Neal Preston is one of rock’s most celebrated and iconic photographers. Neal’s relationship with Cameron nearly goes back to the beginning of his illustrious career. We chatted with Neal on location in Hawaii about his career, his new iBook Led Zeppelin: Sound and Fury and much more.
When did you first meet Cameron? I know you guys worked together at Circus magazine and Rolling Stone, but had you met earlier while he was writing for the San Diego Door or Creem?
You know, I actually don’t recall the very first time we met — but I know that around the time we met he was definitely writing for the San Diego Door. I remember my girlfriend Bobbi (who was a publicist with rock p.r. agency Gershman, Gibson and Stromberg) shoving a copy of the Door in front of me, virtually demanding that I “read this kid’s stuff!! He’s only 14 years old!!!!”
Yeah, he could write, but what was far more astounding to me was that he was a really good ping pong player. There was a ping-pong table in the rec center where he lived. I was 5 years older than him, yet he probably beat me 80-90% of the time. I hated losing to him, more than he ever knew. In fact I’m still upset about it.
When did you become roommates? What was that like?
That happened in 1977. I had been living in a tiny one-bedroom house in Laurel Canyon. The whole place was maybe 500 square feet. I’d had a nasty breakup with one girlfriend, and I was radioactive as far as relationships were concerned. I’d been living there 8 months, and I got really depressed and started isolating every night…. I was like Howard Hughes, without the long fingernails and the massive bank account.
Cameron had also been living in Laurel Canyon and one day he broke up with HIS girlfriend, so he needed a place to live. We were in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel working on some story and I said “you need a place to live, I have to bail on my place ’cause I can’t take it any more so why don’t we just rent a place together?” And that’s how we ended up spending the next 6 years in the house on Pacific View Trail.
What was it like? I was 25, working for bands like Led Zeppelin and Queen. Cameron was 20, writing for the top music magazines in the world. We were single and living in the Hollywood Hills.
Have I made myself clear?
Like Cameron, you had your own fledgling photography career in high school. Did you bond over this?
To me it was just a coincidence that we’d both started working while still in school. What we bonded over was music — the absolute love of music — and the absurdity of the ride we were on. It was like being at the epicenter of a surreal wide-awake rock dream. Cameron was a lot like me at the time — he didn’t take it too seriously and he was funnier than hell. We laughed our asses off day and night.
Your first Cameron film that you worked on was Singles, right?
I did a day of special work on that movie.
I was surprised to see that you didn’t work on Jerry Maguire. Were you tied up with another project at that time?
I wasn’t asked but I didn’t expect to be asked anyway. The timing wouldn’t have been good for me on that one, though. Between all the rock tours I was on, and my People Magazine contract I was on the road constantly. And let’s just say at that time in my life I was too Type-A to do a whole movie.
Some of your own stories made it into Almost Famous… care to share some?
This is just a coincidence — but I did have a girlfriend who got severe rug burns at the Plaza Hotel in New York — and the Essex House, the Drake, the Macon Hilton, Swingo’s, and the Grosvenor House in London.
What was it like to be shooting in Times Square when it was completely empty during the filming of Vanilla Sky?
Incredibly surreal. I would have appreciated it more had it been 30 degrees warmer…. It was November and we just happened to be shooting in NYC during the coldest autumn in 50 years. I was in tears every night at wrap, I would have to sit in a hot bathtub for over an hour to get my circulation going. If it wasn’t for our sound mixer Jeff Wexler, who let me warm up in his tent every so often, I probably would have died there in New York.
You’ve worked on Cameron’s last five feature films. What are your main goals when you’re on the set each day?
Every day is a challenge — but my goals are always the same: do the best job I can for him and help his vision come to life while hopefully bringing a fresh eye to the party. And, of course, have some laughs…. And always have his back.
Some of your work is featured in the Celebrities Gallery over on Maui. Do you visit the Hawaiian Islands regularly?
I’ve been to Hawaii probably 2 dozen times, usually for rock shows or editorial assignments. Once a millennium I might actually come for a small vacation.
What’s been your favorite Crowe project to work on so far?
They’re all fun because they all have such different vibes and personalities, but I’ll have to say Almost Famous. Hands down.
How about a favorite moment working on one of Cameron’s films.
That’s a hard one to answer because there are so many little mental pictures and vignettes in my brain from these movies. It’s almost impossible to pick one…. Each movie seems to have one stand-out moment for me. On “Zoo” I will never forget standing next to Cameron one night while he directed Matt Damon in an emotional scene. During that scene I watched Matt move one muscle — ONE MUSCLE — in his face which changed the whole tone of his performance. It was unreal to see.
About 3 weeks ago here in Hawaii I watched him direct Emma (Stone) one night and they were so locked in to each other it was fascinating to watch. It was like watching Cameron experience the pure joy of directing and Emma experience the pure joy of acting — at the same time, at the same moment.
I have been truly blessed to work beside one of the greatest cinematographers of our generation — John Toll — on 3 of Cameron’s movies. I have learned more about my chosen craft from JT than anyone in my life, and there is one particular day that I will never forget on Vanilla Sky. It would be a long, tedious story to tell here but the short version is that I watched him build a lighting set-up for a kissing scene w/Tom and Penelope, that was complicated (12 lights), brilliant, and beautiful — but not to his liking. After 2 takes, he looked really grumpy. On take 3, JT jumps in with a tiny little black flag, maybe 1’ x 1′, and he just sticks it in front of one light for 2 seconds — and it made the shot. It reminded me it’s not always the light you add, it’s also about the light you take away — and I watched Picasso at work. I will remember that until the day I die.
You and Cameron have been close friends for over 40 years. What’s the secret sauce to that relationship?
Take time to talk about the REAL shit.
How do you know when you’ve gotten that iconic picture?
You don’t usually know. And if you think you know, you’re usually wrong.
While you are known for your rock music photography, you’ve also photographed six Olympic Games. What’s been your favorite non-rock experience or what are you most proud of?
There are so many — my first Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia…. My first sports assignment (1978 World Series for Newsweek), my first Time Magazine cover (U2, 1987), the first time my mother saw my photo credit in a magazine, the day my father hired me to shoot publicity shots of the Broadway show he was stage managing.
Some folks might not know that you have worked for People magazine for large portion of your career. What’s a memorable person or event you covered for them?
Too many to list properly –
Live Aid 1985 in London…. Olympics in Los Angeles, Sarajevo, Sydney, Albertville, Salt Lake City, and Torino…. Michael Jackson in Tokyo…. Marvin Gaye…. Billy Joel in Russia…. Charlize Theron…. Barry Bonds….
Tell us about your amazing new iBook (exclusively for the iPad), Led Zeppelin: Sound and Fury.
It’s pure manna from heaven for Zeppelin fans. The idea is that the reader should feel after reading it that he or she was on the road with Zeppelin for a month. Exhausted but exhilarated. It’s completely experiential in nature and unlike any book that’s been done on any band. I busted out the goods for it.
In addition to the hundred of photos (and many previously unreleased), the iBook is filled with stories, audio/video interviews, set lists, ticket stubs and much more. How long did it take to put this whole project together?
It took a ridiculous amount of time…. Mainly because we had never done anything like it before so there was a much longer learning curve to deal with. Also, when you put together a digital book you work with a software developer who essentially acts as the art director would on a traditional book.
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Has the experience been good? Would you consider another iBook?
Dunno. Not for a while.
Stevie Nicks wrote a great intro for the book. You guys are great friends, right?
Stevie is the most creative person I know… and she’s the closest I’ve ever had to a muse in my life.
She’s one of a very few people I know I can count on 24/7, and I adore her.
BTW she’s also funnier than hell and an expert picture editor.… I’ve always joked with her that if the rock and roll thing doesn’t work out for her I will get her a gig at Time-Life as a picture editor — and she’d kick major ass there, too.
Do you have a favorite person (living or dead) that you’ve photographed?
Pete Townshend. END OF DISCUSSION.
What about someone you’ve always wanted to photograph, but haven’t yet?
Two people – Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera.
Is there someone who you’ve photographed wh was always a joy and never seemed like work?
Again, definitely Pete Townshend.
What are your favorite bands?
The Who… with the Beatles always running in the background.
What’s your favorite favorite Zeppelin record?
What about favorite movies?
That Thing You Do!, Spinal Tap, The Kids Are All Right (the Who doc), Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Almost Famous and JFK.
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