Press > Escape From L.A. > Exclusive Interviews > Leo Napolitano (Camera Operator)

How did you end up being a camera operator?

Actually, I kind of stumbled into it. I was a machinist in the Navy after high school. I didn't go to college. I took a class in school for the United States Navy and after I graduated I was taking coach courses. As I said, I was a machinist mate for the Navy so I happened to hear about a job at Technicolor. Technicolor was a company that processed all the color films for Disney, Warner. All the biggest studios. Everything was colored by Technicolor in those days. I had an opportunity to meet the hiring manager and I told him one of my jobs was in the Navy and he hired me because they built process machines. Those are the machine that do the developing and processing on the film and they use a lot of machinists so I started working there and at night I took film classes because everyone was telling me to take three classes. So I thought I take film classes and to make a long story not too long eventually I got a job at Universal Studios in the camera repair shop. I would build parts for different cameras and stuff like that and learned all about the cameras inside and out and became a technician for Universal Studios but I realized what I really wanted to do was to become a cameraman. After I became well-known in the studio business I put it out there to people that if there ever was an opportunity I would like do it and I would be willing to start all over and work my way up. In a short time I was offered jobs and got into the camera local. That was a very big deal in those days. There weren't that many studios. It was a closed operation but because I knew how to fix the camera and work the camera and test the camera I became first choice for the people that were renting new equipment. At that time a lot of new cameras were coming out. Arriflex was getting big in the business. They had the BL's and Mitchell's and Panavision had the Panaflex, Panagold and stuff like that. I knew these cameras inside and out so camera crews would hire me so that I could be with them in case they got troubles with the cameras and eventually I worked my way up to camera assistant. I only did one movie as a second assistant then I moved to first assistant. Then after about five years I was offered a job as a camera operator with Paul Lohman who was a notable camera man at the time. It was for a big project in Israel called Masada. 13 hours of television all shot in the desert and stuff like that. Anyway, so I went to Israel with him and eventually became his camera operator and people get familiar with you, good work and stuff like that so I worked for the next 20 years. I've done over 80 movies and I've probably done about 1000 commercials. I've done various photography because of my technical skills and stuff like that.

How did you get the assignment to be a Camera Operator for Escape From L.A.?

Like I said, on any large scale picture like this one had troubles. They had to work in the rain, the wind, the dirt and stuff. Somehow I got the reputation for doing rough projects that were difficult for the cameras because I knew it really well. I knew the camera, knew when to fix it or not to fix it and this and that. Gary (B.) Kibbe who I knew from Universal Studios, he was the DP (Director of Photography) for John Carpenter
(Director/Co-Writer/Co-Composer) at the time and he had somebody. Actually, I must confess I did not start the picture. Somebody else started it and being honest I don't know what happened to them but after a few weeks on the production they called me up and said, "We need you, Leo. Are you available?" and I was finishing up another project and it worked out. So I went over to Gary and did the picture with John Carpenter. The rest is history.

How did you, Jud Kehl (Camera Operator), Chris Squires (Camera Operator), Gary B. Kibbe (Director of Photography) and John Carpenter (Director/Co-Writer/Co-Composer) collaborate and how were the shots prepared?

I've since worked with John Carpenter on other pictures. He's pretty much a laid-back guy. He knows exactly what he wants which is the best thing for a camera crew because some directors are more difficult to understand and get what they're trying to achieve but John it pretty specific and so is Gary who is my immediate boss. John works very. How do you say it? He doesn't work by status or things like that. He'll go talk to everybody and makes himself known. Camera, actors, stunt men anything although he's a man of few words but you understand those few words because he's got a vision in his head. He's a reserved person. He's not a loud leader type. He's very knowledgeable. He's very easy to work with and so is Gary Kibbe. The leaders of the production. A pleasure to work for. So we all worked together. We all knew each other. Jud Kehl I knew the least. Chris Squires had worked for me as an assistant and I hired him on many pictures before. Of course I told you I knew Gary Kibbe from Universal Studios. We just became a team right away. We become like a football team if you can imagine. We didn't have any preparatory because like I said, I was replacing someone although when they hire you the first thing they do is to send you a script. In those days you had to drop by the office to pick up the script and then you have a meeting with the production manager and of course with Gary Kibbe, the director of photographer. He would explain what we're doing, how we're doing it, how it's going, what to expect, what to look out for and what to prepare for.

Is it true that it was a tough project for Gary B. Kibbe and did John Carpenter have any specific requests during production?

It was. For cameramen. Especially in those days. Nowadays it's at least 50 percent easier to do anything because the electronic cameras are so much more forgiving and it required much more light. So everything had to be lit and luckily Gary had an old school background. He started out as a very young man and he knew about the big lights and lighting. When you light for that scope it takes dozens of men and dozens of huge lights that we set and you can't move them around. You have to make a decision and stick with it and you will be be making decisions during broad daylight. You're standing there, it's nine in the morning, it's broad daylight and you're trying to figure out what it's going to look like at darkest. It has to be dark enough to sell the story so that everybody understands it when something comes by. You see what actors and what car, what's going on at the time, then explosions. It all has to be visualized. It was difficult for any cameraman to do that project. It took a lot of preparation. Huge electrical department. Maybe 100 men.

Out of the ordinary you mean? Well, during the rain sequence and hang gliding sequence which was very difficult I became much more important because of the technical aspects. Protecting the cameras and stuff like that. Of course I was a camera operator I would operate in some difficult circumstances. I actually flew. John came to me first and asked me if I was afraid of heights and flying and I said, "No. What do you mean?" He says, "We want to put you in one of those hang gliders wheel." By the way, I was also the smallest person of the camera operators and anytime you're dealing with flying weight is a factor so if you're going to carry a camera you want to pick somebody that knows what he's doing but you pick somebody that's not too large because of the weight of it. So John asked me if I would do a favor and get in there and fly one of these things carrying a camera and looking down at the ground and stuff like that and do what they call POV. Point Of View of the actor. That was something that was unique to myself. It was very adventuresome. I like the adventure of these things. The best analogy would be a sport during the exciting part when the clock is running out and everyone has to get an adrenalin thing and after a while you like that part of it. It becomes the part you look forward to when things are exciting. I've never flown in a hang glider. I didn't know how to operate it or anything and of course it was all done with wires and stuff like that. I wasn't completely set free although it seems to be when you watch the movie. They were all controlled very much by the technicians and stuff like that. I enjoy this stuff.  

Which scenes were the most challenging, problematic and time consuming to prepare for or film and did you encounter any technical issues during production? The Sunset Boulevard (Carson), Beverly Hills Hotel sewer (The Belmont Tunnel) and basketball (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) scenes comes to mind.

Oh yes we did. There was a number of technical issues but they were all minor and they didn't have any big consequence in the movie. We had cameras that got wet and got dirty. Things like that. We had cameras that water got into the batteries and stuff like this but we're prepared for that. They had duplicate equipment. The hang gliding sequence was one of the most difficult. We did it at Universal Studios in the back lot and a lot of people working all night long. We would come in six in the evening and go home six in the morning when the sun was coming up. That was pretty fatiguing day after day. It was a big sequence and had a lot of technology involved for those times. That was one of those things that took extra effort plus everybody is tired. Everybody is working nights. Nights are the most difficult because you have to work from sunset to sun up. It's harder to adjust at first and especially with water and rain, lightening, explosions and fires so that was the tough part of it. Working night. If you remember the picture, except for the straight up dialogue it's a lot of action. Going from places to other places and nights, running through hallways and corridors and junkyard kind of things and stuff like that.

That was also a very big deal with the cars coordinating all that stuff at night. You have stunt crews and a stunt coordinator and all that. Just imagine all the building, creating those images. Much more difficult in those days. You actually had to do it. Nowadays with electronics they can make it look like Paris if they want to. There was nothing out of the ordinary. It's like combat or being a part of a football team and in case something goes wrong you adjust to it and sometimes John would use that. Sometimes things would fall over and block the camera and he would use that. He's very inventive that way.

Well, that was very interesting. It was something we've never been around before. I can't think of anything unusual. There was no accidents or something unpredictable. It was all handled by top people in the industry. They knew what they were doing and were prepared way in advance and things like that.

It was planned out. It wasn't complicated at all. It seems so but it was all set up and had been rehearsed by Kurt (Russell) (Snake Plissken/Producer/Co-Writer) before they even started production.

Do you know why the Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) on horseback chasing Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) at Sunset Boulevard sequence in the script was dropped?

I don't know about that. Like I said, I came in a little bit late. 

How was the experience working with the cast and crew and
what went on behind the scenes? Also, do you know why Chris Squires left during production?

It was a very good crew.
A lot of us knew each other. In fact, my son was on it. He was a camera assistant. We had a long history of it and it was a joy to get together and do it because it was such a great project. I remember good memories on it. I've worked with John Carpenter since. I did John Carpenter's Vampires some years later so I had a working relationship with John and I enjoyed that. He called me to do another picture with him. I've never worked with Peter Fonda (Pipeline). I've worked with Kurt Russell years earlier (Captain Ron) but we never knew each other as friends. We did recognize each other and said hello. I don't think I was a camera operator then. I was an assistant. He's a great guy to work with too. Easy going guy. He's as good as you can imagine. He's a cool guy. Easy to get along with. He's funny. If something goes wrong he makes a joke out of something. Keeps the crew in a good mind set. There wasn't a tough person in the project. Everyone was very professional. They knew what they were doing.   

No, I don't. I think he had another project. Sometimes projects overlap each other near the end and sometimes we stop shooting too because we have corrections to make. We did retakes of some things and Chris Squires wasn't available for that if I remember correctly.   

What did you film additionally for the movie?

There weren't any retakes really. There were pick-up shots where the editor and director decide we need some more cuts of like the car sequences and I think we did some more explosion and additional shots for the hang glider sequence. I think we did some pick-up shots for that. Some establishing shots are sometimes done at the end. A picture of a city or something like that. We do shots like that later because we want to stay with the action and do the most difficult shots first. We did some afterwards. I can't remember anything significant. It was kind of routine stuff at the time.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

Working with Kurt Russell because he was such a joy. He made it easy for us. He knew where the camera was at all times and we didn't have to do have shots that were awkward. You know, had to do retakes and stuff like that. He just had a sense about my job as I did with his job so he became very easy to work with under those difficult circumstances. Like I said, night, rain, wind, fire, explosion and some of that stuff is pretty dangerous. It was a lot of stress but Kurt Russell made it a pleasure to be working for and so did John but John is a more quiet man.

What do you think of the movie personally?

I like it. It's fun. I mean, you gotta like the movie. It's a great action movie and it got humor. It got drama. It got twists and turns like a murder mystery and stuff to think about too. We had a virus. We had an atomic weapon. We had an earthquake. It's all in this movie which makes it very timely. Actually, when you think about it nowadays we have this corona virus going on too. That was considered a lie in those days but now those are the same things that are in headlines. Could be in tomorrows newspaper. Stuff like that. 

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Also, have you ever considered doing more genres that are less demanding?

I'm pretty much retired. I worked much longer than most people do in the industry. I worked into my 70s as a camera guy. I became an action kind of guy because I enjoyed that and I don't have to work as much. They pay me a little more to do it. My last picture was done in actually China. It was a picture for the Chinese called Streets of Fury and pretty much retired after that. I've worked on like I said 80 movies. I do aerial photography with helicopters. Now they use drones. I've done a lot of that remote stuff with the high-tech cameras. Fast & Furious, I worked on three or four of those. I've worked on three of four Clint Eastwood movies. I know Clint very well and his family and those guys over at Warner Brothers. I did Star Wars too. Return of the Jedi. I'll tell you a funny story. Because I have a long resume on large pictures that's how I got to do the Chinese thing. When they hire you to go to China they want people that's been a long time in a skill. Have a lot of background. You know, have a deep resume. So when Gary and stunt coordinator were doing it they said, "Why won't you get Leo? He can do aerials for you and mount cameras for you." so he called me to do it and got over there and Gary kept telling all the Chinese who I am. "Who is this guy?" "Don't worry, this guy has done over 80 movies. He's done Star Wars." I only worked on them. I didn't do the whole movie. He had them believing I was very important to them when I got there. It was kind of humorous because many young people look me up and they see it. You did this, you did this and whatever. They began calling me the legend. I said, "You're only calling me a legend because I'm old." That was my last film project. It was time to finish then. That was difficult enough. Working with the Chinese and stunts and crashes and stuff like that. They're not as skilled as we are so it becomes much more dangerous. I'm living in San Diego now with my wife. My son is still a camera guy in Hollywood. My daughter-in-law is a make-up person. She was a make-up person for this new movie called Tenet. It's a big picture that's about to come out in a month or so. I'm still attached to the business because of that and I have a lot of people and friends that contact me but I moved away from Hollywood to just give myself a break somehow so not every conversation was about movies I've done and stuff like that. Although I enjoy doing this for you. Now I've learned to embrace it. It's a pleasure to share. I'm currently doing a thing called Arlington Cemetery. It's a big cemetery in Washington, DC (District of Columbia) with all the heroes and soldiers and it's got an old history that goes back to the civil war. I'm doing a documentary using this one person as a guide that takes you through what happened there and more of this man Bob Hammerquist who died recently. He was buried at Arlington which is a big honor. He had five purple hearts. He had fought in the second world war, Korean war and the Vietnam war. He's been wounded five times. He was an army coronal. His life was so historical. It's amazing and nobody ever heard from him. He's like an unsung hero. Nobody knows who Bob Hammerquist is. I've been in the Vietnam a little bit before while I was in the Navy and the destroyers. I'm doing his life and how it ends in Arlington Cemetery. It's different than fantasy because we're dealing with a real story with real people. A friend of mine who is an editor and I just shot the whole funeral and now we're in post-production. Kind of a work of love rather than money. I mean, it's possible it might be on television and stuff like that.

If you think of all those action movies and explosions and fires and stuff like that there's a certain degree of danger definitely but it's done very professionally. I've seen very few serious accidents. I saw a couple in China when I was there but some of the most difficult pictures I've worked on. I did Eye for an Eye with Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland. They had fired somebody else and some of the stress on that movie set was so much because the story is about a woman that has children and she leaves for work in the morning. She lives in L.A. Kiefer Sutherland plays a criminal like a sex pervert kind of thing and he breaks into the house with the kids and he takes over and she's in a car in downtown L.A. on the phone and he's telling her, "I'm in your house and I have your daughter." and she's in her car stuck in traffic. This is the premise of the story and eventually she gets her revenge. That's why it's called Eye for an Eye. It was the most stressful film that I've ever worked on and the least fun coming to work everyday because of the subject matter. It's something that's horrible that can happen for anybody. It was not a happy crew. It's not a joyful thing. That's a different end of the spectrum. There were no danger. We were shooting on the lot, on stages. It was just going through the story and having the kids screaming. Conversely, if you're doing a comedy. I've done more than a few comedies. They're the opposite generally. In some of them you know people get feisty. Directors and stuff like that and yelling and screaming but most comedies are the most fun to work with.

Thank you for your time, Leo.