Here is the first in a new series of posts under the general heading of “Whacked But Fact.” These are actual incidents that have happened to me. They will appear when I remember them. For legal reasons and for physical safety, name changes are obligatory.
On Johnny Suede, I spent a long time looking for a good director of photography. It was my first film and I wanted it to reflect what I believed was a vision unique to me and my brain. After many months I chose Vic Nesbitz. He was young, smart and had a reel that showed a strong, original eye. He also had some great ideas and I encouraged him to keep them coming. He was aware that I’d shot a few films as an accidental cinematographer and I didn’t want him to feel pressured or restricted by my experience. He actually knew much more about light and color than I did. So, I let him know I was more than happy to put the visual responsibilities in his hands. He seemed to appreciate this.
Two weeks into filming something odd began happening. Shots came up in dailies that were out of focus and had faces half out of frame. I mentioned this to Vic. He shrugged and said he’d take care of it. The shrug worried me. The errors continued.
One afternoon we had a break during a scene by the Hudson River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Vic and I were standing at the camera waiting for a light to be set up. Something out on the water caught my eye. A rusting freighter was moving up the river. The low angle of the sun cast the ship in rich, golden light, highlighting its peeling red and white paint. Behind it, the bristling NYC skyline lay in deep shadow.
I quickly motioned to Vic. “Let’s get a shot of that freighter. I could use it as a cutaway in this scene.”
As I watched the ship gliding past in the shaft of light, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Then I noticed Vic hadn’t moved. Thinking he hadn’t heard me I said even more quickly, “Hey, Vic. Get me a shot of that freighter.”
This time Vic moved. He turned the camera on and put his eye to the eyepiece. It may have been my first film, but it wasn’t my first time on the set. Something was definitely strange. But as I watched him pan with the ship until it disappeared I thought, “Well, that was weird but at least I’m getting the shot.”
The next night the shot came up in dailies and there was an instantaneous gasp from the exhausted group of us watching. The shot of the freighter was astonishingly beautiful. For about one second. Then the camera jerked forward, reframed and jerked again. For the duration of the shot the camera never stabilized, rendering it completely useless.
This time I was not so polite to Vic. He said he didn’t understand what I was so upset about. When he shrugged, I finally fired him.
Three months later. I’m in the editing room. I’m stuck on this same scene by the river. I need a cutaway. In a desperate fit of wishful thinking I convince my editor to pull up the shot of the rusting freighter. Hoping against hope, we watch it again.
Again, we see there isn’t a single usable piece. I pick up the phone. I call Vic. I say to him, “Vic, you shot more than a third of this film. Your name will appear in the credits. People are going to ask why I had two cinematographers. I need you to tell me right now, what the hell were you doing?”
There is a momentary silence. Then I’m stunned to realize Vic is crying softly. Finally he speaks. “You’re right, Tom,” he whispers. “I was so jealous of you directing your first movie that I was intentionally sabotaging it.”
Whacked but Fact. Every word.
File Under: Hiring Your Crew. Subcategory: What the fuck?!!
Moral: Because this business combines money, glamor, art and fame, it attracts people who are 84.6 percent of the time, certified nutjobs. Always, always talk to people who’ve worked with the person you’re considering hiring. But I got something out of Vic. He was one of those DP’s that loved all his equipment, almost like a fetish. He dressed in black and wore his meters around his waist like high-tech automatic weapons. I heard a few years later he was claiming to be the inspiration for the eye-patched cinematographer I named “Wolf” in Living In Oblivion. No. I didn’t steal the eyepatch idea. That was mine. What I took was his leather vest, half-finger gloves and beret, which helped add just the right touch of gay motorcycle cop I felt was crucial to Wolf’s character.
Tom DiCillo made his debut as a writer-director with 1991’s Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious followed. When You’re Strange, his documentary on The Doors, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For more information on DiCillo and his work, visit www.tomdicillo.com.