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When Paul Mazursky decided to create a series of intimate conversations with Mel Brooks, Leonard Nimoy and his many other industry friends, Cinematographer Bill Megalos came on board to produce. In this article, Bill talks about the choices he made with regard to camera, lighting and direction to make compelling interviews with a limited budget.
One of the greatest aspects of this business is getting to meet and work with fantastic people. It's even better when those fantastic people are your friends. Recently a great opportunity presented itself and it's been alot of fun.
I met [director] Paul Mazursky in 2004 through a friend, Michael Kurcfeld, who was producing the extra material for the nicely packaged re-issues of some of Paul's movies. When Paul mentioned that he was interested in making a documentary film in the Ukraine, Michael recommended me. I've always been a huge fan of Paul's films; I believe he captured the zeitgeist better than any other director in my times in films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Harry and Tonto is one of the great American films.
Paul and I hit it off right away, maybe because he was eager to talk about his work and I was so eager to listen. He was and remains one of the best storytellers and funniest people I've met. He was intent on making his first documentary about annual pilgrimage to Uman, a town in the Ukraine where the famous Chasidic rabbi, Rabbi Nachman, is buried. Nachman lived in the late 1700s and is most associated with the joyous, celebrative aspect of Chasidism. Before he died, Nachman said to his followers, 'if you celebrate Rosh Hashanah at my grave, you'll have a year of joy'. People return to Uman year after year, and it's quite the party, like a Sundance for Chasidim.
It was fantastic – one of the best filming experiences I've ever had. In a year of extraordinary travel – Uganda, Central Asia, Japan, it was the most fun I had the entire year. The film, Yippee!, played some festivals and is available on Amazon. Since then, Paul and I have remained friends and every day that I see him is a special day.
Not long ago, Paul had the idea of doing a new project, very different from Yippee!. Every Friday for years, he's had lunch with a group of friends where the repartee is always wonderful: Among them, Mel Brooks (who always picks up the check); director Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon and Superman films); Alan Ladd Jr., producer (Braveheart) and former studio head; Jay Cantor (Marlon Brando's and Marilyn Monroe's agent); producer Michael Gruskoff (Young Frankenstein and My Favorite Year).
The idea was to create to a show that would feature these and other friends of Paul's in intimate conversation with him, one-on-one. Paul's big concern was that it not feel like a TV show and we began to brainstorm about how to do that. He asked me produce it and left it to me to execute the look that would best support the feel he wanted the show to have. Once we'd discussed his desires and he knew I understood what he wanted, he gave me free rein to figure out how to pull it off.
Silk over the skylight allowed ambient light to fill the room. Bill, left with the Sony PMW-EX1, Jeff Kanew center, and Paul Mazursky, on the right.
Once Paul and I met the second time, we called in Jeff Kanew as co-producer. Jeff is a dear friend of Paul's, a great editor and a well-established and successful director in his own right (Revenge Of The Nerds and Wise Guys) and had been the editor and co-producer of Yippee!. Paul trusts him and we knew that Jeff would manage to keep the comic level high in the edit while at the same time maintaining the natural feel of the conversations.
Paul wanted to shoot in his own house to keep a personal connection and feel. We decided to light it so it really looked like you were in his house: in other words, not obviously lit. The shooting style would be intimate, in the sense that we would concentrate on close-ups on everybody. I chose to put the close-up cameras on sliders, so we could change from extreme close-up to dirty single to over-the-shoulder and connect the participants, so you felt like you were part of the conversation rather than watching from the outside. I felt that keeping the cameras slowly moving on sliders would gently support the conversation without being distracting as well as add production value, intimacy and interest. We decided on no second takes; we would just let the camera roll and see how it goes. If there's anything we didn't like, we'd edit it and cut it out afterwards.
They chose to shoot in Paul's living room, which is about 30-feet by 20-feet.
We chose to shoot in Paul's living room, which is about 30-feet by 20-feet and faces the garden so the master camera looks beyond the subjects, into the garden. I wanted to keep the lighting simple for a number of reasons: first, easy and quick setup to keep it as painless as possible for Paul and his wife, Betsy. Simple lighting was in keeping with our plans to not overlight and to maintain a real feel, and it would serve to keep costs down, as well. The room has a large skylight in it, so my idea was to cover the skylight with a silk to allow a lot of ambient light to fill the room and, no matter what time of day, the lighting would look similar. Then, all we would need was one big fill source. We used a Joker 1600, an HMI light, and a six-foot Octodome softbox. I felt that with this simple setup, once we dialed the look in, it would be easy to replicate for subsequent episodes and it proved to be so.
The master camera, a Sony PMW-EX1, looks beyond the subjects, into the garden.
Our decision was as much as possible to have depth in the background, to shoot towards the garden and away from the walls. Because of the big soft light, we put Roscoscrim on the inside of the windows to prevent reflections of anyone moving and prevent seeing the light. Overseen by our great gaffer Raman Rao, we controlled the overall ambient light through the use of black visqueen taped above the subjects throughout the space and an occasional 4x4' floppy.
Because we were working with Paul's money, my job as a producer was to keep the costs as low as possible. I hired many people I knew and paid them a reasonable but not top rate; the recompense was that they would be more than entertained. One thing I've learned about being a producer is that if you can pay the crew the day of the shoot, they will willingly work for a bit less. It also makes my life as a producer easier. I don't have to sit down later, write checks and mail them. If they can walk away with a check, everyone is happier.
To that end, it was critical to me that every decision we made in terms of cameras was such that the editing workflow would be as simple and cheap as possible. It would be much easier to shoot with the same cameras, and I decided on the Sony PMW-EX1, both because I know owner/operators and because, having owned an EX1, I've developed a very good picture profile. Rather than renting cameras, I decided to hire owner/operators, which would cut down on the expense of sending a camera assistant out to check out cameras and then return them the next day.
They controlled the overall ambient light through the use of black visqueen taped above the subjects.
By hiring documentary cameramen who have a good sensibility to begin with, I was able to give them some instructions at the beginning and then allow them to follow their instincts. In order to keep it simple, there are no monitors on set, no video village, no intercom. Either Jeff Kanew or I would walk between camera from time to time to see what they were doing and make sure everybody in the room could feel each other. Cameraman on the shoots included Jay Miracle, Angelo Pacifici, Scott B, and Alex Naufel. Audio was Hilary Stewart, who I worked with most recently in Ethiopia.
For the first shoot, the guest was to be Mel Brooks (why not start with one of the funniest people on the planet?) We had one camera each on Paul and Mel, plus a master camera, all Sony EX1s.
Three Sony EX1s were utilized.
Blackmagic Design kindly lent me one of their Cinema Cameras for the shoot, and I was very excited to try it out, as were the other cameramen on the set who hadn't played with it yet. I operated the BMD Cinema Camera myself, handheld, picking off shots here and there that the cameras on sliders couldn't get. Later on, I thought, wouldn't it have been cool if we'd had Blackmagic Design's Pocket Cameras so Paul and Mel could have played with it during the conversation and come up with shots of each other?
Left to right, Hilary Stewart on audio, Bill with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Paul Mazursky and Mel Brooks.
This first shoot was the perfect time to try out the Blackmagic Cinema Camera; I could test the look with different lenses and have enough real footage so for the next shoot, we could go in without having to do tests. One of the things I liked is that the rear of the camera body itself is a large monitor, so that with camera on sliders the operators could see exactly what they were getting without rigging a separate monitor.
Paul Mazursky and Mel Brooks discuss Hitler
In general, I thought the Micro 4/3rd sensor in the camera would give a great look with less depth of field than the EX-1s. I did like the image quality very much (the sample camera I used had an EF mount and I tested it with my Canon EF lenses that I use on 5Ds and C-300s); because you can shoot RAW with them, we will be able to dial in the look later and get value added for our simple lighting. I also thought the menus were very good, more intuitive than other menus I've worked with. They're simple and easy to use on the fly.
The camera arrived at 11 pm the night before the shoot. I'd hoped to have some time to play with it before the shoot, and it's a testament to the well-thought out design and layout of the menus that I was able to shoot with it the next day, even while I was producing, overseeing lighting, camera setup and craft services and the crew.
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera, says Bill, is "simple and easy to use on the fly."
As of now, the camera people I've been working with do not own Blackmagic cameras, but I'm hoping that should the show get picked up, we'll have the money to rent them and use the same cameramen. I think they make the show look a little better – and I think it's a perfect show for these cameras. With Micro 4/3rd, the show will have just a touch shallower depth of field, not enough to make the show lose its non-studio/non-lit/organic look, just enough to make our guys stand out and allow the camera ops to roll their own focus without too much fear. One caveat, though: the Micro 4/3rd sensor is much smaller than that of the full-frame or Super35 sensors EF lenses are designed for, so it's tough to find a real wide angle lens to work with it. Fortunately for our project, this isn't an issue.
Bill shows the BMCC to Mel Brooks.
... and to Paul.
Mel and Paul were extremely happy with the intimacy of the shoot and, after Jeff got his hands on the material, with the edit. Paul was so excited that he wanted to shoot again right away. I suggested that we do no more than two people in a single day, but of course Paul went beyond that and decided on three people: Leonard Nimoy, Richard Donner and Ron Clark. Then he decided that he wanted Mel Brooks back in there as well. So Mel also returned and we ended up having Paul with two guests at the same time.
Shot in an intimate setting, in Paul's living room, for a personal and connected feel. Paul Mazursky and Mel Brooks.
I was concerned that with a third person, the intimacy would be gone. After all, they are all funny guys and they always have to top each other. When they're talking at the same time, coverage starts being more difficult. We ended up adding one more camera on the side shooting the guests. One camera would be a safety two shot on both guests and the other would be a single, focusing on whoever was talking at the moment. Paul would continue to have his own camera. It was a more complicated and perhaps slightly less intimate.
MEL BROOKS, RICHARD DONNER and PAUL MAZURSKY discuss show business
We had been a little concerned that Paul would get too tired interviewing three people in one day – he is 83 – so I shortened the set-up time in order to start earlier. He made it through the three interviews without getting exhausted. Jeff is editing those interviews now.
Paul financed the first few episodes, the idea being that we can get a few episodes under our belt and then perhaps have someone else pay for them. So far, we have four episodes: Mel Brooks, Leonard Nimoy, Richard Donner and screenwriter Ron Clark.
LEONARD NIMOY AND PAUL MAZURSKY "Gesture and Ears"
We're hoping that with these four episodes we can start shopping the show. Paul hopes to bring on Nick Nolte and Bette Midler, both of whom he has worked with, as well as others, including Quincy Jones. At the very least, the show – and, by the way, it's called It's All Crap – will be available on iTunes and on several dedicated sites. We are looking at cable outlets as well.
Other news on the Paul Mazursky front is that he will be receiving a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on Friday, December 13 at 11:30 am. The public is invited to the ceremony and can follow the lead-up and read Paul's pocket reviews of current films on his blog at paulmazursky.com. Also, follow Paul on Twitter @paul_mazursky