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On Set with Martin Scorsese

By Michael Neelsen

StoryFirst collaborator Michael Nie has been one of my best friends for many years, ever since we worked on an independent feature together in Madison, Wisconsin in early 2004. More recently, he has worked on a myriad of major film productions, including Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, Michael Bay’s The Island, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum, Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III.

He was director of photography on my thesis film in film school, as well as many StoryFirst Media projects, including work for clients Herzing University and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. In 2008, however, Mike experienced the dream of every young boy and girl who dreams of one day making movies. He got to work on a Martin Scorsese picture – Shutter Island.

Mike was kind enough to share his memories and what he learned on the set with us and all of you here.

First of all, for all our readers out there trying to get gigs on a Scorsese movie, how in the hell did you get the opportunity to work on Shutter Island?

My involvement on Shutter Island was the result of quality relationships I had established, my status as a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and good timing.  If one of these elements was missing, I would not have found myself on the set of a Martin Scorsese film in the Spring of 2008.  The relationships I speak of harken back to the fall of 2004, when I started work as the assistant to the director of photography on Michael Bay’s The Island.  It was then that I was introduced to the first assistant on the “A” camera and the Panavision prep tech for the film.  I kept in touch with both of them over the next several years, and once I joined the union, worked with them periodically.  At the start of 2008, I was in search of my next project.  I caught wind that the first assistant from The Island was hired by Bob Richardson on Shutter Island.  The prep tech from The Island was now the “A” camera second assistant on Shutter Island.  I knew them both.  I was looking for work and when I called, it turned out they were looking for an additional camera assistant.  I boarded a plane for Boston, and so my work began on Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

What was it like the first time you saw Martin Scorsese in person?

Epic.  My first day on set, the company was on location, shooting an exterior flashback sequence involving a hoard of prisoners and a firing squad.  It was cold.  I could barely feel my toes and there was ice on the slate.  I first met Bob Richardson, perched atop a camera dolly on 200 feet of track.  With no sign of Martin Scorsese, I remember rolling the camera on several takes.  There was an enclosed tent where video village had been set up.  It wasn’t until the assistant director called cut on the final take that I saw Scorsese for the first time.  With his signature glasses fogged over, he emerged from the tent wearing a black russian ushanka, a black wool trenchcoat, and black shoes.  It was as though a general had emerged to survey the battlefield in winter during World War II.  A historic moment, no doubt.

Does Scorsese sit by the camera near the actors during takes or does he stay back by the monitors?

You will always find Martin Scorsese glued to his monitor at video village while the camera is rolling.  It is worth noting that Scorsese often shoots with a single camera.  His singular focus is on the performance that plays out on the frame in front of him.  His time in front of the monitor allows him to evaluate all aspects of a given shot.

Did you get a chance to see him direct the actors? What is his method with them as you could observe it?

His time with the actors is spent during very long, private rehearsals.  By the time camera rehearsals occur, the actors are extremely prepared.  Scorsese will give small notes to an actor while the crew is present, but if there are any substantial adjustments, the crew is excused for a short private rehearsal.  The assistant director serves as the channel of communication for the crew.

Your boss on the film was two-time Academy Award winning Director of Photography Robert Richardson (JFK, Kill BillThe AviatorInglourious Basterds, Django Unchained). What is he like?

With the demeanor of a mad scientist, Robert Richardson is a genius in the world of cinematography.  The man knows his craft.  His work speaks for itself.  Richardson is in constant communication with members of the camera, grip, and lighting crews via a one-way transmitter dubbed the “Bob Comm.”  Often demanding, he produces exceptional results.

How does Scorsese direct his cinematographer?

Bob Richardson and Martin Scorsese have a unique relationship.  They have collaborated on several projects in the past.  Like any member of the cast, Richardson is prepped thoroughly by Scorsese before either of them arrive on set.  They are on the same page from the out set and much goes unsaid.  As with any director/cinematographer relationship however, there has to be a channel of communication on set.  Because Scorsese is glued to his monitor and Richardson is glued to his camera, the assistant director is the go-between.  If Bob Richardson did not operate his own camera, I would suspect that he would join Scorsese at his private video village.

Did you have any personal interaction with Scorsese?

No.  The only individuals to interact with Martin Scorsese on set are the assistant director, cinematographer, script supervisor, and Scorsese’s assistants.  Occasionally, he would have a discussion with one of the producers or his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

How did your perspective on Scorsese change through working on one of his films?

Martin Scorsese is a human being like you or I, yet he is certainly unique in his own right.  I imagine I would have said the same about Albert Einstein.  More than anything, I would say that Scorsese lived up to my expectations.  My perception did not change so much as it was confirmed.  When it comes to the craft of filmmaking, Scorsese IS a genius.

You told me earlier that editor Thelma Schoonmaker made an appearance on set – what was your impression of her and Marty’s relationship?

Having met at NYU, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker have worked together for over 35-years.  Their relationship is one of mutual respect.  They are similar in the way they work and I have the sense that each person often knows what the other is thinking.

Tell me about the experience working so closely to the cast with Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow.

The cast of Shutter Island is perhaps the most talented cast I have ever encountered.  Each member that you mention brought vastly different backgrounds to the project and had much to contribute to each of their characters.  Aside from their work on the film, they all were extremely gracious as individuals.  They were all are very approachable and good conversationalists.  I am honored to have worked with each of them.

Describe your average day on set.

In my hotel room, my alarm would go off before sunrise each morning.  I would check the weather report and dress accordingly.  Shortly thereafter, I boarded a van full of sleepy crew members that drove us to the set.  After a quick stop at catering for breakfast, I would meet the crew at the camera truck.  We would unload our equipment and arrive on set in time for a blocking rehearsal of the first scene that day.  Following the blocking rehearsal, the actors would head to the make-up and hair trailers while we would build the cameras and lighting took place.  When lighting was finished, the actors would return the set and we would run a camera rehearsal.  Once all the elements were in place, Martin Scorsese would arrive and we would roll cameras.  When we had the shot that Scorsese was happy with, he would return to his trailer and the whole process would happen all over again.  At the six hour mark, we would break for a half-hour lunch.  Our days would average about twelve hours.  At the end of the day, we would break down the cameras, load the truck, and catch a van back to the hotel.  Often very tired, I would find myself asleep an hour or two after getting off work.

If you could sum up your experience on Shutter Island into a few sentences, what would you say?

Shutter Island is perhaps the most difficult yet most rewarding experience I have ever had on a film set.  The story largely takes place during a hurricane, and there was plenty of water, wind, and debris employed to simulate that phenomenon.  The making of this film was not for the faint-hearted.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

What, in a nutshell, did you learn about the craft of cinema through your experiences working on a Martin Scorsese picture?

Many talented and creative filmmakers are required to tackle a project of this nature.  While a visionary director is essential in telling an inventive and compelling tale, the contributions of the cast and crew are equally important.  Hundreds of decisions are made each day by members of the filmmaking family that affect the outcome of the picture.