For almost a decade photographer and writer Leah Gallo, MA ’08, has worked as a stills photographer for filmmaker Tim Burton, documenting the creative process. Her behind-the-scenes photos and collected art have been compiled in visual-companion tomes supplementing films such as Big Eyes, Frankenweenie and Alice in Wonderland. Her newest work forms the book The Art of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
Q: Is shooting for a Hollywood A-lister Tim Burton as sexy and glamorous as everybody thinks it is? How did you end up doing it?
A: Being a unit stills photographer is the opposite of glamorous. During my full-time stills gigs, I’m basically trying to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible, contorting myself into odd positions to take a decent photo without being in the way. I try to make friends with every other crew member, because being the stills photographer puts you at the bottom of the food chain, and other people can make or break my job by allowing me to have room or not. I’m always carrying around heavy equipment, and since I’m a solo department, it’s up to me to figure out what is going on at any given moment, so I’m always trying to eavesdrop on conversations, so I know where I have to be when, so I can figure out where my equipment needs to be, where I need to be, and what I should be doing.
Film days are long — 12-plus-hour days. Sometimes filming happens on a stage, sometime you’re out in weather (rain, mud, fog, heat, the tick infested grasses of Braaschaat — you name it). Then I have to go home at the end of it and find the energy to process my photos (or do it on the weekends). It’s grueling and exhausting. That isn’t to say it doesn’t offer some great experiences. I get to do some cool things and meet very cool people, but it’s definitely not glamorous.
Since the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children book by Ransom Riggs centered around found, antique photos, Tim thought it was important to incorporate similar imagery into the film. I was assigned these photos, which became a character portrait series of the peculiars. That was a lot of fun. We tried to stay true to the spirit of the book photos when we could, or when it made sense. It was as much about creative thinking and problem solving as anything else – taking all of the various elements (actors’ schedules, when the photo was needed, ideal background of the photo versus where I was when I had to shoot it, location scouting, wrangling help–costume, hair and make-up, props, a stand in, an electrician), and weaving them together into a photo. We had to work around the schedules of the actors, most of whom, being kids, had very limited hours they could work. So it was often about getting the setup and lighting perfect and then hoping to get a minute with a kid to shoot it. My favorite of all the photos is the one of Olive. I love how the light worked — one light, but so important that it was the proper light and perfectly placed. And then the happy accident that the ruffles on her dress look like fire — I just love when unexpected details like that emerge to create something greater than you’d hoped.
That’s the stills part of my life. Then there’s the editing/writing/art show/printing and sundry other part of my job working for Tim’s office when I’m not shooting a film. After most of the movies I’ve worked on, I’m involved in book projects. Editing, toning and lately writing. I work on the film companions that are sold, and the limited edition books that Tim gives to the crew. That’s another way I spend my time during film jobs — trying to shoot a photo of every single crew member. There are something like 700-plus crew members getting a crew book for Miss P, so it’s a lot to juggle at times).
When not working on a book, I’m working either on his traveling art exhibit, or whatever comes through the office that needs doing. One nice thing about my job is it’s constantly different, and usually interesting. My co-worker Holly Kempf Keller and I always have these silly fantasies, like it’s going to be quiet at the office soon, so we can finally get to that project of organizing Tim’s art (which is a massive endeavor since he’s so prolific). But quiet periods seem to only ever last a few days, just enough time for me to dig out my desk.
I also occasionally do photoshoots outside of the films. The latest was taking various portraits of Tim for a variety of media outlets, mostly to use as press for Miss P. I actually took time off of work to do those, even though, ironically, I’m spending them with Tim! Probably the most fun, non-work photo project I did recently was shooting a series of pictures of ladies in Rolling Stones underwear. It’s a long story.
This was never my life plan. I was set on being a journalist, scraping by, and using my photojournalism as a means to travel. I probably would have supplemented with wedding photography when I needed the money. Then I met my husband, Derek Frey, who has worked with Tim now for 20 years (10 at the time I met him). He introduced me to Tim, and I got sucked me into this world. It did feel a bit like being sucked in — caught up in a whirlwind, and here I am in London, still working for Tim and married to Derek with a two-year-old son named Desmond, who definitely has his father’s energy. I never once thought about working in the film industry before I met Derek. Not even a passing dream, not a single, solitary moment of my existence. But I’m glad I took the opportunity when it presented itself, because it gifted me a great husband and career.
Q: What might people be surprised to learn about working for Tim Burton?
A: He is really down to earth, funny, generous, and generally dislikes the spotlight. Lots of weird, fun opportunities arise working for Tim. He loves to take a step back from big studio filmmaking and do little projects here and there. He directed the Killers video “Here With Me” in Blackpool. He made it with a tiny crew, half populated by his office and some of our close friends. It was three insane 17 hour days where we spun Winona Ryder on a torture wheel and lit her and Craig Robert’s heads on fire, and made Craig run around and dance with a really heavy replica of Winona that probably left him achy for days. I acted as stills photographer, did a little bit of set decorating, played an extra, ran and got lunches…whatever was needed. It was an intensely creative experience for everyone. I think Tim ended up spending some of his own money to make it, but he didn’t care. He felt recharged afterwards. I think it’s what inspired him to go back to Blackpool for Miss P.
Q: Would you consider your work photojournalism? Does it fulfill your professional itch?
A: What I do in my stills capacity is definitely documenting — in this case, the process of filmmaking. I use my photojournalistic background a lot when I’m shooting. It helps me to sneak in and find a spot, and I’m much more aware of what’s going on behind the camera, which lends itself to some decent behind the scenes photos that go into the books that usually accompany Tim’s films. It’s a good living. But it’s not journalism in its purest sense. And I do occasionally miss that.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
A: Raw talent is important, but it’s just as vital to be prepared, to know your equipment in and out, your job in and out, and to have people skills. I can’t stress the latter enough — it’s hard to get a lucky break if people don’t want to give one to you. So try to be respectful of others and just be a decent human being, I guess. Also don’t be so goal oriented that you miss possible opportunities that present themselves. Doors may open that you never expected, and life can change depending on whether you are willing to walk through them or not!
Q: What was the most important thing you learned during your time at Mizzou?
To care. And not to give up. Even in dark times.
Q: Any regrets?
A: I have a lot of regrets. I am always thinking of what I should have done, the photo I should have taken, the spot I should have been standing in. If there are a bunch of people telling me they love a photo, I can often only see its flaws. But I think (hope) that this keeps me from being complacent.
Probably my biggest regret, photographically, was that I didn’t spend enough time with a subject of mine, who was also a good friend, who had cancer and died. At the time, there was always a good excuse — classes, other projects, my job, exhaustion. But looking back, all of that other stuff seems meaningless, and I wish I’d just spent some more time with him when I had the chance. If there’s a lesson in that, it’s to try not to let the excuses get in the way of what you know in your heart you should be doing. The rest of it will fall away, and all that’s left is what you put in, and all you can hope for is that it’s good enough.