Pictures of a Picture Maker : Brian Hamill Has Been the Other Cameraman on Woody Allen’s Films
Woody Allen is such a notoriously private filmmaker it’s not surprising to learn that once he found a set photographer he trusted, he never used another one.
That photographer is Brian Hamill, a 49-year-old native New Yorker whose association with Allen began in 1976 when Hamill’s brother, writer Pete Hamill, introduced him to the director at Elaine’s. A few months later Hamill found himself at work on the set of “Annie Hall,” and he went on to shoot still photographs on the next 22 films Allen made.
The fruits of this long association can be seen in an exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that opened Thursday and continues through Feb. 10. Featuring 80 photographs, the show is drawn from “Woody Allen at Work: The Photographs of Brian Hamill,” a comprehensive survey of Hamill’s work with Allen just out from Abrams.
Talking with Hamill at the academy, one encounters an unpretentious man who’s quick to point out there’s no place on Earth like New York. “One of the things that bonds Woody and I is our love for the city,” says Hamill, who was born and raised in Brooklyn.
“My mother was a cashier in a movie theater for 18 years so I saw tons of movies when I was growing up. My main obsession then, though, was boxing, and when I was 12, I started training with Cus d’Amato to be a fighter. Unfortunately, when I was 16 an injury forced me to quit boxing.
“I loved Life magazine when I was growing up, and particularly admired the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn and W. Eugene Smith,” continues Hamill, who studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology from 1963 to 1966, and began having his work published in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post while still in school.
Photography went on hold in 1966 when Hamill was drafted, but following his discharge from the Army in 1968, he got things rolling quickly: Hamill and his camera were just 20 feet from Bobby Kennedy when the senator was assassinated in L.A. in June of 1968.
“That was one of the bleakest days of my life,” recalls Hamill, whose pictures of the tragedy were published in the Village Voice, accompanied by an article by Pete Hamill. “My interest in politics was murdered with Bobby Kennedy, and two years later I started working on movies.”
Hamill’s first gig as a set photographer was in 1970 on “The Martlet’s Tale,” a film that was never released. Hamill nonetheless continued to work steadily, and over the next few years he took photographs on dozens of films, including Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” Then Allen came into his life.
“I’ve never asked him why he hired me--all I know is that he gave me the job and never gave me any ground rules or instructions,” Hamill says.
This is surprising considering that Allen is legendary for the control he exerts over his films while they’re in production. “Woody has a reputation for being a control freak, but it’s totally unjustified,” Hamill says. “Yes, Woody’s shoots do go unusually smoothly because he doesn’t tolerate any bull----, but his words aren’t written in stone and he’s pretty liberal in terms of letting actors improvise.”
Having been given no instructions from Allen, Hamill was free to decide for himself what the duties of a still photographer are. “For me, the job is to get the pictures without disturbing anybody’s concentration,” says Hamill, who’s also worked with Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack and Mike Nichols, among others. “You also have to read the script, figure out what the dramatic point of each scene is, and get a picture of that key moment. If I feel I haven’t gotten that moment I ask them to restage the scene for me later, but it’s always better to shoot during an actual take because the pictures have more authenticity.”
Hamill has worked as a photographer on so many sets he’s come to feel very comfortable in the job--nonetheless, his plan is to segue into movie producing. He’s finalizing a deal on “The Yellow Handkerchief,” a film based on a script by his brother Pete, and he has written a screenplay with his youngest brother, Joey, titled “Murder in Monet’s Garden.”
“The plan is to produce a few hit movies, then ask the studio I make them for to let me direct,” says Hamill, who recently completed work as a set photographer on Barry Levinson’s “Sleepers,” starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt and Jason Patric, and goes back to work in February on Mike Newell’s “Donny Basco” with Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. “I know it’s a long shot because it’s almost a miracle for somebody to get to direct a movie,” Hamill adds, “but I’m determined to try.”
It’s surprising Hamill hankers for the difficult, high-profile gig of directing in light of the fact that he was at Allen’s side throughout the ugly 1992 scandal surrounding Allen’s split from his longtime companion, actress Mia Farrow. Asked if he believes that episode affected audiences’ willingness to embrace Allen’s work, Hamill says: “It’s hard to say because [his films] never make money. I think that has to do with the public’s perception of Woody--people seem to think he’s this Jewish intellectual from New York, which he’s not. Yes, he’s Jewish, he’s from New York, and he’s smart, but he doesn’t wear his intelligence on his sleeve and would rather talk about everyday things like sports.
“As for the scandal, his creative juices didn’t dry up because of it, and he didn’t fold up his tent and go away,” adds Hamill, who testified for Allen in his court case with Farrow over the custody of their children. “If anything, he became more accessible during all that. Over the years Woody’s gotten more gregarious because he’s been working so long that he’s finally begun to have some confidence in himself. He used to be very shy and he still doesn’t say much to most people. But he and I are friends, so if there’s any yakking on the set, it’s usually he and I doing it.”
* The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is at 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 247-3000. Hours are Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m. Admission is free. The exhibition will be on display through Feb. 10.