A cinematographer’s place is behind the camera.
But the tables were turned on DP Thomas Ackerman when he signed
on to shoot The Battle of Shaker Heights, the latest offering
from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore’s Project Greenlight
competition. Here, the acclaimed 20-year Hollywood veteran of such
films as Beetlejuice, Jumanji and The Muse speaks
with MM about having the cameras turned on him in “Project
Jennifer Wood (MM): Your filmography is
comprised of a really eclectic mix of films-what is it that initially
attracts you to a project?
Thomas Ackerman (TA): It’s true that my filmography
is a pretty eclectic. I’m proud of that. In fact, it’s really all
part of the exploration that I think is the basis of photography.
It’s not a “dial-it-in” business. It’s important to mix things up
and see where it leads. I can think of occasions where I had a choice
of two things and took the project with more dubious prospects.
One was Beetlejuice. At the same time I was offered a nice,
safe backlot comedy, which with its cast and script seemed more
promising from a box office point of view. Beetlejuice didn’t
even have a lead actor when I started prep, and I doubt that some
of the people under consideration would have created the character
in the way Michael Keaton did. Plus, it had a smaller paycheck.
What it had was the vision of Tim Burton, for whom I’d previously
shot Frankenweenie at Disney. I was more than willing to
follow his lead. I had no doubt that wherever the trip went, Tim
would make it worthwhile.
What convinces me to do a movie is absolutely the
quality of the effort: the script, the director, the whole premise.
Even though the images are wonderful, if they’re supporting compromise
and mediocrity, it’s all for naught. Not that we as photographers,
or anybody in the business, for that matter, have any way of knowing.
That science is elusive. Nobody knows in advance if a film is going
to work or not. And in fact I’ve done a few films that fell way
short of the mark. The other side of that coin is that once any
of us signs onto a project, the best thing is to put any reservations
completely out of the picture. When you agree, as far as I’m concerned,
it’s total advocacy. You put everything into the success of that
film. No looking back.
MM: You seem to gravitate toward comedy-is
this an intentional avenue on your part? Do you find that comedy
lends to a different look-or rhythm-as far as your job as cinematographer
TA: It’s true that I’ve done lots of comedies.
And it’s true, as you suggest, that this is at least partially intentional.
However, I’m not sure that my approach to shooting comedy is in
any way traditional or fits the stereotypes people often have in
mind about the genre.
First, I totally reject the idea that comedy should
be “bright” or “flat” or “like a comic book,” all of which are concepts
that come up from time to time when I have a meeting on a new project.
I’ve always tried to look at the mood of each scene in the script,
following the director’s lead as to the tone and substance of what’s
happening at that particular moment, and then light it accordingly.
Guess what? Comedies have dark scenes. There are scary moments.
There’s romance. There are characters in dark caves telling secrets
(I’m thinking of the nice scene between James Coburn and Cuba Gooding,
Jr in Snow Dogs). So in the “light and bright” strategy I
guess we would just ring the set with maxi-brutes and do some flame-throwing.
Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to shoot with quite a few directors
who have extremely good taste and are supportive of strong photography.
They’re not very interested in programming to the lowest common
MM: How did you get involved with The
Battle of Shaker Heights?
TA: The Battle of Shaker Heights began
with a call from Melanie Ramsayer and Erin Searcy at the Gersh Agency.
I had just finished another project and they asked if I wanted to
read the script. Before we got too far into our conversation Erin
asked if I would have any problem with the “Project Greenlight”
MM: Had you watched the first season of
TA: Frankly, I hadn’t seen “PGL” in its first
season because I was busy shooting Dickie Roberts. However,
I’d heard that the depiction of the filmmaking process was less
than flattering. In any case, the script sounded intriguing. I decided
to read it, meet with the directors and defer the other issues until
I had the chance to review the “Project Greenlight” show from last
It turned out that I loved the screenplay and was
impressed with Kyle and Efram. Although it was their feature debut,
their shorts showed impressive skills and, better yet, a pretty
well-defined personal style. It wasn’t just going through the motions
of filmmaking. There was a real point of view, which is an important
consideration for a cinematographer.
MM: Were you wary of signing on for the
job, knowing that you wouldn’t be the only one with a camera on-set-that
you would be followed by cameras throughout the process?
TA: Of course I had to revisit the notion of
being on TV. The crew was also a bit wary of that aspect, some more
than others. My screening of last year’s “PGL” boxed set didn’t
help. I felt my stomach tighten as a variety of production missteps
played out, and I could see why “Project Greenlight” attracted such
a loyal (in some cases fanatical) following on HBO. There’s an audience
out there who love to watch people screw up and get voted off the
island. There was one particularly important phone call during which
that concern was put to rest. I was on the speakerphone with Chris
Moore and Jeff Balis and basically just put it on the table. I told
them I was completely stoked about doing the film, working with
them, Efram and Kyle and Miramax. But I couldn’t go forward until
I knew more about the “Project Greenlight” series.
I didn’t want to be reality show cannon fodder, nor
did the crew. Although they pointed out that they couldn’t speak
for the HBO producers, a separate entity, they were clear that “Project
Greenlight” would be undertaken exactly as conceived by Live Planet.
It would be an opportunity for the directors to do their first feature
film in an atmosphere of encouragement and support. This was the
charter. Obviously we would all be under scrutiny, but it was not
supposed to be a hostile process. “Project Greenlight” was essentially
a documentary that would go deeper into the process than the puffery
of a typical “making of” show.
It’s obvious that nobody pays for a 12-part TV series
that lacks conflict. However, I thought there was plenty of story
material in the making of any film, especially one shot in 22 days.
As far as I was concerned this was fair game. It would be up to
the crew to rise to the occasion as they had always done in the
past, HBO or no HBO.
My hope is that the editorial process will be fair
and balanced. At this point I’ve only seen the first week’s show
and don’t have a clue on the episodes to come. What I can tell you
is that the shoot ended on time and on budget. There were lots of
things that didn’t go as planned, as with any production. There
were a few differences of opinion, locations that were problematic,
shots that had to be done at “tragic hour” because the sun went
down. But every day was made and I’m very proud of the work we did
MM: You were never wary of the fact that
you’d be working for first-time moviemakers?
TA: I can recall a few moments when something
maybe took a little longer to do, just because they hadn’t done
a particular thing before, but to me that’s kind of a normal part
of the process. I learn something on every new project. Nobody corners
the market. The fact was that both directors came prepared, they
knew what they wanted to achieve in the day’s work and when they
came to uncertain ground they were fast learners. Because of the
extreme power of present technology out there, which takes filmmaking
right into the hands of millions of people, I think we will see
more newcomers who are very sophisticated as they come to the set
for the first time. Ultimately it’s not the tools, of course, but
whether someone has a good idea.
MM: How did you feel about working with
a directing team?
TA: I admit to being a bit nervous about the
prospect. I had heard some fairly nightmarish stories about shooting
for a pair of directors, but in this case it worked beautifully.
There was no dysfunction. If one made a decision, the other backed
it up. Whatever differences of opinion there were between them,
not one ever made it to the set. Plus we had some very nice bonus
features: if a splinter unit had to be sent out to pick up something
we didn’t send out the second AD.
MM: What was the biggest challenge you faced
on The Battle of Shaker Heights?
TA: Unquestionably, the biggest challenge was
shooting a feature movie in 22 days, with the budget constraints
that complicated almost every part of the landscape. Had it not
been for the generous support of Panavision, Kodak, Leonetti Cine-rentals
and Foto-Kem labs, our resources would have been seriously compromised.
But our producers saw to it that every dollar went onto the screen,
while offering the cast and crew the creature comforts that keeps
everybody in good spirits and ready to smite whatever obstacles
get in the way. It was an incredibly fine-tuned shooting schedule
that had no fat. The directors knew they had to make their days.
There was no coming back.
Aesthetically, there was an odd sense of liberation.
I knew we had our limits, but it was almost a relief. When there’s
a huge mountain of equipment at your disposal, there’s a natural
tendency to figure out ways to use it. On BOSH we basically
did a lot with much less. There were some scenes in which I would
screen dailies and think, “I’m glad I had to do this master shot
in 20 minutes. More time to light might have wrecked it.” There
were days with five or six pages of script to shoot, not just walk-and-talk
corridor scenes but different scenes and locations, each with its
own mood and lighting scheme. If the movie had been scheduled for
60 days instead of 22, we would have had the obligation of one-third
that much work. It’s mathematics. Of course we know that work can
expand to fill the time available. Still, I think the 22-day film
is not something you want to make a habit. The time, money and energy
level of this shoot exactly fit the assignment: How to put two new
directors into the pressure cooker where there aren’t easy solutions.