Rick Masters + Jesus + Sgt. Elias = Willem Dafoe

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As a young photographer, I had this very dreamy, romanticized idea of what it must be like to shoot celebrities. One of my early photography idols was Bert Stern, and I just figured every shoot with a celebrity might end up like his famous session with Marilyn Monroe where they locked themselves in a suite at the Bel-Air Hotel for three days with a case of ’53 Dom Perignon, a couple of cameras and a few props, and emerged totally spent but with a collection of amazing photographs. But I moved to New York a couple of decades later…just about the time when shoots like that were becoming increasingly controlled by managers, publicists, agents and the studio P/R machine. Ideas had to be pre-approved and even then it didn’t mean you would get to do them. And three days? More like five minutes after your writer got to ask his five questions, thank you very much! But if you’re smart you learn how to work the angles, you keep a few tricks up your sleeve when you don’t have the cooperation you had hoped for, and occasionally, you get lucky…

Ronnie Weil called me at 5:00PM on a Thursday and asked if I would be available the next morning to shoot Willem Dafoe for the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Weekend Confidential’ section. His new film, “A Most Wanted Man”, was coming out in a week and they were given a last-minute opportunity interview him. Now I don’t know about you, but there are very few actors that I can remember from the first moment I saw them on screen, and Willem Dafoe is one of them. His performance as the slick criminal Rick Masters in “To Live and Die in L.A.” burned into my brain. I immediately knew this was a seriously great actor. So yes…of course…just tell me where and when and I’ll be there with a big grin on my face…

The Journal likes the portraits for the ‘Weekend Confidential’ section to be all about the personality, and not prop or location-driven, and so we typically keep things very simple…seamless backdrops or locations that don’t distract from the subject. And it’s not a fashion show, either. What you bring with you is what we shoot. Willem arrived…early, I might add…alone and ready to go. He was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt and a wonderfully disarming smile. After a few minutes of me heaping gobs of fanboy praise on him and a little light grooming, we were ready to go…

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(Groomer Amy Komorowski)

Willem Dafoe was made to be photographed. He has one of the most expressive faces in the business…whether he’s playing a silent film Vampire (Max Schreck in “Shadow of the Vampire”), a Viet Nam-era Marine (Sergeant Elias in “Platoon”), a cartoon character arch-villain (the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man”) or Jesus Christ himself (“The Last Temptation of Christ”)…and I wanted my portraits of him had to capture the depth he conveys through the characters he portrays. I had a few ideas I wanted to try…and we were told Willem would give us about an hour…so here is how it went…

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I started this first setup as a 3/4 body shot, but allowed myself to move in and out as his poses and mood changed…

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William Dafoe

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Then we sat down and came in for a tight series of darker, more intimate portraits…

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William Dafoe

Now, I was already thrilled with what we had done and that Willem had given us so much time, but I kind of liked the white brick wall in the studio, so I asked him for a few more minutes to put up a fresnel spotlight and play around with the shadows…

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William Dafoe

William Dafoe

In the end, the Journal chose one of my favorites for the article…

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…and once again, I find myself surprised at how lucky I am to be able to do what I do…

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23 thoughts on “Rick Masters + Jesus + Sgt. Elias = Willem Dafoe

  1. Such a great face to shoot! Dream assignment. Curious to hear your thoughts on Deep Octa vs. Beauty Dish…

    Of course I still use my beauty dishes (Profoto Silver and White), but there is a time and place for everything. The deep Octa’s I’m using these days all have their own special place in my heart. The Creative Light 90 RF is probably my favorite…just the right size for a single portrait, and it has a grid that I frequently rely on…it’s the light I used for the tight portraits of Willem. The Elinchrom Rotolux 39″ is a bit larger so it throws a slightly wider beam of focused soft light…that’s it on the first 3/4 shot. Then I have a bunch of Rime Lite “Grand Boxes”…a 35″, 47″ and two of the 79″ monsters (they make a 91”, but I have no idea what the Hell I would do with that!). They are not only sweet lights, but they are amazingly well made and not that spend, too! BT

  2. Stunning, Brad, stunning. The chemistry between photographer and subject really shows. I love what you did on the brick wall with the spotlight.

  3. Reblogged this on Moving Studio and commented:
    Willem Dafoe photographed by Brad Trent. I was lucky to hear Willem Dafoe speak with the audience at a recent screening of Shadow of the Vampire in Cleveland’s Cinemateque. Here Brad takes us behind the scenes on his recent photo shoot for The Wall Street Journal.

  4. What a waste that the editorial thing don’t allowed to make some portraits on locations. I believe that Dafoe can plays a lot more with some environment. I appreciate a lot his job in a lot of movies. I would add to those you mentioned one, Wild at Heart, in which he acted as Bobby Peru. Boo for the editorial managers. And very nice light you put, just I don’t like the images so edited.

  5. Interesting observation and comparison you made about the change in availability of subjects, “stars” in particular. The controlled window of opportunity imposed on your shoot vs the MM shoot by Bert Stern causes me to wonder about inspiration and interplay. I have to imagine, though, that there must be opportunity to work with celebrated individuals with greater freedom, in a less controlled environment. Great shots, nevertheless, your work with Willem Dafoe, is expressive and thought provoking…. nicely done.

  6. Do you do Bar Mitzvahs, because your a damn good photographer

    That’s probably not a bad idea…it could be a new profit center for me….. BT

  7. As a new hobby photographer, I like to try to recreate your shots as a learning tool. I can’t seem to get the lighting down for the sit-down shots. It looks like you have one overhead light and a bounce card which I have mimicked, but your shadows are way deeper than mine. Is it post editing that is getting you that or is it straight out of the camera?

    The bounce reflector was doing very, very little…it was basically just to put a bit of pop in his eyes…but I’m guessing you’re shooting with a DSLR, right? And probably not tethered? I was thethered using CaptureOne Pro, so even though what you see is about 95% straight out of the camera, with CaptureOne I can do a input a lot of tweeking to the curves, levels and individual colors that you can’t do unless you’re tethered, so that’s likely where the difference between my shot and yours is gonna show up. BT

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