When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Dr. Strangelove (1964). What a delicious roundhouse punch! That film set me free.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Owen Roizman, ASC; Gordon Willis, ASC; Conrad Hall, ASC; Slawomir Idziak, PSC; Gregg Toland, ASC; Caleb Deschanel, ASC; Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; Michael Chapman, ASC; Robert Surtees, ASC; and Peter James, ASC, ACS. They’ve given us The French Connection, Klute, In Cold Blood, Three Colors: Blue, The Best Years of Our Lives, Being There, Driving Miss Daisy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show, Network, The Paper Chase, Road to Perdition, Blackhawk Down, Black Robe, The Last Detail, Citizen Kane, The Right Stuff, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The Graduate, Three Days of the Condor, The Godfather, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Gattaca, The Grapes of Wrath, Deliverance, Absence of Malice and Taxi Driver.
What sparked your interest in photography?
As an Army brat in Paris, I happened across the set of Is Paris Burning? The French crew let me hang around. I skipped elementary school and took a bus to get there. I got to see Marcel Grignon in action; I saw big lights and equipment move around and began to learn why; I could ponder the choice to shoot black-and-white. Standing in the rain and feeling the struggle … the images have never left me.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Tout Va Bien co-director (with Godard) Jean-Pierre Gorin, who was teaching at UC-San Diego, opened up the French New Wave for me from the inside. Manny Farber was publishing essays on Fassbinder. I was hooked. I called my folks to tell them I wanted to study film.
Where did you train and/or study?
At UCLA, Ed Brokaw told me not to listen to the word ‘no.’ He and Bill Adams were about as seditious as professors could get, and I’ll always love and admire them for it. Crewing on student films got me onto paid crews after graduation, and that’s where I learned the most.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
I’m fascinated by architecture, mainly the thinking that goes into design. Why did the Minoans build what they did? Cinematography seems to be physical and emotional architecture on the move.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I was totally happy as an operator when director Charles Haid told me it was time for me to shoot. I told him he was making a big mistake. He hired me to shoot the TV series Buddy Faro anyway.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Locking eyes with Robert Duvall after he’d given the pivotal performance in Get Low. We both knew he’d done it. He wanted to know if we had done it. We had.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
As a focus puller, I once put a 1,000-foot load through base-side out. The actors, who’d had to wear chunky peanut butter in their hair, had to do it all over again the next day. They hated me.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Michael Chapman told me that if I didn’t want to shoot a project, I should just double my rate — that way I could be happy doing it. I’ve never tried it, but he made me laugh.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The book Man With a Camera by Nestor Almendros, ASC, the heavyweight anamorphic films of the 1970s and the film Animal Kingdom.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I most admire the work that doesn’t fit well into any category.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’d be a crop duster living in some beautiful place, or writing novels in Portugal and drinking thick red wine.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Owen Roizman, Aaron Schneider, Bing Sokolsky and James Glennon.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It’s humbling to realize half the membership has forgotten more than I know. It feels great to share a good laugh with the only people around who get it. Mostly it commits me to clearing a path for the cinematographers coming up and being a good ambassador along the way.