To get the people at Sifa Fireside talking and laughing over film and discussion..
Open Cinema’s answer:
A screening of Rain Man (1988) and a Skype interview with the camera assistant who worked on the film, Brian W. Armstrong.
I turned up at Sifa about half an hour early even though I’d seriously meandered through the streets of Digbeth due to all the mesmerising street art. I have a picture of a small house completely engulfed by a screaming face in the middle of an industrial estate. Anyway, I was early so I was escorted up to the staff room to wait while the residents had something to eat. In the staff room I chatted to two Irish women who worked there about kids using mobile phones in class and how awful that is (I mean c’mon kids don’tcha wanna learn? jeez). At ten to one I went down to the screening room and waited with two of the employees for people to turn up. Soon enough, the room started to fill up with residents EAGER TO ENGAGE WITH FILM YO, or just you know, relax and enjoy a film, whatevs. By the time the film was cued and about thirty of us were seated, one guy piped up to ask “are there any fits birds in this?” and another answered “yeah mate, there’s one.” A sigh of relief went round the room. As the film progressed Tom Cruise got more and more angsty and Dustin Hoffman more and more oblivious, and I have to admit me and the residents got a bit bored with it all. The cinematography, however, was pretty cool. We bathed in the twilight of the open roads, and wallowed in the shadowy interiors of hotel rooms – now that’s poetry. Halfway through the film there was a break for snacks and everyone loaded up on Doritos and Penguins and I, watched on. The second half of the film provided lots of emotional epiphany and discovery but I think we were all past the point of caring. From the conversations I overheard I got the feeling this wasn’t the sort of film they usually picked to watch and I also started to think I could tell which guy had picked it. By the time it was time for the Q&A I have to admit most people seemed quite happy to get out of there, however, for those passionate about the film and eager to talk to Brian, conversation was fruitful. After some minor technical difficulties and me swearing out of frustration on the recording (which I hope has been edited out, so sorry, so crass), we were in full flow. After someone asked Brian when he was coming to Birmingham (never, I suspect), Brian and one of the residents entered the realm of 80s B movies. My personal favourite part of the discussion was Brian telling us about all of the dangerous camerawork he’s been involved in, such as climbing skyscrapers for Die Hard and various death defying shots in The Lion’s Roar and The Hitcher. He was on top form, leaving us with some Californian warmth and the kind (and genuine) offer of future chats. He also offered some ‘getting into the industry’ insight, which to be honest, was pretty inspirational. “Every success by is surrounded by failure, we all have it but you just need to conquer that fear. You can do anything you want” was his closing statement. See what I mean. Feel the power. Thank you Brian. I will believe in myself, somewhere along the line I may fail, but I will pick myself up, dust myself down and MAKE MY DREAMS COME TRUE.
- Not the film…
- Havin’ a bitta a laugh
- Brian! So lovely
- Exciting film discussion about sets and equipment
- Thoughtful advice
If you’re interested…
Read the full Q&A with Brian, below…
How many times have you met Tom Cruise?
I worked with him three times, for the first time on Rain Man, then on Total Recall with John Grisham
Are you still in contact with Tom?
No, because I went from filming feature films to television, now I do situation comedies
How was the transition from doing feature films to situation comedies?
On a personal level my wife told me that our marriage wasn’t going too well, because I was always on the road doing movies with Tom Cruise, and she never got to see me. So I said okay I’ll do situation comedies, which are filmed near where I live. But then she said, well now our marriage isn’t going too well because I see you too much. I kid, I mean there’s really not a lot of difference between filming film and television apart from on a personal level. On feature films you have to go wherever the work is being on filmed on location.
Have you ever filmed in the UK?
I did come to London on a film called Lorenzo’s Oil, it was really the only time I’ve travelled overseas, it starred Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon
How did it feel to do a film with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon?
I have to say, I’m constantly in awe of these very talented people that I get to work with, I’m very honoured. I don’t keep them on pedestals, but in regards to what they do, the Nick Nolte’s and the Susan Sarandon’s are just brilliant. An anecdote from Lorenzo’s Oil, I was a camera assistant at the time and we were doing a scene with a boy lying on the bed. The camera was in the air and Susan was asking me questions and she stopped the film and said, ‘I want everyone to know that guy right here – the camera assistant has the hardest job on the set’.
In terms of Nick Nolte, he played an Italian guy and the accent was very good. We did a lot of close up’s on that movie and I have to say, to act from a distance is one thing, but to act in a really close shot, you get a true idea of the meaning and feeling of what he’s saying, even on film. It was absolutely extraordinary to see his close ups.
Would you work with them again if they asked you?
Never. No, I’m kidding, I would really love to. I’m working on these two situation comedies one is Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men. I’ve been working on it for 10 years now and I keep telling myself, if it comes to an end, I might go back to making feature films. In the film business you do get into sort of little groups; there’s a feature film group, there’s a single camera television crew and then there’s the situation comedy group. Now that I’ve been in the sitcom group for ten years, I don’t know anyone in the feature film group anymore. Nobody is going to call me out of the blue saying they’ve got a feature, though I do get calls from time to time. I mean, considering my age, I wouldn’t mind doing a few films before I retire.
It seems from what you say that getting work is about who you know, would you say that most of the work you’ve gotten has been through the connections you’ve made?
I’m in a union, everybody in the film business needs to be in a union and in theory they give us work. However, realistically the only way to get work in the film industry is through who you’ve worked with…
How did you get your first job the industry?
I went to film school in Santa Barbara, and got a degree in Motion Picture production. I came back to L.A. and literally started delivering mail for motion picture houses to other studios around town and that’s how I got my first big break. I got to paint floors and the backdrops on stages in Hollywood. I remember one day I called my parents from the stage and said, ‘I’ve finally got a job in Hollywood’ and they said, ‘fantastic, all your hard work has paid off, what movie are you directing?’ I said, ‘well technically I’m not directing a film I’m actually painting a floor’ but I was in Hollywood so they were still excited. I would hang round camera people and help them for free and sure enough one of my colleagues hired me on a Robert Foreman film which is where a lot of people got their start. It’s just a matter of hard work and having people call you back.
What’s your favourite location you’ve worked on?
I worked on a film in the Canary Islands and coming from the L.A. the beauty of the beaches was absolutely wonderful. I also flew over to Rome for Lorenzo’s Oil and we got to film inside of The Vatican, I was so young that I didn’t appreciate what I was seeing or where I was.
Would you say that any of the camerawork you’ve done has been quite dangerous?
I knew a cameraman working on Tippi Hendren’s film The Lion’s Roar, he wanted a shot of the lion’s jumping over the camera, so he dug a hole and climbed in. Tippi told him it was too dangerous but he said, ‘no it’s fine I can do it’. The first and second lions went over and he got them. The third lion came, looked down, grabbed the cameraman’s head and tried to pull him out – which he didn’t manage – but he cut the cameraman’s scalp pretty badly. Apparently he crawled out of the hole and his scalp was bleeding and everyone was asking if he was okay and he said, ‘I’m fine, I just need to finish this shot’. He was kind of crazy.
When I was shooting on Die Hard there were a lot of shots at the top of a 33 story high building, it was pretty bad filming on the roof because I’m afraid of heights. They would tie rope around the camera and lower it down the side of the building, which I was definitely too chicken to do. But Die Hard wasn’t the most dangerous film I’ve ever shot.
One of the stories I often tell is from when I filmed on the famous B-Movie The Hitcher. We were in the desert and we had this scene where the car was supposed to jump over a hill, and so we needed a shot where the car goes over the camera. The stuntmen, who for some reason, would often get a little overexcited were supposed to drive towards the ramp at 40 mph. Apparently he hit the ramp at 70 mph, jumped in the air and all I can remember seeing is the undercarriage of this car coming right at me. I blacked out but came to my senses as the smoke was billowing out and the director asking, ‘is everybody okay’? I said, ‘where’s scotty? I can’t find him, maybe he got hit by a car.’ Then someone tapped me on the shoulder, and it was Scotty saying “hey buddy, that was a great shot wasn’t it?” He’d gotten out the way just in time. But that was definitely the most dangerous shoot I’ve worked on.
Is there any film that you wish you had worked on?
One of my favourite films of all time is Braveheart, because my family is Scottish and I also like Mel Gibson a lot. I would have liked to have worked with Stephen Spielberg more, although, I don’t think he’s the greatest director of all time. I once had the honour of working with him, on Hook. I showed up for the first time on the set and I showed up late. He said, ‘you’re the camera man, hurry over here and do the shot’. When I took position I saw him move the camera operator out of the way, turn on the camera and start using it. I made a joke about going for lunch and he said to me, ‘what are you talking about? You only just got here!’ I really enjoyed that time working with him.
Is there anything you wish you knew when you were starting out that you know now?
Number one, don’t ever work in the film business. I kid. I have to tell you in the film business there’s a lot of nepotism and I didn’t have that because my Dad wasn’t a film director. The work that you start out doing really teaches you a lot about the film industry. I worked as a production assistant, which is pretty much the level entry job and people often said, don’t you want to be a director or a producer? But a production assistant is important because you learn everybody’s job on that set. Directors are great but there’s a lot of other talented people on set. But you’ve just got to believe in yourself, the worst thing is the fear of failure. Every success by is surrounded by failure, we all have it but you just need to conquer that fear. You can do anything you want.
– Thanks to Brian W.Armstrong, camera assistant on Rain Man