In the last issue I recounted my brutal awakening to the realities of being the on-set photographer on a low-budget movie shot in the wintertime in Chicago. You can read the serialized story of my meandering career path starting in issue 25, or just jump in right here. All you really need to know is that I’d wrongly assumed that being a film set photographer was my dream career, but after getting a taste of what it was really like, I realized I was no more suited for that work than I was for dentistry. I found I was not someone who wanted to lurk in the shadows of the crew and equipment, trying to stay out of everyone’s way, while documenting take after take. I also discovered there are really only a few jobs on a set that interested and engaged me: director, lead actor, cinematographer, and maybe production designer. Of course every job on a set is essential to making a good film (try making a good film with a bad sound guy, for example), but the creative decision makers – the storytellers – were a very small and exclusive circle in the center of the scrum, and I did not want to be anywhere else. I knew I wanted to make portraits, direct actors, and tell stories.
I knew this because I was determined to make portraits of the actors in the films I was working on at every chance I had. As a still photographer, I saw how much time actors often have between takes, so I’d bring in extra lights and equipment and set up elaborate portraits in the hopes of cajoling James Earl Jones, Susan Sarandon or Samuel L. Jackson into sitting for a session with me. I can’t tell you how many times I spent hours setting up and testing my ideas, only to have the actor tell me that now was not a good time. But I was persistent, and I had a captive audience; the actors were on the set for weeks at a time, and early on, I adopted a “kill ‘em with kindness” strategy. Eventually, most promised they’d do a shoot with me, and kept their word. It worked like this: if we were in an interesting location, I’d wander around at the beginning of the day to find a place where I could set up. I remember being on a Los Angeles shoot for a film called Loaded Weapon where there was a cool loft space that was being used for catering. I lit the room, gelled all the windows in a weird color (this was the early nineties), and talked the art department into loaning me a gothic-style chair. I made Polaroids and dialed in my lighting, and then I had to remove it all so the crew could have lunch. After lunch, I reset everything, and asked Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame) if I could borrow him for ten minutes. He obliged, and I led him to my set. To my horror, I found the director, the cinematographer, the production designer and the producer standing right in the middle of my setup. They were thinking about using the room for their next shot! Luckily, the cinematographer, Peter Deming, was aware of my little side business, and he managed to carve out 15 minutes for me. I sat Tim down, made a picture, and quickly got my stuff out of there. (Incidentally, that picture remained in my portfolio for the next five years, and was always a hit with magazine photo editors.)
And yes, dear readers, I was shamefully neglecting my actual duties as the unit photographer while trying to build a portfolio. On days like the one described, I endeavored to swoop in at the last minute to capture the pictures of the actors on set that I was hired to take, often with embarrassing consequences. Since I’d neglected to watch rehearsal, it wasn’t uncommon for me to set up in a spot I thought was safe, only to be shocked that when action was called, the camera was going to turn 90 degrees and come right towards me! Once, I popped in late to a scene with a big car explosion. I hadn’t seen rehearsal, but was certain that it would be shot MOS (meaning it would be filmed without recording sound). Most explosions are shot MOS, which I loved, because it meant I could take my camera out of my blimp (a large, unwieldy box that muffled my camera’s shutter noise so I could take pictures while sound was rolling). The blimp was a beast to work with – imagine trying to lace up your boots with winter gloves on and you have a pretty good idea of the encumbrance factor. So I sat by the camera, put in my earplugs, and waited for action. The car blew up spectacularly in the background as Emilio Estevez and Sam Jackson walked towards the camera. I just kept my finger on the motor drive, creating my own six-frames-a-second soundtrack of loud clicking noise. Strangely enough, Emilio and Sam were doing a lot of talking as they walked toward camera as the car continued to burn in the background. The director yelled cut, and I immediately had the soundman in my face. “What were you doing?!? I could hear your camera over all the dialog!” Apparently, this was one of those scenes where things blow up and people talk at the same time. Oops. Problem was, they didn’t have another brown and yellow station wagon to blow up, so that was that. I had ruined the take, and I felt terrible. Much later, I would learn about looping and realize it probably wasn’t that big of a deal to re-record the dialog, but I’d certainly lost any chance I had of being employee of the month.
It was becoming apparent that the job I wanted was getting in the way of the job I had, and that was a valuable early lesson. Somehow I listened to the voice in my head telling me once again that I needed to take yet another path towards finding myself as an artist.
Lizzy Caplan has made her own share of course corrections throughout her career. Relegated early on to roles as the cute, quirky sidekick “in obscure comedies that didn’t last more than one season,” she tried hard to bring truth and depth to her work, only to find it made her more difficult to cast. She altered her approach and appearance significantly to portray the dark, rebellious Janis in Mean Girls, won rave reviews – and didn’t work for the next year. By the time Masters of Sex came along, she was convinced she’d never get a serious dramatic part; so much so that when she landed the role of Virginia Johnson, she thought some mistake had been made. There was no mistake. Caplan found the role of a lifetime, portraying a complex woman caught in the middle of burgeoning 1950s feminism, science, experimentation and sexism. Funny (or not) how things haven’t changed much. Perhaps that’s why she lends her character such moving honesty and why a “period piece” continues to resonate after three seasons – and, we hope, many more to come.
– Sam Jones, July 2015