Owen Roizman
Owen Roizman

If you were to take any hardcore film buff’s top 10
list and compare it with cinematographer Owen Roizman’s resumé,
chances would be good that you’d find some crossover. Since the
earliest days of his career, Roizman has displayed almost as much
talent for picking great scripts as he has for shooting them. Though
he admits that good taste and established relationships with talented
directors have aided him in his journey, it’s hard not to be impressed
by Roizman’s run, which includes work on such modern classics as The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Taking of Pelham
and Network.

Recently named Kodak’s Cinematographer in Residence
at UCLA, Roizman spoke with MM about his
legendary career, what he plans to teach his students and how each
film is like a child.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You really began your
career at a time that has come to define American cinema at its
best. At the time you were making films like
The French Connection or Network, were you conscious of how groundbreaking this
work was, or would someday be considered?

Owen Roizman (OR): I had no idea. I know that
I was lucky that I got some really good scripts early in my career.
What you don’t see in my filmography is all the work that
I turned down. I think one of the reasons I had success was because
I had good taste in choosing films. There are two things that determine
what you do when you start working—especially early in your career.
Earlier in your career, [some people] will do just about anything
they’re offered because they don’t know if their next job’s coming
along. Then, once you start to get established, you get fussier.
As you develop relationships with directors, when they come to you
other projects—even though you may not think it’s that good a script—you’re
going to do it because of your friendship with that director. So
there are a lot of governing factors. I tried to be as choosy as
I could be, and sometimes I was right. And sometimes I did things
because I wanted to experiment with a new genre, or it was for a
director that I had worked with before. I have a lot of repeat films
with directors.

MM: When you read a script, what is it that
appeals to you most; what’s the criteria you use in determining
whether or not it’s a movie you want to make?

OR: Well, if it was something that when I read
it I said ‘Boy, I’d love to see this film. This is a film that I would love to go see.’ I used to have a 20-page theory. If it
didn’t grab me in the first 20 pages, I didn’t even finish. I’d
just close it up and say ‘No, thank you.’

MM: You’re 10 pages more generous than most

OR: Producers like dollar signs! [laughing]
I was looking to tell a story I’d like to see myself. That was how
I chose my projects.

MM: You took a brief hiatus from feature
films in the 1980s to start up your own commercial production company.
How did you come to the decision that that was something you wanted
to do?

OR: I had started out in commercials, so that
was my training ground. I always went back and forth between pictures.
I didn’t shoot a lot of films for the reason that I could be fussier,
because as soon as I finished a film I’d be doing commercials. Having
had a background in commercials, I also had somewhat of a following—I
was directing commercials also.

I had just done three films in a row and I was away
from home for 22 months out of a 24-month period. I had a son growing
up and he was just becoming a teenager and I said ‘I can’t travel
like this anymore. I’ve got to find a way to stay home.’ Somebody
came to me with a package of commercials for a new product and they
said “We’re single bidding you on this job—it’s yours. You can take
it to any production company you want, or you can produce it yourself.”
So I said ‘Heck, I’m going to produce it myself.’ So I hired a production
manager and we did this whole package of commercials and it was
fun! We made a lot of money on it and I liked it, so we decided
to open our own company.

MM: You were directing commercials. Had
you ever considered directing a feature film?

OR: I thought about it and I had been asked
to, actually. But it wasn’t something that intrigued me that much
because of the time commitment. When you shoot a picture—as far
as the cinematographer goes—you’re on it and you’re finished. You
don’t get involved with the editing or any of the post-production
stuff. You know your time period is about three months—could be
longer, could be shorter. I get bored easily. If I was on a project
for a year or longer—and I have been on films that lasted that long—I
would get bored. I tend to get bored and want to move onto something
else. I just didn’t think I could handle that commitment.

MM: What lured you back to feature films?

OR: The commercial business went really south
right near the end there; there was a big writer’s strike. Advertisers
were finding that when they reran old commercials they weren’t seeing
any drop in revenue, so they started to wise up. The said “Well,
we don’t have to do that many commercials anymore.” So the business
got kind of tight and very competitive; there wasn’t as much work
around. I had a five-year lease on my office space and it was just
coming due and I said, ‘You know what? I’m out of here. It was a
nice run, goodbye and good luck.’ And I closed up.

The next day, I happened to get a phone call from
an old friend, Charlie Hogan, who’s a producer, and he told me that
Larry Kasdan wanted to meet with me about doing a film. So I said
‘Well, you’re timing’s really good!’ I met Larry and did my first
picture with him—and then three more after that.

MM: You were recently named the Kodak Cinematographer
in Residence at UCLA. What’s the one message or idea that you hope
to bring or pass onto the students there?

OR: Cinematography is about art and craft,
and you really have to learn your craft in order to achieve your
art. So it’s very important to learn as much as you can about all
the basics and develop your own style.

MM: How are you prepared to tackle the “digital”
issue, considering that so many of these students have—or are looking
to—work in a digital medium as they learn their craft?

OR: There’s nothing to tackle, really, because
digital is a tool. I’ve always said that cinematography is about
three things: light, composition and motion. And you have to do
all those things with digital as well as film. Now, it’s easier
to do it in digital these days because you see the results right
there on the screen. In film, you really have to learn your craft
a bit more. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the future will
be digital someday. I don’t foresee it that near, because
it’s still not as good. They have some fine equipment now, you can
get some great images, but it’s still not as good as film. Film
is still king as far as I’m concerned.

So what I’m trying to pass onto the students has nothing
to do with whether it’s film or video. I’ll try to teach them about
how to see light; how to see composition and how to use it; how
to put the camera in motion.

MM: Considering your entire filmography,
is there one scene in particular that you’re most proud of—one scene
where, for you, everything just came together perfectly and with
great results?

OR: Oh, boy! That’s so hard. I’ve read where
directors are asked “Of all the pictures you’ve done, which are
your favorites? Their standard answer is mine, too: they’re all
like your own children and you love all of them. You may be better
known for some of them, but you still love them all. There are a
lot of scenes that I’ve done where I’ve said ‘Wow, that came out

I can remember several scenes that I’m very proud
of that were real challenges. There was a scene in Three Days
of the Condor
with two guys walking across a bridge—nobody knows
it’s a bridge, it looks like they’re walking down the street—and
they’re walking across this bridge at night with the Washington
Monument and Lincoln Memorial in the back. And it was a long, long
dolly shot with dialogue. It came across like it was going to be
a very difficult scene but I took a very simple approach and the
results were just fantastic. So that’s one scene I’m really proud
of, but there are lots of them.