It’s that time of year again in Toronto when the already traffic-jammed streets are lined with film trucks and trailers directed by bored traffic cops moving along drivers slowing down, hoping for a glimpse of a movie star. Yes, our dollar is down and the American dollar up, as well as the Canadian government’s enticing incentives for the US movie companies. The film industry once again is booming in our fair city filled with hopeful actors and bustling movie sets.
In 1979, I was 24 and fresh out of photography school. From the outset, I had big dreams to be a stills photographer in this exciting world of film. How hard could it be? After all I had connections through a cousin living in LA who was a film director, moving his way quickly up through the ranks of Hollywood. Let’s call him Mark, to keep him anonymous. I was certain he would help me get into the film business, after all we were close when he lived in Toronto, and what is family for if not to help each other.
I got up the nerve to call and ask him if he was willing to help me make some connections. His response was not what I expected. He said, “No I’m not willing to help you. I made it on my own and so can you.” I couldn’t believe it. Feeling deflated, unsupported and frankly pretty pissed off, I had one of those “welcome-to-being-an adult realizations” that if I was going to make my dreams come true, I was going to have to do it on my own. Mark was my only connection to the film world and now that connection was broken.
Disheartened but determined, I got a job to support myself, as a colour printer, as well as working as a freelance photographer at the Toronto Sun. One night I went to see a fantastic live production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Rex Danforth. I took photographs from my seat. The shots were pretty good so I asked the producers if I could sell prints in the lobby during intermissions. They agreed. I made a massive quantity of prints at my day job and sold them for $2 apiece. It was a humble beginning but my dream looked far away down a rocky path.
The next summer, Mark came to Toronto to direct a film with Michael Douglas. Still hopeful he would give me an opportunity on set, he just invited me to come to the set for lunch. Lunch? I thought, What good is that going to do me? I want to work. I was not happy about the way he ignored our familial bonds but took him up on his offer anyway. I came and had lunch with him and to my surprise, Michael Douglas joined us. Michael was very sweet and it was a big thrill for me being that he was the first movie star I had ever met.
I was allowed on set after lunch to watch. I realized that I needed to turn this “lunch” into an opportunity. I nervously introduced myself to the stills photographer. His name was Shin Sugino, who later became a very successful commercial photographer. Thankfully he took to me, and perhaps moved by my youthful exuberance to shadow him, he let me stay on set. Later that day he asked if I wanted to cover a scene with him. I was both scared to death and excited beyond belief.
Susan Sarandon Sissy Spacek
Shin gave me a camera loaded with film and told me where to position myself during the take. Here was my first big chance to shoot on a real set. He shot and I shot. After the set up was finished he gave me his camera and told me to take out the roll and reload. I was so nervous that I forgot to rewind the roll first before I opening the back of the camera. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I quickly snapped it shut again, rewound the roll, took it out, and quickly reloaded. I thought I had ruined his day’s work but didn’t have the courage to tell him. I was sure that this was the end of my ridiculously short career as a set photographer. What I didn’t know at the time was that stills photographers, shoot thousands of frames and the Studios use only about 25 shots in the final promo package so he probably wouldn’t even have noticed the three or four shots that got exposed.
But on that day, I slinked away believing I had ruined a chance at fulfilling my dreams. Despite this awful day (that, by the way, I have never told anyone about before now), armed with my tenacious nature and a clear goal, I continued working hard at making connections and learning more about how to be the best at what I do, if ever another opportunity arrived. At the time, with the impatience of youth, it seemed like that might never happen.
However, later that year I got my first job on a feature film, hired by Robert Sax, who was a friend and the assistant producer on the film. He took a chance on me even though I had virtually no professional experience. This time I was ready and it changed my life. That first job began my 37 year career of working as a stills photographer in the film and tv industry.
Looking back, taking into account my life experiences both challenging and extraordinary, I realize that my cousin perhaps did have my best interest at heart after all and had he helped me when I asked him, I may not have worked as hard to develop the skills I needed to help me in this tough world of film. Perhaps he knew I too had the tenacity, strength and determination, like him, to do whatever it took to succeed in turning my dreams into reality. I owe my friend Robert and my cousin Mark, my deepest gratitude both for giving me, and not giving me a break.
All photographs by Marni Grossman