A new documentary ‘The Man Behind The Throne,’ is in the works about Vincent Paterson, who choreographed many of Michael’s short films and performances – a special dancing and dynamic partnership.
When people see great work over the years, sometimes it is about the man behind the scenes. Such is the case with Vincent Paterson. A choreographer to the stars, this man has left his mark in the entertainment world without an ounce of ego.
Some of the world’s most famous moves—from Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ video to Madonna’s grabbing her crotch in ‘Express Yourself’ – will be burned into the memory of many viewers over the years. For millions of fans, the ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour was his creation from top to the bedroom, where Ms. Ciccone grinded on a platform bed.
Captured in a documentary titled ‘The Man Behind the Throne,’ Chicagoans have an opportunity to witness a backstage pass to iconic artists with a candid movie at Chicago International Movies & Music Festival this week.
We called the puppeteer in L.A. one day to hear about his story One on One:
Windy City Times: Hi, Vincent. You are calling from L.A. and that was your house in the movie?
Vincent Paterson: Yeah. I live in the Hollywood Hills, under the “D” of the sign. That is one of the landmarks they recognize.
WCT: What inspired this documentary for you?
Vincent Paterson: It didn’t inspire me. I didn’t want the documentary made. Eventually, I said yes. I had done an interview with Kerstie Grunditz, the director, in the early 2000s, speaking to students putting dance into movies. A couple of years later she contacted me about making a documentary. Every year I said, “No, thank you.” Finally I might be retiring in a few years so I did it with her.
I asked her first to meet her in Los Angeles because of the level of celebrities I have worked with. Did they want to know the color of Michael Jackson’s underwear? [Laughs]
She came over from Sweden and created what she thought the documentary would be about. I thought she was a fantastic lady and very smart. She asked smart questions and I gave her access to everything I had so that is how it came about.
WCT: You had some very personal things on the documentary. That must have been difficult.
Vincent Paterson: Honestly, Jerry, I am a very open human being. I find there are very few things that I won’t talk about in my life. I feel artists can feel if other people go through the same things then they don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel there was any subject that we broached that I refused to talk about. Wherever she wanted to go I went along with her.
WCT: How did your partner, Carl, like being a part of it?
Vincent Paterson: Carl didn’t like it. Carl is not really in my life and we was on the edge of my life when we made the documentary. He was not a happy participant. It was important that he has there because we had been together for many years at that point. He was not active in any of the things I did but many of those experiences were his as well.
I’m happily married now. I got married in January.
WCT: You can get married out there in California, finally.
Vincent Paterson: You can get married and have your best friend marry you if you want and that is what happened. That was terrific.
WCT: What do you think of Madonna and her tours now?
Vincent Paterson: Look: Madonna is an amazing artist. She’s incredible. Personally, I thought she was a vanguard for women, opening up doors for them all the time, when she got into her fifties I thought she would understand that women are valuable as mature women. Sometimes she plays to a younger audience only. That is a selfish desire. I wish she would be a little mature in the work that she does. I love the fact that she directed the film and she did a gorgeous job directing it a couple of years ago. The tours are spectacular and she has always been at the forefront of that.
I prefer the work from before, personally.
WCT: How was it seeing the old footage of Michael Jackson?
Michael Jackson is still very active in my life. My work with Michael Jackson back then set the stage for my life now. I mentioned that in the documentary and it is still true. So many people call my agents because of a Michael Jackson project they have seen. Michael seems to still constantly be around me.
He was truly the greatest artist I have had the opportunity to work with. He was just so kind. It was always a pleasure. The work was filled with laughter and it was hard work simultaneously. He’s one of the few people I have ever met in this entire business who never had a bad word to say about anyone. He approached everything without an ego. For someone that huge it was mind boggling. He was a sweet man. He worked hard and was the consummate gentleman. You can’t believe how kind the guy was.
I know this sounds bizarre but the first few years I worked with him this was the closest person I know who was a Jesus character because he always just so kind and loving to everybody. He never said an unkind word to anyone that worked for him. He was always so gracious. He was extremely shy but grateful. He was an important artist and a great man.
WCT: So nice to hear. This is different than what you sometimes hear in the news and media.
Vincent Paterson: The sad thing about the media in United States is they lift them but then tear them apart. It seems to be the nature of the beast.
WCT: I saw your Elvis Cirque show in Vegas.
Vincent Paterson: I would like to say “great” but what Cirque du Soleil does is they don’t pay too much attention to what you do when they create it. You put it in Vegas and everyone descends upon you and rips the thing apart. They put things in there that have nothing to do with the three years that you have invested. I don’t think they cared that much for Elvis Presley.
For me, Elvis Presley is an American hero but for them I think he was a potential opportunity to sell more tickets. They didn’t handle it well or understand Elvis Presley I feel.
Once we got to Vegas they started putting in all of these acrobatics acts that had nothing to do with Elvis Presley or the story being told it didn’t make any sense to me. You learn from every experience and I certainly learned a lot from that experience. It was the first time I worked with acrobats and that was an incredible education.
WCT: Tell me about working with Bjork and the film ‘Dancer in the Dark.’
Vincent Paterson: [Laughs] That was crazy! I had a phenomenal experience with Bjork and Lars Van Trier. They didn’t wind up liking each other very much. It was strange because I was in the middle there. They had a very hard time with each other.
Bjork was fantastic. We had so much fun and she was ready for anything. She would always show up in these crazy bizarre outfits. I would laugh just to see what she was going to wear the next day in a rehearsal. She was just adorable. We had a fantastic time. She was never hesitant about any place I asked her to go. When it came to being an actor with her I had so much fun. Lars asked me to be an actor and I had done it many years before so I had a great time. She was a treat.
It was very difficult for her to make that movie because that character was so far away from who she is. When she did that one scene where she had to slap her son across the face because he wasn’t at school it took three days. We had to keep coming back to shoot it because she couldn’t get to that point. She couldn’t make herself hit that little boy. Not being an experienced actor she couldn’t shake that character by the end of the day. It was so far away from who she was. It was difficult. She is a very sweet, loving person.
The part that was her was the person me and Lars developed to get into these musical scenes. It is a rhythm she hears that transports her into the fantasy taking her away from the real life situations.
She always carried a little tape recorder with her and we would walk around record things. She was a sound fanatic.
WCT: You just made my day talking about her. What are you working on now?
Vincent Paterson: I am working on a couple of things. I am creating a piece for a Montreal lyricist named Luc Plamondon. I am the first American to do Evita in Vienna next year. They want me to do my own take on it.
I am writing an autobiography, which is really fun. I am also writing dance music with my husband. I like to keep learning and trying new things. As long as that happens I will keep on working. When things get boring I will stop. Right now, life is good!
WCT: I wish you were coming in town for the festival.
Vincent Paterson: I do, too, because it is on my birthday. I have only been to Chicago once—many years ago. When I have a chance for a vacation I go to a beach in Mexico.
WCT: I can’t compete with that in Chicago!
Dance in the Dark on May 4 at 3 p.m. at the Society for Arts; see here.
The Music Videos/short films that Vincent Paterson worked on with Michael are:
Smooth Criminal (Chor./Co-Dir.)
Black or White / Dir. John Landis (Chor.)
The Way You Make Me Feel / Dir. Joe Pytka (Co-Dir.)