Your faithful correspondent sits down with a filmmaking legend in the first ever Light Within Light interview.
It was on a cold winter evening last December that I made my way to Schwarzkopf’s, the famous diner that has been a staple of downtown Milwaukee for over 50 years. As much as I enjoy their strudel and rye special (appropriately named the “Stormin’ Norman”) my intentions for the visit were anything but gastronomical. I was meeting a legend of the Hollywood film industry who was in town for a few days working on Michael Bay’s upcoming third film in the critically and commercially acclaimed Transformers series (Pete Travers raved about the second entry of the series, saying “That was all right!” and giving it four and a half stars in Rolling Stone magazine). The man in question is Barney “The Bear” Johnson, one of the most acclaimed gaffers of all times, an immaculate professional who has worked with some of the biggest directors in the history of filmmaking and founder of the Gaffer’s organization of American Technicians (GOAT). Originally from Duluth Minnesota, Barney moved to California in the late 60’s, originally working as a roadie for the Grateful Dead before catching the eye of director Francis Ford Coppola who hired him as lead gaffer on his 1969 film The Rain People. As Barney tells it, he was at a party at Roman Polanski’s house with Jerry Garcia when the electricity suddenly gave out during a screening of Warren Beatty’s experimental short film Fingers (which to this day has only seen a wide release in Honduras). None of the partygoers seemed comfortable working on the fuse box so Barney offered his services, quickly rewiring the entire electrical system with nothing but a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. Coppola, viewing his jury-rigging abilities from the couch, exclaimed “Baby, you’re gold!” and gave Barney a start in his new career. That was 42 years ago and Barney is still going strong.
As I enter the diner I immediately notice a behemoth of a man sitting in the corner, shaved head and a massive beard obscuring a kindly face that wears its many years with pride, lines and scars indicative of hard living and many adventures which I look forward to hearing about. Barney is dressed in a short sleeved shirt with pictures of horses on it and is smoking a Chesterfield with such abandon that you might think they were going out of style. He motions me to a chair and orders another pot of coffee, having given up drinking two decades earlier after an infamous weekend at Gary Busey’s house. We quickly move to the topic of filmmaking, Barney’s face lighting up with excitement as he recounts tale after tale of helping to shape and create some of America’s most beloved films.
Barney "The Bear" Johnson - Picture taken at Lollapalooza in 1999
“A lot of people don’t realize the importance of a good gaffer,” Barney begins, his voice a low growl that has been soaked in bourbon and cigarettes for decades, registering somewhere between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. “The gaffer is responsible for the lighting, you see, and cinematography is sculpting in light. Storaro said that. I worked with that guy on Last Tango.” At this point my mouth drops to the floor, the first of many such instances that evening, as I realize that Barney is talking about Last Tango in Paris, the infamous 1972 film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Marlon Brando. “Man, Storaro was a real mensch, you know. He’d eat about a dozen pastrami sandwiches throughout the day, guzzling red wine from this huge tankard he carried around everywhere, yelling at the crew in Italian. He had real specific ideas about the lighting, describing the shades in detail. This one time, for the scene when Brando is talking to his dead wife, Storaro wanted this real specific shade of red, see, and no matter what me and the guys tried he wasn’t happy. He cursed and yelled like a Nazi tank commander. So finally, I had this real wild idea after smoking some pot with the AD. We went out into the countryside, a few minutes’ drive from where we were shooting in Paris, and we found a horse farm. I got out of the car and killed one of the horses with my bowie knife…”
At this point the coffee cup heading for my mouth pauses in mid-air. Is he serious? Seeing the look on my face, Barney tries his best to ease my worries. “No, no, see, it was an old horse, pretty much ready for the glue factory if you ask me. Anyway, I kill the horse and gut it and take out its stomach, see, like we used to do on the farm in Minnesota when I was a kid. Then, when we got back to the set, I spread out this horse stomach over the lights, creating this real eerie, ethereal hue. Man, it was beautiful.”
Barney is especially excited to discuss filmmaking in the 70’s, what he considers to be the golden era of American cinema. “Man, it was crazy back then. The studios gave all this money to these crazy artists filled with marvelous ideas. It wasn’t about making a buck back then but about making art. You had Dennis Hopper, Coppola, Hal Ashby, Beatty, Polanski, Scorsese was just starting out in New York with Mean Streets. Adult films, man, dealing with real issues. Not like this nonsense they have now with these fucking robots. Like this guy I’m working with now, he couldn’t give a rat’s ass what the film looks like. We’re setting up a shot the other day, I ask him if the lights are okay and he says ‘What the fuck do I care, do I look like an interior decorator?’ What the fuck does that even mean, man? And then they send these god-awful movies out to Korea or some place where 500 kids buzzed out on Ritalin and cocaine program this CGI bullshit. Man, movies ain’t what they used to be.”
When I ask him who his favorite director to work with from the 70’s was his answer comes as something of a surprise: “Spielberg. Not a question about it. I worked for three days on Sugarland* and I got more pussy and blow then during two years on the road with the Dead. Spielberg was a madman. I’m telling you, don’t believe anything you hear about that guy. When Pete Biskind wrote that book** a few years ago Spielberg paid off all those people to say that he was this real nerdy guy who couldn’t get the girl. Man, he’d storm on set in this army jacket wearing parachute pants, coked to the gills, barking nonsensical orders at everyone. Compared to him Billy Friedkin was a schoolgirl.” When I ask if Spielberg has calmed down in later years (Spielberg executive produces the Transformers franchise) Barney suggests otherwise: “No fucking way. The other day he comes on set, yelling at Bay like there’s no tomorrow, saying that they need more explosions, more robots, shit like that. And then he starts getting more and more erratic, demanding that someone get him a goat’s milk latte. After that it just got stranger. The day ended with the second AD having to sacrifice an armadillo. You know how hard it is to find an armadillo in Wisconsin in the middle of fucking December?”
(*Spielberg's Sugarland Express.)
(**Barney is here referring to Peter Biskind’s Easy Rider’s, Raging Bulls, a tell-all account of Hollywood filmmaking in the 70’s.)
Not all of today’s directors are so colorful, though. “Naw, most of these guys now are total stiffs, corporate lapdogs. I dropped by the set of Royal Tennenbaums to visit a friend who was working on it so I got to see Wes Anderson in action. Real nice kid but a total bore. He mumbles too much. Kind of sounded like that one muppet. You know the one?”
But what other directors has Barney enjoyed working with in the past years?
“Well, my favorite guy around these days is this kid Darren Aronofsky. Man, gaffers from all over the country fight to get in on his movies. That kid is determined to have some serious tits and ass in every single thing he makes, that’s for sure. And there’s none of this closed set bullshit either. For Requiem for a Dream he called me and a couple of the guys over to look over the selection of dildos to use in the final scene. All the while that Jennifer Connolly chick was walking around with her gazonkas hanging out like there’s no tomorrow. Real trooper that kid, real artist. That movie turned out incredibly well. I’m very proud of my work on that one. It’s a real work of art, subtle exploration of the human spirit kind of thing. Like they did in the 70’s. I even got a small role in that movie. During the ass to ass scene, I’m one of those guys in the background yelling ‘ass to ass!’ Try to spot me the next time you see it.”
Artist Darren Aronofsky, with whom The Bear has worked many times
As it turns out, Barney just finished work on another Aronofsky film, the soon to be released Black Swan. “Oh yeah, that’ll be his masterpiece, I’m sure. He was totally improvising. One day, while shooting a dialogue scene with Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, Aronofsky all of a sudden goes ‘I think there’s a distinct lack of lesbians in this film.’ And that’s when he did that sex scene with the two of them. Totally seat of his pants, if you know what I mean? And it makes the film so much better. That’s real art, right there.” And the set wasn’t closed on that one either? “Hell no. Are you kidding? We were calling guys from other soundstages to come check out the action. He shot 218 takes of that scene. That might be a record. That’s like fucking Kubrick right there. People were coming in from all over. I think I even saw Snoop Dogg on the set.”
But are there any actors Barney has particularly enjoyed working with?
“Yeah, most actors are actually really classy people. Back in the 70’s I used to do mescaline with Elliot Gould all the time. He was a real pro, always hit his marks. And he was real easy to light too. Brando was a pain in the butt but an incredible artist. He read all his lines off of cue cards he had taped all over the place. One time one of those damn things caught fire because he had taped it on this huge 5000 watt light.”
And today’s stars?
“Well, speaking of Darren’s films again, I worked for a while on The Wrestler. Rourke is one of the all time best in my book, almost as method as Bobby DeNiro. Darren asked Marisa Tomei to walk around topless during the entire shoot to stay in character and Mickey, not wanting to be outdone, kept trying to one-up everyone else. He said he wanted to really know wrestling, to be a wrestler. So he’d wrassle everything and everyone. He wrassled Darren, Marisa, most of the crew. Then one day he showed up with an alligator and wrassled that. He takes his craft really seriously. One day he showed up with his mouth all bloody holding his two front teeth in his hand. Holding them in his hand for Chrissakes. Guy had ripped them out. We never did figure out why.”
Artist and savant Elliot Gould
At this point my stomach is starting to cramp from too much coffee and second hand Chesterfields and Flo, the waitress at Schwarzkopf’s, is starting to give us her evil eye (she lost the other one in a boating accident). It’s time to bid Barney The Bear adieu. He leaves me with a big hug and some words of advice. “It’s real good what you kids are doing, writing about movies like this. You need to get the word out there, get people thinking about movies again. I remember in the 70’s you couldn’t throw a cat without it landing on folks talking about movies at some café or other. People were serious about art back then. Now it’s all about the money. But maybe the internet will change things again, make the studios realize that what people want is something with substance. They don’t just want McDonalds all the time. They want a ‘Stormin’ Norman’!”
Well said The Bear. Well said.