Camera Operator Lou Barlia Shares Insight from New Hollywood

This Korean war combat cameraman-turned-camera-operator is behind classic movies like Love Story, Death Wish, and Steel Magnolias.

Whenever we get the opportunity to interview crew members with experience dating back to earlier eras of Hollywood, we jump at the chance. Lou Barlia is a perfect example.

While there are countless hours of interviews available for stars and directors, when it comes to DPs and production designers of the old and new Hollywood era, there are just not as many. And once you go down a step on the call sheet to operator or art director, there are fewer still.

Thus it was a genuine pleasure to talk to Barlia, who was a Korean-era combat cameraman turned camera operator behind a host of new Hollywood and 80s-era films, for his thoughts on operating and the film industry. Let's jump in.

No Film School: Before we get to Love Story and some of your bigger, later work, can you tell us how you got your start in the film industry?

Lou Barlia: I got my start doing still photography, and it was kind of a quirky thing. I lived in New York City at that time, Brooklyn, New York.

I recall around 15 years old, my father came home one night and said, "Hey, Lou, I found this camera, it was on the train tracks, and I jumped down and out to the train tracks and got this camera," which was at that time called an AXA camera. He said, "It looks like it's first-class. It looks like an expensive camera." I said, "Well, we'll look into it and see what it's all about."

I looked into it and it was worth five bucks at the time. No shutter speeds, no lens openings or diaphragms on it. I got very curious and started learning about camera speeds and had people jumping up and down to see if I could stop action, and I saw that I couldn't, and I was wondering why. And before you know it, I got hooked on shooting pictures and started developing my own pictures in the kitchen of our house, dipping black and white film into soup plates. I couldn't afford trays!  Before you know it learned how to print. But now, I was hooked on still photography and I found that there was a high school in New York that taught photography and art. It was called the School of Industrial Arts.

I applied for the school and I had to take a test to get in, to see if you had any art background or knowledge. Anyway, got into the school, graduated. It was a great school for learning photography, and before graduating, I got a part-time job in New York, which was a major studio in New York Illustrative Studio, and we worked on 11 x 14 and 5x7 Kodachrome, and I got hooked and did that. And when I graduated, by that time the army was drafting people, and the army drafted me! I was a bit interested in movies and applied for the Motion Picture Department.

I got into the Motion Picture Department, got shipped to Korea, became a combat cameraman. When I got up out of the army, I got into the Union in New York, which was a whole story in itself, trying to get into the Union, breaking in. I started working as an assistant on commercials and got very, very, busy. There was a point when I got married and all that, got a house and moved up into a cam-operator and worked on a movie called Speed Is of the Essence with [Stuart Hagmann], director. And then, the second movie I worked on was Love Story, and so that's where we were at.

NFS: Can you tell me, what camera were you shooting on when you were in Korea?

Barlia: It was an EYEMO 35 millimeter, and we shot a 35-millimeter Plus-X and Tri-X. We were strictly film, of course.

The EYEMO was a standard camera that was used in the service. They were built like bricks. I mean, you can throw them up against the wall and nothing would happen. They came with either a turret with three lenses on them, or I had the option of picking either one with the turret or just a single lens, and you can interchange the single lens. I picked the single-lens because it was a little bit lighter to carry.

A hundred-foot load. Basically speaking, to tell you the truth, I very rarely change lenses on it. I preferred to keep it at a 50 millimeter and I preferred just moving in and out quickly, if I had to make wider shots or come in for closeups, instead of taking the time of changing lenses. I found that was quicker.

NFS: Did that influence you when you worked as a professional operator later, do you think? Did your experiences as a combat photographer prepare you for your professional career?

Barlia: Absolutely. In hand-holding, because don't forget at that time we didn't have cameras that worked as Steadicam, so everything off the tripod was handheld. It influenced me tremendously because I was handholding all the time. Although we had tripod setups and stuff like that, most of the time you were hand-holding because you were in and out of combat areas.

You got assignments from general headquarters. And so there were times when I'd get an assignment to live, let's say, with Ethiopians. I don't know if you're familiar, in the Korean War, the troops that were in Korea were called the UN troops. And they were all kinds of ... there were Ethiopians, Filipinos, Turks, you name it, and Brits. I would get an assignment, let's say, "Do a story on the Filipinos, or do a story on the Turks, or do a story on Ethiopians," or whatever I got, I shot. And sometimes these assignments would last a month or two months, or maybe two days.

Don't forget I'm in the army, so I had no choice. If I had an assignment I couldn't say, "No, I don't want it. I don't want to do it." You did it, and that was it.

There were times they would say that I should do a story on MASH hospitals. And so, I did a story on a MASH hospital. It's a wounded man being picked up in the battlefield and put on an ambulance and then put on a helicopter, and then, they'd have him in, let's say, the operating room at a MASH hospital, let's say within 14 minutes after he got shot. It would be that kind of a story.

It was really, really funny watching the Alan Alda shows, because these guys would be doing neurosurgery and they'd be talking about where they were going to eat that night while they were doing major surgery on these wounded men that came in. I had shot the real MASH hospitals, and now it was a sitcom. Very funny.

When I got out of the service, I finally got into the Union in New York. Worked out of New York City and features started to come into New York at that time, mostly for the New York background look, and they would come in from California for maybe a week or two weeks of shooting just to get background. But then all of a sudden full movies started to come into New York.

NFS: What were the hours like when you worked back then? Were they 15-hour days, or were they shorter?

Barlia: The hours were very, very interesting because we had our Union in New York, which was, at that time, it was called 644. The hours were basically, 8:30 to 5:30. That was known as, let's say, the working day.

However, we would generally get into overtime, maybe a couple of hours overtime. When I joined there was no operator's category in New York, you came in as a director of photography. I was working on commercials a lot and most of them, when you worked on commercials, you didn't work as an operator, you came in as a director of photography.

But then these pictures started coming into New York, and I got a call to do a movie called Speed Is of the Essence. And a friend of mine, Dick Kratina, who was the DP on Love Story, called me for this movie called Speed Is of the Essence. Michael Sarrazin was in it, and it was directed by a heavyweight director, [Stuart Hagmann].

I was kind of like, very nervous about it, because it was just jumping into a feature, from being an assistant. Dick Kratina, he was an old operator himself, so he said, "Lou, don't worry about it. I know your background, you're going to do it." And sure enough, it worked out terrific. Then, he got a call to do Love Story, and he said, "Lou, do you want to operate on Love Story?" I said, "Yeah. Great." And then we did Love Story after that.

Then I bloomed out, and other guys were calling me, and I got really, really busy. I just kept going from one operating job to another operating job. I loved operating, I preferred it, as a matter of fact. I kind of stayed in the category.

I preferred it because I was the last person or the last eye looking in the camera before it got on the screen. In those days there were no monitors, this goes way back to the old Hollywood guys and all, when you operated the camera, you did the shot and the director would say, "Lou, how was it?" And you'd say, "Good. Bad. Or we need another one, we had a bump in the dolly," or whatever. That's the way it was, so you had a little more responsibility. Sometimes you’d say, “It was great.”

Today, most of the directors are looking into monitors and they're making the decision as to whether you should print the shot or not. If you had a bump out of focus or whatever, they said, "I love the performance. I love the acting and I want to print it anyway. I don't care about the fact that it was a little bit out of focus," or whatever. You had a little more responsibility as an operator in those days.

NFS: Even when you were on Love Story it was still 8:30 to 5:30, or were you just shooting sort of a normal day?

Barlia: In Love Story, the hours were not 8:30 to 5:30, we generally started earlier. We had 7:00 a.m. calls and worked beyond 5:30. We started getting into heavy overtime as pictures started to come in, and before you know it, we have the 12-hour days. We had probably the best Union contracts. We had better contracts than they had in Hollywood, because we had a different contract in New York than they had in Hollywood.

In New York the day started at 8:30, and both before and after we had double time and triple time. So let's say if you worked before 8:30, you were on double time. If you got a call, let's say, at seven o'clock, from 7:00 to 8:30 was double time.

Then after 5:30, you were on overtime, double time. If you worked 14 hours, triple time. If you had meal penalties, if you didn't break at certain times for lunch, you went on to get either double time or triple time. We had a fabulous contract, better than they had in the West Coast. West Coast. They were on time and a half, and they didn't have these particular hours that we had.

When the West Coast used to come into New York to shoot, we used to work under our own contract. They had what they call a standby contract which meant that if West Coast crew came in, and New York, of course, did not like West Coast crews coming in, they would put a standby on. Let's say a DP came in with his operator from the coast, they would put a standby on the DP that came in and standby on the operator and the assistant if they came in from the West Coast.

NFS: What happened? Why did they go away? Those hours sound great.

Barlia: There were basically three locals. There was a New York local, there was a Hollywood local, and there was a Chicago. 644 was New York, 666 was Chicago, and 659 was California. Well, they eventually merged, they became one local. Before you know it, we went on the West Coast working hours. And then, of course, double-time broke down to time and a half, and after negotiating with producers through the years.

The working conditions got, I got to say, worse, because now in order to make the same money that you made in the early days, you had to work long hours. So now the working hours became 12 to 14 hours a day of working on an average feature.

NFS: Gotcha. Did that affect your life at all, as you went from shorter hours when you started as your career changed?

Barlia: Yeah. I had a house, I have my sons, and I couldn't devote more time to them. Of course, especially location jobs came up a lot. You'd go on a job for two and three months and you'd be working these long hours. And as a matter of fact, I worked on B camera on Superman, the first Superman, because of the working hours I fell asleep at the wheel coming home, and got in a very, very bad car accident.

I dozed at the wheel coming home at four o'clock in the morning, or five or six o'clock in the morning, and I almost killed myself.

NFS: That's awful.

Barlia: Yeah. So anyway, that's the way it was.

It was really the 80s when hours started changing, and there were a lot of accidents. Let's say the loader on the job would have to stay a little longer because he was unloading and loading film after he finished the day's work. The loader would maybe stay maybe an hour, an hour and a half later, to get the film unloaded and ready for the next day. And so, now if you work 12, 14, 16 hours a day and you have to add another hour, so there were some major accidents where guys eventually killed themselves coming home from work, and it was a terrible situation and it still is in some ways.

They limited the working hours, so that they didn't get beyond, I don't know where they're at now, maybe 16 hours a day. So when you put on 14 hours a day and you have to commute, you have to figure an hour and a half, two hours commuting, it was a problem.

NFS: Let’s talk a little bit about Love Story. What can you tell me about the experience of shooting that movie? I mean, it went on to be a huge hit.

Barlia: Love Story was a great job. It was more of a smaller budget. Nobody expected to make the money that was made on that movie, and I'm not talking about crew. I'm talking about guys that had some points in the production, like Arthur Hiller as the director and the production manager Dave Golden. The word was that Arthur Hiller had four points, and he'd made millions on the movie. It was a very enjoyable movie to work on because of Arthur.

We were shooting in the winter in New York, then we shot in Boston, and that was even colder than New York.

There was a lot of handheld, let's say, in the hockey scenes, there was handheld there. There was one shot that Ryan O'Neal was playing hockey and getting beat up and running around and he gets pushed down and ends up sitting down and it was a little soft focus, and when I looked at the movie I said, "Crap." But they let it go, they said it didn't matter at that time.

What I specifically enjoyed was, Arthur Hiller and whoever else decided that they needed a new ending or maybe a new ending or some extra footage. They decided, after the movie was finished, to go back to Boston and pick up these shots that they had wanted to add to the movie. We get to Boston, and I remember it was around April, which was now springtime, we got there and the following day, which was the day we would start shooting the extra footage, we had a tremendous, tremendous snowstorm.

So now production said, "Well, let's call it a day. We can't shoot." And Arthur said, "No. No. Let's see if we can get up and just shoot some footage, extra footage."

We went out to Harvard yard. And they told Ali [MacGraw] and Ryan, to just get out in the snow, roll in the snow, throw snowballs, play football or do whatever you want. And they gave me the handheld ARRIFLEX, and I went out just shot them playing around in the snow. And it turned out in my opinion, one of the cutest scenes in the movie, because the music was so haunting accompanying the scenes of them just playing rolling in the snow, that I think it added a lot to the movie.

NFS: It's a good reminder to keep shooting. No matter what, just keep going.

Barlia: The following day, it rained like hell. I mean, it was pouring, pouring torrential rain. And so, we shot some scenes with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal walking in the rain, walking and talking. I'll never forget because Arthur had a sense of humor, we had the camera mounted on the back of a station wagon on a high hat.

Looking back at Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal and Arthur walking in this torrential rain, and I yelled out to Arthur, I said, "Hey Arthur, for God's sakes, we're uncomfortable shooting from back here. We just got a drop of rain on the camera, and they're getting soaked." He looked at me and gave me the look and said, "Okay, we can wrap.”     

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