On a chilly autumn night, gaffers rig motion-picture lights around the entrance to the Palace Theater, which bears the title “Thriller” on its marquee. A cascade of shrieks—“Michael! Michael!”—drifts on the breeze from a few blocks away, where hundreds of fans strain against police barricades for a glimpse of their idol. Although everyone involved in the production has been sworn to secrecy, word of tonight’s shoot has leaked and been broadcast on local radio. Security guards patrol the set.
Michael Jackson, a shy pixie in a red leather jacket and jeans, stands in shadow in the theater’s entryway, talking with actress Ola Ray and director John Landis. The camera crew is making final preparations for a crane shot that will pan down from the marquee as Jackson and Ray, playing a couple on a date, emerge from the theater. Judging from the saucy looks she is sending his way, Ray is clearly besotted by her leading man, who responds by casually throwing an arm around her shoulders.
I am on set covering the shoot forLife magazine. Landis says that he needs a “ticket girl” in the background and orders me to sit in the booth—a prime spot from which to watch the performances.
Just before calling “Action,” Landis fortifies his actors with boisterous encouragement.
“How are you going to be in this shot?” he shouts.
“Wonderful,” Jackson chirps, barely audibly.
Seconds later Jackson steps into his nimbus of light, and it is as if he flips on an internal switch: he smiles, he glows, he mesmerizes. Landis executes the long crane shot, then moves in for close-ups and dialogue. “It’s only a movie,” Jackson reassures his date. “You were scared, weren’t you?”
Landis calls for another take and coaxes: “Make it sexy this time.”
“How?” asks Jackson.
“You know, as if you want to fuck her.”
The star flinches and licks his lips uncomfortably, then gazes earnestly into Ray’s eyes. Landis gets the shot he wants and calls for the next setup, satisfied. He whispers to me, “I bet it will be sexy.”— The “Thriller” Diaries, Vanity Fair Magazine