Cannes. A name that instantly evokes imagery of sunny beaches, fabulous wealth, and of course movies. Lots and lots of movies. It is the home of, arguably, the most legendary, certainly the oldest, film festival in the world and for two weeks out of every year the city transforms into a circus of biblical proportions as celebrities, producers, directors, and insanely rich investors make their way down to the south of France to congratulate themselves on a job well done and to drive their insanely expensive cars down the insanely expensive boulevard in a desperate effort to be noticed over all the other insanely expensive cars driving down the boulevard.
Cannes becomes, essentially, the richest place on earth during these two weeks. A completely closed off community, filled with fame, that vigorously tries to separate the local plebeians from the imported film-royalty. Sometimes with very obvious, sturdy, metal boundaries and sometimes with, slightly less obvious, disdain. Never the twain shall meet. I would never have expected to go there, let alone end up on the other side of that boundary as an accidental part of the elite. A temporary member of the Hollywood super race, an insider that people would want to know and schmooze with and that the numerous paparazzi would wonder about (but only briefly because hey, look! There’s Brad Pitt!). Yet that is exactly where I ended up, making a movie with no clearly defined story, improvising every scene, and desperately chasing after some of the most famous people in the movie making world. Also having a drink or two. Or three. Okay, four.
Let us flash back to a few months earlier. I was in the not-quite-so-fabulous-or-wealthy Los Angeles at the time, as part of the instruction team at the Lake Arrowhead Steadicam workshop, when my internationally roaming phone rang expensively. On the line was a gentleman named James Toback. Little did I know then that this man would become the bane of my existence for the next few months. James, is a writer/director/actor/conversationalist. One of the very few people I would honestly label as a genius, he is an absolutely fascinating human being. Probably best known for writing the Academy Award nominated movie “Bugsy” and directing the amazing documentary “Tyson”, he has led a fabulously interesting life.
My first impression of James was that he could talk. A lot. I think I got in, maybe, four sentences during our first hour long conversation. He talked so much that he ran down my phone’s battery way before Apple’s spec sheet had promised me it would run down. I had to call him back on my friend’s phone, only to run that battery down almost as much. He wanted me to shoot his new movie and the idea was this: Alec Baldwin and James Toback would go to Cannes to pitch a movie and try to get it made. At the time of the phone call it came across to me as a sort of “Spinal Tap”-like mockumentary, part scripted and part improvised. This concept would change radically as the shoot progressed.
Originally James wanted Larry McConkey as his operator, but Larry was off shooting Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” at the time so he couldn’t make it. I would have to fill his shoes…no pressure there then. The idea of being part of this movie, and spending a month in Cannes, appealed to me greatly so, after some faked hesitation, I said yes.
I was now the extremely nervous Steadicam operator on “Seduced and Abandoned”.
The pre-production period was chaotic to say the least. A sign of things to come. Lengthy calls with the France-based line producer informed me that we would be shooting with two, sponsored, Canon C300 cameras. It was during one of these phone calls that I discovered that I had somehow turned into the Director of Photography. A rather jarring transition, I think you’ll agree. However getting any information at all about what we were supposed to be doing at any given time would become a constant nagging question throughout the whole shoot. The reason for this was simple; nobody really knew what the hell was going on or what the exact idea was, including James. This made pre-production difficult to say the least. All we knew was that we would be speaking to many people in Cannes, we had two actual sets that we controlled, we’d be shooting at some of the parties taking place, that we didn’t control, and we needed tuxedos.
Everything regarding the content was a mystery. There was no script, not even really an outline, but there was an idea and James wanted us to be prepared to shoot anything and everything at all times so he could basically create the story in post. Sounded like a good time to me and so, with gear stuffed firmly in car and grin planted firmly on face, my 1st AC, Kira Falticaneau, and I made the 13 hour drive from rainy and cold Holland to sunny and warm Cannes. We prepared ourselves mentally as best we could for what would become the hardest shoot of my life.
I was now the slightly under-prepared Director of Photography on “Seduced and Abandoned”
So let’s talk about the Zephyr. I’ve been operating Steadicam for close to 20 years now and in that time have had the good fortune to run the gamut of productions ranging from cozy feature films to insane live television broadcasts. I’ve always used a heavily modified EFP rig, from way back in the days, and later an Ultra2. The EFP was great for television, relatively lightweight, low power, and pretty much bulletproof thanks to its simple electronics. It’s brought me many, many hours of joy in spite of the large amount of little niggles that an ancient rig like that brings. The Ultra2 was fantastic for heavier shows. Film became a breeze thanks to the enormous weight range available to it and it was certainly nice to not have to violently screw around with Allen wrenches to convince parts of the sled to adjust. Of course then came Seduced and Abandoned and I was suddenly confronted with a situation where both the EFP and the U2 , for the first time ever, were not the obvious choice. In the original brief it became clear that James wanted to shoot what’s technically known in the industry as: “a lot”. Just how much constituted “a lot” was not entirely clear but as the start of production drew closer, this mythical “a lot” became an increasingly bigger source of concern for all of us as it began to be consistently redefined.
As luck would have it I found myself at NAB in Las Vegas, demoing for Tiffen, during the start of the pre-production process. The reason this was fortunate was because I had convenient, and full, access to the entire Steadicam line. An excellent opportunity to play and see what, if any, the alternative could be. Enter: the Steadicam Zephyr. I’d played with it before but never very seriously. After all, I was a big boy operator and I honestly admit that initially the Zephyr came across to me as more of a toy than anything. It would be silly to be seen with such a small rig, how would I compensate otherwise? I was a serious and important film dude so I needed to be seen with a serious and important film rig, right? Well obviously not right, it’s a silly rhetorical question.
At the advice of several of the Tiffen peeps I decided, for the first time, to have a real serious look at the Zephyr. Having casually glanced at the other lightweight rigs, we concluded that the Zephyr seemed to be the perfect compromise between function and weight. After a few hours playing in the rig I knew for certain that this was the Steadicam that could make this film happen. I was comfortable and, more importantly, I was enjoying myself tremendously! The choice was made and I booked a Zephyr to take along with me. I will admit, there were still nerves. It was, to me, an unknown factor. I was familiar with most of the big rigs from varying brands in an actual production environment. This little system, not so much. I had many questions; would the Zephyr survive such an arduous shoot? Would it fly the cameras I had available? Would I be comfortable in less than ideal circumstances? Would I look incredibly sexy in it? All the important questions. Testing went fine but that only tells you half the story. I was as prepared as I was going to be…
The first day of actual production, it was a comfortable 24 degrees celsius and we found ourselves at the airport in Marseilles to shoot Alec Baldwin, our star, arriving. The first real scene of the movie would be Alec coming through the arrivals door, meeting with James Toback and heading to a lovely Bentley waiting outside. It was a trial by fire for the Zephyr and for me; no rehearsal, one take, hit the ground running, make it work! I was putting it all on that little rig. After a frantic 6 minute shot, through crowds, up escalators, trough doors, I cut the camera with just the tiniest bead of sweat slowly making its way down my brow. I was feeling great and energetic, that was good! But how did it look? Only one way to tell! I did a very secret playback, anxiously staring at the little TV Logic monitor, looking for any signs of problems. It was good! In fact, it looked great! The little Zephyr had survived its first test with flying colors and I wasn’t fired, everybody wins. I was terribly chuffed with myself for improvising a six minute shot, of course this was before we got into the actually long scenes that the rest of the production would bring so at the time I still thought 6 minutes was a big deal. I was still so naive back then, in hindsight I’d be praying for a “mere” six minute shot as we rolled on. Oh well.
The next setup was a vehicle shot. I’d be soft mounted on the back of an ATV and we’d bring James and Alec to Cannes (about a one hour drive if you take the pretty scenic route). Normally I’d do this sort of thing hard mounted but, because of the fluidity of following these two guys, I wanted to be able to jump off at our destination and continue the shot inside the hotel without asking for our stars to wait while we changed over. One thing I quickly picked up on was that James wanted us to be as unobtrusive as possible and to give them the freedom to basically do what they wanted and go wherever they wanted to go with us in tow. Considering the wonderful chemistry our stars had going on, I was obsessed with providing them that freedom. Fortunately I did have a second unit to ease the burden some. Oftentimes the second unit would be simply a hand held camera operated by the lovely Alexandre Chapot, a wonderful French operator. They could go ahead of us to provide coverage of both the drive, and the hotel entrance.
Once more the Zephyr made daddy proud as I inadvertently got the answer to another question that I hadn’t even thought of asking yet; how would it do with longer lenses on a bouncy and windy drive! By accident the wrong lens got placed on the camera as we prepped for the vehicle shot. I wanted a 25mm but, through the haste and stress, that lens magically turned into an 85mm. I did not realize this until we were on the road and I framed up! There was no way to stop, I had no communication with the camera car and no way to hear what was going on in the Bentley! I knew I couldn’t cut because they wanted the dialogue between Alec and James in the car, since I couldn’t hear what was being said (and I was now definitely shooting lip-sync because of the longer lens) I had to make every second of the drive usable. I’d have to make it work. It worked really well too, so well that in hindsight I should’ve gone straight for the long lens. One of the reasons I played it a little safe with lens choice initially was because this whole uncertainly of not knowing what would happen. The little time I had to test did not allow a vehicle test so it was anyone’s guess. I figured I’d build up to it.
Finally it was time to ask those questions I hadn’t thought about yet; how would the Zephyr fare on a bumpy road with a longer lens than I expected. Fearing for vibration the whole time, I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and review the footage (again secretly, just in case there was a problem). After a hectic finish of the scene at the Carlton hotel in Cannes, I managed to find a quiet place to review the footage. Once more the Zephyr proved to me that I should not have been worried and that I was really being rather silly, when you think about it, and should have a little more trust in it, thank you very much! It looked great, aside from the bits where the wind nearly ripped me off the ATV or the gigantic French speed bumps tried to launch me into low orbit. But even with all that wind and low-orbit flying, I still managed to keep the rig pretty well under control most of the time. I was becoming increasingly impressed!
Oh god, it hurts!
Production rolled on like a steam train. A lot of the scenes were “conversations” with major film moguls, stars, and directors, and these puppies would easily last 90+ minutes. I had to make sure that at least 99% of every shot could be used. No resting on the shoulder, no hanging it up for a breath. Just constant shooting and improvising, gotta keep moving! Keep the frame alive! We’d have to change batteries and cards throughout just to keep rolling. And we’d have at least two, more often three or four, of these scenes a day in various locations throughout Cannes. These scenes would be interspersed with the so-called walkabouts. The walkabouts were sequences where Alec and Jim would just walk around town, talking about things ‘n stuff and meeting people. These were the shorter runs, usually lasting “only” 45 minutes or so per scene. You truly haven’t lived until you’ve tried walking backwards, at speed, through a gaggle of paparazzi and fans with a gentle giant of a key grip as buffer. It’s hilarious! Again I was lucky, in both scenarios, to always have a B-cam to fall back on. Sometimes on sticks with a giant zoom, sometimes hand-held. This was my safety net too, in case I truly felt unable to continue I knew I could just step away and let B-cam take the rest of the scene. Knowing in the back of my head that I had this safety net gave me a lot of confidence too, I knew I could take some chances if I dared. We got pretty creative as the shoot went on too and we all got incredibly attuned to each other, daring to push ourselves further and further to make it look even more wonderful.
The more we shot, the more grateful I was that I chose not to bring a bigger rig. I genuinely have no idea how I would’ve pulled through with anything heavier. Even the Zephyr/C300 combination could become almost unbearably heavy once we got well into the second hour of a given scene, especially as we got closer to the end and overall exhaustion had begun setting in. Anything heavier and I doubt I would have made it at all. As Jim’s vision of the movie came together it became more obvious to all of us that this film simply could not have been made if it wasn’t for the Zephyr. Without it, it would’ve been a lot less visually interesting or unique. In fact, it would’ve been just another documentary style film with nothing to really make it stand out. Something that James did not want at all, his vision became more and more specific. As it is now, it has become, in my humble opinion, a very unique movie with an incredibly distinct look. A movie filled with fascinating insights into how little baby movies get born and the overall state of the film industry today, all shot to make it look like a semi-rehearsed and scripted feature.
Both Alec and James brought such a wealth of knowledge and such a passionate love of film to the table that each scene was amazing just to witness. We ended up with 66+ hours of footage! Unfortunately that means that an awful lot of these incredible conversations and insights would have to be cut, a true shame. Hopefully they’ll release a 24 DVD boxset at some point with all of the footage we shot, most of it certainly is usable.
For me, personally, it was an honor that I did get to hear all the stories and witness all of the madness. A shoot that changed the way I look at films and how they’re made. I came out at the other end with some amazing insights and a new found passion for movie making. Also with a lot of muscle aches but that’s neither here nor there. At the end of it all I think it was my own growing fascination with the subject matter, and the conversations Alec and James had, that gave me the strength to pull through this without killing myself. Fascination and a new-found love for the Little Rig that Could…the Steadicam Zephyr.