Interview: Cinematographer Mark Irwin on Filming "Night School" (1981)
Mark Irwin is responsible for some of the best horror cinematography produced during the eighties. His earliest work was on low- and no-budget films (including many documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada, NFB), so it makes sense that he would become known for his usage of low-light, lens flares, and other vérité techniques. Coming up through the ranks in the late 70s, he worked on many genre films, including those with Wes Craven, William Fruet and Ed Hunt, but his crowning achievement during this period is his work with David Cronenberg. Starting in 1979 with Fast Company, Irwin was the director of photography for all of Cronenberg's work into the mid-80s: The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, and The Fly. Although he did initial tests for Dead Ringers (then called "Twins"), production stalls on that project (and a recent move to LA) led him to work on The Blob instead (another horror remake; interestingly, both The Fly and The Blob were originally released in 1958). In 1994, he worked with Wes Craven on The New Nightmare; two years later, they worked together again on Scream. Around this same time, Irwin's career was beginning to shift towards big-budget comedies, including Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary.
In 1980, between working on Scanners and Videodrome (among others), Irwin filmed Night School, a low-budget horror film by Ken Hughes, which I wrote about last year. Mark was kind enough to talk with me about his recollections of the film's production and how it fits into the context of his other work.
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Mark Irwin filming inside of a telepod on the set of The Fly and on the cover of Cinema Canada magazine.
When you got your start in film you were working on documentaries and soft-core porn (Diary of a Sinner). How did that influence your filming style?
My style evolved from having little to no time + money + equipment for camera + grip + electric on films for TVO and the NFB into a lean and mean method of lighting and shooting. The guiding influence in my early days was a gaffer / cameraman / inventor by the name of Jock Brandis. If you check the credits of Diary of a Sinner, Jock was the DoP. That was my very first film after graduating from film school - literally the first after graduating - the Monday after getting my diploma on Saturday. If you check the credits further, you will see that the operator was Alar Kivilo, another successful Canadian DoP who made it big in Hollywood. Jock designed and built lights and grip gear and his vision - as a lighting genius and a welder and an outside the box thinker - was my true inspiration in the early 70's. Film speeds were ASA 100 ( today the digital improvement is ASA 1200 to 3600 ) so learning to light well at a high level was an art form that blended framing and focal length and film speed into a system that my crews all over Canada and the USA know very well.
I believe you were filming Night School in 1980 (around the same time as Scanners) - how did you end up on that project? I realize it's been a while, but do you remember anything special about the preproduction process or your collaboration with Ken Hughes during filming?
I shot Scanners in Montreal in late 1979 after shooting Funeral Home for Bill Fruet in the summer (in Toronto) and Tanya's Island in the spring (in Puerto Rico). It was a very busy year and the height of the tax incentives.
Alfred Sole directed Tanya's Island which starred Dee Dee Winters, a young Canadian actress and he was set to direct Night School and planned to have Dee Dee as the star but the producers had other ideas and following a dispute, Alfred left and so did Dee Dee. (She changed her name to Vanity and joined Prince for many musical accomplishments before finding Jesus and … well, you can Google and YouTube her for the final act). Anyway, I had been hired and I was in Boston prepping with an East coast crew when all of this went down. Work is work and I had no beef with the producers - a husband and wife team who were first and last time producers on this film - so I stuck around and was in the office when Ruth Avergon was now in need of a leading lady and saw the cover of a fashion magazine and said "We need a girl who looks like this!" and pointed to the cover girl Rachel Ward. The UPM [Unit Production Manager], my good friend Boyce Harman, said "Why don't we just get her?" and so a career was born.
As for Ken Hughes, I think he was recommended by an agent or another producer. He was definitely a gun for hire and, since his credits were very broad and substantial but lacking in any horror credits, I was given a bigger load than I would have with Alfred or David or Bill. However, Ken was a true genius with staging, blocking, timing, pacing and performance and had the classic British mix of sarcasm and self-deprecating humor. I learned a huge amount from him and would watch him formulate coverage as the actors read the scene. He would 'put it on it's feet' and block the angles and moves perfectly. I have often been accused of being 'a machine' on set in my single-minded mission to 'get the day' but a lot of that came from my formative experience in Boston on Terror Eyes (the original title - way better than the eventual title) [Ed.
strangely Irwin would work on another film called Terror Eyes in 1989 update: according to Mark this is an imdb mistake and he did NOT work on the latter Terror Eyes OR The Death of Socrates, for that matter].
There are two scenes in the film that I think are especially great. The first is the shower scene with Rachel Ward: there's this nice slow zoom from inside the shower, looking out through the curtain as someone walks into the room (great editing and sound too). The other scene (my favorite) is with the woman in the scuba tank; the wide overhead shot when she gets out of the tank has really interesting lighting, there's a tense sequence as she's killed in the locker room, and then we return to the tank, where her head floats to the bottom and a sea turtle slowly pecks at it! Anything you'd like to say about either of those scenes?
The shower scene was a favorite of mine as well. The texture of the shower curtain was, to my eye looking through the viewfinder, dense enough to obscure the identity of the killer, but the film saw things differently. I remember that we planned to reshoot it but it never happened.
The New England Seaquarium scenes were all shot after hours so the sea life were off their usual feeding schedule. That plus the high heat and brightness from banks of maxi-brutes had the sharks acting in a very aggressive way but the head (filled with lead) was take two and, purely by chance, it hit the sea tortoise on the head. That's entertainment!
What did you like about working in the horror genre? Any chance you'll return to it at some point?
My view is very simple: horror films tend to be moral tales with life and death and an ending, happy or otherwise. My role is to take a viewer into a neutral world and slowly hide what they assume is true and replace it with what is actually true. Shadows, darkness, selective framing, motivated camera moves, lens choice, contrast - these are the nuts and bolts of what I get to use in sync with a mind like David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, Chuck Russell or Ken Hughes.
Telling a story with pictures. Simple. A good story will carry an audience. Watch Scream or The Fly or The Dead Zone. You don't notice the lighting, the look-at-me lighting of a CSI episode, where style replaces content. I like horror films because the content is the style. Hitchcock knew it, so does Wes Craven and so does David.
I would love to shoot more horror films. My crime is that the comedies have been successful so I am in a pigeon hole for a while. Who knows?
I'd like to thank Mark for taking the time to talk with us and shed some light on a lesser-known 80s horror gem. Although Night School is available in its entirety on YouTube, the quality is pretty bad - rent the DVD instead to fully enjoy Mark's work (and Brad Fiedel's synth score).
I would also encourage you to listen to the commentary track on the Criterion edition of Videodrome - Cronenberg and Irwin take turns discussing all sorts of interesting production details, but Mark almost steals the show with his dry, low-key humor. There's a short feature about Mark on the Fast Company DVD (Code Red), which is well worth a rental; at one point he refers to he and Cronenberg being FM guys working on an AM picture, which sums up the situation perfectly. You should also check out Track Stars, an early short shot by Irwin that cleverly illustrates the magic of the foley process (directed by foley artist Terry Burke).
All photos (except screenshots) provided by Mark Irwin and used with permission.