The first time I met Erika Spawn on the hottest day of the year in the summer of 2005. We were scheduled to shoot a video for her track Needles, which was third single from her second album, in a tiny green screen studio in the shittiest part of West London. Granted, Erika wasn’t a star by then, but I was still somewhat stunned that her label wouldn’t spring for a more expensive studio or, to be frank, a higher profile director than me. Over the next few years, I’d go on to make a handful of cult movies which would at least establish me as a safe pair of hands. At this point, however, all I’d shot was my debut flick, Trashhouse, and that hadn’t even been released on DVD yet. When I was offered the gig for the Needles shoot, I was just told that Erika had seen the TrashHouse trailer online and had thought it was funny. I wasn’t going to turn down any paying gig whatsoever at that point, so I didn’t ask any questions. I just showed up.
Well, at least, I just tried to. The studio was the hardest place to fucking find that I’ve ever been late getting to in my life. Pip was behind the wheel, turning corner after corner cursing my navigational skills as I led her from dead end road to one-way street. By the time we finally got there we were both frazzled and spent, convince that we’d walk in to find a pissed-off production team and an Erika at the end of her tether. We thought we’d probably get fired. We made our way across the baking forecourt, the sun bleaching our hair and reddening our skin with every second that we exposed ourselves to it. As it turned out, we were the first ones there.
Erika finally turned up four hours later. In a full length fur coat.
The shoot’s nominal producer was Eddie Meachum, Erika’s manager. Quite how he considered that being her manager meant that he was going to be a competent producer for a music video shoot I have absolutely no idea. Pip (who was officially only there as my ‘assistant’ on this case) ended up pulling so much of Eddie’s slack that when she actually came to produce a music video herself a couple of years later (the Rocky-themed video for Jim Bob’s Battling the Bottle) she’d already had all the practice that she needed and could probably have done the whole thing with her eyes shut. That’s no offence to Eddie there; he’d tell you the same thing himself. I liked the guy then, and still do actually. There aren’t all that many people that I met in the course of this story that I’d actively choose to stay in touch with, but Eddie’s one of them. Doesn’t change the fact that the guy couldn’t produce worth shit, and I was a first time director as far as music videos were concerned. So neither of us were particularly able to rein Erika in. She’s very much the unstoppable force, and neither of us were an immovable object.
The video ended up more unpleasant than it was intended to be, which made things even more difficult when it came to getting it played. I was going to stick an embed of it on here, but it looks like they’ve all been blitzed off the ‘net, so you’ll have to content yourselves with a fan-made Dying Bride video up at the top of the page. If you’re still massively curious about the Needles video, there’s an extract from it in the final cut of The Devil’s Music. Oh, and here is the only photo in existence (as far as I know) of me and Erika Spawn in the same room. Snapped on the very day I’ve been talking about.
We’d always planned the rubber lingerie and the surgeon tools, but the original concept was for the whole video to be POV from the patient’s viewpoint. Here’s the rough breakdown from the storyboards I’d been emailed.
1. POV from patient’s perspective strapped to trolley. Empty room.
2. POV of Erika entering room. She’s wearing a rubber outfit with stockings and suspenders and a spiked collar.
3. POV as Erika sings to patient (ie. Straight to camera)
4. POV as Erika produces tray of vicious-looking surgical equipment.
5. POV surgery – Erika pulls entrails and organs out of the unseen patient.
6. POV slow, slow fade to black.
The idea was that the video would feel horrible, but that we wouldn’t actually need to show any of the graphic stuff (scalpels cutting flesh, and so on) by sticking firmly to the POV, so we’d get away with post-watershed on the only music channels that would actually be interested in showing us anyway. By the time Erika arrived, got done with hair and makeup and turned up on our tiny little stage in her rubber outfit, it would ordinarily have been about time to break for lunch. Pip made murmurs in this direction, which Erika firmly cast aside with an ‘I already ate. Let’s shoot this thing’.
So, we shot. For about an hour. After which time, Erika was starting to get into it. She was stalking around the stage, growling the lyrics straight into the camera in time to the guide track which was booming around the little studio. I was just about to call for another take when she brightly asked;
‘So, where’s the chick?’
‘The chick I’m cutting?’
‘Oh, we’re sticking to the Point of View shot, so you’re never gonna need to see them.’
‘No, no, no. I mean, the chick I’m cutting up.’
‘I thought we were going to..’
She smiled abruptly and turned to Eddie.
‘Eddie, get us a girl down here. This guy hasn’t got us someone for me to cut. Not Carol, someone different, maybe a blonde. You know the score.’
Eddie gave a quick salute, and within an hour we had a wriggling glamour model strapped to the operating table. I filmed her in decidedly non-POV shots, as Erika prodded at her with a rubber scalpel and the fake blood flowed. As you’ll know if you’ve seen the video, the POV stuff kind of goes out the window after the first minute. It’s cheerfully horrible, but not exactly psychological horror.
And that was pretty much it as far as drama went. It was a cheap, two day shoot that ended up rather bloodier than expected. It was a fun little side project which was barely seen by anybody until two years later, when anything remotely connected to Erika immediately became hot property. The YouTube hits for it are pushing three million now. Erika and I didn’t argue, didn’t have some blow-up. I was a rookie director who needed the money, why the hell would I argue with the star of the show?
The last time I met Erika Spawn was at the first showing of the completed video, which took place in a small room in the offices of her record label about six weeks later. We watched the completed video, gave each other a hug and promised to work again together in the future. Standard Operational Bullshit, obviously never see each other again.
I should probably mention Erika’s accent. As you probably know from footage that you may have seen of her, it ping-pongs around all over the place. People’s take on this seems to differ depending on how benignly they look upon Erika. Fans claim that she’d lived in so many places throughout her life that she’d picked up different inflections on the road, and that her accent was a kind of cultural gumbo reflecting a varied upbringing. Her critics claimed that the thing was an affectation that she never quite mastered, like she was shooting for a broad New York accent but fucked up and always had to live with her mistake when in public or be exposed as a fraud. Personally, I believe that Erika spent her whole life pretending to be different things to different people. In researching her life, I found that she did indeed spend time in a fair few places growing up, but I don’t believe that she picked up those inflections naturally. I think she’d fake it wherever she was. In London, she’d fake RP. If she was in Australia, she’d affect an Aussie drawl. And the whole lot just bled together. I’m not sure there was ever actually an accent that was hers to begin with, just the residue of a whole bunch of different fake voices that she’d put on. So many different fake voices that the genuine voice never had a chance to properly develop.
Erika loved fake stuff, and I think she would have genuinely regarded that as a triumph rather than a tragedy. Fake voices, fake nails, but, above all, fake bloodshed. Even in the two days that I spent in her company, it was obvious that Erika had not only a deep love of, but also a borderline compulsion towards, any kind of make-believe horror or gore. This was matched only by a mirroring sense of revulsion towards any kind of real-life brutality. She would be repelled by images of war or violence in the papers, yet would think nothing of pretending to gut and dissect a struggling glamour model in one of her music videos. It was pantomime, and she loved it for that reason.
This is why, when the violence and the bloodshed turned very, very real in the summer of 2007, I simply couldn’t get Erika Spawn out of my head. I couldn’t reconcile the images that the papers were reprinting day after day with the woman I’d seen recoiling from a tabloid because it contained a photo of an old lady bruised from a mugging. I simply couldn’t understand how Erika could get from the messy Grand-Guignol ridiculousness of the Needles promo to that notorious eight minutes of shaky video referred to by baying red-tops as ‘The Torture Footage’ in just two years.
The Erika Spawn phenomenon went from being a fun little goth metal band with some killer tunes and gross-out stage show, to being one of the darkest news stories of the decade with a genuine body count.
And I decided, rather foolishly, that I was going to find out why.
PS. I might continue telling this tale. I might not. It’s not something I talk about much, and the only reason that it’s back on my mind is because I’ve been asked to look back at The Devil’s Music ahead of the upcoming re-release via Cine du Monde. It’s weird thinking about it all again. For more information about my movies, why not check out the live show “Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws” embedded at the bottom of this blog entry? It hasn’t got much about Erika, but it’s got blood, boobs and bad language so I’m sure she’d approve. Wherever she is.