In their previous films together — three Hangover movies and Due Date — cinematographer Lawrence Sher, ASC, and director Todd Phillips worked in the comedy genre, but their latest collaboration, Arms and the Dudes, is not a succession of gags. Based on the real escapades of a group of 20-somethings who found a loophole in the defense industry and began to sell arms and other supplies to the U.S. Armed Forces, the story “is really a drama, but we hope it’s comedic in the way that The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas are,” says Larry, who is about halfway through the shoot. “We’ve had to find a different way to measure whether the movie or the scene is working — whether we ‘got it.’ Scenes don’t have to have a comic rhythm. It can be a little disconcerting, but it’s also been really challenging and fun for us. Todd and I have always worked together really well, but I feel like this is our best collaboration yet.”
I asked Larry about his approach to career planning. An economics major at Wesleyan University, he bypassed film school, moved to Los Angeles and started out as a camera assistant on commercials and music videos. He took any opportunity to shoot, shot thousands of stills using motion-picture stocks, and looked for his first paying job. “I did a series of B-, C- and D-movies like Shark Attack and On the Border,” he says. “They were amazing opportunities. I was in my mid-20s and shooting movies with real crews. I had a lot of responsibility, and I had to make days and make the budget. It taught me everything.”
The next goal was to shoot a movie people were more likely to see in a theater. That proved to be the comedy Kissing Jessica Stein, which Sher followed with another indie, Garden State. His next goal was a studio picture. “My interest in movies came from seeing popular movies like Star Wars and Jaws when I was young,” he says. “I never looked at mainstream movies as selling out or not being artistic enough.”
Eventually, he shot the studio comedy The Dukes of Hazzard, and the anxiety of wondering where the next paycheck would come from began to ebb. “Suddenly, I could actually say ‘No,’ which is a rare position for a cinematographer to be in,” he says. “At that point, you can start to craft your career in a more specific way. After The Hangover, more things started to come to me, and every time I chose a movie, it was for a very specific reason. Often it was to work with somebody I admired.”
Larry says he thrives on the pressure aspect of the job. “I think most cinematographers place more pressure on themselves than any outside force does. I love being a cameraman. It really is the greatest job in the world. You’re in the center of the storm, and I love the storm. I love the responsibility of helping to steer this big ship.
“The challenge of filmmaking is that there’s no single ‘right’ choice creatively,” Larry continues. “You can give the same problem to 10 different director/cinematographer teams and they’ll all come at it in a different way. If you get caught up in trying to make the one right choice, you can get that analysis paralysis and creative anxiety. You just have to choose what you believe is the best thing and then move forward. And you have to be flexible. Something I admire in directors — and Todd Phillips is one of the best in this regard — is the ability to turn on a dime when something doesn’t feel right. I think that’s one of the reasons why Todd is a really successful director: he doesn’t just barrel ahead simply because he has a plan.
“Making movies is really hard,” says Larry. “When you watch a great movie, it looks so easy. But when you watch a movie that doesn’t work, it looks like it was an impossible task. And you work just as hard on the ones that don’t work, which is a little disconcerting! But that’s why filmmaking is magical. You get it all together, put it in the oven, and when it’s done, sometimes it tastes really, really good, and sometimes you have to throw it out.”