Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy' Video at 25: Director Mark Pellington Revisits Intense Shoot & Eddie Vedder's 'Possessed' Performance
It was not exactly a recipe for legendary music video success: the director wasn't really a fan of the band, and they'd already shot a moody performance video that they seemed perfectly happy with.
But a weird thing happened on the way to Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" becoming one of the most iconic music videos of all time: Director Mark Pellington locked himself in a room and listened to the intense track from the Seattle band's 1991 debut, Ten, over and over again -- and realized he did have something to say, and that Eddie Vedder and an unknown 12 year-old child star were the perfect vehicles for him to express that with.
The clip, which debuted 25 years ago this week on MTV, helped the album go 13x platinum, while also telling a story that was as emotionally vital for both the band and Pellington. "My producer at the time said he had this Pearl Jam track and I heard it and I said, 'Oh, that's good.' Not, 'Oh my god I have to do it!,'" Pellington tells Billboard about his initial reaction to the potential gig. The producer urged Pellington to really sit down and listen to the track, which was inspired by the true story of Dallas 16-year-old Jeremy Delle, who killed himself in front of his classmates in 1991 after years of torment.
Pellington, then known for directing videos for U2, P.M. Dawn, De La Soul and Crystal Waters -- as well as his work on the pioneering MTV digital pastiche show Buzz -- dug into the lyrics and found that they spoke to him on a level he hadn't initially realized. "I was never really bullied at school, yet I definitely had some 13-14-year-old anxiety and alienation from my parents, and I shared some of that feeling of being a bit misunderstood," recalls Pellington, who was 30 at the time. "Then I spoke to Eddie to see what I could elicit from him, and he poetically and passionately spoke about Jeremy and the true story and what inspired the lyrics."
What the director also immediately got was that telling that story didn't require another performance video from the band, who said they "could be in it or not," depending on what Pellington thought made sense. Another round of listens elicited pages and pages of notes, in which a "fractured" narrative emerged that would have Vedder acting as a kind of commentator, or witness, to the story he was telling.
Frankly, after making performance-based clips for singles "Alive" and "Evenflow," the band was already kind of over appearing on MTV. "They didn't want to make any more videos," says Tom Richmond, Pellington's cinematographer on the shoot. "Eddie didn't like the idea of selling himself to MTV." In fact, Richmond recalls that when Pellington showed Vedder his treatment -- which didn't include the band -- the intense singer was thrilled with that idea.
"It was just the Jeremy story, and it had a big budget for that -- $400,000 -- which was enough to make any video then," Richmond tells Billboard. "Someone at the record company approved that budget completely and said, 'The real story is you have to film the band and put it in your budget, but we're not asking you to guarantee they'll be in it.'" That promise proved to be just the opening Pellington needed to pursue his vision.
With his lengthy treatment in hand, Pellington flew to England for a day to shoot the band on a rented soundstage, where he set up a semicircular dolly track so he could film around Vedder, and bag some footage that would satisfy the label. "The idea was to shoot him, get a few images of the band and then chop them up -- though it ended up being mostly Eddie," the director says, noting that the singer immediately tapped into the emotion he was looking for during the five takes they shot that day.
"I think he probably built it up, but by the second take he was on. He’s a live performer so he didn’t need much direction. I was operating the camera, and he came around with that possessed look," Pellington recalls of the veins-bulging, eye-popping performance from the singer. "I remember I [felt] chills while I was shooting it and editing it."
One of the unseen inspirations Pellington used for the shoot was a film he was working on at the time about his late father's struggle with dementia that left his dad unable to communicate, Fathers Daze. "A lot of things happened when I was younger that I never got to talk him about, and it was an extremely sad and angry time in my life," says Pellington. "Tapping into that anger is never hard."
One way he did that was by discovering unknown 12 year-old star Trevor Wilson, whose ability to channel the lyric's rage and alienation was a vital key to its success. The budding child actor, sick on the day of his audition, stood out among the 200 other would-be Jeremy's, grabbing the eyes of both Pellington and Richmond, who knew they'd found their star the minute they saw Wilson's try out.
"He was sick on his tape, and he didn’t play it like, 'Oh, I’m all angsty,'" Pellington says in a special Billboard feature about the life and death of Wilson. "He was sitting there and I was looking at [his audition tape], and he was kind of dazed and numb and f--ked up. I found out later that he was sick. But he was so expressive, in a non-histrionic way."
The only issue was that Pearl Jam were famous and Wilson was not. "Mark came back from England and said, 'Tom, I'm totally going against my purist thing here, because Eddie blew my mind,'" says Richmond. "'He conjured Jeremy, he became this character.'" Pellington wasn't ready to completely tank his vision to include the electrifying footage of Vedder, but now he was determined to include it somehow. "Up until then we were working on a small movie that was more narrative, more linear -- and the band performance would totally interrupt it," says Richmond of their sudden embarrassment-of-riches dilemma.
"The lighting was dramatic and the way we moved around him felt musical," Pellington says of the PJ footage from England. "Then in the edit where we come to him [Vedder]... [and] he was a storyteller. His eyes have a bit of a beguiling mastery in his performance. I don’t think singers act, they perform. Instead of doing it for an audience where they are outward, they can perform to the camera." In fact, if you watch again, Pellington says Vedder only looks directly into camera once, which was the singer's choice.
As Wilson tells the more external Jeremy story -- running wildly, shirtless, through the woods, painting disturbing portraits, caught between his uncommunicative parents -- Pellington says you begin to understand that Vedder is one and the same with Wilson, his performance mirroring the anger and frustration of the star as the music gets faster, the singer more haunted: "Then you see the kid in the forest, he’s shaking, the camera is shaking and he’s possessed by the same spirit."
"Jeremy" went on to win four MTV Video Music Awards in 1993, including Video of the Year and former MTV news reporter John Norris remembers how important it was at the time. "After the live videos for 'Even Flow' and 'Alive,' people loved that this was the first proper video from them," says Norris, who recalls that "Jeremy" spent months on the charts of his pre-TRL-style countdown show, Hangin' with MTV. "Then they went into anti-video mode for a while."
The group didn't make another video for six years after "Jeremy," and going back for a fresh look in 2017, Norris says it holds up remarkably well. "Some things are a bit heavy handed," he says of the dramatic montage of newspaper headlines and words that flash on the screen in the intro to the clip. "But so much of the rest of it seems so artfully done. I'd forgotten Eddie's face and how much he channels that psychotic look."
Pellington has gone on to an acclaimed career as a film director (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, I Melt With You), as he's continued to make cinematic music videos for the likes of Linkin Park, Cage the Elephant, Demi Lovato and the Foo Fighters. But when people stop him on the street, it's almost always because of "Jeremy."
"People don't come up to me and say, 'that P.M. Dawn video stayed with me,'" he laughs. "But if I'm on the street or in the airport strangers will recognize me and say, 'Hey, I love 'Jeremy!,'' way more than others. It spoke to me then and to everybody who was a kid then, whether they were 5 or 25."
Asked if he feels it holds up as a piece of art 25 years later, the answer is simple. "Absolutely. It's just one of those things. I can watch it and the song still does it to me. I'm 55 now, and a month ago I was driving around L.A. and I heard the song again and I was like, 'That f---king song is incredible!'"
Watch the "Jeremy" video: