The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Robin Hood
Presidents Desk
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ASC Close-Up
John Schwartzman

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
I grew up in Hollywood, and my father was one of the first entertainment attorneys in the business during the 1960s and 1970s — a very exciting time in American cinema. As a high-school student, I worked for Hal Ashby during the summer, and he showed me a rough cut of Coming Home (1978). It was an epiphany; it opened my eyes to the power of film.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
ASC members Gregg Toland, Vittorio Storaro, Gordon Willis and Robert Richardson, and a thousand others.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My first experience in a black-and-white darkroom at Talking Tree Ranch summer camp in Malibu Canyon, 1965, and riding on a Titan Crane with Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, as a 10-year-old.

Where did you train and/or study?
I studied fine art at the Oakwood School, which led to work-study for high-school students at Art Center College of Design. The most profound experiences were with a Chinese Art teacher while on ‘Semester at Sea’ during college, and, of course, at USC film school.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
The man who taught me to believe in my own work was Vittorio Storaro, whom I pestered throughout the making of Tucker: A Man and His Dream.  I was hired to shoot EPK footage but used the job to get unique access to one of the most important cinematographers in the history of cinema.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
As a kid, Norman Rockwell; as a teenager, Eugene Smith and Ernst Haas; in my 20s, Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe, ASC. And, of course, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Russell Chatham and all the other great painters in museums around the world.

How did you get your first break in the business?
After film school, I shot a short film for a writer who wanted to direct, and he promised me that if the short became a feature, he would hire me to shoot it. When it became a feature, the completion-bond company wouldn’t approve a first-time director and a first-time director of photography. I asked Peter Collister, who wasn’t in the ASC at the time, to co-shoot the movie with me because he was ‘bondable.’ He did the most altruistic thing anyone has done for me and said yes. The result was an unmemorable film, but it was the start of a career for a young cinematographer.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Getting hired! Every film has its satisfying moments; they’re usually things that are very personal or little things that worked that you weren’t sure would work. One of my favorites: Running out of the dugout with Dennis Quaid and a Steadicam during a real Texas Rangers baseball game in front of 40,000 people (for The Rookie). Even Dennis was nervous.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
My career is made of memorable blunders. Fortunately, a ‘blunder’ in 1997 is a ‘style’ in 2001 and a ‘work of genius’ in 2010.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From my grandfather, Carmine Coppola: What you do with your non-working time is more important than what you do with your working time.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
At 50, I can barely remember if I had oatmeal or bacon and eggs for breakfast, but, seriously, I was inspired by the Mark Rothko Chapel at the Tate Modern, and the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, which I had the fortune of shooting.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
The next one I get to try. I am a cinematographer, and I would like to think I can do them all.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
A sommelier. Being a wine expert has its perks.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Allen Daviau, John Toll and Caleb Deschanel.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It’s a great honor to be selected to become a member of the oldest fraternal organization in Hollywood. Winning the ASC Award from my peers, people who understand the daily rigors of cinematography, is the highest honor a cinematographer can get. Also, the ASC is the only place where we cinematographers get to see each other.

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