A Hollywood legend is coming to Triskel Cinema this Friday, March 8. Nick McLean is a renowned cinematographer. Over his lengthy career, he worked on several iconic movies including 1980s classics The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Deer Hunter before moving to television where he worked on 100 episodes of Friends.
He is embarking on a tour of Ireland where he will be taking a look back at his career in a series of Q&As with writer Wayne Byrne. McLean and Byrne have been collaborating on a book about McLean’s Hollywood experience. I Had the Greatest Job in Hollywood: Behind the Camera with Nick McLean is bound to be an interesting and insightful read, if talking to McLean is anything to go by.
McLean is based in LA and there is a time delay on the phone. The signal dips, but the 77-year-old’s laugh comes across loud and clear. He is excited about his trip to Ireland and Cork and thrilled to be able to talk about a career that brought him so much joy.
“It amazes me when I look back now and realise how much work I did. I was so lucky. I was somewhat talented, but luck had a big hand in it. I always say things are an equal split between luck and talent.”
It is hard to pick a time from his career to talk to him about, he has worked on so many classics, as he says. “I have a million stories and millions of memories from my time in film. Name a film and I can tell you so much about my time on it.”
The first choice has to be a childhood favourite, The Goonies which he recalls fondly. “I was actually in that as an actor. I was there for camera work, obviously, but there was a big rain storm and we couldn’t get actors in. Stephen Spielberg,who was producing it, came up to me and said you have to take a small part in this. I was a plumber under the sink! I am still in contact with a lot of the kids. The little kid who played Chunk, Jeff Cohen, is now one of the biggest lawyers in Hollywood.”
He talks about Spielberg and says he knew he was good, but later would come to realise that he is a genius. “We worked together on Sugarland Express and he was great to work with, but a couple of years later when it came to filming Close Encounters, I realised how great he had become. He is an absolute genius. Close Encounters proved that.
“My son, Nick Jnr, was a little boy when I worked on Close Encounters. He used to bring his skateboard to set and skate all over it! He has followed me into the business, which is great. He is working as a cameraman on Grey’s Anatomy.”
Over his long career, McLean worked with many Hollywood greats. “I worked on City Heat with Clint Eastwood. He didn’t want to be lit, he insisted the light go behind him. He said the audience knew exactly who he was, that he didn’t need any of the extra lighting. On Spaceballs, the director Mel Brookes insisted that everything was lit. He once said, “I’ve paid for those walls, I want to be able to see every one of them in the film.”
McLean says the move to television was a big change. “In film, I only ever used one camera, but for Friends, it was a four-camera setup. Shooting 100 episodes could easily have become boring, but the writers came up with ways to keep things fresh. Like the episode where all the lights went out so it had to look dark, but of course, it can’t be too dark because the audience needs to be able to see everything that’s happening. My job was to come up with lights that made scenes like that work.”
The cinematographer began his career in the 1960s, retiring just seven years ago. Over his years in the business, he saw many changes. “It was much harder for us to do it because we didn’t have the technology. Film is so fast now. With high definition cameras when you look through the lens its almost exactly as it will be on film. You can change everything digitally in post-production. The last year of Friends it was high def, you could change everything colour to density.”
To coincide with the retrospective on McLean’s career, Triskel Cinema will be screening two of his films, Short Circuit, and Cobra.
Cobra was co-written by and stars Sylvester Stallone, a man McLean greatly admires. “I really respect Stallone. He was offered $80,000 for his script for Rocky but he turned it down because the producers wanted James Caan to play Rocky and not Stallone. Sylvester was flat broke, but he said no to all that money because he wanted to be in the movie. Most people would have taken the money but Stallone had great guts. He stuck to his guts, and look how well that worked out for him!
An Evening with Nick McLean takes place tomorrow, March 8, at Triskel Cinema.