The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents December 2011 Return to Table of Contents
J. Edgar
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When I first got into this industry, I thought a great deal about the legacy I wanted to leave for the next generation. I grew up watching incredible movies during the 1960s and 1970s like The Graduate, Day for Night, The Godfather and The Last Picture Show, movies that seemed to say something specifically to me. Regardless of fame or fortune, what mattered to me was that I create something tangible and valuable that could be preserved for the future.

As I progressed in the business, the types of projects I was offered often felt somewhat less than desirable. Tommy Lee Jones was once asked why he performed in so many bad movies early in his career. His reply was that he always worked as an actor, not as a truck driver, waiter or bellhop. If he was offered three terrible scripts, he took the least terrible one and tried to make something out of it, but he always worked in his craft.

I adopted the same attitude and embraced the lessons that less-than-respectable jobs could teach me. Filming erotic thrillers taught me how to light women beautifully and quickly. Shooting low-budget martial-arts films taught me how to break down action sequences. Shooting no-budget horror films taught me how to create mood and atmosphere with very few lights. All these experiences made me the cinematographer I am today and led to the kinds of projects I can now take on.

We who work in production live a bit of a gypsy life. I’ve shot movies on seven continents, and I kept a studio apartment for 18 years because I was gone nine months a year. Relationships followed the course they naturally do for single people on the crew: I dated those I met on location. This may have provided variety, but it hardly contributed toward stability. Ultimately, a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of my life was preventing me from growing as an artist.

You cannot experience the thrill of leaping from an airplane if a parachute isn’t there to support you. When I met Gina, my wife, I found my support. Her unfailing belief in my worth as a man, husband, father and artist enabled me to achieve what I could not do on my own. The trust in our relationship freed me to reach further than I ever had, to grasp at windmills without fear of being ridiculed or criticized, to truly find my own potential.

So am I still obsessed with leaving a viable legacy behind that will influence future generations? Yes, but now my criteria are different. When I see my youngest son, Ryan, smile with absolute trust at me every morning, or watch my son Michael teach his grandparents something new he learned in school, what matters to me is that something tangible and valuable has been created and preserved for the future, regardless of fame or fortune.

I wish you and yours a peaceful holiday season.


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