Fred Elmes and Ang Lee

Fred Elmes and Ang Lee on the Set of The Ice Storm. Photo: Adger W. Cowans/20th Century Fox

Frederick Elmes, ASC was born and raised in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. He began taking still pictures of abstract objects before he was in high school, and eventually enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology, intending to pursue a career in that field. After his interest shifted to motion images, he earned graduate degrees from New York University and the American Film Institute, where he met directors David Lynch and John Cassavetes.

Elmes began working with Lynch on Eraserhead, while they were both still students at AFI. They have subsequently collaborated on such films as Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, which earned the Independent Spirit Award for cinematography in 1990. Elmes is compiling an eclectic body of work, from television commercials to music videos, and some 30 narrative films. They include Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Hulk. Elmes’ work can currently be seen theatrically in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, starring Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi and Tom Waits. This fall, he’ll release Bill Condon’s Kinsey, about the life of Albert Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

Before an online chat with the International Cinematographers Guild (, I spoke with Elmes about his early beginnings, his frequent director collaborations and what gives Coffee and Cigarettes its color.

Bob Fisher (MM): You began working with David Lynch on Eraserheard while you were still both students at AFI. This was during the early 1970s. What else were you doing at that time?

Fred Elmes (FE): I was shooting short films for students, and a lot of industrial and educational films. It was pretty much all 16mm. One of the wonderful things about Eraserhead was that it was 35mm and black and white. David is still concerned about the look of the film and now there is a really handsome DVD that we remastered.

MM: What was the 16mm film you were shooting in those days, was it Ektachrome or negative?

FE: It was either black-and-white negative or Ektachrome. I feel lucky to have shot all that film, so I can say with a certain authority what Ektachrome and what Kodachrome looked like. When I am imitating that look, I know what I’m talking about.

MM: After graduating from AFI, did you begin to realize that you were just beginning a long journey? How did you get started?

FE: I think if someone had sat me down and said, “Look, eight years from now you might have an opportunity to shoot an independent film, and in 10 years maybe some sort of a TV show. And in maybe 15 years, you’ll get a larger feature,” I would have just packed up and headed home. I just always believed that there would be some place for me, and that I could make it work.

It was a very good experience working on Eraserhead with David Lynch, because he’s a talented director who was driven to get it done—even if he never made another film. He made a deep impression on me. He made it so much more appealing to work on a film that was original and visually interesting than to work on a more traditional, Hollywood-style film.

MM: Were you able to connect with other directors of his ilk early on?

FE: Luckily, I did. Kind of simultaneously with my experience on Eraserhead, I met John Cassavetes, who was a Filmmaker in Residence at the AFI for a couple of years. He started to make a film called A Woman Under the Influence using the facilities and some of the students as crew. Caleb Deschanel started shooting it, and I came on as a camera assistant. Caleb was a year ahead of me at AFI. John Cassavetes loved finding young people who didn’t know all the rules and who might stumble into inventing something new. He disliked anything traditional.

Caleb and John had a falling out, and I left the production pretty early on. But Cassavetes was editing the film right there at AFI for a couple of years [and] I would stop by the editing room. One day, about a year later, John asked me if I’d like to work on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, starring Ben Gazarra.

MM: What was it like working with Cassavetes?

FE: It was a great, eye-opening experience and a whole new level of filmmaking for me. We had enough equipment, a serious, well-written script and the actors were very professional. It was a whole different attitude. The film was budgeted at about $1 million and we shot it for 10 or 12 weeks, which could have been forever. I learned a great deal from John. He taught me about where to put the camera (so it reveals what the actors are doing, emotionally). He had special sensibilities that were brilliant.

MM: It must have been amazing to work with both David Lynch and John Cassavetes that early in your career.

FE: It was actually simultaneously, because David ran out of money and we stopped working on Eraserhead for six to eight months. I took a break and worked on John’s film. Afterward, David got more money and we finished Eraserhead. After that, John asked me to work on Opening Night with Gena Rowlands.

MM: You did some interesting films in the early to mid-’80s, including Valley Girl and River’s Edge. But the one I want to ask about is Blue Velvet. Can you share some memories about the making of that film?

FE: Blue Velvet was a great experience. David [Lynch] had spoken with me about the story years before. It was about the underside of life in a small town. He told me that it was going to be produced through the Dino De Laurentiis Company, which had a studio in North Carolina, so our setting was the town of Wilmington.

I shot River’s Edge that same year (1986), with Tim Hunter directing. It was kind of a slice of reality about high school students. I really like that film a lot because it has such a strong story. Tim wanted to approach it in a very naturalistic way. I always questioned him about how to photograph the nude body of the dead girl in the story and he said we shouldn’t do anything to cover it up, treat it like an Edward Weston figure study. It was interesting working with different, young directors who had new ideas.

MM: You did Wild at Heart with David Lynch as well, for which you won the Independent Spirit Award for Cinematography in 1990.

FE: Yes, David and I got together again on Wild at Heart. It was a story and script that really appealed to me. I’d had a good experience working with him on Blue Velvet and we remained friends. Wild at Heart takes place on the road. The audience takes a kind of a road trip with the characters. They go to a small Texas town, New Orleans and other places, where the atmosphere and moods are totally different. It gave me a chance to play around with different looks that appealed to me.

MM: How about Night on Earth, which you shot for Jim Jarmusch in 1991?

FE: Night on Earth was really fun, because I’d been a big fan of Jim’s films. I’d never met him before he contacted me. He called and said, “ I have this film. It’s very simple. It’s a feature film made up of five short stories that all take place in taxicabs with different characters around the world at the same time. It’s the same night with different people and stories. Shooting in a taxicab will be like having the actors in a very small set, where we have lots of control.”

He had never shot in cars before, so it was a new experience for him to direct a film with a lot of dialogue in moving cars. But I enjoyed visiting different cities and figuring out how to make these stories work. I think there were six of us on the crew traveling to these foreign cities, including Rome, Paris and Helsinki. It was a different cultural experience with each city we visited.

MM: When and how did you hook up with Ang Lee?

FE: Ang had done Sense and Sensibility in England, and it had just been released. It was riding the crest of a great deal of success. He had a new script called The Ice Storm set in New Canaan, Connecticut. He called and asked if I wanted meet. Three or four days after we met, he hired me. It was a very good script, set in the 1970s, and the era appealed to me, as well. I liked the experience with Ang, because he was so sensitive with the actors. It was a real joy watching him get the performances he needed out of the actors in each scene. Ang felt this film needed a photo-realistic style. We did a lot of research. We went to galleries and looked at paintings and books to find the right sense of lighting and feeling for the film.

MM: How do you pick a script? What is it that you look for?

FE: Choosing the right script is difficult for me. I look for a story that’s interesting to me, and I look for a director who I think can bring something fresh to it. That has a lot to do with what they’ve done in the past… the kind of work they’ve done and how they’ve treated the subjects they chose. You always have a choice whether or not to do a film and you have to rely on your instinct.

MM: And now you’ve got Coffee and Cigarettes in theaters?

FE: Coffee and Cigarettes is a Jim Jarmusch project. It’s a series of short films that we worked on together over the years. Jim has strung them together into a feature film. Each is a separate story, usually with two or three people. They each take place in a little cafe or restaurant. They’re all very simple conversations between characters who don’t necessarily belong together. Photographically, they are very—as Jim would say—“rudimentary.” The coverage is always the same. It’s a wide shot and then a medium shot, two close-ups and an over the table shot. It’s very simple. They’re all shot in black and white.

MM: You shot in black and white rather than desaturating color images in post-production?

FE: Jim and I love black and white film and felt the look would be a little different than taking the color out of color stock. What interested me most was the characters that Jim chose. They were not necessarily actors, [but] were always great combinations of people. One story was a conversation between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop playing themselves in a little café. We had Cate Blanchett, the movie star, playing opposite herself as her own wayward cousin using a split screen. We had the Wu Tang Clan sitting and drinking tea in a restaurant with Bill Murray as the waiter. There are 11 stories strung together. Ellen Kuras, Robbie Muller and Tom DiCillo each did one and I filmed the rest.

MM: What do you mean when you say “rudimentary” cinematography?

FE: We repeated the same basic camera set-ups for each story. We wanted the style to be simple. The mood of each scene varies with the lighting we chose, but it never calls attention to itself.

MM: Why did he want to shoot it in black and white?

FE: Jim always saw these stories in black and white and I enjoy shooting it because it makes me think differently about the light. Technically, I learned a great deal, because these films were shot in different gauges in different years with different budgets using different laboratories around the world. We had 16mm, Super16 and 35mm negatives.

We scanned them all at DuArt in New York, corrected the contrast and black levels digitally and made black and white digital intermediates. Then we made very beautiful pristine black and white prints, which looked great in the lab in New York. Jim took a print on the road to the Berlin Film Festival for a premiere screening with thousands of people, but unfortunately, parts of the film played out of focus because the arc lights in modern projectors are very hot and black and white film absorbs most of the heat because of the silver in it. The film kept popping in the gate and changing focus, even though the same print looked great in smaller theaters where the lamp wasn’t as hot. This forced us to go back to the digital master, change the contrast to accommodate color intermediates and make color release prints.

The contrast is not as good as black and white release stock and there will always be a little color in the image. I think it’s time for a new black and white technology that combines the magical look of silver-based stocks with the projectability of modern color stocks.

MM: Do you think technology is going to change the role of cinematographer?

FE: It’s already changing our role and our relationship with the director and the production. As we learn what the latest technology has to offer, we more fully become the director’s eyes.