Working with Neal
It was before dawn and I pulled up to Ed and Nealâ€™s apartment to pick him up for another long day on a film that could only be described as cross between TJ Hooker and Dukes of Hazzard, minus the General Lee. This was back when I was in film school and the two of us were hired as camera assistants on what we thought was a â€œrealâ€ feature film at the time, one with actual deferred payment and everything. (Years later, Neal still had his $1,200 deal memo, the producer and film, long forgotten, but the running joke about eventually cashing in never got old.) Neal came out the front door that early morning with his gadget bag slung over his shoulder. He climbed in the car and mentioned that he had taken a much needed dump moments before, so he was relieved to not have to use the so-called facilities on set, which was an overused Port-O-Let if we were lucky. I was just happy, because his farts would be much less lethal if we were in tight quarters on set and let me tell you, Neal could clear a room.
We made the long drive to a nondescript, small town street in Osceola County, FL. This was to serve as the backdrop for the big stunt spectacular that afternoon. We were running two cameras, me on A cam while he was manning B cam. I remember standing on set as the stunt coordinator was setting up for the big â€œvan crash through the carâ€ scene and Neal looking to me and saying, â€œThis is going to be cool.â€ Of course, I wasnâ€™t so sure. After reading the script, I knew where this scene played and in my own film-school-snob sort of way, passed judgment on its value as â€œartâ€. Neal, on the other hand, never looked at it that way. He treated everyone and every script as an opportunity to better himself as a cinematographer. I always admired that quality in him. He never considered himself above the material. This is why his value as a DP cannot be overstated. He gave you the best of both worlds; artistic insight coupled with humility, a rare combination in life, let alone this business.
We had one take to get it right. The van did a couple of half-speed practice runs towards the hapless LTD sitting in the middle of the intersection. Once all was ready, the Stuntman/Intern in the van put the pedal to the metal.
We soon found out that nothing goes a planned.
The van crashed through the car and instead of veering to the left and hitting its mark, it careened straight up and over the car throwing a ball of flame towards my camera position. I was singed pretty badly and a deep tension fell over the set for the rest of the day as we all wondered if this situation could get any worse. The next day, I called Neal up and told him I was throwing in the towel. Since we really werenâ€™t getting paid, I told him it wasn't worth it for some no-budget production that couldnâ€™t care less about either of us. (This latest failed stunt was just one of several near misses that happened through out production.) He understood and supported my position, but told me that he was going to stick it out. And he did. He soldiered on for days and weeks seeing the shoot through to completion and relaying to me every dayâ€™s horror stories. Yet, no matter how bad things got, he never missed a call time. Iâ€™ll never forget that.
Neal taught me something incredibly valuable. He showed me that you can be true to your craft despite how you perceive the big picture. It was this kind of focus that made him special. He was the consummate professional that could crack you up one moment and save your ass on a shot the next. The man knew his job inside and out, not because he was getting paid to, but because it was in his blood.
Ed and I used to kid Neal sometimes, because he would treat his camera like it was his only child. Thatâ€™s not hard to imagine for an owner/operator that totes around state-of-the-art equipment, but for Neal, it didnâ€™t matter what he had. His CP-16, Vietnam era, 16mm film camera might as well have been a Panavision Platinum. His care and consideration for his craft and equipment was unlike anyone Iâ€™ve worked with. His job was his life and his camera was an extension of himself. He lived and breathed the stuff. He and I shared that camera geek connection in the early days, but Neal went on to turn it into a profession and I never got the chance to tell him how damn proud of him I was. Neal was one of those people that earned your respect by example, never by expectation. He represented all that can be right with this business. Itâ€™s about making films and thatâ€™s what Neal did. He made films.
Our friend and peer died tragically on Saturday in a plane accident while shooting another film for another director for another pay rate that Iâ€™m sure was well below what he deserved. Nothing against the film, of course, it's just that Neal was a very rare breed. He always gave you more than you asked for. At the risk of sounding clichÃ©, I feel a small amount of comfort knowing that Neal passed away doing what he loved, but then again, that's the way he spent most of his time.
Iâ€™ll always look to Neal to remind me not to let myself get sloppy. Iâ€™ll look to him to help me keep my focus, to remember that dedication to oneâ€™s craft still means something no matter who or what youâ€™re involved with. Neal, our friend and peer, will be missed more than I can contemplate right now and his memory will live on in many forms. I know I speak for the rest of the Haxan guys when I say,
Neal, we're so damn proud of you, brother.