‘Flip’ On Bette’s DVD
Q & A With Steve Lippman aka Flip, Director of “Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook” Dual Disc Edition
Contributors: Don Bradshaw (Mister D) & James Matthews
Mister D: Welcome to Bootleg Betty! Should I call you Steve, Mr. Lippman, or FLIP?
Flip: Some of my friends call me Steve. Bill collectors and phone solicitors call me Mr. Lippman. Someone I love calls me Steven. Colleagues and other friends call me FLIP. You decide.
Mister D: Well, Steven, I’m flattered, but I think I’ll just call you FLIP! Did you know that you’re my first interview subject?
Flip: That sounds both clinical and virginal. In any event, I promise to be somewhat gentle.
Mister D: Oh my, you’re a smooth operator, but enough of this silly repartee! Tell me, how did you first become involved in Dual Disc production?
Flip: Chicken or the egg. It’s more like how Dual Disc production became involved with me. I’d been conceiving and directing music short films, mostly for Nonesuch Records, that didn’t fit any traditional form or length. I got to work with such adventurous artists as Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Sam Phillips and others. The films were successful on the “art” circuit ”“ film festivals, gallery showings, and some have been broadcast on IFC (Independent Film Channel.) When pursuing projects outside of Nonesuch, the question from record companies was generally, ‘what the hell would we do with these?’ and then Dual Disc came along, and suddenly there was a commercial outlet. David Bowie’s ‘Reality’ was my first work commissioned directly for Dual Disc, and that established my relationship with Sony Music, who has committed aggressively to the format.
Mister D: Please describe to the readers of Bootleg Betty in a nutshell, what it is you do?
Flip: I get to be in the same room with great artists and not have to buy a ticket to get in. Metaphorically, I operate heavy machinery under the influence. Don’t try this at home, even though I do. Basically, I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and luckily people think I have the talent to back it up. Good thing, because I’m too stubborn to do anything else. In short, I’m a filmmaker who loves what he does.
Mister D: As you stated earlier in the interview, you have worked with an eclectic group of artists: David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, k.d. lang, Julia Fordham, The Manhattan Transfer, Duncan Sheik, Janis Siegel, Joe Henry, Peter Gallagher, and Jane Monheit…and now you have added to your resume my all time favorite of everything, Bette Midler, for her new tribute CD/Dual Disc, ‘Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook.’ Were you very familiar with Ms. Midler’s career before this? And, more importantly, how did this collaboration come about?
Flip: First answer. Duh. Second. I was asked by the good folks at Bette’s label, Sony/Columbia, I suspect because I’d pursued with them possible work with Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon respectively, and when neither panned out, they figured I’d want to work with Bette by, er, let’s say natural assumption. I was happy to embrace the cliche in this particular case. In actuality, had it been someone else like (insert your guess here) I might have presented a doctor’s note excusing me from gym.
Mister D: LOL! Whose idea was it to film the Dual Disc at Capital Records, Studio A, where Ms. Lee recorded most of her famous songs?
Flip: It was pre-determined when they offered me the gig. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but it certainly felt like the right place to do it. It was humbling to think of the vocalists that recorded in that room ”“ Sinatra, Nat King Cole, June Christy, Nancy Wilson, Dean Martin, Judy Garland. Just amazing. On the day we were filming Bette, Eric Clapton was recording in the adjacent studio, and in another, they were mixing an Anita Baker album. The spirit lives on.
Mister D: Did this environment influence the song choices, Ms. Midler’s attire, hair, make-up, the lighting, etc, for the DVD? Please elaborate.
Flip: I didn’t choose the songs, but I do think they’re a good sampling to represent the whole album. I’m not sure I’d have picked others over these. There were some last minute decisions, but we went in prepared to film anything at a moment’s notice, with the exception of the duet. Really, the environment would have worked for any of the cuts on the CD. My thought was there are only a handful of singers who can hold a frame, and sustain the viewer’s interest with such intensity and empathy. Bette Midler is one of them. She’s naturally compelling.
As for the rest of your question, it was about making her look casual and great without interfering with the natural feel of the performances. We weren’t putting on a ‘show.’ While I’ve always been a fan of Bette’s music, I think her big pop hits may have eclipsed people’s recollection of what a varied and effective interpretive singer she can be. I think she’s great when she does the blues or swings lightly. And I especially love her in the storyteller/chanteuse mode. Album cuts like ‘Am I Blue,’ ‘Surabaya Johnny,’ ‘Millworker,”P.S. I Love You’ and ‘I Sold My Heart to the Junkman’ come to mind. I love that stuff and I was excited to capture some of these qualities on-screen.
Mister D: Wow, you do know her stuff! I loved what you did stylistically. Bette is dressed rather demurely in black; the background made up of empty microphone and music stands with splashes of red and blue depending on which video we’re looking at. Is there a name or explanation for this style of filmmaking or should I just stamp the word ‘ignorant’ on my forehead! For some reason, the word ‘retro’ or ‘beat’ comes to mind. Can you elaborate? (I feel like I’m starting to sound like Jiminy Glick!)
Flip: I wanted it to feel timeless, evocative and stylish without clutter. And I wanted it to feel personal and immediate because I think that reflects what Bette brings to the songs. p.s. If you were Jiminy Glick, I’d have done this interview in person.
Mister D: Ouch! That hurt 🙁 Well, then, how many sessions did it take to film the 4 main video performances? Did some of these performances take noticeably more time? Why?
Flip: We filmed all the songs in one day. Some took more takes than others, but not for any reason other than affording us choices in the edit. That, and I was enjoying the free concert.
Mister D: Wow! I thought something like that took days! So, did you have any input as to what songs were to be filmed at all?
Flip: I conveyed my suggestions somewhere along the way, but ultimately it was Bette’s decision.
Mister D: Did you get the impression that Bette felt restrained at all being filmed alone in a studio as opposed to the type of environment where she could bounce off the energy of an audience, so to speak?
Flip: That’s an interesting question. My impression was that if she was restrained it was not a hindrance as the word might imply, but it was an aesthetic choice out of respect to Peggy Lee, striking a balance between her style and Miss Lee’s. What Bette mentions in the Dual Disc interview also applies to her on-screen performances – she approached this as an actress, as much as she did as a singer, and this material isn’t ‘big’ and out there. Even so, it was fascinating to see the differences between takes when editing.
As far as the energy, she modulated the performances for the camera as opposed to playing to the rafters at Madison Square Garden. Still, the on-set crew, which I kept to a minimum, broke into genuine applause at the end of each take. Trust me, film crews are mostly a been-there-done-that bunch.
Their response was genuine with a lot of love in the room. Maybe too much love. A couple of the guys on the crew said they had the hots for her. Honest. I never told her that. I hope she reads this. It’s true.
Mister D: Oh, lordy, I know I would! Did you give Bette any specific direction for a song or did you just let her do her thing?
Flip: Once or twice I’d point out when certain gestures or looks might not be registering effectively. Otherwise, it’s about getting out of the way, putting the camera in the right place and letting her do her thing. It made my job quite pleasurable.
Mister D: Of course, the killer performance for me was ‘Is That All There Is?’ which is much different than the CD version, darker, sadder, and heartbreaking. I’ll admit it, I cry every time I watch it. I think it is classic Midler and ranks up there with her best performances. How the hell did this performance come about? Was it planned? Did it just happen while the cameras were rolling? Did she have a particularly sad day that paid off in spades? How many takes were there? (Sorry, I’m Glicking again!)
Flip: Wow. So many questions for one song. First of all, I’m happy to be associated with anything referred to as ‘classic Midler’ but can’t take credit for what Bette did with it. I could only create the atmosphere that allowed her to feel comfortable enough to do it.
That performance was one of, I think, five takes. Each one had its own distinct merits or varied readings, but this one was so moving, I couldn’t imagine not using it, and thankfully everyone else agreed. No, it wasn’t planned. It was just a great actress digging deep and getting lost in the rich text of the song. It was so intense that at the end, what looks like a freeze frame is actually Bette holding completely still, lost in the hushed moment before I called ‘cut.’
As far as having a sad day, there were some problems with the catering, so maybe she was hungry and thought, ‘if I give this classic performance, and then maybe someone will get me something to eat.’
Mister D: LOL! Well, now we know what needs to be done to win Bette that Oscar. NO MORE CATERING!!!!! : -) Okay, I’m putting my serious face back on. Another favorite of mine was ‘The Folks Who Live On The Hill.’ Absolutely touching! This particular piece moved me in so many ways. How many hours of Ms. Lee’s home video footage did you have to go through to get what you needed for this beautiful montage?
Flip: It was about 4 hours of unedited footage. I felt almost voyeuristic watching at first. Then I couldn’t get enough. I guess that makes me a pervert for this stuff. It’s a window into a world long gone. Beautiful and melancholic at the same time. I can’t say enough about how privileged and moved I felt to be entrusted with the material by Nicki and Holly (Peggy Lee’s daughter and granddaughter.)
Mister D: Can you tell my readers a little about the process of fitting the footage to the song?
Flip: I just wanted to convey the themes of the song, and honor Peggy Lee, and Bette’s touching interpretation. It all started with finding that sequence of Peggy Lee opening the gift of the white fur coat. That just floored everyone.
Mister D: What is the significance of the painting at the end of that video?
Flip: It was this odd random image in the home movies that seemed like an appropriate end to the sequence. I just liked the solitude of this painting of a lone building on the landscape. On close inspection, it’s a church, but on first impression, it looks like a house. Maybe it’s both. Most of my other film work is very abstract and impressionistic, so maybe this was my one moment of artistic selfishness.
Mister D: Well, I just loved it. What were your criteria for picking the images of Ms. Lee for the DVD?
Flip: As long as they conveyed themes of happiness, intimacy, glamour, love, and family, they were considered. It was an embarrassment of riches.
Mister D: Did Bette view any of the Peggy Lee footage before recording/filming any of her sessions?
Flip: No. Afterward.
Mister D: Did Bette have any involvement in choosing any of the Peggy Lee footage used?
Flip: She offered comments on what I showed her during the editing process, and it was her and album executive producer Jay Landers’ suggestion that we also include images of Miss Lee in her glam performance mode to give contrast to the candid home movie footage.
Mister D: Was there a reason that some of the interviews were edited into the music videos? Not complaining, just asking! Okay, complaining just a little!
Flip: To quote Bette quoting Belle Barth, “Shut your hole, mine’s making money.”
These weren’t conceived as music videos, but as performances that would flow with the other elements to make one cohesive piece. Really, the interviews only cover some instrumental intros and breaks. Do you really want to see Bette snapping her fingers for an eternity while waiting for ‘Fever’ to kick in? And since to my knowledge, she doesn’t play the clarinet, it might have been odd to see her just stand there during the solo in ‘He’s A Tramp.’ And if you listen closely to ‘I’m A Woman,’ we opened up the song in the edit by repeating the first verse in instrumental form, underscoring Bette’s opening statements. We then pick up where the song left off, so the complete vocal performance of the song is intact. Hmm. This sounds a tad too defensive and bitchy, but go ahead and print it anyhow.
Mister D: Geez, you’re really testy today! I’m sorry, now I’m channeling Chris Matthews and going all hardball! Would you want to be interviewed in person by him all night? Didn’t think so!
FLIP: I don’t know who Chris Matthews is.
Mister D: Then you’ve lived a quiet, peaceful life! So, what were your impressions of working with Ms. Midler?
Flip: Compassionate, focused, generous, curious and fiercely intelligent.
Mister D: Can you draw some comparisons between others you have worked with and Ms. Midler? Everybody has their own style.
Flip: Everyone I’ve worked with is singular, though they’ve all shared the same qualities. That is, to collaborate to make the most effective and emotionally honest work possible. These projects start from the music first, and I’m fortunate enough to add another layer to that experience for the listener/viewer. Each artist carries their own unique stories and legacy. I respect that, but also approach them fresh and try not be immersed in their past. While I am thoroughly knowledgeable about their careers and work, it’s about conveying the present. I’m very lucky to have experienced each in that ‘same, but different’ way.
Mister D: Okay, now I’m really excited! Here’s my Barbara Walter’s impression. Flip, what is the future of the Dual Disc?
Flip: I don]t have a crystal ball, but I can only suggest to anyone reading to keep buying them when there’s the option. Support quality content, in both music and video. Post glowing reviews on Amazon. And write to every label and tell them you want Flip to direct all future Dual Disc projects. I’ll take it from there.
Mister D: I’m certainly on board, Flip! We all know in this day and age that CD’s allow an artist to put in excess of more than 50 -70 minutes of music. However, in some cases, as in Ms. Midler’s latest CD (which is app. 33 minutes), they chose to limit the quantity of music to much less. Personally, I listen to a CD and it really never crosses my mind as to the length of it (unless it’s boring the hell out of me), but more, important as to whether I enjoyed it. However, others seem to get really perturbed about it. Is this an artistic decision made by the artist or producer? A financial one? Do other factors come into play? Can you give some insight into this and maybe your own personal views on the subject matter? I would love you to share your thoughts with my readers.
Flip: I’ve read a lot of the Amazon reviews, and I’m bewildered by all the wailing about album length. Music isn’t sold by the pound. I understand the complaint if it’s a compilation or hits anthology, but an original album should be as long (or short) as it needs to be.
Some of the greatest albums ever, The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul,’ Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue,’ Aretha Franklin’s ‘Lady Soul,’ Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty in Memphis,’ The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ to name a few, clock in at 30ish minutes. And more specific to the vocal genre that Bette is honoring, you can look at the average running time of any enduring LP from Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney and others from the 50s and 60s and they are similar in length to Bette’s ‘Songbook’ tributes. CDs offer 80 minutes of data storage, but not necessarily 80 minutes of great sustained music. I can name several recent albums by talented artists that would have benefited greatly from losing 20-30 minutes. The value of music is in the quality. Period.
Mister D: Very well said. And what may your next project be?
Flip: A film for Rosanne Cash’s forthcoming CD ‘Black Cadillac.’ It’s a great album coming out in January 2006. And hopefully, when and if Bette Midler records her Laura Nyro tribute, as she’s alluded to, I’ll get another call. The idea of her singing Laura Nyro songs makes me delirious.
Mister D: Oh, I would love that, but you know, Bette ‘alludes’ a lot! Well, Flip, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk to me and my fellow readers. It’s been quite a pleasure!
To learn more about Director Steve Lippman check out his official website: www.stevelippman.com
If any of you have any comments that you would like to address to Mr. Lippman, then please write me and I will forward them to him. And if you have any comments you’d like to address towards me, please be kind! After all, this was my first time! 🙂