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An Interview with Mark Irwin

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Mark Irwin is an acclaimed director of photography on 167 feature films and counting since the 1970s. Having collaborated with renowned horror directors, David Cronenberg and Wes Craven, Mark’s credits include, The Brood, Scanners, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Videodrome, Scream, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and The Blob. Mark has also worked with directors such as Todd Phillips and The Farrelly Brothers and has shot some of the most memorable comedies of the ‘90s and ‘00s, including, There’s Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber, Kingpin, Me, Myself & Irene, Old School, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Grandma’s Boy. I spoke with Mark about the challenges of filming The Fly, working with David Cronenberg, and the energy on the set of Dumb & Dumber.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I was one of the luckiest kids in my school and, at the time, I didn’t realize it. I started my fascination with motion pictures very early in my life - at age 5, in my Sunday School class, I was given the task of threading the filmstrip projector with JOSEPH AND HIS COAT OF MANY COLOURS. I followed the instructions and looked at the image inside the projector (I was not allowed to plug it in) and found that it was upside down and backwards. Uh oh!

With much fumbling and panic, I ‘corrected’ my mistake and waited for the teacher to plug it in. Click. Lights off.

Click. Projector on, but out of focus. The teacher sharpened the image and there it was: upside down and backwards on the screen. Clearly, I was doing something wrong but on that day in 1955, I began my connection with photography, cinematography or ‘pictures in a box’, as I came to know them.

My filmstrip cock-up did not lead to disaster, but instead to a full time job as the AV geek all through school - kindergarten through Grade 13 and on to film school in Toronto. In public school, my duties included pushing the projector cart from room to assembly to gymnasium, threading 16mm films (motion pictures by now, primarily from the National Film Board of Canada) and showing the same film over and over again. That was the good news: I had my own YouTube channel and I was able to watch and study and learn not only how films looked but, by virtue of repetition, how they were made.

I studied the angles and edits and credits and names and built up my own list of favourites - Michel Brault and Jean Claude Labrecque, both great French Canadian cameramen - and subjects. Watching merged with making and by 1963, I had my own Revere Double 8 camera (a 16mm camera that exposed two 8mm images by threading the same film twice) and I was shooting movies with my friends on their bicycles, on skates, on skis, in a canoe, whatever the season. The evolution from projectionist to cinematographer was just the start for me. Low budget films, industrials and documentaries all came slowly but steadily once I graduated from film school in 1973.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

My period of inspiration came from 1963 until the present day but the most potent era was the 70’s - Gordon Willis and THE GODFATHER, Vittorio Storaro and THE CONFORMIST, Billy Williams and WOMEN IN LOVE, Owen Roizman and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, Ossie Morris and THE HILL, Conrad Hall and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, Nestor Almendros and DAYS OF HEAVEN, Haskell Wexler and MEDIUM COOL - these cinematographers guided my style and vision and gave me the language to tell stories with a camera.

My documentary instincts were sharpened by the Maysles Brothers, DA Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate and a very innovative NFB film maker called Arthur Lipsett. His films VERY NICE, VERY NICE and 21-87 really opened my eyes and, as it turned out, affected George Lucas as well.

I have shot over 200 documentaries, TV and feature films and, like Roger Deakins and Robert Richardson, I operate A camera to this day. This is a habit from my past (in a previous century, before the days of Video Village) and I share this instinct for proximity and presence with a few other cinematographers who still see the film world in 3D and not on a monitor in a tent at the end of a cable. But, that’s just me …

You’ve worked across the board in horror and comedy with acclaimed directors including, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Todd Phillips and The Farrelly Brothers. Which genre do you prefer working in, and what is the biggest difference between the two?

I was very lucky to find the crest of a wave twice in my career. First, I started shooting horror films at a time when they were a growing force in the indie world and bridging into the mainstream (aka Big Budget) world. SCANNERS, THE DEAD ZONE, VIDEODROME and THE FLY were just some of the films that I shot while I lived in Toronto. They led to FRIGHT NIGHT 2, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, THE BLOB and SCREAM to name just a few once I moved to Hollywood.

Somehow, my agent connected me with Peter and Bobby Farrelly while I was shooting nights on VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN and, despite not having slept for 48 hours, I met them and 3 weeks later, we were in Breckinridge Colorado on a ski slope. I had shot some comedy in Toronto with Second City alumni and the Farrelly Bros. had never directed anything before so we were a ‘perfect fit’.

To be honest, we all taught each other while shooting DUMB & DUMBER and that is where I learned the universal truth: Shooting horror films is easy; shooting comedy is hard. Very hard. Making people laugh is a truly complicated process. The tastes of Todd Phillips vs. Scott Marshall vs. Gil Junger vs. John Whitesell have their own origins in sitcom humour and pure slapstick and stand up. It is a delicate process to ‘find the funny’ in any scene and to not only capture it but expand it and broaden it. No one ever expected a scene of Jeff Daniels on a toilet or Ben Stiller masturbating would be funny, or even acceptable but those scenes and many more (THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, GRANDMA’S BOY, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU ) broke new ground and brought a new audience with them.

It was up to me, as the Cinematographer, to capture all of the beats and versions and ad libs while keeping the set literally cool (hot actors are not comfortable actors and not inclined to be funny).

I also had to find a lighting style that was real and not have to defend myself against the demands for ‘funny lighting’ or ‘funny filters’. Shooting comedies is a real tightrope for a cinematographer and the great ones, like Roger Deakins with the Coen Bros. or Gordon Willis with Woody Allen, keep it grounded. We let the humour play with the actions and reactions.

Shooting action and horror films is much more fun. The rhythm and balance of good vs. evil is a safe place to go on an adventure but, for me, weeks and weeks of nights and backlit smoke and wet-downs and car crashes … OK, I get it. Crash ! Boom ! Boo ! The tried and true method of scaring or thrilling an audience has a very textbook origin and, despite Wes or David and my high points with them, I was and am happy to expand into other realms. I have recently shot a number of Disney musicals and a Bollywood elephant poaching adventure movie. Always looking for a challenge.

The first wave was horror and the second wave was comedy. I rode both waves to the point where my agent would get calls for me with the honest query:

“But has he shot any horror films or action movies?”

“You mean like THE BROOD, ROBOCOP 2, PASSENGER 57?”

“Yeah, like those!”

“Well, he shot those.”

“Oh … yeah, but lately …”

I guess that experience has a price, except that I have to pay it. Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.

You worked as cinematographer on The Fly. Which camera did you use to shoot The Fly, and do you have a preferred camera/kit?

We shot THE FLY in 1986 and it was the last film that I shot with David (I did not know it at the time) and the first film for David where I could use my usual Arriflex BL-3 and Zeiss lenses. I owned an Arriflex 16 SR and, other than David’s films, I always could answer the question WWSSW? and follow my mentor and inspiration Stanley Kubrick with a German camera and glass. Once I moved to Hollywood, I used Moviecams and Cooke S4s and Angenieux zooms exclusively with Clairmont Camera then moved into the digital world with the Arriflex Alexa and Amira.

But, THE FLY was a huge undertaking for me. It took place in one set for 85% of the film so I decided to make Seth’s lab an equal character in his story. He began with romance, eased into intrigue and medical anomalies and then took the one way descent into a slimy metamorphosis. I wanted the framing, lens selection, lighting, contrast, shadow placement, camera movement - everything that I could control to follow Seth down that path into the inevitable classic horror film ending. Boy meets girl. Girl falls for boy. Boy slowly turns into hideous creature. Girl ends romance with double barrelled shotgun to his head. The End.

This was the journey that I wanted the audience to take. I wanted them to feel the flirtation in the beginning and the misgivings at the end.

Mark with David Cronenberg behind the scenes

What were the biggest challenges you faced shooting this film?

The biggest challenge for me, once the lighting path was set, came with the seven stages of Seth - the latex makeup and pieces and full body layers and mechanical puppets - that all had different textures and colours and reflectance. There was no ‘fix it in post’ fall-back in those days. I had to light and shade and balance every stage of not only Seth’s skin but also Veronica’s skin which, in her translucent beauty, never changed but remained luminous and very pale. As a result, I had quite a ballet of lights and flags and silks to over-light Seth by up to 3 stops (in full 6’ tall fly mode in the dark lab) just for him to be visible and in character while keeping the light off of Veronica (she would be 2 stops underexposed to keep the shadows working and 1 stop underexposed in the highlights to keep her mood alive)

Now, just add a baboon, a rotating room, three tele pods, smoke and backlit sparks and you have an easy day on THE FLY.

What is now done with green body stockings, tracking marks and mo cap rigs, we did on set. Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won an Oscar for their makeup and I won my 4th CSC Award for Best Feature Cinematography.

I would do it all again the same way, perhaps with an Alexa 65. We are, after all, 20 years into the 21st century.

Can you tell me more about your experience shooting Dumb and Dumber? The energy on set must have been quite unique?

DUMB & DUMBER was the beginning for Peter and Bobby and me. It was a documentary in many ways since Jim would riff on words then actions then physical bits that would evolve into a new scene - always better but not always what we planned so I kept it loose and lit into the corners in case Jeff or Jim wanted to bounce on a bed or fall on a flight of stairs or squirt mustard and ketchup all over the set (and crew).

Mark shooting Dumb & Dumber

KINGPIN was the next adventure and Woody along with Bill Murray kept the Bros. on their toes. The ad libs were endless gems so I used 2 cameras on every scene - action, stunt, dialogue - it didn’t matter. The energy was the most important force and matching was for sissies. I had a mission to capture ‘lightning in a bottle’ and we did.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY was the watershed film for the Bros. They found the perfect balance of character piece and road movie. Cameron was exactly like Mary, Matt was a bit of a doofus and Ben became a leading man in Hollywood thanks to this film. The gags were very measured and plotted. There was no zany Jim energy or Woody wisecracks. This was Peter and Bobby at their best and the setup for the last act was genius.

Much more goes into eliciting laughter from total strangers in a dark theatre. Much more than most people realize. My role in all of these films was too keep the temperament and spirit and momentum bubbling while keeping the machinery out of sight.

Mark with Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller on the set of There's Something About Mary

Once I had moved to Hollywood, I started getting meetings for TV work as well as horror films. I was the new kid in town and I met on all sorts of projects, one of which was called MY FIRST LOVE, a December-December romance with 2 widowed alumni members who rekindle their old flame at their 40 year high school reunion. The lead was Bea Arthur ( MAUDE and GOLDEN GIRLS ) and when I met the director Gil Cates, an old timer from live TV days, he complimented me on THE FLY then caught me off guard.

“I like what you did on THE FLY and I want you to do that on this film.”

I was at a loss for words so I blurted out, “Are you sure you want me? I mean, THE FLY was a horror film!”

Gil looked at me like the wise man that he was and said, “No, it was a love story and that is what I want for this film … what you did with Jeff and Gina. The pictures tell the story. The pictures always tell the story.”

That advice takes me back to 1960 at age 10, spending my solitary afternoons running B&W films in my AV room, pretending to check the print but really just watching and rewinding and watching it again. The pictures told me the story.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve had, and would you give this piece of advice yourself to someone pursuing this line of work?

My advice for anyone who wants to go down this rabbit hole is very simple: learn how to SEE. Take pictures of everything (maybe not your latte so much) and edit them.

Learn to crop and work the colour and contrast and MAKE the picture tell the story. It is easy to ‘be eclectic’, to ‘channel’ someone else, to ’sample ‘a look or vibe.

That is all BS.

Be original. Take chances. Make mistakes. Be original. Study the Oscar and Golden Globe, and Bafta and Cannes winners. Why did they win? And, did I mention: Be Original. Tell the story with pictures.

Our review of the The Fly by Michael Collins:

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