When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The Night of the Hunter (1955), which I saw when I was about 12.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Néstor Almendros [ASC] was, to me, a master; his work in Nouvelle Vague films taught me how to approach independent projects. David Watkin [BSC] marked a sea change in lighting; he was a master of the use of bounced light. Conrad Hall [ASC] gave us memorable films such as Road to Perdition in his later years. Janusz Kaminski, for his incomparable cinematography in Schindler’s List. Emmanuel Lubezki [ASC, AMC] is a very important reference for me today for his concept of lighting in The Tree of Life and Children of Men.
What sparked your interest in photography?
My older brother was an industrial photographer, and he awoke in me my vocation. I was helping him in the lab and studio by the time I was 13. (I still remember the smell of the chemicals on my hands.) From that time on, everything in my youth had the same destiny: photography.
Where did you train and/or study?
I studied at a cinematography school in Madrid that was closely connected to the Spanish film industry. The entrance examination was very difficult, and very few students were admitted; there were only nine students in the ‘cinematographer’ department. We shot on 35mm film and shared our work with the other departments.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Unfortunately, I have almost always worked alone. Once I had an opportunity to work with the great Spanish cinematographer Luis Cuadrado, and it was a very good experience.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
I love Spanish classical painting — Velazquez, Goya and José de Ribera — and Museo Nacional del Prado continues to be a school for me. I remember the first time I saw Ribera’s The Piety. I was impressed by the color, the composition and especially the naturalistic tone of light; it’s an icon for me. I also use photography books and magazines as references, and I often look to the great still photographers: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, J. Sieff and Peter Lindbergh. Finally, I am a curious observer and always have a camera in my hands. I love the architecture of large and small cities, and, of course, the light in different places and situations.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I worked as the cinematographer and producer on a very small movie, The Death of Mikel, in Spain in 1983. It was a box-office success, which allowed us to make more movies that then led us to ruin.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Overseeing the premiere screening of Beltenebros, an almost black-and-white movie I shot, in 1993. When I saw my images on that big screen, I felt that all my effort and dedication had made sense. My life as a cinematographer had been the best choice.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
No memorable blunders, but my first movie was a traumatic job filled with a lot of doubts.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t remember ever receiving advice about my work from anyone except my gaffers, who advised me not to be so impatient. However, I once received this general advice: ‘A movie is like the Tour de France: It’s not necessary to win all the stages. It’s more important to resolve the worst situations, maintain the consistency, and then arrive in Paris as the winner.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
On my latest movie, the photographs of Gregory Crewdson were a source of inspiration.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I have worked in many different genres, but my favorites are thrillers and stories about real life. I also have unfulfilled dreams about pirate movies, which fascinated me as a child, and Westerns.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would be a still photographer or an editor of photography books. I was also tempted to produce movies.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Steven Poster, Julio Macat and Rodrigo Prieto.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It is a very great honor, the realization of a dream.