“It was all falling apart at the seams”: Inside Guns N’ Roses’ bizarre video trilogy
Released simultaneously on September 17, 1991, the Use Your Illusion albums were, in the quarters housing the band’s many detractors, used as the stick with which to beat Guns N’ Roses. If you wanted a representation of how far the band had lost its way, they said, in the wake of Appetite For Destruction and their ascent from ‘Most Dangerous Band In The World’ to its biggest – if you wanted evidence how bloated and overblown and distracted by ideas above their station this group of punk rock street rats had become – then here across eight sides of vinyl lay the prosecution’s case, your honour.
To that, said Axl Rose, ‘Hold my beer.’ Four years previously, the music video for Welcome To The Jungle had helped break the struggling band. Now, when it came to envisioning three of the albums’ biggest singles in promo format, it would show the world just how all-conquering they were.
“I don’t necessarily know of anyone who’s made a video like it,” the frontman said. No shit.
Filmed and premiered between 1991 and 1993, the ‘Illusion trilogy’ of videos begins with Don’t Cry, kicking off with some kind of historic outlaw Axl stumbling around a frozen wilderness and ending with a green-skinned ‘Demon Axl’ shaking below his own grave. November Rain followed – at the time, reportedly one of the most expensive music videos ever made, and to this day one of rock’s most iconic – with its absurd wedding, that desert-based guitar solo, and a death seemingly caused by a spot of rain, and yet still it’s perhaps the only instalment to make even a degree of sense, kind of, in a way, if you ignore a bunch of bits and then don’t overthink the rest of it. Thank god, then, that Estranged exists to tie up all those dastardly loose end and fill in the cavernous plot holes by utilising dolphins flying out of airplanes, dolphins swimming down the Sunset Strip, Axl being rescued from the ocean by dolphins… loads of dolphins, basically. “The dolphins were to simulate a state of peace, or a state of grace,” Axl attempted to clarify. And who needs answers when you’ve got dolphins!
In total, 24 minutes and 17 seconds of film made the cut across all three videos (an accompanying multi-part ‘making of’ series – each sold separately on VHS, of course – clocked in at nearly three hours long, too). The estimated cost? Somewhere north of $7 million. To put that in perspective, when the trilogy concluded in 1993, the movie Unforgiven won the Oscar for Best Picture; on a dollar-per-minute basis, the Illusion trilogy was nearly three times more expensive.
“It was never really fleshed out,” laughs Andy Morahan, the British director tasked with delivering upon the somewhat-shaky thinking behind all three epics. Based loosely on the short story Without You – written by Axl’s good pal and sometime-Guns-collaborator Del James, and name-checked in the lyrics to Estranged – “It was to do, I guess, with Axl falling in love with a girl, and he was going through personal regressive therapy, whatever that was…” Morahan attempts to recall. “Things that had happened in his past and all that kind of stuff… I couldn’t really begin to explain what it all meant.”
Still, in this previously unpublished archive interview, we asked Andy to try to do exactly that…
Did you come to the project with the ideas already fleshed out?
“Not particularly! It was to do with Axl falling in love with a girl, who is played by [Axl’s then-partner, and model] Stephanie Seymour in Don’t Cry and November Rain – though I don’t think she was the idea for it originally. The videos became an abstract canvas of a few original ideas about Axl’s inner-most thoughts, but really – and I hate to say we ‘lost the plot’ – it just became a bigger canvas as more people got involved.”
Were things changing and evolving as you were shooting?
“It was quite interesting as the band was pretty much in a state of flux anyway. It was at that time where the Use Your Illusion albums had come out, but [guitarist] Izzy Stradlin had left the band, which Axl was very upset about. Izzy had taken himself out of the loop, Axl was getting pretty… cranky about the dynamic of the band and trying to keep the whole thing together, and there were a lot of personal issues going on. The whole thing was a bit fractured. I think the videos, if they are a reflection of anything, show the fractured nature of where the band were at that time. It was all falling apart at the seams. In that sense, the videos are less of a coherent story and more a reflection of the band.”
How did that play out on set?
“It was difficult; I’ve always said they were a bit like vampires. It was very hard to get them to do anything during the day – their hours were from when dusk falls to when the sun rises. Literally, things like that final scene in November Rain, we were filming all night and we had to keep them up just to get a daylight scene the next morning. The dynamic was difficult. I was wrangling not only the creative forces – Axl and Slash at that point – while also having to go and have meetings with the other members of the band to tell them what was going on. I’d have Duff [McKagan, bass] asking, ‘Axl has his big bit, Slash has his big bit, what’s my big bit?’ It was a constant state of juggling everything.
“To go back to the vampire comment, one of the days on November Rain, for instance, they just didn’t turn up [to set] – that was the day we shot the funeral scenes. Axl eventually came once it got dark, which is why you see him by the grave in his cape (at the end of the video) and it’s night time. He’s not in the scene with the priest and the extras. It was constantly trying to keep the whole show on the road. And of course, when things like that happen, the costs escalate, so the videos have these reputations as being the biggest, most expensive videos of the time – which was pretty much accurate! But they didn’t start like that. They just… evolved.”
What was with the dolphins?
“By that time, Axl had split up with Stephanie Seymour, and he was like, ‘I don’t want any more beautiful girls in my videos; I’d rather have a dolphin.’ We knew that we were deliberately doing that so people would go, ‘What’s all that about?!’ There was a sense that it was throwing up a lot more questions than answers, and that suited everybody – it created a myth and intrigue around the whole trilogy.”
Was it fun to work on, in that regard?
“It was fun, but it was bloody hard work. I look back on the things like dolphins flying out of aeroplanes and now, the effects look very unsophisticated… There was also a desire at the time to make things as cutting-edge as possible, and make it wondrous and fantastic and surreal. Axl drove a lot of that; he wanted to be as mysterious and surreal as possible. I think he realised that it made the enigma more powerful.”
Was Axl easy to work with?
“He wasn’t difficult, it just depended on what was going on in his life on that particular day – sometimes he was in the mood for it, sometimes he wasn’t. But he was good fun. The weird thing about Axl is he’s a very shy bloke, very clever and very smart, and he’s very protective and very loyal and he doesn’t give it away too easily.”
What are your favourite scenes?
“There’s a few. In Don’t Cry, my two favourite scenes in that are the car chase with Slash and the girl. I just love the idea of the car crashing into a million pieces and the camera flying up through the wreckage to find Slash playing, which is completely fucking ridiculous. The live footage was shot on top of the Transamerica building [in Los Angeles] – we had two police helicopters flying with their big spotlight beams, and that felt like we were shooting the biggest movie at that time. In November Rain, my favourite scenes are the live stuff in LA’s Orpheum Theater with the huge orchestra. The band were so loud there were rats running out of the theatre! And of course the classic church guitar solo. Estranged, I really liked the stuff on the tanker [at sea]. That was shot in the Gulf Of Mexico, near Galveston; we had rescue helicopters pulling Axl out of the ocean. They all had their moments!”
Slash’s guitar solo in November Rain is perhaps the most iconic moment. Was that difficult to pull off?
“Quite. I wanted to get a little church in the middle of nowhere, and we had lots of location pictures of little white churches all over places like Texas and Arizona. But none of them were isolated enough for me. We ended up going to a film ranch where they shot the movie Young Guns, down in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and they had that shell of the church on a pallet. We dragged that out into the middle of nowhere and put a little white fence around it. We shot for the whole day, five or six cameras – and it amounted to about 30 seconds of footage! It was ridiculous, but it really was an iconic moment.”
And then there is the man diving through the cake…
“That’s Riki Rachtman, who used to do an MTV show late at night. Axl wanted him as a ‘wedding guest’, and when we were shooting it Riki said, ‘I realty want to dive through that cake!’ So we waited until we didn’t need it any more and just let him. The whole thing was very Spinal Tap, but it was that kind of time. Big rock bands had become stadium bands, and it was the end of a particular era of hard rock bands. It reached its peak with those videos.”
Has quite what the hell was going on in the trilogy become clearer over time or more cloudy?
“If I actually sat down and went through every scene, I could probably justify everything in those videos… but I kind of let it go. For me, it was an incredible whirlwind to be in the middle of, and I think the less that’s said about it, the better. People get to make up their own mind as to the meaning of it all. I’ve literally had people saying, ‘I can see the see the symbolism of these things running through all three videos…’ and, you know, I’m not saying anything! You may be right, you may not be… I think the best music videos tend to be surreal and off the wall anyway. In those times we were reinventing the wheel; it was fine to be as big and bombastic as you wanted to be.”
What do you think the trilogy’s legacy is?
“It’s weird – I got a call from someone the other year who was working with [filmmaker] Sofia Coppola, and they asked if I had the storyboards because she really wanted them! I do have them, but I’m not giving them to anybody. I always say you can have a great band, a great video or a great song, but you kind of need all three for anything to be lasting and iconic. They’re not necessarily all of my favourite GN’R songs, but as a combination of music, video and that moment in time, they’re very poignant to where the band were in that time and the cultural history of music videos. Nirvana then came along, and that was all over.“
Looking back one final time: Which is your favourite of the three videos?
“November Rain is my favourite. It’s got everything; Estranged gets a bit too weird with the dolphins, and Don’t Cry is a bit rough around the edges, but November Rain out of all of them feels like more of a soundtrack than the others do.”
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