nolan movie and was released in 2020 then somebody would be in the corner crying. But I don’t remember being frustrated with it at the time.
Can you remember how much a video like that would cost?
Oh yes, because it was all done through my production company. The lowest cost I think was Tragedy because that was kind of a last-minute deal. Tragedy was £35,000 and pretty much all of it was shot in one day. It’s The Way You Make Me Feel was the biggest I did and I’m going to take a stab and say it was £130,000. The others would have fallen somewhere in between, mostly at the lower end. Most would have been in the £50,000 to £80,000 kind of zone.
How did you work out what to spend the money on?
Certain things are a given. There are key crew and you need a certain number of them on location. Then you cut your cloth and fight! The more shooting days you have, obviously the costs go up. If you’re on set for three days, catering is going to be three times what it would be for one. I was the cameraman as well as director on all of them as well, which gives you the ability to move quite quickly.
We shot all of the videos on film. At that time, a roll of film was maybe £80 and lasted ten minutes. Let’s say we shot 20 rolls of film – that might be a bit excessive, but as a rough guide that’s £1,600 gone straight away. You’d spend nearly 10% of the budget on film and the post-processing and telecine.
Was it your choice to shoot on film? Does this mean the music videos could one day be remastered in HD?
It was a choice although nearly everything at that time was shot on film. Stomp and It’s The Way You Make Me Feel were shot on 35mm. One For Sorrow was Super 16 and I think the others were too. The record companies will have digital masters of the finished edit but I have no idea whether the film would still exist in a vault somewhere. A lot of the time, the record companies didn’t want the film back.
What is the story behind the Tragedy video?
With Tragedy, they asked me to do it as a favour. They said it was a double-A side and they didn’t have much money, take it or leave it. And I said I’d love to do it. It was all shot in a church in Stanmore.
The church and the room behind the back where the guys are tied up is all the same location. We wouldn’t have had time to change location. The band’s friends and family were brought in to fill up the seats for free. I remember Claire’s mum crying when Claire goes past, she was genuinely crying!
Can you remember the concept and why the men were kidnapped and jilted?
No! [laughing] It was just part of the nonsense.
After the mega-hit Tragedy you directed Better Best Forgotten. Can you remember how that came about?
It’s hard to remember. Sometimes the videos were decided fairly last minute, but it’s probably the case that I was pitching against somebody else. With Tragedy, I was asked to do it but with some of the others I pitched against other directors in terms of budget and concept. I think Dani Jacobs did one [Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart] and I think he might have edited some of mine as well. Being a business, it was smart. They probably didn’t want to give all of the videos to one director because it doesn’t make sense and there are risks.
Better Best Forgotten
What was the idea behind Better Best Forgotten?
There was no big concept, it was just a look and a feel and a colour palette. It’s a bit slapstick as well with the boys disrupting the filming.
The glass wall actually fell down on Faye. It could have been serious, but I think a couple of people caught it and it broke the fall. It was a whole wall made of glass bricks and I think she got away lightly.
Do you plan a colour palette for each video?
I’d like to say it’s instinctive. It’s a combination of planning and feeling. In those days we didn’t change the colour of a light with a knob like you do now. So we would plan what lights to use, what filters, and what the group was wearing to make sure it all had a nice colour arc.
Say You’ll Be Mine
Let’s talk about Say You’ll Be Mine…
That was the band’s concept. They had all chosen movies that they wanted and then it was a case of… how on Earth do we put all of this together and give it some cohesion!? It was quite technically complex. On some of the shots there are eight different layers of video that comptogether: you’ve got them dancing in the foreground, you have them in a scene in the background, you have them doing adlib vocals, you have the proscenium arch which is obviously a matte.
Then you’ve got them doing their vocals against a green screen, effects of the film reels and that was very complicated from a technical perspective. But you still have to make sure that when you come to say Claire’s line or Faye’s line that you’ve got it in the right scene. But I think almost always, we captured all of those.
Did you enjoy shooting the parody scenes?
It’s lots of fun doing pastiche, from a lighting and directing perspective. If it’s not convincing, the gag doesn’t work. Doing things like the fish tank was just such a beautiful looking film that was a lovely thing to take off, and the more you study the source material and the better you emulate it, the gag works better. That goes for costumes and make up too. The scene with Lee and Lisa was obviously impossible because they are in an aircraft hanger, so it was shot on green screen and we made the plate [footage] that falls behind them. For the Titanic one we built the bow of the ship which was quite a big build, but also the backdrop of the sky was a painted backdrop. It was so beautifully painted. I was really pleased with that one now.
Who chose the scene from There’s Something About Mary? That was quite… adult!
That was Claire’s choice! It was bold and surprising… I’m surprised it got through because they were only a year and a half in by then! They were always looking so immaculate and clean and pure. Obviously, they convinced the record company to go with it or figured that their audience wouldn’t understand the reference anyway.
Did you use a real fish tank for the Romeo and Juliet scene?
Yes! It was brought into the studio. It was shot in a studio in Park Royal where the sets were built. That was quite hard to shoot, to get the angles right and make H and Claire both look as good as possible because as soon as you shoot through two layers of glass and water, you need a lot more light.
You had a bit of a break from Steps videos before coming back to do Stomp. Did you notice that the band had matured?
Yes, clearly they’d matured and their look was different. But again, the basic idea for the video came from them. They had the idea of the painting and the party and their manager going away, and I fleshed it out. That was shot in a penthouse in Chiswick. Obviously the floor was wooden and so we decided to do a light-up dance floor as a wall behind them.
It was a big build, probably about six foot deep with heavy lamps pushed into it. We would have had a generator for that because we probably had 80 kilowatts of light. It’s old technology and not how you would do it now. It was a two day shoot, so the scenes with the car and Faye in the cafe with her mates were all done on a different day.
Lee has spoken about refusing to lip-sync on that video because his vocals were not on the track. Do you remember that on set?
Now that you say it, it sounds vaguely familiar, but once you get there on the day there’s no point getting tangled up in the politics. We had a job to do, on a tight schedule and we’d leave anything like that to Vicky and Tim to deal with.
It’s The Way You Make Me Feel
What was your process creating It’s The Way You Make Me Feel?
The whole thing was an allusion to the movie Dangerous Liaisons. I loved the track and I had had this idea that I thought would fit. To convince them that we should do it, I put the track down under stills and scenes out of Dangerous Liaisons in the order where the various scenes would go. I sent them the tape of how I wanted it to work and they said yes!
It was shot at Brocket Hall in Hatfield. I knew we needed a huge room to do the dance scene in and that was quite challenging because it’s a listed building, which means you have to be extra careful about the infrastructure of the building and what you can do. We built what’s called a table-top in that room, a huge scaffold rig over the whole room with a leg of the table in each corner. If you look back at the video you can see them, covered with foliage and drapes. That is what was holding the lights up. Then we had to build towers outside to get the “moonlight” coming through the windows at the right height for those scenes. So it was quite a big construction for a relatively small part of the song. And moonlight isn’t really blue… but there you go!
It was scripted really tight because every single line had to work in a certain place. But the dance scene wasn’t precisely storyboarded. I would shoot a couple of wide shots and then mentally construct the pieces I wanted. I didn’t like shooting small segments and then stopping because it didn’t allow them to get into any kind of rhythm, so I’d have something in mind that I wanted from a scene – say Faye’s line – and then I might film something else and make my way over to Faye for her line and once you’ve got that you can move on. That’s why it’s got that fluidity to it. There’s a lot of moving parts and variables – you want to get all those adlib lines and make sure they are not facing away from the camera. I’m really pleased with the way that we got it all.
What was your overall experience working with Steps?
They worked phenomenally hard as a band, staggeringly hard. They were always doing something before, after and even during the shoot. They would work all day on a music video, and also have a crew down perhaps from the BBC. They would probably do an interview on set, at least one of them would probably be doing some press when they weren’t on set, they would have something extra during the lunchtime while the crew was on a break. Sometimes they had to change costume while they were doing a quick photo snapshot, or change back into a costume because the stills photographers wanted shot of them. They were working for the whole time that they were together.
But for me it was always easy working with them. They were super professional. It certainly never reached me if there was any kind of awkwardness or attitude – they just got on with it. If I missed a line or I didn’t get something the way I wanted it, I’d tell them I’m focusing on this bit and here’s what I want from this take in terms of energy. They knew themselves if they wanted another take – but it didn’t tend to happen. The hardest one to get what I wanted was Claire’s solo in One For Sorrow and giving her the confidence to deliver that in a certain way – and I am so happy with that because I still think it looks fantastic.
Would you do another music video with Steps if they approached you?
Yes, almost certainly! They haven’t called me yet. I’m sure they wouldn’t. But you know, I like them as people and I like working with them. I don’t have any bad memories of working with them at all. I still absolutely love it, walking on to a film set now: you get the energy and adrenaline that you can’t replicate with anything else.
What have you been working on since Steps?
I currently work on a completely different side of the business, I’m a technical director for Panalux, the largest lighting rental company in the UK. I look after the technical side and also design new lighting fixtures.
In the UK, unless you’re absolutely at the top of the tree as a cameraman or director, there is a truism that you can go out of fashion. I felt it was incredibly competitive and that I wasn’t A-list. I wasn’t lighting Bond movies and my career had not taken a path where I felt I’d be making a good income at 40 or 50. A change of direction was better for me longer term.
I think to the fans you are A-list! The videos are still hugely iconic and they are still watched millions of times on YouTube.
Thank you! I certainly have no regrets about it.
David, I really appreciate the call. It has been a real trip down memory lane!
No problem. It was a pleasure to talk to you.