- 14 Apr 20
Written in collaboration with Irish author Wayne Byrne, Nick McLean: Behind The Camera explores his work with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Hal Ashby, in a career that encompassed everything from Marathon Man to The Goonies.
Movie fans are in for a serious treat with Nick McLean: Behind The Camera, which is unquestionably one of the film books of the year. Written with Hot Press contributor Wayne Byrne, the book compellingly explores McLean’s fascinating career as a top-flight cameraman and cinematographer, including his work on ’70s New Hollywood classics McCabe & Mrs Miller and Being There; Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind; Hal Ashby’s Rolling Stones concert film Let’s Spend The Night Together; and ’80s kids’ classic The Goonies.
McLean also worked on a number of notable movies with Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and Mel Brooks – including cult favourites Cannonball Run II, Cobra and Spaceballs – during his 40 year-plus run in the upper echelons of American cinema. After a promising college football career was cut short by injury, McLean developed in interest in filmmaking whilst studying at USC in Los Angeles.
The first legitimate classic he worked on was Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western McCabe & Mrs Miller, which made memorable use of songs from Leonard Cohen’s debut album to complement its wintry atmospherics. Film fans will gorge on the details of how McLean and his long-time friend and collaborator, Hungarian-American cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, achieved the pioneering effects that gave the movie its dreamlike feel.
Of course, the high-stakes world of Hollywood filmmaking doesn’t come without its ups and downs, and McLean had an especially hairy experience trying to get one particular effect on Spielberg’s sci-fi masterwork Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
“There’s one shot in there where Richard Dreyfuss is in the truck and the mailboxes begin rattling,” McLean recalls. “You think it’s another truck pulling up behind but it’s actually a flying saucer and it takes off… Vilmos brought in lights from an aircraft carrier and it took is about three tries before we got that immense shaft of light strong enough according to how Steven wanted it. But he was so pissed at us for those two or three days until we got that shot right.”
Another notable experience came with McLean’s work alongside acclaimed director Hal Ashby on the Rolling Stones’ 1982 concert film Let’s Spend The Night Together. Having spent the evening keeping up with Mick Jagger in the searing heat of Tempe, Arizona – no mean feat – McLean was then summoned to the control booth by Ashby. Somewhat the worse for wear having done his share of partying with the Stones, the director was hooked up to an IV drip and asked McLean to take over for the rest of the show.
McLean enjoyed another career high point working with Ashby on Being There, one of the acknowledged classics of New Hollywood. In the Oscar-winning 1979 comedy-drama, Peter Sellers again reached the iconic heights of Dr Strangelove, this time as the simple Chance the Gardner, whose unlikely journey takes him to the very pinnacle of US high society.
McLean was in no doubt that, filming Sellers, he was capturing a master at work. A perfect example was the Being There’s famous final shot, where Chance literally walks on water as he crosses the lake of his country estate.
“We were all getting ready to go home and Hal asked if we wanted to shoot anything else before we wrapped up,” McLean remembers. “So Peter said he did and he went back out on the lake but this time he took his umbrella and stopped to take a moment to set the umbrella down into the water and it was a moment of absolute genius. It’s totally ambiguous, you don’t know if you’re looking at Jesus or Chauncey Gardiner.”
Such tales are only the tip of the iceberg in the engrossing Behind The Camera, with McLean elsewhere reflecting on shooting the iconic “Is it safe?” scene between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man; literally diving in at the deep end as he filmed in a water-pit for Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter; hooking up with Spielberg once more for The Goonies; and his later work as DOP on worldwide sitcom smash Friends.
For good measure, there’s a dual afterword from McLean and his son Nick Jr – another cameraman in a family whose history in the film business goes back several generations – where they fondly recall their trip to Ireland last year for a nationwide series of live interviews conducted by Wayne Byrne.
For film fans, this has to be top of the Lockdown reading list.
Nick McLean: Behind The Camera is out now, published by McFarland & Company.