I am thrilled, honoured and very excited today to welcome back Irish writer Wayne Byrne and this time he has company!!!
Nick McLean, acclaimed Hollywood legend, a man linked to such infamous movies as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, The Goonies, Short Circuit and in more recent years the phenomenon that is Friends, joins Wayne in an incredible and fascinating chat about their new venture, a book that they have just co-written.
Nick McLean Behind the Camera is due for publication shortly with McFarland and is described as ‘a candid biography takes readers on an entertaining journey through five decades of Hollywood filmmaking‘ Featuring many of the biggest Hollywood icons such as Warren Beatty, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, John Travolta, Paul Newman and many, many more, this biography is really a must-read, a treat for all fans of cinematography, of both the big and small screen.
I really do hope you enjoy their wonderful chat with me as much as I did…..
[ About the Book ]
Nick McLean was one of the most acclaimed camera operators in American cinema of the 1970s, during which time he shot many classics of the New Hollywood movement including McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Heaven Can Wait, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Marathon Man, and Being There.
As a cinematographer throughout the 1980s, McLean would film blockbusters such as Cannonball Run II, City Heat, The Goonies, and Short Circuit before being lured into television to photograph some of the biggest shows in town, including Evening Shade, Cybill, and the pop culture phenomenon Friends, for which he was thrice Emmy-nominated.
This candid biography takes readers on an entertaining journey through five decades of Hollywood filmmaking, detailing McLean’s personal and professional relationships with some of the biggest film stars and directors in Hollywood (such as Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, John Travolta, Paul Newman, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mel Brooks) while delivering a behind-the-scenes look at some revered classics and beloved blockbusters of American film and television.
Hello Nick and Wayne, welcome to Swirl and Thread. You two have been on quite the adventure for the past year-and-a-half. You collaborated on a Burt Reynolds book, you both toured Ireland, and wrote a book together. How did this all come about?
Nick: I was just enjoying my retirement here in Malibu, after forty years of working in Hollywood, when one day I got an email from Wayne asking if I would be interested in talking to him for his Burt Reynolds book. I said yes immediately because Burt was a very good friend of mine and he really was instrumental in me having the great career that I had. It was Burt who made me a cinematographer after we worked very well together on Sharky’s Machine.
Wayne: That’s right, I knew that no book on Burt would be complete without hearing from Nick McLean. Nick shot many of Burt’s films and they were friends for nearly forty years, so it made sense to me to have Nick’s voice be in the book. Plus, I was a big fan of Nick’s having followed his career since I was a kid; I am very familiar with every film he has ever shot, so getting to speak to him was a great thrill. And he ended up writing my foreword as well. Nick: Then one day when we were chatting, Wayne said to me, “Nick, you have had an amazing career, there should really be a book on you. Would you like to work together?” And I said, “If anyone is going to write a book on me, I would like it to be you.”
That’s a great compliment. Why was that?
Nick: I felt comfortable with Wayne. He made the whole process easy and fun. I knew he had the best intentions, he is all about the films, not the Hollywood gossip stuff that some people go for. And he is just an amazing writer. His enthusiasm, professionalism, and absolute knowledge won me over straight away. My son, Nick Jr., who is also a cameraman – he currently shoots Grey’s Anatomy – he had already read Wayne’s previous book on Tom DiCillo and loved it. So I knew he must be good.
Wayne: I think that my approach to the Burt Reynolds book showed Nick and others that I treat these things respectfully. A Burt Reynolds book could easily fall into the realm of tabloid fodder or backstage soap opera. For me, it is all about the work, the films, and his artistry.
Tell us about the Irish tour. You appeared in different venues across the country with your show, “An Evening with Nick McLean”. How did that happen?
Wayne: Knowing film history as I do, I was well aware of the sheer scale of Nick’s influence and the stamp that he has left on Hollywood’s visual style over the last five decades. I knew I wouldn’t be alone in wanting to celebrate that. So I put a few shows together, a nice mix of film screenings, public Q&As, and masterclasses. I put the word out to various venues and bookers, and they booked us! We had multiple events in four different counties: Dublin, Kildare, Cork, and Galway, in theatres, cinemas, concert venues, colleges. We got good coverage on the radio and in the press, so the turnout was good and we were very well-received. We even had some fans follow us all around the country to every show, which is just mind-blowing.
Nick, you must have been very trusting of Wayne to take him up on his offer of launching a nationwide tour of a foreign country to celebrate your career. What was it about his grand ideas that made you want to take this journey with him?
Nick: When the talk of a tour came up, I thought it would be a great opportunity for three generations of McLean men to go on a road trip, and so I was joined by Nick Jr. and my grandson, Wyatt. It was a superb time.
Where there any standout moments on the tour for you?
Nick: I will never forget our event at the Palas theatre in Galway, we were there presenting the premiere of the new 4K re-release of The Goonies and doing a live interview after the film. Well, when the Q&A finished, me and Wayne were gathering ourselves and I looked up and there was a big queue of people lined up all around the theatre waiting to get an autograph and a picture with me. This was completely impromptu and unplanned. All these little kids and adults who love that movie wanting to say hi was just amazing. While I was in Ireland so many people wanted to give me a hug when they found out I shot The Goonies and acted in it playing Corey Feldman’s dad. I was real glad that my son and grandson were there to see that. One of the managers of Windmill Lane Studio said “I see big rock stars in here all the time, but I’ve never been as excited as I am to see you!” and she asked me for a hug, all because she was a huge fan of The Goonies. I’ve worked on many classic movies, but that film will be my legacy.
Wayne: That night in Galway was terrific, I was excited for Nick to see it. I really felt proud to have brought this hero to the fans. And it almost didn’t happen because Warner Bros. weren’t issuing licenses for The Goonies for exhibition in the lead up to the re-release, but in the end, because Nick was going to be there, they gave us the premiere screening of the new print. For me our show in Studio One at Windmill Lane Studios was exceptional. So much history there. It was an amazing audience, very receptive and engaged, asking wonderful questions. We ended up going overtime and talking for two-and-half-hours and could have kept going. Also, my hometown show in Naas Library was special because my friends and family were there. It was also a big thrill to accompany Nick to RTE for his interview with Dave Fanning. Actually there is another moment I will never forget, which is sitting in my apartment with Nick and a couple of my friends and watching Being There, the masterpiece with Peter Sellers that Nick was the cameraman on. It’s a stunning film any time, but to be sitting there with the guy who was behind the camera was a surreal experience. We all had a few beers, some nachos, and a great time.
Nick: We had a few great times in Wayne’s place. His wife Jen cooked us a real traditional Irish dinner one day and made us feel right at home. I loved it in Kildare.
Wayne: It’s not every day you get to share some roast beef and Guinness with a Hollywood legend at your own kitchen table!
So this was an opportunity for you guys to really get to know each other. From a writer’s perspective, this must have helped, Wayne.
Wayne: Absolutely, being that the book is about the man behind all these famous images, it was a great opportunity to get an insight into the kind of guy that Nick is. I learned pretty quickly that he is entirely unpretentious, and I learned that by asking some pretentious questions. At the beginning I approached it perhaps like an academic, asking about aesthetics and subtext and symbolism and all that jargon. But Nick is very practical, he could tell me exactly why he framed and lit a shot in a certain way, but he didn’t get too technical in terms of cameras and lenses, which was great for me because it would have went right over my head as I’m not a technical kind of guy. Nor did he go into the symbolism of colours and shapes. That’s for a Douglas Sirk or Max Ophuls book. I just want a good story and an insight into what made these magical moments of cinema. I also learned why he is so admired in the film industry, aside from his amazing camerawork: he is fiercely loyal, acknowledges the work and help of his colleagues, and is very generous in sharing credit with others. Nick has no ego.
How did you find the process of getting a publisher?
Wayne: Very easy. I was in the middle of writing the Burt Reynolds book for McFarland Publishing and I mentioned to the folks there that I had an idea for a book on Nick McLean and that he is on board with collaborating with me, and they instantly loved the idea. We signed the contracts almost immediately. Having Nick with me made it instantly authentic. His filmography speaks for itself; if you are going to have the man who shot these classic films telling his stories from behind the scenes, it’s irresistible.
Nick: It was astonishing. About a week after he asked me if I’d be interested in doing the book, he came back and told me we had a publishing deal! Within a couple of weeks the contracts were signed.
You are both based in different countries. How did that work in terms of your writing process?
Wayne: Basically Nick and I would just talk on Skype for hours, and I would record these conversations and transcribe them. Then we would send pages across to each other for further smoothing. Nick is a great story-teller, so the book has an easy style to it. It’s not an academic study of cinematography or anything like that, it is really the story of one man’s incredible journey through Hollywood and the making of many classic films. Nick talks about his relationships with directors and stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and a load more. We did work with a certain structure though. For example, on a particular day we would say, “Okay, today we’ll go from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Being There.” And that’s the line our conversation would take. After that I would transcribe Nick’s words, pick out all the relevant parts, and work them into my part of the book, which is that of voiceover or commentator walking us through the historic and industrial contexts of Nick’s films.
Nick: Wayne really knew how to prompt me into telling certain stories, and that is something that served us very well at our live shows as well. He knew exactly how to direct the conversations. He knows every film I’ve done, every director I’ve worked with, all the actors and their careers. It’s amazing, and made it so easy for me.
Wayne, you wrote your previous two books solo, how did you find working with a co-author this time around?
Wayne: It was great! For me it is fundamentally still the same process: me interviewing people and building from there. The main difference is that I was talking almost exclusively to one person: Nick. And it was a real pleasure to put this book together because being a memoir and not a piece of “objective” criticism my research was minimal. There are no external quotes from other texts, I didn’t need to consult other books because any time I needed information or further discussion of a particular film I just called Nick. Because he had been right there making the films I could just go straight to the source. Any other voices in there are people who worked on the films as well, such as Mike O’Shea and Jimmy Lewis. Again, if I needed anything further from them, I could just go and talk to them.
Nick, as you said, you were retired after many years in the film business when Wayne came calling. How does it feel to now be looking back and celebrating your career?
Nick: Yes, I retired after shooting the Friends spinoff Joey. I was going to retire after Friends but Matt Le Blanc asked me to do his show. I said I would because I liked Matt but that show did not last too long, so I officially retired when that ended. I was just enjoying my retirement when I received an unexpected call from Wayne and I’m glad I did because it has been such a fun ride. When I was in Ireland I got see some of my films on the big screen that I hadn’t seen in years. The Sugar Club in Dublin screened Spaceballs and the Triskel Theatre in Cork had a double-bill of Cobra and Short Circuit, and they have held up really well over the decades. And to have people, whether they are fans or film industry professionals, asking questions about things you did thirty or forty years ago felt really good.
Being that you have such a storied career working on these amazing films and with big stars, were you ever approached or tempted to write a book before?
Nick: I have been asked about doing it throughout the years and subsequently I tried and failed to write my autobiography. I soon found out that I didn’t have the writing chops. I might have been a good cinematographer, but I’m not much of a writer. I needed someone like Wayne to come along and help me. It was great timing and I feel so lucky.
Was it a daunting idea to work on your very first book, knowing going into it that it was going to be published?
Nick: I knew I was in good hands with Wayne. Apart from being a brilliant writer, he knew as much if not more about the films than I did. He is like an encyclopaedia of film history. So working with Wayne made it a very easy process because he was able to guide the conversations and bring up certain aspects of the films for us to discuss. He picked up on things I did in the films that have never been mentioned before.
Wayne, what is it about Nick’s work that attracted you to it?
Wayne: I grew up consuming Nick’s work in the 1980s and 1990s. Films such as The Goonies, Cobra, Stick, Spaceballs, Short Circuit, Mac & Me, Cannonball Run II, and some other films he worked on like Over the Top and Willow, they were all an intrinsic part of my youth and childhood. Those were films I saw in the cinema or repeatedly rented over and over again, taking in every aspect of them. And then as I got older and began to study the art of cinema and became interested in cinematography, I realised Nick was a superb director of photography. His compositions and command of colour and lighting is just astonishing. His aerial photography is first-rate. And then when you go back to his work in the 1970s as a camera operator, on films like The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Heaven Can Wait, Marathon Man, Being There, and so on, you soon realise that Nick’s photography is an indelible element of the New Hollywood period, he is the man who framed some of the most memorable images of that film movement. And like everyone else, I watched Cybill and Friends when they first aired on television and were huge. People have seen and enjoyed Nick’s work even if they don’t realise it.
What was the best thing about working on this project for you guys?
Wayne: For me it was gaining an amazing friend in Nick and meeting his beautiful family. That has been the best thing about writing books: the people you meet. If you get good reviews and positive feedback, then that is just icing on the cake. I also got to meet Mike O’Shea, who wrote our foreword, and who is another terrific cinematographer. He worked on stuff like The Lost Boys, Extreme Prejudice, The Burbs…again, some of my favourites. So to pick his brain was great. It has just been a thrilling experience and it is so rewarding to see it coming to fruition.
Nick: Meeting Wayne. We started out as complete strangers, he a film buff and writer in Ireland and me a retired film-maker in Malibu, and now we’re buddies and collaborators. He has encouraged people to remember and celebrate some great films and my work on them. I value our friendship, and when I think of that and the great times we had together on this project I know I made the right choice in saying yes when he said to me, “Nick, I think we should write a book.”
[ About the Authors ]
Nick McLean is an Emmy Award-nominated cinematographer. As director of photography his work includes The Goonies, Short Circuit, Staying Alive, City Heat, Cannonball Run II, the TV shows Cybill, Veronica’s Closet, Friends, and much more.
As camera operator he shot films such as The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Marathon Man, Being There, Heaven Can Wait, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and others.
Wayne Byrne is a writer and librarian. He has authored several books including The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out and Burt Reynolds on Screen. As a journalist he has written for Hot Press, Film Ireland, Books Ireland, The Irish Times, The Dark Side and many more publications.