John Newby, ASC checked in from Charleston, South Carolina, where he has been alternating episodes with John Aronson on a midseason replacement series for CBS called Reckless. The show is a legal drama that features Cam Gigandet as a young attorney from the south and Anna Wood as a gorgeous outsider from Chicago. Romance sparks between the duo, while several other story threads including police corruption threaten the genteel Southern façade. Sander/Moses is the production company.
John is the father of nine-year-old and fifteen-year-old children, and until now he mostly avoided out-of-town series. But the Reckless assignment has its upside as well.
“I’m glad that the story has a real connection to the place we’re shooting in, and that the place is genuinely interesting,” he says. “We’re also here because the story took us here. Charleston is an interesting place with a lot of problematic history. Visually, it’s a treat in so many ways. It’s a really different place, with the humidity and the sound of the cicadas.
“I’ve always liked location work,” says John. “I resent the rebate thing — I think it’s a race to the bottom between states within our own country — but aside from that, I feel that going somewhere and telling a story in a unique place is a good idea, whether that place is as unique as Charleston, or not. If you find a location that fits your story, there is a truth to the visuals that you are always working harder to achieve otherwise. You can do a secret meeting between a cop and a detective in a nondescript alley, but since we are here, we can do it on a dock in an amazing tidal marshland setting, at magic hour, which is a real treat.”
John is shooting on Alexa with a ProRes 4444 image format. The lenses are mostly Angenieux Optimo zooms. “I don’t need the primes for speed,” he says. “I’ve been shooting at 1600 for night work for a couple of years now, which gets us to us nice stop. The stop is not the issue anymore.
“We’ve come up with a nice visual style,” he says. “We’re using swing-and-shift lenses for most of our establishing shots, and we’re using a lot of off-framing, Dutch angles and short-sighting, which can be strangely effective when it works. Our producers are supportive, inventive and sharp, and we’ve been encouraged to continually reinvent and to avoid settling into a formula.”
I asked John to recall a memorably unique setting for a film shoot from earlier in his career, and he mentioned The Whales of August, on which he served as gaffer for cinematographer Mike Fash in the mid-1980s. The director was Lindsay Anderson, a hero to John since he had seen If. The cast included Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern, Harry Carey, Jr., and Vincent Price, all in the twilight of their careers.
“We made the film on the last island in the Atlantic Ocean going east out of Portland, Maine,” John remembers. “It was an hour from the mainland by water taxi. We shot on real locations, including a little cottage on a promontory. Mike was really good with the location shooting, due in part to his documentary background. We had a great time.
“I’ll never forget when Bette Davis arrived,” says John. “The seas were rough that day, and the dock was moving pretty violently. The boat she was stepping off of was heaving up and down by three or four feet at least. I hear, ‘John, help Miss Davis get off the boat.’ I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’
“I saw the gap between the dock and the boat, and I thought, ‘What if I drop her and she’s crushed?’ I would have gone down in cinema history as a scourge! Well, we counted to three, I scooped her up, and it was all good.”
Another tale John told me concerned that shoot and Lillian Gish, who was in her 90s at the time.
“The first day, we did various tests with Miss Gish, including lighting tests,” John relates. “She walked up to Michael and me and said, ‘Gentlemen, Mr. Bitzer and Mr. Griffith and I worked this out many, many years ago. I need a moderately high camera, and a moderately low key light, and we’ll get along just fine.’”
John also recalls Gish recounting the first time Bitzer and Griffith shot her in close-up, an innovative technique at the time. “Working with her took me to nearly the beginning of cinema history,” he says.
A final story from The Whales of August concerns Vincent Price. John and a couple of colleagues invited Price over for dinner. The setting was appropriately eerie. “It was towards the end of October, a cold autumn night,” John recalls. “Our house was a stone’s throw from a cemetery, on this lonely, windswept island in the Atlantic. When he knocked on the door, we all became 12-year-olds again. At dinner, he was so intelligent, gracious and smart about so many things. But I’ll always remember opening that door and seeing Vincent Price!”