The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Donald M. Morgan
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Morgan made his feature debut as a director of photography with Win, Place and Steal, a 1975 caper financed by 100 investors who included grips, electricians, drivers, actors, “basically anyone we could find who would do it,” says Morgan. “Everyone put in $100 at first, and when we needed more money we asked again.” Soon afterwards, he landed the modestly budgeted Western Santee, starring Glenn Ford. Morgan had been doing aerial work for Harry Stradling Jr., ASC on Skyjacked, and Stradling recommended him to Santee director Gary Nelson. Morgan quickly learned that the assignment would be unique, as the filmmakers planned to shoot on video and transfer the result back to film. Unfortunately, their scheme was some decades before its time, and the resulting video image proved so dismal that Morgan’s trusty Arri 2-C was mustered to save the day. “Soon afterward, we reconsidered the video idea,” he says with a smile. “I think there’s only one shot in that film that was shot on tape. When I first started at the labs in 1953, some guy asked me why I was bothering to work at a lab when video was going to replace film within a few years. Fifty-four years later, I’m still worried about my job!”  Santee proved to be something of a bust, but the experience led to yet another opportunity. “[Director] Sidney Furie saw Santee — on an airplane of all places — and hired me to shoot his comedy Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. While we were filming on the Paramount lot, Gordon Willis [ASC] was shooting The Godfather Part II, and another of my heroes, Conrad Hall [ASC], was shooting The Day of the Locust a couple stages away. It was so exciting to be around all that, especially when you saw gangsters and the cast from Happy Days all eating together in the commissary! But the Paramount executives kept asking me, ‘Why does it all look so dark?’ Well, Sid Furie was just a fireball. He’d ask them, ‘Haven’t you ever laughed at radio? Does everything have to be bright?!’ What a great comment. The photography was right for that story, and Sid made it possible by fighting for me. Until a cinematographer gets a body of work behind him, he needs his directors and producers to stand up for him.”  Another opportunity arose when Poitier contacted Morgan to shoot Let’s Do It Again, a sequel to Uptown Saturday Night. At the time, Poitier was one of the few black directors helming studio projects, a fact not lost on Morgan. “Poitier was in that position not because he was great actor, but because he was tough,” he states. “He was very particular and pushed people to do their best.”  Morgan says the work of Arthur Ornitz, ASC made a distinct impression on him as he was developing his own style and challenging the conventions of television cinematography. “Ornitz shot the feature Serpico, and I was hired a couple years later to shoot the pilot for a Serpico TV series at Paramount,” he explains. “The director, Robert Collins, said, ‘I don’t give a damn what anyone else says, I want the show to look like the feature film.’ Well, in those days, the decision-makers didn’t watch a pilot on a monitor, they watched a film print of the finished work in a screening room. So I made it look [like] the feature, which had a lot of dark, moody lighting. Sure enough, during production, the executives kept asking me why everything was so dark; they wanted everything bright. At the end of the shoot, they told Robert they didn’t want me to be involved in the final timing because they thought I’d ruined their movie. With the Robert’s help, though, I was able to sneak into the lab every morning and work on the timing secretly. They hated the pilot, and I didn’t work at Paramount for years afterwards. But when that pilot aired, I got a call from Haskell Wexler [ASC], whom I didn’t know at the time, and he said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever seen on television.’ I thought I’d been touched by the hand of God! That told me I was on the right track.”  In 1979, Morgan landed his first assignment with director Joseph Sargent. “He hired me to shoot a TV movie called Amber Waves,” the cinematographer recalls. “I didn’t meet him or even talk to him until we were on location up in Canada. I didn’t even know if he’d like my personality, let alone my way of working! But there are a few directors I’ve worked with over the years, including Joe, who have the courage to hire someone just based on a feeling. They don’t endlessly interview or plow through thousands of reels, they just make a decision based on your work. Those are the best directors to collaborate with, because they know what they want.  “When we finally met, Joe said, ‘Don, filmmaking is a series of risks, and I’ve been guilty of not taking enough of them, so let’s really go for it on this. You let me know when the light is right to shoot, I’ll direct, and we’ll get a great picture.’ Amber Waves is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been involved with, and I owe a lot of that to Joe.” The movie tells the tale of a struggling itinerant farmer. Morgan recounts, “We shot all of the scenes in the fields in the morning when the sun was low, and all of the close-ups and indoor stuff when the sun was high and too flat and harsh. That approach scared the hell out of the executives, but we finished on time and on budget.” (Morgan has since made nine other pictures with Sargent, including the new CBS remake of the telefilm Sybil.)  Morgan also turned heads with the 1979 telefilm Elvis, John Carpenter’s dynamic biopic about the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, starring Kurt Russell. The project brought Morgan his first Emmy nomination, and later led to his collaboration with Carpenter on his back-to-back anamorphic features Christine and Starman, both of which offered Morgan opportunities to solve difficult production dilemmas.  Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Christine explores America’s love affair with the automobile — more specifically, a teenage outcast’s twisted obsession with a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury. Gradually it’s revealed that the ornate Fury is not being restored by our hero, but is somehow restoring itself. This plot point required Morgan to make extensive use of reverse photography to render various scenes of the vehicle literally pulling itself back together after being wrecked.  Starman, a story about an alien who arrives on Earth to explore the essence of humankind, was a departure for Carpenter, whose career had been largely built on thrills and chills. Morgan’s lighting, alternately realistic and expressionistic, lent layers of emotion to the uplifting story. “I learned an important lesson while we were shooting Starman, but not from the actual making of the film,” says Morgan. “We were in some small town in Texas, and one day I was eating breakfast in a little pancake house. This guy came in and sat down next to me, and he asked if I was one of the ‘movie guys.’ I told him 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 TV, and there’s a scene where someone comes in the room and turns off the only light, but the room looks the same. That looks fake.’ I’ll never forget that conversation. There are always ways to create light if you feel that a dark scene needs it. Connie Hall could make you feel the room was darker than it actually was through his brilliant vision.”


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