Press > Exclusive Interviews > Robert Zuckerman (Still Photographer: Escape From L.A.) (Phone Transcript)

  



How did you end up being a still photographer?

Well, that's an interesting story. I had always loved photography as a hobby and in the late nineteen-eighties I was a partner in a small production company in Los Angeles and I was the sales person. There was a director, producer and myself and I was the one responsible for bringing business in. After about a year in business my two partners decided they didn't want me in the company anymore. It was very distressing at that time so I went through a lot of stuff and I just decided, "What am I gonna do now where I don't need any partners?" Like I said, I had been doing photography as a passion and a hobby for probably about sixteen years at that point. I said, "I'm gonna be a photographer now." so I just got some business cards printed out and put together a portfolio. I got one job right away. Was shooting a jewelry advertisement for a jewelry store in Beverly Hills. Shortly after that I got a call from a woman that I knew who was a secretary to a television producer and she called me and said, "Do you wanna try doing some stills on a set?" I said, "Yeah, I'll do that." and I ran out and got myself the equipment that I needed. I borrowed some stuff. It was a television show that was being produced by ABC Television that never made it to the air. They pre-ordered about three or four episodes then they cancelled it. It got me my beginning and actually, one of the actors in that show was a guy with long hair at the time down to his shoulders, George Clooney. That was my first job.

My second job was a very big job actually. You know, on a lot of movie sets they'll have a set photographer that's part of the crew and is there everyday. They also have someone who comes in and does the big poster shoot that's very high paid, high-end photographer, like Annie
Leibovitz or some big famous high-end person. I happen to be friend with the assistant to Oliver Stone and he was filming the movie The Doors at the time. The assistant got me a meeting with Oliver Stone and I had no celebrities in my portfolio, just a lot of you know, my black and white portraits that I did on my own and Oliver Stone really liked that so he hired me to be that big portrait photographer on the movie The Doors. So basically a nobody got the biggest job at the time in Hollywood. For the next couple of years I did small independent films.

Then in late nineteen ninety-two I was called. I had actually in nineteen ninety-one gone to a book signing. There's a pretty famous book store in Hollywood called Book Soup that used to have book signings and they had a book signing with David Mamet who's a director and writer and I stayed afterwards. We somehow struck up a friendship and we're hanging out and you know, I photographed his wife and did headshots. Then about the fall of nineteen ninety-two I get a call from a producer, Edward Pressman, his office and they're getting ready to do a film called The Crow with Brandon Lee and they say, "You know, David Mamet recommended you to be the still photographer." So I was recommended for that. At the time the film was being done by Paramount Pictures. They were the original distributor and they didn't feel that I had. I mean, I had done one film for them earlier that spring but they didn't feel that I had the experience because this is gonna be a dark action film with you know, very rugged conditions and they wanted someone with more experience but the producers stood behind me. They went back and forward and back and forward and suddenly I made a deal with Paramount. I said, "look, just give me a three week trial period and if you don't like the results of what I'm doing then I'll step down." So I just got there in North Carolina and it was very cold and rainy. The conditions was very tough but I had really practiced a lot and I was very determined to do a good job and you know, Brandon Lee really liked what I was doing. I was showing him some of the results.

The three week trial period past and Paramount was liking what I was doing and even after. Are you familiar with the tragedy that happened on that film. They disbanded after Brandon Lee was shot and they were gonna figure out how they're gonna end the film and so they gave it like a six week hiatus and I went back to Los Angeles. The same guy at Paramount who was resisting me being hired said, "You know." They called me into his office and said, "You know, we have photographers we worked with for twenty, twenty-five years that we wouldn't have hired on this job. You did an amazing job and we're very proud of you." It got me into doing. I was the guy that could do dark you know, action films so from there I did like a Hellraiser and some other stuff. Anyway, I'm talking my head off. The moral of the story is that you know, even though I was doing other things and I had a very negative experience in those guys, actually my two business partners and a company where they tried to screw me over I actually look back twenty-six years and I thank them for that because it push me into something that's been really amazing you know, career for me.
                

How did you get the assignment to be the still photographer for Escape From L.A.?

I can't quite remember the chronology. In ninety-four, ninety-five they did the sequel to The Crow and I worked on that and they did another couple of other films. Then Paramount was getting ready to do Escape From Los Angeles and so they called me to do that movie. It all came out of the experience on The Crow

How do you work with people to get the photos you want?

Well, two things. Number one. You know, you just have to be present and be there and treat it very professionally. You know, I develop. I feel if you give respect to people then they give it back to you. Being on a movie set is always a dynamic. Some actors are very comfortable with a still camera around. Other actors get distracted by it so you have to try and be aware of that and respect that. I've learned through experience and through making mistakes. I also try to think about the end result. In other words. A certain part early on you're very eager, you want to get every photograph that's in and in the end you get more experience, you kind of learn what becomes used and what doesn't become used. The main usage for the imagery that we shoot you know, is for advertising, for poster or for publicity in a publication or online these day or the other thing they use it for, merchandise so I just try to think about that. If I feel there's something of a really durable photograph of an actor that maybe is hard to get when we're actually filming I'll ask the first assistant director who's running the set if he wants to hold the lights for me in the end so I can grab some stills that way. Another thing I've done is what they call in the business, they call it the pull away shot. if I see a cool piece of a wall or texture or lighting or something that will be great for a portrait I'll ask the actor or the actor's representative if they can just step aside for a minute so I can get a really nice portrait, and that can be useful down the road as well.

When I was working on the movie Any Given Sunday in Miami which is you know, very rugged with an amazing cast of people I made it a point to go before they were filming. They do what they call lighting and makeup test where they have the actors in full makeup and the camera and director of photography have them in nice lights where they don't have to worry about saying their lines and remembering dialogue. They're just there for the look and that's also an opportunity very early on in filming or before filming to get some really cool portraits so I do that as well. Just working hard and be respectful and I also try to treat the actors not as models when I photograph them. I was on one film in nineteen ninety-two. My first film for Paramount before The Crow was called The Temp and they had a very big name photographer come on and do some special portraits and one point one of the actors. I was kind of observing from the side and saw the actor, the main actor Timothy Hutton get really pissed off and walk away and he was saying, "I'm an actor. Not a model." That gave me an insight very early on to treat it like an acting job and not a modeling job and I think you know, the actors appreciates that when you do that.


How was the experience working with the cast and crew and which people did you enjoy the most working with?

Well, that was a long time ago but. I can't believe it, it's about twenty years. I really enjoyed them all. Kurt Russell was very cool and a very hard working guy and really open and like I said in your previous question, if I saw something really cool, a cool photo or whatever he'd be very compliant of that. Like, there's one shot that actually went on one of the posters for the movie where he's kind of sitting on a motorcycle with a bunch of flames behind him. I thought that was a cool shot and it was just something on the set at night with him sitting on the motorcycle and they put the flames in later in the post-production so Kurt Russell was great. Another actor in there was Cliff Robertson (The President). He was a really, really nice guy to me. He came from like my parents generation so that was really an honor to meet him. He wrote me a nice letter afterwards. They were all pretty good. Pam Grier (Hershe) was really nice. Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie), obviously he's gone on to great you know, notoriety. He was very cool. They were all very cool. John Carpenter, the director was a very kick back guy and obviously a really veteran to a film set so very easy to be around him. He let me do my work. The stunt guys. Kurt Russell's stunt double is a really cool guy. The sound mixer, his name was Thomas Causey. Actually since the film was filmed I think technically like seventy-three all-nighters pretty much which you know, was in the winter time so the nights were longer, so we go in like four or five in the afternoon and leave like six or seven in the morning and after drive home in rush hour traffic being tired. Pretty grueling experience. Tommy Causey was a sound mixer and you know, we'd sit around like three o'clock in the morning telling each other stories and just you know, bullshitting with each other. Just telling good stories of our lives and stuff. That was interesting. Another guy was. Not the stunt double guy but the stand in for Kurt Russell was a guy named Travis Burrell. We became really friendly because you know, again there was like three or four in the morning and in the middle of the night, and just trying to stay awake we always found ourselves doing exercises like push-ups or dips. Things like that and out of that experience we actually created a portable exercise machine that has been patented and sold and that was out of that experience being on Escape From L.A. We've been friends ever since that time as well. I haven't really seen some of the other people. Valeria Golino (Taslima) was great but I haven't seen her since then. It was cool to work with her. Like I said, Pam Grier was great and all the cast members were really kick back. There wasn't anyone who was anti-photography. Everyone was really cool.

Which scenes or sets were the most challenging or fun to photograph?   

They were all challenging in a way. It was a pretty rugged film. That mudslide that you spoke about. That was like I said the first night. That was kind of like getting, they say, "Throw the baby in the pool until it learns how to swim." That was one of those things we knew was gonna set the tone for the whole film. Just you know, dark, night, cold and rugged conditions. The other one is the outdoor action scene shot in a landfill in south L.A. Of course you know, we're hearing all this talk about the landfill being toxic and we had to have the environment protection agency come out to test the land before we went in there. Welcome to Hollywood. That was a pretty challenging scene but enjoyable. Another guy who is really cool in that movie that I didn't mentioned before who is kind of legendary was Peter Fonda (Pipeline). You know, the one scene where he's like surfing on a tsunami, that was kind of fun as well. That was a good one also. Inside the control room was pretty cool and when you know, Kurt Russell and Valeria Golino were like tied up. That's an interesting one. For me it was just fun because I had been a fan when Escape From New York came out. I thought it was a cool film and it was really cool to work on the sequel to that. It was also kind of cool on the set when Kurt Russell was there and Goldie Hawn and the kids would come and visit. Got to see a very young Kate Hudson at the time. So that was kind of cool as well. I did some stuff outdoors, like in a football stadium and they came. The big landfill was probably the most challenging but also very visually compelling and just a lot of stuff there to photograph. You know, it was very dark so I was also trying to figure out the best film stock to use in those dark conditions in the days before digital cameras. I think the landfill was probably the one we spent the most time at.

Which photo or photos are you the most proud of and how many photos did you take?

I can't remember. I mean back in those days when we were shooting film I was shooting 35mm film and we had. You know, the way I worked then, I had had these pouches on my belt. One side unexposed film and when I expose it I put it in the other pouch. I would estimate that I probably took about twenty-five, thirty-thousand frames of film throughout the production.

I like the photo I did with Kurt on the motorcycle that became a poster and I did some cool stunt photos of the motorcycle in mid-air. Some of the long shots of being on that outdoor toxic waste dump because you just kind of put everything on a telephoto lens and it compresses everything so you get to see some of the scenery best. That is kind of a cool effect. Some of the things inside with Kurt Russell when they're in that control room and Kurt Russell and Valeria Golino being tied up. Those were pretty cool. We did some big opening crowd scenes in the Universal backlot and I felt those were kind of fun as well. There's some cool photos of Cuervo Jones you know on a truck with a lot of people around him. I kind of enjoyed those photos.



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

Well, I have to say the friendship I made with Travis Burrell was a great memory, then the sound mixer, Tommy Causey. We had one of our late night discussions. We were just talking about life and career of working so one of the things he's telling me. He was at the time in his fifties. He was divorced. He had two sons in college. He had a lot of expenses and he had to keep working. He was telling me that he long had the secret ambition to be a director but he never acted upon it because of the realities of his life. A couple of years before Escape From L.A., he was working on a film, Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty directing. Warren Beatty somehow knew about Tommy's desire to be a director. One day he came up to him and kind of gave him a hug and whispered in his ear and he said, "Tommy. Start before you're ready." That became a really good piece of advice because a lot of times so many people in life they want to do something but not spend the time to go to grad school or be someone's assistant and it could be ten or fifteen years before they do what they want to do. I liked the notion of starting before you're ready. I thought that was a cool thing. That was a good takeaway that I kept from that.

I had also prior to working on Escape From L.A. also been working on The Crow sequel, The Crow: City of Angels and during that time I met this girl and we were kind of dating. She was a striking looking girl but she had shaved her head so she was bald. One night on Escape From L.A. we are all standing on a hillside and it was cold and the rain machine was going. Whatever, we were standing not too far away from John Carpenter and I heard him asking the assistant director, "Hey! Who's the bald chick?" That's kind of a joke that we have kept out during the years. Now she got very long hair and she got kids. She has a whole different life now but that was kind of an interesting thing about John Carpenter and the fact that he was a complete chain smoker.

Another memory that was nice was like I said that set up shot I did of Kurt Russell because they had another guy Greg Gorman come in and do a big photo shoot. I'm a little disappointed because I did that cool shot of Kurt Russell sitting on a motorcycle with the flames behind him and what not. I showed them a print and someone goes, "Man, this is really cool. We're gonna have Greg Gorman do this in the studio." Of course Greg Gorman made more than me than I made in seventy-three nights of filming so I was a a little ticked off by that. They made two posters and they used one Greg Gorman and they used one of mine so we have a little vindication there.

I enjoyed watching Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn in their relationship together. I worked on one film with Kurt Russell separately, subsequently back in I think 2002 in a movie that ended up calling Dark Blue and it's a cop movie. When Goldie Hawn would come to the set I really enjoyed watching them and I learned from them too because they have. You know, a lot of times when people who are together for many years they kind of just go on autopilot. They don't really talk and when she was talking Kurt Russell would just really sit back and pay attention to her and really listen to what she was saying like another person. It's not about the film so much but it was a good lesson in life to watch that. I'm fascinated with a lot of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes in making the films.

One of the guys who was the key grip guy, Norman Glasser. He was a really good guy and we used to tell jokes to each other. You know, another thing you just do on a movie set when you're waiting in between set-ups or whatever. There's a lot of idle time on film sets. It takes like months to put something together that's only gonna be like an hour and a half or two hours on the screen. Norman was a great guy. We told each other a lot of jokes and now he's like retired for health reasons. He's now the rep for the grips union. 

It was satisfying to get the poster shot out of that. It's a tough challenge to work with people and it's always an opportunity to get better to do your best work. I like that about my experience in the movie. I was very vivid to learn and improve myself. A lot of it is just about working hard. People don't realize how much stamina you have to have to work on a movie set. More often it's twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day and that's just the norm.


What do you think of the movie personally?

I really enjoyed the movie. It created a whole other world. It's just interesting because 2013 has come and past and it's interesting to live through that. When you spend like seventy-three intense nights on a set with people you know working it becomes like your family. I really enjoyed that. I did like the film. I was a little skeptical at first. I didn't know how they were gonna pull it off but I think they did a good job with it.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I live in Miami, Florida now. I used to commute back and forward because I had family members. Two disabled sisters and my mom there to support for a long time. Now, you know, I continued working since Escape From L.A. on movies up till about three years ago. In the early two-thousands I began having issues with my mobility. I would fall and loose my balance and so forth. I went about eight years, almost eight years of testing until I was finally diagnosed in late two thousand ten with a very rare genetic disease that has you know, put me in a wheelchair and rendered me paraplegic. So once I got in a wheelchair it seemed like Hollywood stopped calling me so I decided to come over to Miami full time. Now I'm really pursuing what I love doing which is teaching. I have a position with FIU which is Florida International University. You know, I just try to do what I say, teaching and world betterment. Making them doing things that are gonna help the world get a little better. One of the things I have started back in two thousand two is a body of work called Kindsight. Kindsight is kind of like the original. I don't know if you've ever heard of the photo series Humans of New York which also is a photo and story book about random encounters. I started Kindsight about ten years before that. That's been something that has been ongoing for me. I got books. I exhibit the work in hospitals. I also try teaching and empower young people right now. You know, showing my experience in photography. That's kind of what I'm doing now. I also. In two thousand five I started exhibiting and I probably had about maybe in the last ten years about thirty or more exhibits between New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere. Even if I'm on a wheelchair now I keep the camera with me at all times and so if I see something that inspires me I'll make a photo of it or you know, just always be ready for stuff. I really enjoyed the film business. I have like you know, almost like a twenty-five year career. I think the thing I enjoy the most part is like the comradery and the connection of the people you spend all that time with. That's kind of my, what it is right now. Trying to be a good person. Try to take care of my family. Tech others. I also have a. I take on an apprentice. A seven year old boy who has leukemia and you know, going through some very hard times. I did a workshop with him and I made him to my apprentice and associate and now he comes along on jobs with me.

Thank you for your time, Robert. 

More about Robert Zuckerman here: http://www.robertzuckerman.com/