Friday, March 23, 2018

Funeral Home

Steven Duquette, funeral director, Bates & Dodds Funeral Home, Toronto, 2000

EVERYBODY IS FASCINATED BY DEATH. At the turn of the millennium everyone was reading Boom Bust & Echo, one of those applied big ideas books, like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point, that seemed to explain nearly everything in one easy-to-grasp conceit. The big idea in Boom, Bust & Echo was that demographics explained everything, and that if you wanted to predict the future or make a lot of money in the near future, all you had to do was figure out the largest number of people who were going to be in school, buying homes, having kids, retiring or dying.

I was particularly taken by the last point, and for years I'd tried to sell editors on a story about young people entering the funeral business, anticipating the massive boom that would commence as soon as the baby boomer generation started dying off. I was also interested in how the funeral industry, one presumed to be basically conservative in nature, would handle the demands of a demographic who were used to getting what they'd wanted their whole lives, and who had led massive social and cultural changes based on that combination of demands and numbers.

Stanley Chung & Steven Duquette, Bates & Dodds Funeral Home, Toronto, 2000

At what I perceived to be a critical point in my career, Saturday Night magazine bit at my story pitch, and I spent most of 2000 following around Steven Duquette and Stanley Chung, the proprietors of Bates & Dodds, a small, independent funeral home - the oldest operating one in the city - with a very interesting location, on Toronto's Queen West shopping district and across from the gentrifying streets around Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Steven and Stanley were very gracious with their time, and let me document their work with my cameras - provided I dress like them in a somber black suit and expressly request permission wherever I went. Steven, young and articulate, would be the focus of the story, and I shot portraits of him in the casket sales room at the funeral home and sitting on his Honda Shadow by the rear garage door where they took delivery of flowers, coffins and bodies.

Steven Duquette, funeral director, Bates & Dodds Funeral Home, Toronto, 2000

One of the first things I learned was that being a mortician involved an awful lot of paperwork, to comply with the almost infinite number of regulations that applied to the funeral business. I was desperate to get them to talk about the abiding myths and preconceptions about their profession, and to wax philosophical about the nature of what they did, dealing with one of life's most profound and - to most people - terrifying absolutes.

They were remarkably casual and offhanded about it all, as were the many undertakers, young and old, who I interviewed for the piece, as I tried to create a compelling and resonant story for the magazine. I spent most of the year reading, researching, and spending time with the men from Bates & Dodds, accompanying Stanley on a Buddhist funeral one sunny day, and killing time (no pun intended) with Steven in the queue at St. James Crematorium, waiting for our turn to commit a body to the flames.

Stanley Chung & Steven Duquette, funeral directors Toronto, 2000

I shot a lot of film, did hours of interviews and took a lot of notes. This was the sort of story I thought I was uniquely suited for, as a writer and photographer; with every new draft and conversation with my editor, I imagined how it might look in the glossy pages of the venerable - over a century in print! - and award-winning publication. I was a devoted magazine reader, and at one point read over thirty a month, though most of my career had been spent working for newsprint publications. I was desperate for a change, this story potentially showcased the best of what I did.

It was hard not to be fascinated by the more morbid aspects of the funeral business, and Stanley and Steven let me spend a lot of time and a few rolls of films shooting in their embalming room. But even more poignant was a dusty cabinet in a storeroom next to their office, where they kept cremains - cremated ashes - that had never been picked up after funeral services were bought and paid for. Some of these packages had been there for decades.

One dusty box, the earthly remains of Isobel MacFarlane, had been unclaimed since 1968. The label was from the (now-closed) crematorium at Prospect Cemetery. Today I live in a house right next to Prospect, and as I write this I can look out my office window over the wall of the cemetery to its veteran's plot and cenotaph. In retrospect, perhaps not everyone is as fascinated by death as I am.

Bates & Dodds Funeral Home. Toronto, 2000

There were so many stories I could have written about Steven and Stanley, Bates & Dodds and the funeral business, but in the end I didn't write any of them. I'd hand in several revisions of my story, even more unsure every time as to what my editor was looking for. He was young, and from Montreal - a detail he never tired of pointing out - and seemed to want to spend more time at our meetings way up in Don Mills talking about music and music journalism. (A job and a world that I was desperate to leave behind in my past.)

Saturday Night was one of only two or three national general interest magazines in Canada, with a long history and a reputation that made it like a combination of the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and The Atlantic all rolled into one - a role that fell to it mostly because Canada is a big country with a very small publishing market, and barely able, even when publishing was healthy, to support four magazines when one would do.

The magazine was in trouble, however. Under a previous owner, I'd tried in vain to get a friend of my fiancee who worked as an editor there to assign me a story. We'd spend endless phone calls talking through pitches and getting one after another tantalizingly close to an assignment letter before they'd be shot down at one of their many editorial meetings.

Now under new management as a free weekend magazine distributed through the National Post, it seemed that even getting the assignment was no guarantee that I might ever see the story in print. I began thinking that Saturday Night was in the journalism business much as Hollywood made movies, with the majority of the effort expended in its offices and boardrooms devoted to preventing anything from getting published or filmed.

My editor, maddeningly vague the whole time, had me change the focus at least twice before telling me one day that they were thinking of running it as a photo essay. I went up to the office for one more meeting where I'd talk with the photo editor.

We had a mutual friend in my buddy Chris, and while I hoped that might have worked in my favour, our brief, almost wordless meeting mostly involved her glaring at me with what I can only recall as barely concealed hostility. I returned home upset and confused. This was not going at all well. One final phone call with my editor revolved around the question - mostly posed by me, expecting an answer for some reason - of whether they intended to run my story at all. The answer wasn't positive, and I was told to send in an invoice for a kill fee.

Saturday Night would be sold two more times. It went bimonthly and returned to the newsstands before the final owner ceased print publication in November of 2005, after one hundred and eighteen years. It briefly came to life again in 2008 as a blog, but was abandoned after five posts. The photo editor who seemed to hate me for some mysterious reason left publishing to run an artisanal food business. Bates & Dodds Funeral Home closed its doors a few years ago. The building is now a veterinary business.

Bates & Dodds Funeral Home. Toronto, 2000

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Sunnyside, Toronto, 2000

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY ENDED FOR ME WITH A PAINFUL CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE. The business that I'd entered over a decade earlier was visibly contracting and the market for what I had worked so hard to do well - editorial portraiture, mostly - was disappearing. The frustration made me doubt myself and, despite having reached a level of technical competence I'd only dreamed about when I picked up a camera, I could feel my inspiration and creativity flag with every shoot.

If I wasn't feeling desperate, I wouldn't have taken the advice I'd read in some photo magazine and bought a cheap plastic camera. The logic was sold simply enough: If you'd spent your career relying on technology and gear to help create images - and if inspiration was diminishing despite your skill - it might be useful to eschew all those crutches and habits and try to create images without them.

Sunnyside, Toronto, 2000

I picked up my first Holga plastic camera for $75 - they've actually got cheaper since then - and took it out for a stroll along the lake at Sunnyside, a place I've returned to over and over for inspiration. I loaded it with both colour and black and white film to see what kind of results I could expect, while trying to get used to shooting with no expectation of either precise composition or even sharp focus, which is good, because when the film came back I had neither.

What I did get was weirdly evocative shots that, on the contact sheets at least, looked like frame grabs from an old home movie. The imprecise focus in the centre troubled me, but I loved the way the images blurred out at the edges - an effect that would have been more pronounced if I hadn't bought the 120S model of the Holga, which is fixed to shoot only 6 x 4.5cm frames instead of 6 x 6cm squares, so the full effect of the camera's fuzzy optics is lost on two edges.

The Holga was invented in China in the early '80s, a cheap camera meant for the masses. It was built almost entirely out of plastic except for a few tiny metal parts in the shutter mechanism and the clips that hold the back on to the body. Thanks to its very basic construction and the plastic lens, it was prone to light leaks, spherical and chromatic aberration and practically every other flaw that's supposed to be designed out of a quality camera.

It never caught on in China, probably because it took inconvenient 120 medium format roll film instead of 35mm cartridge film, but even more probably because cameras got cheaper and better and made the many faults built into the Holga - its very approximate focusing mechanism, its even more loose rangefinder for composition, its single fixed aperture and shutter speed that makes it almost useless anywhere but on bright days - unendurable for the average buyer, even in communist China. Here, however, it developed a cult following that, a few years later, would coalesce around the Lomography movement.

Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, 2000
View over the rooftops, Macdonell Ave., Parkdale, 2000

I became hooked on the Holga, and took it out again to shoot a stroll through Mount Hope Cemetery, looking for the graves of my grandparents, then again to shoot across the rooftops from the deck of our apartment on Macdonell. It's been over a decade since we lived there, and I haven't been on that rooftop deck since before our youngest daughter was born, so this is how I remember it now - sky meeting asphalt shingles and roof gables, a vivid flash of the past fading as soon as it's recalled.

There was something about the frames on the contacts that evoked images from memory - indistinct and hazy, but with only some small random plane in reasonably sharp focus, like the mind trying to engage some fleeting moment of clarity but falling just short. I'd been experimenting with effects like these in the darkroom for years, using soft focus filters and tissue paper. With the Holga, however, this look presented itself with an added, and very seductive, element of chance.

Spain, 2000

I took it with me again to Spain, tucked into my camera bag along with my trusty Canon SLR and a Kodak disposable panoramic camera. Thanks to the locations - and my choice of subject - the results were even more pleasing. I'd spent almost a decade trying to force sharp, modern lenses, film and printing papers to look like fading Victorian snapshots or the sort of  Pictorialist gallery prints that Ansel Adams formed a movement to rebel against.

But thanks to a cheap Chinese camera I finally got the look I'd been striving for - abetted today (and quite ironically) by digital tweaking in Photoshop. These frames - and especially the photo at the top of this post - are pretty much the best of my first year with the Holga. At the time, I couldn't be sure if they were helping me recover my inspiration for the rest of my work, especially since, within a year, I'd pretty much stop shooting professionally. But the Holga did make shooting fun again, even when I wasn't sure if I could truthfully call myself a photographer any more.

Avila, Spain, 2000

Monday, March 19, 2018

John C. Reilly

John C. Reilly, Toronto, Dec. 1999

JOHN C. REILLY WAS KNOWN MORE AS A CHARACTER ACTOR WHEN I SHOT HIS PORTRAIT for the National Post just before the turn of the millennium. I had worked for the paper since its launch - a relationship that I had hoped would turn into something more than it did. These photos were taken just when that relationship was diminishing.

Reilly was in four films released in 1999, but I'm guessing he was in Toronto for Magnolia, one of the big buzz films of the year. I'm pretty certain I interviewed him in addition to writing the story - one of the privileges of working for a start-up newspaper where editorial roles weren't as written in stone and keenness was rewarded.

John C. Reilly, Toronto, Dec. 1999

Since Reilly was more known as a character actor, I went in a more dour direction with these photos than I would have several years later, after he'd become as a comedy star with roles like Dewey Cox in Walk Hard or Cal Naughton Jr. in Talladega Nights. I've become a big fan of Reilly's since then - he occupies a rare position between straight man, comic foil and holy fool, often moving between the three easily, as he does in Talledega Nights.

John C. Reilly, Toronto, Dec. 1999

My daughters know him as the voice of the title character in Wreck-It Ralph, which he's reprising in a sequel this year. I suppose my fondness for Reilly is why I'd nearly forgotten about these photos - they're merely OK, taken when I was struggling for inspiration with my portrait work (and so much else besides.)

I began work at the Post with a lot of hope - I got in on the ground floor and had bylines and photo credits in the paper right from the first weekend edition, which was run as a separate entity from the daily paper at the launch in 1998. The Post blew through a ton of its start-up money during its first couple of years, and would be sold on to new owners the year after I shot Reilly.

By this point the weekend edition had lost its autonomy and the people I'd worked under during the launch had moved on. Additionally, the Post began functioning like a "normal" paper by now, and staff photographers began edging out freelance assignments. This might have been the last job I did for the paper, at least until nearly a decade later, when I was back to freelancing and the Post briefly took me on again after my time with the national free daily had ended.

But that's a whole other story.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton by Irving Penn, 1950

I OWNED A BOOK OF CECIL BEATON'S PHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE I OWNED A CAMERA. Beaton's work - or the collection of images in photography dealer James Danziger's 1980 collection, bought from a remainder table - was probably as important to me as a photographer as the family Bible with all the colour plates of old master biblical scenes - the only art book we had in the house for the whole of my childhood.

I discovered Beaton in college, when I was in thrall to Evelyn Waugh and the story of the Bright Young Things of London in the Twenties. It was that Brideshead Revisited TV miniseries moment at the beginning of the '80s, as significant culturally to the decade as the election of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA was politically, and his photos often illustrated magazine features explaining the era.

I found the book on sale at Edwards Books & Art (now long gone) on Queen Street West, and stared at his portraits of everyone from Stephen Tennant to General Carton de Wiart to Augustus John to Jean Shrimpton - many of whom I had never heard of until I bought the book. The first photographer whose name I recognized was probably Boris Spremo, the daredevil newspaper photogapher at the Toronto Star whose byline accompanied pictures taken hanging from ropes and construction cranes, but Beaton was the first photographer who I understood as an artist, creating work that had a style and a career-long trajectory.

Love, Cecil, a feature length documentary on Beaton's work and life is opening this week at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs theatre here in Toronto, and I spoke to the director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, on the phone last week to share my thoughts about the man with someone who's spent at least as much time as I have thinking about him and his work.

Nancy Cunard by Cecil Beaton, 1927
Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, 1990

I have had Beaton's photos pasted to the inside of my head for over thirty years, so it's not surprising that they've found their way out many times in work I've shot, like this portrait of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. I definitely recalled Beaton's very early portrait of Nancy Cunard as soon as Wilson brought her hand up to her face, with its thick beaded bracelet. Beaton's photo is dim and blurred, but it helped him make his early reputation as a society photographer, even at a time when there were plenty of other photographers who could be relied upon to hand in a technically superior portrait.

"He was no great master," Immordino Vreeland says over the phone. "He wasn't a photographer's photographer. He just did it."

"He's always been put down a bit because he wasn't in the darkroom, and he did so much more. Because he wasn't just a photographer - he was so much more than that."

Edith Sitwell by Cecil Beaton, 1927
Tilda Swinton, Toronto, 1992

I was an English student taking a minor in theatre when I discovered Beaton, which probably explains why I responded to strongly to the theatrical aspect of his work - the little stage sets he'd build or simply discovered, like the massive tapestry that he used for the background of his portrait of poet Edith Sitwell. I had the Sitwell photo in the front of my mind when I posed actress Tilda Swinton in front of one in the lobby of the Sutton Place hotel for a film festival shoot, another homage to his influence I was daring people to see.

"I love the portraits of the Bright Young Things," Immordino Vreeland says when we talk about his best work, "and the immediacy of him coming up with these fantastic backdrops out of nothing, but you see what I've chosen in the film. So much of it you'd recognize because it's so iconic, but the portraiture that I didn't pick that much was English society, because that doesn't interest me as much."

"It was incredible to me that you had this character, this personality who was vibrant and creative for decades, he found a way to fit into everything and every new trend that was going on. And he found a way to have a vernacular with all these different people, which isn't surprising because he made these things happen."

Serge Lifar by Cecil Beaton, 1938
Jane Bunnett, Parkdale, 1994

I've read Beaton biographies and diaries and it's hard to ignore how insecure he was, from the beginning of his career to the end of his life. He was hardly born poor, but he had little money or support despite his ambition, and the lush effects he achieved in his early work were often achieved on the cheap.

He often painted or built his theatrical portrait backdrops, and while I don't have a fraction of his talent as an artist, I was inspired by his resourcefulness for the session I did for the CD cover of my friend Jane Bunnett's The Water is Wide. The title gave me a pretty clear cue, and while I definitely drew on the look of an old Pacific Jazz or Contemporary album cover from the '50s, I can credit Beaton with the inspiration to create the backdrop with paint left over from the living room of my Parkdale loft.

T.S. Eliot by Cecil Beaton, 1956
Shyam Selvadurai, Parkdale, 1995

Right from the start, and before I had any inkling that I'd pursue a career in photography, I was impressed with the portfolio of people Beaton built up over his decades of work. Aside from his long access to the royal family, there are politicians and artists and writers (including his old nemesis, Waugh) and movie stars and the Rolling Stones, shot in styles that varied from studio glamour portraits to snapshots.

As befits a man who was as known at one point for his drawings as his photos, and who probably achieved his greatest fame as a film and theatre designer, Beaton had enormous creative resources to draw upon. Despite his avowed lack of technical expertise, he used multiple exposures many times in his career, as in his portrait of T.S. Eliot, which was definitely an inspiration when I was assigned to shoot Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai. While not an exact copy of Beaton's Eliot shot, it gave me the guts to try the only in-camera multiple exposure I ever attempted, if only to say that I'd followed Beaton's prompt and done it.

Nancy Beaton by Cecil Beaton, 1926
Norma Shearer by Cecil Beaton, 1930
Bjork, Toronto, 1997

The first photos that really struck me in Danziger's book were Beaton's dreamy tableaux from the '20s and '30s, featuring yards of draperies, scavenged props and crumpled cellophane - cheap materials meant to give the impression of fantasy and luxury. While similar effects were achieved by a more technically accomplished photographer like Angus McBean - a contemporary whom Beaton pointedly ignore in his many diaries - I couldn't help but be taken by the pantomime surrealism achieved in an early picture of his sister Nancy, or the much more modernist feel he gets from crumpled plastic sheeting in the Norma Shearer portrait.

I had Beaton in mind every time I pulled back the window curtains in a hotel room and draped them over a convenient floor lamp. I don't know how many times I resorted to this trick over the first decade of my career, but the best result was probably my portrait session with Bjork, probably because the singer was exactly the sort of quirky personality that Beaton would have responded to, if he'd ever gotten her in front of his camera.

Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton, 1954
Liane Balaban, Toronto, 2004 

Years after I'd first opened the Danziger book, I began finding inspiration in the work Beaton did mid-career, shooting celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Garbo in his custom-designed suites at the Sherry-Netherland, St. Regis or Ambassador hotels in New York City. They were much more informal portraits than the high style glamour and society work he'd been doing a couple of decades earlier, and often did little to disguise the setting.

Working exclusively in hotel rooms during the 2000s, I drew on Beaton once again, using ad hoc or natural light in cramped, rushed conditions much as I imagined he might have. I didn't have the luxury of building up a rapport with subjects like Beaton did with Audrey Hepburn, star of My Fair Lady, the film that made his name as a set and costume designer. But when actress Liane Balaban entered the hotel room during the 2004 film festival looking very gamine - a word I probably learned from reading Beaton - I instinctively put her in a far corner of the room hoping to get something remotely like Beaton's 1954 portrait of Hepburn.

I've written before that I was disappointed with the portrayal of Beaton as a graying court toady in the Netflix miniseries The Crown, and Lisa Immordino Vreeland agreed with me.

"That character they chose - God, he was such an oldie! He looked so stodgy, didn't he?"

"At the same time," she reflects, "it's amazing that he was mentioned in four episodes. I was not happy with the portrayal. I loved the historical aspect of it, and then sometimes they'd show the real archival footage, like when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were with Hitler and Goebbels in Germany, it was fantastic. But I don't think we think of Beaton like that because, well, I think of him as one of the Bright Young Things. I think of him as the younger Beaton, and he was kind of frumpy when he was old. For some reason Snowdon is seen as more attractive."

I think Cecil Beaton is long overdue for rediscovery, and Lisa tells me that she's heard rumours of a biopic in the works. Rupert Everett, who reads Beaton's letters and diaries on the soundtrack of Love, Cecil, would have made a perfect young Beaton, but by the time the film actually gets made he might be more appropriate as the aging photographer, worried about his reputation and legacy and, even more sadly, haunted by loneliness and regret.

For her part, Immordino Vreeland says that she felt fortunate with her choice of a subject, who left such a massive visual legacy in addition to an in-depth written record of his life.

"We had all this material to be able to talk about his emotions, his insecurity, his sadness over love, his different friendships, his creativity. You're fortunate when you have material like this right from the start."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Maggie Cheung

Maggie Cheung, Toronto, Sept. 2000

THIS PHOTO SHOOT WAS BOTH THE END AND THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING. At the time I didn't have a clue that it would be significant, and when the results were published I considered it both a disappointment and a vindication. I'm posting it here as a watershed of sorts - a dividing line that very nearly cuts my career in two parts. Considering their significance, I wish these shots were a lot better, but to my eyes they're really nothing special.

I photographed actress Maggie Cheung at the film festival, where she was promoting Wong Kar-Wai's lush but enigmatic romance In The Mood For Love. The 2000 Toronto International Film Festival was unique for me - working with my fiancee, who was entertainment editor at the short-lived GTA Today, I'd picked a handful of films and interview subjects, in addition to a daily sidebar featuring festival personalities behind the scenes. We though it was a pretty good package, especially considering the meagre resources we had to pull it off.

Maggie Cheung, Toronto, Sept. 2000

I'd been a fan of Wong Kar-Wai since I saw a retrospective of his films a few years previous at the Cinematheque, and knew that I had to do something with In The Mood For Love when I saw it at the pre-festival press screenings. Cheung and Tony Leung play two neighbours in early '60s Hong Kong who discover their spouses are having an affair. Forced together by this infidelity, they discover an attraction to each other that, with a simmering intensity that builds for the whole film, they never actually consummate.

It's an utterly ravishing film, thanks to the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin, the exquisite costume design, the evocative soundtrack and especially Cheung and Leung, two fantastically attractive people. Cheung, in her high-collared tailored cheongsam dresses and piled-up hair, is a magnet for the camera in every shot, walking down the narrow nighttime streets of old Hong Kong or waiting in the shadows of one of the film's innumerable stairwells.

Maggie Cheung, Toronto, Sept. 2000

One of my shots of Cheung ended up on the cover, and thanks to her superstar status in the Chinese community it had the biggest newsstand circulation numbers of any issue of the paper so far. I felt vindicated for choosing Cheung as a feature interview, despite my disappointment at the shoot itself; either feeling rushed or intimidated, I didn't try as hard as I should have to get a really lovely portrait of Cheung.

I could blame the dim, difficult lighting in the room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor, with its tiny windows (especially small compared to the Four Seasons Yorkville nearby) shaded by adjacent buildings. That would, however, be nothing but an excuse, as I would learn to work with the light in the Intercontinental a few years later, after the hotel superseded the Four Seasons, Sutton Place and Park Plaza to become the main film festival hotel for a decade.

I'm getting ahead of myself, however. This would, technically, be my last film festival for four years. I was assigned to shoot the film festival the following year, but it would be a disaster. For the opening weekend the paper - now a merger between GTA Today and the free daily it had been set up to compete with - lent me one of the new Nikon/Kodak DCS digital cameras, a big, clunky piece of gear that ran on proprietary software.

After shooting all weekend with the camera, I brought it back to the newsroom on Monday to have the paper's tech boffin download my images from the internal drive. He was gone for a worrying hour, and finally came back shaking his head. Everything was corrupted - the whole weekend had been a complete waste. The photo editor told me to go back to using my Canon, and that she'd set up a courier system to get my film to their darkroom every day.

That should have worked, but the next day was September 11, 2001. K and I watched the second tower fall on TV, then she headed to work early to help put out the next day's paper. I went to the press office at the Intercontinental where I was told that the festival would be on hold for the next few days. I sat in a big silent hotel banquet room with for an hour watching endless loops of the attack and its aftermath on CNN with a few dozen other journalists and festival workers. If I shot anything else at the festival in 2001, I have nothing in my files.

I wouldn't shoot another film festival for three years, and as far as I can tell I only did one other portrait shoot between 2000 and 2004. A few months after I shot Maggie Cheung I was offered a contract job at the free daily as the interim photo editor while the regular editor went on medical leave. This turned into nearly eight years of full time newsroom work, first as photo editor, then as a critic, columnist, feature writer and photographer, all while becoming a father (twice.) It would end badly, but we'll get to that later.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher, Toronto, Sept. 2000

DIRECTOR JOEL SCHUMACHER ARRIVED AT THE FILM FESTIVAL with a new film and a reputation that, today, you might call problematic. Perhaps that's why I chose to interview him for GTA Today, the newly-launched free daily that had hired me to provide daily festival coverage. He was known as the man who had "ruined" the Tim Burton Batman franchise - though to my mind he had only taken the camp nihilism baked into Burton's films and run with it. (I wasn't a fan of the series, with or without Burton.)

He was also the man who'd made Falling Down, a film that was developing a cult following on the right side of the political spectrum - a fact that wasn't ignored, and had become another black mark against him. I wasn't an enormous fan of his films - he seemed very much a journeyman director, with all the good and bad that entails - but I admired how he was both controversial and successful.

Joel Schumacher, Toronto, Sept. 2000

I found him charming and candid, and very open about his reputation in and outside Hollywood. He was at the festival with Tigerland, a small film - made on a $10 million budget, a fraction of Schumacher's usual productions - that would end up well-reviewed while losing money at the box office. It was a film about the Vietnam War, set entirely stateside at the U.S. infantry training base in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and as a fan of the genre I ended up having a very pleasant talk with Schumacher.

I shot him in the little corner of the rooms in the old Four Seasons in Yorkville created by the duct work that ran up through the building. I'd end up relying on that spot quite a lot in a few years while doing lightning fast portrait shoots at the festival; it provided a nice soft spot of light near the hotel's big, bright windows, while giving subjects something to physically use, leaning into or out of the angled wall.

With a minimum of direction, I caught Schumacher looking mostly insouciant and occasionally pensive - the two expressions that seemed to sum him up that day. These are clean, simple portraits, meant to slot into a column or two of a tabloid newspaper page, but with very little of the style that I'd spent the previous decade striving to create.


Friday, March 9, 2018

Ben Kingsley

Sir Ben Kingsley, Toronto, Sept. 2000

THE NEW CENTURY SAW ME SHOOTING WHAT I THINK WAS MY 25TH FILM FESTIVAL. Fully freelance now after more than a decade, I was loathe to lose access to the event that put more celebrities in front of my camera than anything else, especially after leaving NOW magazine for eye weekly, which had far less interest in shooting movie stars or directors.

Luckily, my girlfriend - fiancée by now - had taken a job as the entertainment editor at GTA Today, a free daily launched by the Toronto Star to compete with the European-based free daily that the Star was supposed to partner with before the deal somehow went sour. This was the opening salvo in Toronto's "Free Daily War," which intensified when the Sun papers launched their own competition, FYI Toronto, at the same time.

It's all ancient history now, but the upshot is that K hired me to cover the film festival as both writer and photographer, submitting a page of content every day that I'd pursue on my own. It was the first time any kind of nepotism had actually benefited me, and when I saw a British film called Sexy Beast at the press screenings before the festival, I knew that I had to try to book something with Ben Kingsley, the movie's big star.

Sir Ben Kingsley, Toronto, Sept. 2000

Kingsley had been famous for years thanks to his title role in Gandhi - only his second film role - but I'd become a fan with the film version of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which came out the year afterward, and is criminally unavailable on DVD, it seems. He played the heavy in Sexy Beast - Don Logan, a psychopathic, Mephistophelean London gangster intent on dragging Ray Winstone's Gal from his happy retirement on the Costa del Sol back to England for one last job.

I loved the film from its first shot - Winstone's Gal sunning his leathery hide poolside while "Peaches" by the Stranglers grinds away threateningly on the soundtrack. Pre-festival buzz for the film was intense, but I was somehow able to get an interview and shoot with Kingsley. It felt like a coup, and proof that the paper - and my fiancée - were right to trust me with the job.

Sir Ben Kingsley, Toronto, Sept. 2000

I was, frankly, intimidated by Kingsley, and further unnerved when he sat down in front of my camera with a diffidently blank expression. After shooting a roll of colour, I realized he wasn't going to give me a lot, so I fell back on my standard gambit of coming in really, really close when I loaded some black and white film into the camera.

In hindsight, Kingsley's unwillingness - or perhaps even inability - to put on a performance for my camera reminds me of why he's always put me in mind of Alec Guinness, another actor who could create and inhabit indelible characters onscreen, but admitted that he was personally a bit of a cipher, only able to access charisma when he was on the job, so to speak.

I have struggled for years to find a way to get the most out of these negatives. In hindsight, I wish I'd used a longer lens instead of what appears to be my usual 35mm on the Canon; even a medium wide lens that close up gives the face a faintly comic distortion that I'm still not sure works here, and it has taken several passes through Photoshop over the years to create just the right narrow depth of field that I'd have gotten more easily with a 50 or 85mm lens - both of which I had in my bag that day.

The truth is that I was experiencing a crisis of confidence at the time, one that would only increase with the other shoots I did at the film festival that year, and would grow steadily worse with the next few years, which were full of big changes.