September 22, 2017 Michael

The “Mount Rushmore” Shot: Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash on Storytellers

Unlike a traditional multi-camera video shoot in which the Director is in a production truck or control room (booth) physically removed from the stage, with Storytellers I was set up in the room, very close to the actual performance akin to where a Director would be in a typical narrative setup. This proximity allowed me to feel what the live audience was feeling and to have a line of sight to the artists.

“VH1 Storytellers” started very simply in the winter of 1996; Ray Davies of Kinks fame, would perform a striped down version of some of his classics, tell stories about the songs and read from his autobiography. Shot in a small theater in lower Manhattan, we had three cameras, 8 lights and 50 people in the audience. I wanted very much to try to have the show look like no other music series. For some reason shooting on Film, which the VH1 execs decried and whined about because it was too dark, seemed to me to be the perfect archival feel for the series. That and we had a little budget.

So let’s skip to the summer of 1998 which was our third year of the series and by then we knew how to do the show and we had a few resources budget wise. Keeping the show simple and intimate allowed the artist to drive their own narrative by breaking down the songs in anyway they liked. Our run of shows with artists as diverse as Garth Brooks to Def Leopard, proved to us that the common denominator would be the musicians would be authentic in their stories and go to places they usually don’t.

When Executive Producer Bill Flanagan gave me the news that Cash and Nelson would be doing a filming my mind went to “fucking A! “oh shit” and “don’t fuck this one up” all at the same time. So we had the task of how to shoot and stage these two iconic American artists and make sure we preserve it for the ages.

I opted for the tried and true staging of putting them in the middle of the room surrounded by audience and put muslin drops on the walls. The biggest backdrop would be a slightly deconstructed American flag. We requested a few of their standards to be played but beyond the opening line “Welcome to Storytellers” no script was given or asked for.

The camera coverage was straight ahead, CU of each, Jib (which kept going down,) a HH for audience reactions and the Dolly manned by DP genius and now big time EP Russell Fine. Fine’s specialty shot on the Dolly was as he put it “I shoot it like I’m the only camera, like the whole show can be watched just on my angle.”

The shot still one of my favorite of all time is the Dolly shot when it raked Camera Left or Camera Right, and which I described as I stared at in the night of the filming “it’s like Mount Rushmore.”

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