Despite his best efforts to escape his moviemaking genes, cinematographer Donald M. Morgan landed behind the camera with an inherent gift of vision. “When I was a kid, I used to watch western movies on television,” he says. “I decided that I wanted to be a rodeo cowboy. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I met a cowboy who helped me to get started. After trying that, I decided to become a famous racecar driver instead. I got into some pretty terrible wrecks.” Fortunately for Morgan, the influence of his parents—his mother worked as a stand-in and extra and his father was a cameraman—came into play, guiding him to a less dangerous life but one which is no less thrilling.
In a career spanning more than 30 years, Morgan has worked with Robert Zemeckis, John Carpenter, Roger Young and Joseph Sargent, among others, pulling in six award nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers and nine from the Emmy Awards along the way, all the while maintaining a moxie that pushes the boundaries of his art form.
Morgan spoke with MM recently about taking risks and the importance of staying true to a director’s vision.
Bob Fisher (MM): What was your first narrative film?
Donald Morgan (DM): During the late 1960s I was one of about 100 people who invested $100 each in making a film. They included drivers, grips, electricians and anybody else who had $100 to invest. Win, Place and Steal was a true story about some people who stole a pari-mutuel ticket machine from Santa Anita, and started making their own winning tickets. We hired a writer, held a meeting and voted on a director and cinematographer. I was their choice and shot the film, starring Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell and Alex Karras.
MM: What do you recall about shooting your first Hollywood film?
DM: It was probably the most exciting picture I’ve ever been on in my life, partially because Gordon Willis was shooting Godfather II on the stage next door and Conrad Hall was on another stage shooting The Day of the Locust. Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York barely cost $1 million. After that I did a movie with Sidney Poitier, Let’s Do It Again. I shot a second film, A Piece of the Action, for him a few years later.
MM: It sounds like you werepretty much a self-taught cinematographer?
DM: I didn’t learn much about lighting by hanging out of a helicopter. Once I saw an ad on television for a book of 100 famous paintings for $13. Rembrandt was probably the only name I recognized, but I would go to sleep at night looking at that book and thinking ‘I can copy this.’ Soon afterwards, I did a 13-day movie of the week called Panache. The director said he wanted every frame to look like Rembrandt painted it.
MM: Didn’t you also do some early films with Robert Zemeckis?
DM: I did his first movie in 1978, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. He had been on the lot at the studio and watched me shoot Sheila Levine. He gave me the script and said that “This isn’t an interview. You’re hired if you want to do this film.” Steven Spielberg was the producer. I also shot Used Cars with them in 1980.
MM: You earned your first Emmy nomination in 1979 for Elvis.
DM: That was my first film with John Carpenter directing. I had a little history with Elvis Presley: I worked on a 1968 Elvis movie called Stay Away Joe and met him then. Kurt Russell played Elvis. It was a great experience because Kurt was Elvis. We shot part of it in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry. We also shot at a home where Elvis actually lived in California. It had black walls with silver lightning streaks on them. It was pretty gaudy, but it was a lot of fun. I credit John Carpenter with giving me a lot freedom to experiment. He had no hard and fast rules. Our second film, Christine, was a really scary story. You couldn’t pick two more different movies.
MM: You’ve shot 10 films with Joseph Sargent. How did you two hook up?
DM: I was shooting a picture called Skatetown, U.S.A. in Hollywood in 1979. We were filming at the Palladium when I got a call from a producer who was working on a TV film called Amber Waves. He asked if I would like to shoot a beautiful film about wheat farmers. He explained that Joe Sargent wanted me because he liked what he saw on Serpico. I never met Joe until I arrived at the location. I think that took a lot of guts on his part. The first thing he said to me was that making any movie involves taking risks, and that he hadn’t been taking enough. Then he said, “You tell me what light you want to shoot in, I’ll direct, and we will have a good time working together.”
MM: You had an interesting film called Walkout on HBO last year.
DM: It was based on a true story about students who walked out of inner city schools in Los Angeles to protest conditions during the late 1960s. It was produced by Moctesuma Esparza, who was one of the 13 students arrested during that protest. The director was Edward James Olmos. Eddie told me during our first discussion that we were going to shoot Walkout in Super 16 format in the schools and on the streets where the story happened in reality some 40 years ago. It was my first 16mm film in some 25 to 30 years; that was mainly a financial decision. I was really proud to be part of that project, but the sad thing is that conditions haven’t gotten better. I think that’s why Eddie wanted to do this film.
MM: After that, you did another Super 16 television movie called Sybil. It’s a remake of the classic 1976 television movie about a woman with a severe multiple personality disorder and is scheduled to air initially on CBS this spring.
DM: It was my tenth film with Joe Sargent. We shot it in Super 16 as a concession to a modest budget. In our first meeting, Joe said this is a film where “you have got to pull out all of the stops. Let’s go for it and make it look as moody as the story.” There were times when people at the networks worried about films being too dark or too moody, but I think those days are long gone. The fact that we shot Sybil in Super 16 didn’t affect how Joe directed, how I lit or anything else.
MM: I’m guessing that you frequently get questions fromyoung cinematographers about the secrets of your success. How do you answer?
DM: It’s simple. I tell them that it doesn’t matter whether they’re shooting a hair commercial, a television drama or a big feature film, they always have to do their best to get inside the director’s mind, figure out the moods that he or she wants and then make it happen on film. I also tell them that no one makes a great—or even a good—film alone. Everyone has to play a role, including the production and costume designers, and everyone on your crew. Laszlo Kovacs said it best: He said if you think you are making a movie by yourself, go on the stage some Sunday night and say “Roll it,” and see what happens when no one else is there.
MM: We know that this is an unfair question, but will ask it anyhow: Do you have a personal favorite among your many great films?
DM: People ask me that all the time. I don’t think I’ve made my best film yet.