A Conversation With Donald M. Morgan, ASC
October 18, 2006
We understand that your parents were in the film industry.
My mother was a stand-in and extra. My dad was born in Missoula, Montana. He came to Los Angeles hoping for a career as a singer. It’s a long story, but he found work as an animation cameraman for Disney and got to work on Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi, Pinocchio and other great films. Later, my dad opened Max Morgan’s Animation Service in Hollywood. They did special effects for animation.
Did you plan to follow in his footsteps?
No. I saw him hunched over that animation stand and decided that I would do something different with my life. When I was a kid, I used to watch Western movies on television. I decided that I wanted to be a rodeo cowboy. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I met a cowboy who helped me get started in rodeo. After trying that, I decided to become a famous racecar driver instead. I got into some pretty terrible wrecks.
What did you try next?
My dad got me a job at the old Cine Color Lab. It wasn’t a permanent job. I worked at almost every lab in town in-between driving racecars. Sometimes I supported myself by doing odd jobs as a carpenter. A friend of my dad’s hired me to be an animation cameraman mainly for commercials. I did that for about seven months.
What happened after that?
I heard that Nelson Tyler was doing aerial shots from a camera mounted in a helicopter. My dad had worked at Disney for Mort Tyler, Nelson’s father. He arranged for me to meet Nelson, who said I could hang around, watch and learn the job. I spent a couple of months watching and learning. Once in awhile, I’d go out on a job with Nelson. Sometimes a cameraman came in from New York without an assistant, and Nelson would send me out with them. Eventually, I became an assistant cameraman for Tyler Camera Systems working on commercials and movies, including Catch-22, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Diamonds Are Forever. I got to work with some great cinematographers, including Jordan Cronenweth (ASC), “Curly” (Lionel) Lindon (ASC) and Johnny Stephens to name a few. I even did a job with James Wong Howe (ASC) on a commercial, but I never got to talk to him. I didn’t even get a chance to say hello. After about six months, I got my first chance to shoot aerial scenes for a commercial.
How did that happen?
Somebody asked if I would do a low-budget shot for a commercial with a 16 mm camera mounted in a very small Hughes 300 helicopter with a pilot who had no movie experience. We did a terrible job. My next opportunity came on a car commercial in Big Bear Lake. As luck would have it, there was no other aerial cameraman available, so I got to shoot it and it turned out beautiful. Then I was off and running.
How did you transition to working on the ground?
I bought an ARRIFLEX 2C camera and kept it on the seat next to me when I was flying. Whenever I saw anything interesting, I’d ask the pilot to land and I’d shoot something with my handheld camera. I started getting second unit jobs on television series. Eventually, one of the guys whom I had shot some aerials for asked if I had ever lit a scene? I said that I hadn’t. He suggested I get a gaffer who knew what he was doing, because he needed a shot of a bunch of kids with balloons yelling and screaming to cut in between animated cartoons. It wasn’t anything fancy. I got a gaffer and we did the job. A few weeks later that same producer asked if I wanted to shoot a 16 mm presentation film for a project that he was trying to sell to a network. It was about a group of teenage kids who were trying to clean up the atmosphere and do good things. That was my first opportunity to shoot a half-hour film where I lit interiors.
What was your first narrative film?
During the late 1960s I was one of about 100 people who invested $100 each in making a film. They included drivers, grips, electricians and anybody else who had $100 to invest. Win, Place and Steal was a true story about some people who stole a pari-mutuel ticket machine from Santa Anita, and started making their own winning tickets. We hired a writer, held a meeting and voted on a director and cinematographer. I was their choice and shot the film, starring Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell and Alex Karras.
How did you get your next job?
I was working as an aerial cameraman on Skyjacked with (cinematographer) Harry Stradling, Jr., (ASC). He suggested me for a Western called Santee that featured Glenn Ford. They told me during the interview that they were going to shoot it on videotape, and transfer it back to film. The producer brought in large video trucks and equipment. The cameras had to be cabled to the trucks, so we were very limited on shot performance. We shot a night scene around a campfire that looked terrible and when Glenn Ford shot a gun, it looked like a flamethrower. They also had trouble getting the equipment up to the tops of hills. I brought my ARRI 2C camera to the set, and started shooting with it. I think about one minute of Santee was actually done on tape.
Right after that in 1975, you shot Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, a successful feature. How did you get to shoot that film?
I was shooting second unit aerial photography on Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Michael Margulies was the cameraman. One night, there was a phone message in my motel room from Sid Furie’s secretary. He had just directed Lady Sings the Blues. When I called his secretary back, she asked if I was available to come in for a meeting. I had shot the aerial part of a commercial with him, and he had flown in the helicopter with me. I thought maybe there was some aerial work on this film. When I went in for my interview, he explained that John Alonzo (ASC) was going to shoot the picture, but he might have a conflict. It turned out that John wasn’t available, and Sid decided to hire me. I found out later that he contacted me, because he had seen Santee on an airplane, and he liked the look.
What do you recall about shooting your first Hollywood film?
It was probably the most exciting picture I’ve ever been on in my life, partially because Gordon Willis (ASC) was shooting Godfather II on the stage next door and Conrad Hall (ASC) was on another stage shooting The Day of the Locust. Sheila Levine barely cost a million dollars. After that I did a movie with Sidney Poitier, Let’s Do It Again. I shot a second film, A Piece of the Action, for him a few years later.
Tell us about the pilot for the Serpico TV series that you shot in 1976.
The director told me that he wanted a gutty and interesting look like the movie. He didn’t want me to listen to the television guys at the studio who wanted a brighter look. We shot at locations in New York and on stages in Los Angeles. I got a lot of pressure from the studio heads who wanted me to brighten it up. I’d tell them that the director doesn’t want it bright. The studio barred me from timing the TV show, but I went into the suite at 5 a.m. and did it anyhow. I wasn’t invited to shoot another film for that studio for more than 20 years.
It sounds like you were pretty much a self-taught cinematographer?
I didn’t learn much about lighting by hanging out of a helicopter. Once I saw an ad on television for a book of 100 famous paintings for $13. Rembrandt was probably the only name I recognized, but I would go to sleep at night looking at that book and thinking I can copy this. Soon afterwards, I did a 13‑day movie of the week called Panache (1976). The director said he wanted every frame to look like Rembrandt painted it. That movie was set at the time of the Renaissance with Amy Irving playing the queen.
Didn’t you also do some early films with Robert Zemeckis?
I did his first movie in 1978. It was called I Wanna Hold Your Hand. He had been on the lot at the studio and watched me shoot Sheila Levine. He gave me the script and said that this isn’t an interview. You’re hired if you want to do this film. Steven Spielberg was the producer. I also shot Used Cars with them in 1980.
You earned your first Emmy® nomination in 1979 for Elvis.
That was my first film with John Carpenter directing. I had a little history with Elvis Presley. I worked on a 1968 Elvis movie called Stay Away Joe and actually met him. I also went to one of his comeback concerts in 1969, and was sitting two rows from the stage. Kurt Russell played Elvis. It was a great experience because Kurt WAS Elvis. We shot part of it in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry. We also shot at a home where Elvis actually lived in California. It had black walls with silver lightning streaks on them. It was pretty gaudy, but it was a lot of fun. I credit John Carpenter with giving me a lot freedom to experiment. He had no hard fast rules. Our second film, Christine, was a really scary story. You couldn’t pick two more different movies.
You have shot 10 films with Joseph Sargent. How did you two hook up?
I was shooting a picture called Skatetown, U.S.A. in Hollywood in 1979. We were filming at the Palladium when I got a call from a producer who was working on a TV film called Amber Waves. He asked if I would like to shoot a beautiful film about wheat farmers. He explained that Joe Sargent wanted me because he liked what he saw on Serpico. I never met Joe until I arrived at the location. I think that took a lot of guts on his part. The first thing he said to me was that making any movie involves taking risks, and that he hadn’t been taking enough. Then he said, you tell me what light you want to shoot in, I’ll direct, and we will have a good time working together.
You have moved pretty freely between features for the cinema and television movies during the late 1970s through the ’80s, which wasn’t commonplace.
I did a little bit of everything. I shot Starman, a pretty big feature film (1984). My next project was an after school special that we shot on 16 mm. I did that one because I liked the script. I can get pretty excited about who’s directing. I’ve done a lot of projects with first-time directors because I liked their enthusiasm.
Wasn’t John Carpenter also the director on Starman?
That was our third movie. I think it was a pretty good science-fiction story. I learned an important lesson while we were shooting Starman. We were in some small town in Texas. I was eating breakfast in a little pancake house. This guy came in and sat down next to me. He could have been a farmer, a truck driver, or whatever they did in that town. He asked if I was one of the movie guys. I told him that I was the director of photography and we talked a bit about what I did. He said, ‘I hate it when I’m watching something on television, and there’s a scene where someone comes in the room and turns off the only light, but the room stays lit. That looks fake.’ I’ll never forget that conversation. So much for people in the Midwest not caring about lighting! There are always ways to create light if you feel that a dark scene needs it. I remember how Connie Hall approached lighting. He could make you feel the room was darker than it actually was through his brilliant vision.
Didn’t you kind of segue into commercials after Starman?
I had a son born while I was shooting Starman, and I was on the road all the time. I decided to go back to commercials for a while and not be gone for such long periods. I shot commercials all over the world, but I’d only be gone for a week at a time. That was my motivation, but I think it was a good move, because I got to work with some really talented people, and learned things about creating looks that I still use today.
How about giving us an example?
I remember shooting a commercial for Midas in a muffler shop. There was nothing visual about it. There was just a bunch of mufflers hanging on the wall. I put a Xenon light behind them, used a couple of 12K HMIs as a supplement to the hard light, and had a circus tent put over the building, including the parking lot. Then, I smoked it all up to get big shafts of light from an imaginary window. It didn’t look like any other muffler shop, but it sold the idea. I think the fact that you are trying to tell a story in 30 seconds makes you a little bolder. You can draw on those ideas to make your feature film is a little more interesting. I directed and shot commercials for seven years; mainly shooting because that’s what I do.
Beginning with Murder In Mississippi in 1990, you shot a series of television movies that have earned a pile of Emmy and ASC awards and nominations. Did you choose to concentrate mainly on television films at that point in your career?
I thought after seven years of commercials, I could step right back into shooting feature films, but I was wrong. One guy asked whether I was in prison for seven years. Murder In Mississippi was the first job that I was offered. It was produced by Mark Wolper, David Wolper’s son. He had hired Roger Young to direct it. I was sitting in an office at Warner Bros. when Roger poked his head in and asked me to walk with him while he ran across the street for a meeting. I could hardly keep up with the guy. He’s about 6 feet 2 inches and I’m 5 feet 8 inches. I was practically running alongside of him. He asked what I thought it should look like? I said Mississippi Burning. He said, ‘You’re hired.’
You won your first ASC Outstanding Achievement Award for Murder in Mississippi. Did you get other opportunities to work with Roger Young?
I have shot 13 films that were directed by Roger Young, including Doublecrossed, Geronimo and The Siege at Ruby Ridge, which earned some awards and nominations. I’ve been fortunate in that I have worked with talented directors. Early on, I worked with Lamont Johnson on three films (One on One/1977, Off the Minnesota Strip/1980 and Crisis at Central High/ 1981) and learned a lot from those experiences.
Your second ASC award was for Dillinger in 1991.
Dillinger was another Mark Wolper project. The director had shot music videos and won some awards. Mark suggested that he hire me because of my experience. He took a little different approach that I thought was pretty crazy at first. He wanted to make Dillinger look a little like Miami Vice with a slightly glossier, flashier and out of the ordinary look. You know what? He was right. We did some pretty wild stuff. We shot at locations in Milwaukee in worn out abandoned buildings that were sets for hideouts used by the gangsters. We’d hang big sheets of colorful plastic as room dividers in these big, old empty buildings, which had rugged wooden floors and dirty windows. Mark Harmon played Dillinger. I never put any eyelight on him when Dillinger was robbing people, and we used the brim of his hat to create shadows that fell like a mask across his face. The network guys would call and say that they waned to see the star’s eyes all the time. I’d tell them, you’re not supposed to see his eyes during robberies. You see them when he’s making love and celebrating.
In 1993, you won an Emmy, an ASC Award and a CableACE nomination for Geronimo.
That was another Roger Young film. I’ve done 13 films with Roger, including For Love and Glory, The Thin Blue Lie, and Kiss the Sky.
You also won an ASC Award in 1997 for Miss Evers’ Boys.
That one was with Joe Sargent. It was about an experiment that the United States government did on African-Americans with syphilis. Miss Evers was played by Alfre Woodard who won CableACE, Emmy, Golden Globe and the SAG awards. She won five major awards for her performance. They showed it to Bill Clinton at the White House, and he apologized to the last living person who was part of that experiment. That’s the power of film.
A Lesson Before Dying also stuck in our memory. Who directed that film?
Joe Sargent. He seems attracted to pictures about underdogs and people who are being discriminated against. We shot it in Louisiana in a place where there were some 30 shacks and an old schoolhouse left over from the old slave days. You walk into those places and you can feel how those people had to live. It’s hard to explain the feeling, but we shot in that atmosphere. The story was about a young black boy who joins a couple of rowdy youngsters. They go into town to get some wine and there is a fight. One of the guys shoots the owner of the store over a bottle of wine. The owner shoots both of the other guys before he dies. Our main character had nothing to do with it, but was arrested. He just happened to be there. The story was about the relationship between him and his nana who raised him, and how she wanted him to die with some dignity, whether he was guilty or not. Don Cheadle played a teacher who tried to help him.
In 2000, you shot Sally Hemings, another memorable television film.
The director was Charlie Haid, who has a real visual sense and is great with actors because he is one. He’d see a beautiful sunset while we were shooting inside, and say, we’ve got to get that. He’d make up something right on the spot. We actually met some of the descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
You had both Emmy and ASC nominations in 2000 for For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story.
That film was Joe Sargent at his best. When I read that script, I thought this is going to be the most boring movie. Meeting and getting to know the real Arturo Sandoval was part of the excitement. He’s quite a guy and his music is great. Andy Garcia played him. Andy was so intent on doing it right that he practically learned how to play the trumpet. I never heard any music come out of it, but if his fingers weren’t in the right place, he’d do it over again. That’s typical of HBO films. They’re wonderful.
You won an Emmy and ASC nomination in 2003 for Out of the Ashes.
That was another rewarding Joe Sargent picture for me. It was about Gisella Perl, a Jewish woman who grew up in Hungary. We show her as a child before World War II, as a doctor living in a ghetto in Budapest, and then in Auschwitz during the war. She survives and migrates to New York City as a refugee. Each of those situations called for subtly different looks. I used a little flatter, more pleasant look when she was a little girl telling her dad that she wanted to be a doctor. She became a doctor and was married to another doctor. They had a beautiful home until the Germans came and stole everything. I love doing these people-driven stories. This one needed to be told.
You won another Emmy in 2004 for Something the Lord Made.
That was another Joe Sargent film about an underdog. It’s a true story about a black man named Vivien Thomas and a white doctor. Vivien was a carpenter who wanted to be a doctor. He saved money to go to medical school, but lost it in the stock market crash during the late 1920s. He went to work for a doctor and they formed a kinship that was pretty interesting. Together, they pioneered heart surgery that has saved thousands of lives. Most of the story takes place at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
You had an interesting film called Walkout on HBO earlier this year.
It was based on a true story about students who walked out of inner city schools in Los Angeles to protest conditions during the late 1960s. It was produced by Moctesuma Esparza, who was one of 13 students arrested during that protest. The director was Edward James Olmos. Eddie told me during our first discussion that we were going to shoot Walkout in Super 16 format in the schools and on the streets where the story happened in reality some 40 years ago. It was my first 16 mm film in some 25 to 30 years. That was mainly a financial decision. I was really proud to be part of that project, but the sad thing is that conditions haven’t gotten better. I think that’s why Eddie wanted to do this film.
After that, you did another Super 16 television movie called Sybil. It’s a remake of the classic 1976 television movie about a woman with a severe multiple personality disorder and is scheduled to air initially on CBS in the spring.
It was my 10th film with Joe Sargent. We shot it in Super 16 format as a concession to a modest budget. In our first meeting, Joe said this is a film where you have got to pull out all of the stops. Let’s go for it and make it look as moody as the story. As I said earlier, there were times when people at the networks worried about films being too dark or too moody, but I think those days are long gone. The fact that we shot Sybil in Super 16 didn’t affect how Joe directed, how I lit or anything else.
We are guessing that you get frequent questions from young and aspiring cinematographers asking about the secret of your success. How do you answer?
It’s simple. I tell them that it doesn’t matter whether they are shooting a hair commercial, a television drama or a big feature film, they always have to do their best to get inside the director’s mind, figure out the moods that he or she wants, and then make it happen on film. I also tell them that no one makes a great—or even a good—film alone. Everyone has to play a role, including the production and costume designers, and everyone on your crew. Laszlo Kovacs said it best. He said if you think you are making a movie by yourself, go on the stage some Sunday night and say, ‘Roll it,’ and see what happens when no one else is there.
We know that this is an unfair question, but we will ask it anyhow. Do you have a personal favorite among your many great films?
People ask me that all the time. I don’t think I have made my best film yet.
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