Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian had the kind of breathless pre-publicity most writer’s can only dream of. It won a Hopwood award for a novel-in-progress, and would go on to debut at number one on the New York Times best seller list in the summer of 2005, unprecedented for a debut novel. So back in the spring lots of publications were waiting to review this literary vampire tale. Including Entertainment Weekly, the slick journal of movies, music and all things Hollywood. When the magazine decided to do a story for a May issue on Ms. Kostova, a Michigan writer living in Ann Arbor, the magazine photo editors scrambled to enlist the help of any number of Michigan’s many stellar photographers, sparing no expense to contact the dozens of local photographers amply qualified to handle such a shoot. No, of course I’m kidding. They did what they always do, which was to fly out a big time LA photographer, in this case someone named Joao Canziani, who actually spends most of his time shooting models in exotic locations for travel and fashion magazines.
But the magazine did hire Charles Green of Propaganda Studios in Royal Oak as a location scout to find just the right eerie, suitably gothic spot for the photograph of Ms. Kostova. Charles is the best movie/photo prop man in the business, in addition to playing some mean bongos. Since I live in Ann Arbor and have known Charles for many years he called to ask for suggestions on suitable photo locations. We started with what I thought was the best - Cobblestone Farm, a civil war era farmhouse that just happened to be a short walk across the park from me. Now owned by the city and used as a living history museum, the farm has a small barn with chickens and goats and19th century ambiance. The large, two level barn has been beautifully restored and hosts wedding and event most weekends of the year. And, on the side of the house was a stunning tree with gnarly branches, right out of a 1930s horror film. After Charles took digital photos of the farm building, trees and surroundings, we headed out to other Ann Arbor locations that might have just the right gothic flavor. Charles mentioned that the editors were partial to an old, spooky looking church with spire and maybe a small cemetery, and after leaving Ann Arbor he took his search into the city of Detroit for that church.
The Entertainment Weekly editors mulled over all the possibilities, and tried to get permission from a Detroit church, but amazingly enough the Church people were a little leery of using their church building to illustrate a book about evil, blood sucking, ominous vampires. Go figure. So Cobblestone Farm it was.
Let me say that assisting is a fairly unfamiliar but not unique experience for me. I've been photographing for national corporate and editorial clients since 1978, and I never came up assisting other photographers. But this seemed like too much fun to pass up. Especially being able to simply take directions, say yes sir, throw up a light, then stand back and watch the hard work of the man in charge... setting the talent, coaxing the expressions, getting the light right, making sure the film is moving through the camera. In other words, for once, to relinquish the responsibility for bringing home the photo.
I signed on to assist with the production, and after assessing the tonnage of equipment, also enlisted my son, who has the distinct advantage of only 20 years of bodily wear and tear. The city of Ann Arbor agreed to our using the farm. I explained to the manager at the farm that the photographers were planning a dusk shoot, so we would certainly be out of there by 8 or 9 o'clock at the latest.
Joao flew in with his assistant, rented a Jeep, and made a trip out to Stage 3 Productions in Warren to pick up Profoto packs, C stands, and soft boxes. I agreed to chip in by renting my Speedotrons and other odds and ends. And the cast and crew continued to grow.
Charles Green was hired to do on-site set decoration, while his talented partner and wife Margo signed on as the wardrobe person. A makeup artist rounded out the crew. Wanting to show Ms. Kostova in all her historical brilliance, the editors arranged for the loan of $80,000 worth of 19th century style gowns from New York wardrobe stylists, including the design houses of Maggie Norris, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Versace and others.
The day of the shoot was a typical Michigan May.... clouds, sun, who-knows-what’s-coming weather. Mercifully, when we rolled into the farm at 5:00, the sun was shining, but it was 55 degrees and getting cooler by the minute. Joao wisely decided to rent two large propane heaters for the set. Ms. Kostova and her handlers remained at her Ann Arbor home, awaiting a call that the set was ready.
Now, I was curious, in this decidedly digital age, what camera Joao would be using. Turns out he’s not a fan of digital. He would be shooting 4x5 with color negative film. And shooting medium format also. I noticed a lot of Polaroid film in his case.
There were to be two different setups. One in front of the gnarly, scary tree, and another using the imposing stone facade of the farmhouse. Working at the tree first, Joao and his assistant set up one Profoto with a large softbox to illuminate Ms. Kostova, while I put a couple of Speedotrons way up high to illuminate the tree. Did I mention the tree was dead? Sad, but good for the shoot since there would be no budding leaves to ruin the primitive effect. (Three months later the tree would be gone, cut to ground level by parks crews).
Joao did his best to judge lighting and composition, given that the sun was shining brightly onto the scene as it slid toward the horizon. Once he was satisfied with composition for that tree shot, we marked the locations of talent and lights, and moved to shot number two.
The sun waits for no man, so as fast as we tried to move things along, we kept coming closer and closer to our dusk target. I moved two Speedotron heads in position to light the exterior, fiddling with pack placement to get the slaves in range. Meanwhile Joao's assistant set up a light in a second story bedroom. The plan was to have a silhouetted figure standing in the window.
Cobblestone Farm, completed in 1845, was originally home to two families. Benajah Ticknor, a U.S. naval surgeon shared the home with Heman Ticknor, a Whig politician and farmer. It’s an imposing two story, classic revival structure, with the main part of the house completely enveloped in stone. While we were told the farm would be all ours this night, a Mark Twainish looking man in civil war era pants and vest emerged from the shadows. Maybe more than slightly irritated, he explained he had a tour to give. No problem, since they’d be there only an hour.
All the while the temperature kept dropping, and it was obvious this was going to one, very cold night. I sprinted back to my house for flashlights. Charles tried to keep the two space heaters firing, but the wind just keep blowing out the heater coils. Joao placed his large softbox and started firing off Polaroid's. Again and again and again. Between the tree shot and this house setup, he’d already gone through two boxes. (I just kept whispering to myself, “I love digital. I love digital”). Sun down. Temperature dipping below 50. OK, it’s a night shoot.
Finally it’s 9:30. Ms Kostova, Margo and Dawn Baker, the makeup artist arrived and powwowed with Joao about the dresses. Elizabeth and Margo loved the dresses, which Elizabeth said took them back to another time. The women moved into the farm's original kitchen to change. Some pizzas arrived, but there was no time for dinner. I made do with a bite here and there as I helped in the struggle to keep the heaters alive.
Shuffling to stay warm, Ms. Kostova finally emerged in a jeweled corset and evening skirt by Maggie Norris, with a shawl from Adrienne Landau. Because of the cold and fears of twisted ankles in the dark, Margo decided to forgo the period shoes and let Elizabeth wear her own boots, a decidedly modern pair of Wellies. Margo kept a blanket around her bare shoulders to keep her warm.
Joao positioned her, then talked about the look he was going for.... ethereal, knowing, other worldly. It was after 10 before the first frame was exposed. And the endurance contest began. Joao started with the medium format, taking new Polaroids every 5 minutes. We tried to get the heaters as close as possible to her without the danger of setting fire to her dress, all the while working hard to keep them fired up. We mostly failed. Lots of swearing under the breath.
Shooting went on, film packs changed. Up came the 4x5. More waiting for more Polaroids. Blankets on the author’s shoulders. Heaters on . Heaters off. 45 minutes later we were all still soldiering on.
Now Charles headed upstairs to the upper bedroom to pose as the spooky guy in the window. He stood looking out the the window, ominously silhouetted. More coaxing of ethereal looks, “a little less shivering if possible”, more swearing at the heaters. And more cold.
Oh, have I told you about the pig? You remember, the one from the title? This is about the right time.
There’s a caretaker who lives in the farmhouse and takes care of the animals in the small barn. There’s usually two goats, sheep, and lots of chickens. But there were also two small pigs, one white, one black. Talking to the caretaker days earlier, he explained that he worked at a veterinarian's, and the pigs were his. Not exactly pets, but rather grunting investments in edible futures, if you know what I mean. That’s why he’d been pretty angry a couple months earlier when a school group had been visiting the farm, and when they left he found one of his pigs with an injured leg. That cost him some dough to get piggy back into shape, so I think he wasn’t overly fond of our little photo shoot. But I assured him we’d be nowhere near the animals.
So here we are at 11:00 pm, flashes blazing, when I noticed a couple cars stopped on Packard road just the other side of the fence. I turned back to the farm, but then cocked my head back to see a young woman nervously shooing an animal from the street. Our little black piggy (let’s call him, oh, Earl) waddled slowly toward the curb, enjoying his midnight excursion away from the barn. No one else in our group took any notice, so I hopped the fence and proceeded to give Earl a piece of my mind. Now it’s a good 100 yards along a fence and across a yard back to the animal pen. I could see Earl had no interest in cutting short his outing as he wandered away from the barn. So I swore an oath to my lower back and hunched down to pick him up.
Now I’d never picked up a pig before. How often in life do you have that chance? I must say a baby pig, one standing only a foot high, when hoisted to your chest, is, well, HEAVY. But heavy is not bad. Squirming and squealing along with heavy. That’s bad. Earl didn’t like it one bit I can tell you. He squealed non stop at the top of his little piggy lungs as I lurched forward in the dark, desperately trying not to let him slip from my grasp. I felt a little like a soldier at the tail end of 20 mile march, just putting one foot in front of the other. The squealing never stopped. Ditto the squirming. When I finally reached the picket fence enclosure, I stood there panting. The gate was locked. Earl must have found a hole somewhere in the fence. A hole I wasn’t going to find in the dark. So I lifted him over the fence, but I was still a good four feet from the ground.
Now I know cats can fall from quite a distance without injuring themselves. But a pig? How far could you drop a pig without breaking his leg? That was one science experiment I missed in high school. I thought “This is pretty comical. My back aches, I’m holding a squealing baby pig, and trying to work out pork physics in the dark". Quite an existential discussion. Finally, I took a deep breath, leaned Earl as far as I could over the fence, and....goodbye Earl. He plopped to the ground with a Womp. Shook himself. And walked away, as far as I could tell, without a limp.
Heading back to the shoot, I saw the Cobblestone barn on-site manager wandering over to me. I gulped and apologized that we weren’t yet finished. She sighed and very good-naturedly explained she’d have to wait until we were gone to leave herself. I thanked her profusely, leaving out the story about Earl.
Back at the tripod, shooting went on. No one seemed to miss me, though Charles did ask what all the noise was. Finally, Joao threw his hands up and said to move to our gnarly tree. Elizabeth retired to a little warmth to change her dress, and we cranked the lights up. Twenty minutes later, the author was back with another stunning white dress by Morgane Le Fay, with a Maggie Norris jacket and again, a shawl from Adrienne Landau. (If you’re into haute couture, you’re undoubtedly salivating heavily hearing all these names. If not, your reaction is probably much like mine: “Huh?”) The Temperature was 47 degrees. More Polaroid's. More softbox tweaking. Action.
As Joao tried to coax suitable looks from a tired, cold, hungry vampire author, I noticed two headlights moving slowly down the drive next to the farm. The police car stopped and I stepped over to try to explain. The officer said neighbors were asking about all the flashing. Did we know it as almost midnight? Yes sir, just about wrapping up. Hollywood, you know. He shrugged and rolled away, and I explained to Joao that the natives were getting restless. Yeah, yeah. He went on shooting. "Head up. Slightly. Tilt. There. No, the arm and should just brush the dress. Hair please. Can we get the space heaters working?"
I just stared fixedly at the tree lights to confirm they were firing. Yes, thank God.
Ms. Kostova certainly knew that publicity was everything, and she gamely kept on, till finally at 12:45 is was over. Thanks all around, and the ladies went to pack the dresses and bundle up.
Beyond tired, we took down lights, rolled up cords and schlepped power packs. We did a recognizance of the yard, scanning the ground with the flashlight for any stray stuff. At 1:30 a.m. we all said our goodbyes, rolled down the driveway and out into the cold night. Meanwhile, somewhere in the straw, nestled among sleeping chickens and goats, a young pig nursed his sore ankles, grunting softly and thinking to himself, “Idiots!”
The stories and photos of Elizabeth Kostova appeared in Entertainment Weekly
Charles Green at Propaganda Studios can be reached at email@example.com
Stage 3 Productions for studio and equipment rental in the Detroit area is at www.s3studiorentals.com