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Steadicam Operator Larry McConkey on Filming the Goodfellas Copacabana Tracking Shot and The Early Days of Steadicam

The Copacabana Club in Goodfellas The Copacabana Club in Goodfellas

The Copa Shot: It’s one of the few shots in the history of cinema readily identifiable by name, instantly conjuring the image of Goodfellas gangster Ray Liotta leading Lorraine Bracco – and by extension the audience – through the back entrance of New York’s legendary Copacabana nightclub, as Steadicam operator Larry McConkey glides along behind them.

How long did one of film’s most famed tracking shots take to pull off? It was in the can before lunch — which isn’t to say it was easy. With a 25th Anniversary screening of Goodfellas set to close the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25th, McConkey spoke to Filmmaker about the formative days of Steadicam, the newest generation of camera stabilizers and, of course, The Copa Shot.

Filmmaker: You’ve talked about the revelatory experience of seeing your first Steadicam shot in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) while you were a graduate film student at Temple University. How did you discover that the shot was done by Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who just happened to be based in Philadelphia like you?

McConkey: I actually didn’t know who the operator was for a couple of years. I just knew that what I saw on that screen in Bound for Glory, that was what I wanted to do. I had been doing a lot of handheld camerawork and trying to be the best handheld operator the world had ever seen, but it was always limiting. What I saw up there was what I wanted to do.

Filmmaker: When did you first get your hands on a Steadicam?

McConkey: I had a friend from Temple, Chris Wilkinson, who also was crazy about the idea of Steadicam and the two of us decided that we were going to find one somewhere and use it on one of (Chris’s) films. Back then it was (initially) the notion held by Garrett and Cinema Products, who made the Steadicam, that it would be something that anybody could pick up and use. You’d need a little instruction but that would be it. For Garrett, using the Steadicam was like riding a bike, but when other people would try them out it would be horrible, so they’d just leave it at the rental house. Very few people were renting them after a while because it was too hard to do. But (Chris and I) were determined.

The two of us found a rental house in New York with a Steadicam and we rented it not knowing what we were doing and not being given any instruction. We went back to Chris’s studio and spent all night alternating back and forth being the operator and the person being filmed and finally at dawn it was like, “OK, we know how to do this” and, without sleep, we started shooting Chris’s film the next day. Back then what we figured was one out of every 30 or so of our Steadicam shots was useable. But that was OK. When you’re shooting stills, if you got one shot out of a roll it works. Because we weren’t doing it for somebody else, we were doing it for ourselves, we could get away with a low percentage like that. But that’s how it started.

Filmmaker: How did you finally cross paths with Garrett Brown?

McConkey: Documentaries were my passion at the time, but news became the way I made a living. I was freelance for a couple stations in Philadelphia and I was starting to work at the CBS station, Channel 10. They did the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia and I used the Steadicam for the parade coverage. Garrett saw the broadcast and suddenly he saw his Steadicam being used well by somebody in his hometown, and he was encouraged and excited. He knew my producer on that broadcast, so he told him we should meet and I went over to (Garrett’s) house for one of the first Steadicam workshops.

Filmmaker: Because Garrett worked on Rocky, I’m picturing those training workshops as a montage of you running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps and chasing chickens in the Steadicam rig.

McConkey: Well, the rules were very clear. He said, “If you scrape the walls, when my wife gets home we’re both dead. If you hit that chandelier, we’re worse off than dead. So let’s just turn your monitor off so you can concentrate on not hitting anything.” And to my amazement when I turned the monitor off and made the same shot that I had practiced a few times, it was better on every level than when I was actually looking at the picture. So I began to realize that you have to be aware of this camera moving through space in that your job is to move it in an elegant way, but you don’t need to stare at that monitor to do it. In fact, when you do stare at it, you’re just making lots of little corrections instead of a great shot.

Filmmaker: How different was the Steadicam you used in those days compared to the rig you have now?

McConkey: When I bought my first Steadicam it was the Model 1. The Model 2 had just come out, but the Model 1 was the only one I could afford. We were just beginning to learn how to configure Steadicams. I was frustrated by the Model 1. It was sort of a one-piece deal. It had a built-in monitor and it only faced one way and it was pretty hard to see the monitor when you turned (the Steadicam) upside down. The first thing I did when I bought it was I took it to a friend who had a home machine shop and we just cut it in half and I freed the monitor. That’s pretty much been my model for doing things ever since. Rarely do I accept something as it is.

Back then it was only about the challenge. I was so involved with how difficult it was to accomplish a shot that I wasn’t even trying to decide if it was really the right way to do it. I have that kind of perspective now, where I will sometimes say, “You know what, this is the wrong way to do it. You really shouldn’t use Steadicam for this shot.”

Filmmaker: What is your opinion of the new generation of camera stabilizers — tools like the MoVI or Ronin?

McConkey: With the MoVI — and I think at this point there’s still no comparison between it and any of the other copycats who are trying to do something similar but cheaper — it’s still very imprecise. Most of the really cool MoVI shots that I’ve seen have been wide angle lenses and lots of headroom and really not very precise framing. (When operating the MoVI via remote control), you’re using a (control) stick for pan and tilt and it’s very, very difficult to do good work like that. Any time we’re using remote heads in the motion picture industry these days — well not always, but generally — it’s with wheels, because wheels are absolutely precise and there’s no confusion between what’s a pan and what’s a tilt or how fast you’re asking it to go. The speed you’re turning the wheels is on some level absolutely related to the resulting pan or tilt.

I work with a company called Klassen up in Canada that I’ve worked with a lot on other designs and I had them build me a prototype for a MoVI remote control with wheels (for pan and tilt control). We’re on the third version now and that’s what I’ve used for the last few projects I’ve used MoVI on. There’s some MoVI shots I did on Creed — the latest Rocky movie — that were incredible and that I couldn’t have done any other way.

Filmmaker: You first worked with Martin Scorsese back in 1985 on After Hours. How did that job come about?

McConkey: I was just called in for reshoots. The film was in the can and already edited, but they needed a few extra things and one of the things they wanted was an ending credit sequence for the film. I had just started to shoot some films in New York, so I was one of the known entities that could do Steadicam in New York. There weren’t many of us at that — half a dozen maybe. So I was really excited, really nervous and semi-petrified, but when I got on the set it was totally relaxed. They already had the film in the can so they were just adding icing. They were just having fun. (Cinematographer) Michael Ballhaus had lit the set so that I could shoot any direction — including up. There were no restrictions and basically Marty said, “There’s one scripted scene and then after that, just have fun. We’ve got some extras if you want them. Do whatever you want to do.” He just laid it in my lap, which in retrospect was probably because very few people knew what a Steadicam could do at the time. Marty had already decided what the music was and he played it over speakers on the set so I could dance to the music, essentially. So I just started having fun the same way it was back making movies in college and it was thrilling. That was the approach that Marty had with me from then on and that he has with a lot of other people — he sees that somebody has something to contribute and he gives them the room to do it. A lot of great directors do that.

Filmmaker: It’s incredible to me that The Copa Shot from Goodfellas (1990) was blocked, lit and filmed in a half-day before lunch. Walk me through that process.

McConkey: We did our first walkthrough in the late afternoon — the idea was that we would shoot it at night. Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta were there, and Marty said that he wanted it to start with this big close-up of the tip being given to somebody to watch Ray’s car, and then we would walk and follow them. So we walked across the street, went down the stairs (of the Copa’s back entrance), around the corner and down a long hallway. Now, Marty may have just thought that he would have voiceover overtop of the shot, but I was kind of looking at my watch and thinking, “This is already the worst case of shoe leather in the history of cinema. There’s no way this will ever work.” We got to the kitchen and Michael Ballhaus said, “Marty, we have to go into the kitchen.” Marty said, “Why would they go into the kitchen?” And Ballhaus said, “Because the light is beautiful.” “OK, we go in the kitchen.” So we turned the corner and went into the kitchen and then back out the same door. Finally, we get into the club and there’s some dialogue and some action, but I’m thinking the first two minutes of this shot are going to be awful. There’s no way they’ll ever use it. They’re going to cut it to hell.

Marty looked at me (for my reaction to the rehearsal) and I said, “Yeah sure.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Ray saw the panic in my eyes and asked if I wanted him to stay and help me work the shot out. So Ray and the First Assistant Director Joe Reidy stayed and we started to walk through the shot again.

Filmmaker: What changed as you continued to rehearse?

McConkey: There are technical problems when you’re trying to do an uncut shot. You want the wide and you want the tight in the same shot, but how do you connect the two? Do you just wait while the camera trundles in? You can’t do that. So we essentially had to invent a way to edit it in the shot. I had to be wide to follow (Ray and Lorraine) down the stairs, because otherwise it would be a shot of the tops of their heads, but when they got to the bottom of the stairs they turned a corner and they would disappear if I didn’t catch up to them. So I said, “Ray, we have to figure out a way for you to stall at the bottom of the stairs so I can catch up to you.” Joe Reidy said, “We have a lot of extras so we can have a doorman and Ray could talk to him.”  Then someone came up with the idea “You know what, Ray should give him a tip.” Now we’re echoing a theme that’s built into the character and built into the movie. Then walking down the hallway I said, “Ray, I really want to see your face now. So we’ve got to figure out a reason for you to turn around.” He said, “Well, I can talk to somebody else in the hall.” So we brought in a couple who were making out and Ray would turn and say, “Every time, you two.” So we structured events within the shot that covered the limitations of not being able to cut in order to give it pace and timing. What I didn’t expect, and what I only figured out later, was that all those (interactions) ended up being the heart and soul of the shot. Because Ray incorporated his character into those moments, those moments actually became what the shot was about instead of being tricks or being artifices.

Filmmaker: What was Scorsese’s reaction when he returned to set and saw how you’d tweaked the blocking of the shot?

McConkey: I didn’t know what he was going to think of it. As we were playing it back for him he said, “No! No! No!” I thought, “Oh no, what did I do wrong.” And he said, “No, you don’t understand the table (that is whisked in for Liotta and Bracco) should fly at the camera and fill the frame. When I was a kid I came to a club like this and it was incredible to me and the thing I most remember was the way a table would appear out of nowhere.” So that was the only objection he had.

Filmmaker: How many takes did you ultimately do and what issues spoiled some of those takes?

McConkey: We only did I think eight takes and then we went to lunch. It was extraordinarily efficient. One of the issues was I wasn’t sure when Henny Youngman was going to come out onto the stage at the end of the shot. I couldn’t rely on him to follow his cue and be on stage when I panned over. I told Ray, “You’ve got to let me know when it’s safe to pan over to him.” So when (Youngman) came out, Ray would gesture to Lorraine and point to the stage — which was really for me — and I’d pan over and there (Youngman) was.

We also shot with a BL that had a side-to-side magazine, so as you ran through a shot the camera would get heavier and heavier to one side. To balance the Steadicam I ran half a load of film through until it was at the midpoint and I balanced everything for that. So when I started the shot (the weight) was leaning heavily on one end, then right in the middle of the shot for a few seconds it was cool and then I had to keep fighting and fighting it more and more until the end of the shot. It’s pretty remarkable when I look at that shot now and it looks perfect, because it was almost impossible to (deal with the shifting balance of the film magazine) and be panning and be tilting and all of this other stuff.

Filmmaker: How did The Copa Shot affect your career? Did it open up any new doors for you?

McConkey: It’s only been in recent years that I’ve sort of been reaping the rewards in a way. Sometimes now I’ll come on set and maybe somebody who hadn’t met me before will say, “W   ow, you did that Copacabana shot!” I understood that people in the business could understand the complexity or the virtuosity or the technical challenges, but I used to wonder did it really matter? Did it actually do a better job of storytelling? What got me was a taxi cab driver a couple of years (after Goodfellas) asked me what I did and I told him I worked in the movies as a Steadicam operator. He said, “Oh, Steadicam, yeah, like that shot in Goodfellas. The Copacabana.” I said, “Yeah, I did that one.” I began to become aware that the public, even if they didn’t know how it was done, really did appreciate being taken on a ride like that. Steadicam really was a powerful way to tell a story and it did have merit and value beyond being a technical feat. It seemed to resonate with people and not just with filmmakers. That was a revelation for me.

Matt Mulcahey writes about movies and interviews filmmakers on his blog Deep Fried Movies

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