Rodney Taylor, ASC, recently finished a couple of unusual films, both labors of love. He has been shooting one of them, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, sporadically for four years. Rodney’s camera takes viewers behind the scenes of Hal Holbrook’s famous one-man show, in which the actor takes on the persona of Mark Twain. Holbrook originated the show in 1954, when he was in college, and has been performing it ever since.
The director is Scott Teems, who directed Holbrook in That Evening Sun, a feature Rodney shot a few years back. (This was the subject of an American Cinematographer podcast.) When the idea for Holbrook/Twain came up, Rodney traveled to Arizona to shoot some test footage. He found that the Canon EOS 5D, shooting in black-and-white mode, delivered images with appealingly shallow depth of field, and kept the emphasis on Holbrook’s face as he applied his own makeup and prosthetics using a homemade light box. (There was no other light in the room.)
“I spoke to Shane Hurlbut [ASC], and he recommended we use the black-and-white setting,” says Rodney. “A lot of directors wouldn’t want to commit to that, but what I love about working with Scott is that he wants to commit from the beginning, in the camera.”
When Rodney discussed the project with Hurlbut, he discovered Hurlbut has ties to Elmira, N.Y., where Twain lived, and that he is also a big Twain fan. “Shane supported this film for four years,” says Rodney. “I would roll into his place and pick up five camera bodies, 10 lenses, cards, batteries and tripods. I’m so grateful to him.”
The skeleton crew included a sound person and sometimes a camera intern, but that was it. Unlike the PBS production of Holbrook’s show decades ago, this adaptation includes just a taste of the performance. “Scott envisioned a piece about a working actor,” says Rodney. “Hal works hard at doing that show, especially at his age , and I think we caught that. He takes notes so that when he returns to a city, he can change up the content from the previous performance. He developed his own approach to makeup and skin tone because he felt the pancake makeup he started with didn’t look realistic.”
Holbrook/Twain “is a timeless piece,” says Rodney. “Watching it, I feel it really could have taken place any time during the 60 years Hal has performed the show. The 5D was wonderful for the backstage areas. There’s nothing to look at, really, except Hal’s face. I mean, the guy’s like Mount Rushmore.
“I never wanted anybody to think of the camera, including Hal. We got an 800mm Hawk lens, and my buddy Paul Sanchez operated and pulled his own focus. I was in the wings with a 100-400mm zoom. It was fun.
“Prior to the show, Hal sits in the audience and directs lighting adjustments while his road manager stands in for him on stage,” continues Rodney. “When I saw that, I said, ‘Hal, I didn’t realize that you could have replaced me on That Evening Sun!’
“His performance is even more incredible than you might think because he doesn’t do the same show every night. He will only use Twain’s written words, and he changes the show on a nightly basis based on current affairs. He doesn’t miss a beat up there. It’s extraordinary to witness.”
Rodney’s other recent labor of love is the short film Beat the Odds, which was shot on 16mm and directed by Chris Messina. It profiles Timothy Walker, a Children’s Defense Fund-California Beat the Odds Scholarship recipient last year. The program recognizes outstanding high-school students who have overcome adversity to excel in school and as leaders in their communities. “Timothy is remarkable,” says Rodney.
“Chris asked me for an urban poem that would look like a 16mm film,” he recalls, “so I said, ‘Well, why don’t we shoot on 16?’ He said, ‘We can do that!’” FotoKem, Panavision Hollywood and Kodak all helped by donating services, equipment and film stock. (Interview footage was shot with a Canon 5D.)
Watch Beat the Odds here:
“I feel very fortunate to have made Beat the Odds and Holbrook/Twain,” says Rodney. “It’s great to be able to make something you feel is really powerful and might possibly move people.”