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.

The fluid variety of approaches seems to work in a business filled with fickle egos. "It's a very organic thing," Kohr says. "There's no real formula or set way to a successful video. Even if you hire the number one guy or girl at some job of image-making, it might not be the most appropriate one for the band."

For Kohr, coming up with the concepts is give-and-take. He describes the making of a Green Day video: "I'll have a brief conversation with Billie, and he'll say something like, 'We thought it would be cool to shoot in an insane asylum and be surrounded by crazy people.' And I'll say OK, and work with that and give it a look, a flow, a camera technique. Maybe the band has no idea, or they know what they don't want -- and I'll work with that. But I don't mind if a band tells me what they want, because maybe it will lead me down a creative alley that I wouldn't have considered." The bottom line, however, is basic: "Generally people don't want to look like fools. I just keep a handle on that."

Evidently, he manages to make them look good, as both bands and bosses only have positive things to say about the director. "Mark is really delightful," says Randy Skinner, vice president of the music video department at Warner Bros. "There's a nice twist that comes with everything he does. Mark just tweaks things enough so they're not normal."

It's difficult to know if this twisted quality is aided or hampered by the breakneck production schedules. Most clips are made in about a week, with little advance prep time. "Music videos can be time-bomb projects," Skinner reveals. "It's usually the fault of the record company, which often doesn't decide on a track until the last minute. The executives have no concept that it takes a period of time to put a video together." Production companies, hungry for the work, usually accommodate the outrageous schedules.

The pace of the business, along with budgets, which are often deducted from band earnings, makes this seem like less than an ideal industry. "It's difficult to make a living in music video," says Andrew Linsk of San Francisco's Commotion Pictures, the company that produced Kohr's first Green Day pieces. "The money isn't great, because when you're doing music video, you've got to fill four minutes, and you've got to shoot a lot. A majority of the budget ends up on the screen. There's only a little left over for rent and food." In the Bay Area, this situation is exacerbated by the small number of major music videos shot here with local crews.

TV commercials are the logical and highly lucrative alternative for production companies and directors. Commotion, which also represented Kohr before he signed with Satellite Films (it was an amiable split, Linsk says), currently works primarily in advertising and video games. According to Linsk, "Commercials are easier -- the budgets are higher, and you can be every bit as creative." (To keep its foot in the music video world, Commotion has created Dork, a new division to tap fresh-out-of-film-school talent. Mattie Sidle, the company's first young Dork director, just happens to be a Kohr protŽgŽ.)

So Kohr is adding commercials to his rŽsumŽ. He's currently in post-production on a Miller Genuine Draft project, a 30-second narrative featuring toy trains. It has a budget roughly four times that of a three-minute music video. The director is also bidding on an even shorter basketball-themed piece for Chevrolet. When asked if they pay well, Kohr's reply is flushed with embarrassed excitement: "You bet. It's unbelievable." The response is a contrast to his more ambivalent interest in the other obvious career move -- directing feature films. "I mean, isn't it everyone's ambition to make a movie?" he asks dourly.

At this point, Kohr may not need to make that leap. His work is progressing quite well, thank you. He has plenty of projects and has assembled workable production teams who use high-end, $900-an-hour editing facilities, which usually come with a free lunch.

At Western Images, a South of Market editing house often used by Kohr (and George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic) catered feasts are delivered to various clients by what looks to be a Waiters on Wheels convention. While taking a break from Green Day, Kohr and his producer, his editor, and his assistant munch on chicken korma and reminisce about the last MTV Music Video Awards, where he was a best director nominee.

"It was all right. I was up for four awards, but didn't win anything. But that's fine," Kohr says facetiously, before slipping into some genuine industry decorum. "I think it's great that Spike [Jonze] got best director because he really deserved it, you know. The body of work he produced over the last year is tremendous."

And what of MTV's afterparty? "It's kind of a fun thing to go to," he says, "though I didn't meet anybody. But you could look across the way and there's Liv Tyler. Hole was right there, Alanis over there, that basketball player Dennis Rodman, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Some girl from The Real World got booted out because she was crashing."

The way he says it, you can tell Kohr isn't in this business for the glamour. He seems genuinely to enjoy the work -- in a meat-and-potatoes way. "I don't have any grand creative design, or a friggin' pyramid to build in the middle of the desert," he admits. "Its kind of a job-to-job thing, where I get to explore thematic ideas, and hope I did the appropriate thing, and move on. In terms of having any huge thing to say, I don't. But I do try to say things responsibly.

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