- Film And TV
- 19 Aug 20
Following release of his superb memoir, McLean also discusses New Hollywood legends Hal Ashby and Robert Altman.
Written in collaboration with author and sometime Hot Press contributor Wayne Byrne, cameraman and cinematographer Nick McLean’s new memoir about his remarkable Hollywood career, Nick McLean: Behind The Camera, is one of the most brilliant and fascinating film books of the year.
Covering his work with New Hollywood legends Steven Spielberg, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman, as well as his adventures on cult classics Cobra, The Goonies, Spaceballs and Cannonball Run II, Behind The Camera gives a compelling insight into the filmmaking process, whilst providing a string of cracking anecdotes to boot.
I recently had a Zoom chat with the affable McLean, who is now retired and living in Malibu. In a notable coincidence, both of us had within the past couple of days watched Hal Ashby’s revered 1975 social satire, Shampoo. I was watching the movie for the first time, and I was unexpectedly blown away by it – I thought it was a masterpiece, permeated by the unique melancholy that only seemed to exist for a brief, magical time in ’70s Hollywood.
For his part, Nick pointed out that he had worked with Shampoo’s leading man, Warren Beatty, on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller. He reflected that Beatty and co-star Julie Christie were an item on that movie – whilst wryly noting that they’d split by the time he reunited with them on Heaven Can Wait.
It was the start of a hugely enjoyable hour-long chat with a man whose book could easily have been subtitled LA Confidential…
PAUL NOLAN: One of the earliest classics you worked on was Robert Altman’s revisionist western McCabe & Mrs Miller from 1971. How did you and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond achieve the distinctive dreamlike look?
NICK McLEAN: The interesting thing about Robert Altman is that, when we were doing McCabe, he wasn’t known at all. Then about halfway through the film, Mash came out and he became a big star. On McCabe, Vilmos Zsigmond and I had control of the lab. We pushed the film a couple of stops and we had all kinds of filters and fog filters – Zsigmond was a big user of them. So that’s kind of how we got the look.
Was that a very new approach in Hollywood filmmaking?
Absolutely brand new and the studios kept saying, ‘It’s too dark.’ But Altman backed us, so we could pretty much do whatever we wanted. The sequence in the movie where there’s a big snow storm, we had one day of snow but we had to add that snow in – it was done in the lab, but it looks pretty good.
How was Altman to work with?
He was terrific. It was before he got to be a big star, so he was still a good guy. I guess he always was a good guy; I didn’t work with him after that. I actually went to his funeral. He was a good man and a good director.
Altman was known for his improvisational directing style – did you just have to roll with?
Yes, we did. We didn’t really have a script; we kind of had an outline, and in the morning, we’d go over what was going to happen. He was the first guy to use sound overlapping – in Hollywood, you couldn’t overlap because of the cuts, but he just said, ‘Screw it, that’s the way it is in real life. Let’s just overlap and see what comes out.’ That’s why the sound seems so different as well.
It’s amazing you can start out with an unfinished script and end up with a classic – there’s so many different types of approaches to filmmaking.
Altman and Warren Beatty went at it a little bit. Warren tried to get his way a lot, but Altman usually won out.
What was Beatty’s main issue?
He can never get anything right before the 20th take – and I’m not exaggerating. That’s how long he has to go before he likes anything. This is a good story – one Friday night, we all wanted to get out of there, and this is the scene: Warren was in a hot tub, and all he had to do was splash his arm in the water, and the water would splash up in his face. It was like he was drunk and that woke him up.
So we start shooting at 7 o’clock, and about 8, Altman said, ‘I got what I wanted, I’m going home.’ And Warren said, ‘No, no – we’ve got to keep shooting.’ We shot ’til midnight! I swear. There was no dialogue, no nothing, but Warren kept doing it. And Altman said, ‘I got what I need – you guys work as late as you want, but I’m going home.’
Actually, the crew would bet on whether we’d get the shot on take one or take 30! It was so ridiculous.
Did you get on with Beatty?
Yeah, I did. He always got upset because McCabe & Mrs Miller was such a photographic beauty. He wanted it to be such a great movie – and it was a pretty good movie – but it was known more for the look than the story.
HAL ASHBY, BEING THERE & THE STONES
How was it working with Hal Ashby?
He was the greatest. In the book, it’s the story of how we were doing the Rolling Stones concert film – he called me over the radio and asked me to come into the editing trailer. I went in and he had an IV in his arm. I said, ‘What the hell?’ And he said, ‘When I get around the Stones, I party too much.’ He lived in Malibu too and he asked me, ‘Can you give me a ride home after we’re done with this?’ I said, ‘You bet.’ A great gentlemen though, really a good guy.
As a director, how would you compare him to Robert Altman for example?
I think Hal was much better and he knew much more about film. Because he’d been an editor before. So the way we did dailies, he would have two or three projectors, and he’d have the masters all on one projector and the close-ups on another. As soon as he liked a master, he’d just say, ‘Turn off that projector and go to the others.’ He really kind of edited everything in his head, so I think he was clearly a better director – to me anyways – than Robert Altman.
I presume Ashby would start with a much more finished script.
Oh definitely. On Being There, we had the author of the book and the screenplay, Jerzy Kosinski, there with us about half the time.
On Being There, you worked with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel – the look of the movie is very painterly.
Yes, it was one of Caleb’s first pictures; I think before that, he’d done Black Stallion. I met him when he was a really young guy, and he asked me to do this one. I thought he was just incredible also, he’s a real student of film. If you know Gordon Willis, who did The Godfather – Caleb followed Gordon Willis around. He would go and sit on his sets and watch him light. Caleb ended up being probably one of the top five cinematographers ever.
The interiors of Being There are actually quite similar to The Godfather, with the shadows and moody atmosphere.
Yeah, there was a moody vibe to that big castle Peter Sellers’ character lived in. It was kind of scary and cold, so we tried to make it look that way, not over-light anything, and it was really pretty neat.
How long would it take to light the scenes?
It would depend on the scene and the size of the area you have to light. But we didn’t augment anything in the interiors – the time it took to light would just depend on what Hal wanted. Of course, the close-ups were pretty easy to do, depending on where we were. Whatever Hal wanted, we did.
Was it a close collaboration between you, Deschanel and Ashby?
When I was a camera operator, it was more between Caleb and Hal. But I’d give my input if I saw something I thought we could correct or make better.
The other thing that stands out in the film, of course, is the incredible performance by Peter Sellers.
Unbelievable. I’ve got a picture somewhere of he and I talking… He knew he had a bad heart and he wasn’t going to be around long. We had a big discussion about it one day. A friend of mine who’s a stills photographer clicked a shot of us, and it’s my favourite show-business picture I have. It’s really a treasure to me.
How did you do the final shot where his character literally walks on water?
What happened is they put 2 x 12s under there, which were about an inch-and-a-half below the surface of the water. Then when the sun got to a certain sport, there was a reflection in the water, so you didn’t see the wood underneath. We’d done eight or 10 takes, and after that, we were wrapping and going back to LA. So, Hal said, ‘Is there anything else you want to do Peter?’ And Peter said, ‘Yeah, I got an idea.’ So he walked back out on the water and submerged his umbrella into it, which was brilliant – it really sold the deal.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH SPIELBERG
You worked with Spielberg on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which I recently watched for the first time.
I just watched that too a couple of days ago! In fact, the last 20 minutes of the film, I called my friend who lives in Chicago now, Peter Sorel – he came over from Hungary with Vilmos – and I said, ‘Peter, he really deserved the Academy Award.’ That whole last sequence when the mothership comes down, and the bottom of it opens up with the shards of light… I was trying to think of how I would have lit it, and I wouldn’t have even thought of lighting it that way.
He got a bunch of HMIs inside the bottom part of the spaceship, bounced them into the tinfoil and had those great shards of light coming up. He did a great job.
Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, did the effects on Close Encounters, which was another groundbreaking movie.
Yeah, the spaceship at the end: that was all Trumbull. You know, the interesting thing is that Spielberg and I used to go out on the runways at night – we all believed in flying saucers in those days – and we’d lie down and look up there. One time I said to him, ‘How do you envision the mothership?’ I’d envisioned it as probably the size of my house. And Steven says, ‘It’s gonna be a mile across.’ And when you look at the wide shot when it comes over the mountain, it’s a mile across. That’s the difference between Steven Spielberg and me – the guy’s got a huge imagination, and it works. When I watched the movie the other day, it holds up, it looks real good still.
Was the earlier part of the film – where Richard Dreyfuss is in a truck in the desert – shot in a studio?
No, that was actually exterior. We were almost fired there two or three nights in a row, because we couldn’t get strong enough light coming down on the truck. Finally, Vilmos got some lights off an aircraft carrier and had them shipped in. Then one night, they hit those lights and we knew we had it, cos they overpowered everything. But it took two or three attempts to get it looking that good.
In the book, you talk about Spielberg getting angry because you couldn’t get the shot. You don’t often read accounts of him losing his temper – would he lose his head occasionally?
Occasionally he does, but he doesn’t go crazy or anything – he just gets real quiet (laughs). And you know you’re in trouble. I did two or three things with him. I did The Sugarland Express when he was like 25-years-old, and he was actually the executive producer on The Goonies, for which he shot second unit.
As a director, presumably he was a polar opposite to someone like Altman?
Yeah, there’s not many similarities there. Steven is really totally into the script and the scene – his whole life revolves around the scene. He’s very precise in what he wants. There’s not a whole lot of variance at all; once he knows what he wants, he gets it. And you know, he’s a real hard worker too. Everybody else can be tired as hell, but he keeps going.
Finally, I have to mention the famous torture scene between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. What was it like shooting that?
It was just terrific – it was my first job with Conrad Hall, who’s probably the best cinematographer of all time. It was an English director, John Schlesinger, and we got along really, really well. There are just some brilliant scenes in the movie. And of course, there’s the famous story of Dustin Hoffman going crazy trying to figure out how to act in the scene, and Laurence Olivier telling him, ‘Just try acting, son.’ I was there when he that said!
That story is referenced all the time.
You know, when I was in Ireland, Wayne and I were in a taxi going somewhere – and the driver was telling us the story!
I think Dublin and LA are possibly the only two cities in the world where the taxi drivers would tell that story.
(Laughs) That’s right!
Nick McLean: Behind The Camera is out now, published by McFarland & Company.