Archival Pigment Print
Signed and Numbered by the artist
Edition of 50
11x14, 16x20", 20x24" or 30x36"
Sometimes bad news can be the best thing that happens to a photograph. This particular image of Steve Carell is one of my all time favorites because to me it captures his comedic personality so well. There is no one better than Carell at creating that awkward, sympathetic feeling from an audience, and reminding us all that life is full of uncomfortable moments. But this picture didn’t start out as an attempt to capture that emotion. This picture started out as an image for Carell’s 2007 film, Evan Almighty, in which Carell, like Noah before him, builds an ark and puts all of the animals on board.
The ideas for the shoot were all originally based upon the film, and all naturally involved animals. We had a live giraffe coming, we had a section of ark built that Carell could sit in, and I think we had a monkey or two. I also had this ‘70’s style basement rec room designed, and we were going to create an entire Noah’s Ark set in miniature, complete with thousands of small, plastic animals all over the room. Carell would sit in the middle as if he had created this entire fantasy world around him.
The morning of the shoot started really early. The art department needed at least three hours to place all of the animals in the room, so we were doing our best to light the sets around them. We finally got the room finished and made a polaroid with our set designer Chris sitting in the middle where we thought Carell would eventually sit. It was impressive. There were a lot of plastic animals.
And then the producer walked up to me, and I could tell from her face that there was a problem. I had just finished the test picture, and Chris was still sitting on the floor fussing (or playing) with the animals.
“What’s up?” I asked.
The producer stammered a bit and said quietly, “They don’t want any animals in the pictures.”
“What?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah…um, I just sent the giraffe home.”
“But, all the pictures, they are based around the idea of animals,” I said. “Surely there must be some mistake. This is a movie about Noah’s Ark. There has to be animals!”
At this point the set designer had gotten wind of our conversation and I will never forget the look on his face. Chris is someone who loves these kinds of ideas as much as I do, and really pours his heart and soul into his sets. And he also knows I am more than a bit of a practical joker. As I saw him trying to work out what was going on, I could tell he was searching for any sign that I was joking, and that this was some elaborate dramatic ruse I had worked out with the producer beforehand completely for his benefit. But I was too distraught, and I remember his face just falling, and then his shoulders drooped, and then he just shook his head.
Now, at this point, to be able to continue the shoot, I had to just let go of any expectation I had, and get through the day. A job is a job, I rationalized, and I just have to figure out how to repurpose these sets into pictures of Steve that have nothing to do with animals. And I have to admit; I stopped really caring about the pictures at that moment. I would just get the shoot done and go home.
But if nothing else, photographers are problem solvers. And I knew in an hour Steve Carell was going to walk onto set and be really kind like he always is and ask what we are doing. So I started figuring out picture ideas I could live with. I turned the ark walls into an odd little room that looked like a cross between an Irving Penn wall and a Dan Winters set. And I told poor Chris to take all the animals out of the rec room and leave it lit and ready. I couldn’t do anything about the giraffe, so I sadly let it go too. (To this day I have never photographed a giraffe).
And then Carell showed up. And he was nice. And he asked cheerfully what we were doing that day. I walked him around the room making a joke or two about the lack of animals, and when I showed him the rec room he loved it. We started talking about what he would be wearing in there, and we agreed it should match the time period of the room, and be purposely hideous. The clothing stylist and I put together a really sad mismatched suit which Carell immediately tried on and fell in love with. In fact, I remember at one point he held up a pocket square for me and asked if he should wear it. I contemplated the idea for a moment, and then very innocently said, “I think it’s a bit much,” not realizing how silly that sounded considering the outfit he was wearing. Steve laughed, “Oh, you think it will kill the subtlety of the look?”
Once Steve got into the set, the whole character came together instantaneously. I told him that he should act like he was at a high school party and was trying not to be noticed. He loved the nervous wallflower persona, and as he backed into the space between the couch and the lamp, it became at once funny but also poignant. He did what all great comedians can do, which is to make us feel their pain and their humanity as we also laugh. And haven’t we all been there at one time or another? The fish out of water? Or the person trying not to be noticed?
We tried other ideas, but when I looked back over the film, this image stuck out to me as the one that was bizarrely the most truthful and authentic. From the linoleum to the wall paneling to the duck painting, it turned out to be the perfect environment for Steve to find a real moment. And thank god we didn’t clutter it up with all those dumb plastic animals!
This is the magic of photography. Sometimes you can plan something out for weeks, and for one reason or another, it doesn’t work out. But if you stick with it, and trust the process, a much more unexpected and original picture can sometimes be the result. I know what the animal picture would have looked like (we got it all the way to the polaroid stage, remember?), and it resembled only an idea that that came from my brain, and therefore not especially surprising and exciting to me. But the picture we made looked like the alchemy between my idea, Steve’s personality, and Chris’s set. In other words, it was much more unique than anything I could have thought up on my own.
This lesson seems new every time I re-learn it. It is so hard to trust that element of surprise or to rely on an unexpected happy accident. It’s almost as if you have to go 100% down the road of planning and executing, and once all those plans are in place, accidents can happen. Picasso once said that you have to know how to draw the human figure properly before you can properly distort it. (Or something like that). That idea has always stuck with me. If you know your craft, and work hard at developing your eye, you can unwittingly create the environment for happy accidents to occur. I have learned to build time into a shoot schedule where nothing is planned out, and some spontaneity can occur. I think those moments are why I became a photographer in the first place. I loved the sense of discovery and surprise from the beginning. The trick is to keep that element in my work no matter what the circumstances. That’s the real trick.
And as for all those plastic animals? They ended up on the floor of my living room for months, and often dug into my feet as I unwittingly stepped on them. But I was a hero to my little girls, who couldn’t quite wrap their brains around the sheer number of little toys daddy brought home, and would just sit in the middle of them with big grins on their faces. So it all worked out in the end.
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