If I were to pan my lens slightly to the left, you would see dozens of people hurling themselves off the end of Santa Monica Pier in a mad dash — er, splash — into the surf, thirty feet below, trying to gather hundreds of thousands of dollars in loose bills floating to the surface from a car that had plunged off the end of said pier seconds earlier into Santa Monica Bay. A parade of cop cars in hot pursuit came to a screeching halt, right behind them. Then they got ready to do it all over again.
I was on location with the cast and crew of Ruthless People, a 1986 movie starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler; there to photograph DeVito for a feature story in Time magazine. This was a big deal, a public relations coup for which actors paid their press agents a lot of money, hoping to make it happen. Therefore, a photographer on assignment for Time can get away with asking for a lot of cooperation. When I arrived, a publicist for Touchstone Films, the movie studio, hurriedly introduced me to co-director, Jerry Zucker (there were three directors on this film), who was getting ready to shoot the scene I just described. First things first, gotta kiss the boss’s ring when a member of the press visits on set. Then I was ushered over to meet Danny in his trailer. I immediately whisked him away for a portrait on the beach, next to the pier, but not before I asked if we could grab his folding cast-member chair and take it with us; an idea I got on the spot, and . . . I hope nobody went looking for a missing camera slate (the clapboard) when Zucker got ready to call Action! These were now my props. My crew was already on the sand, unpacking gear and setting up. I brought lights and a generator, knowing we’d be working outdoors. Danny and I walked down together with his publicist in tow, carrying the chair.
My favorite Danny DeVito movie is Get Shorty. Who wouldn’t love an Elmore Leonard yarn about a mobster heist in Hollywood co-starring Gene Hackman, John Travolta, and DeVito? But that was nearly a decade down the pike. So far, other than supporting roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the classic comedy, Car Wash, DeVito was known best for his characterization of Louie De Palma, the sarcastic and bullying dispatcher for the Sunshine Cab Company on the TV sitcom, Taxi, who traded gibes with the entire cast but most notably endured the gibberish of cringe comic Andy Kaufman who played an off-kilter mechanic named Latka Gravas. (I always heard it as Latke — as in Yiddish for potato pancake — Grabass.) Kaufman died two years earlier of lung cancer at the age of 35. I think of him as the precursor of Borat, decades before Sacha Baron Cohen. I remember asking Danny about working with Kaufman while we walked down to the beach from the pier. But I had a lot of things on my mind other than small talk.
As quickly as I could get the business end of a Hasselblad focused on Danny, I had to keep his attention focused on me, despite the mayhem going on all around us. And as I said, I only decided how to tackle this photoshoot on the spot. As usual, on a news-magazine assignment, I was winging it. With only few days notice, I had no idea what to expect once I arrived on the set. And the clock was always ticking. Deadline! We had to work fast because it would be dark, way too soon.
Forget that hundreds of people were milling around in back of me, watching, entertained by the craziness playing out on top of the pier by stuntmen; then to see a real-live movie star show up in their midst, hamming it up for a photographer right in front of their eyes. Don’t think they didn’t shout and wave, trying to catch Danny’s attention. If I had known what was in store, I would have hired someone — or asked the movie producers to assign one of their rent-a-cops — for crowd control. At the same time, the surf was trying to inundate Danny and electrocute me, in close proximity as I was to the gasoline-powered generator juicing up a 1200 watt second electronic strobe capacitor connected by a cable to an explosively bright xenon flash tube on a flimsy light stand with an umbrella reflector. Neptune was alternatively trying to knock over the light stand or blow the umbrella high into the sky like a parabolically shaped kite. I recruited a volunteer to hold it up and set it down between waves — not the crowd’s waves — and to make sure it was pointed in exactly the right direction at Danny at all times. The setting sun, my other light source and now an ad hoc part of my composition, wasn’t going to pause on the horizon while I got my act together; no time for Polaroid test shots. (Again, we used to call them Paranoids for good reason.) “Hurry up ! Get a move on! Stay alert!” I barked at my crew. I tried to ignore the crowd. One barefoot photo assistant carefully timed the pushing and pulling surf, coordinating with the volunteer, to rush in and out between every other shot, to grab the strobe pack and electrical cables, holding them above the shallow sneaker waves, setting them down on wooden crates called “apple boxes” while I continued to shout directions to a patiently posing, highly professional Danny D who was also barefoot. Me too. We all had our pants legs rolled up. Every time a wave rolled in, Danny kicked up his feet and tried to keep his chair from falling backward. As far as I was concerned, at this point, he was just another prop in my picture. A second assistant, using a special kind of light-meter, called out f-stops, so I could continuously change my lens aperture and shutter speed to balance the rapidly fading daylight with the output of my electronic flash. Working like a madman, I had to get all of this right with no seconds to spare, and no second, third, or fourth takes; no reloading film and trying again: frame it, pose it, focus it, adjust the exposure, press the shutter, fire a synchronous flash — let the flash recycle, wind the film, and do it again twenty-four times to get one good frame of film. Each exposure had to be spot on despite the sun’s continuous descent into the sea. This was a hot mess of trained muscle memory, intuition, and screaming directions. But it came together like live jazz. We did good. Danny, my assistants, and I played a tight set. The volunteer did, too. We felt jazzed by the time I called it a wrap. But, as with any harried location shoot, and when a photographer has had to forego Polaroids, I remained anxious, unable to see the film until the sun rose again, and my disposition with it, when the photo lab would open its doors in the morning.
Danny walked himself back to the pier. Maybe his press agent stayed with him; I don’t remember. That’s the last I saw of either of them. Sometimes these shoots are simply transactional, all business. And, as I like to say, my relationship with those whom I photograph is the photograph: a portrait lasts forever and tells its own story.
My assistants and I moved our gear as swiftly as we could to higher and drier ground in the parking lot, away from salt spray and sand, and the lookie-loos. It’s always a chore to clean cameras after a gig like that. Cleaning would have to wait. It was dark now. Before leaving my film in the drop box at the photo lab in Hollywood, a fifteen-mile drive east of the pier, then back to my home on 6th Street near Crescent Heights, I took my guys out for a beer. We debriefed, then called it a night.
Months later, I printed Danny’s portrait on one of the self-promo postcards I mailed regularly to prospects and clients, to show off my latest work. Then I got a letter from a law firm representing him. They weren’t on my mailing list. It wasn’t a fan letter: cease and desist! I wrote back: a conflagration of words seething with anger and disgust. I understood the issue of a right to privacy versus the commercial exploitation of either a public figure or an otherwise anonymous person, and under what circumstances it was necessary to obtain a model release for publication. I knew how copyright works; trademarks too. I knew all of this as well as many attorneys. I devoted a chapter about copyright, intellectual property, and model releases in a book I wrote about the business of photography: Focus on Profit (Allworth Press, 2002). I was — and remain — an avowed enemy of infringers and exploiters But I also understood the doctrine of “fair use” and how to practice it in the context of publishing intellectual property — mine. And I knew how to deal with overzealous attorneys. I don’t remember verbatim what I wrote to those shysters, so let me paraphrase.
Fuck you! (Hmmm, that sounds like a Danny DeVito line.) Does Danny even know you have nothing better to do, for the hundreds of dollars he pays you by the hour, than to troll for picture postcards from photographers whose own artwork they wish their clients to see? What did you think it was: a Big Pharma ad for hypothyroid medication; a sales endorsement for Ray-Ban? I work for magazines like TIME where, I’ll reminded you, this picture was recently published with my byline, because I establish rapport with the kinds of people you obviously have little aptitude to protect. Maybe I should write to Danny myself, about your letter, because I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts you didn’t tell him what you did. And you’re billing him for it. Better yet, why don’t you just stick it where the sun don’t shine.
I never heard from them again.