Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Joseph Fiennes

Joseph Fiennes, Toronto, Sept. 2004

ANOTHER ENGLISH ACTOR, ANOTHER PAINFULLY BRIEF PORTRAIT SESSION. After playing the playwright himself in Shakespeare In Love, Joseph Fiennes managed to hitch a ride on the subsequent wave of Shakespearean films that followed by playing Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino at the top of the bill as Shylock.

At roughly its halfway point, the film festival's press schedule starts to get a bit ad hoc, with interview rooms getting scarce and schedules constantly blown. I did this shoot in an empty banquet room at the Intercontinental, with at least one other photographer working in another corner of the space. The best spot I could find to photograph Fiennes was tucked into the curtains next to a big window overlooking Bloor Street.

Joseph Fiennes, Toronto, Sept. 2004

He was not, if I recall correctly, very talkative, and resisted my attempts to make small talk. Which was fine - in the best of all possible circumstances, I like my subject to be as silent as myself, though it's always better to have at least a few minutes to let the effects of the benevolent standoff between photographer and subject produce at least a moment of discomfort or confrontation or something in between.

What I got was Fiennes sedately refusing any possibility of my camera capturing a glimpse of interior life. His face in the top photo puts me in mind of a lens staring back at a lens - a cool confrontation that he's intent on ending in a draw. It's a face not unlike a Jacobean court portrait, with the sitter determined not to give an inch of their status away to some itinerant painter.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Emily Mortimer

Emily Mortimer, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I'VE WRITTEN HERE BEFORE THAT ONE OF THE STRANGEST THINGS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHING ACTORS is the likelihood - more common with young actresses than anyone else, admittedly - that you might have seen them naked, onscreen, before you ever meet them, fully clothed and in person. It's a forced intimacy that happens with almost no one else, and it has never seemed fair or right.

A couple of years before I took these portraits of the British actress Emily Mortimer, I'd reviewed a movie called Lovely & Amazing, in which Mortimer and Catherine Keener played the unhappy daughters of an equally troubled mother. In one particularly brutal scene, Mortimer's character, an aspiring actress, asks the callow movie star she's dating (Dermot Mulroney) to do a critique of her body.

She stands nude at the foot of his bed while he goes into pitiless detail, after which she meekly thanks him. Watching it, I couldn't help but feel some measure of her humiliation, and I like to imagine that was the intention of director Nicole Holofcener, otherwise the scene is mere pointless cruelty.

Emily Mortimer, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Nude scenes have become a rite of passage for young actresses in and outside Hollywood, with screen captures that will pop up in a Google image search forever afterward. Mortimer has survived hers - they sometimes mark the beginning of the end of budding careers - and has had a very decent career in Hollywood and the UK, often cast as the "brainy but beautiful" character, and voicing a role in a Pixar film.

Besides being a fine actress, Mortimer has the gift of a particular sort of beauty - the "English rose" - that hasn't been sharpened to a fine point by Hollywood glamour. I wish the shots I'd taken during our very brief portrait shoot had been better, but I think it probably would have taken more than a couple of dozen frames to get past her polite reserve, or for me to overcome my own embarrassment.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Selma Blair

Selma Blair, Toronto, Sept. 2004

MY BUSY DAY AT THE FILM FESTIVAL ENDED ON A POSITIVE NOTE when Chris and I interviewed Selma Blair, back in the dim rooms at the Intercontinental on Bloor. She was at the festival to promote A Dirty Shame, John Waters' latest - at this writing also his last - movie, after a summer where her profile had been boosted considerable with the release of the first Hellboy film.

It was her - and our - last interview of the day, and she asked if I could take the pictures first. The suite at the hotel had been stripped of most of its furniture, with the exception of a couple of Biedermeir style chairs and a love seat. It was mid-afternoon and there was just enough light in the room for something more than just a head shot.

Selma Blair, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Blair was dressed and made up for a day of photo shoots, with a makeup artist in attendance. (Actresses of a certain age and expectation of glamour usually have makeup artists on press days; actors never do. I think some of the actors might have appreciated having one.) The challenge when presented with a subject done up just so is not to treat them like a model.

Unfortunately not a lot of photographers - or art directors or photo editors - can resist this temptation, and any Google image search of a movie star will turn up selections from these expensively produced spreads, which inevitably look like they're shot in the same industrial loft or boutique hotel. In many cases you can barely recognize the star in question, which defeats the whole purpose of a portrait. At least that's the way I see it.

Selma Blair, Toronto, Sept. 2004

The walls at the Intercontinental were painted with a warm middle gray, a hue that made every room like a little photo studio - if you could find the sweet spot of light. It was easy to find that afternoon, so I placed one of the chairs a few feet from the window and told Blair to perch on the edge of the seat. It was about as much direction as I think I've given anyone.

I imagined that my portraits of Blair might actually turn out elegant - it's a hope I harbour for almost any shoot - though I can't imagine I actually used the word, but she understood what I was aiming for and obliged. The only flaw in the shots that I could see was an electrical outlet on the wall; I had only been shooting with a digital camera since January, so I wasn't used to the idea that a few minutes in Photoshop would erase it forever.

The shoot over, Blair kicked off her heels and stretched out on the love seat for the interview. I remember that she was sharp and funny and irreverent and clearly happy that the press day was almost over. In the last year Blair and Rachel McAdams - both of whom I photographed in 2004 - have accused notorious sleazeball James Toback of sexual harassment, as the #MeToo movement reached its crescendo. Looking back at all the years I worked on the furthest fringe of Hollywood and celebrity, even there it was assumed that this sort of thing was happening, a dirty secret nobody ever talked about.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Stuart Townsend

Stuart Townsend, Toronto, Sept. 2004

MY PENULTIMATE SHOOT ON SEPT. 11, 2004 WAS BACK AT THE FOUR SEASONS ON AVENUE ROAD. Chris Atchison and I had been bouncing back and forth between the Four Seasons and the Intercontinental, and would for the next few days, always arriving just before our scheduled time, unsure if we'd have to wait or even have our interview slot cancelled. If everything was fine, we'd be let into the room and - unless the publicist or subject insisted on getting the photo out of the way - I'd scout the room for a nice spot to shoot while Chris did his interview.

My first subject just after lunch was Stuart Townsend, a handsome young Irish actor who had jumped from British theatre and television to big budget Hollywood films like Queen of the Damned and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where his talent for smoldering was put to good use playing vampires and Dorian Gray. Somewhere along the way he became involved with Charlize Theron, one of his co-stars, and arrived at the film festival in 2004 to promote Head in the Clouds, their second film together.

Stuart Townsend, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I doubt if I had to look around very much to find a spot in the room at the Four Seasons, and it looks like I simply took Townsend to a spot just past where the light from the windows dropped off and became soft and diffused. I don't think I gave him much direction, though I'm fairly certain I didn't have to bother saying "Just smolder a little bit for me, OK?" It would, judging from the results, have been unnecessary.

At the height of his career Townsend found himself in the unusual position of being the junior partner in a relationship with a movie star whose fame far eclipsed his own. The year after I photographed him he was terribly miscast as Carl Kolchak in a short-lived reboot of The Night Stalker, one of my favorite TV series of the '70s. Theron's fame didn't seem to supercharge Townsend's career much, though he did manage to direct a film, Battle in Seattle, while they were together.

Since their breakup in 2010, he's only made one film, and according to his brother, Dylan, Townsend has quit acting and moved to Costa Rica, where he's started a family with a local girl and runs his own garage.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Rhys Ifans

Rhys Ifans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

RETURNING TO PORTRAIT WORK IN 2004 WAS A LOT LIKE GETTING BACK ON A BICYCLE. They say you never forget how to ride a bike - I learned that's actually true a few years ago - and the surprising thing about the photos I took when I was put back to work shooting was how quickly I picked up old habits.

I photographed the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans in the Four Seasons in Yorkville, that much I know for sure. The particular quality of light in those rooms, unimpeded on almost every side through the large windows, was a gift that year, since I'd spent so much time shooting there during the NOW years. The latest renovation had simplified the decor, with subtly textured, cool white wallpaper and equally plain draperies that bounced the sunlight around the space, an almost perfect shooting space.

Rhys Ifans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

It was immediately clear that Ifans had a great face, and a clear, unerring gaze that's very likely a gift when he's being shot in close-up. I had my 50mm lens on the paper's Canon digital SLR and went right in, doing a few simple headshots before moving in as close as I could, giving his face half the frame for a few shots - it had worked years ago with Bruce Dern in the same hotel and there's no shame in copying yourself - before switching to a horizontal, cinema frame and giving Ifans the sort of tight close-up that he obviously knew how to address.

Ifans, introduced to North American audiences with his scene-stealing role as Hugh Grant's roommate in Notting Hill - was at the festival to promote Enduring Love, a small but wrenching little tragedy where he had second billing to Daniel Craig, a year before he became James Bond. Ifans would join the cast of the Harry Potter films, and even play a comic book villain in a Spider Man film. He had, in the brief encounter we shared, an almost unnerving way of engaging with my camera, a stare that managed to be both intimate and confrontational.

Rhys Ifans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Zhang Ziyi

Zhang Ziyi, Toronto, Sept. 2004

BY 2004 HOTEL ROOM PORTRAIT SHOOTING WAS A RUSHED AFFAIR. When I began photographing directors and actors for NOW magazine over a decade earlier, interview times could be as long as twenty minutes or more, and a sympathetic writer would give you as much as half of that to get your shot. Many photographers brought lighting that they'd set up during the interview; I used a pair of Rolleiflex cameras and a tripod, and most of the time I'd get to reload both cameras after finishing off the dozen frames on the rolls I'd loaded. It seems like a long time ago.

Returning to the film festival in 2004, I discovered that interview slots were fifteen minutes on paper, though that would get cut down to ten minutes or less if the talent was behind schedule, if a bigger media outlet came after you and demanded more time, or if the publicist was simply impatient. My shoot with Zhang Ziyi started precisely fifteen minutes after I'd photographed the director of her latest film, Zhang Yimou, and lasted for just one minute and a dozen frames on the free daily's digital Canon. I can recall all of this with authority thanks to the Exif files embedded in my camera files.

Without needing to consult the camera files, I can tell you that I wasn't able to find the same sweet spot of light that was in the adjacent hotel room where I'd photographed Zhang Yimou. I wish I had - my subject was certainly lovely enough and in the right light I might have been inspired to try something more than just frame her face tightly.

Zhang Ziyi, Toronto, Sept. 2004

But this is all just an excuse. Even in the Hotel Intercontinental's dim, cramped rooms it was possible to find a bit of light that was flattering if not exactly bright. It's possible that I was feeling pressure to just get it over with and start shooting without moving my subject from the spot where she'd just finished her interview with Chris, the writer for the paper. But I have to admit that I didn't have much motivation; the risk of being known as particular or difficult was to avoided in the frenzy of film festival press schedules, and ultimately I knew that a clear, sharp, simple head shot was all the paper needed for its tight layouts, and that whatever I was shooting probably wouldn't run much larger than a single column.

As for my subject, Zhang Ziyi was at the start of a career that's seen her hopscotch back and forth across the Pacific, working with some of the biggest directors and stars in Asia - John Woo,Wong Kar-Wai, Seijun Suzuki, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung - while taking leading roles in Hollywood films like The Horseman and Memoirs of a Geisha. She recently appeared in The Cloverfield Paradox and is featured in the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

She's probably one of the public faces of an international cinema market that came into being after the late '90s renaissance of Chinese film developed an audience here, and Hollywood began looking to focus on its markets in Asia as primary ones, key to their ultimate box office numbers and not just a dividend to be collected later. As such, I wish I'd tried a bit harder to get a better portrait of her, but I obviously couldn't summon either the foresight or audacity.


Monday, April 16, 2018

Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

IN 2004 I RETURNED TO SHOOTING PORTRAITS AT THE FILM FESTIVAL. Technically it had been three years since my last festival, but really it was more like four - the results of my first weekend's shoots at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival had been lost when the Kodak/Nikon digital camera on which I'd shot them had been corrupted, and the rest of the festival was a write-off after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that happened the following Tuesday morning.

The free daily sent me to cover the festival with Chris Atchison, a young writer recently hired at the paper. We did an enormous amount of work at TIFF that year, including the five portraits featured this week on the blog, all of which were shot in one day - Sept. 11, 2004, precisely three years since my hiatus from festival shooting began. Among our subjects was Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who was in town promoting House of Flying Daggers, the director's second martial arts epic after Hero, released the previous year.

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I knew Yimou from his earlier films, like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern - historical films set in pre-Communist China that had been huge hits at film festivals like TIFF. I knew he had a taste for the epic, and that he liked stories with bitter, tragic endings. I also knew that he had arrived at his profession in circumstances that would be unimaginable outside of a place like China.

Yimou was nearly thirty when he pleaded to be accepted into a film school reopening after the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. He lacked the necessary qualifications, having left school to work as a farm labourer and mill worker when intellectuals, professionals and their children were forced out of the cities by the regime and the Red Guards. He sold blood to buy his first camera, and used the photos he took with it to make his case for a spot at the Beijing Film School.

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I had this story somewhere in my mind when I met Zhang in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street, which had become the main festival hotel. Unlike the Four Seasons around the corner with its big windows, the rooms in the Intercontinental are dim and the small windows look out either onto a courtyard or face north onto a parking lot. I had to find my sweet spot of light carefully there - or find a way to work around the lack of light.

I obviously found that spot with Zhang, and just enough light to get a dozen or so relatively sharp frames. It's unlikely that the shots I handed in to the paper looked anything like these ones; I never would have processed anything in black and white, and shooting for newsprint obliged me to emphasize highlights over shadows and boost colour saturation. I suppose that's why I never really discovered how good this shoot actually was until I dug out these files last week and tailored them to look much more like my idea of the sort of portrait Zhang's story seemed to dictate.

I definitely never would have handed in the shot of him with his eyes closed. I don't know why I like to take portraits of people with their eyes closed. Maybe it's a way of letting their facial features reveal their character instead of the notional confrontation of the viewer staring into a subject's eyes, which obliges our instinctive human reading of their mental health and sincerity. Or maybe I like to create the illusion that I've captured them in a private moment of reverie or contemplation. One day I should try and figure that out.