AS: How do you approach communicating ideas that you have that may be different from what the director and DP are thinking?
JM: Well, as I’m sure you know it’s scary communicating ideas because generally they try to shoot them down. And the thing about DP’s, because they’re the last guy and they press the button, they can basically do whatever they want. So what you have to do is you have to convince them that working with you is going to make them look good. And you can only do that if you’re good. Or you’re a total con artist I suppose. But I think I’ve been fairly lucky at getting DP’s on my side because I try to be honest with them and I feel like I know enough about what they do that I’m not going to get them into trouble. And I know about diopters and I know about low angle prisms. I just think it’s important to know all those things.
On Wilder Napalm the director wanted a shot where the three principals wind up in jail. He said, Can you do a shot where the frame’s divided into three and it’s the three jail cells and they’re sitting in the cells totally symmetrical? And I go, Yes, piece of cake. I asked Jerry the DP, What lenses would you shoot this with do you think? And he goes, Well generally I would make it a 40. And I go, Okay, good enough. It’ll work for a 40.
Really? he goes. Yeah, believe me, it ain’t that hard. I drew it up in a minute and very quickly figured out the sizes. We built it on stage, these three jail cells, and then I drew an “x” on the floor where the camera goes. And because it was a cover set they didn’t get to it until the middle of the night when I was asleep. The phone wakes me up in the middle of the night, we’re in Florida, and it’s John and he says, I can’t get this think to work. It just doesn’t work. And I said, Do you have a 40 mil lens on the camera? And he goes, Yeah.
Is it 4’6” off the ground? And he goes, Yeah.
And I said, Well you must not have it on the “x” yet. And he goes, What?
There’s an “x” on the floor, it’s about 25 feet back. Put it on the “x”. And he calls back and he goes, Unbelievable. How did you do it? Did you have a camera?
No, it’s all geometry. It’s in your book, buddy. The American Cinematographer Manual tells you how to do it.
A lot of DP’s you say, Put it on the “x”, and that would be the end of the conversation. I mean Jerry was so tickled by this whole process. You just have got to convince them that you’re one of the good guys. It’s always about that, isn’t it? You’re not trying to hurt them, you’re not going to try to make them look bad, you’re not going to one-up ‘em. Because you don’t need to really. There’s enough glory to go around.
AS: They’re making you look good and you’re making them look good.
JM: Ideally. You know, within reason. You’re bound to get in a fight sometime. Be the good guy. I mean, how do you stay married?