Nicolas Cage
Nicolas Cage in Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man (2005). Photo: Paramount Pictures.

I don’t think of myself as a cinematographer or director. I think of myself as a filmmaker. When you’re working on a studio picture, you are an element of this big machine with a function that is much more defined. There are places in Europe where cinematographers are considered the country’s greatest filmmakers, more so than directors. They are considered the true artists. But usually it’s a collaborative effort. I feel like I have a job as the cinematographer, but I’ll still direct if it’s a film I’m interested in.

What we do is a mystery, and that’s a good thing. We’re very fortunate as cinematographers, because everybody thinks they can write; everybody thinks they can direct; everybody thinks they can edit; but nobody assumes that they can do what we do, which is tell the story visually with light and motion. It’s a mystery to them. We still have this mystique about what we do. The producers don’t tell you what to do… which they do with the director and writers. We have been in a unique and fortunate position.

I have this rule where I don’t want to do a feature film unless I would personally pay $10 to see in a movie theater. I’ve been lucky, because I work on movies that I like and I’m in a position to wait for projects that I like.

You know it when you’re lighting a great set with a great wardrobe. When you find yourself struggling with the lighting it’s because something feels wrong… maybe it’s the colors on a wall or a sweater someone is wearing. The better the elements are in the frame, the less work we have to do. Simpler is always better. I typically use as few lights and as little equipment as I can.

I don’t consider myself a technical person. In fact, I barely know where the on/off switch is on the camera. I don’t know anything about gamma curves. I’m just not interested in that. I see what I see and I judge it. I know my tools well enough to achieve the results I need to, and if there is something I don’t know, and I need to know it, I learn it specifically for that picture.

I’d say that 50 to 60 percent of [a DP’s] job is the actual cinematography, and the rest is our ability to communicate. You have to be able to communicate with the director, your crew and the producers. Your personality is a big factor in getting people to want to work with you and for them to achieve their best results. Of course, your actual work is the most important thing, but sometimes in order to be able to achieve that there are a lot factors involved. You have to be able to take a director and inspire them to do things that they wouldn’t usually do… and give them confidence that that’s the right way to tell the story. You’ve got to know how to do that, and that’s where experience comes in.