Monday, January 23, 2017

David Thewlis

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

MY MEMORY OF THE NINETIES IS THAT IT WAS A TIME WHEN MUSIC GOT WORSE AND MOVIES GOT BETTER. Going through my archives, it's obvious that shooting musicians gave way to photographing actors and directors during the heyday of the independent film and the last gasp of the art house cinema. I was certainly spending far more time in movie theatres than clubs, but this might be entirely subjective - the memories of someone slipping out of their twenties and into the treeless flatlands of early middle age.

Looking through the files, though, I keep finding portraits of actors who seem more interesting to me than their youthful counterparts today. Most of them are still working, a testament (I like to think) to their craft and personality and, most of all, enduring personas that keep them relevant to casting directors and audiences. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, they had faces then.

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

David Thewlis was thirty, just a year older than me, when I took these photos in a Toronto hotel room while he was doing press for Mike Leigh's latest film, Naked. He'd been in a few films in Britain, and after Leigh cast him as Jane Horrock's mopey boyfriend in Life is Sweet, he got his breakthrough role as the sourly confrontational Johnny, on the run and spoiling for a good argument in a dreary London suburb.

The film made me a huge fan of both Leigh and Thewlis, and I took the assignment with real excitement. It's obvious now that I wanted to get as much out of this session as possible, as I shot two rolls of medium format and one of 35mm film, moving my subject around the dim hotel room to get as many options as possible - as much work as I'd normally have done for a cover shoot.

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

This was still a time when shoot times were luxurious - a whole fifteen minutes before or after the interview, which allowed me to take my time finding a few good spots in or outside the room, metering carefully and setting up the Rolleis on a tripod. Toronto's downtown hotel rooms became my studio, and I memorized their layouts, usually heading for the corner near the window where ductwork created a tight little spot that caught the light.

I didn't know it at the time, but these hotel shoots would comprise most of the best work I did in the '90s - a first mature period in my portrait shooting which mostly ended up on newsprint in NOW's movie section, where I would never have been able to print these photos with the rich blacks and shadows they have here, given the limitations of cheap paper stock and print technology.

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

Thewlis had an angular elegance in front of my camera, and was a very amenable subject - I think he knew that this was his first big role, and he was happy to cooperate. I really liked the film - I was single and lonely and a little bitter and a lifelong impatience with small talk in social situations meant that I relished a good argument and a bit of confrontation. Long nighttime walks often presented me with street dramas and random encounters with other insomniac misfits. Leigh's film might have been more violent and desperate, but the setting wasn't unfamiliar.

Making small talk while we shot, I told Thewlis how much I liked the film, and how much I identified with Johnny.

"Oh," he said, a bit of concern and surprise in his voice. "I'm sorry to hear that."

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