Friday, June 22, 2018

Zach Braff

Zach Braff, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

WHILE RESEARCHING THIS POST, I LEARNED THAT ZACH BRAFF HAS OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER. This is not the sort of information about a living celebrity that would have been anywhere in their biography when I was a boy; I am not certain, in fact, that I would have known what OCD was before I was in my thirties. Knowing it now, however, makes me retroactively apply the information to my (scant) memory of this shoot.

Braff was nervous. I don't know why - it was the end of a press day and I can't have been his only photo shoot and, besides, Scrubs had made him a star five years earlier and he should have been at least a bit at ease in front of cameras by then. But he wasn't. His immediate urge was to mug, but I'd had enough of that at the festival by that point, so I did my best to try and channel his urge to make faces into something a little more focused.

Zach Braff, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

The light was terrible. I'm not even sure there was a daylight window in the room where I was shooting; the colour files are certainly a mess for colour temperature, which - now, years after I took these photos, and with much more experience in Photoshop than I had at the time - means abandoning realistic colour and playing with the sliders until something interesting happens. Or converting to black and white.

Braff was at the festival to promote The Last Kiss, a film he'd co-written (with Paul Haggis) in addition to starring in, alongside Rachel Bilson and Jacinda Barrett. Braff's career is full of multiple credits on films, writing, directing and producing in addition to acting. (He even produced the soundtrack compilation of his film Garden State a couple of years previously.) I imagine that being OCD would probably be an advantage for someone exercising that much control over a project, but this is a level of psychoanalyzing that I'm only tempted to do with shoots like this, where I never really clicked with my subject.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Summer (after Hoyningen-Huene), Parkdale, 1994

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER. With that in mind, I'm posting this photo, which I scanned ages ago and have been waiting - and forgetting - to post when the time was right. With the end of this blog in sight, it feels like it's now or never.

I shot this for the cover of NOW magazine's annual Hot Summer Guide, the year after I'd taken over the whole of my Parkdale loft and had a dedicated, full-time studio space. This was precisely the sort of work I'd always dreamed of doing, and when Irene, NOW's photo editor, assigned me the job, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I'd had this iconic George Hoyningen-Huene photo bookmarked for years, and I'd studied it constantly. What I did know was that it wasn't shot on the terrace of a hotel on the Riviera, but on a balustrade on the roof of Vogue magazine's Paris offices, with the photographer's protege (and lover) Horst P. Horst and a model wearing Izod bathing suits.

Divers, George Hoyningen-Huene, 1930

My challenge was shooting it in the studio, and not in the full sunlight that Hoyningen-Huene had used. I decided to take a few liberties and update the photo to somewhere in postwar North America - my favorite time and place - and shoot it with cross-processed colour slide film. I rented my favorite clouds and sky backdrop from Vistek and went shopping for old pop bottles and did a few tests until I was sure I'd nailed the light.

For models I chose the best-looking couple I knew at the time - Sloan drummer Andrew Scott and his girlfriend (later wife), actress Fiona Highet, two recent transplants to Toronto from Halifax. Fiona had a suitable vintage bathing suit, they understood exactly what I was trying to accomplish and took their places on my old weathered barn board table top perfectly. After a coupe of Polaroids and a roll of film I knew I'd nailed the shot to the best of my current ability. (In retrospect, I wish I'd taken a roll of black and white.)

Unfortunately, I decided to take a couple of extra setups just in case - prudence always being as much a vice as a virtue with me. They were much more "fun" and conventional, and I don't think anyone who's worked as a magazine photographer will be surprised that, in the end, the paper went with one of the "just in case" shots instead of my meticulously planned homage to Hoyningen-Huene.

THAT is a mistake I will never make again.

Fred Willard

Fred Willard, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

LIKE BOB BALABAN, WHO I PHOTOGRAPHED EARLIER THE SAME DAY, I have probably been watching Fred Willard in something all my life. As with Balaban, he was doing bit parts on shows like Get Smart, The Bob Newhart Show and Laverne & Shirley when I was a TV addicted pre-teen, before he came upon his avuncular but slightly addled onscreen persona on Fernwood 2-Nite as Jerry Hubbard - Ed McMahon to Martin Mull's Johnny Carson.

Like Balaban, he was at the festival to promote Christopher Guest's latest ensemble comedy, For Your Consideration. (I also did portraits of Jane Lynch the same day but, alas, they aren't worth sharing here, which is a regret.) I remember all of the talent from Guest's film being somewhat bemused by the ritual of press days, but none more than Willard.

Fred Willard, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

There's a smirk on Willard's face in nearly every frame I shot that day. It's one of the challenges of shooting comedians, which usually begins with their urge (I think some regard it as an obligation) to mug for the camera - "playing the clown" is often a full-time job, and it sometimes requires some magic combination of words or an intervention to head it off. Clearly, I had neither the time nor the words to do it with Willard.

Fred Willard is still as ubiquitous on the big and small screen as ever. He has the unusual distinction of playing one of the few live action roles ever in a Pixar movie when he was cast as the head of the Buy-N-Large corporation in WALL-E - the sort of glibly untrustworthy authority figure that he's made his specialty, and since authority of all kinds hasn't made itself any more trustworthy in the decade-plus since I took these photos, I don't imagine Willard will ever have a shortage of work.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jacinda Barrett

Jacinda Barrett, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

IT WAS A BUSY MONDAY, AND IN MY MEMORY IT WAS BARELY A MINUTE after Rachel Bilson had left the hotel room before Jacinda Barrett walked in and introduced herself. Chris, the writer, and I must have visibly reacted because the first words out of her mouth were:

"Yeah, I know - tall, right?"

Indeed, she was tall where Bilson had been tiny - an Australian and a former model who had become famous as part of the cast of MTV's Real World: London ten years previous and turned that into a springboard for a movie career. There had been a few small films and a couple of slasher pics before she landed a prestige role supporting Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in the movie adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain.

Jacinda Barrett, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

That was followed by the Bridget Jones sequel and Wolfgang Petersen's remake of The Poseidon Adventure before the film that brought her to Toronto on this day - a remake of an Italian romantic comedy directed by her co-star Zach Braff, with Bilson making up the third leg of a triangle. Since I was already in place to take a photo, it was a simple matter of having Barrett step into the spot where Bilson had just stood for a quick portrait shoot.

Her model's training made Barrett even more at ease in front of the camera, and it didn't take much to coax a little performance from her. It was one of those shoots that you knew had worked before it was over. Neither of the shots above would have looked like this when I handed them into the free daily; I would have been asked what was wrong with my camera if the top shot had such a warm ochre cast, and there was no way I could have submitted anything in black and white.

Bilson has continued to have a career in movies and on TV, where she recently had the lead role in Bloodline, a Netflix series. She also played a recurring character in Suits, alongside her husband Gabriel Macht, which burnished her celebrity status by putting the couple on the guest list for the recent royal wedding.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rachel Bilson

Rachel Bilson, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

I HAD NEVER BEEN CLOSER TO MAINSTREAM ENTERTAINMENT CULTURE IN MY CAREER than in my years at the free daily. I was not - still am not - a very mainstream person by taste or inclination, so I often needed someone to explain to me just why the person I was about to photograph was a big deal. For that, I relied either on Tina, the paper's entertainment editor, or Chris, the writer with whom I worked for much of my time at the free daily.

I had heard of Rachel Bilson while writing the daily TV column for the paper, but since the vehicle that made her famous was a prime time soap, I had never seen an episode and had no idea what she looked like. The young woman who walked into the hotel room at the Intercontinental where I did this shoot was best described as pixie-like - tiny, and with huge eyes only slightly emphasized by the makeup person in close attendance.

Rachel Bilson, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

As I've written here before, it's hardly a challenge to get a decent photo out of a photogenic person - someone whose livelihood, in fact, springs from their camera-friendly appearance - who is years past sitting down in front of a photographer and apologizing for feeling awkward. Bilson - whose family worked in the movie industry, and whose Los Angeles high school classmates included Kirsten Dunst and Remi Malek - had likely never been at liberty to use that excuse.

Looking at these photos from over a decade's remove - during which Ms. Bilson has starred in her own series, had a child, ended a relationship with another big name actor and prepared to debut another TV series - I can't help but think that my photos of Rachel Bilson are slightly anthropological in nature.

This young woman was very much a creature of Hollywood, and my portraits of her aren't dissimilar to pictures I might have taken of some rare, semi-tame but wholly exotic subject. She probably wouldn't have been put in front of a photographer without wardrobe, a stylist and a small team of handlers to approve setups, but she was at a film festival promoting her first starring role in a movie, so the usual apparatus had been put away for the moment, in the interest of propagating publicity.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Bob Balaban

Bob Balaban, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

THE FIRST FILM I REMEMBER SEEING BOB BALABAN WAS CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but I'd probably caught him in episodes of TV shows like Room 222, Maude, The Mod Squad or Love, American Style, back when I was a kid who watched way too much television. By the time he seemed to show up regularly in movies such as Altered States, 2010, Bob Roberts or Ghost World, he had become a comforting presence - "Hey - it's that guy," your mind would mutter.

Balaban's onscreen presence overlapped with another character actor, Wallace Shawn, as the nebbish, and occasionally the antagonist to the leading man. Like Shawn, Balaban's background taught him about power and celebrity - Shawn's father had been a longtime editor of The New Yorker, while Balaban came from a family of movie industry pioneers.

My theory is that their indelible presence onscreen, even in the briefest of roles, comes from being able to project an insider's knowledge - a confidence that they might not be the most formidable or charismatic character in the plot, but they know how things really work, and their opinions are ignored at the peril of the leading man or heroine. They were representatives of real world authority, embodied in unprepossessing men.

Bob Balaban, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

Balaban was at the film festival as part of the cast of For Your Consideration, his fourth appearance in the company of actors who helped Christopher Guest make his ensemble comedies, which  previously included Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. He's subsequently joined the regular troupe of actors who appear in Wes Anderson's movies - proof that Balaban is probably a reliable team player who inspires loyalty. Balaban's also worked as a director, writer and producer (Gosford Park) so that expression of quiet authority likely comes from knowing more about the whole process of moviemaking than most people on set at any time.

I like character actors, so I arrived for my shoot with Balaban with a few thoughts about the man already in place. This is probably why I didn't bother shooting an awful lot of frames of him, once I saw the self-contained, bemused look on his face through the viewfinder of my camera. He delivered the expression of the persona I'd already formulated about him almost immediately, and without the luxury of time to play with or push against that expression, I knew I had the basic minimum of what I needed for a portrait.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Jodie Whittaker

Jodie Whittaker, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

THE NEW DOCTOR WHO. To be fair, I couldn't have known this when I shot these portraits of Jodie Whittaker, a young English actress promoting her first role onscreen at the film festival. The show had only been revived a year earlier with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, and people were talking more about his northern accent than the possibility of a female Doctor.

Whittaker was just twenty-four when she arrived at the festival with Venus, and she couldn't have asked for a more noteworthy debut with Peter O'Toole as her co-star. I might have been a bit disappointed that I wouldn't get a chance to photograph O'Toole - he'd been on my "List" since I'd first come up with one, but I'm not sure if he even bothered making an appearance at the festival that year.

Jodie Whittaker, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

I didn't know anything about Jodie Whittaker when she walked into the press suite at the Intercontinental on Bloor, but I remember that she was tall and taking the whole film festival thing in her stride. If she reminded me of anyone, it was probably Cate Blanchett, when I'd photographed her at the film festival eight years previous, though Whittaker was far more confident in front of my camera.

Photographing someone like Whittaker is a challenge, since they don't arrive with any sort of persona you can work with or play against. You have to look them square in the eye and just let them react to you and the situation of being photographed. Jodie Whittaker held her ground remarkably well, at least according to what I see in these shots. A bit of time-traveling insight would have been useful, of course, as I'm sure I'd have had more ideas about photographing the Thirteenth Doctor.