Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Bruce Dern, Toronto 1990

THIS WASN'T AN ASSIGNMENT, but more of an accident that fell into my lap. By the time I did this shoot I'd been covering the Toronto International Film Festival since it was the Festival of Festivals - about six years, and I'd taken pains to be nice to the publicists in charge of granting access to celebrity guests. It would be a few more years till access became so ferociously restricted that most of the shooting migrated to a special "photo lounge," and so the festival was my happy hunting ground for big name trophies for my portfolio.

Dern was in town for After Dark, My Sweet, an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel starring Rachel Ward and Jason Patric, in which he played the sort of spooky creep - a dodgy uncle who leads the hero astray - he's made a specialty of his whole career. The late '80s/early '90s were a big time for neo-noirs and Thompson adaptations. Don't ask me why.

This was not a rich time in Dern's career; he had steady work, but it had been over a decade since Coming Home and it would be another decade before younger directors and actors like Billy Bob Thornton would seek him out for better projects. He was mostly known at this point as Laura Dern's dad.

And being employed but out of fashion left him at loose ends in the interview suites at the festival hotel, which is where a friendly publicist asked me if I could do a shoot with him; his schedule was empty and she wanted to fill it up. I'd grown up with Dern's baleful, half-crazed stare fixing me from the TV screen during late night showings of Silent Running and The Great Gatsby so I didn't hesitate to say yes.

Bruce Dern, Toronto 1990

I made sure I had enough film and she led me into the hotel room, where I loaded a roll into my Nikon F3, placed Dern in a corner where the light was clean and shadowless  (the "Anton Corner" as I'd come to know it - more on that later) and began shooting. I raised the camera - I'm guessing it was at least my 55mm, but more probably my monstrous 85mm/f1.4 portrait lens - and found myself fixed with that unblinking stare. I might have shuddered.

We shot silently for the next four or five minutes. I finished a black and white roll, then a roll of colour slides. I don't remember exchanging a word with Dern. When I heard the film start rewinding in the F3, I put my camera down and said I was finished. 

"Thank you," he said. "That was very good. You'll go far."

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