19 November 2011

The Girlie Show Live Down Under – Toby Phillips speaks

With credits in movies, TV, advertising and dozens of music videos to his name, Toby Phillips has continued to “test the boundaries of conventional film-making” throughout an award-winning career that has been recognised by Kodak, when they named him as one of the finest cinematographers in the world.

Toby first worked with Madonna back in 1990, when the W.E. director hired him as the cinematographer of the concert footage for her movie producer debut – the fly on the wall “rockumentary”, Truth or Dare. (Following my exclusive interview with Truth or Dare Line Producer, Lisa Hollingshead, read more about the filming of the Paris Blond Ambition shows for Truth or Dare, exclusively at the beats within...... Behold, I am coming soon!)

In the first of my two-part interview with Toby Phillips, he talks about the filming of The Girlie Show – Live Down Under, Madonna’s M.O., technical problems and “ra – aaaaaa – in”...... 

** Stay tuned to Madonna-TV.com over the weekend for exclusive rare Girlie Show, Sydney TV footage, taken from webmaster Jamesy’s archive **

the beats within: Having worked so successfully as cinematographer on Madonna’s Truth or Dare, you were hired in the same role for the shooting of Madonna’s following tour, The Girlie Show.

“The producer was Marty Callner, who was a director in his own right. Madonna had chosen another director (Mark “Aldo” Micelli), who had been doing the video screens throughout the tour. So, he was hired as the director, with Marty coming in as the producer. I don’t know if it was done by default or not, but at least it was a good back-up for Madonna if things didn’t work out. I hadn’t worked with Marty before, so someone must’ve said to call me. So, I got a call from him and not the director, but I think I knew the director from Truth or Dare. So, in a way, I sort of had these two different directors to work with.

I flew down to Mexico City to see the show (at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez) and meet with Madonna and talk about it. I’m pretty sure Marty didn’t go to that, so it was really just Madonna and her team. Her whole M.O. had changed since the Blond Ambition Tour and she was much less feisty and much more embracing of what everyone could bring to the party. She was very, very cognisant of trying to get angles and lighting to make her look good.

That was my meeting and first view of the show and we went on to film it at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It’s a beautiful venue, but it was the first time ever that they were putting on a rock & roll show at the hallowed cricket ground. In getting prepared for that, they had bought thousands and thousands of square feet of this stuff that I think was called Terra-Plast, which was this thick waffle board with holes in it that they laid down over the turf to protect the grass – yet still allowing it to grow. So, the entire Sydney Cricket Ground had to be covered in this stuff. You would think that this stuff would’ve protected it, but being their first ever rock & roll concert at the ground, they had this rule that if there was too much rain that they had the option to cancel the show. And that’s exactly what happened!”

the beats within: But you still managed to film one of the shows at Sydney, which wound up being broadcast on HBO and released as The Girlie Show – Live Down Under.

“Yes, here we were having shot our rehearsal show, but it was still the live show. There were two nights planned at Sydney and HBO was supposed to go live, on a two hour delay from New York time, but that was supposed to have been on the second of the two nights. So, luckily we shot the first night too. We had all the cameras and even a helicopter came in.

On this particular show, because it was video (and not film); we weren’t going to use a lot of Steadicam. But I elected to hire a separate Steadicam operator and I worked in the lighting booth. I had planned to go and shoot something on the actual “shoot night”, but on this “rehearsal night” I was in switching between cameras up in the lighting booth and telling the camera operators what looked good, not that it mattered because most of them were ISO recorded anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I said, “OK Camera 7, let’s plan on moving you about 10 feet to the left tomorrow,” and then talking to the lighting guy saying, “Let’s turn those lights off tomorrow night, it’s not looking good”.

We had a huge amount of lighting on the towers to light up the audience and it was a really hot night that first night. Suddenly, we get word that the colour changers aren’t working on some of the lights. Because it was so hot, there were thousands and thousands of moths out and about and they landed on the colour changers. The colour changers were on a roll to change from one colour to another and, as the roll was triggered, the moths would roll around and get jammed in the motor roll, causing it to freeze.

So, in the middle of the show I’ve got some of my electricians climbing up the towers, shaking out these moths! Someone had the great idea to get some clear gel and stick it over the whole light and that way the colour changer would work underneath and the moths would sit happily on the outside on another piece of gel – and it worked!

So, throughout the course of the evening we were having this conversation about trying to fix the colour changer and how it was a great idea to keep the moths at bay and it wouldn’t happen tomorrow night. There were a lot of tomorrow night conversations – but tomorrow night never came!

We turned up to work that afternoon and although the rain had stopped, Sydney Cricket Ground had deemed the turf too wet and they cancelled the show. Everybody was hugely disappointed and there was great consternation as to how to save what we had. At that point Marty Callner stepped in and said, “We have to get the show on the air!” I had lived in Sydney for five years before I moved to the US, so I knew quite a few post production facilities and so we went into a post production facility that I recommended. They opened up that weekend and they spent every hour that they had up until the supposed “live” air time and we edited together those ISO recorded cameras, along with the live cut feed and enhanced what had been shot as best possible. Basically, what got sent by satellite was an edited version of our shoot.”

the beats within: I’m guessing there were probably a million things you would’ve changed if the show had went ahead on the second night as planned.

“There were a zillion things! The great thing about having that “rehearsal” and those plans means you can work towards it. When we were doing Truth or Dare, what happened was you finessed things over the three nights when you were shooting on film and there was no expectation of “live”. Basically, you’re capturing everything on all these cameras and each night you’re finessing as you move the cameras around.

So, here we were “rehearsing” for what we thought we were going to finesse the following night. But we never got the chance to. The funny thing is that the two lighting guys and I won an Addy award for The Girlie Show – Live Down Under. We were laughing to ourselves on the night of the awards ceremony – who would think you would win an award for the show that wasn’t the show – it was the “rehearsal”!”

the beats within: Thankfully, you filmed and recorded it...  

“It was such a work in progress and I only had that one chance. Basically I’d only seen the show once in Mexico City and then I saw it again during sound check (in Sydney), although that’s really only seeing a part of it. Seeing the first of the live shows was really the first time I could really work out how we were going to do it. I think we used 19 cameras on it and all 19 cameras were all over the place, knowing that would be their one job for the one night and they had their one chance of rehearsal – luckily we recorded it!

There was actually a time when we weren’t going to record that rehearsal. It was an additional cost to have the machines and the operators and to have everything up and running. I know Marty Callner was talking about not doing it. The whole thing could’ve been a wash out!”

the beats within: After the cancellation of Madonna’s second night at Sydney Cricket Ground, the girlie would take her show to Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, before returning to the hallowed Sydney sports ground to play the final two Aussie stops on The Girlie Show World Tour on 3 and 4 December 1993.

** Stay tuned for part two of my exclusive interview with Toby Phillips, and read about his work as cinematographer of the stunning Blond Ambition concert footage, filmed for Truth or Dare, touring, technical problems, ticking-offs and techno pigs! Plus, WE find out about the W.E. director learning her craft and the real reason why she ditched that Blond Ambition pony tail – finally! **

** Special thanks to Toby Phillips, Jamesy at Madonna-TV.com and Nick at Pud Whacker’s madonnascrapbook.blogspot.com. **

** Stay tuned to Madonna-TV.com over the weekend for exclusive rare Girlie Show, Sydney TV footage, taken from webmaster Jamesy’s archive **


Cristian said...

This was a wonderful read Peter, thanks so much for posting.

Fascinating read. I knew that what actually aired was a rehearsal...discovered that through the Madonna grapevine so to speak, but I had no idea that so much of what they had filmed was supposed to be a "practice run" so to speak. That, in a sense, they hadn't done a proper filming before and this was just a test-run, and that's what ended up airing. Go figure.

I guess that's why Madonna's shows are filmed multiple nights nowadays...at least three of them.

Can't wait for part two!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Cristian! Toby is a super talented guy and a really nice guy to boot, so was an honour to interview him. Watch out for part two - if you liked this, you're gonna love it!

madonna-tv.com said...


Cristian said...

Oooooh, looking forward to it bud!

Rabbitbunny said...

Granted, that whole period-the Girlie Show Tour must have been difficult and unnerving for Madonna. She eventually grew weary and tired of being a Sex Symbol and a Shock Queen-the only memorable songs from that period were This Used to Be My Playground
-a beautiful spiritual-dislocation-my-mother-is-not-here ballad-the last song recorded for Erotica-and Erotica's three other ballads Bad Girl. Rain and In This Life-the slower ballads a welcom respite on a record that was woefully short on inspiration, exuberance and joie de vivre-three qualities that Lady Madonna is known for. In fact-save your money-you can find Erotica's best songs-the title cut, Deeper and Deeper and the aformentioned Rain on Bunny Comps and Madonna's live performances. Madonna is clearly more and better than what her detractors say she is. Along with the out-of-focus acoustic sidetrip American Life a decade later-both eras show Madonna at her nadir and her low point. To this Rabbit Scribe, Madge just wasn't at her best at this time in her life. With Take a Bow, Ray of Light and Hung Up, Madonna came home and she was back on top.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Cris. It's all about the filming of the legendary Paris Blond Ambition shows for Truth or Dare, which I know you'll love to read all about.

Anonymous said...

Rabbit - always appreciate your comments and your unique interpretation of Madonna's music. I have to say that I couldn't disagree more about your Erotica comments. Don't be fooled by the cold hard sound of the music - juxtaposing it with the emotion of Madonna's lyrics and vocals was totally intentional and genius! Then the performances of the Erotica songs on The Girlie Show took those songs to another level and the live arrangements that substituted the polished - and more than often intentionally unpolished - studio sound of the album only further showed how that the songs on Erotica remain among her best. But that's just my opinion ;-) Thanks for your support!

Rabbitbunny said...

Thanks BeatsWithin Peter! I take Erotica back! I actually love that Bunny Warner artwork. On the whole, Erotica found Madonna at her absolute saddest and emotional. In fact during the title cut when she cries and sobs in Rabbit Tears-"Put your hands all over my body!"-Lady Ciccone is crying out for Love, affection and tenderness-not Sex or bondage. And just the earlier and later artworks Like a Virgin and Ray of Light, Madonna searched for Eternal Transcendence-and she got it-absolutely touching and heartfelt. That is why Madonna is a superstar-her life was saved by rock & roll-and Love itself. To Madonna, I say amen.

G said...


Vincenzorm said...

Very nice! Can't wait to read about shot of blond ambition live in paris

Rabbitbunny said...

It becomes clear that Blonde Ambition and Girlie show were definite highlights for Lady Madonna-Vogue and Rain may be Madonna's two best songs ever!