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.

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