What I love about this job is that I get the most random phone calls to do the most random things. Sometimes it’s strange, like, “can you walk up and down the river bank until you find police searching for human remains?” Other times it’s easy, like, “we’ll pay you $100 if you go take a photo of the front of this building.” Occasionally it’s difficult, like, “we want you to shoot this funeral,” or “can you take your camera in to that wild fire zone?” I’ve run through all kinds of emotions after hanging up the phone, but rarely is my reaction, “I can’t believe you’re letting me do that!” followed shortly by, “oh no, now I have to figure out how to shoot this…”
So was the case during SXSW a few months ago. The Houston Chronicle called, wanting me to shoot Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey at the Four Seasons during the promotion of their new movie, Bernie. Of course I said yes, then hung up the phone, jumped up and down with excitement, and then panicked a little.
I called the reporter, veteran film writer Louis B. Parks, and he said usually they did the photos in a hotel room, where the interviews were held, and that there wasn’t usually a lot of space. I envisioned what that might look like and thought about other possibilities, then did some research on the movie.
At that time, there wasn’t a lot published about the movie, but from what I gathered, the storyline centered around Jack Black’s character, Bernie, who is an undertaker in a small, east Texas town. He befriends wealthy widows and ends up killing the meanest and wealthiest of them all, then spends the rest of the movie evading Matthew McConaughey’s character, the local law enforcer.
With what little knowledge I had of the film and the shoot location, I thought about what I could do to try to make my photos different from everyone else’s. I read somewhere that Bernie would show up to the widows’ homes with small gifts, like flowers. I know it’s cheesy, but I picked up some flowers on the way to the shoot. I was determined to add a little something to my pictures that no one else had.
I showed up and the location was nothing like what I expected. Rather than inside a hotel room, it was outside near a garden. I walked around with a bouquet of flowers, feeling like a complete rookie, or a crazed fan. I kept having to explain that the flowers were a prop, not a gift.
I had about 10 min. with Jack. I told him where to stand, but I hardly had to direct him at all. Then, when I brought in the flowers, I didn’t even have to explain. He knew the reference and played to the camera.
Before long, our time was up. Matthew McConaughey and director Richard Linklater came around the corner with another photographer, who got a few shots, then I asked if they minded if I jumped in. The photographer finished and McConaughey and Linklater politely posed for me.
I made it through the shoot with photos of the people the Chronicle requested, and I didn’t make anyone angry, so in that respect, it was a successful assignment. However, looking back, I wish I would have done a few things differently, taken a few more risks. I guess there’s always next time.
Louis B. Parks snapped a couple shots on his cell phone while I was working: