Mark Irwin [Interview]

Welcome to Day 31 of Trainwreck’d Society’s Annual Month of Horror Showcase! We have a fully loaded month of all things horror for you fine folks! October is our favorite month for this very reason, and we are so excited to share 31 full days of film showcases and interviews with some of the finest folks from the world of horror, just as we have been doing for the last 5 years. What started as a simple 5 day showcase, has now blossomed into a full blown month long event. You’re going to love this! Enjoy!

Hot Damn, Folks! We have made it! It is officially Halloween, which puts a wrap on Trainwreck’d Society’s Month of Horror Showcase. 23 interviews and 8 film showcases, every single day in October. I thank you all who came along for the ride, and hope you will come back around next year when we try our hardest to do the same! It always seems like a daunting task to get anywhere near the caliber of folks we had the previous year, but some who we manage to create an equally brilliant group of people.

And as we tend to do, we save Halloween day for an absolute LEGEND in the world of horror and beyond. And we are not about to disappoint you all today. Today, we have some words from the acclaimed cinematographer who has been shooting some of your favorite films for close to 50 years. From horror to comedy to family friendly films, Mark Irwin has been around the entire time. He has worked alongside a plethora of some of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time. From psychological thriller mastermind like David Cronenberg (who he worked with ALOT, and we shall discuss), to traditional horror masterminds like Wes Craven, and modern day comedy legends like Todd Phillips and the Farrelly Brothers. And lest we forget…past TWS guest and former Month of Horror highlight, Tommy Lee Wallace. He has also showcased the brilliant acting skills of friends of ours like Vanessa Angel, and has brought words to life from the likes of a (SPOILER) new friend such as Pat Proft.

Yes, Mark Irwin is an absolutely legendary figure in the world of horror, working in genre defining films from the 1970’s and onward. He has a brilliant eye for lighting and everything that makes a brilliant film just work so damn well. He is the type of artist who imagines the things that us average viewer would never even think about. Yet, if it weren’t for folks like him who pays attention to the meticulous details, we would definitely then be able to tell that something has gone array in the filming process. The director has the vision, and sometimes receives the credit. But as we have discussed with other great cinematographers in the past, it takes a damn fine eye to make that vision even close to possible. And that has been what Mark Irwin has been doing since before most of us were even alive.

I am so excited to share Mark’s story with you all today. It is folks like Mark that are the reason I have continued to do this intentionally stripped-down, free from bullshit, blog. Getting to here the back stories and tales from such creative folks like Mark, especially in the world of Horror that I adore so much, is exactly why I do it. And people like Mark provide hope in the future of the world of film and television, when it starts to feel that mainstream entertainment is beginning to lose its value. Truly original and artistically abled folks are still out there making the business a better place, whether you want to believe it or not. And I believe that Mark Irwin is a prime example of brilliance in the modern era, and we are so honored that he was here to grace our digital pages on the finale of our Month of Horror showcase.

Tune in again next year Folks! Or just, you know, stay tuned throughout the year, as we throw in folks from the world of Horror between December and September as well! Much like the genre itself, our love for the world of Horror can not be contained.

So Folks, please enjoy some wonderful words from the brilliant artist we all know and love, the great Mark Irwin!

What inspired you to get into the world of film and television? What was it about this world that, to you personally, really drew you in?

My introduction to film and television was unique – I watched films  (a.k.a. went to the movies in the 1950’s) like any other kid but I was given a very important job at the tender age of 5 – running the film strip projector in my Sunday School class. The mechanics of the projector, the screen positioning, the optics, the whole inside view allowed me to see those simple images as part of bigger process.

From that point on, with the family twin reflex Kodak to my own Keystone  Double 8 camera to my first Pentax (a new Spotmatic)  to my basement darkroom to the larger duties as the AV guy in school ( grade 1 to 13 and all through university and film school ) my path was paved with pictures. The collaboration with directors started at the same time since I wanted to tell stories with pictures but didn’t really want to direct and find performances with teenage actors.  

Our films from the early 60’s were all learning experiences. My one message to film students is that they are in the perfect place to make the one thing that they cannot make on the job – they can make mistakes and learn from them. I shot a film called Reunion at York University in 1973 and it won Best Film at the very first Student Film Awards in Montreal – a true product of learning by doing and making mistakes along the way.

What was your very first paid gig in the world of cinematography that you can remember working on? And did that first experience manage to teach you any kind of lessons that still apply in your work today?

 My first paid gig in the world of professional cinematography was on a film called Diary of a Sinner. It was a full on hard core porno with a cast of strippers and Toronto’s finest ne’er do wells. I had graduated with a BFA from York University on the preceding Saturday and now, on the following Monday, I found myself in a deconsecrated church, assisting on a giant Mitchell BNC and shooting a Black Mass, complete with robes, goat’s heads, black candles and naked women. The Big Time !

This film was directed by a draft dodger American film maker called Ed Hunt. Little did I know that this was my big break ! I went on to work with every crew member and Ed on many more films ( some legit, some not so much).

My outlook on lighting and more importantly lighting design ( I manufacture all of my own lights and most of my  grip gear ) all came from that gritty beginning with Jock Brandis – the DoP and later my gaffer and inspiration.

You have worked alongside some of the most acclaimed directors in cinematic history, some of which we have even featured on this very site. From a cinematographer perspective, what is it that you are looking for in a director when working on a project? What is it that creates a good sense of team work for you?

 I have worked with some of the greatest directors of my genre and generation – Irvin Kershner, Chuck Russell, Todd Phillips, Wes Craven and  David Cronenberg.

I would look at Wes and David as two extremes that I could compare with regard to partnership and team work.

Both directors are fully prepared, both have collaborated on or fully written the screenplay, both know exactly what they want but my relationship on set is radically different.

Wes has a very exact shot list, a fixed visual view and an extremely precise method of coverage. The shot list is distributed to everyone and the shots are ticked off one by one as Wes sits quietly in a corner doing the New York Times crossword (like a machine, left to right, not hunting and pecking like us mere mortals).

David likes to meet on set with me, the script supervisor and the cast. No one else. No shot list. No storyboards.

Nobody anywhere near. An empty studio. Silence …

Then the work begins. Reading, blocking, re-blocking, finding the angles, the moments, the rhythms … it all comes out of human interaction on set.

So, my job is simple with one approach. Just shoot the shots. With the other approach, I get to be part of telling a story with pictures and to start at the beginning every day. 

If the hero is being scanned, has awakened from a coma or is turning into an insect, my involvement is less of master/servant and more of partner in a visual statement.

Mark Irwin & David Cronenberg shooting “The Fly”

 

You have worked extensively in both the world of film and television. And from her perspective and experience, I am curious to know what the pro’s to each line of work may be? And do you have any sort of preferences, for any given reason?

The biggest factor in filmmaking, both for television and film, is the invisible and ever present time factor. Time is money. I call the entire endeavor Art with a Stopwatch.

My role is to save time, spend money wisely and shoot the day’s work before the sun goes down.

 More money = more movie. Less money = less movie. 

Good television is written with the budget, cast and location in mind. An 8 to 10 page day is common and can be easily achieved with the right blocking and planning. The most common flaw in the bridge between television and film is the reluctance to address the difference. A feature script that did not get enough financing is now a low budget indie … but the script and ambitions have not changed. The result is compromise (on my part especially), rushed performances and onerous OT and turnaround.

I enjoy both feature and television work if the scale is respected and measured. Working 16 hour days is not enjoyable and can be literally deadly. In 45 years shooting film and TV, I have lost 3 crew members to traffic accidents after a longer day than was necessary.

 

While the world of horror is not entirely your mainstay in the world of film and television, you have had some great success in the genre. And this being our Month of Horror showcase and all, I am curious to know what it is you enjoy about working in the more frightening world of suspense and horror? What sets it apart from other projects you have work on?

 

I was lucky to meet David Cronenberg in 1977 and, even though our first film together was Fast Company  (an AIP inspired drag racing road picture), we  went on to to explore the minds and mishaps of many characters in The Broods, Scanners, The Dead Zone, Videodrome, and The Fly.  I refer to the characters because David’s films are always about people who suffer the consequences of their involvement in a scientific or psychological experiment or procedure. The baseline is always the human action and reaction. The gory details, the latex metamorphosis, the car chase and shootout – they all come later. The fate of Seth Brundle and Johhny Smith and Max Renn and Cameron Vale is what keeps my interest in David’s films. 

I have cut my cinematic teeth on what I call ‘ rubber movies ‘ – lots of latex, smoke and backlight – like Fright Night 2, The Blob  or big action epics like Robocop 2 or I Come in Peace but, to be honest, shooting films in the Horror genre is always fun and always an adventure. Whether it is Freddy Kruger attacking a little kid in a dungeon or Brian O’Blivion appearing on television ONLY on television, horror films are always an easy trip into make believe.

 

What is your favorite scary movie?

Of all of the films that I have shot, The Fly is my favorite horror film.  (My favorite of all time in The Exorcist, shot by my good friend and personal hero Owen Roizman.)

The Fly was the pinnacle of my work in Toronto with the crew and gear that I started with in the early days of porn.

The demands of lighting and shooting in Seth Brundle’s lab for 12 weeks and making it an essential character in terms of decay and mood ( especially when it turned upside-down ) was a challenge that I have never met since. All of my work was in support of story arc and character decline so it had to remain invisible. That is my job.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

I have been shooting every kind of film since 1973 and the most difficult ones have been comedies. Making people laugh is much more difficult than scaring them or thrilling them. There’s Something About Mary and Old School were, for me, the high points in that genre. I have been shooting a lot of musicals lately for Disney and AirBud Entertainment so I guess that the future may hold more of that. I just finished shooting a very big Bollywood action adventure in Thailand and Mumbai ( all about elephants and poachers ) directed by Chuck Russell. It is called Junglee but I am not certain of it’s international release.

 Right now, I am shooting a series in Victoria BC. It is for AirBud Entertainment and it is called Pup Academy. It is a kind of Hogwarts for dogs, puppies and humans. The  old rule in Hollywood is to never combine kids, dogs, and special effects. This series is all of that and more. Definitely a challenge!

What was the last thing that made you smile?

As for smiling, my son Matt’s work in film and digital always makes me happy. He is making his own future but being a proud Papa is always a reason to smile.

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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