The Boundless ambition of BJ McDonnell
To most, a motion picture camera operator is just a person holding it steady and mashing a few buttons. Does it lack the glamorous appeal in wording alone? Maybe. Have you thought to define the job itself? The skills required to deliver the “Damn that image is stunning!”. Those moments, to the audience, is underrated and often unrealized. It is a gift that undoubtedly contributes fully to a film’s overall success. We let an innovative, technical Einstein be in the hot seat with me! His impressive resume speaks for itself; let us learn about the man himself!
Welcome BJ McDonnell!
Terror Time: From Jack Reacher to most recently the legendary band Slayer’s music video “Repentless”, extreme ambition seems too elementary a descriptive when it comes to you. Those ventures take b@lls! Have you always been so adventurous in your line of work, or do the projects presented lead you?
BJ: Thank you for the kind words! To me every job is different. If it is directing or camera operating it is always a constant challenge. You have to know the story first, and then be able to tell the story thru the performance as well as the camera moves. Sometimes budgets are a factor in how you make a film look. Big budgets have all the cool toys, and low budgets you have to use what you have to make creative decisions. I personally am glad I work in all different budget ranges. It helps with knowing what I can, and can’t do. But every job is a adventure and I am always up for a good challenge.
TT: Hatchet III was your introductory role as a director. Moving to this position from behind the lens must have been relatively challenging. What tasks were the most demanding in comparison to manning the camera?
BJ: In all honesty, I was very comfortable when directing “Hatchet III”. I’ve been on so many sets, and dealt with actors and crew that it just felt like home to me. I had a lot of help from good friends I personally brought on board to “Hatchet III”. That was really what made it easier for me. Knowing I have the right people on board that I could bring to the table was key. People who were not part of the first two films. I had been a part of the “Hatchet” series from the first one. I knew the story and I was the one manning the camera. I knew the style we were going for in tone of story, however I changed the look a bit to how I wanted a “Hatchet” movie to look. I wanted it to look like a huge movie even though it was the lowest budget of them all. I knew most of the actors very well so it was like working with friends. I think the most challenging thing was learning the politics of directing. It was hard for me also to not operate the camera. I did do the steadicam in the film but my buddies Bryan Sowell and Eric Leach were the operators.
TT: With every venture, a lesson to learn right!? With the diverse laundry list of responsibilities, you have held in your career, which one felt like home to you?
BJ: Well directing wise, I would say the Slayer videos felt like home to me. I wrote and directed them. Thanks to Felissa Rose who produced it, I got to pick the crew I wanted and had free reign to basically do whatever I wanted. I had the Director of Photography Eric Leach who is my good buddy. The Makeup FX team I wanted Alterian with Tony Gardner, Adrienne Lynn. Jen Kuwabara at Panavision really hooked us up with the cameras and lenses to use for the cinematic look that I wanted. I had Don Lee and his amazing stunt team. I had Jason Trost as our hero of the story. We had our buddies at Craneshot Pia,Paul, and Jan hook us up with the technocrane. My editor Ed Marx cut it and was fantastic thru the process. Gerardo at Nuclear Blast Records really believed in me and made it possible to do this. And Slayer was an absolute pleasure to work with. I really feel like we did something special with these videos. I wanted to make something that was different and that is why I went more cinematic story like with them. There are so many people I want to list here to say thank you to on this. Again without the cast and crew and support of the label and band, none of this would of happened. And because of everyone involved in this it has become what it is today. So I am very proud of them and it felt like home to me. As a camera operator, I would say it is a toss up between the Rob Zombie movies I’ve worked on and the films with Brandon Trost and Jorma Taccone. Working with Rob is like working with a bro. And honestly after every movie we’ve done together I feel like we’ve made something very cool and interesting. I always walk away proud of what we have done and I learn something different and artistic. He is a lot of fun to work with. My Buddy Brandon Trost and I have done a lot of films together. He is a great Director of Photography. We worked with Jorma Taccone on the set of “Macruber” and most recently on a film called “Popstar”. Again it is just working with friends that really make it feel like home.
TT: Amazing! In your years of experience specific to the camera, has there been a shot that astounded you? A shot in time that you captured leaving you saying, “Damn that image in stunning!”
BJ: There is a shot in “Jack Reacher” that was really challenging. It is in the opening of the movie when a sniper is shooting people from across the river. We had a 1200mm lens on a panavision Millineum XL. I was using a gear head to operate with. We rehearsed the shot a few times. It was all about coordinating the camera move and the actors timing. Before we shot this scene the director Chris McQuarrie had me go thru sniper training to learn how to breathe and think like a real sniper. It was pretty awesome. So when we shot the scene I would find the actors with my lens like a rifle scope, breathe like a sniper, and when I said “Fire!”, the dolly grip Jack Glenn would hit the bottom of the camera to make it look like a rifle recoil and the actors across the way would fall down like they were hit by a bullet. It all had to play out in one take perfectly.
TT: I am so curious, if not the film industry, then what? Keep in mind that the answer “I don’t know” will earn you a possible demotion from badass (laughs)
BJ:If I wasn’t in the film industry honestly I think I would want to be a park ranger in some beautiful place. Maybe a snowboard instructor or surf teacher. Ever since I was a kid I have always been into film and music so it was always the path I wanted to take.
TT: a BADASS park ranger! BJ, I cannot thank you enough for allowing me and our readers the privilege of getting to know the man behind the greatness!
BJ: Thank you very much for the interview. And I hate to plug it but The Slayer video for “Repentless” is up for best video in the Metal Hammer Awards Golden Gods. If I could ask people to go vote for Slayer I’d be stoked and I appreciate it everyone! Here is the link
Terror Time: Oh, it’s a must to plug that! Looking forward to anything you do BJ! And we will always have you back!
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