"THAT'S THE KIND OF STUFF THEY DON'T TEACH YOU IN FILM SCHOOL!"
Nick McLean, the cameraman who, early in his career, worked frequently with Vilmos Zsigmond, discusses his work on Brian De Palma's Obsession and Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot in a new book he has co-written with Wayne Byrne, Nick McLean Behind The Camera:
Obsession was one of those rare opportunities, it was a chance of shooting in Florence, Italy, and in New Orleans, plus it meant getting to work with Vilmos again. It starred Genevieve Bujold, who i was already friends with because I had dated her sister back in the old days; they looked very alike but her sister really had her head together, unlike Genevieve, who was a bit of a maniac back then.
Cliff Robertson was another really good actor who made that film a pleasure to work on. He used to have this really smart ritual before each scene in order to get an idea of how he was going to be lit: Once the lights were set up, he would take a mirror to his face and he would walk exactly where his character was due to walk during the scene, and he did this in order to get a reading on the kind of light we would be using. I've never seen anybody else do that. If he found out that something was overexposed or there was something he didn't like, he would have us get on it and change it. I remember another great actor on that film who was just starting out: John Lithgow. He has gone on to have an amazing career and was an absolute professional.
De Palma has a lot of interest in the framing of his films and he can be very meticulous when he's working out a scene with the camera department. We would have a lot of discussions with Brian talking about the look of the film and he would give a lot of input into the compositions; he is the kind of director who likes to know exactly what you are going to shoot. But despite all the planning and precision, there's always the risk of something going wrong, especially when you are away on location and you are working with foreign crews. As such, we were presented with various problems. There was one scene where we had an incredible natural light from the sunset and we were rushing to set up the equipment and capture the scene with this amazing light, but the Italian crew were taking their sweet time and just said, "Don't worry, the sun will go down again tomorrow." We were going crazy trying to get the camera ready to shoot but the Italians didn't care, but with Vilmos and De Palma working on it, we got it. Another scene we had some difficulty with was the church scene with Genevieve. We really wanted the interior of that church but couldn't get permission and kept trying different ways of going about getting it, and then on the last week of shooting in Florence this Catholic nun came in and said, "I will get it for you." We said, "What do you mean? We've tried everything!" and she replied, "For 100,000 lire I will get it for you." It turned out she was the bishop's mistress, so with the money and with the connection, she got us into that church. That's the kind of stuff they don't teach you in film school!
De Palma went on to have an amazing career. It's like when I worked with Spielberg, you don't know beforehand that these guys are going to turn out to be major directors. The way I chose a lot of these films is just based on whether I liked the people; if I got along good with them in those first couple of meetings, I'd do it. It just so happens that they end up becoming these huge figures in Hollywood. But there was one director that I did make a deliberate effort to work with and that was Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of people were saying De Palma was the new Hitchcock but I actually got to work with the original Master of Suspense on Family Plot .
I was a pretty hot camera operator at the time, a lot of people liked my work and so I was in demand quite a bit. One day I got a phone call from Hitchcock's cinematographer, Lenny South, and he told me that they had fired their camera operator. Now this guy was a very good cameraman but something was getting lost in communication between Hitchcock, Lenny and this guy, so they had to let him go. Lenny asked me if I would come in and audition for Hitchcock, which is something you don't do, but for Hitchcock I said, "I'll be there in a flash!" So I went in the next day. We were up in the mountains and Hitchcock would stay back and watch us setting up from the front seat of his car, a Lincoln Continental. He wouldn't get out of the car so Lenny would go up to the car to speak to Hitchcock about the shots, the car window would be cracked just enough for them to converse with each other. So seeing as the first camera operator got fired because he wasn't listening to what Hitchcock was saying to Lenny, I would make sure to go along and listen in so I knew exactly what he wanted. Hitchcock was very precise and would tell you exactly where he wanted his frame lines: "Lenny, I would like a close-up with the top of the frame line here and bottom of the frame line here"-- that was the kind of thing that the original camera operator wasn't listening to and therefore wasn't framing his compositions to the exact instructions that Hitchcock wanted, which meant he didn't last too long on the film. But I did listen in on these conversations between Hitchcock and Lenny so i knew exactly what to get and he was very happy with that.
You had to dress well on a Hitchcock film. I'm not talking suit-and-tie kind of deals, but a nice coat and neat pants-- and here I come, a Levi's guy. But for Hitchcock, I dressed up and looked the part. So I'm on the set and I'm told about the scene that we're going to shoot, which is a car going down this winding road and off a cliff. I say, "Okay, that's fine, but where's the other cameras?" And I'm told, "You're it! Hitchcock hires the best, and here you are, so you better get it!" Now I'm thinking, "Jesus, what if I miss this shot?" Most directors would have ten cameras on a shot like that, but we had one and that was me. I hadn't spoken to Hitchcock all day, and I'm getting ready to shoot when I hear the shuffling of feet and a chair pulling up beside me and it's Hitchcock; he says into my ear, "I presume your machine is functioning properly." In other words, "You better not screw this up!" So we start rolling, the car goes off the cliff, and we get the shot ... perfect! So Hitchcock gets up and walks away, never says a thing to me, he didn't even look through the camera lens because he knew exactly whether you got the shot or not just from observing how you moved the camera. He trusted that I got the shot and then got up and walked back to his Lincoln Continental when it was done. He never said a word, he just got up and shuffled away. Hitchcock really was the Master of Suspense because, boy, was I sweating it!