Q: How did you start your life as a cameraman?
A: After college I lived in a film commune on the lower east side of Manhattan. The lifestyle was perfect for me. The landlord was either forward-thinking or crazy or both.
There were a lot of different kinds of characters there, lesbians, gays, straight, middle-class, poor… Philip Glass was composing upstairs…
There was room and board, and the kitchen was communal. They were maybe five or six apartments total. We were making films, awakening films, but we were running out of money and so we made a porno because we knew it would sell.
The guys who ran the place were real wheeler-dealers. I wasn’t gay but I shared an apartment with two lesbians and the guy who starred in the porno. Someone else who started Punk magazine also stayed there sometimes.
We had this UPS-sized truck with commercial plates and could park anywhere in the city…
Q: The city must’ve been crazy back then.
A: You could do anything. When I went out late at night, sometimes I’d wear a tool belt so I could put a hammer in it.
Q: This is all insane.
A: I’ve had a lot of interesting stuff happen to me. I went to a school district that was the first to be forcibly integrated in New York… I went to the ticker-tape parade when the astronauts came back from the moon…
Q: When did you start filming things more formally?
A: After six or seven months in New York, I decided I’d rather be in California. It wasn’t that unionized back then — you could be poor and still make a living.
Q: What kinds of things have you filmed?
A: Rock concerts, feature films, breaking news, reality shows, documentaries — pretty much everything. I did a show with Miss Piggy. I did the first season of American Gladiators — we shot the whole show in ten days. Sophia Loren kissed me on the cheeks. I’ve been in helicopters where we were shooting action scenes…
I was working at BET and they did the first interview with O.J. after he was acquitted. I was the lighting director and lit the set. They gave me two different locations to light to try to fool the press. Eventually I told them, “It’s a live show and I need to get this done. You need to tell me the location.”
When it came time to shoot, we were just barely ready. Literally, the paint was still wet.
Another time, I was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and they brought in a boa constrictor. The show was not live but they filmed it like it was live. It turns out they couldn’t corral the snake and it started slithering away and I was filming it. Other people were freaking out, throwing chairs. But the snake kept coming and he had me backed up and I thought, “If he bites me, at least it’s a union job.”
Q: So what happened?
A: They ended up getting him and it was fine.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a cameraman?
A: When I was a kid I’d watch documentaries on television like Victory at Sea. I would think about the guys who shot the show; I thought about how they really determined what you see. The thing all of those shows had in common was that there was a cameraman there.
Q: Does anything scare you?
A: No. I always tell people, “You think this job is hard? Try raising three kids.”
I have a picture of me being kissed by a brown bear. Goldie the Golden Bear. It’s an experience working with a bear; no one can bring food on the set. You’ve got to clear the set of food.
To get the bear to kiss you, you put a jellybean in your mouth. First a 12-year-old did it, then I did it.
Q: So the 12-year-old is dead?
A: Right, the bear was full by the time I did it.
Q: Any other dangerous shoots?
A: One of the first jobs I had was filming El Norte — it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 for Best Original Screenplay—and they were shooting in Mexico. I brought some film and prop rifles with me when I flew down.
At Customs, it didn’t go that well. They put me in an interrogation room and they took the rifles and the film. They let me go hours later and I walked into the parking lot and someone was still waiting for me with a sign with my name on it. It was a guy in a pickup truck and the back was full of hay.
Mexico City was supposed to be the location but he was driving me into the middle of nowhere… hours later we got to the hacienda where the crew was staying.
The film company hadn’t gotten permission to film down there. One day when we were out shooting the Federales came in, stole the exposed film from my room and kidnapped the local production manager. When we returned to the hacienda that night we were met by some of the Mexican crew who had already packed our bags and told us we couldn’t stay there — the Federales were looking for all of the Americans.
We left the hacienda and drove around Mexico for a few days in a VW bus. On the third or fourth day we went to Mexico City. The Federales told us, “Give us $10,000 and you can come pick up the film in the park at midnight.” So the producers went and picked it up.
Q: That is insane.
A: That kind of thing didn’t bother me. That’s why I wanted to get into business — why I didn’t want to be stuck in an office. Other guys were crying. Really terrified. They weren’t cutting your heads off in those days either.
Q: What does your wife think of all this?
A: My wife is really good with it. She worked in a rental house (where they rent high-end professional equipment) when we met, so she understands. She became one of the first female camera operators in the business.
When my son was born I was in Puerto Vallarta filming Hot Bodies. It was in the ’90s. My wife finally reached me on the hotel phone the next afternoon and told me, “He was born last night. But I know you only have two days left, so go ahead and finish the job.” In my defense he was born two weeks early.
Q: You have a crazy number of stories.
A: Well, now they’re all kind of coming back to me…
I used to listen to Carlos Santana as a kid. One time I was in San Francisco and they were shooting his video and I was there to do audio for an interview with him. For four hours they just jammed while I ate and watched. They got a shot of me and Santana walking through the set, so I’m in a Santana video.
Another job I had — we rented a hotel called The Farmer’s Daughter in LA for Maxim magazine.
We set up the rooms in the hotel — one had little people in it, one had tattoos, and the band The Cult was performing while I was filming.
The Fire Marshal wanted to shut it down because the balconies couldn’t hold the number of people that were on them. But no one was moving.
The firemen came, and they started posing with the girls. The Fire Marshal was pissed, so he called the police. The Democratic Convention was going on around the same time and the police were doing riot training. When those guys showed up, they closed the street off, the helicopters started coming, the riot police had their helmets on and batons out… Those cops had no sense of humor; they started closing it down and opening all the doors. They were very heavy handed. Mayhem ensued.
Q: What a job.
A: You get paid fairly well, they feed you, you get to travel, and it’s not even a job. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good way to go through life.