Heavy Rotation

Mark Kohr, S.F.'s leading music video maker, hasn't had a free moment all year

Mark Kohr is really busy. As he fidgets in a deluxe, dimly lit editing suite decorated with framed posters of Robert Longo's iconographic 1980s "Men in the Cities" drawings, he supervises technicians making film-to-tape transfers, works with his producer on a treatment of an upcoming project, and, in spare moments, enthusiastically summarizes his favorite new Levi's commercial. It takes him five minutes to describe every visual detail of the 30-second spot, and he relishes every moment. "It's amazing," Kohr exclaims, "there's so much packed into it."

This is the glamorous world of a rising music video director.
The 33-year-old, once-aspiring filmmaker hasn't had a free moment all year. Since making a name for himself with the first Primus and Green Day clips, Kohr, who resembles a thin, unassuming Beastie Boy, has been on a steady and quickening ascent to the exalted status of music video auteur. That's a relatively recent concept, dating to when MTV added director credits to the minifilms that effectively blur distinctions between art, entertainment, and advertising.

These days you can see Kohr's name on a bunch of them. Green Day is the band he has worked with most consistently, having helmed five tapes for the band, including the 1994 insane asylum extravaganza "Basket Case" and the just-completed "Stuck With Me." He's also directed spots for alternative bands like Soul Coughing, the Muffs, and Dance Hall Crashers, as well as heavier-rotation crossover acts like Alanis Morissette, whose Kohr-directed "Hand in My Pocket" is currently among the MTV top 20. And he's under consideration for the next Blur video.

For young creative types raised on MTV, Kohr appears to have a dream job. In this worldview, the music video network that was a connective pop-cultural thread in the '80s has become a competitive career opportunity in the '90s. A seemingly endless number of bands are in need of a video, and equal numbers of aspiring filmmakers will do anything to make them. But even if S.F.'s Academy of Art runs late-night commercials promising a future in rock video, chances are students won't find a job here when they graduate. While the city may be a hotbed of rock 'n' roll and independent film, it's hardly a record company town, and labels rarely shoot big music videos here.

Somehow Kohr has managed to work around this geographic obstacle. As represented by the L.A.-based Satellite Films (the rock video division of Propaganda Films), he gets to live in the Haight while jetting off to shoots in other American cities. He's one of the rare young San Francisco entertainment mavens who register a blank, uninterested expression when you mention the term "multimedia gulch."

His version of becoming S.F.'s leading music video maker has more to do with the tried-and-true combination of schmoozing, luck, and talent. In the late 1980s, as an aspiring filmmaker, Kohr was asked by a friend to direct a video for the song "Teenage Pussy From Outer Space" for local band Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Boys; Kohr and his friend pooled $3,000 of their own money to produce the piece. It turned out to be a high-yield investment in Kohr's future. Through that project he met Anita Rivas, an entertainment lawyer who then booked bands at the I-Beam. She introduced Kohr to Primus. "And then," the director states with fablelike simplicity, "we started doing a bunch of videos."

Of course it didn't hurt that some of those promo pieces were for Primus and Green Day, Bay Area bands whose records broke big nationally. Their major airwave exposure, while selling millions of CDs, also catapulted the director from low-budget indie/alternative jobs to more verdant video pastures -- ones with six-figure budgets.

While rock 'n' roll put Kohr on the map, he's far more connected to visual media. "I'm not a music guy," he freely admits. "I don't play any instruments, I don't go and check out bands all the time, and I'm not, like, a scenester or anything. In the early '80s, when I was in college, I was one of those guys who went dancing at those floating clubs on the weekends. I'm still kind of amazed that I work in the music industry."

In his early days, Kohr had other aspirations. With the ambition of becoming a fashion photographer -- "a Richard Avedon type" -- he studied photography, art, advertising, and business at San Francisco State, a combination that fit perfectly his later activities. After Kohr graduated, he learned the ropes by working in various local production houses. "I didn't know enough about lighting my photographs, so I got jobs in film -- as an electrician, gaffer, grip, and best boy -- for, like, four years." From there he managed to pick up enough skill to move his interests into the expanded world of independent filmmaking.

True to his background, Kohr's approach to this commercial medium is clean, creative, and stylistically varied. You'd be hard pressed to identify him with a particular aesthetic. His show reel is like an MTV sampler, including clips that demonstrate he's perfectly capable of making things that really look like music videos. In one, the guitar-thrashing boys of Green Day are intercut with a gratuitously gruesome tooth-extraction sequence; in another, for the unknown band 311, Kohr nails down the surreal, trendy rockers-on-the-beach genre. He can capably deal with a narrative, as demonstrated by a piece for Jennifer Trynin, in which the singer turns her job at a 24-hour gas station into band practice, and he combines many of these elements with exquisite black-and-white cinematography in Morissette's clip, in which rain pours down on her parade.

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