Here’s a test of your schlock credentials: are you familiar with the work of David Worth? Chances are that you’ve seen some of it even if you don’t know him by name. Since the 1970’s, he’s built an impressive list of credits as both cinematographer and director. Here’s a tiny sample of the famous names he’s worked with: Clint Eastwood, Shelley Winters, Robert Ginty, Slim Pickens, Donald Pleasance and Jean Claude Van Damme. The films he’s worked on? A small selection would include Poor Pretty Eddie, Death Game, Bronco Billy, Warrior Of The Lost World, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Never Too Young To Die and Kickboxer.
Read on for the first part of an interview that will walk you through Worth’s impressive career as a cinematic journeyman. You’ll quickly discover he is a witty, energetic raconteur…
Your biography says you decided to become a filmmaker after seeing CITIZEN KANE for the first time. What qualities of this classic film inspired your decision?
DW: Just about everything. Remember, this was way, way back in the 1950’s & I was used to seeing The Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, Maverick & Jackie Gleason… To all of a sudden be confronted with this amazing film told in a totally unconventional manner, beginning with Kane’s Death, then a “simulated news reel” of his public life, then flashbacks of his real life all described differently by each character and then finally the revelation of “Rosebud” as all of his earthly possessions went up in smoke…
WOW!!! I was totally blown away, and even with all the commercials, I still “got it” & that started me down the long, long road that I still seem to be on…
You furthered your passion for cinema by studying film at UCLA. After you completed your studies, how did you make the transition into working in the film business?
DW: When I reached my senior year at UCLA I began to ask my professors if there was some kind of an apprentice or intern program to give us an entry into Hollywood after we had received our degrees. The answer was “No,” so since I had already been working professionally, I dropped out of UCLA and began to pursue finding work in the film business on a full time basis. I shot small commercials, inserts, titles, built sets and finally began to find work as a Cinematographer & Editor…
One of your most interesting early credits is the unusual cult item POOR PRETTY EDDIE. In addition to shooting this film, you are also credited as production supervisor. How did you get involved in this one of a kind film?
DW: I had been working with the director, Richard Robinson, for several years at his production company Modern Art Productions, where I was the Cinematographer, Editor & basically “in charge of production” on several small forgettable Westerns (White Justice & The Preacher) When we happened to land a larger production like Poor Pretty Eddie we brought on a major film cast headed up by Shelley Winters and a major film editor, Frank Mazzola. I stayed on as the Director of Photography and Production Supervisor…
Along with star Michael Christian, you put together a re-edited version of POOR PRETTY EDDIE called HEARTBREAK MOTEL. On this version, you are credited as director – and Christian has been quoted as saying you co-directed the original version as well. How much directorial input did you have into the two versions of the film – and what is your opinion on the two different versions?
DW: As I recall, we attempted to make a PG version of what had been an R rated film that had not been accepted very well at the time. We realized that we had the footage to give the original film a softer spin and we attempted to do so. Richard Robinson was basically a hustler who lived in the fast lane and managed to raise the money for the films that we did at Modern Art Productions. However, when it came to the actual filmmaking – the crews, cameras, lenses, lighting, blocking, editing, etc., etc. – that was usually, in a large part left up to me. Both versions of the film did not make the grade. We had an amazing cast and production values to work with but without a stellar script the material didn’t impress anyone at the time. Over the years the original with all of its insanity has become a cult favorite and rightly so.
The cast for POOR PRETTY EDDIE is rather amazing: Shelly Winters, Leslie Uggams, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens and Ted “Lurch” Cassidy all appear in it. Word has it that Winters was quite a character on set. What are your memories of working with her?
DW: She was an amazing actress. One day the lights were set, the cast was assembled, the camera was ready and Shelley was sitting in the chair on her mark, “motivating.” I was pacing around the set making sure that everything was in order and I happened to glance at my watch as I passed in front of her. Suddenly at the top of her voice she shouted: “NEVER LOOK AT YOUR WATCH WHEN I’M ACTING!” I realized that I had made the mistake of getting into her “eye line” while I was checking the time and so I calmly walked behind Ms Winters to check my watch and see how were doing as far as staying on schedule that day. I never took it personally, she was right & I was wrong.
Always give a method actor a wide berth when they are motivating!
In the late 1970’s, you also shot another unusual cult item in DEATH GAME. The photography is quite stylish in this film, particularly during a setpiece involving in a large fish tank. Since most of the film takes place in one location, what did you as cinematographer to keep this film visually interesting?
DW: This small, basically unreleased film was very pivotal in what I laughingly refer to as “my career”. This was the first time I had used the 35mm Panavison Panaflex camera & I immediately fell in love with using it in its hand held mode. I had already done several 16mm features using the French Eclair camera and I decided to treat the Panaflex like it was a big Eclair! Because of our limited time and budget, I often handheld the camera, even for 75mm close ups of the actors, just by curling up in a nearby chair and bracing myself. Instead of taking the time to put the camera on a tripod, level the tripod, lower it and adjust it several times, etc. etc. By that time I could have done several set ups handheld.
Another decision that changed both the look of the film and my professional life happened when I decided to light the film to a 2.2 on my light meter but then to under expose the negative by 3/4 of a stop by setting the lens to a 2.8. Because our star Sondra Locke has such fair almost translucent skin, she usually looks over exposed on most film sets. My underexposing the film made her skin look great and in her mind this was the “best she had ever been photographed…”
She happened to go from DEATH GAME to a film called THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, where she began a nearly 14 year relationship with Mr. Eastwood. She began to mention me to him as a Cinematographer and eventually that led to my doing BRONCO BILLY and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN! So you can see how important a film DEATHGAME is for me and why I tell my students that even on the smallest films you always must do your very best work.
In your biography, it says shooting on the Eastwood film BRONCO BILLY was completed 2 1/2 weeks ahead of schedule because of your shooting style. Could you please describe the nature of that shooting style and how it allowed the production to save time?
DW: I had developed my lighting style primarily from being able to study Stanley Kubrick’s film A CLOCKWORK ORANGE up close and personal. Remember,this was back in the day when there were no VHS tapes or DVD’s. The only way to study a film was to go to a screening… and by the way the projectionist would not go back and play your favorite scenes again after the show for you to study.
While I was editing DEATH GAME, our lab was MGM. When I sent for a box of “fill leader,” which was unused 35mm prints that were used for filler in sound tracks, they happened to send me a 35mm print of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with French Subtitles.
I was in Filmmaker Heaven. I immediately took my work off of the old upright moviola, put Mr. Kubrick’s work on it and began to run all of my favorite scenes forward and backwards. When I came to the scene where little Alex kills the Cat Lady with the sculpture of a giant phallus, I was running the scene forward and backward when I suddenly stopped cold! What the fuck? I could plainly see that Mr. Kubrick was chasing the two characters around the room 360 degrees with a hand held Arriflex IIC camera & an 18mm lens and I could see all four walls, the floor and the ceiling… But There Were NO MOVIE LIGHTS!!!
Mr. Kubrick had created several light sculptures containing 100 or 150 watt bulbs, placed then around the room said “OK we’re lit…” and shot the scene!!! This was a moment of enlightenment for me & changed my style of lighting forever. Building the lighting entirely into the sets or locations so that you can work 360 degrees with out having to relight or break the actors concentration is an amazingly actor-friendly and production-friendly way of working. That is exactly the technique that I used on BRONCO BILLY in order to shave our original 8 week shooting schedule down to 5 & 1/2 weeks!
The same year, you also shot a second Eastwood film, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN. This sequel to EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE features a chimpanzee as one of its main characters – did that present any unique challenges to your work as a cinematographer?
DW: I had already done a lot of “animal work” by directing the 2nd Unit on the NBC TV Series THE LIFE & TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS so I was prepared to “wait” for Clyde if we had to.
We never had to! The trainer, Boon Nar had, Clyde primed and ready. Whenever Clyde came on set, he was ready to go and do all of his tricks. Everyone loved Clyde because he was always either kissing Clint or trying to guzzle someone’s beer. He was a very easy animal actor to work with.
In 1983, you directed WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD. That film had a very unique cast: Robert Ginty, Persis Khambatta and Donald Pleasance. Would you care to offer any impressions or anecdotes about what it was like working with this cast?
DW: It was an honor and a privilege for me as a young director to make this film on location in Rome with such an amazing international cast. We all had a great time making this small production in this outstanding European city. Mr. Ginty loved playing “The Warrior” which we both saw as basically “Clint Eastwood on a motorcycle.” Persis was as lovely as she was hard working and Mr. Pleasance encouraged her to really spit in his face, when her character needed to. It seemed to give him motivation!
WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD was also the recipient of a memorable MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 episode, which has become something of a cult favorite with the show’s fans. What do you think of MST3K and what was your reaction to having your work used by the show?
DW: I loved it! I laughed & laughed. All of the MST3K riffs at the expense of WOTLW were absolutely hilarious! I’ve seen the show several times and it’s always very funny! Of course we take our work seriously but if we can’t step back and see the comical flip side of what we do then perhaps we’re taking ourselves too seriously!
In 1986, you shot NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE – a film whose look could be defined as “1980’s action flick meets post-apocalyptic music video.” How did you go about getting that uniquely stylized look?
DW: “The Look” of any film starts with what is written in the script. Then, the director’s vision as well as the cast, wardrobe and locations have a lot to do with it. Back in the ’80’s producers used to ask me if I could give them the “Miami Vice” look. I would say of course all I have to do is use my Miami Vice Filter on the lens! Then I would explain my little joke by saying that the “Look” of any production, especially Miami Vice, was the result of the needs of the script as well as the collaboration of location, cast, hairstyle, wardrobe, production design, art direction. Then the cinematographer would set up his lights and turn on the camera and “Wow”: the Miami Vice look.
You worked with another once-in-a-lifetime cast when you shot NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE – Gene Simmons, Vanity and John Stamos. Any unique memories of working with this cast?
DW: John Stamos was hilarious and was constantly riffing about doing (almost) all of his own stunts and making sure that it said so on his resume! The love scene between John and Vanity was very, very hot and I think that she surprised him by how into it she actually was. Gene Simmons was and still is and will always be a huge star… but seeing him in Drag is still etched perhaps a bit too firmly in my mind.
In the late 1980’s, you served as 2nd unit cinematographer on a couple of major Hollywood productions, REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS and INNERSPACE. What are the challenges of doing 2nd unit work on a large production as opposed to being the cinematographer on an indie production?
DW: In a word, it was “thrilling!” These were huge films and I was fortunate and honored to be working on them, especially to be working with the outstanding 2nd unit director: Glenn Randall! He had done RAIDERS & STAR WARS and was a total professional. We had a fantastic time on both productions doing all the major action set pieces as well as eating at all of the best restaurants in Mexico and San Francisco. Unlike first unit, 2nd unit can be less stressful since they largely do their work on natural locations with available light and stunt people, only occasionally interfacing with first unit or having a star come in for a particular shot in a particular scene. 2nd unit was a job that I really enjoyed and hoped would continue but nothing lasts forever in our business.
On most of the films you’ve done from the 1990’s on, you frequently serve as both cinematographer and director. What are the challenges inherent to doing these two crucial jobs at once and how do you maintain a balance between the demands of each task?
DW: When I started to get work back in the day, I came up against what I liked to call “Gucci Bag directors.” These were guys who were cute, had the gift of gab, managed to raise $100,000 then bought a Gucci Bag, splashed some tanning lotion on their face and declared that they were a “director.” Usually, they did not know about camera or editing or even filmmaking but they “had what it takes” to make some waves in Business of Show.
I decided to take a long apprenticeship as a cinematographer and editor before I moved myself up to being a director and I believe that it paid off. Being my own DP when I’m directing saves me a lot of conversations every day of production and keeps everything streamlined. However, I do not operate the camera when I’m doing both jobs but I do pre-light the sets or locations and take care of most of the “technical” aspects of shooting as well as rehearsing the cast beforehand. Then on the day, we kick ass, take names and get the job done!