I suppose I should tell you about the time I got fired. I’ve thus far failed to mention it in the serialized tale of my photography career that I began in issue 25. Start there if you want to read the whole story; otherwise, let’s jump in at the summer of 1993. I was once again employed as a unit photographer by New Line Cinema, this time on a film called Loaded Weapon, a spoof of the movie Lethal Weapon starring Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson. While documenting day-to-day production of the film (the job I was hired to do) I’d continued my practice of surreptitiously making elaborate celebrity portraits of all its actors.
By this point I knew unit photography wasn’t for me, and was contemplating cutting the cord to go strictly freelance. Though I technically worked for myself, I’d always had a steady job, first as a contract photographer for the Associated Press, and then as a movie set photographer. But I longed to peddle my portfolio door to door in New York, following in the footsteps of editorial magazine photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, and Peggy Sirota. I’d amassed a pretty decent collection of actor and musician portraits during my time at the AP and on film sets; now I just needed magazine photo editors to see me as an editorial portrait photographer.
Meanwhile, back on the set of Loaded Weapon, I’d figured out that the real money was earned by photographers who shot movie posters, and I’d been bugging New Line’s photography director Helene Steele to let me shoot the Loaded Weapon poster. I remember a meeting in her office where she told me that I’d certainly earned it, and that she’d like to give me a shot, but it wasn’t entirely up to her – it was ultimately the actors’ call. I walked away figuring all I had to do was get a few of the actors on my side, and I’d have the job, which, incidentally, paid more than my salary on the film. I’d become chummy with Sam Jackson and Emilio Estevez, so I began dropping hints. “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I shot the poster, too, since you guys already are so familiar with me being in your face with a camera?” They seemed receptive, so much so that Helene asked me to put together a budget. In hindsight, my budget was low – low enough to illustrate perfectly that I had no idea what a film poster budget was supposed to entail. But I was so certain the job was mine that I bragged to my parents and friends about the unprecedented leap I’d made in status and pay. My career was minutes away from skyrocketing. Ah, youth.
The next day I got a call from Helene letting me know that Bonnie Schiffman, not I, would be shooting the poster for Loaded Weapon. I was devastated. Bonnie was a big-time editorial and commercial photographer. When I pressed Helene, she revealed it was Estevez who’d requested Bonnie. I couldn’t believe it! The traitor! Like Brutus in Julius Caesar, Estevez had not only betrayed me, but robbed me of my certain fame and fortune.
I stewed all morning on set, formulating a plan that anyone with an ounce of perspective would’ve known was just plain dumb. I took Estevez’ choice as a personal slight, not stopping to consider I was likely never even in the running in the first place; he probably never even thought of me when they asked who he wanted to shoot the poster. But my honor was at stake, and damned if I was going to take it lying down. I needed to confront Estevez and let him know I wasn’t someone who could be pushed around! Right.
Let me set the scene. We were shooting on a drugstore set, and I was waiting for my moment to pull Estevez aside and give him a piece of my mind. Keep in mind he’s maybe 5’4” inches tall, and I am a 6’2” ball of nervous energy. “Hey Emilio, can I talk to you for a second?” He obliges, his face betraying none of the guilt I expected he’d be feeling, but instead looking earnest and slightly confused – why is the unit photographer pulling me away from set? I was more nervous than I thought I’d be, but nevertheless told him how upset I was that he didn’t give me a chance to shoot the poster, and that he was making a big mistake. I don’t know what else I said, but I remember my speech taking way longer than it should have, Estevez growing more visibly uncomfortable by the minute. He mumbled something about how unit photographers never shoot the movie poster and that’s just way things were done, all while backing slowly away from me.
Helene called about an hour later to inform me I’d been fired, and that I should get my stuff and leave the set. Apparently, Estevez didn’t appreciate being accosted by the help, and took immediate and irrevocable action. To this day, I think it was a bit harsh, given there were only a few days left on the film. I quietly collected my gear and slunk off, humiliated, yet somehow also feeling righteous and martyred. I regret not saying goodbye to the crew, but under the circumstances, a discreet exit seemed best, as I’d mentioned my upcoming poster shoot triumph to more than a few of them.
And that, folks, was the end of my career as a unit photographer. I was bitterly disappointed, knowing that a movie poster would’ve represented a huge step forward in my career. But that milestone would have to wait a bit – years and years, specifically. But nothing beats getting canned to send you in a new direction, and as I left that set I knew I was going to take the freelance plunge, albeit with a big boot print on the ass of my skinny jeans.
Rashida Jones went to Harvard. She is smart, beautiful, talented, and has famous parents, so I knew I’d have a hard time relating my scrappy early existence to hers. But when we sat down for this issue of Off Camera, I discovered she also struggled with her choices and had no specific shining path to beckon her. Feeling awash in a sea of countless auditions, she questioned acting as a career and just about gave it up. Now that she’s found her way, her rise has been nothing short of astonishing. I don’t know whether to be more impressed that she’s producing socially conscious documentaries (Hot Girls Wanted), creating and starring in touching independent films (Celeste & Jesse Forever), or that she’s writing Toy Story 4 – yep, John Lassetter handed her the keys to perhaps the most beloved franchise in the Pixar stable. On second thought, never mind – I’m most impressed with that last one. And once you read her story, you will be most impressed with Rashida herself. I’ll throw in a tip here: Don’t challenge her to a crossword puzzle race. You will lose.
– Sam Jones, August 2015