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Nine
Presidents Desk
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In this industry, we are constantly asked about the best (and worst) projects we’ve worked on. Usually, the best is the most artistically satisfying. The worst tends to center around a bad relationship with someone on a production.

I have a best project. It wasn’t an especially great piece of cinematography; it wasn’t a groundbreaking script; it didn’t have hugely famous actors or an exotic location. But it remains the best experience in my career as a cinematographer.

In the summer of 2000, I got a call from a producer with whom I had done a few feature films in the past. She had a $750,000 project that would be shot in Vega, Texas, a town of 800 people. It was called What Matters Most, and it appeared to be a fairly conventional Romeo-and-Juliet-type love story about a rich boy and a poor girl who fall in love despite their parents’ objections. Salaries for everyone involved would be rather low, and the closest accommodations to the filming location had only one telephone — outside by the motel office.

I had already agreed to shoot another film before I got this call, so it was easy to say no. The producer pleaded with me to meet with Jane Cusumano, the writer/director, and at least talk about the project. I met with Jane later that same day. She explained that the film was a labor of love for her entire family; her daughter, Polly, would be the star, and her husband, Jim, would be the executive producer. Jim had liquidated a couple of his companies to get the money, and they would start shooting in three weeks. As the line producer had been hired just two days earlier, this seemed like quite a short amount of prep for a film shooting on a remote location.

Jane went on to explain that she had advanced breast cancer. She was undergoing chemotherapy, but her condition was worsening, and it was estimated that she only had several more months to live. What Matters Most was the legacy of love and hope that she wanted to leave her family. She needed a cinematographer who would be comfortable taking the reins and guiding the production on days when she was disoriented from treatment, a cinematographer who would be tolerant of the fact that she would not be able to understand even simple things on some days. And she needed someone to protect her vision of the film. Jane said the producer had told her I was the right person, and she had no intention of disputing that opinion, nor did she have the time to start looking at a hundred reels.

That night, I did what I never do: I backed out of a job I had committed to. The next morning, I got on a plane to Texas.

What Matters Most was the biggest thing to hit Vega, Texas, since the opening of Route 66. The entire town turned out to watch us shoot. For the Cusumano family, production was a mix of professionalism and a visit to Disneyland. One day, Jane asked me if Jim could have a ride on the crane because he had always wanted to see what it was like. We gave him a seat and boomed him up over a massive field of cows, and he snapped pictures like a happy kid.

Jane and I had a wonderful collaboration. It wasn’t always easy. At times I could sense her frustration when she didn’t comprehend what I was saying, even though I would repeat it slowly and simply. But she always focused on my every word, and she had great, creative ideas for the film. On her chemotherapy days, the assistant director and I would schedule fewer scenes so that Jane would miss as little of the experience as possible.

I gave my color-timing notes for the answer print just before I left to shoot a movie in Morocco. A week later, I got a call from Jim saying that Jane had passed away three days after seeing the final answer print. He said she laughed at the humorous scenes and gazed in wonder at the sweeping shots of the Texas landscape at sunrise. And she was so proud of her daughter’s performance. When the film was over, she told Jim, “Tell Michael ‘thank you.’”

A happy holiday season to you and yours, and may the coming year be filled with many of your own best experiences.

 

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