Behind the Books, Film

Behind The Books – Blog #4 Nick McLean Behind The Camera

I’ve never been one to overthink my approach to writing. I tend to work on instinct and passion; I have only written, and am only writing, on art and artists which are deeply meaningful to me. Otherwise it’s just work, and who wants to be working at three o’clock in the morning?

I was a couple of months deep into the writing of my second book, Burt Reynolds on Screen when I began to reach out to Burt’s friends and colleagues for an interview and one of those whom I considered crucial to a book on Burt’s films was Nick McLean. Nick has shot a lot of Burt’s films, including Sharky’s Machine, Cannonball Run II, Stroker Ace, City Heat, Stick and many more. Aside from the Burt work, I was a huge fan of McLean’s camerawork on classics like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Deer Hunter, Marathon Man, The Goonies, Staying Alive, Short Circuit and so much more. I owned every film he shot and loved his visual style. It would, I imagined, be quite a thrill to pick his brain on his massive contribution to American cinema.

And so, I endeavoured to contact Nick and ask him if he would be interested in talking to me about Burt Reynolds. He did and we got on famously between my endless line of questioning and Nick’s love of weaving a good tale, and I thought to myself, “this man needs a book to get all these stories out!” And then after a few more interviews, having realised just how closely and importantly Nick and Burt’s lives and careers were entwined, I asked Nick if he would write the foreword to the book, and he did, terrifically. I enjoyed Nick’s company so much and was enthralled with his history and work within the last fifty years of film and television that I asked, “Nick, how come you haven’t written a book?” to which he replied, “Well, I’ve been asked to but it never felt right.” And then I made suggestion: “How about we work together on a book of your career, your memoir?” “Wayne, if someone is going to do it, I would only want it to be you!” he enthused. Deal done. I approached a publisher and within a week we had a contract. For the next year-and-a-half we were co-authors, and in April 2020 we released Nick McLean Behind The Camera: The life and Works of a Hollywood Cinematographer.

Nick and I overcame the challenge of geographical distancing – he in Malibu, me in Kildare – by Skyping for hours on end. We talked and talked, and the book just came to life, and after one particularly great conference I thought that Nick would be an amazing presence on stage, telling these tales in person. And so, I decided to develop a live speaking tour of Ireland: “An Evening with Nick McLean”. It would be me and Nick onstage for two hours, showing some of his classic scenes and discussing the making of these films and his Hollywood history. Several venues and promoters expressed interest in the shows and within a couple of weeks we had a nationwide tour of Ireland booked. Multiple events were planned across Dublin, Kildare, Galway, and Cork. The tour took us from giving masterclasses in the iconic Windmill Lane Studios and the National Film School, to speaking at theatres and cinemas for screenings of The Goonies, Spaceballs, Short Circuit, and Cobra. We had nine shows booked across seven days all around the country, it was a packed schedule and we barely had time to stop and think about it; when we weren’t travelling or at a venue getting set up, we were on giving interviews on national radio at the RTE and Newstalk studios, or at recording a program for Film Ireland. It was a whirlwind, and it was one of the best weeks of my life. We were joined by Nick’s son, Nicholas S. McLean, himself an accomplished cameraman who has worked on some classic films and television shows, including the likes of Die Hard, Rain Man, Tango & Cash, Frasier, and presently, Grey’s Anatomy. Also along for our Irish adventure was Nick’s grandson, Wyatt, who wholly embraced the cold waters of our island with surfboard and sandals in hand.

And while the heady excitement of the live shows, the media tapings, and the publicity was indeed intoxicating, some of my favourite moments were the quiet ones in-between. Going out to a restaurant to have dinner and a couple of pints with the McLean boys; or watching Being There in my house with the very man who shot the masterpiece! We finished the tour with a terrific event in Naas Library. There were a couple hundred names on the list for the show, such was the demand for a seat. It was an emotional night for me; it was the end of this intense journey with my friend and hero; it was taking place in my library with my colleagues in attendance, and probably the first time my parents seen me doing anything like this. They probably weren’t used to seeing me talk so much. After the show Nick and I had one more final pint and then he was off back to Malibu and I was off back to reality. I couldn’t have experienced a better way of researching and getting to know my subject, and the tour ended up being documented by Nick and his son as the afterword to our book, functioning as a tour diary of their time travelling the country roads of Ireland.

When I began work on Burt Reynolds on Screen, I had no idea that it would lead directly to my third book. I didn’t know if Nick McLean would even be interested in speaking to me, let alone end up writing my foreword. Fast-forward a year later and we’ve toured Ireland, met hundreds of fantastic film fans on the road, been filmed on stage, broadcast on the radio, and have published a book. It all comes back to my approach of rolling with it on instinct rather than calculation, and to working with subjects that you will have no problem sacrificing sleep for. I have learned from experiences of when I did make more purposive and less passionate attempts at books that they will fail in their infancy. I can’t do objectivity; I must love my subject or it’s not worth it.

I have always maintained that the best part of writing is the people you meet along the way, and case in point is my meeting Nick McLean; it has resulted in me getting some of the best book reviews of my career, and  I’ve come out of it having made friends and memories that will live long in my heart and in print.

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