How I Got the Picture: Matthew Rolston’s Bloody Fun

Posted on July 13, 2011


Matthew Rolston's 2010 True Blood cover for Rolling Stone

Let’s do some role-playing: You’re the photo editor of a big entertainment magazine that comes out a couple times a month, and your biggest job is to make sure that each of those issues has a spectacular cover.  You line up the right celebrities, the right photographers, and the right ideas, and you hope pray that you’ll end up with an image that will A) Sell; B) Sell; C) Sell; D) Not totally offend a large number of people; and E) be kind of great. If possible.

Now let’s say you’ve got the stars of “True Blood”, an HBO TV series about vampires, blood, and naked-bloody vampire-sex, in a Los Angeles studio with photographer Matthew Rolston. What do you want them all to do? What are the words you could use to describe your intentions? Here’s a hint: Say you want something “high-concept, but simple, and attention-grabbing.” That’s what Rolston heard from Rolling Stone magazine last year, when it was planning a cover shoot about the series.

“I heard that, and I thought right away, ‘Oh, “True Blood”…naked, and covered in blood,” says Rolston, who did indeed shoot the recent cover of Rolling Stone that featured undead “True Blood” stars Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Paquin, and Stephen Moyer undressed and covered in stage blood.

High-concept? Check. Simple? Check. Attention Getting? You’re the big-time photo editor…what do you think?

Avid “True Blood” bloggers went crazy for Rolston’s gory vampire sandwich. For fangirls of the series, Christmas came early. Yes, declared the image NSFW but that only meant people across America would be staging work stoppages to look at the photo. said the cover had taken the show’s famed raciness to a new level.The AtlanticWire maintained its decorum by calling the picture “rather erotic.” Ryan Seacrest just didn’t like it at all.

An early version, following the magazine's instructions

Rolston was understandably thrilled by the attention. One of legends of Hollywood photography, he has been shooting for Rolling Stone for 30 years, and he showed that he can still pull a shocker out of his bag of visual tricks. But he said the cover almost didn’t happen, because when editors and art directors say “high-concept, simple, and attention-grabbing,” they usually don’t have naked bloody vampires in mind.

What the magazine’s editors were looking for was something more along the lines of the photo you see here. “They said, we want kind-of black, transparent clothing that looks very chic, with that special blue lighting you do,” says Rolston.

That’s what he gave them. “It was very elegant, like a fashion shoot, and it was beautiful…I was proud of the work, ” he says.  Not that he had much choice. “I was using my iPhone, taking pictures and sending them back to New York for feedback about every 20 minutes,” Rolston says. (Once, if an editor or ad agency art director wanted input on a photo shoot, he or she would go to the studio in person, but those days are as long gone as Don Draper’s Stetson fedora.)

At the end of the day, after confirming on the phone that magazine had everything it wanted in every conceivable variation of pose and cropping, Rolston asked if he could go ahead with his original idea. “What, that blood thing? If you can talk them into it, sure….Click.”

“Believe me, I was ready to go,” says Rolston, who came to the shoot with a thorough knowledge of stage blood brands, having produced shots like the one below.

“There are differences between stage bloods,” he says. Rolston acquired his  familiarity with the fake stuff several years before, while shooting a portrait of Jack Nicholson, who was appearing as a particuliary homicidal gangster in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. (The character, by the way, was based on the recently arrested mob boss Whitey Bulger.) “What you don’t want is the stuff that stains the skin, because you don’t do the actors any good with that. They turn pink. Basically you want washable and non-toxic, because it gets all around their mouths, the way I do it.”

Before he could apply the paint, of course, he had to ask whether the actors would do the shot, and whether their publicists would allow them to do it.

“Here’s my approach,” says Rolston. “First I thank everyone for their time, and I tell them how strong and beautiful the pictures the pictures we took are. Then I say, ‘Strong and beautiful is nice, but will the photos get held up on Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon?’ Then I tell them what I’m thinking about.”

The inspirational Jack Nicholson photo from "The Departed"

That’s all it takes to get three actors naked? “The two men, as they should, because they’re gentlemen, turned to Anna and asked if she was comfortable with the idea. But let’s face it, they’re on ‘True Blood,’ and they’re all kind of exhibitionists,” says Rolston.

Of course he had robes and g-strings on hand. “I said, if you want, wear the g-strings, and I can take them out in post-production. But they were like, ‘Oh, whatever,’ and there were clothes flying off in every direction. So they were buck-naked and looking at me like, ‘Ok, we’re ready to go. Where’s the blood?'”

As for the blood:  It’s applied with a paintbrush, and flung, rather than  dripped. All in the wrist, really. “You can go all Jasper Johns that way,” says Rolston.

After nine frames (shot with a digital medium-format camera) the blood was smeared all over and that was that. The three actors gathered around a computer monitor and agreed on the shots that Rolston could give to the magazine.

Reaction from the magazine: “Oh my god! This is the greatest picture! How did you get them to do it?”

“Believe me,” says Rolston, “I’ve been wrong as many times over my career as I’ve been right. I’ve done shots that I thought would be controversial and they turned out to be nothing, and shots I thought were perfectly tame have caused an uproar. This time I happened to get it right. What worked is that when it came down to the exact moment when we shot, all of us, the actors and I, were in the moment.”

The moment, he says, is greater than the photograph. Get your head around that, if you can. The photograph is merely the result of the moment.