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Interviews > Robert Zuckerman
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 1980s 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 16 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
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
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
Then in late 1992 I was called. I had actually
in 1991 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
1992 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
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 20,
25 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 26 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
I can't quite remember the chronology. In
94, 95 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 1992. 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.
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. Peter Fonda
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 (Taslima) 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
Which photo or photos are you the most proud of and how many photos did you
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 25, 30.000 frames of film throughout the
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.
How was the experience
working with the cast and crew and what went on behind the scenes? Which people did you enjoy the
most working with for instance?
Well, that was a long time ago but. I can't
believe it, it's about 20 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 73 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 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.
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 50s. 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 10 or 15 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
73 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
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
12, 14, 16 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 73 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
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 2000s 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 2010 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 2002 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 10 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 2005 I started exhibiting and I probably had about maybe in the last 10 years about
30 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 25 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.
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