Paul Farren takes a look at Irish film journalist and author Wayne Byrne’s book about Nick McLean, one of the most acclaimed camera operators in American cinema. Co-written with McLean himself, the biography takes readers on an entertaining journey through five decades of Hollywood filmmaking .

Film journalist Wayne Byrne is a busy man. No sooner has he unleashed what is probably the most detailed book on the career of the legendary Burt Reynolds, Burt Reynolds On Screen, he has quickly followed it up with a book about cinematographer Nick McLean, an informative, candid memoir co-written with the subject himself.

This memoir takes us through McLean’s early days as a camera operator during what aficionados regard as the last truly golden filmmaking era in Hollywood, the ’70s, to his work and relationship with Burt Reynolds and his ground-breaking television work as a cinematographer on sitcoms, including Evening Shade, Cybil and Friends, where he brought his cinematic lighting talents to the world of television.  The book is a genuine page-turner and a veritable who’s who of talented filmmakers and historic moments in filmmaking.  

Nick shooting Being There with Hal Ashby (left)

As a camera operator Nick has worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond and William Fraker, just to mention two of them. He has also worked with many great directors in the process, including Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg from his first foray into cinema through to lensing Spielberg’s production, The Goonies a perennial ’80s favourite. Other directors include John Schlesinger, Hal Ashby and Michael Cimino. Nick was clever enough to avoid an invitation to operate camera on Heaven’s Gate. Other films lensed by Nick include Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever and Spaceballs, Mel Brooks’ parody of the Star Wars films, which was probably ahead of its time judging by the recent sequels. 

Nick playing Mouths dad in The Goonies on which he was also cinematographer

Nick’s first job as a cinematographer came about thanks to a highly impressed Burt Reynolds, whom Nick worked for as main camera operator on Sharkey’s Machine.  A casual chat during the shoot about how Vilmos Zsigmond had made Nick a camera operator led Reynolds to remark that he was going to make Nick a cinematographer. Nick did not think about it too much, though he was told, ‘Burt is a man of his word’. The rest, as they say, is history.

One of McLean’s Emmy-nominated Friends episodes – ‘The One With Phoebe’s Wedding’

It can’t be overstated what this meant to Nick professionally, this appreciation of Nick’s skills led to a lifetime of collaboration between the two men. Nick even successfully took on the role of director for Reynolds television film series B.L. Stryker. Also of importance was Reynolds tempting him back to television work, something Nick did out of friendship and loyalty, resulting in Nick raising the bar on sitcom lighting rules. This also led to work on Cybil and Friends where he quickly became loved for his talent at lighting actresses.  He received several Emmy nominations for his work on the series. This is just a small part of Nick’s story. I highly recommend you read the book and learn the rest.

Authors Nick McLean and Wayne Byrne in Naas Library March-2019

Nick McLean – Behind the Camera unveils McLean’s reminiscences and insights in an unforced easy-going style and structure, which, thanks to co-author Byrne’s own knowledge and narrative skill, gives the sense of a brilliant conversation. Whole tracts of Nick’s own words run neatly alongside Wayne’s contextual prose. The anecdotes are always interesting and insightful, not to mention they feature a smorgasbord of famous individuals in a light you don’t always come across.  Though not a book too concerned with the technical ramifications of filmmaking there is plenty to learn about the aesthetics of filmmaking in a solid unpretentious manner.

McLean’s modesty about his own career is so refreshing; a collaborative, hard-working individual who loves to work with good people, possessed of a charm and sincerity that is impossible to fake. What we get here is an honest and highly entertaining story from the trenches, a genuine portrait of a modest, talented man who has done some amazing things.

Nick McLean – Behind the Camera: The Life and Works of a Hollywood Cinematographer by Nick McLean and Wayne Byrne is published by McFarland Books


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