The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation With Jack Green, ASC

September 30, 2008
Where were you born and raised?
Like my grandfather and father, I was born and raised in San Francisco. Two of my children, Peter and Heather, my father and I were all born in the same hospital.

What did your parents do?
My dad and mom were entertainers in the post-vaudeville era that was a precursor to what Las Vegas became. They danced with Donald O’Connor, Ray Bolger and Martha Rae. My dad was also the master of ceremonies. After they retired from performing because they were raising a family, my father became a barber.

That’s an interesting transition. How did that happen?

My grandfather was a barber. My father went to work cutting hair in his shop.

What were your boyhood ambitions?
I went to barber college when I was around 15 years old and was cutting hair before I was 17. That wasn’t an ambition. It was expected of me.

Were you interested in movies or photography?
My dad’s hobby was still photography. He used to take pictures, and develop and print his own photographs using a home-made contact printer in a makeshift darkroom in a bathroom in our house. My dad gave me a camera when I was 9 years old. I remember the first time that I made a print from a negative that I had developed myself. I became totally hooked on photography when I watched the images on the negative become prints.

What kind of photography did you do?

For the most part, I took pictures of my family and friends around the backyard and in the school yard. I had business cards printed that said ‘Jack Green, photographer.’ I had visions of working as a still photographer on the days when I wasn’t cutting hair.

How did you make a transition into cinematography?
Joe Dieves was one of my regular customers. He was a former U.S. Army combat cameraman who filmed troops landing on the beach during the invasion of Europe during World War II. After he got out of the Army, Joe shot 16 mm documentaries, industrial and educational films. He was well known in San Francisco. Joe did a lot of work for local production companies.

How did he influence you?
We spoke about photography while I was cutting his hair. After I knew him for more than a year, I worked up the nerve to ask Joe if I could come watch him work. He answered, ‘Rather than watching me work, why don’t you help me?’

Will you tell us about the first time you worked with him?
Joe was filming one of the first Boeing 707 airplanes on the West Coast through the open door of an airplane. The Golden Gate Bridge was in the background. Joe was shooting with a little Arri camera. I loaded the equipment on and off the aircraft and kept an eye on the tachometer. I worked with Joe on and off for five years.

What happened with your barber career?
I was managing one of my father’s barber shops when I met Joe. I continued cutting hair for about a year and worked occasionally as a camera assistant. After about a year, I became a part-time barber. That was around 1964.

How did your family take your getting out of the barbering business?
They celebrated that I had a chance to do something that I really loved.

While we are on the topic, how did your unique experience as a barber come into play after you became a cinematographer?
Most barbers develop a gift for gab. That helps with directors and actors.

What were some of the different films you worked on during that period?
I worked on a lot of industrial films for Sunkist. I filmed everything from lemons to oranges. We also made films for the California Beef Council. Joe introduced me to a cinematographer named Chuck Eymann. We shot National Geographic specials, including a few in the Florida Everglades that were studies of flowers and fauna, and another one at Yosemite National Park. I also became a stringer for ABC television news. I worked as an assistant news cameraman from around 1964 through about 1972.

What types of news stories did you help cover?

Everything, including stories about Patricia Hearst being kidnapped, the riots in Berkeley during the Vietnam War, and the Black Panther trials. I was at the Ambassador Hotel the night Bob Kennedy was assassinated. My wife, Susan, heard the TV news that an ABC cameraman had been shot. She was sure that it had to be me, because I was so busy trying to get the film through the lab I didn’t call her until 2 a.m.

In retrospect, how did those experiences help you later in your career?
There were times when I was working on news crews when I wore a helmet with a shatterproof face shield, flak jacket and shin guards that a baseball catcher uses for protection. I learned not to get frazzled by anything going on around me.

What was the next milestone in your career?
I was hired by John Lowry in Los Angeles. He had a Canadian company that had a gyro-stabilized helicopter camera. When they moved back to Canada, I went to work for Tyler Camera Systems maintaining aerial cinematography equipment. I was laid off in 1972 because things were slow. After that happened, I worked as a freelancer on low-budget productions and commercials. While I was at Tyler, I met Don M. Morgan (ASC) and Rex Metz (ASC), who were doing aerial cinematography.

How did you get started working on motion pictures?
I was an assistant cameraman on Don Morgan’s crew in 1975 on an independent film called Win, Place or Steal. It was an independent feature. Fifty-eight crewmembers that worked on the film were investors. I was one of them. I was also on Don’s crews for 100 or more commercials and about a half a dozen pictures. In 1976, Michael Watkins (ASC) made me a camera operator on a Roger Corman film called Fighting Mad.

Did you see Joe Dieves after you moved to Los Angeles?
Joe visited us for dinner after we moved to Los Angeles. I was so grateful for everything that he did for me that I asked how I could pay him back. He answered that I could pay him back by helping other people.

You have worked on camera crews with some seminal cinematographers haven’t you?
I have been blessed to have wonderful people in my life. We already mentioned Don Morgan, Michael Watkins and Rex Metz. Some of the other cinematographers whom I worked with as a camera operator were Bill Fraker (ASC), Ric Waite (ASC), Harry Stradling, Jr. (ASC), Davy Walsh and Bruce Surtees (ASC). They all became friends who were important parts of my life as well as my career.

Do you have some memories about working with Bruce Surtees?
I worked on Bruce’s camera crew on five pictures. Four of them were with Clint Eastwood. Bruce taught me that creating shadows can be as important as lighting.

Who else influenced you during that early stage of your career?

I never worked with Stanley Cortez (ASC), but he was also a big influence. Very early in my career, I went to a function at the ASC Clubhouse. I introduced myself to Stanley Cortez. He was very generous in talking with me.

Were you influenced by other cinematographers you didn’t work with?
Back in 1965, when I was living and working in San Francisco, Harry Stradling, Sr. (ASC) came to town to film the ice follies. I was working as a stagehand for the ice follies, which was something I did when I needed money. I got to watch him light and work. About 10 years later, I worked with his son Harry on Rooster Cogburn (1975). I started out as an assistant on the second unit with Rex Metz. Harry put me to the first unit crew when we finished second unit work.

What happened next?
Rex Metz brought me onto a Clint Eastwood movie as a B camera operator in 1977. It was called The Gauntlet. After that film, Rex invited me to work with him on another film with Clint as A camera operator. That film was Every Which Way But Loose. When Clint asked me to shoot Honkytonk Man (1982), I told him I didn’t feel ready to move up to cinematographer. I operated for Bruce Surtees on that film. I also operated for Bruce on several other films, including Pale Rider (1985) with Clint. After we worked on Beverly Hills Cop, Bruce told Clint that I was ready to move up to cinematographer. When Clint offered me an opportunity to move up with him on Heartbreak Ridge (1986), he asked, ‘Are you going to turn me down again?’ I can’t say enough about the impact that Bruce Surtees had on my life and career. When he lit a set it was the closest thing to watching a painter create a work of art. He used arm and hand gestures as though they were paint brushes while he was describing his intentions to Tom Stern (ASC), who was his gaffer. Bruce took me with him when he visited his mother in Carmel (California). His father was Robert Surtees (ASC), who was an absolutely great cinematographer. His father’s three Oscars and plaques for 13 other nominations were display. I was staring at them in awe when Mrs. Surtees told me to pick up and hold the Oscar that he won for Ben Hur. My feet didn’t touch the ground for days.

In retrospect, what did you learn when you worked as an assistant and later as a camera operator that paid dividends after you became a cinematographer?

I learned to pay attention to the smallest details as an assistant cameraman. The camera assistant probably has to be the most detail-oriented person on the set next to the cameraman. The smallest details can make a giant difference when the cinematographer is creating the broad strokes. As an operator, I learned how composition influences the statement that the director and cinematographers are making in every shot and scene.

What are some of your memories from Heartbreak Ridge?
We were shooting in summertime at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base near San Diego. It was incredibly hot. Steve St. John was the operator. He came up lame one day and we had to keep going, so I strapped the Steadicam on me. I’ll never forget running through the brambles and bushes with the sun beating down on me. Charlie Saldana was my key grip. We had probably done seven or eight pictures together. He was incredibly supportive and helped to keep me calm.

Heartbreak Ridge was an impressive beginning of a new chapter in your career. We won’t ask about every picture you shot, but will you share a memory about Bird?

After Heartbreak Ridge, I shot a Dudley Moore comedy called Like Father Like Son. That was a different type of experience. Bird was my third film. It was the story of the jazz artist Charlie Parker. I knew that Clint had the script on his shelf and was waiting for the right time to produce it. I remember him saying that he had a vision for a special look for Bird. Clint described lighting that was different than anything he had done before. I asked if he wanted me to shoot some tests and show them to him. We got Forest Whitaker (who played Parker) to sit on a chair on a sound stage with dark curtains behind him. I had Tom Stern, who was my gaffer, put an edge light on one side of Forest’s face and body and let the other side go almost black. There was just a little bit of light on the curtains behind him, and just a tiny bounce light on the saxophone that Forest was holding. It was just enough light to create a little glistening.

Where did those ideas come from?

Part of it went back to when I was growing up in Northern California, being a jazz fan. I used to go to jazz nightclubs and I read Downbeat and other jazz magazines. My memories of those jazz clubs and still photos in those magazines were frames of reference for Bird.

How did that work out?
We sat in the screening room the next day after getting the print back. Clint nudged my elbow while we were watching the film and said, ‘You got it right.’

Let’s fast forward to Unforgiven, which you shot with Eastwood in 1993.  Can you tell us about that?
Clint had the script for that film on a shelf in his office for years. He wanted a distinctive Western period look with very low light levels. Clint also wanted to shoot exterior scenes at times when the sun was at low angles in the sky. I had shot a commercial about three months earlier about 50 miles south of Calgary in Canada that struck me as being an ideal location. The producer, David Valdez, and I flew to Vancouver, Canada. We rented a car and drove to a couple of potential locations. We also rented a helicopter and flew around until we got to the area I remembered. As soon as he saw it, David said, this is where Unforgiven ought to be produced. We flew back to Los Angeles and told Clint about the location. We flew back with (production designer) Henry Bumstead and Clint, and landed near the site that David and I liked. Clint saw the Rocky Mountains in the background. He asked Henry what he thought about building the town of Big Whiskey there. Henry agreed, and designed and built the town of Big Whiskey in 32 days.

You got to work with a legendary production designer. What was that like?    
Wonderful. Henry couldn’t have been a bigger help. I asked him if he could hide a generator in one of the buildings he designed, so it would always be accessible for supplying power for all the locations in the town. He hid it on the set that was the blacksmith’s barn. I also suggested that nobody wear modern boots, and keep trucks off the set so there were no inappropriate footprints or tire tracks in the dirt. I also asked Henry to use kerosene lamps with the biggest wicks possible. He found antique lamps with five-inch diameter wicks. Tom Stern and I sat in the bar set and turned off all the lights. The only light came from six kerosene lamps. That gave us an idea for how we wanted to light that set so it looked and felt real. The lamps didn’t produce enough light for the film we used in those days, so Tom built a few of our movie lamps into the ceilings. It looked and felt like kerosene lamp light.

That’s a beautiful memory. We are going to skip forward to a totally different type of film that you shot in 1995, The Bridges of Madison County. What do you recall about this film experience?

The Bridges of Madison County was a Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg project. The production designer was Jeannine Claudia Oppewall. I had read the book, so I knew it was a love story told from a man’s point of view. One of my original thoughts was that we would shoot the early scenes with unfiltered camera lenses in the beginning and add a slight gold filter for warmth as the relationship between the guy and gal warmed up.

You sound like a painter talking. Will you share another memory?
The bridge we used as a location was a historic monument. It was better than building a look alike, and couldn’t be used for traffic because it was a historic monument. For Clint, they made it available.

Let’s talk a bit about a distinctly different project, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. How about sharing a memory or two from that film?
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a dark movie that was produced at beautiful and historic locations in Savannah, Georgia. We used historic homes as practical locations, so we had to be careful. Tom Stern was my gaffer and Charlie Saldana was my key grip. That picture was about such a dark subject that we wanted to use darkness to complement the theme of the story. We were looking for ways to justify dramatically darkening sets. Shooting this film in Savannah was a wonderful experience.

Would you say you are compiling a diverse body of work?

I have tried to avoid being stereotyped. A few years ago, when I was up for 50 First Dates, someone asked my agent if I knew how to light comedies.

Shooting a film is no small job. What makes you to want to shoot a film?

More than anything else, it’s the people involved. I’m a very people-oriented person, maybe going back to my days as a barber. I like to keep the work environment as friendly as possible and enjoy the people. The story also has to mean something to me.

You have already discussed this eloquently, but what are some of your thoughts about moviemaking as a collaborative process?

Forget the hype about auteurs. There is no way that any so-called auteur is going to make a film worth seeing alone. It’s a collaborative process with many people helping to shape the story. It begins with the writer and the producers who share the vision, a director who collaborates with the production designer and cinematographer, and let’s not forget the makeup, hair and costume designers. They all play roles. I rely on my gaffer, grip, camera operator or operators and the rest of my crew and all of the other departments that we collaborate with, as well as the actors. It is about the art and also the craft, which is essential for producing films on time and on budget. Every film starts with a shared dream, and ends as a completed collaborative endeavor.

If you could go back in history and pick a film and a director that you would like to have worked with, what and who would it be?
There is no simple answer to that question, but I would have liked a shot at working on Citizen Kane with Orson Welles. I would have also loved the experience of working as a camera operator for (cinematographer) Gregg Toland (ASC) on Citizen Kane or with Stanley Cortez on any film. Like I said, I have a very long wish list.

What do you say when students and young filmmakers ask for advice?
I tell them that there are no secrets. Work hard, be diligent and persistent. Have a good attitude, listen and think carefully before you turn anybody down.

Is it possible to define cinematography?

Cinematography is an art, but it is also a craft. It is like learning to mix paints to get just the right colors. You start every film by understanding the director’s interpretation of the script. You add and subtract light to create environments. It’s more than a look. You are creating moods. I don’t believe in playing it safe. I would rather work on the edge and trust my instincts. It takes teamwork to make a film. It you think you can do it yourself, just try walking out on a soundstage alone and waiting for the lights to come on.

What role do you think film plays in our society?
Good movies are like mirrors that reflect who we are as individuals and as a society. Certainly, films can be entertaining like reading a good book, but they can also teach us about ourselves and the world we live in.