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Please Don’t Break My Camera: Stalking the Greatest Paparazzo Ever, Ron Galella, at the Sundance Film Festival

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Ron Galella is the man behind some of the most widely recognized
and iconic celebrity photos of all time. He’s been punched by Marlon
Brando (resulting in $100,000 worth of dental reconstruction), he’s sued
and been counter-sued by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and he’s sold
pictures of Katherine Hepburn and Michael Jackson without them actually
appearing in the photos.

Carl Moczydlowsky

Ron Galella is the man behind some of the most widely recognized and iconic celebrity photos of all time. He’s been punched by Marlon Brando (resulting in $100,000 worth of dental reconstruction), he’s sued and been counter-sued by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and he’s sold pictures of Katherine Hepburn and Michael Jackson without them actually appearing in the photos.

Sundance Institute president and founder Robert Redford talked about him at length in the opening day press conference. With Galella and his sometimes unwilling subjects as the backdrop, filmmaker Leon Gast delves into the right to privacy in his U.S. Documentary Competition film Smash His Camera while painting Galella as a cunning “Sopranos” style stalker dedicated to his craft.

So when Brandon and I volunteered to give him a little taste of his own medicine, we didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into. There was lots of talk of whose insurance covered whose camera and if everyone had up to date medical cards on hand.

Armed with Galella’s flight arrival information, some hastily charred toaster strudels and copious amounts of Pete’s coffee, we braved the snowy drive down the mountain (sans functioning windshield wiper sprayers) to meet “Smash His Camera” producers Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire at the Salt Lake City Airport. Galella and his wife Betty were just getting off the plane.

We first spotted him at the baggage terminal, plucking his rabbit sticker-ed bags from the carousel (Galella has a thing for rabbits). After a few stealth shots from various vantage points Adam and Linda cleared a path for us to ambush the ambusher.

Part way through the film, Galella gives aspiring paparazzi a lesson on how to shoot their unwitting subjects. Camera out in front, wide lenses, never look through the viewfinder… Brandon claims to have practiced in the mirror so as to look the part (apparently he doesn’t stalk celebrities for a living?).

Go time. I fully expect Galella to chastise Brandon for not “doing it right”, but the bright hard flash doesn’t even faze him. Less than three shutter-clicks in he is hamming it up for the camera, slipping on red leather gloves and thrusting them at the lens. A few playful “no pictures” blurts accompany Galella “attacking” the camera all the while making sure his mile-wide and $100,000 smile is still visible.

So much for the fisticuffs. Turns out Galella is a really wonderful and sweet man. A man that is really passionate about his profession and chosen art form. We exchange introductions and chat about the film and the festival for a few minutes. He’s heard about Redford’s story and makes sure to get in a few quips of his own in. He also wants make sure we are going to buy his book (yeah, we probably will). No broken cameras or dental bills later, we walked away pretty high on the encounter. But we’re not changing careers anytime soon.

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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