The following post currently appears as an article in the November 2022 issue of Cinematography World. It’s titled Rat Catcher and is featured in the magazine’s Letter From America column.
I love being a cinematographer.
This’s not to say my feelings haven’t evolved over the years. The initial rush of being on a soundstage has tempered somewhat, at least to the point where I no longer jump up and kick my heels as I pass through the studio gate. But lately, I notice that those boyish high spirits have been replaced by something more significant. Like a reverse shift from digital to film, coolness and superficiality have been supplanted by a perspective of warmth and profundity, rooted as it is in the relationships that develop between myself and the individuals I work with.
A fascinating benefit of that is meeting all sorts of personalities, hearing their stories – and who hasn’t heard a million of them? I was lucky to have entered the industry at a time when it was rife with all sorts of colorful characters, infinitely more so than today. Much older than me and highly experienced, I learned a great deal from them and was endlessly amused by their rakish behavior, which, by the way, never hurt the expert performance of their job. I regret not recording some of their oral histories, but at least I have my memories. Knowing that they never would’ve survived in today’s corporatized, litigious environment, it’s hard to imagine such charming riff-raff ever existed. Unit Photographer Josh Weiner is perhaps the one I remember most fondly.
I was deeply saddened when he passed away in 2005 at the age of 86. I hadn’t seen him for some time at that point, but during my years as an assistant cameraman, I was fortunate to have worked alongside him on many occasions. He carried a heavy resumé: The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and Sophie’s Choice, among many others. When he was at the top of his game, he was the first call in New York, often before the cinematographer was hired. And according to the old union contract, he was there for every day of every shoot.
To say Josh was unique is an all-time understatement. He was a hard case. He was also the toughest shop steward anyone ever saw (witness his service record as part of a U.S. Marine machine gun company in the Pacific during WW II). But as I knew him, he was always honest, fair and dedicated to his work.
He was also funny as hell, to me at least, probably because of our common outlook and a shared interest in some areas outside the business. I could easily relate examples of his legend – shooting deer with a high-powered rifle from his living room couch in rural Connecticut would be a tame one – but there’s a specific incident that stands out. Don’t think I’m crazy for recounting it.
In the fall of 1984, I was day-playing on Sir Richard Attenborough’s, A Chorus Line, which was being photographed by Ronnie Taylor, BSC. Early during our occupation of the Brooks Atkinson Theater in Manhattan, the camera department had claimed the downstairs lobby, quaintly dubbing our staging area as The Louma Lounge. The Atkinson had seen better days. The lumpy gray shadows that occasionally darted along the baseboards taught us to never reach into a dark spot without first taking a good look.
One morning, Josh showed up early, coffee and the daily papers in hand. Hellos all around as he settled into an overstuffed armchair. But soon, something caught his attention. I knew trouble was brewing when I saw him unfolding a huge pocket knife. Next thing, it was hurtling across the room. Josh was no circus performer; the pointy end missed its mark. But the impact of the blunt side was more than enough to send what looked like the granddaddy of every New York City super-rat to the big nest in the sky. Reactions from the other crew members ranged from disgust to disbelief. Some of us laughed long and hard. With his native cool, Josh retrieved his bludgeon and once again blew everyone’s mind. He speared the dead rodent with the blade, then – like a responsible citizen – disposed of it in the proper receptacle. The set department had that garbage pail dry cleaned before burning it at the end of the day.
Six hours later, the incident seemed to have been forgotten as lunchtime rolled around. Down in the Louma Lounge, Josh was enjoying his home-made sandwich. Finishing up with a Red Delicious apple, he skinned it and cored it with – you guessed it – the very same folding knife he used to skewer the rat earlier that day. Whether or not he had sterilized it in the interim I cannot say. But I can still see him offering a juicy wedge on the stainless-steel tip
“Anybody want a piece?” he asked. The room cleared out in an instant.
I relate this tale only because no one raised an eyebrow about it at the time, let alone considered a lawsuit for emotional trauma. It was just another day on a job filled with many such outlandish incidents. And though it illustrates how radically attitudes have changed, is it really for the better? These outrageous people I was so often surrounded by laughed more, enjoyed themselves more and lived at a higher vibration than most anyone I’ve met since. If the younger people of today had been exposed to them, the world would be would be an appreciably different place. Much less tense, to say the least.
Now, as I encounter new crew members, the echoes of those past experiences still resonate. I was lucky to have gotten to know Josh. Wherever he may be, I hope he’s doing fine and wish him – all of his kind, in fact – the very best.