From a shy kid who “held on to my daddy’s pant leg” until she was in her teens, Margaret Malandruccolo grew up to be an award-winning photographer, music video director and magazine publisher working with the Who’s Who in the entertainment world—including the likes of Prince, Avril Lavigne, Russell Crowe, Olivia Newton-John, Tamia and Alan Doyle.
She has directed over 100 music videos and has won numerous awards, including two Junos and four CCMAs, as well as establishing such advertising clients as Canon cameras, General Motors, Hyatt Hotels, Puma Sportswear and Molson Beer. Not too shabby for a woman from Windsor, Ontario.
Born in 1972 to Italian immigrant parents Francesco and Antonetta, she developed a love of reading and photography from a very early age and gives all the credit to her father, who came from rural Italy and never had the opportunity to go to school past third grade.
“He taught me to read and write by the time I was three, even though he barely knew how to. He would bring home newspapers and have me copy down the stories.”
When she was nine her father bought her an old Kodak disc camera with a plastic lens. At 15, it was a Minolta SLR. Because of her shyness, she never photographed people—only family members. Through the lens of her camera she captured sunsets, her pet cat and mouse and everything in nature, especially flowers and trees.
“At that time it was a learned craft similar to a cobbler or printmaker,” said Melandruccolo. “So I was very interested in learning all the technology. By time I was ready to go to university, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Melandruccolo says a student work placement with a mentor at the Windsor school board introduced her to filmmaking and she decided to attend the Ryerson Film School. At Ryerson, she “felt like a fish out of water and way in over my head.” She was one of only two students who entered the program from high school. Everyone else had come from other careers, including a robotics engineer, a physiotherapist and a writer, all in their late twenties to sixties. In History class the professor was using words she didn’t understand and when she expressed concern was told not to worry, it was just jargon. Melandruccolo asked, “What’s jargon?” The prof was right and in a couple of weeks she had her confidence back.
Her work ethic and attitude brought her to the attention of industry professionals who also helped kick-start her career. She talks excitedly about cinematographer Ira Cohen, who invited her class to his film set and she was the only one who showed up. She sat on an apple box and when someone asked for an apple box, she handed it to them.
“By the second or third day the grips, camera department and the electrics wanted me to work with them,” said Melandruccolo. “So, I became a camera trainee.” She worked hard, never believing anything would be handed to her, which she says probably comes from having immigrant parents.
“They were so supportive,” said Melandruccolo. “I would ask dad for 40-foot vines or a pig’s head and he would bring it to me in Toronto.”
Her job as camera assistant was demanding and made her final year in university quite challenging. After completing a rough cut on her final class film she was given full marks because of her work in the “real” world. After graduation she worked on several feature films and a few TV series, including Robocop, where she hurt her back carrying heavy camera cases. For the next several years she worked in post-production and editing, until some older photographer friends invited her to share studio space with them, which, she says, opened up a whole new opportunity in photography.
“I owe a lot to those friends,” she said. “Ivan Otis was a great influence and got me my first photo gig with Eaton’s. I shot 15 to 20 days for them for their catalogues, Christmas book, fashion shoots—sometimes 27 at a time. I really did have wonderful peers in the photo industry in Toronto. We would shoot, drop our film off at the lab—a big difference from today—then go and have a beer on patio and talk shop. Nothing was a secret or protected. It was a wonderful community of sharing.”
She was grossing about $200,000 a year and using much of it to reinvest in her business. In 1999 she also paid $302,000 for a three-bedroom house she still owns in Cabbagetown. By this point in her life Melandruccolo is aware that the stars have aligned for her. Experiencing one success after another, she acknowledges that while talent and hard work go a long way, there has also been a great deal of luck involved in being in the right place at the right time, with the right people.
“I was busy all the time but I was also aware that I was lucky to be doing what I loved and being successful,” said Melandruccolo. “It’s a competitive business and you have to be willing to jump on opportunities when they come along. Sometimes it might have seemed easy, but there’s a lot of hard work involved.”
Despite her success, she had an itch to explore. Drawn to its music and car culture, she decided to go to Los Angeles for six months. She was, in fact, quite obsessed with cars.
“Dad worked at the Ford Motor Company for 30 years. If not my first word, car was my second word,” said Melandruccolo. “I would visit my dad in the factory and take photos. One of my favourite places in the world was on the E.C. Row Expressway in Windsor that overlooked a scrapyard with its car graveyard. My first photo exhibit was of old cars I found abandoned in farm fields.”
In L.A. she rented studio space and began making promos, sending promos, cold calling, trying to meet people and sending out marketing material. There was nothing for a year and she worried there would be no success for her in L.A. Where many would have cut and run, this spunky Windsorite had her dad’s tenacity and optimism. Then, one day, she was introduced to California’s huge cowboy culture. Even in the tony area of Burbank in the Hollywood Hills every house is zoned equestrian so you can keep a horse in your backyard.
She made friends with stunt performers who were movie cowboys and cowgirls. They taught her to ride and she spent time on their ranches photographing them. She sent promos to a few country singers and, out of the blue, Dwight Yoakam called her. They agreed to meet on January 28—her birthday. Yoakam played her songs off his new album on acoustic guitar and she called it “a dream. One of the best birthday presents ever. He’s such an interesting character.” They worked together for a couple of years and work began rolling in from fashion, advertising and other music studios. She believes the work in country music came to her because she had a different take on these people, seeing a cool rock and roll side of them whereas everyone else was making them Middle American boy-next-door types. She came from heavy metal, so this extra rock and roll spin on things led to a lot of work in that genre.
She was becoming successful in L.A. and it was a heady experience.
“Every time I get this swimming feeling in my head, I get excited and my brain starts going in a hundred different directions,” said Melandruccolo. “I consider the potential I have to do this, prepare this, and while it’s not the most comfortable feeling, it’s exhilarating. Everything started working out, people came along and I started making decent money.”
Even with her success, Melandruccolo never expected to stay in L.A. Meeting Ben, the editor/director brother of a colleague, who had come to L.A. to work with his brother, changed everything. They were married five years later in 2008. Ben is her rock, her biggest supporter and fan.
“He is very talented and very intelligent. The strong silent type,” said Melandruccolo. “He is very funny and his whole life has been influenced by comedy, especially Monty Python. He is quiet but has incredible wit.”
But her greatest gift came in 2009 when their son Elliott was born. Melandruccolo calls it “the purest love.”
“Having a child has been the most inspiring thing in my life,” she says. “I always thought it would be me teaching him, but what he teaches me is equally important. I will never forget when he was three. We were at my in-laws’ in Ohio and Ben and I with our son were all jumping on a trampoline, holding hands. He was so incredibly elated and there was just the circle of this union, this connection and this overwhelming joy. That’s just etched in my mind forever.”
In her work life, exciting challenges continued unabated. One Wednesday morning when she was shopping she received a call from Prince’s media manager. Prince wanted to meet her. On Friday she flew first class to New York and was booked into the Ritz-Carlton. The media manager picked her up at 1 a.m. Saturday and took her to a closed restaurant to meet Prince and his band.
“I’ve seen your work and I really like it,” Prince told her.
“I’ve heard your music and I really like it,” she responded. They sat and chatted. The band was off to Sweden in the morning so she rented equipment and met them in the hotel and Central Park for a photo shoot. By 1 p.m. she was on a plane back to L.A. At 5 p.m. her phone rang and she was told Prince wanted her in Sweden and a ticket was waiting for her at the airport. She consulted with Ben.
“If you don’t go you will regret it for the rest of your life. Go,” he told her. This was typical of the support she received from Ben. Being in the business himself, he understood you don’t turn down lucky chances that come your way. Melandruccolo landed in Sweden for the kick-off to Prince’s European tour that also took them around Scandinavia. She found conversations with the music icon “down-to-earth and thought-provoking.” When the last show ended she received a call saying Prince wanted to edit some photos with her. But she had promised Elliott she would be home so she said, “No, but I could come back.” Saying “no” to Prince meant she wouldn’t and didn’t get a call back. She says if that offer had come years earlier, before her son was born, things would have been different.
“I made a promise to my son and I was not breaking it,” she said. “I had to put him first. He is a pretty special kid.”
Prince’s death came as a terrible shock to Melandruccolo. She says while she saw him in great pain because he needed hip replacements, she never observed any angst in him. He ate healthily and never drank a sip of alcohol.
Although her list of American star clients was impressive, she has also worked with many Canadian stars. She calls Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea fame one of her favourite people in the world.
“He could call me and I would go to the end of the earth for him,” she said. “We worked on a video together in Iceland for a song called ‘Testify,’ which he had written with Russell Crowe. We worked together in L.A. and most recently filmed a video in Toronto.”
Without meaning to, Melandruccolo fell in love with America. The vehicle through which she chose to explore that feeling was Americana magazine—self-funded and a labour of love.
“I wanted to celebrate the romanticism of American culture that is so celebrated in Japan and Europe in many different ways,” said Melandruccolo. “I wanted to write about the stories of people, their histories, individualism and the melting pot. Canada is a mosaic but yet at the core, both countries are all about multiculturalism.”
Her first issue came with help from features director Tina Colson, editorial assistant Nick Lee and long time friend and head designer Antoine Moonen. They had won a Juno together 25 years earlier for an album on which he was the designer and she the photographer. The album was by the Tea Party and Melandruccolo says she “loved Jeff Burrows,” the band’s drummer and fellow Windsorite. She printed the fifth and last edition of the magazine in the summer of 2017, having decided to take a year’s break. She recalls Prince telling her, “Margaret, you can do stills in your sleep. What’s going to be your next challenge?”
“I needed to do some soul-searching,” said Melandruccolo. “This year has been the re-establishing of priorities and looking at the reality of my life as a photographer. I looked at the number of hours I worked on a weekly basis. I was working day and night and asked myself if I wanted to do this for another 20 years. The answer was a resounding ‘no.’ I want more balance, more time with my son and Ben.” It was a turning point in the next stage of her life and career.
In that time of soul searching, she received an offer to direct a feature film in Oklahoma. The pre-production time lines were tight and she also wouldn’t be able to have the team she had assembled over 25 years with her on this shoot. She faltered but Ben, ever the supporter, asked, “Do you know how many people would die for this opportunity?” She directed the film.
No matter how busy her life is, Melandruccolo visits her parents in Windsor every two months. Now in their mid - and late eighties and experiencing health problems, it is difficult for them to go to L.A. She helps them catch up on mail, car repairs, home repairs and furnace issues. Because they want to remain in their own home, she does as much as she can to make that possible.
“I love coming back to Windsor. I get so excited a week or two before I’m coming home,” said Melandruccolo. “Everything they’ve done for me I can only dream of giving back to them. They’ve lived for me since the day I was born and still do. I don’t go out much but spend most of the time with my parents. I am often here only three or four days then off again, so it’s challenging. But I think that’s what Windsor is about—family. This is where I reconnect with my family.”
Windsor, she said, is also where she goes in her head to think. At lunch time, as a student, she would leave the university and sit under the Ambassador Bridge, looking at the Detroit River.
“Someone once said, ‘When you can’t sleep and have a million thoughts in your head, put those thoughts on a raft and it floats by you in a river, and then when another thought comes put it on a raft and let it float by.’ I’m sitting on the banks of the Detroit River all the time in my head and using that as a meditation, a mind cleanser, a reminder of dreams that I saw across the river that were just within reach that were attainable.
In conversation, Melandruccolo is warm, thoughtful, funny and engaging. She is down-to-earth and one would never know she rubs elbows with the rich and famous. Yes, she has often pinched herself in disbelief that a little girl from Windsor could make the big time. She considers herself lucky to have experienced such success.
While she would like to live in Rome, she said she misses Canada and would like to one day settle in British Columbia or Cambridge, Ontario. The city, she says, has great charm with the river running through it, its little bridges and old stone work. But that’s for the future, once she decides what that future is going to look like. In the meantime, she has the wisdom of experience to pass along.
“Understand what you love but don’t do it for a living unless you really think about it,” said Melandruccolo. “Not that I would advise that, but understand the ups and downs, or keep it as your special little thing that’s on the side that you can maintain the love for. I’ve done what I’ve loved for so long and am burnt out on it because I’ve done it commercially. I’m not sure where it leaves me yet. Probably in a state of flux.
But never be afraid of failure or the future—always try.”