Mary Ellen Mark with a snake during the filming of Apocalypse Now, Pagsanjan, The Philippines, 1976

A World Behind the Scene

Since the late 1960s, I have worked on many film sets. Sometimes a magazine assigns me a story but, more often, I am hired by the film studio as what is called a "special stills photographer." A special stills photographer works on a film set for any number of days or weeks and makes photographs which are used for publicity or advertising. The advertising pictures are for the one-sheet poster--usually, the concept and design of the poster is the work of the advertising art director and the film company, and I collaborate with them very closely to produce what is needed. The publicity photographs are used for magazine covers and stories. I make some portraits of actors in the studio, but most often they are taken behind the scenes, which has always been one of my preferred ways of working, especially in a surreal atmosphere like that of a film set.

Most of my favorite pictures are these documentary photographs of actors and actresses between takes, or of directors, producers and technicians on the other side of the camera. When Phaidon suggested creating a book of these photographs, I went through all my old contact sheets looking for more images. Of course, most of the pictures I picked were from behind the scenes, but I also chose some taken in the studio. Then I decided to look through my magazine assignments on celebrities and included the pictures that I felt were the most personal and revealing.

Over the years I have worked on over a hundred film sets and made thousands of photographs. The greatest visual change on a film set has been the introduction of a video monitor--referred to as "video assist"--which allows the director to look at a monitor and see exactly what the camera is seeing, rather than being behind the camera itself. Before the advent of the video assist, a director's reactions and interactions during rehearsals and takes were wonderful to photograph. This is particularly evident in many of my photographs of Federico Fellini working with his actors and crew from behind his camera. Today, during a take, the director is usually nowhere near the camera, but instead in front of a video monitor in a darkened area of the set or in a tent on location. This has cut out many photographic opportunities.

Another big change has been the power and impact of celebrity. In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, it was easier to hang out on a set and have full access to the actors. Today, that is more complicated--publicists, managers, and agents are involved, films are much more expensive, time is at a premium, and the demands on the actors are much greater, making these candid images more difficult to capture.

I feel very lucky to have worked on so many film sets. I've watched the greatest directors direct the finest actors. I've seen brilliant costume designers and set designers at work, and beautifully written scripts translated into magical cinema. I've watched amazing cinematographers light a scene and move the camera to tell the story. I've been in awe of dedicated crew and technicians working long hours in the most difficult of situations. I've witnessed creative and powerful producers pull this whole complex circus together and, in the end, make great films.

I decided to ask some of these extraordinary people to write something for this book-- something about a personal behind-the-scene experience. Many of them have become friends over the years, but I asked them not to write about my photographs, or about me, but instead to offer us a glimpse into their lives behind the scene. Their responses were wonderful--funny, sad, ironic, nostalgic--giving us an insight into this very special world.

My own experience of observing this world has helped me immensely in my work outside of it, whether it's directing my subjects, finding the best way to use light, working with stylists, or producing a project. I've watched the greatest of the great work and they have inspired me.

This book is dedicated to all of the people who make films and is in memory of Conrad Hall (1926-2003), a dear friend and a great cinematographer. Thank you all.

Mary Ellen Mark
New York, 2008