Five issues ago, I started a serialized telling of my early foibles and fortuities on the way to finding myself as an artist. If you want to read it from the beginning, pick up issue 25. In the most recent issue I told the story of meeting one of my first mentors, Jean Lepine. He was the director of photography on the film Bob Roberts, my first film as a unit photographer. My job was to make pictures of every scene in the movie as well as behind the scenes photos of the actors and director to be used for marketing and publicity. As the job progressed, I became more and more interested in lighting, portraiture and setting up shoots with the actors. I realize now I was beginning a career pattern that I continue to repeat to this day, which is to find a different job within the job I’m hired to do.
Once again, luck played a significant part in my early education in artist portraiture. Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in Bob Roberts, and since it was his first feature, he was loading it up with cameos by all of his friends and family in the film business: Gore Vidal, Susan Sarandon, Jack Black, John Cusack, James Spader, Fred Gallagher, Alan Rickman, David Strathairn, Helen Hunt and Bob Balaban. I realized that if I could just get these actors to give me a little bit of time for a portrait, I could come away from this job with a pretty good portfolio of images. So like every good aspiring artist, I lied a little. I would approach each actor and tell them that a portrait was needed for insertion in a later scene of the film. It wasn’t a total lie – I got the idea when I was asked to photograph John Cusack, who played himself in the film. He was in a scene as the host of a Saturday Night Live-type program, and the producers wanted me to shoot a portrait of John that could be used as the show promo within the movie. I decided that I could use that excuse with all the actors.
I convinced Gore Vidal that I should make his portrait, and he agreed to a time the next day. I found a location near the set and began figuring out my lighting. I rented a set of lights from a camera house in Pittsburgh and started experimenting. Gore was gracious, and gave me all of the time I needed. I can imagine now how it must have looked from his side of the camera; at age 24 I looked 16, I didn’t have a photo assistant or any experience with lights, so it must have felt like amateur hour to him. But I made my portrait, with medium format chrome slide film, no less. (There is no margin for error with chrome, you either nail the exposure or you don’t have a picture.)
When I got the film back a few days later, I was so proud of the work. There was Gore Vidal, a major American author, posing for my camera. I pulled Jean Lepine aside and had him look at the pictures on a light table. He studied them for a while and pointed to Gore’s eye socket. “You did a pretty nice job with the ratios, but your key light is just a little too high. See the shadow under his eyebrows? If your key light was just a bit lower we could see into his eyes more clearly, and read his expression.” I examined the picture again, and saw what he meant. It was such an amazing lesson: light helps tell a story. It’s obvious, but often overlooked. Light can shape and translate emotion. I immediately extrapolated that if I made the key light a lot higher, I could create deep shadows in his eye sockets and mask his expression, and that would tell a different story. But where my light was positioned was in sort of a no-man’s land – it didn’t have a strong point of view either way.
It’s always such an incredible moment when, as an artist, you get instruction that immediately translates and makes sense. Jean’s few observations had such a big impact on my desire to someday become a master of light. I realized that I was just beginning my education as a photographer, and that I had so much to learn.
As the weeks flew by on Bob Roberts (and it seemed like time really did fly; I was so overwhelmed with energy and excitement everyday I was at work), I made as many portraits of actors as I could, using whatever location was handy. I became close with everyone on the set, and because of my real world experience as a photojournalist, was often called upon by Tim for advice on how to make a press conference scene more authentic. I remember watching Tim rehearse a scene where reporters were asking a police commissioner questions, and it seemed stilted and formal. I pulled Tim aside and said, “In real life the commissioner would know all these reporters by their first names, and the atmosphere would be way less formal.” Tim immediately changed the scene, and I was pleased as punch to be a part, at least for a moment, of the directing process.
Looking back, I realize now how unique that film was in terms of the camaraderie and collaboration. It was not only my first movie, but it was Tim’s first movie as a director, and a lot of the actors’ first movie as well (Jack Black, to name one). It had a “let’s put on a show” energy that was contagious and made everyone work hard for the greater good of the film. I was soon to get the rude awakening that not all sets were like Bob Roberts, and not all DPs were like Jean Lepine.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing this issue’s cover subject, Jennifer Beals, for several years, and she embodies the same spirit I found all those years ago on the set of Bob Roberts. Jennifer is always the first person to say, “Let’s try it,” or, “I’m in.” She constantly tries to challenge herself, better herself, or learn something new. She is not afraid to stand up for her opinions and beliefs, even if they are unpopular. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and her will is strong. I wish I could tell you more, but she is also an intensely private person who doesn’t believe that just because she is famous, she has to share every part of her life with the world. Suffice to say my life has been enriched by knowing her, and I think our conversation not only reflects my admiration for the way she lives her life, but also shows a side of her not often revealed to the public. I am proud to be her friend, and honored that she chose to go Off Camera with me.
– Sam Jones, June 2015