When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
When I was quite young, my older brother and sister took me to see Lawrence of Arabia. Although I couldn’t formulate its impact at the time, in retrospect I know I was struck and emotionally moved by the glorious visuals, the vastness of the landscapes, the powerful compositions. The same thing happened to me a few years later with Dr. Zhivago, another David Lean epic shot by Freddie Young, BSC.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
In the past I was most struck by Sven Nykvist, ASC’s work with Ingmar Bergman and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci. There are countless American cinematographers who continue to inspire me. Internationally, the visual artistry of Eduardo Serra, ASC, AFC and Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC has stayed with me.
What sparked your interest in photography?
It began with an exposure to art in my household. My mother was a docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts and, later, an occasional art dealer. My dad photographed the family in 8mm and even in 16mm. He died when I was young. Years later, when I was already shooting, I found a photograph of my mom and dad where he was holding a small Bell & Howell camera. My fate was sealed without my knowing it!
Where did you train and/or study?
I had little formal training in film. I took a few photography classes while getting degrees in psychology and the history of art at the University of Michigan. I also ran the film society’s theater in Ann Arbor. I saw a different foreign film there every night; that became my education. When I moved to New York, I took a two-month filmmaking course taught by Jim Pasternak. I think I really caught the film bug from him. I knew I would never practice psychology, except maybe on the set!
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
After I was accepted into the New York union, gaffer Bobby V. [Vercruse] never hesitated to hire me in the electric department on rather large commercials and movies. He also supported my weekend-shooting aspirations by giving me gear from his company, Filmtrucks. I also gaffed for director/cinematographer Mark Obenhaus and his partner, cinematographer Arthur Albert. They loaned me their Eclair NPR so I could shoot my small films, and they were totally supportive of my move from electric to camera.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Matisse and Henry Moore. Fellini, Truffaut (and, in fact, the entire Nouvelle Vague movement), De Sica, Bergman, Lang, Kieslowski and Eisenstein. Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I’ve also been influenced by Asian art and landscape architecture, the Bauhaus movement, and every kind of music.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I answered an ad in the Village Voice to be a PA on a film. The crew was so small that I ended up in the electric department, where my journey to understand and create ‘emotional light’ began. That journey continues to this day.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
One of them was HBO’s Amnesty International world tour, where I got to watch Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel perform through my lens almost every day for five weeks.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
It was probably accepting a job to shoot a movie for a director who eventually became known for his ‘little black book’ and prostitution ring. I was so naïve, I had no idea what to make of those model types in designer clothes who were hanging out at his condo while we were shot-listing. He treated me miserably on the set.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Never take rejection personally if you don’t get a job. There are so many cinematographers vying for so few jobs, and there are many forces at work that have nothing to do with one’s talent.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Photographs by Gregory Crewdson, Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz; documentaries on social issues; the books The Secret Life of Bees, The City of Fallen Angels, and The Power of Now; and the cinematography of each and every film nominated for ASC and Academy awards this past year. They were all inspiring — so exquisite, masterful and varied.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I would like to shoot a widescreen period Western or any historical script based on real events. Actually, my very first feature as a director of photography was a Western about Belle Star filmed in Arkansas, but we were painfully low-budget and hardly anamorphic.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I can’t imagine not being a director of photography. But it might have been fun to be an architect or interior designer, or maybe a chef, since I love to cook. Then again, I’d be a terrific personal shopper. I’m a great bargain hunter: Loehmann’s meets Barneys.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
John Alonzo, Adam Holender, Steven Poster, Robert Primes and Sandi Sissel.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It has allowed me to become acquainted with so many of my heroes. I’ve developed lifelong friendships with other cinematographers who are as passionate as I am about our art and craft. Among ASC members there is a generosity of spirit and an openness to sharing information, as well as great support for the next generation of cinematographers. It is definitely family.