Director of photography David Klein cuts loose on writer/director Mike Valerio's indie comedy Carlo's Wake.
by David E. Williams

Working in the world of independent filmmaking has provided a wealth of learning opportunities for cameraman David Klein, who marked the beginning of his career with one of the first breakthrough American indie films.

A native of Idaho, Klein attended the University of Idaho at Moscow before studying at the Vancouver Film School in British Columbia, where he befriended fellow students Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. After moving to Seattle, Klein found work as a camera assistant, but soon received a call from Smith and Mosier, who asked him to join them in New Jersey and photograph their no-budget film Clerks. "No one else was going to allow me to shoot a picture then," Klein remembers. "I'd just come out of film school and had very little experience, so I decided to grab the opportunities as they came."

Vulgar and hilarious, the gritty, 16mm black-and-white comedy about irate convenience store workers proved to be a second education for Klein. In addition to his jobs as director of photography and operator, he pulled duty as an actor, playing five small roles. "Looking back, I should have done a lot of things differently," Klein notes, "but if I had, I don't think the film would have retained its charm. I actually like the way it looks because it fits the characters and the material."

After the success of Clerks — which gained attention at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival and became a theatrical hit — Klein "went back to school. Luckily, Kevin brought me back to do his next film, Mallrats."

The $6 million teen comedy, which is set entirely in a large suburban shopping center, was financed through Gramercy Pictures; Klein admits that he has "no idea how Kevin and Scott convinced the studio to let me shoot that film. Because of the budget, we had all the toys we could want and a big crew, so I had to learn how to delegate responsibility. On Clerks, there was no 'camera department' aside from myself and two others, Vincent Pereira and Ed Hapstak, who also had real jobs and couldn't be with us all the time. I was loading, cleaning the lenses, and doing the lighting. After burning through a few magazines, we had to stop shooting because I was usually the only one around who could load them. Going from that to shooting with a camera operator, assistants, a grip crew, and a gaffer was a wonderful learning experience."

For his third film with Smith, the romantic-comedy Chasing Amy, Klein notes, "we went back to our roots, shooting in Super 16 with a little more of that run-and-gun style we'd used on Clerks. The film cost about $250,000 and was more ambitious photographically than our other films, partly due to the fact that we weren't trapped in a particular location. We weren't in a convenience store or a mall, so the kind of flat lighting I'd used on those films wouldn't be right. I still wanted the lighting to have a natural feeling, but I also wanted darker areas and more contrast. My experience of shooting other projects in between working with Kevin also contributed to that aesthetic; I'd learned enough to make me want to try new things." Klein also directed second unit and did some Steadicam work on the picture.

In addition to his films with Smith, Klein has photographed the indie features Vulgar, When, Eyes to Heaven and August, as well as several short films. He also shot second unit for Jeffery D. Smith on Not This Part of the World.

Ironically enough, Klein's credits almost prevented him from working on his latest picture, the comedy Carlo's Wake. The project was the brainchild of Mike Valerio, who honed his skills in the television world while directing NBC and CBS promos featuring such top as Will Smith and Ted Danson. Recalls Valerio, "I met with a lot of cinematographers, and Dave's name came up, but as soon as I saw that he had shot Clerks and Kevin Smith's other films, I didn't even want to meet him. Those are dialogue-driven pictures, and they're not particularly cinematic. I didn't want Carlo's Wake to look like a 'filmed play.' But I was convinced by my producer to meet Dave, and he really changed my mind about what he could do as a cinematographer."

[ continued on page 2 ] © 1999 ASC