Interview: 13th Witness
Originally moving to Los Angeles with little direction, Zack McTee‘s story is a fairly uncommon one. He left his hometown of Utah behind, moved to Los Angeles with no family, and somehow was able to pay his Santa Monica rent and then some by establishing a career in photography. Soon after moving to the West Coast, and without much formal training, Zack McTee became both a successful and reputable photographer and videographer.
With this knowledge in mind, we had to speak with Zack to ask him—in excruciating detail—what it was like being broke, collecting freelance debts from Mike Epps, and what it was like being an assistant editor when he was only 18.
How did you get into photography and filmmaking?
When I was a kid I had a VHS camera that my family bought to record family movies and whatnot. It broke down at some point so I took it apart and fixed it. But it still didn’t work with the battery so we’d roll up to the skate spot with a 100-foot extension cord and film skateboarding in a crappy little parking lot.
Where was this?
Around what year?
Twelve years ago? Around 2000 I guess. I left Utah when I was 18, when I got out of high school, and moved to Los Angeles for seven years, and then moved to New York City. I’ve been here for three years.
What did you do out in LA?
I spent a lot of time skateboarding, shooting, finding jobs, doing anything I could in the film business. I worked for some small production companies. I worked at a place called Entertainment Partners, who do payroll for all of the movies and commercials and television. I worked at Mandalay Entertainment, which is a huge production company in LA.
So you put in a lot of grunt work before you got behind the camera.
Oh yeah. I worked my way from the bottom, for sure. I’ve done PA work and a ton of stuff like that. The first job I ever had was when I was in Utah. There was a movie coming through town called Benji: Off The Leash! My mom was helping them book hotel rooms and she asked them, “My son wants to be in the film business. Do you have a job for him?” And they were like, “Yeah. We’ll try him out for a day since you’ve been so good to us, and if he sucks we’ll fire him.” I went in and PA’ed for a day, and they were like, “He’s great. We’ll keep him around.” On the following Monday I went to high school and I had to tell my English teacher, “I can’t come to school anymore. I got a chance to work on a movie, which is what I want to do with my life. So maybe I can hand my homework in on Saturdays and you can give me some sort of passing grade so I can actually graduate high school?” Even though he was pissed about it, he did it. He gave me whatever was just above flunking. I was able to get my high-school degree and still work on a film.
When the editor came in—at this point I wanted to be a film editor—I was all over it. I was like, I want to help her set up her cave and get the whole Final Cut Pro system set up. So she loved me. They didn’t have any money in the budget for an Assistant Editor, but she convinced them to let me be her Assistant Editor. As an 18-year-old senior in high school I faked my way through it and helped assistant edit a feature film.
So you go to LA. What stands out as the worst job you took there?
The first job I took in LA was at Toys“R”Us, I think. I had three jobs: Toys”R”Us, Robinsons-May, and a Youth Group at a Baptist church [chuckles]. So those were some crazy times. But as far as Worst Job in the Film Business…. There’s a comedian named Mike Epps. These dudes found me somehow and they wanted me to edit a bunch of stuff for them, to try to pitch a show to HBO. I worked my ass off, and then all of a sudden they were like, “Sorry. We can’t pay you.” It was 700 bucks for two months of work or something, and I was like, “You guys have got to be kidding. You’re pitching a show to HBO and I’m flat broke in Santa Monica. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent.” This is when I learned a valuable lesson. I said, well shit. I have all of their media on this hard drive and I have their tapes. I have all their shit. So I went down to the payphone—’cause I couldn’t pay my cellphone bill. I called this guy and I left a message like, “That’s cool if you don’t want to pay me, but I think I have something far more valuable than $700, so if you ever wanna see this footage or these tapes again, send me a check.” Of course he got back to me. I think I left him somebody else’s cellphone number. He called them and this time he was like, “Alright dude. Come meet me over here at this office. They’ve got the check for you. Bring the tapes and the hard drive.” I was like, “Hell yeah. I can pay my rent.”
When did things really start rolling for you in LA?
The job at Mandalay was really good. I met a lot of good people there and learned a lot about filmmaking, especially the producing side. I was considered a Junior Producer and worked on this really cool Burton movie called For Right or Wrong, and got to travel to France. That was my first time leaving the country for work. Then I got this job working at a place called Honeyshed. It was this huge advertising experiment gone really wrong. There were a lot of really creative people working tightly together. I probably met more people through Honeyshed that have helped shape who I am now than anywhere else.
And through this whole time, are you shooting your own stuff?
There was this void when I sold my video camera ’cause I needed some cash. I was like, shit, I’ve got to be doing some sort of work. I went to a thrift store and bought a 35mm Canon AE-1 Program, which is still my favorite camera. Then I started shooting stills, started getting my film developed and coming back like, OK, it’s a nice photo, but technically there are errors. So I was like, I’ve got to take some sort of class to figure out what all these buttons do and what all these settings are. I took a beginning photo class at Santa Monica College for three weeks and learned what I needed to know—how a camera functions, how you expose photography, framing, that type of stuff—and then I dropped out, ’cause it was Saturday mornings.
It sounds like you got a lot of life experience in LA.
Tons, man. From living in an Indian family’s home in like their bedroom for three months; to living in a three-bedroom apartment with eight to ten dudes and skateboarding every day, filming, figuring out how to pay rent; to finding my wife and getting married at a pretty young age.
How do you feel when you look back at that chunk of time?
Los Angeles was awesome. It shaped me in a crazy way because I moved there when I was 18, right out of high school. I was young and living in a new city by myself. No family, no school. I’d saved up a ton of money working on the movie because I got paid—I was probably making more money than my teachers when I was 18. And then I moved to LA and I’m like, cool, I got a brand new MacBook and a kick-ass camera, and I know how to do some editing. Let’s do this! And then the only job I could find was at this hotel in Culver City [laughs]. So weird, man.
You moved to New Yorkin 2009? Were you able to start working right then?
Yeah, this city has been so good to me. Ever since I moved here it’s just been non-stop. I think I’m built really well for this city, like my mindset. This was probably the first time in my life where I was just available. I’d done pretty well out in LA working over the two years—maybe even three—prior to moving here, and I’d been wise with my money and saved up enough to where I could come out here and try to do my own thing.
That was another reason to move out here—I needed a fresh start. Things had gotten really easy in Los Angeles and I needed a kick in the ass to do some of my own stuff. When I got out here I made a couple of my personal projects that got quite a bit of attention online, and I started hanging out and talking to people and being available to work. I think that’s what really paid off, just being available to people. If you open yourself up instead of being at your nine-to-five job, you could probably work freelance too. And it’s not easy. It’s a risky thing.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got a cool personal project I’m working on with the lady who taught me how to edit on the Benji movie. We’re working on this feature documentary about a jazz composer who’s close to dying. His name is Harold Battiste. He did all this great stuff that changed music and he’s seen no money from any of it. He’s poor, and we want him to be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That’s our end goal.
One thing we asked Akira Ruiz—and it’s kind of an age-old debate—is the difference between digital and film.
There’s a lot to be said about the non-digital world. I’m glad that I learned how to shoot film, because when I grab a digital camera I know exactly what I’m doing technically; I’m not just putting it on auto mode and shooting. A lot of people don’t learn because digital can take that step out, that step of knowing what you’re doing. That’s the way a lot of the digital world is. It can make people dumber. Like, “Don’t worry about learning how to do something. Just do it.”
When you’ve got 36 exposures, you’ve got to know how to capture a moment.
That’s very true. I just got back from Spain and I shot a lot of film there, and I still have a roll of black and white in the camera from the trip. If I shot digital I would’ve captured 500 photos. And I did, I shot digital in conjunction with film. But the film, I’m still trying to finish the roll because I’m only taking photos that I really want. I’m not going to shoot ten of the same thing; I’m going to take two minutes to actually get the frame right, expose it right, and then take the photo. And when you get the roll back, still, only two of them are winners. It just goes to show perfection is hard to achieve.