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Natural born stiller

by Penelope Grist, 15 December 2016

Penelope Grist speaks to Robert McFarlane about shooting for the stars.

Director John Duigan and actor Judy Davis on the set of ‘Winter of our Dreams’, Sydney, 1981 by Robert McFarlane
Director John Duigan and actor Judy Davis on the set of ‘Winter of our Dreams’, Sydney, 1981 by Robert McFarlane

‘I never thought of myself as a stills photographer per se’, reflects Robert McFarlane. ‘I thought of myself as a documentary photographer who had been hired to document the production.’ Over the phone from his home in Hallett Cove in Adelaide’s south, McFarlane spoke with me about his experiences as unit stills photographer on numerous film and television productions, including Sirens, The Year My Voice Broke and Muriel’s Wedding. It was a delightful exchange; he skipped through various anecdotes and was full of warmth and affection for his subjects. He also provided fascinating insights into the ambiguous and beguiling quality of on-set stills – a sub-genre of portraiture that lies somewhere between documentary photography, photojournalism, art and publicity.

Born in 1942 and raised in Brighton, South Australia, McFarlane moved to Sydney in 1963, aged twenty-one, to begin a career as a documentary photographer that has now spanned over fifty years. Working as a freelance photojournalist in that city, his pictures appeared in The Bulletin, Vogue Australia and Walkabout. In 1965 he heard that British director Michael Powell was filming They’re a Weird Mob at Bondi, and went down to take some portraits. ‘As a documentary photographer,’ McFarlane recalls, ‘I immediately had as much of an interest in the action behind the scenes as before the camera.’

In his early twenties, McFarlane began editing Camera World magazine; he continued writing on photography in the ensuing decades, including for many years in his role as a reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald. In his critical writing, McFarlane shies away from sentimentality, expressing admiration for integrity and dignity in photography. As a photographer, he is prolific, with humanity, compassion and an acute consciousness of social issues pervading his practice. McFarlane himself has become the subject recently, with his life achievements as a photographer recognised in Mira Sulio’s documentary about his life, The Still Point, currently in production.

Early in our conversation, McFarlane mentions the significance of film producer Frank Taylor’s invitation to nine of the best-known photographers of the Magnum Photos agency – including Henri Cartier-Bresson – to visit the Nevada Desert location of John Huston’s The Misfits, in 1960. ‘Their response was to photograph what they found – not fabricate predictable publicity pictures’, McFarlane wrote in a 2007 cover story for Good Weekend. He noted that the photographers’ portraits of actors Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, and Clark Gable ‘brought an independent vision, and, above all, sensitivity to covering the making of Huston’s enduring, elegiac film.’ McFarlane tells me that although the Magnum photographic style is not exactly his own, the intimacy of their imagery and their belief in photographers as compassionate observers exerted a significant influence. They were, McFarlane notes, ‘certainly part of a tradition that I respect, because they tried to capture the essence of what the film was about’.

‘Robert is a gentle giant – he knows what is required and is charmingly persistent about achieving it’, notes Sue Milliken. A film and television producer since the early 1970s, Milliken employed McFarlane as production unit stills photographer on The Fringe Dwellers, Sirens and Dating the Enemy. ‘He understands the on-set pressures but makes sure that time is given to him to get his shots. And he is a very talented artist. So the end result is some of the best stills I’ve ever had on a film.’

The 1981 Sydney drama, Winter of our Dreams, was McFarlane’s first experience as the unit stills photographer on a film crew. In one still, director John Duigan leans across a bed between takes, discussing the next scene with Judy Davis – one in which she injects heroin. McFarlane says of this portrait, ‘Davis is “intensity with a capital I”, and Duigan is a very subtle man – he is an actors’ director with a great presence on set’. Duigan and Davis’ creative drive was recognised. Although it was only Davis’ second movie, her performance saw her receive the Australian Film Institute’s award for best actress. Film curator Paul Byrnes noted that Winter’s popularity was surprising, considering it was an ‘austere and uncompromising’ film charting ‘a junkie prostitute’s failure to find love.’

Milliken describes the role of the stills photographer as ‘one of the most difficult jobs on set, because there is always tremendous pressure to get the day’s filming schedule completed, and the crew never want to stop for stills to be taken’. Added to which, she emphasises, ‘one of the most essential items in a film’s contract with the distributor is a set of production stills’. It is the producer’s responsibility to make sure quality stills are taken that will best promote and publicise the film – evocative, memorable stills permeate the public consciousness.

For McFarlane, working on a film set was quite an adjustment from photojournalism ‘where you operate as a kind of a lone wolf’. ‘On a set, the making of the film is the most important thing’, he notes. ‘You have to study the script. You need the ability to work silently and in low light.’ Stills photographers enclose their cameras in soundproof blimps and have to stay out of the shot, out of the actors’ eyelines and out of the way of the crew, while getting the list of shots the producer needs. ‘At one stage on Winter I found myself standing in a doorway, and the gaffer Warren Mearns barrelled through the door and nearly bowled me over.’ Hence McFarlane’s early lesson working on set: ‘Never stand in a doorway!’ Mearns, he added, had been on film crews since the 1940s. He had been best boy (assistant lighting technician) on Charles Chauvel’s 1940 classic, Forty Thousand Horsemen.

On the phone, McFarlane’s tone is one of admiration, whether speaking of Mearns’ unobtrusive, subtle skill trimming Director of Photography Tom Cowan’s lighting, before shooting on Winter; or the young Nicole Kidman’s uncanny ability to cry on cue, six times, so he could get the black and white, colour, mid-shot and close-up stills during the shooting of the landmark 1987 mini-series Vietnam; or the crew hard at work on Muriel’s Wedding. ‘You meet some wonderful creative people on set; I’ve been privileged’, he reflects.

‘He does street photography as if it’s stills, and stills as if it’s street photography’, says Gael Newton, former Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia. Newton has been a friend of McFarlane’s since he took her wedding photographs in the 1970s. In her 2009 catalogue essay for Received Moments, Manly Art Gallery and Museum’s touring McFarlane retrospective, she wrote of his images that there is a sense of ‘being given a privileged glimpse behind the scenes’. This quality is evident in one of McFarlane’s most famous portraits, held in the National Portrait Gallery collection – that of the young Charles Perkins on the bus. The future Indigenous leader, on his way to Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative College, is calm and introspective. The clear focus on his face, the blurred figure in the foreground, and the diminishing perspective of the bus interior makes it feel like a film still – a significant and telling moment in the story. McFarlane sees the extraordinary in a completely ordinary moment. Newton thinks McFarlane ‘searches for a moment that is quite intimate. It is as if the close-up has switched from foreground to background, to a moment. And suddenly, these quiet moments become important and reverential.’

‘There were things that I really liked about being a member of the crew’, McFarlane recalls. ‘Going away on location – you were like a creative expeditionary force, all working towards making the best film that you can make.’ It’s easy to understand how McFarlane fitted into this environment. After five years working in London in the early 1970s, he returned to Australia and began photographing the burgeoning independent theatre movement. He notes: ‘I loved the craft of the theatre. Performers create a bubble which only exists for a moment – which I am interested in capturing’. Newton explains, ‘He has this extraordinary rapport with people, as well as a breadth of interests and sympathies’.

McFarlane worked as stills photographer on two semi-autobiographical coming-of-age Australian classics – 1987’s The Year My Voice Broke, written and directed by John Duigan; and 1992’s The Nostradamus Kid, written and directed by Bob Ellis. Noah Taylor was the young lead in both. McFarlane’s portraits of Ellis and Taylor evoke the personal and creative effort of filming. In The Nostradamus Kid, an autobiographical rendering of Ellis’ early life, Taylor was tasked with the challenge of playing his own director as a young man. Ellis told David Stratton in a 1993 SBS interview that working with Taylor ‘was an extraordinary, joyful, abrasive, challenging collaboration’. In the same interview, Ellis, with his customary eloquence, described the tribulations of directing: ‘Staying awake is the hardest – you arrive with only half your brain at 6am and major decisions have to be made at 6.05, and its seventy hours a week, and there’s no mercy, and you’re more exposed and more vulnerable than you’ll ever be in your life. It’s like being a cabinet minister or taking Port Stanley.’

The Year My Voice Broke was filmed on location in Braidwood, NSW. One of the film’s most poignant and memorable scenes sees Taylor’s character, Danny, attempt to hypnotise his best friend and love interest, Freya, high on a windy hill. McFarlane captured a beautiful still of the scene, but he ‘actually played an active part’ too: the noise of the wind was too loud in the microphones and Duigan called for the three or four largest people on the crew to line up and form a windbreak. ‘When you marvel at the sound of that scene … I was part of that’, McFarlane recalls with a chuckle.

As stills photographer on the 1994 historical drama Sirens, McFarlane worked on location at the Norman Lindsay house in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney. In an interview with David Stratton, director John Duigan said that the film ‘is about the mystical aspect of sensuality’. McFarlane’s luminous and enchanting portrait of Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi and Kate Fischer – the ‘sirens’ – perfectly encapsulates this theme. McFarlane remembers lunching in Bathurst with Hugh Grant and observing how Sam Neill ‘allowed the character of Lindsay to inhabit him.’ Simultaneously conscious of both the imaginary world of the film narrative and the working realities of the set, McFarlane’s stills are in harmony with the creative effort they document.

McFarlane was also the stills photographer on the 1995 film Dad and Dave: On Our Selection. In the film, Dad Rudd, played by the late Leo McKern, experiences a moment of emotion as his son leaves home. McFarlane needed to be in McKern’s eyeline to get the shot while it was being filmed. The actor told McFarlane that he would stay in character for ten seconds after the director called ‘cut’, to allow McFarlane to get the still. The resulting image is a captivating portrait of an actor in character which was, the photographer maintains, a product of McKern’s ‘generosity of spirit’.

‘Robert is a very fine Australian’, says Newton. ‘And he’s been right there among the first to acknowledge the significant contribution of other great Australians.’ McFarlane’s portraits of the Australian directors, producers, actors and crews of Australian cinema’s revival and renaissance are valued as important documents of cultural history, with many of his stills held in the National Film and Sound Archive’s collection. With the humour and candour inherent in his images, he has helped re-define film stills as a distinct genre of photographic portraiture that documents lives both real and fictional.

This article has been written as part of a major collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive, supported by the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program.

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