Way back in issue 25 I started a series of these editor’s letters recounting my journey as a young photographer finding his way as an artist. In the last issue I recounted my wonderful experience as a first-time unit photographer on the Pittsburgh film set of Bob Roberts in 1991. I was about to find out that not every film set was like that one, and that the job of unit photographer wasn’t quite what I thought it was.
Perception is everything, and my first impression of being a unit photographer was that people like the director, the DP and the producers treated you with respect and kindness. I was wrong. I was soon offered my second movie, a New Line Cinema project called Excessive Force, a corrupt-cops-versus-karate-chop-hero movie that probably owed its genesis to the nation’s focus on the Los Angeles riots at the time. I guess turnabout is fair play; I got my first unit photography job as a result of the pictures I made of police chief Darryl Gates, who was at the center of the Rodney King fracas, and now I was paying my dues on a movie that was attempting to cash in on the national mood surrounding police brutality.
Excessive Force was set in Chicago and starred Thomas Ian Griffith, the badass villain in Karate Kid III. I signed on with all the glee of the naïve, but by the end of my first day on the job was finished, I knew I was in for a long, lonely haul.
I should have suspected something was amiss when Helene Steel, who was the head of photography at New Line Cinema, told me I could have the job, but would have to work as a local. She explained that the budget was tiny, and this is just what people did in this industry. I gamely called the one guy I knew in Chicago, the lovely Fred Tadrowski, who I’d gone to college with. He offered me the floor of the living room in his one-bedroom Wrigleyville apartment (I’m still not sure what prompted your generosity, Fred, but I am eternally grateful). And yes, I bought a plane ticket and flew to Chicago to start work on the film in mid-January 1992. I’d also purchased a new blimp, which is a big metal box that muffles the sound of a camera’s shutter, setting me back about $900. By the time I bought Fred and I some groceries, I was $1,500 in the hole, and I hadn’t even started working yet. (Kids, save this issue to re-read whenever you’re tempted to complain about your job).
The film had already been shooting for about a week when I showed up – I guess New Line wanted to save a little more cash by making sure that the crew already knew each other before my first day, which was actually not a day at all. It was a night shoot, and the temperature was below freezing. The call time was 7:00 p.m., and we were out on a farm somewhere near Joliet, IL. When I got to set I found surprisingly few people gathered around the camera as lights were being set up. It was so cold I couldn’t load my camera; the instant I took off my gloves, my hands went numb and shook uncontrollably, making it impossible to get the film seated in the sprocket holes. I made my way to the only vehicle that seemed to have heat – the makeup trailer – and that’s where I discovered the rest of the crew! They were all huddled inside trying to stay warm, waiting for the first shot of the night. I tried introducing myself, but it was like trying to make friends in an elevator – you were just one more person taking up space. And to make things worse, a bunch of crew members were smoking. I quickly saw that my choices were to stay inside and be asphyxiated, or go outside and freeze.
I loaded my camera and went back outside. I introduced myself to the director, who seemed like he might be a nice guy. John Hess was young and game to make a great film, but I quickly gathered he was in a bit over his head, and had to contend with his lead actor also being the writer and producer of the film. Translation: He was in a tough spot, because ultimately he had to do the bidding of his star.
The first scene was up, and I did my best to make pictures of the bad guys chasing the good guys around in the dark, and then of our trench coat-clad hero as he steps into blue gelled side light and points a glimmering gun at the camera. Some of my finest work, I can assure you. I was crouched down by the camera on the hard frozen ground, waiting for the one second when there was enough light to make the picture. They did the scene over and over again, because Thomas Ian Griffith kept missing his mark. I couldn’t move because I was right under the camera, and the tension was mounting between the director and his star. I stayed in my uncomfortable position, trying to be invisible, praying they would get it on the next take.
And then my blimp froze to my face. I still can’t believe it happened, but the hard metal box was stuck to my nose and forehead. I’d pressed it there so firmly as I struggled to focus that when the scene was over, I was horrified to find I couldn’t remove the blimp without incurring serious pain. I also couldn’t see very well. I’d have to make my way back to the makeup trailer and try to warm the blimp enough to remove it from my face without removing my skin along with it. So I walked back across the field while looking through the viewfinder to see where I was going. This was especially awkward while mounting the steps of the trailer and bumping around to find the door handle. I pushed my way into a corner of the small, smoky trailer, just a 6-foot man in a giant parka with a large metal box stuck to his head, doing his best to be invisible. As I waited for my face to unfreeze, I heard laughter and comments among the group of pre-cancerous Chicago film industry types, and assumed they were all cracking up at the new guy with the camera glued to his face. I pretended not to notice, and busied myself with the buttons on the side of the blimp, as if I was working with the camera.
I finally got it off. I turned around like everything was normal, and one of the make-up artists said, “Looks like the grips had some fun with you.” I mumbled some sort of response meant to convey that I was in on whatever joke she was talking about, and shoved my way back into the cold. As the door closed, something fell off the back of my jacket. I looked down and saw a clothespin lying on the steps. Wait a minute…I unzipped my jacket, took it off, and found about 50 clothespins attached to the back of it. The whole time I’d been shooting the first scene, the grips had been turning me into a film set version of a stegosaurus. Welcome to Chicago. Welcome to humiliation.
In one night, my hopes of this film experience being anything like Bob Roberts were dashed. In the space of a few hours, I realized that not only did I have a long, cold winter ahead of me, but that this may not be the career I thought it was going to be. Welcome to filmmaking in the real world. Enjoy your brutal awakening.
Zach Braff got his own brutal awakening upon the release of his Kickstarter campaign for his most recent film, Wish I Was Here. It was an awakening that commenced with production and culminated in vitriolic response from critics and naysayers, some of whom never bothered to see the film. For Braff, whose previous auteur effort, Garden State, was almost universally beloved, this was a crushing blow. His decision to crowd fund Wish I Was Here drew such negative response that it’s made him rethink his sincere and heartfelt approach to filmmaking. Happily for Braff, he has a rabid fan base that made his film a success in its own right. If the backlash left a sour taste in his mouth, it’s no small triumph to circumvent the studio system in such an original way. Zach’s candor and honesty about the whole experience made for a fascinating conversation that I am proud to share in these pages. Sometimes when Hollywood gives you lemons, it’s just a lot of lemons. Here at Off Camera, we can’t wait to see what he does with them. In the meantime, we’re launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a 500-lb bag of sugar.
– Sam Jones, July 2015