When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Gone with the Wind (1939). I was 6 or 7, and my parents took me to see it at an old theater in Montclair, N.J. I remember thinking the screen was the size of the sky. I was mesmerized as the film played.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
I’m watching a lot of films shot by Gordon Willis, ASC, as he recently got an honorary Oscar. Stunning artistry, powerful choices, and a consummate professional with one of the best eyes/sensibilities ever. He ruled the 1970s. Robbie Müller, NSC, BVK had a huge effect on me when I was in university, and he still does.
What sparked your interest in photography?
The Polaroid Land Camera. I didn’t grow up with a lot of family pictures or exposure to photography. When I was about 15, my brother bought that camera, and I started taking a lot of Polaroids. I still do, and I’ll continue to do so until there is no more Polaroid film left on the planet.
Where did you train and/or study?
I ended up at the State University of New York-Purchase by default; I couldn’t afford New York University or Columbia University. At the time, there were less than a half-dozen film programs in the country. It turned out great because SUNY-Purchase attracted artists from the New York metropolitan area and a very eclectic group of professors. There was no cinematography major per se. I started shooting everyone’s films in my class because I couldn’t afford to make many on my own. I was motivated, and I got into NABET 15 as a director of photography before I left school. I was kicked out of SUNY for filming a band called the B-52s. At the time, I was working at the school’s equipment room, and my friend Charlie Libin and I had this crazy idea to shoot this band from Georgia at a club in NYC where we bartended. We brought a bunch of film students and gear into the city and had a great night shooting. For most students, that was their first real experience with shooting. A couple of months later, Charlie and I were editing at the school, and we were asked to leave because we never got the proper permissions. Oh, well. No degree.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Deszu Magyar, who taught directing at SUNY for a couple of years and went on to run the American Film Institute. He influenced me as an artist and as a man. He didn’t care about Hollywood or success. He always said, ‘Work hard and don’t look back. Be authentic.’ Apart from a short stint with Ron Fortunato, ASC, I was never mentored by another cinematographer. I’m trying to do it now for others.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The Futurists, the Cubists and all of those outside the box, advancing guard.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I bought two cases of beer, went to Ferco and then to Panavision New York. I made a couple friends, learned to use some cameras and kept my eye on the ball. I knew I had to get into the union. I failed my camera-assistant test at NABET. A month later, I screened my reel at NABET and got in as a director of photography — different group of guys that day! After bouncing between Los Angeles and New York, I went back to New York, walked into the Gersh Agency and screened my reel for Tom Turley. He called me two weeks later and had me working with Jeff Lovinger and Bob Giraldi within a week.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Looking at the check print for Man on Fire.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
One of the first student projects I did was a film requiring multiple exposures. I shot it on regular 16mm, and I didn’t compensate for the total number of exposures. In fact, I didn’t compensate at all. The footage was so overexposed it was unusable — reversal film! I think I have that one down now.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Invest in yourself, and if you’re not willing to risk everything, then don’t bother doing anything.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Book: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. Films: The Conversation, Klute and Dog Day Afternoon. Artwork: Cloud Gate, the bean sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Music: Lou Reed’s Street Hassle.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’m about to shoot a small film with director Malcolm Venville. It’s a very different project for me. I’ve been shying away from bigger action films and trying to move into more dramatic material.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Cutting wood and living in the wilderness. Into the Wild with good food and wine.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Tom Sigel, Daniel Pearl and Jeff Cronenweth.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I’ve always felt pressure to shoot good films, and now I feel it more than ever.