Steve Schapiro is the man who shot De Niro…
WORDS: Jane Hoskyn
Photographer Steve Schapiro is Hollywood’s Nikon-toting fly on the wall, shooting promotional stills for movies from The Godfather to Risky Business. To mark the release of a limited-edition book of his Taxi Driver photos, Steve is (sigh) talkin’ to us…
Robert De Niro famously stayed in character as Travis Bickle until Taxi Driver finished shooting. Did you ever wish he’d let you see the real De Niro?
He really did become Travis Bickle internally and externally until the film finished shooting, and it actually made my job easier because I had to get strong pictures that exemplified what the film was about. Bobby De Niro’s preparation is incredible – as you probably know, he drove a taxi at night for a month to get into character. So for a picture like the one on the cover of the book, where De Niro’s in front of the taxi cab, I could just take him outside and he wouldn’t need to get into character. He basically was Travis Bickle until the movie finished shooting. On most films that I worked on, as soon as the word “cut” is heard and that particular sequence is over, the actors become their own person again.
But De Niro apparently doesn’t like having his photo taken. How did you get him to relax and trust you?
Mostly by being as quiet as possible. When I took him outside for that picture I probably didn’t talk at all. It works the same, whoever you’re photographing. If you start talking to them you interject your own personality, and you can’t capture the unique spirit of the actor or their character. Also if you begin a conversation, half the pictures you take are gonna be with their mouths open. So you have to be very quiet, and be on the same frequency as them, and just look for the moments that reflect that person or that scene.
So it’s about capturing people rather than directing them?
Yes. People have this idea that a picture is something they should stand very still for and smile, but you’re trying to find something that would make a more interesting photo in terms of design and emotion. So you can’t attract attention, because then you’re not capturing what’s going on, you’re influencing it. If they notice you it’s also a disturbance to the director and to the stars.
A clicking camera is pretty distracting, though…
During filming I use a thing called a blimp, which is a metal box with styrofoam and rubber to keep the camera clicks quiet. Although when I worked with Antonioni on Blow Up I was using a camera without a blimp, because blimps hadn’t even been invented. The sound of the camera totally annoyed him and he’d say, “Click click click!” OK so it’s a film about a photographer, but you don’t want your click to turn up on the soundtrack when no-one in the film is supposed to be clicking!
It sounds as though you had to be on your best behaviour. Where did you rank in the on-set hierarchy?
Oh, the stills photographer is the low man on the totem pole. I’m what’s called a special photographer, so I come in to do things for advertising and publicity. You’re not adding to production per se, you can cause distraction, you can make noise, you can get in an actor’s eye-line… all these things that can distract from a performance or the whole working of the film. There were times on Taxi Driver when I was working with the blimp during a very quiet or intimate scene, and I was only allowed in because I had a good friendship with first assistant director Peter R Scoppa and he’d say, “OK, we can do a few stills.”
There must have been a few times when things didn’t go your way…
Of course, but you have to find ways to work things out. I was shooting one of the ads for The Godfather III in Palermo, Sicily, and we set up a shoot for Al Pacino early in the morning in a hallway with this beautiful golden light coming through the window. We waited and waited and waited, and no sign of Al Pacino. We had our lunch and still no Al Pacino. Finally we got him at 5pm, and of course the light had dimmed incredibly. We decided to do a four-second exposure, which is very long, and Al is a very active guy. Immediately he’d jump up and go into another position. I explained to him, lighting is so important! We got the shot in the end.
Taxi Driver is a very dark film, literally. That must have been quite a challenge to shoot?
On Taxi Driver we worked mostly with natural light, so I used quite low shutter speeds and I had to keep very still or pick moments when the subject wasn’t moving. But you know, when you’re taking pictures the key is not to worry about the technical stuff. Your focus should be on the person you’re shooting, not how you’re handling your camera.
Taxi Driver by Steve Schapiro, £650, is published by TASCHEN and is available to purchase at the Taschen website. This edition is limited to 1,000 copies and signed by Steve Schapiro. Taxi Driver 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is out now.