The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation With Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC

November 16, 2011

Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC is the recipient of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). He was born in Italy and raised near Venice. Spinotti began taking still photographs and making enlargements in a homemade darkroom when he was just 11 years old.

When Spinotti was a teen, he went to Kenya, Africa, to work with an uncle who was a documentary and newsreel director/cinematographer. Spinotti shot his first documentary footage there with a handheld, spring-loaded Eyemo camera.

After about a year, Spinotti returned to Italy, where he worked on commercials, documentaries and dramas for RAI, the state television network. That led to opportunities for him to shoot for his first feature films in Italy during the early 1980s.

Dino De Laurentiis brought Spinotti to the United States in 1986 to collaborate with him on the production of Manhunter, a narrative film about the serial murderer Hannibal Lector. Following the completion of that project, Spinotti made Los Angeles his home. He has earned more than 60 narrative credits, including such memorable films as Beaches, True Colors, Bandits, The Last of the Mohicans, Wonder Boys, Red Dragon, Pinocchio, Public Enemies and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Spinotti has earned Oscar nominations for L.A. Confidential and The Insider.

Following is a transcript of a conversation with Spinotti:

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in sort of an out of the way place in Italy, north of Venice, very close to the Austrian border. After I was born, my family moved to an area close to Venice on the farmland plains where I lived until I was 15.

When and how did you get interested in photography?

I started doing still photography with a camera that my uncle gave me when I was 11. He was a cinematographer who became my mentor. I took pictures of my sister, my aunt and other people in our family. I also took a lot of pictures around the countryside, including landscapes and winter scenes. I developed the negatives and made prints with an old photo enlarger that was in my bedroom. I became the official photographer for the local soccer team when I was 12 or 13 years old. I would station myself behind the goal net with a camera and a flash attachment that I built myself. My photos of the soccer team were enlarged by a local photographer who posted them at local bars with my name on the bottom. A newspaper also published them. I also drew pictures using light and shadows like the drawings were photographs. I got my highest grades for my drawings. The rest of my grades were average or low.           

What type of cinematography did your uncle do?

He was a director-cinematographer who specialized in documentaries and newsreels. Half way through high school, my parents sent me to Kenya to join him. I did some newsreel work for United Press International. We had an old 35mm spring-loaded Eyemo camera. I remember shooting with it handheld for the first time. It was a story for UPI covering Jomo Kenyatta, who was supposed to be one of the Mau Mau leaders. He was coming out of imprisonment. About a year later, he became the first president of independent Kenya. I remember being in the middle of a number of international documentary and newsreel filmmakers. I had to elbow my way into the crowd to get some of those shots.

In retrospect, what did you learn from that experience?

I learned that you have to be willing to go where you can work. I traveled far from home to a place where I had to learn a new language and take personal responsibility for myself. I made a commitment to being the best I could be, and learned to overcome frustrations and difficulties. Once I was assigned to cover a three-day East African safari rally, which is an absolutely magnificent speed race. Another time I worked on a German film called Our House in Africa. I was assigned to be the assistant to the sound mixer. I was also one of his boom operators. I still remember the German cameraman telling me to keep the shadow of the mike out of the picture. I also remember long nights spent with a German crew in the Hatari Hotel, which was originally a set for the John Wayne movie Hatari! We could see Mt. Kilimanjaro. Everybody spoke German, so I couldn’t understand a single word. It was frustrating, but I was determined to make the most of that experience. I wasn’t going to give up.

How long were you in Kenya?

After about a year, I decided it was time for me to return home. I worked on commercial crews. After a while, I met one of the directors of the government television network [RAI] in Milan. He had been a prisoner of war in Kenya, so we had a long conversation. He hired me as an assistant cameraman on a freelance basis.

You earned your first cinematography credit in 1972. Share some memories.

I started filming one-hour television movies, usually on three-week shooting schedules. There were many different types of stories that offered possibilities for experimenting. After a while, I was shooting six and seven hour television films. One crew would shoot videotape scenes in the studio and the film crew shot 16 mm black and white or color film on location.

Were there cinematographers who influenced you?

I was working in my safe television job, but I wanted to be a cinematographer shooting features for the cinema. Gianni Di Venanzo’s control over the whole range of grays was absolutely beautiful. Gianni brought a new realism to stories. Do you remember the scene with Marcello Mastroianni at the public baths in 8 1/2? It had beautiful black-and-white images with overexposed whites and perfect camera work directed by Federico Fellini. Even now that film is considered a visual marvel. I have an original poster of 8 1/2 at the entrance of my house. Vittorio Storaro [ASC, AIC] took what Gianni Di Venanzo began and he brought it forward to an even higher level.

During the early 1980s, you began shooting feature films in Rome. Please share some memories about that time in your life and career.

I have always tried to do films that had something interesting to say about humanity. I was lucky because the first pictures I did were with talented directors. I worked with Lina Wertmuller on several films, including Sotto… Sotto (Softly, Softly in 1984). My first opportunity to shoot a 35 mm film was an extremely low-budget period movie. We shot it in Venice with a number of good French and Italian actors. I remember timing it at Technicolor (in Rome) with Ernesto Novelli, who was like a legend to me. I was lucky because I had opportunities to shoot movies, but it took some time for my work to be noticed on films that had some wider success.

How did you become involved with Dino De Laurentiis?

One of the directors I was working with was very conscious about the quality of images. One of those pictures was The Berlin Affair, which was a love story set in Nazi Germany before the war. Around that time (1985), Dino De Laurentiis was planning to open a studio in North Carolina. He was looking for collaborators, including directors, production and costume designers who weren’t from the mainstream. I was shooting some good movies and I spoke English because of my Kenyan experience. Dino offered me a three-year contract. It was like the scene in Alice in Wonderland when the door opens and there is a whole new world. The first director he introduced me to felt that I wasn’t experienced enough to shoot his film. The next day, Dino told me not to worry, and that he was going to put me together with a very young, upcoming American director, who is very bright and talented. He arranged a meeting with Michael Mann, which was a major turning point for me. I flew to Wilmington, North Carolina, and screened 10 to 15 of my shots for him. He must have liked what he saw, because he said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try.’ I started working with him on Manhunter. It was a story about a serial killer, which Michael took to some sort of transcendental level.

I loved every minute of that experience. Michael’s decisions about the visual dynamics, including why we put a camera two inches to the right as opposed to two inches to the left or two inches higher as opposed to two inches lower, or why the background has to be slightly blue-green, were fascinating. That was a total immersion in a filmmaking experience right down to the very last drop of blood circulating in my veins. It was an amazing experience. We spoke very little about basic issues. He probably liked what I did because we did a few more movies together after that one, including The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider and Public Enemies.

How does your background affect your approach to filmmaking?

When I was a boy in Italy, I could go to the local cinema and see a film photographed by William Daniels [ASC] and other great cinematographers from different cultures. Whether you realize it or not, you are learning something every time you see a movie. I remember shooting a 16 mm television program for RAI in a beautiful palace, which was built around 1600 in Mantova. Every room was different. I remember deciding, I would light one room like Vittorio Storaro, and another room like Giuseppe Rotunno [ASC, AIC], and a third room like Daniel Fapp [ASC]. All of them were heroes to me.           

Tell us about shooting Crimes of the Heart with Bruce Beresford in 1986.

Dino De Laurentiis recommended me. Bruce Beresford hadn’t seen any of my pictures. He asked me to show him one of my films. I told him I had just shot Manhunter with Michael Mann who was still cutting the movie. We called Michael and he sent a reel with eight or nine shots. Bruce also asked me how I would approach shooting a scene in the script for Crimes of the Heart. After that discussion, he asked me if I wanted to work with him.

Bruce has an interesting approach to making films. We had a wonderful working relationship. He came to the set in the morning with very small storyboards that he usually designed himself. They were very simple sketches. I remember one showing the face of an actress with a little cross expression for a close-up shot. He would arrive in the morning with eight, 10 or 12 of those sketches, and say, ‘This is today’s work.’

That was just the beginning. We were free to invent different shots. It was the first time in my career that I was working with three big movie stars – Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. You have to find ways to transfer these beautiful faces and interesting personalities to the screen along with the quality of depth that is inside of their souls. It comes through their faces and eyes. I remember a scene with all three of them sitting at a table. It was an emotional scene that Bruce wanted to shoot with three cameras, so we could film them reacting to each other in real time. They were moving from crying to laughter. Each of these actresses had her own ‘custom’ light. On the first day of shooting, we had a scene with Jessica Lange at a piano. Bruce wanted the camera at a low angle. Later, when we saw dailies, Jessica told us, ‘You guys can do whatever you want, but please do not put the camera below my chin again.’

How did you happen to shoot True Colors with Herbert Ross?

Ken Adam, a production designer whom I had worked with on Crimes of the Heart told Herbert Ross about me. He called and asked me to fly to Paris to meet him. After we spoke, Herbert asked me to work with him on his film. It was a very interesting story about politics and corruption. I learned a lot from him about how to shoot action scenes. We had a scene with a fistfight between two characters. One of them, the character shot from behind, was a stuntman who had the same hairstyle as the main character. Herbert showed me how to use handheld camera so the action shots of the stuntman integrated with the performance of the real actor. My point is that every film opens new windows and those experiences become part of you. I used this method while shooting a fight scene with Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.

Share an anecdote about The Last of the Mohicans.

Michael Mann sent me the screenplay. What else would you want from life than a chance to film a great story set in 1700? Michael’s visual references included a couple of paintings from that period. This is very typical of him. He shows you a simple image and says, ‘This is the movie.’ The paintings all showed how small human beings are in the scope of nature. Michael wanted everything to be extremely accurate. He offered me the picture, but it took a lot of time for him to put this project together. While I was waiting, Garry Marshall offered me a film called Frankie and Johnny. He is a wonderful director and human being.

A few weeks after we finished Frankie and Johnny, I was in Rome. One of the producers called and said Michael Mann wanted me to shoot The Last of the Mohicans. They booked me on a Concorde on a three-hour flight on Friday night. I was jet-lagged when I arrived and saw this amazing set of a British fort with actors dressed in military uniforms from 1700. All of our lighting was going to be based on sunlight, moonlight, bonfires, torches and candles.

There was a wonderful cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. Michael said he wanted to keep the look monochromatic. One of the scenes that I was happiest with reproduced the pounding power of a waterfall in an interior shot set in a cave at night. You can’t see the waterfall, but you can feel its immense power in the pounding water on the faces of the actors. We bounced light from a couple of 4K Xenon’s with some big 12-by-12 Mylar frames that a grip was shaking in front of them. You can see the light on their faces and feel the power of the waterfall.

How do you make decisions like that? How do you know what to do and what effect it’s going to have when you create that kind of light and you put it on film?

I needed some reflective material and my key grip suggested Mylar. Many times in situations like this, you don’t have a lot of time to think about what you want to do. Every other art form gives you more time to think. A painter can spend months in front of his canvas, and repaint and repaint it until he is satisfied. An orchestra can rehearse until the maestro is satisfied and a writer can write and rewrite. As much as you prepare a film, countless decisions have to be made 30 seconds before you shoot. When I was shooting Blink in Chicago, there was a gaffer who had a great idea for using a China ball for long Steadicam shots. We could walk with the camera on a Steadicam wherever we wanted and still have the actors lit.

It seems simple and obvious now, but back in those days [1994] it wasn’t that simple. I remember another film where my gaffer, Jeff Petersen, and I used a row of tiny Par 16s to light Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni sitting across each other at a table in a restaurant. The unit was shaped as kind of a half a circle four to five feet in diameter, so it could be used to light both actors. We used it to create ring backlight for one or both actors.

What film was that light used in?

The first time we used those lights was in The Family Man (2000). We had Steadicam shots that moved 360 degrees around rooms. The lights were on dimmers, so I could lower or raise either the front light or backlight. They are very small units, so we could hide them in the corner of the ceiling where the camera couldn’t see them. The output doesn’t look like movie lighting. It has a very interesting rendering on the faces.

You mentioned earlier an interesting film you shot called Blink in 1994.

Michael Apted was the director. Madeleine Stowe recommended me to him, I think because she was happy with a close-up I shot of her in the infirmary scene in The Last of the Mohicans. I knew what kind of light I wanted on her face, but my gaffer gets credit for suggesting a wedge light with a diffusion frame. The light was very soft.

In Blink, one of the challenges was to show the audience how this woman sees the world after she regains her eyesight after 20 years of blindness. Our inspiration came from paintings by Francis Bacon. I also did some research, including reading medical studies. The problem was in the cornea of her eyes. We needed to transfer the problem to the camera lens from her points of view.

I decided that we needed special lenses that lost details around the edges of the frame. Denny Clairmont was totally open to that challenge and invented a set of lenses. We also invented a set of plastic filters that we undulated with heat, so they were irregular. Denny also constructed a matte box that could rotate or slide. There are images that are distorted, so there is a question of whether she actually saw the killer, and if so was it in real time or images that she recalled seeing maybe an hour earlier?

You shot another interesting film called Nell that same year.

Nell was my second film with Michael Apted. Jodie Foster was both the lead actress and producer. Nell was about a woman who lived in her mother’s house, somewhere in the countryside with the memories of her twin sister who died at a young age. It’s a lonely place with no communications with the outside world. This girl rarely sees anybody. Jodie Foster felt that we should shoot the movie in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, because it was an intimate and dramatic story. I felt the anamorphic widescreen format was a better approach to telling an even more intimate story. Michael Apted said he was okay with the idea of shooting in anamorphic, but I had to convince Jodie that this was the right approach.

How did you convince her?

I woke up in the middle of the night with jet lag and began writing a note about why Nell should be produced in anamorphic format to show her in her environment. Her house in Tennessee was surrounded by glorious lakes and hills. I thought we should make that background part of the story. The house was in the forest with a jetty and a lake nearby and mountains in the background. I described how we could create a feeling of infinity stretching towards the mountains. One of the interesting challenges is that we had some day-for-night scenes. I used a technique that I learned from an Italian director who made his own grad filters. We had a day-for-night dream scene with Nell on the jetty with her twin sister who had died, and scenes in her house against a forest setting at twilight. It was the only way we could do it, because we couldn’t light acres of land and miles of a lake surface at night. It would have looked unreal.

What about L.A. Confidential, which was directed by Curtis Hanson?

Curtis sent me a script and a screenplay. I was in Italy shooting a documentary for some friends in the Alps. It was about the history of skiing. We were running up and down the slopes following the skiers. The lighting came from natural sources. After I got back home there was a telephone call and someone started speaking with me about L.A. Confidential. It was Curtis Hanson. We started production about three weeks later. I visited locations with Curtis and (production designer) Jeannine Oppewall. We had to decide on a visual language that would guide the decisions we made. Every movie has is a different language. Los Angeles in the 1950s had a fascinating atmosphere. It was a very different city. One day at lunch with Jeannine and Curtis, someone said there was a great exhibition of Robert Frank pictures in town that we should take a look at. I knew that Robert Frank was a photographer who came to the United States from Switzerland during the 1950s. The lighting in his pictures came from natural sources. That influenced the way we designed our lighting.

Robert Frank had a very intellectual approach to photography in the way he used the camera to express his ideas of realism. It was a very deep form of storytelling. I said to Curtis, why don’t we photograph this movie as if we had a Leica camera in our hands? The Super 35 format was the closest thing to a still photo. Every director has a different way of communicating with his collaborators. Curtis’ way of communicating with his actors, production designer and cinematographer is to plant a seed of an idea and have you think about it. He allows you to stretch your imagination in any direction, knowing that he is interested and will listen to your ideas.

Can you give us an example?

There are sequences where the police are using two-way mirrors during interrogations. I remembered Robert Frank’s photographs looking through store windows. Every shadow and other elements of those photographs had a meaning. We used that technique. I also used a technique that I learned from a director in Italy for photographing bare bulbs that are the source of light for whoever is in the scene. He told me to buy a tiny paintbrush and China ink…it’s called India ink in America. It’s very thick ink and anywhere we’d put it, it would stay. I used the paintbrush and ink to block tiny portions of the filament of the bulb and avoided distracting flares.

What are some memories of working on The Insider ?

It’s the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist who works for a major cigarette company. He tells the truth about the health risks to Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. A lot of drama plays on the faces of the actors and the very interesting psychological interplay between them. There are times when their spirits are really high, moments of frustration, and other times that verge on tragedy. We had a very delicate dialogue scene in a restaurant, where Dr. Wigand’s wife finds out that he is going to do the television interview about very secret information.

She is scared, because she knows it could destroy their lives. Diane Venora played the wife and Russell Crowe played Jeffrey Wigand. Al Pacino played a 60 Minutes producer named Lowell Bergman and Christopher Plummer portrayed Mike Wallace. Michael (Mann) wanted to cover this scene with three cameras. The cameras were moving around the set in warm, soft and diffused light.

Your body of work continued to evolve during the past decade with Pinocchio, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Chronicles of Narnia and most recently, Tower Heist. What was it like shooing your most recent adventure?

Tower Heist was another collaboration with my good friend Brett Ratner. He is a wonderful director. It’s a joy working with him and I love shooting in New York. We had a fantastic local camera crew. We shot it throughout the winter. It was very cold, but it was an absolutely wonderful experience. The movie is a comedy that has a very strong reference to reality, because it is vaguely based on the story of Bernie Madoff, the financial wizard who made a lot of other people’s money disappear. There was a great cast, including Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Tea Leoni and Gabourey Sidibe.

Were you shooting at practical locations or on stages?

We started filming exteriors in September, including scenes during the Thanksgiving Day parade and into mid-December. Fortunately, when the winter came, we were shooting interior scenes on big sets with green screens and at practical locations. We had some weather issues. One night, we were shooting in a little bar in Queens. It was snowing heavily with two feet of snow on the ground. Brett wrapped production, because it was going to be tough for the crew and cast to drive home. Apparently, it took Ben Stiller three hours to drive to his house. We had some long days, but it was a very happy shoot.

Tell us about your collaboration with Brett Ratner.

My relationship with Brett could not have been better. He wanted every shot to be perfect. Realism was an important part of this story. The original plan was to produce Tower Heist with the Alexa digital camera, but Brett liked the idea of shooting on film in anamorphic format. We did that except for three night scenes, which we shot with the Alexa camera and Hawk lenses.

Is the city is a character in the story?

We had key scenes in a big apartment, which had windows looking out to the south, east, and west sides of the city. It was almost three dimensional. Day scenes in the apartment have different looks. At times, it is almost hyper-realistic. 

In retrospect, do your early experiences shooting documentaries influence how you shoot narrative films like this one?

If I look back, in addition to starting out shooting documentaries and newsreels, I was an outsider in the industry. Rome was the heart of the movie industry in Italy. I was working in Milan. I never had a chance to work on crews with cinematographers who were shooting mainstream movies. Those were the days when Rotunno and Storaro were shooting beautiful movies in Rome. Their films motivated me to do a lot of experimenting.

I operated my own camera, because that’s the way documentaries were shot. I also shot some newsreels. That gave me hands-on experience shooting films without preconceptions.

What was your reaction when you learned that your peers in the American Society of Cinematographers chose you to receive the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award?

I felt honored, quite a bit surprised and very thankful. I began my career in Italy and have spent the past 25 years the American community of filmmakers. As my good friend Vilmos Zsigmond [ASC] says, ‘It's so much fun to be on a movie set, why give it up!’

You have obviously learned a lot of lessons in your career. Are you optimistic about what the future holds for the next generation of filmmakers?

I recently had five freshmen students from the USC film school visit me at home. It was a wonderful experience for me. These young people were so passionate and enthusiastic and obviously prepared for the future. It was a great pleasure for me to share that time with them.

You once said that one of the most important lessons for cinematographers is to learn is that it's okay to break the rules and explore new things. Does that still apply?

Every time I shoot a movie, I try to forget what I did in my previous films and discover something new. Cinematography is a constantly evolving language. It begins with understanding the intimate meaning of the story and deciding how to tell it…which could very well include breaking rules. I think it's going to be very interesting to see how the next generation breaks rules in ways that allow them to help create more interesting stories.

What role do movies play in our culture? Are they just entertainment?

Films that we see on television and in cinemas are probably the most powerful cultural exchange between human beings. The importance of film as a cultural medium is huge.

What's your advice for the next generation of cinematographers?

I have met young cinematographers who have the same passion for the art form that I have felt from the beginning. The main advice I give is try to be as knowledgeable and prepared as they can be about both the aesthetic and technical sides of filmmaking. I advise young filmmakers to enrich the part of their brains that has to do with cultural issues at least as much as the technical side.

Interview conducted by Bob Fisher

Spinotti portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC