When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Seeing Mary Poppins (1964) at Radio City Music Hall with my mom made an impression, probably as much because of the place as the film itself. We had a big family and didn’t get out to movie theaters often, so most of my movie watching was Saturday afternoon TV, The Million Dollar Movie. I saw everything from PT-109 (1963) to Attack of the Mushroom People (a.k.a. Matango, 1963). Actually, I am still freaked out by Attack of the Mushroom People.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
It’s a long list, and it changes often based on what I’ve been watching. All of the usual suspects are there. At this moment, I’m thinking about the unforced naturalism in the work of Robby Müller, NSC, BVK, especially in his films with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. It made a big impression on me when I was in college and had a lot to do with inspiring me to move from still photography to motion pictures.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I’ve been fascinated by photography ever since I can remember. My dad bought me a camera when I was 7, mostly to keep me from messing around with his Kodak Retina Reflex.
Where did you train and/or study?
I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology to study Photo Illustration. At the time, I thought I would be a magazine photographer. I admired the work of Duane Michaels and liked the way he was able to slip between advertising and his own personal work. I hoped to do something like that when I graduated. Instead, I came across the New York indie films of John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee — RIT had a good film society, and Rochester has a great art house, The Little Theater. RIT didn’t offer a major in film at that time, but I was able to take a few courses in basic filmmaking and film history.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Martin Rennalls, Erik Timmerman and Malcolm Spaull were film instructors at RIT. When I was first starting out as an electrician, Denis Maloney, ASC and his gaffer, Tom Trovato, taught me a lot about how to make a feature film. Director Michael Almereyda taught me a lot about the process behind creating compelling frames and expressive camera movement. On the set, I feel like I am mentored every day by the crew and directors I work with; there’s always something new to learn, and most of the people I work with have seen and done more than I have.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The photography in Life magazine, and Realist and Romantic paintings.
How did you get your first break in the business?
My friend Jane hired me to shoot and edit video packages for the Rochester City School District cable-access channel.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
In Nadja, there’s a shot where the vampire, Nadja (Elina Lowensohn), is leading her brother, who’s on a stretcher, through a doorway. Just before she goes through the door, she looks back and has a line. I noticed where Elina did this and had the idea to set a flag so that as she moved forward and looked back, her face disappeared into shadow. It was a chilling effect.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
I’ve made too many to remember, most involving me saying something I shouldn’t have said rather than anything technical.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From Tim Beiber: ‘Show up early, don’t sit down, and act like you give a shit.’ It’s easy to remember and has far-reaching implications.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I thought Let the Right One In was amazing in terms of creating a frightening atmosphere without obtrusive special effects. I really appreciated the simple, controlled directing and photography.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I think Attack of the Mushroom People is due for a remake.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would probably be some sort of engineer, automotive or aeronautical, or I might own a bike shop. I am fascinated by machines.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Sol Negrin, Owen Roizman and Nancy Schreiber.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It’s a little early to tell because I’ve been pretty busy since I got in last August. When I meet another ASC member for the first time at an event, it gives us another thing in common, which helps break the ice. I’m still waiting to learn the secret handshake, though ….