When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). At 16, I worked as an usher at the Beverly Hills theater where it played in 70mm for nine months, and I was reminded every day of the power and scope of movies. I knew every image and all the music cues, and I could recite every line. More importantly, it changed the way I regarded film, because I never tired of watching it. That had never happened before.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
Freddie Young, ASC, BSC, who turned me around and made me see how images could transport you to a completely different world. John Alonzo, ASC, for his work on Chinatown — his handheld work and the polished gloss of L.A. Conrad Hall, ASC, for his brilliant and innovative vision on Searching for Bobby Fischer; his use of light, long lenses and color made the world of chess appear utterly magical.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Blind luck. On my first job in the business, I was told to carry camera cases and help the camera assistant. I spent three months doing everything that was asked of me, and before I finished, I fell in love with the camera. I hadn’t taken so much as a Polaroid before, but suddenly I was fascinated by cinematography. My life changed in a matter of months. I got a Nikon F2 and took as many pictures as I could afford.
Where did you train and/or study?
All of my film education was on the job. I graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles with a degree in political science but didn’t pay attention to film until that first job, three years after I graduated. I took two film classes, but they weren’t very interesting.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
As a camera assistant, I worked steadily for five years with a commercial director/cameraman named Melvin Sokolsky. I watched him and learned how to conceptualize a project. I also watched and learned about lighting. I also worked for years as an assistant in the camera departments at Universal and Warner Bros. I worked with [ASC members] Matt Leonetti, Joe Biroc and John Alonzo, and with Ray Villalobos.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
I love photojournalism, especially Robert Capa, Sebastiao Salgado, and Tyler Hicks of the New York Times. I also love paintings and prints by Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford, Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand.
How did you get your first break in the business?
After working as a social worker and a waiter, I went back to school to study psychology. Out of boredom, I got a job on a low-budget project in San Diego — my father knew someone who knew someone who wanted to make a movie. I was hired as a gofer. I never looked back.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Finding the center of the scene I am shooting and making sense of it. Cinematographers are storytellers, and we are always searching to make an idea into an image.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
On the first job I got as a union assistant, I white-lighted 1000' of film on the first day of prep. I thought it was the end of the world.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I’m not sure it’s the best advice, but when I first began working as a camera assistant, Joe Ruttenberg, ASC lived next door. He took me into his house one day and showed me his two Academy Awards and told me to become an editor, because they had more control of his art than he did. It didn’t deter me, but it made me aware that I wasn’t in complete control of the finished product. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I read a lot of mysteries and enjoy Ken Bruen, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Robert Parker and Richard Russo. I just finished reading all of Ken Haruf’s books, including Plainsong. Movies: I just watched The Lookout and (500) Days of Summer.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I love all kinds of detective stories and would love to shoot more of them. I’m also a huge fan of children’s stories.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Teaching. I love working with students and sharing some of the knowledge I’ve retained over the years.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
John Toll, Robert Primes and Bing Sokolsky.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I consider myself lucky to be in the ASC. It’s a very inclusive group of professionals. It’s a safe place to exchange ideas and thoughts, and we share problems and solutions. People want to be members, and, once admitted, we are open and trusting of each other. It makes me proud to be in the ASC.