The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
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ASC Close-Up

It took a lot for me to move out to Los Angeles in 1991. It had absolutely nothing to do with anything negative about the city, but rather my perception of it. I grew up in Chicago, so I was drawn to cities like New York, where public transportation went everywhere and you found yourself in casual conversations all the time with complete strangers because, well, you just ran into them. In this atmosphere of constant human interaction, I felt like my artistic soul was being fed, and stories and images flowed through my imagination in a never-ending stream.

But I knew the next logical step in my quest to be a director of photography on feature films and television programs would be to put myself where the deals were made, where the project got the greenlight and the search for a cinematographer would begin. So I put all my belongings in a large storage facility in Chicago — my fallback in case I just couldn’t stand L.A. — and moved west.

I admit that I arrived with a really bad attitude. I don’t like to spend a lot of time in the car, and suddenly I was spending at least a third of my day that way just to get to three meetings. I walked into a joint that advertised “Chicago pizza,” and it would be polite to say that I was disappointed. I was a Bleacher Bum at Saturday Cubs games in Wrigley Field. My friends and I would go every week; we knew they would probably lose, but it didn’t matter. We and every other fan were there for the first pitch, and we stayed until the last batter was called out. When I went to my first Dodgers game, fans showed up sometime around the third inning and left somewhere around the seventh. I was convinced I was in hell.

But worse, I could feel my creativity drying up. In my constant state of angst about where I was, fueled with my frustration about not being able to find a job on a production doing anything, I could feel myself becoming artistically impotent. The things that normally fed my imagination didn’t work anymore — not a visit to the museum, not attending an orchestral performance, and not even watching my favorite movie, The Graduate. It was as though I’d entered a vortex that drained every creative thought in my head.

As I sat in my studio apartment one day, eating my three hot dogs for 99 cents from the AM/PM Mini Market, I got a call from my sister Frances in Chicago. The storage building that housed all my possessions was on fire. They were calling it one of the worst fires in recent Chicago history. The blaze engulfed an entire city block. Nothing would be left when it was over. For months afterward, my brain would take a mental inventory of what I’d lost: movies I’d shot when I was 8, baby pictures and high-school yearbooks, 16mm and 35mm prints of films I’d collected, and a complete collection of American Cinematographer from 1956 to 1991 that I’d purchased from an amateur filmmaker. All gone.

About six months after the fire, something changed. I felt somehow better. What I realized was that I no longer carried any anger over where I was because everything that my life used to be had been essentially wiped out. Whatever my life became would start now. I started doing things that I could only do in Los Angeles, things that made me happy. I went to the Silent Movie Theater. While watching Metropolis there, I ran into Forry Ackerman, whose Famous Monsters of Filmland had been a key inspiration to me as a child. We discovered that we lived three blocks from each other, so I often walked to his place to hang out among his incredible collection of horror and sci-fi memorabilia.  Steve Poster, ASC introduced me to QT Chicago Dogs, and Joe Mantegna opened Taste Chicago, so I could get a real Chicago hot-dog and beef-sandwich fix. And Steve Martin’s L.A. Story showed me that maybe I was taking my new home too seriously, and I should just lighten up. All this made me excited about creating images once again.

Moms Mabley said, “If you always do what you did, then you always get what you got.” It took that fire for me to get to where I am today. And you know what? I’m feeling pretty good.


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