I started in this business at the age of 22. Straight out of college, I put on the three-piece suit that my Mom bought me. She said that I needed to wear it for my job interviews. I pounded the city of Boston’s pavement looking for that job. I have to admit that I thought I was going to be a Producer. I did not like camera that much and really did not like to light. I was good with numbers and getting people excited about a project. I loved putting things together and delivering far more than the budget would allow.
After three months of interviews, with doors slammed in my face, I totally rejected my dream of being a Producer. I resigned myself to just be a PA and start my journey upward. I went back to the place where I had interned to see if they would hire me. It happened to be a lighting and grip company in Boston called FilmArts. Unfortunately, this placed closed up shop years ago. My good friend, John Cini, was the Rental Manager at the time. He showed me the ropes and got me started as a technician in this glorious movie business. John now runs a company in Boston called High Output, and it is a thriving company that he holds to excellence, just like John taught me.
Where was I? Oh yes, the starting of a career. I got to work quickly filling orders and delivering gear all over Boston and the surrounding New England states. I learned every bit of grip gear, every light. I took them apart, fixed them, etc. It was an incredible learning experience for me. After three months, I started to take quotes and make the deals. This was producing in a way, not lighting. But this gave me the grounding to understand what everything was and how to use it. I not only got to quote the orders, I also pulled them and then drove the truck loaded with the gear to the site. It was my job to keep all this gear safe and to get it returned. If you have the opportunity to experience this, I highly recommend it. I think it is one of the best ways to learn how to be a DP. Why is that, you ask? Because you learn every aspect of what it takes to pull off your vision.
After six months, I was going out on a good number of jobs and realized that I was ready to move up. Moving up in a small market like Boston is a very difficult thing to do. Why? Well, because there are very few jobs available and people tended to stay in the job that they had. I wanted to be a Key Grip, but there were four or five other people that had all those jobs. I realized quickly that moving to Los Angeles was the only way to keep my forward momentum.
In the summer of 1988, my fiancé, Lydia, and I started on our quest for Hollywood. We found an apartment on a prior trip to visit my friend, Gabe Torres, who went to USC Film School. He was living in the same building and set us all up. We furnished the place while we were there that week and got our refrigerator, bed, oven, etc. Lydia had never really seen America. Her family had traveled all over Europe, but had not traveled much in the States. So we made a journey out of it. We took 28 days to travel across the country in the Ford Ranger that my parents gave us, pulling a U-Haul trailer that contained all of our belongings.
It was an incredible experience. We mostly camped while traveling across the country because that was all we could afford. Once we made it to LA, we moved into our beautiful apartment and found that the whole place was roach infested. We tried to save money by purchasing a used refrigerator and it happened to have a nice little roach family embedded in it. This family had two months to grow while we packed up our stuff in Boston and began the cross-country trek. To put it mildly, we freaked out. We were exhausted and all we wanted to do was sleep on a bed, not on the ground. We booked ourselves into a Motel 6 and bombed the place, blasting the roach population. OK, we were finally good to move in.
You cannot be scared of starting all over. It builds character and it starts to form that Alligator Skin that I speak of. Alligator Skin is taking abuse from everyone and taking it in, turning it into a positive and moving forward. It is not letting them take you down to their level. This skin is essential to work in the movie business. It is a ruthless profession. Most people love it when you fail and they bathe in it. Sick, but true.
I started back at a rental house called KeyLight with a $1.50 raise. I was making $3.50 an hour in Boston. Now I was making $5.00 an hour. I came out to LA with an extensive wardrobe of shorts, ready to bask in the California sun. On day one of my employment, I was told no shorts, no tennis shoes, only steel toe boots. Whoa!!! OK!!! I complied because I knew that I could make my own destiny here. If I wanted to be a Key Grip, that is what I was going to be. So I quickly moved up the rental house ladder. Within three months, I was offered a job on a feature film called Phantasm II: This Summer the Ball is Back. They wanted me to be the grip truck driver for the film.
The film was directed by Don Coscarelli. It was an incredible experience for me. I drove the grip truck and kept all the gear working. I worked 18 hours a day with a six hour turnaround each day. I worked six days a week for $350.00 a week. Yep, that is right. You do the math. I would be making more by flipping burgers at Wendy’s, but I would not be in the movie business with all this glory. HA HA!!!!
Alligator Skin is formed by sticking your neck out there and making mistakes, having people yell and scream at you. Is this counter intuitive? I don’t think so. “Why are you so stupid? Why would you do that? What were you thinking?” All of these things have been yelled at me at some point in my career. Having Alligator Skin means rising above all this verbal abuse, while allowing it to make you better at what you do. How is this possible? Because you need to learn. You do that by making mistakes, which gets you yelled at. The skin is forming. Let the abuse roll off your back. Be advised that this skin is not achieved if you do not go for it. I have talked about my many mistakes as a gaffer – setting the meter wrong, over-exposing scenes, etc. As a Key Grip, I could have been much more safety conscious. I admit that I made some bad decisions.
My recipe for success was just keeping my head barely above water, putting myself in situations that I barely had the knowledge to pull off. Sometimes I almost drowned, but at the end of the day, I swam.
I quickly moved up as a Key Grip and became well respected in the business. I was the go to guy with music videos. I must have Key Gripped over 120 music videos in one year. I gaffed over 350 of them and eventually shot over 100.
I worked for Daniel Pearl, ASC in the late 80s and the early 90s. He is probably the greatest music video shooter of all time. He not only taught me how to light with balls, he also shared his work ethic, demanding excellence, which cemented me as the cameraman I am today. He was direct, demanded the best, and held you to it. His intensity was equal to hi passion to create breathtaking imagery. I found that contagious, intense and times, maybe overwhelming, but I would go to the end of the earth for him. This was music videos and we would sometimes work 28 hours a day, then go right from that video to the next one without sleeping. At one point, I was up for 72 hours straight. Not smart at all, but this is the glorious movie business. Daniel drove us up to the breaking point and every time it made me better.
How do I lead? I am always trying to be better. In my young years as a DP, I was learning, uncomfortable in my surroundings because I jumped in when I wasn’t completely ready. But this has been my recipe. Jump early and figure it out. At times, I have been abrasive to my crew, impatient and stubborn. I want to formally apologize to all my crew members that I might have offended in any way because of this.
I just assumed that everyone had come up the ladder like me and that they had that Alligator Skin. They could take it; they would turn it into a positive. But that was not the case and I was foolish to think that in the beginning. You have to find your way and mine came slowly. However, my career happened very quickly. I was a grip truck driver in 1988 and shooting music videos in 1991. In three short years, I had completed the amount of jobs equal to other technicians’ six years.
On Need for Speed, my crew will say many things to describe me – perfectionist, jackass, passionate, talented, hard worker, micro manager, crazy as hell, HurriShane. But I know that love is there with almost every comment. I keep things light and try to make everyone laugh at my craziness. No one is safe from being picked on, including me. I have no idea if I am doing things right, but my crew is amazing and they make me shine bright every single day. So I must being doing something right. Some days are better than others, but my team knows that I hold them under the same scrutiny that I hold myself. They say that this is evident. I expect excellence and if it is not delivered, you will be called out. GOOD ENOUGH is NOT in my vocabulary.
I guess my best advice is to never think you are the cameraman and that the crew works for you. I consider myself part of the team, all held equal, and that team is about excellence in every way. I also try to have an open mind. I have shot 19 movies, but I continue to learn every day from my CREW, because I expect great ideas from them to make us more efficient, get more shots, better angles, etc. We make the decision on what is the best course together. Keeping an open mind and inspiring your team to do more than they thought they had in them is paramount. How do you do that? It starts with saying thank you every night over the radio to your team, handshakes, knowing all of their names. Wrapped gifts with a personal letter to each member of your team are nice. I have recently started taking the combined Grip, Electric and Camera teams out for huge dinners and wine tastings. These are cool because it is not always about work. You learn the personal side of your team. VERY IMPORTANT. Then you continue with huge kudos when they make a great shot, hard focus pull, solid rig, great lighting design, fast set ups, etc. Call them out; make sure people hear you praise them. But hold that close; you do not want to over praise. That results in good enough work.
If you do not set the standards high, then just getting by will be what you get. Don’t be afraid to call them out when they make mistakes either. This is very important. There are times when you might have to pull them off to the side and do it under the radar. For some mistakes, this course is absolutely the right way, but sometimes it is important to make a team member an example of what not to do. Mistakes are made and I let the ones that I feel will not sacrifice the vision go by, but when it starts affecting how we are telling the story, you need to intervene. Holding people accountable is absolutely essential. It is a responsibility that comes with this job and doing the best is the goal. I also try to end the day with an overview, what worked, what didn’t and how we can learn from it. This is huge.
Get out there and start to form that skin. Being sensitive is a strength and a weakness. Finding the right level of each is the hard part and you will find that balance. Sometimes this comes naturally and sometimes it can be painfully slow.
Respecting the crew and their excellence is your first and foremost objective. They are there to make you look good. The more you respect them and appreciate all that they give makes going to the end of the Earth for you their only mission. They will Take the Hill….
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