The American Society of Cinematographers

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Revolutionary Road
Benjamin Button
Jack Green, ASC
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Jack Green, ASC, once destined to be a barber, advances to cinematography's pinnacle as the recipient of the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1982, Jack Green, ASC, this year’s recipient of the Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, did something few aspiring cinematographers would ever think of doing: he turned down an offer from Clint Eastwood to move up from camera operator to cinematographer because he felt he needed a little more experience. “I honestly didn’t feel ready,” says Green. “I didn’t know if Clint would give me another shot, but I loved being his operator, anyway; operating is a great job and doesn’t have the responsibilities of being the director of photography. You’re part of the creative team, but you’re only responsible for getting the shot, and you know right away whether you’ve got it — you can sleep at night! I asked Clint to let me do a little more maturing in my mind first, and to his credit, he did, and he made the offer again when he decided to make Heartbreak Ridge [1986; AC Jan. ’87].”

Those who have worked with Green find him confident but unassuming, despite having shot some very memorable films, including Eastwood’s Bird (1988), Unforgiven (1992; AC June ’93) and Bridges of Madison County (AC Aug. ’95). Green doesn’t think of the more than 20 years he spent learning the craft as an assistant and operator as drudge work or paying his dues; he talks about the time as an essential part of his development, noting that it taught him not only to light and shoot but also to manage the creative and political challenges of heading the camera department. He eventually shot 14 films for Eastwood as well as an eclectic mix of other features, including the blockbuster Twister (AC May ’96), the intimate drama Girl, Interrupted (AC March ’00) and the raucous comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). 

Cinematography was not something Green thought about during his childhood in Daley City, Calif. It was understood that he would attend barber college and work in one of the barbershops his father and uncle owned until it came time for him to take over the family business. His only connection to photography was sharing his father’s photography hobby; as a youth, he shot black-and-white pictures with his box Brownie and made prints in his father’s darkroom. “For my dad, the darkroom was about the two of us doing something together,” he recalls. “I don’t think he knew that was how I felt, too. I still get misty-eyed when I smell vinegar!” 

His interest in photography continued in high school, spurred by a better camera and the school’s more sophisticated darkroom, but Green had settled into the notion that the tools of his trade would be clippers and scissors. Shortly after he started working as a full-time barber, a former combat cameraman named Joe Dieves helped change the course of Green’s life when he came in for a trim. Dieves had set up shop in the San Francisco Bay area shooting documentaries, industrials and educational films for local clients. It took Green months to talk to Dieves about camerawork, but the man was a repeat customer, and eventually, Green talked himself into a part-time job as his camera assistant. “We’d go out on a job, and he’d make sure I was never ignorant about what was necessary,” recalls Green. “He was a gentle teacher. Soon, I asked my father and my uncle if I could move to one of the back chairs and work part-time.” They agreed. “Over a few years, I became a very part-time barber and an almost full-time camera assistant, and in 1965, I got into the union in Northern California, and it became a full-time job.” 

Green was soon assisting for a variety of companies, including some that specialized in aerial photography. Assisting on some helicopter exteriors for the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) led to the opportunity to work for John Lowry Productions, an aerial-photography company based in Los Angeles. The move, says Green, “was an opportunity that I think filmmakers of every kind outside Hollywood think about. My wife and I packed up and moved to Southern California. My mom, dad and uncle were all very happy I had an opportunity to do something I loved.” 

The early 1970s saw Green assisting a lot, predominantly on aerial units, and working fulltime for Tyler Mounts. “Then, in 1972, there were huge layoffs,” he recalls. “The industry was in really bad shape, as bad as it is now. Maybe worse.” He managed to keep busy freelancing as an assistant, and in 1975, cinematographer and future ASC member Michael Watkins moved him up to operator on Roger Corman’s Fighting Mad (1976). It was a baptism by fire in the craft of operating incredibly quickly under chaotic circumstances. Cinematographer Rex Smith then hired Green to operate on Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977). Green subsequently operated on every Eastwood film until he moved up on Heartbreak Ridge.  

Green was immediately impressed with Eastwood’s attitudes about and approach to filmmaking. There was very little talking about how “artistic” something should be; the focus was on craft and efficiency and always using imagery to support the story. Eastwood hired the same crew as often as possible so that discussions could be conducted in shorthand. “Clint could describe eight shots in eight words,” notes Green.  

It was through operating on these films that Green learned about lighting. He recalls cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Pale Rider, Tightrope) “standing on a set and giving instructions to the gaffer using his hand as if it were a paintbrush. You would swear there was paint coming out of his fingers! Bruce was a lighting minimalist. If he walked onto a set and saw four lights burning, he’d tell the gaffer to turn one off. I realized the fewer lights you had, the fewer complications there were. It was fascinating to see how Bruce expressed himself to his gaffer and electricians. To this day, I try to duplicate that as best I can.” 

Green listened to how Surtees and Eastwood would describe lighting in emotional terms. “In Pale Rider, Clint was talking about the scene where the bad guys are standing in the mayor’s house at a fireplace, planning what they’re going to do. He described them as ‘the devil’s advocates,’ and he wanted them surrounded by this boiling firelight. I learned from him and Bruce how to think about lighting in an emotional way.” 

Green also made it a point to watch movies with real audiences as often as possible to see how lighting affected people. “There’s a shot in Tightrope that I did with a Steadicam in which Clint’s character, the detective, is walking down a dark hallway full of deep shadows. The killer isn’t hiding in the shadows, but the fact that there is so much darkness in that scene really makes the hair on your arm stand up. I could see in the viewers’ faces how riveted they were.” 

When Surtees recommended Green to shoot Heartbreak Ridge, Green sensed it was now or never, and he accepted the job even though he still felt he had a lot to learn. He credits his wife, Susan, with helping him overcome his trepidation. “She is my best friend, and she’s very smart and wise. She knew I was just nervous as a cat, and while I was home, thinking about this leap I was going to make, I heard a little thump on the door, and there was Susan with her arms full of art books — and there were more in the car. She had gone out and gotten every art book she could find at the library and bookstore. She said, ‘Now is the time to put yourself through art school! If you want to do photography that will last in people’s minds, you’re going to have to study the classic painters.’ That was as influential on any style I might have developed as anything else.” 


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