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Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid: Alternative title

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Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid: Tricks with light and water
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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That was my other black and white movie that I, obviously, got asked to do because of Raging Bull. They thought I knew how to do black and white. And it was... for anyone who hasn't seen it, it was made of matching shots that we made, matching the over-shoulders of old black and white movies, so that Steve Martin... it was a comedy, and Steve Martin would be... you'd see Steve Martin looking down with something on his face, and it would cut around and it would be Lana Turner, from some old ‘40s movie, or any number of people. And that was the joke of the movie. And it was wonderful fun to do, because it was a kind of archaeology. At the time I had... I had a head electrician and gaffer named Don Stott, he was an old, old man – and I think retired almost right after, or very soon after anyway – who had been in the... the movie business for 40 or 50 years, and had worked in the old studio days as an electrician. And, in fact, had worked on a couple of the movies that we used clips from. He'd actually worked on those movies. Happened by accident to have worked on those movies.

So we decided to, or I decided to, as much as possible, only use the old lights, so we dug around in the basements and storage rooms and things of various studios, and found old this and old that, and lights that I've never even seen, and that Don knew. And then we cleaned them all up and used them, and we used arc lights all the way through, which nobody does anymore. And we lit it as much as possible in the way that was absolutely accurate to the movie we did. And that was great fun. Don, and several other old-timers who we used, knew all sorts of tricks that... that nobody knows anymore. That I don't, and certainly didn't, know, and I don't think anyone does, that there were... that were used in those days. And they're quite wonderful. For instance, if you're going to do a shot in which you want to have ripple effects on the wall –  you know, as if water was rippling – you would take a light and shine it down into a pan, a thin pan of water, broad like that, and there would be all bits of broken mirror in the... on the bottom of the pan, and the light would go down in there and break up that all these mirrors and bounce up. But to make it ripple, you would agitate the water so that it... sort of... like that. You know, you'd do it like... you're in a cave, or something like that. I can't remember where in... oh, I think at the end we're in a cave somewhere in... yes? Anyway, we did that and we did it but we did it... in modern day you would do it with a light and you'd have a grip who would stand there and sort of agitate the water, but in those... we had arcs, and arcs, if you know, have a rotating mechanism that feeds the carbon to where it burns. And that rotating mechanism has a handle on it, which turns. So all you do is you tie a string to the handle and put a piece of wood in the water, and it agitates itself, because it goes around and around like that, and the string lifts the piece of wood and it goes, flap, flap, flap.

And it was just this wonderful little bit of knowledge from the past that I had never seen, and none of the younger guys had ever seen. I mean, he said, ‘No, you don't have to do that. Get the grip whip and, you watch, I'll show you.’ And he tied the string around the thing, and it would go round and round and round, and it would agitate the little piece of wood like that, and agitate the water. It was wonderful! You know, it was a perfectly logical, simple solution to a problem, but none of us had ever had it occur to us how to do it. It was full of that kind of thing. You know, how they used to put scrims in front of the light and then they'd pick oil... they would take oil and dot the area where the light was coming right into the face. It would be soft around it, but it would be a little hotter in the eyes, and things. All kinds of old-time things that I knew nothing about. And it was wonderful to see and to do, and it was... it felt like archaeology. But archaeology to the past of one's own craft, you know, and it was fascinating. And great fun to do.

We had a... we had a wonderful time with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner; everybody had... we all had a great, great time. And... it... in a way, I did too good a job because younger people didn't get the jokes. They didn't know who the hell this woman with blonde hair was, you know. They just thought it was a woman talking to Steve Martin, and so... older people fell down laughing. My parents, and people like that, just loved the movie and thought it was wonderful because... because they got the joke. But a lot of younger kids didn't. It was a mild hit, but only mild. And much of that was because if you didn't get it that he was talking to Lana Turner, it was nowhere near as funny, you know. So anyway... but it was great fun to do, and I'm very, very happy to have done it. And I had a very good time with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner. I did another movie with them too... what was it called? [The] Man with Two Brains, which was just a... you know, a regular comedy and a lot of fun, and very funny, I think. And Steve and Carl were very nice guys and a lot of fun to work with, and very smart. Steve had a great art collection and knew a lot about art.

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Lana Turner, Steve Martin, Don Stott, Carl Reiner

Duration: 4 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008