The power and artistry of cinematographers is writ
so large over movie history that most of our film memories would
be hopelessly incomplete without the men and women who helped create
them. What would Apocalypse Now’s legendary chopper attack have
been without the graceful camerawork of Vittorio Storaro? Or the
rainy streets of Woody Allen’s Manhattan if Gordon Willis had not
been around to soak his lens in the bittersweet chiaroscuro of
the 59th St. bridge? All the way back to the silents, cinematographers
have given unselfishly of their artistic and technical genius,
so we thought it high time to give the craft the props it so patently
deserves. Sampling a small core of industry professionals-camera
operators, working DP’s, and tech houses-we managed to come up
with a list of 14 of the world’s greatest living cinematographers.
By no means a definitive count (the list fails to include some
of those great international talents-Changwei Gu of China, Vadim
Yusov of Russia, Teodoro Escamilla of Spain, Yuharu Atsuta of Japan-who
have received limited or no U.S. exposure over the years. Not to
mention modern female artists, like Americans Lisa Rinzler or Ellen
Kuras) this group is, at least in the eyes of many of their peers,
our reigning masters: the Rembrandts, Caravaggios, and Cezannes
of their day.
And, given the fine-art comparison, it seemed only
fitting to quiz these legendary lensmen on the source of their
own inspirations. After all, if Da Vinci were around today, wouldn’t
you want to know what was behind the most famous smile in art history?
I sure as hell would.
Daviau was shooting film clips for a Los Angeles
rock ‘n’ roll TV show when a 20-year-old Steven Spielberg (not
yet signed to direct for Universal at the time) asked him to shoot
a little short film called Amblin’. Because the tight-knit union
structure of the time would not let Daviau join his pal at the
studio, the DP logged many miles in industrials, TV commercials,
and educationals before finally cracking the union. After shooting
additional photography on Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third
Kind: New Edition in 1980, Daviau’s considerable talents were finally
put to full use the following year, in Spielberg’s "personal" film,
better known as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Since phoning home,
Daviau has garnered five Oscar nominations and worked with such
heavy weights as Barry Levinson, Peter Weir, and John Schlesinger.
Yet he still seems every inch the enthusiastic kid from Loyola
High, who can’t wait to talk about his life’s passion: cinema.
|Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), shot
by Allen Daviau.
MovieMaker (MM): Tell me about your earliest
inspirations, even before you picked up a camera.
Allen Daviau (AD): Seeing color television
for the first time started my fascination with the technology of
light and photography. These studies were enriched by meeting a
remarkable guy named Bob Epstein, a Loyola High grad, who was attending
the U.S.C. Cinema Department during the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Epstein introduced me to filmmakers like DeSica, Fellini, Bergman,
Bresson, Ozu, and Kurosawa. And I soon realized what a phenomenal
art form this marvelous technology could be. At about the same
time, when I was 16, I was gate-crashing the set of One Eyed Jacks,
which Marlon Brando was directing and Charlie Lang, A.S.C., was
shooting. Lang was lighting this enormous interior, shooting VistaVision
on what was probably ASA 50 color negative. He seemed to be everywhere
at once, fine-tuning the frame with the operator, adjusting the
positions of the background players, tweaking the light from at
least a dozen babies. As he led a beautiful actress to her mark
and subtly adjusted the shadow on her forehead, I thought to myself
that this man has the very best job in the history of the world.
MM: Tell me about all the struggles you had
to get into the union back in the ’60s and ’70s.
AD: Back then the union was nepotistic, and,
if you didn’t have a close personal contact, you just did not get
in, unlike today. It literally took me, and a handful of other
now-prominent DP’s-Caleb Deschanel, Tak Fujimoto, Andy Davis and
others-a decade to gain entrance into the Inter- national Photographer’s
Guild. And, we finally had to file suit to get in. During that
time, I also shot thousands of TV coMMercials, as well as documentaries,
industrials, and educationals; anything I could to keep myself
working and expanding my knowledge of film. It was very difficult.
MM: What kept the dream alive that you’d one
day get to shoot feature films?
AD: I think it was the inspiration from the
work of all those great cinematographers who were active in the
’70s. Vittorio, Vilmos, and Laszlo were amazing to me! I remember
one day I was in Chicago shooting a commercial and I was having
one of those "am I really doing anything with my life" depressions.
I went to see Godfather II at this giant old cinema downtown. When
I came out, I was so overwhelmed that I literally had to walk around
the city just to calm down.
MM: You obviously were blown away by Gordon
AD: Absolutely. What Francis Coppola and Gordon
Willis and all those other artists had done together was beyond
belief. They had made this great work of art that was not a "sequel" but
an extension of its predecessor. Gordon Willis had driven this
huge marker into the history of the art form that said: This is
how far we can go if we dare. I will never forget what seeing his
work that day meant to me.
You may know that Deakins, an Englishman by birth,
gave life to the Coen Brothers’ ultra-weird Hollywood hotel in
Barton Fink, or that he snagged an Oscar nomination for last year’s
snow-bound masterpiece, Fargo. But did you also know that Deakins
was responsible for such landmark indie hits as Passion Fish, Dead
Man Walking, and Sid and Nancy? Martin Scorsese sure did-Deakins
shot the master’s recent Tibetan epic, Kundun, before reteaming
with the brothers Coen for their bowling-noir, The Big Lebowski.
MM: If you had to label one quality a DP really
needs to be successful in film, what would it be?
Roger Deakins (RD): I think, for lack of
a better term, it would be a point of view. Everybody sees the world
from their own perspective and this uniqueness is what the DP brings
to the film, respective of the story, of course. It’s tough now because
so much of the industry is driven by economics, which means you’re
a hero if you can throw up a few soft lights and knock off a whole
bunch of shots. This goes against having an idea and feeling of what
is absolutely right for that story you’re telling. But, if you choose
carefully and find the right director, your way of seeing will leave
MM: How about your influences when you were
RD: Well, I studied still photography in art
college, so my main reference points at the beginning were photojournalists
and fine-art photographers. People like Sebastian Selgado, Cartier-Bresson,
Walker Evans, made a big impression on me.
MM: Would you have been a still photographer
in another life?
RD: Most definitely. The problem with movies
is that there are too many people around to dilute the original
concept. But with stills, it’s just one person with a camera, and
the image is sacred. Particularly in a journalistic sense, I think
great still work is as good or better than anything the movies
have offered us. It’s really powerful.
Why was Conrad Hall the only DP who got everybody’s
vote when MovieMaker compiled this list? Maybe it’s his six Oscar
nominations for films like The Day of the Locust, In Cold Blood,
Morituri, The Professionals, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Tequila
Sunrise. Or for winning the little gold guy for what is arguably
the most popular western of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid. Spanning nearly five decades, Hall’s career is still going
strong with the upcoming Steve Prefontaine bio-pic, Without Limits.
Most legends are looking to step down by the time they get this
kind of universal respect. Hall’s just getting revved up.
|George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969),
shot by Conrad Hall.
MM: Was there a key moment you can point
to when you knew you would end up being a cinematographer?
Conrad Hall (CH): Well, there was a moment
alright, but it was pure chance. I had no plans to be a cinematographer-none
MM: But I thought you went to USC to study
CH: No, I went to USC to study journalism.
I got a D+ in one class and I didn’t feel like repeating it so
I had to pick another major and cinema sounded exciting. After
I graduated from USC, I started a partnership with two other students
to make documentary films. We did anything that came our way. We
weren’t selective at all. During one slow period, we decided to
option a short story-"My Brother Down There," by Martha
Foley-and make a film of it. We wrote the script and did the budget
together, and when we were ready to shoot we realized we had to
divide up the jobs. So we put the three top jobs in a hat-producer,
director, cinematographer-and picked. I suppose you can guess which
one I got stuck with!
MM: If you had to come up with a single element
a DP needs to succeed, what would it be?
CH: Sleep! They work you 14-16 hours a day
now and it’s really hard to be creative and sharp without a lot
of rest! (laughs) But seriously, I believe a DP needs to stay contemporary
to excel at his or her craft. You need to evolve, not just technically,
but also as a person-to be wiser, kinder, more educated. To stay
contemporary is to be truly alive in your work and your life.
It’s hard to fathom that Sven Nykvist has been up
for only 3 Academy Awards in his 50 year career. Yet, when you
realize the relatively small amount of work Nykvist has done outside
his native Sweden, it makes his Oscar victories all the more impressive.
A master of natural lighting, even Nykvist would be hard-pressed
to surpass his own handiwork on films like Fanny and Alexander
or Cries and Whispers. Though Americans know him best for such
fluffy romances as Sleepless in Seattle and Only You, Nykvist is
most at home in the cold light of a Swedish winter, creating magic
with a few candles, a camera, a few actors, and precious little
|Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1983), shot by Sven
MM: Tell us about your early years, and
who influenced you before you had even picked up a camera.
Sven Nykvist (SN): My parents were missionaries
to Congo and one of my earliest memories is of looking at issues/29/images
captured on a wind-up film camera. I was seven or eight and the
issues/29/images were of African men building a church with my father. I
was fascinated by these issues/29/images.
MM: Did the African pictures lead you directly
SN: No, because when I was a teenager, my
parents didn’t want me to go to the movies because they thought
it was sinful. I was involved with sports at the time and I managed
to save up eight dollars delivering newspapers to buy a Keystone
8MM film camera with slow motion that I used to film the athletes
during competition. This got me interested in film. Also, I had
been doing still photography for a while and I managed to earn
a place at a photography school in Stockholm- there were no film
schools in Sweden at the time. Once I got to Stockholm, I went
to the movies every night! By then I’d made up my mind to be a
MM: Your work has always felt so pure to me,
almost spiritual in a way. What is the most important quality a
cinematographer should bring to a film?
SN: The most important task of the cinematographer
is to create an atmosphere. To interpret the mood and feeling the
director wants to convey. I mostly perform this task by using very
little light and very little color. There is a saying that a good
script tells you what is being done and what is being said, but
not what someone thinks or feels, and there is some truth in that.
Images, not words, capture feelings in faces and atmospheres and
I have realized that there is nothing that can ruin the atmosphere
as easily as too much light. My striving for simplicity derives
from my striving for the logical light, the true light.
If Owen Roizman had retired after shooting the most
famous car chase in movie history (The French Connection), his
place in the DP canon would have already been secure. The fact
that Roizman went on to gather five Oscar nominations, shooting
such classics as The Exorcist, Network, Three Days of the Condor,
Tootsie, and Absence of Malice, only makes his reputation that
much more secure. This one-time athlete (Roizman had two tryouts
with the New York Yankees) makes even 20-something executives breathe
a sigh of relief when he signs on a film; his talent and professionalism
are first class.
|William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), shot by Owen
MM: So you were actually going to be a
pitcher for the New York Yankees?
Owen Roizman (OR): My dream was to be a professional
baseball player. Unfortunately, when I was 13, I contracted polio
and while it didn’t stop me from playing, it became clear at some
point that I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. I studied
math and physics in college, but that didn’t really hold a great
appeal. Eventually, I drifted toward the movies and became an assistant
MM: Did you see a connection between athletics
and filmmaking at all?
OR: Possibly the competitive aspect of sports.
I’ve always had this obsessive desire to push myself in whatever
sport I was playing-baseball, golf, tennis. And I think I’ve tried
to do that in my film work. Sports inspires perfectionism, which
definitely has spilled over into my film work.
MM: If you had to pick a single quality a
DP needs to be successful, what would it be?
OR: Taste. Which really means the ability
to know what scripts to work on, what feels right as far as composition,
lighting, everything that goes on during a film. Taste is an instinct
and it should guide you toward the projects that are going to provide
a great experience. I’ve been lucky as far as the films I’ve had
a chance to work on, but part of that is my ability to go with
what feels right-to trust my taste and see where it’s going to
Last year’s Oscar winner for The English Patient
is clearly on a roll. A former camera operator for Peter Weir (The
Last Wave, Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock), Seale has been riding
a freight train of critical acclaim since his American feature
debut, Witness, way back in 1985. Of course, working with directors
like George Miller, Ron Howard, John Boorman, and long-time Aussie
collaborator Weir, doesn’t hurt. But then, most DP’s who have hit
this level of commercial success rarely jump back behind the camera
to operate as Seale did, on the 1995 Beyond Ragoon. Tough, illuminating,
sensitive, transcendent are just some of the terms used to describe
Seale’s work. At the end of the day, these attributes seem to account
for why he seems able to capture Mother Nature’s ferocious glory
better than any other cameraman on the planet.
MM: You’re the only Aussie on this list and
I’m curious as to how that continent shaped your early years?
John Seale (JS): I was about 18 or so when
I went traveling into the Australian outback. I brought along a
little 8mm camera to record my experiences for my parents to see.
The imagery out there was so spectacular-climatic things like dusk
rising off the back of sheep; endless sunrises that went on for
miles. I thought wouldn’t it be a lovely life to travel around
the world and record life and death and man’s unrest within nature
in moving issues/29/images.
MM: Apropos of that, many people characterize
your work as having an intense quality of "realism." Does
having a style, per se, interest you?
JS: I’ve never set out to create a style.
There are so many different scripts, locations, climatic situations
that can influence the look of a film, that it would seem unfair
to bring a standard approach to each project, particularly since
I believe that no two films should look alike. I suppose those
who say I have a sense of realism in my work are making an honest
appraisal, since I often favor natural lighting techniques or the
enhancement of natural light sources to photographic levels.
MM: The natural world is such a big part of
your work. Yet nature, especially in its elemental form, is totally
chaotic. A tough job made tougher for the DP who is trying to capitalize
on that environment.
JS: Absolutely. That’s why anticipation is
the single most important tool a DP needs to have. Nature is raw
and unpredictable and the guy who can anticipate where the sun
may be, or what is going to happen with the light puts you way
ahead of the game. The element of chance is a huge part of making
movies, but if you can anticipate, you can adapt quickly and control
the moment, rather than being controlled.
MM: Do you have an example to share?
JS: Well, this may sound like an anomaly because
it was a scene I was doing inside a jail, which is about as controlled
an environment as you can get. But I hadn’t anticipated the light
that day because we’d just changed locations very quickly. I realized
that the sun was going to come through this six-inch window shaft
in about 15 minutes. I said to the director, can we just wait 15
minutes because the light is going to be amazing. I grabbed the
smoke machine and raced down the hallway to prepare. We began to
rehearse and the director thought I was insane because absolutely
nothing was happening! Everything looked the same. About 15 minutes
later the sun suddenly rose up and burst through these slots, tracing
down the entire walkway inside the jail.
MM: Wow! That’s working in the moment, alright.
JS: Yeah, it sure was.
MM: If you had to pick a single shot that
best sums up cinematography’s potential, could you do it?
JS: Well, this too may sound ironic, considering
how I told you the outback inspired this thirst for moving issues/29/images,
rather than static still frames. But, I think it would have to
be that shot from Lawrence Of Arabia, when Lawrence goes to sit
in the desert and contemplate the attack on Aquaba. He’s totally
alone on this sandhill with his back to the camera. The only movement
is the sand being blown past him at dusk. It’s basically a still
frame. Yet that shot represents everything Lean was going for within
that scene: the stillness of thought, the character’s back to us
for indecision, and the sands of time sweeping past. Combined with
an anamorphic frame to show the vastness of the desert, it creates
this incredible overall power even though it’s just a single cinematic
How does one describe a man who photographs Rosemary’s
Baby, Bullitt, and Paint Your Wagon all within two years? Diverse?
Multi-talented? Adap- table beyond all reason? With six Oscar nominations
to his credit, including a double honor for cinematography and
visual FX for Spielberg’s 1941, Fraker has managed to convince
more than a few directors of his ability to shoot anything, anywhere,
anytime. Whether it be jumping into a tank with a precocious undersea
mammal (The Day of the Dolphin), or getting several hundred computer
monitors to behave on cue (War Games), or throwing a batch of Elvis
impersonators out of a plane (Honeymoon in Vegas), Fraker has literally
done it all.
MM: Tell us what inspired you before you picked
up a camera.
William Fraker (WF): My mother and aunt were
extras in the movie business, back in the ’30s. I’d see them take
off every morning on the bus in their hula skirts to go shoot at
the beach at the end of Sunset Blvd. One day my aunt took me aside
and said "Billy, you’re gonna be a cinematographer." She
said it was the best job on the film because the cinematographer
got a great deal of respect! Needless to say, I took her advice.
MM: Did you ever feel a need to create
your own style? Or better yet, should a DP even have a style?
WF: I don’t believe in style. I think you
find what the picture looks like within the material. And the director,
the actors, the location all help you to dictate the look of the
film, not some arbitrary style that you want to impose.
MM: But you do have certain preferences for
types of lighting-the proverbial "bag of tricks," as
some DP’s say.
WF: I was so influenced by the movies of the
’30s and ’40s that I have to confess I have a weak spot for making
actors look beautiful, bigger than life, like the great movies
MM: You have a reverence for the old style
of moviemaking, when the division of labor was more pronounced.
I’m wondering if you could come up with a single shot or sequence
that put it all together for you, visually, thematically, etc.
WF: (laughs) Out of three million issues/29/images you
want me to pick one shot!
MM: Yes, if you can!
WF: Well, it would probably be Freddie Young’s
work in Lawrence of Arabia. When Lawrence is looking for this young
man out in the desert on his camel. He spots another rider and
realizes it’s the guy he’s looking for, and both camels start rushing
toward each other at great speed. As they do, the camera cuts to
this very long shot, where all you can see is these two little
dots in the desert. They’re so eager to meet, that they end up
running right past each other and have to turn around. It’s simple,
yet totally unexpected. So much going on in that one frame, even
though you’re a long way away.
Rousselot first caught Hollywood’s eye with John
Boorman’s elegant tale of broken childhood, Hope and Glory. But
the French-born cinematographer had already scored a hit in his
own nation six years earlier with the effervescent Diva. A three-time
Oscar nominee (winning for Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through
It), as well as a César (France’s Oscar equivalent) Award
winner for the starkly beautiful Therese and the epic Queen Margot,
Rousselot took his palette to new levels last year with the distinctly
American The People vs. Larry Flynt.
MM: Can you talk about your early influences?
Philippe Rousselot (PR): My earliest influences
occurred long before I picked up a movie camera. I was 11 years
old when I first saw the films of Jean Cocteau and they were so
moving, emotionally, visually, and intellectually. They were complete
magic to me. Of course later, when I began working, I was influenced
by the people I worked with: I was a loader for Nestor Almendros
(see page 82-ed.) and that had a huge influence. Also a woman named
Sara Moon, who I worked with in commercials and is a superb still
photographer. I don’t know if it’s typical, but I saw a lot of
great films at an early age-Bergman, Fellini, the German ex- pressionists-they
all contributed to my education.
MM: Do you think you’ve forged a style,
consciously or not, that directors have come to expect of you?
PR: I’ve been very different from film to
film and I think that’s a good thing. Style is very limiting, and
when people come to expect it of you, you’re in big trouble. Of
course, I can trace back to two films where my technique radically
changed from what it had been: Therese was a real risky film photographically
speaking, and Hope and Glory. This change was mainly due to the
fact I was working with two very different and strong directors.
MM: How about a single film you can point
to that really sums up how well cinematography can work?
PR: Well, for me, it’s hard to separate the
photography from the film itself. But certainly one that comes
to mind is Days of Heaven. It was a breakthrough in terms of the
photography and a shock to my generation, in the way that Lawrence
of Arabia was a shock to a generation of DP’s before me. Somebody
had the nerve to look at reality and say: I like that. I’m going
to put that on film exactly the way it is and not overwhelm the
image with my technology or my craft or my personality. Days of
Heaven was groundbreaking precisely for its very modest approach.
What’s that old saying? You gotta kiss a few frogs
before you find your prince. One of the most sought-after DP’s
of the 1970s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Scare- crow,
The Sugarland Express, The Deer Hunter, The Last Waltz) had to
start somewhere. And that meant such Corman-style epics as Horror
of the Blood Monsters, Five Bloody Graves, and Incredibly Strange
Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, found
their way onto Zsigmond’s amazingly impressive resumé. Think
those early pulpers hurt this Hungarian-born DP’s career? Richard
Donner, Brian de Palma, Roland Joffee, Michael Cimino and Steven
Spielberg didn’t think so. Neither did the Academy when Zsigmond
took home the best Oscar for what many still consider the greatest
sci-fi movie ever, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
MM: I’m wondering what director you never
got to work with that you would have liked to, living or dead.
|Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978),
shot by Vilmos Zsigmond.
Vilmos Zsigmond (VZ): I think, of those
no longer around, it would be Fellini. His ability to tell a story
visually was just incredible. And as far as those still around, it
would have to be Polanski. These are directors who do not rely much
on the spoken word-their talent is very pure in the visual sense,
and that interests me the most.
MM: Did you watch much of Fellini’s work in
VZ: When I was studying cinematography in
Hungary, I really admired the Italian neo-realists like De Sica
and Soviets like Urusevskj for their gorgeous black and white work.
Welles’ Citizen Kane, and Olivier’s Hamlet were also big influences,
again for the black & white photography. I really learned to
light for black & white, and even today, when I light, it is
for the light and shadows and not for color.
MM: Have you developed lighting preferences
over the years?
VZ: Well, I don’t like soft lighting very
much; I feel it’s overdone and boring. Many people use it as a
lazy way out-it’s fast to execute but not interesting to me. I
like contrast and strong directional lighting from the sun or the
moon, or other light sources (desk-lamps, candles, lanterns etc.)
I often refer to painters like Caravaggio, La Tour, and Rembrandt
for lighting inspiration.
MM: Tell us your all-time favorite shot, if
VZ: Probably Roger Lanser’s closing shot in
Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. It lasts about 2 minutes
and 45 seconds. It starts in the garden of an Italian villa, and
you follow the dancers through an interior room to an interior
courtyard, with this confetti flying around you like snow. You
go under a bridge, and back to the garden, mingling with a festive
crowd of dancers and singers. Then the camera starts rising above
the roofs of the villa, probably 120 feet above all the dancers,
till it ends on a tilt up of a lovely vista of Tuscany. Magnificent!
If a movie camera could be a political weapon, then
Haskell Wexler is Hollywood’s great cinematic agitator. A five-time
Oscar nominee, (Blaze, Bound for Glory, Matewan, One Flew Over
The Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and three-time
winner (along with Vittorio Storaro, more than any other DP on
this list), Wexler is perhaps best known for his ’60s docu-classic,
Medium Cool, a film he also directed. Look closely at Wexler’s
resumé and you see a list of films: American Graffiti, Coming
Home, Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish, which display a passion
for truth-telling and emotional honesty-probably the grandest polit-ical
statement no matter what the decade.
MM: Can you talk about your inspirations before
you got into cinematography?
Haskell Wexler (HW): Believe it or not, I
wasn’t influenced by anybody, or anything, but my own experiences.
We used to go on these family trips, outings or vacations, and
I was in charge of making these little home movies, a kind of personal
record of our lives. It was really fun and I soon realized that
it gave me a kind of status in the family I might not have had.
MM: The designated shooter!
HW: That’s right, the family documentarian.
Gradually, I came to realize that shooting little movies gave me
the confidence to try and use film as a way to document what was
going on in the world around me. That’s really what got me into
shooting movies. The need and desire to record what was going on
in the real world.
MM: That’s an interesting conclusion, considering
fiction films are all about recreating reality, not recording it.
HW: Yes, but strong documentary filmmaking
puts you right there and can, for better or worse, have an effect
on real life. Great fiction films can do that too, I suppose; the
recreation of an historical reality in a way in which the audience
has never been exposed. It’s the truthful reality, as opposed to
so many bogus themes Hollywood tries to shove down our throats.
MM: Do you have a single image from your films
or someone else’s that really stands out for you?
HW: I think it would have to be the first
use of steadicam in Bound For Glory. Nowadays they’d call it a
combination shot, but back then there was no device that would
allow you to walk right off a crane and mingle with hundreds of
actors, as we did in that shot. Garrett Brown was lowered down
off a crane into the migrants’ camp and just started walking amongst
the workers with this new device, a steadicam. It was a pretty
sensational shot from a technical aspect because, at the time,
no one knew how we did it!
MM: You’ve always been a big advocate of movies
as a social force. Are you involved in any documentary work now?
HW: I’m completing a film about people who
ride the buses in L.A. As you probably know, if you don’t own a
car in Los Angeles you’re a member of an outcast nation. It’s been
a real education for me to see how all these people of vastly different
races interact and deal with each other. But, of course, that’s
why I’ve always been involved in documentaries and in teaching
as well (Wexler teaches at four different LA area colleges and
universities). I thrive on learning things from real life that
Hollywood never bothers to explore.
Kovacs came to America with fellow countryman Vilmos
Zsigmond after the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary. Like Zsigmond,
Kovacs became synonymous with a new wave of filmmakers leading
the charge into the 1970s. Films like Easy Rider, Getting Straight,
Five Easy Pieces, Alex in Wonderland, The King of Marvin Gardens,
and Shampoo, belied a younger, more reckless approach to cinema
than Hollywood had ever seen. Without missing a beat, Kovacs led
the charge into the ’80s and ’90s as well, photographing films
like Ghostbusters, Mask, Say Anything, Radio Flyer, Ruby Cairo,
Multiplicity, and last year’s sleeper comedy hit, My Best Friend’s
Wedding. Not many great things were born out of old-style Soviet
oppression, except Laszlo Kovacs’ coming to America.
MM: You must have had some interesting early
memories growing up in Communist Hungary. Can you recall any that
contributed to your eventual path as a DP?
Laszlo Kovacs (LK): Two memories stand out:
the first is of going to the schoolhouse on weekends to see 16mm
movies. My mother had a friend who was a local store owner in the
village I grew up in. He ran a movie program every weekend and
I was given the job of posting the movie program on stores and
trees, and for this I was allowed to see the movies for free. They
would hang up a white sheet on a wall, or sometimes outside in
the summertime and project the films onto the sheet. I don’t remember
specific directors because most of the films were German propaganda
work-this was during World War II. That sheet became my whole frame
of reference. I was fascinated by that frame.
MM: What was the other one that stuck with
LK: It was a railroad track that ran just
outside my village. I would go down there and stand on the tracks
and gaze off, trying to imagine what was at the end. What worlds
and peoples would I find if I could just travel down the tracks.
I would stand there for hours and imagine all kinds of things.
To this day, the railroad still holds a tremendous fascination
MM: That makes sense from the man who shot
the quintessential American road movie, Easy Rider.
|Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), shot by Laszlo
LK: You know that’s funny, because I almost
didn’t get to shoot that movie.
MM: Why is that?
LK: I had been shooting a lot of motorcycle
movies prior to Easy Rider and I was ready for a change. I went
to a meeting Dennis Hopper had set up with many of the film’s principals.
Dennis burst into the room in this very theatrical way. He held
up a screenplay and said "this is the script for the film
I’ve asked you all to work on." Then he took it and threw
it up in the air, scattering the pages all over the room and said: "Now
I’m gonna tell you all the story." And he proceeded to act
out the entire story of Easy Rider for us. When he was done, I
took a deep breath and said when do we start. I could barely contain
my excitement, I was so eager to get out there and make another
MM: Which changed American filmmaking forever.
LK: Yes, I think you’re right. And the thing
about Easy Rider was that most people thought we all just got lucky
shooting in a haphazard way, but it was totally planned out. It
may have seemed wild and experimental, but Dennis and Peter (Fonda)
were scrupulous in their preparation.
MM: I have to ask you about some of your techniques
on that movie, which are now standard MTV-generation stuff-lens
flares in particular.
LK: Well, I had done a lot of non-studio,
low-budget films by then-using natural exteriors and practical
locations, etc.-and I was getting pretty daring. Back then shooting
out on the road was unheard of-we didn’t even need to get permits!
I used a 1968 Chevy convertible as a camera car because the shocks
were so good. We laid a sheet of plywood on the open back, put
the camera, which belonged to my good friend, Vilmos Zsigmond,
on a high hat and hit the road. I was trying to control the flaring
light that was shooting over Dennis and Peter. I was trying to
make them very heroic and larger than life and people saw it and
said: "these guys don’t even know how to protect the lens." But
it was all very intentional and thought out.
MM: 50 years have gone by since you were that
little kid standing on the railroad tracks in Hungary. Can you
point to one thing you’ve learned as a DP that helped you travel
down those tracks better than any other?
LK: Light. For everything we do as human beings
we are affected and defined by light. A cinematographer is a master
of light. We need to think about light, to learn to see it in all
its different moods and approaches. It is absolutely, the most
important tool we have to work with as cinematographers and, I
think, as people, too. It was always the one thing I was so aware
of when I was staring down those railroad tracks as a child and
now years later. The light.
Talk about a killer batting average! With only 10
features to his credit in over 20 years, Caleb Deschanel has chalked
up three Academy Award nominations, and worked with directors as
varied as John Cassa- vetes, Hal Ashby, Randal Kleiser, and Barry
Levinson. Perhaps best known for his ’70s nature classic, The Black
Stallion, Deschanel branched out in the ’80s, directing two features-The
Escape Artist and Crusoe-and television’s Twin Peaks. Though he’s
only done two films with animal protagonists, Deschanel seems able
to capture the non-human soul like no other DP out there, proving
that quality, not quantity, makes the artist.
MM: I’m curious to know what movie you think
really sums up the best cinematography can offer us?
Caleb Deschanel (CD): If I had to pick one,
which really is impossible, I might look toward Storaro’s work
in The Conformist. He was able to marry these extreme ideas visually
with the emotional impact of the story. The photography had this
amazing mystery throughout the film which supported the tribulations
of its characters. That love scene where he’s kissing his girlfriend
and the light is moving along with them is really risky but it
somehow works. Vittorio was willing to take big chances in that
movie and that’s such an important quality for a cinematographer
to have to be successful.
MM: Is that really the one element a DP needs
to make a movie happen? The willingness to take risks?
CD: Well, when I first started out, I really
believed that the DP’s job was to create this perfect reproduction
of reality-totally naturalistic, etc. But I’ve evolved through
the years to understand that you have to take big chances in your
work, as long as those risks are in sync with the drama you’re
MM: Can you cite an example?
CD: If you’re really in tune with your story,
you can get away with some incredibly exaggerated visuals which
actually help to push the momentum of the story forward. A great
example is what we did at the end of The Natural. The lights exploding
in the park may seem totally ridiculous if taken out of context.
I mean, it’s a baseball game-lights do not explode unless there’s
something drastically wrong. But you’ve invested so much in the
story up to that point. And, that explosion is such a great emotional
payoff. He hits the home run and all hell breaks loose.
MM: So, is that shot one of your all-time
CD: No, not really. The problem with singling
out one shot is that it goes against what I believe movies should
do. A film is a sum of its parts and one shot is only as strong
as what has come before it. The Godfather points that out really
well. It’s mostly done in these very straight-on medium shots.
Then you come to the scene where Marlon Brando gets shot. He’s
buying some stuff at a store and he sees these guys coming down
the street after him and he takes off. As he’s running, the film
cuts to this high angle-looking straight down-and that’s when Brando
gets shot. That frame, which is amazing, would not have meant nearly
as much if the whole film hadn’t been done in this eye-level, medium
shot approach. To pick out a single shot in a movie is to deny
that the shot is important because of the style already established.
MM: Cause and effect within the film.
CD: Very much so. A single shot is only as
strong, or weak, as the other shots surrounding it. I think if
you look back at the many famous shots in movie history which people
cite, you’ll find a visual scheme leading up to that one moment.
If there is such a thing as a high priest of light,
then three-time Oscar winner-Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor-Vittorio
Storaro would be a prime candidate for canonization. Virtually
writing the book on the sprawling historical epic, the Italian-born
lenser has experimented ferociously throughout his career with
light and color, yet never lost sight of the human scale. Best
known for his long-time pairing with Bertolucci (The Conformist,
Last Tango in Paris, 1900, La Luna, The Last Em- peror, The Sheltering
Sky, and Little Buddha), Storaro’s romantic sensibilities have
been embraced by American directors like Francis Coppola and Warren
Beatty, as well. Master of the big palette to be sure, but in a
Storaro film, the faces are as memorably etched as the land they
MM: Can you recount some of the imagery that
influenced you when you were a child growing up in Italy?
Vittorio Storaro (VS): We were a very poor
family. My first memories were of my father, who worked as a projectionist,
very much like the film Cinema Paradiso. He would bring home a
35mm projector to show films to us. My brothers and I would paint
the wall in the backyard white and in the evening my father would
open up this magic box for us called cinema. I was probably five
or six years old. I think it may have been a Charlie Chaplin film
that was the first imagery I recall seeing.
MM: Was your father instrumental in helping
you become a cinematographer?
VS: Very much. Because he had such a desire
to be part of the imagery he was screening, he wanted to put me
inside the film, to inspire me to be part of the process rather
than just the projectionist. I remember going to visit him and
each movie was silent, there was no sound in the booth and I never
went inside the theater itself. My father definitely gave me the
tools to study photography. From his desire I began to feel the
attraction to moving issues/29/images.
MM: Can you imagine a life without cinematography?
A career path completely different from the one you took?
|Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), shot
by Vittorio Storaro.
VS: Certainly not when I was younger I
couldn’t. But later in my career, after I had done Last Tango In
Paris, I discovered this desire to go study physics. I was in love
with Einstein’s concept of relativity-it was the greatest poetry
I had ever read. The concept that any matter is contained in energy
and energy in matter shows the power of intuition by one man. At
the time I had a family to support and I realized my path was in
cinematography, not physics. But the instinct was there, nevertheless.
MM: Instinct and intuition are wonderful gifts
VS: Absolutely. We rarely know why we make
the choices we do at any given time. But, the opportunities are
always there and we follow them according to our instinct. Cinema
is fantastic for us. It opens incredible doors of knowledge and
experience. In fact, I have never considered myself a professional,
always an amateur who is learning from experience to experience.
I literally don’t make a distinction between duty and pleasure,
between my free time and my professional life. I am always the
MM: Your career has had many cycles. Can they
all be taken as different semesters in your photographic education?
VS: I think so. Beginning with my only black & white
film, Giovanista, Giovanista, which was directed by Franco Rossi.
I laid down a cinematic fingerprint that was later developed in
every single movie that followed. I didn’t know it at the time,
but I was searching for a balance between opposing elements: light
and dark, woman and man, natural light and artificial light. I
didn’t understand why I couldn’t find the balance, so I separated
everything. I tried to re- spect the differences of all these elements.
But I knew there was a danger in what I was doing. I was enhancing
the conflict between these elements rather than uniting them.
MM: The Conformist, 1900, Last Tango, all
be- long to the period you’re talking about?
VS: Very much. And, Apocalypse Now was the
deepest and most profound separation of elements during this period.
One culture grafted on top of another culture, artificial light
imposed on natural light, artificial color mixed with natural color.
I had the feeling after this movie that I had gone as far as I
could with this research. I took a year off and studied the nature
of light itself. When I returned to filmmaking I made Luna, which
explored color in a symbolic way. Then came One From The Heart,
and I realized I was now in a period which explored the very nature
of light and color upon human behavior.
MM: The Last Emperor was part of this cycle?
VS: Yes. Another 10 years passed and this
time it was a very conscious revelation of what my life was about.
It was something that hit me in the innocence of youth. I had begun
my career exploring light and darkness. I followed that with the
relationship of one color to another. And now, represented best
by the film Little Buddha, was the search to unite all these separations.
MM: A search for balance.
VS: Yes. Exactly. Balance. Like when I was
a child in my father’s projection booth, I perceived the cinema
in silence, as a world of issues/29/images. Later, I discovered that cinema
had to evolve and that it would include words along with the issues/29/images.
Today I really do believe in balance. A perfect movie is balanced
between words, music, and issues/29/images. The meaning of my work, which
I have only just now discovered, is this search for balance. It’s
It’s not an overstatement to say Gordon Willis revolutionized
the way we see movies. Labeled the "Prince of Darkness" for
his fearless use of deep shadow tones (most notably in the first
two Godfather films), the light, or lack of it, in a Gordon Willis
film often exudes a character equal to or greater than many of
the project’s human faces. Enjoying a long and fruitful collaboration
with Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories,
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and
The Purple Rose of Cairo), Willis has stamped much of his work
with the gritty, elegant sensibility of his beloved New York. It’s
amazing to think Paramount execs considered The Godfather too dark
upon first viewing. They just needed to open their eyes.
MM: Tell me what you think is the most important
quality a DP needs to excel at his or her craft?
Gordon Willis (GW): All the decisions I make
about anything I’m doing have to do with relativity; good and evil,
light and dark, big and small. A good example is the scene in Godfather
II where the young Vito Corleone is arriving in America. All the
choices in that sequence were designed relative to that character’s
emotions. A young person, all alone and moving across the world,
arrives in a strange and wondrous new place with no clue as to
what may happen to him. How can that kind of feeling be expressed
with a camera? Whether we use medium shots or close shots, or whatever,
to link up the sequence, the point of departure is always relative
to what the character is feeling. Relativity is everything, in
life and in the movies as well.
|Francis Coppola’s The Godfather II (1974), shot by
MM: Relativity, of course, requires a sensitivity
for nature’s opposite, "opposing yet equal forces" as Einstein
GW: Very much so. And this is a point that
cannot be overstated enough when you’re shooting a movie. Every
choice you make is going to have an effect, an outcome, on the
shot or scene. To be able to understand, and more importantly predict,
what that outcome may be before you ever roll a foot of film past
the lens is a tremendous advantage.
MM: If you had never become a cinematographer,
what career path might you have gone down?
GW: Oh, that’s hard to say. But, I think I
might have been a writer. Over the years I’ve worked with many
writers, and I’ve become impressed by their talent and sheer creative
worth. To be able to express with words all these complicated dynamics
of human relationships-anger, jealousy, love, compassion-just amazes
me. Of course, my work is told visually, and writing is such a
different way to express things and I suppose that’s what attracts
me to writing. The theory of opposites again and relativity.
MM: Do you know what kind of writer you would
GW: I would have been a playwright first,
and then a novelist.
MM: Not a screenwriter?
GW: (laughs) No. They’re brilliant artists
but I’ve seen close up how much they suffer in this business!
MM: Can you name a director, living or dead,
you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?
GW: It would have to be David Lean. His use
of scale, both intimate and epic, was unsurpassed. Not only do
very few directors today dare to work on such a big canvas as Lean
did, and I’m talking emotionally, not necessarily the big, foreign
locations or whatever. But very few directors today, maybe ever,
understood what seemed to come to Lean instinctually: his movies
were this perfect marriage of form and content-the technique never
overwhelmed the story. It only made it better.
MM: Form and content working in harmony.
GW: Absolutely. Like light and darkness, what
appears to be in conflict can sometimes lead to a seamless union
and hold great power on the screen. MM
David Geffner is a screenwriter and freelancer
living in Los Angeles. He has contributed many articles to MovieMaker,
among them the #28 cover story on Spec Scripts and the #22
cover story on Jim Thompson’s Lost Hollywood Years.