Cinematographer Rob McLachlan, ASC, CSC, recently took time out from shooting Ray Donovan, the Showtime series that gives him an opportunity to work with a cast that includes Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight, among many others, and to work in the Los Angeles area — a departure from the globetrotting required by his other recent assignment, Game of Thrones. He is nominated for 2015 Canadian Society of Cinematographers awards for episodes of both shows.
I asked Rob about some photos I’d seen of him on Facebook. One showed him being interviewed after a cycling race, and the other, a grainy reproduction from newsprint, showed him being arrested, with a handcuffed fist in the air.
Rob’s explanation of the cycling begins with the fact that ponds don’t freeze over in the Vancouver area where he was raised; so, he never took up hockey. He preferred the solitary sport of cycling over team sports, and he found he had a good physique for it. In his late teens, he trained six hours a day or more, and he won the Canadian Junior Championship and the Canada Games Gold Medal.
Back then, cycling was much less popular and not well supported in North America. Rob had an opportunity to compete for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, but it would have meant giving up school for the time being and finding the money to train in France. Meanwhile, he had become interested in photography and was spending time in his father’s darkroom. “It was at that time when everyone is pressuring you to figure out what you’re going to do with your life,” Rob recalls. “I loved movies, and my father, an illustrator, drilled into my brother and me that it didn’t matter what we did when we grew up as long as we loved it. I had done a Super 8 film as a term project, and I got an A. There was no film industry in Vancouver then, but I thought, well, I’m going to try to be a cameraman or a filmmaker.”
In 1979, Rob founded a company, Omni Film Productions, and he soon partnered with Michael Chechik, who had been making all of Greenpeace’s films. Unable to get into the union, Rob was making local commercials and small industrials. He was 26 years old and had two children, and he had to do whatever he could to pay the bills.
“We were chasing anything we could get our hands on,” he recalls. “It got to the point where I was shooting something almost every day of the week, then we’d take off and do stuff for Greenpeace.” The Greenpeace assignments ranged from trophy hunting in northern British Columbia to uranium mining in Australia. “I narrowly escaped getting my ass kicked — and I mean severely beaten, half to death — by some guide outfitters and trophy hunters who flew in on a helicopter and clubbed the whole crew. I’d turned back because my knee was bothering me, and because I had the worst sense of foreboding I’ve ever had in my life. As they were beating my friends, they kept yelling, ‘Where’s that f--king cameraman?! We’re going to kill him!’”
That same year, Exxon wanted to begin taking a shortcut with its supertankers down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At that time, some exercises were planned, and an arbitrary 500-yard “safety zone” around any supertanker was declared virtually overnight. Rob went in and got the shot Greenpeace wanted. “I was in a rented Zodiac boat with a couple of guys from a TV station, and it started to deflate,” says Rob. “The Coast Guard had dropped in a bunch of hysterical armed 19-year-olds, and we got caught. As it turned out, we almost didn’t have to shoot our own footage because it made the national news everywhere. We ended up in the pokey overnight in Port Angeles. We were sprung in the morning, and I was on the front page of both the Seattle and Vancouver newspapers, much to my mother’s horror.
“I think the maximum penalty for what we did was five years in jail and a $50,000 fine, but it all kind of went away. I was an extremely earnest person, and it was something you might do when you’re 25 years old. And the supertanker thing went away until last year. They’re trying to get permission to do it again.”
Rob kept shooting. He has no regrets about taking any job that came along because that served as his film school. Eventually, in 1985, he was asked to shoot a low-budget feature. He got into the union as an operator on a remake of the Sea Hunt TV series. He moved up to director of photography on the last two episodes, and he then shot The Beachcombers, an iconic show in Canada. Next was MacGyver, and he was on his way. He has since shot more than 400 episodes of TV, two dozen telefilms, and dozens of features and second-unit assignments.
“Some people in Vancouver thought that maybe I’d jumped the queue, but I didn’t blow those early opportunities because I’d been shooting and shooting and shooting,” he says. “There’s no substitute for practice.”
Thirteen years ago, Rob sold his share of Omni. “I’m proud of what we did there,” he says. “It’s a going concern, and they do a lot of work for National Geographic, Discovery and History Channel.
"Kids ask me all the time, ‘What’s the secret?’ It’s a bit glib, but really, my answer is, ‘Show up on time — and in the film business, that means early — always do your best, and don’t be an a--hole.' Most of the things that make working on a film set unpleasant have to do with people who are too invested in their egos.”