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Zachary Scott On Working With High Profile Subjects

As a seasoned editorial photographer, Zachary Scott has worked with over 50 celebrities from all types of industries. While celebrities can be protective of their image, most are open to trying out wild ideas on set. Leaning into his humorous nature, Zachary comes up with ideas for scenes that take the celebrity out of their normal trope and into something distinct.

Zachary’s clients range from people promoting their new stand up special to entrepreneurs revolutionizing electric vehicles. Their personalities are as varied as their careers and Zachary has the skillset to tap into that. We were excited to talk to Zachary about his experiences working with celebrities, so read on to hear some of his strategies while working with celebrities, memorable encounters, and that time Adam Sandler climbed into Zachary’s sprinter van.

What is your favorite aspect of working with high profile people?

I love how topical the subject matter is. I’m usually able to connect with their work, whether that’s a new comedy movie they’re starring in or they’re a CEO of a successful start up, I typically have some interest in what they’re doing. I don’t get starstruck because I end up talking to them about their projects, so their “celebrity” status kind of goes away and we spend a lot of time just laughing. I really like getting a peek behind the scenes of their world.

How is working with celebrities different from working with traditional talent on set?

It’s interesting, most people assume that a celebrity will be a natural in front of the camera. While that can be very true, oftentimes, they are protective of their image and aren’t as loose or in the moment as you might suspect. Some come onto set with an idea of how they want to portray themselves, and I just kind of have to go with it for the majority of the shoot. In those situations, I need to be selective about when I offer direction, or push the subject outside their comfort zone. I may only get a few frames or even moments to get something unique and memorable. Other times, they need a lot of direction and I find my job is to help them get comfortable, in character and excited about the narrative scenario that our team has come up with. It’s really all about reading the individual.

Do you have a memorable story of working with a celebrity? 

I have so many! While I shoot a lot of comedians, I'm also drawn to CEOs and Entrepreneurs. It's fun to get to know them personally because they are always so brilliant and passionate about their work. I end up doing a deep dive into these people over the course of a project and end up really rooting for them to succeed. More often than not, and against the advice of my financial advisor, I will take the editorial fees I get from the shoot and invest in their company. It has sorta work out, I'm probably breaking even.

When working with Nathan Fielder for his recent cover of New York Magazine, we collaborated very closely. He is always really involved in the creative processes of his projects and this was no exception, so we sort of got into this pattern of texting and talking about creative ideas for this shoot.  Actually, one time he called me while I was teaching my photography class so naturally I let my students know that Nathan Fielder was calling me. I saw a lot of mouths on the ground that day and definitely gave me a lot of “cool professor” points with my students.

Rapid fire; craziest thing you've done with a celebrity on set?

-I made a bird's nest with Mindy Kaling's hair
-I gave Julia Louis Dreyfus a horrible sunburn
-I positioned a shrieking opossum named Phylis in a tree branch directly over Tig Notaro
-I threw pies at Will Ferrell
-I buried Charlie Day in filing cabinets
The list goes on....

Has anyone surprised you on set?

I think most have lived up to who I thought they were. Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Coinbase, was one of the most low key people I’ve ever met. He showed up alone to set and we basically just had a backyard hangout in my sisters backyard. I also shot Elon Musk wearing a tuxedo in his Dragon rocket. That was something I will never forget. 

Adam Sandler literally surprised me on set. If we’re shooting at a studio, I’ll just sleep in my camper van for efficiency's sake. He fully just climbed into my van and started opening all the drawers and checking it all out. I don’t know if he was in the market or just genuinely interested, but I sort of stood there thinking “I can’t believe Adam Sandler is in my van.”

What is your inspiration when shooting portraiture? 

My portrait approach has always been inspired by conceptual photorealists painters, who are known to consider their backgrounds with great importance. In my work, I think about background texture and set design in a similar way. I weight it with equal detail and importance as the foreground subject. This approach supports a broader narrative and ultimately aims to erase visual hierarchy, allowing the viewer to explore beyond a singular focal plane. 

I also try to feed off the comedic talent of the subject in the moment. I shot Joel McHale for More Magazine's "Guide to Being Manly", which in itself is ironic since More was a women's magazine. At the time it was under the creative direction of the great Deb Bishop and Photo Editor Natasha Lunn. When the celebrity is somebody like Joel - hilarious, clever and collaborative - it's hard to lose. On the morning of the shoot, Joel felt that something was missing and he wanted to push the creative so we all sat down to figure it out. He suggested some ideas to which I countered "what if you were sitting on a grizzly bear? I can have one here in 45 minutes." He was all in. Later in the day, as we were shooting the smoking scenario, he stopped and looked at me and said, "Zack, you know what is more manly than smoking a pipe? Smoking TWO pipes." The opening image was made. 

How does editorial work translate to you commercial photography?

Creating an idiosyncratic image with a celebrity can be a challenge to pull off because it requires their collaboration and trust. As a photographer, connecting with your subject is key, but with a celebrity it's a little more nuanced. My goal is to always create an image that is memorable, a shot of this recognizable person that no one has seen before. That thread translates to my commercial photography because creatives want to make campaigns that have an impact. They want to develop a style and visual language that are own-able and unique for their clients. The thinking is the same, and I enjoy the commercial process just as much. 

We know you always have a something brewing - what's next for you?

I just did a personal project shoot with internet star "Blue Cardigan Guy" Adam Rose. I never do this, but after watching one of his videos (and laughing so hard), I just went for it and DM'd him. I complimented his humor, expressions and his grouchy wife alter ego. Now we are friends so I guess the old adage that flattery will get you everywhere really does work. I'm moving that project into post and am excited to bring that to life.