Phil Parmet
Phil Parmet

Sure, a cinematographer may tell you that he or she can shoot “any style,” but Phil Parmet doesn’t believe it for a second. The 30-year veteran, who got his start working on docs like Harlan County, U.S.A. and The Song Remains the Same, says that as much as one may initially attempt to diversify, most professionals inevitably wind up working with like-minded individuals. Perhaps this explains his re-teaming with actor-director Steve Buscemi on his third feature, Lonesome Jim (with Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler).

Part of the InDigEnt slate of films, which dictate a low-budget and use of a Mini-DV camera, the film premiered to much acclaim at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Here, Parmet speaks with MM about collaborating with Buscemi, the benefits of digital and working the InDigEnt way.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Was Lonesome Jim set up as an InDigEnt project from the very beginning?

Phil Parmet (PP): Originally, Lonesome Jim was set up at a studio and had a fairly substantial budget. At the eleventh hour, with the film already cast and scheduled, the studio pulled the plug. At that point InDigEnt Films offered to produce the project, no questions asked—albeit with a much reduced budget and a seriously abbreviated shooting schedule.

MM: Which DV cameras had you used before? Had you ever shot a feature with one?

PP: I did a short film and several TV commercials in HD 24p with the Sony 900 camera. I’ve used the prosumer Sony PD-150 on several long-form documentaries and a theatrical feature film, 13 Moon, for director Alex Rockwell. This past year I did two features, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm for Bill Greaves and Lonesome Jim for Steve Buscemi. Both were shot with the Panasonic AG-DVX100A and both were at Sundance.

MM: Was the AG-DVX100A the only camera you considered for this shoot?

PP: InDigEnt only does features films in the Mini-DV format and pretty much indicated what camera they wanted me to use. They had utilized the DVX100 in the 24p mode on several projects, including November, a feature which won the Cinematography Prize at Sundance last year. I requested that they get us the new model of the camera, the 100A that had a few more bells and whistles.

MM: What sort of research did you do on the camera beforehand? Did you speak with other DPs, etc. regarding their work with this camera?

PP: I believe in learning as much as I can before I pick up a new camera or any new piece of equipment for that matter. I read up on the format online and at discussion groups at a number of Websites, including and I called and talked to several cinematographers who had shot films using this camera and had extensive discussions with the various labs and facilities that InDigEnt was considering for our “film out.”

Steve Buscemi and Phil Parmet
Steve Buscemi and Phil Parmet on the set of Lonesome Jim.

Jan Crittenden at Panasonic, who is quite knowledgeable, was extremely helpful. Although I had a quite brief pre-production period, I shot as many tests as I could using every possible combination of camera setting and lighting situation and sent as many as the production company would allow to film out in 35mm. We were able to screen those film out tests in a local theater near our location a few days before we started to shoot.

MM: Ultimately, what did it come down to in terms of choosing the AG-DVX100A as your final camera for the shoot? What did you see as its

greatest benefits for this movie in particular?

PP: I believe it all came down to the budget. I suspect this film would have never happened had it not been for the availability of this new format and the digital finishing tools that are currently accessible at affordable prices.

MM: When you first read the script for Lonesome Jim, what were the things that immediately jumped out at you in terms of what you might want to do, visually? Were there certain moods, locations, etc. that you had immediate ideas on how you wanted them to look?

PP: In the very brief period of pre-production with Steve, there was a lot of talk about mood and feeling. We both like bringing to the discussion references of all sorts—films, stills, painting, music, whatever.

I believe that the look of a film isn’t something you cut out of whole cloth; rather it is something that evolves organically out of the process, the story, the actors, the locations and the natural light (in this case the winter sky and the slate gray northern light).

MM:  I read that one of the things you were most interested in doing was getting a “flat image,” to represent the film’s Midwestern setting.

PP: When I read the script for Lonesome Jim, I was reminded of a group of Midwestern artists of the early 20th century represented by the likes of Grant Wood and Thomas Heart Benton. Rather than referencing some formalistic artistic ideas, their impulses were to look hard at the reality that was America at that time. Their works always had a subtle ironic point of view.

I also thought about the black and white photographs of Walker Evans, who recorded the human condition in rural America with precision, clarity and great compassion. I believe some of those references ultimately seeped into Lonesome Jim. Steve mentioned John Huston’s Fat City, photographed by the great Conrad Hall, and I immediately understood what he was going for with Lonesome Jim.

MM: I spoke with Steve Buscemi a while back, who confessed that when it comes to the technical aspect of moviemaking, he has an easier time explaining what he doesn’t want something to look like. So what didn’t he want for Lonesome Jim?

PP: After having shot three films for Steve, I think I understand what he likes. Even though cinematographers like to claim they can shoot any style, I think you end up working with people whose tastes are similar to your own. I think we both go for realistic photography—photography that enhances the actors’ performances and counterpoints the story, definitely not flashy.

MM:  Were there certain aspects of this story (i.e. its “character” nature) that lent themselves better to the digital experience—both in terms of shooting and viewing the films? Do you agree with the general assessment that certain “types” of films are better suited to this medium?

PP: I think right now the dollar factor is the biggest reason for shooting a feature on Mini-DV. The upside is you can work faster in smaller spaces with less crew on a smaller budget. But to make something look good, you still have to take care and time.

The two features I shot on Mini-DV probably never would have been done without it, so that in itself justifies its use. I can imagine that there might be other reasons for shooting Mini-DV, like keeping a low profile or trying to create the feeling of “instant video reality.” The downside is that the resolution, dynamic range and color rendition are still quite inferior, so then there is the question of archival preservation. Have you ever had a hard disk crash?

MM: Do you have any plans to shoot another digital feature?

PP: No immediate plans, but if the right project came along, sure. The medium is getting better by leaps and bounds and I can’t wait to see what those techies come up with next.

MM: What’s up next for you?

PP: Next for me is a documentary-style series to be shot with the DVX100A in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I think very differently about docs and DV. Call me crazy, but I love it.