The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2010 Return to Table of Contents
William A. Fraker
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Phedon Papamichael

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
When I was 6, I loved watching Westerns on television. Every Saturday night I was allowed to stay up and watch one. The strongest big-screen impressions were made by Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
Raoul Coutard was the one who made me aware that there was such a thing as a cinematographer. I wrote his name down at a screening of Le Mépris and tried to find all his movies. I also grew up heavily influenced by Robby Müller, NSC, BVK; the simplicity of his lighting and the calmness of his compositions stuck with me.

What sparked your interest in photography?

I was mostly into painting, but when I was 14, I picked up a friend’s Super 8 camera and had an immediate connection to the frame. I started walking around the house, looking through the camera, noticing that I could compose and move at the same time and keep recomposing.  

Where did you train and/or study?

I didn’t go to film school. I was hired to shoot my first short based on my stills, which were my hobby. Years later I shot seven Roger Corman films, all 15-day features, in two years. That, of course, was my film school — the best there is!

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I never worked for another cinematographer, and the directors I worked with were as inexperienced as I was. We just kept doing our thing, copying films we liked and learning from our mistakes. While I was shooting Stripped to Kill 2, I went to see The Last Emperor one weekend, and I went back to work on Monday and bathed the strip club in golden light. I told my dailies timer, ‘Make it look like The Last Emperor!’

What are some of your key artistic influences?

The Dadaists, Surrealists, German Expressionists and the French New Wave.

How did you get your first break in the business?

A friend hired me to shoot second unit on a Corman film, and we made all the shots, more than 60 setups a day, so they hired me to shoot first unit on the next one. I haven’t stopped shooting since then!

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Working handheld onstage with Joaquin Phoenix on Walk the Line, shooting in vine country on Sideways, and shooting at Cinecittà and having three-hour lunches at the same little canteen where Fellini used to eat.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

On one of my first shorts, I decided to cross-process some reversal film. When the film came back, there was nothing on it. I blamed the lab, of course!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Roger Corman used to tell his young directors to sit down on an apple-box whenever they got an opportunity. I always try to pace myself through a long shoot; I see a lot of folks burn out before the film is done.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Cameron Crowe’s Conversations With Billy Wilder was very inspirational and fun, and it made me revisit my favorite autobiography, Luis Buñuel’s My Last Sigh.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I try to find diverse material and genres whenever I choose projects, but if I had to pick one, I’d say a dark comedy.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would probably be designing cars.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Vilmos Zsigmond, Steven Poster and George Spiro Dibie.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I remember walking into the Clubhouse for the first time in 1993, when I was nominated for an ASC Award for the miniseries Wild Palms. Conrad Hall came up to me and said,  ‘Ah, you’re the kid that stole my title!’ (He’d been trying to direct an adaptation of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, which had nothing to do with my miniseries.) Then Stanley Cortez slowly came across the room on his cane and started flirting with my girlfriend. I thought this was the coolest place on earth! I just wanted to be part of it, hang out at the bar, smoke cigars and exchange stories. I’m glad the Clubhouse has reopened, and I hope to become one of those old, crazy ASC members who can affect a young cinematographer who walks in there for the first time.

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