A Chat with Tom Houghton

I had a wide-ranging conversation with Tom Houghton recently, and he remarked that he was intrigued by a recent Parallax View entry on the ASC website about Tom Del Ruth’s boyhood on studio lots. It reminded him of the ASC greats he’d met as an aspiring cinematographer, and it underscored the crucial role the ASC plays in maintaining continuity through the generations. One memorable encounter for Houghton was with Lee Garmes, ASC, at the Virgin Island Film Festival in the mid-1970s.

“I spoke to Lee about the plantation party scene in Gone with the Wind where the young women are sprawled out on beds, napping in their voluminous undergarments,” Tom recalled. “He said he worked at a level of 2,000 foot-candles to get an exposure and kept it moody to achieve the emotional effect. It was beautiful, but the studio thought it was too dark and he was fired. He had already done Shanghai Express and other noir films with a similar look. So the question remained, as it does today, where is the line between technical correctness and aesthetics?”

Also in the 1970s, as part of a thesis project on David Lean at London’s Slade School of Fine Arts and Mackinac College, Tom interviewed one of Lean’s cinematographers, Ronald Neame, BSC, who was then directing Scrooge starring Albert Finney, with Oswald Morris, BSC as director of photography.

“We discussed the fact that Technicolor had its own aesthetic because the film responded differently to the spectrum,” Tom recalls. “Certain techniques such as make-up, set painting and wardrobe were altered to make the colors pop. But This Happy Breed (1944), which Lean directed and Neame shot, was an exception. Neame got away with muted colors in part because he was so far away from Hollywood and could experiment on his own, so they managed to achieve the look they intended.”

Another difference was in the IB (imbibition) dye transfer printing process, which was actually cheaper and more stable than developing and processing emulsion. The Technicolor process was complex, but mass-producing prints was relatively easy because it was putting dye on acetate, and didn’t require silver.”

After his first year at NYU Graduate Film School, now Tisch School of the Arts, Tom returned home to northern California and caught wind of a production in the Stockton area. He wandered by and ended up observing John Huston and Conrad Hall making Fat City.

“Watching them shoot the boxing scene at the Civic Auditorium was a great experience,” Tom remembers. “It was small by Hollywood standards, but to me it looked enormous. There was no video assist of course, so Huston would put his head down and cup his ear to concentrate on the acting when more intimate scenes were being shot on the warehouse stage that had been built at the fairgrounds. He didn’t seem to feel he had to see the shot because he trusted Connie, which was pretty cool to observe. I also got to see the dailies screenings. Connie and his gaffer Harry Sundby were using umbrella lights with four 2K FEY bulbs in them -- new to me and a very good idea.”

And speaking of continuity, IMDb lists Tom Del Ruth as an uncredited camera assistant on Fat City.

For Tom, the summer in Stockton also led to a project: Producing a half-hour film about film production in the area for the local Chamber of Commerce. Tom shot interviews, got studio clips from films like Cool Hand Luke and All the Kings Men, TV shows and newsfilm, then edited back at NYU.

“I remember my first visit to the Warner Bros. lot, where they pulled the reel of Cool Hand Luke with the famous Strother Martin line: ‘What we have here is a failure to communicate,’” says Tom. “It was a thrill to see it in one of the large upstairs screening rooms with just my fellow student (and future wife) Janet Forman.”

Whenever Tom and I speak, we share updates on our mutual friend Walter Lassally, BSC. In 1978, Tom served Walter as gaffer on the NBC TV movie Too Far to Go. They hit it off, and their next project was Something Short of Paradise with Susan Sarandon and David Steinberg. In 1981, Walter shot The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Tom as operator. They’ve been friends ever since.

This year, Tom notes that Walter appears as an actor in Before Midnight, the Richard Linklater film photographed by Christos Voudouris and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It was made in Greece, where Walter lived until recently, on the same beach where he shot Zorba the Greek. Walter plays a bearded writer who hosts a salon at his villa in a small Greek town.

“I talked to Richard and one of the producers, who love Walter, of course,” says Tom. “Walter also enjoyed the experience but was amazed at the ‘large’ size of the crew, which he said was about fifty people.”

After fourteen years in Greece, Walter has just moved back to England. Sadly, on New Year’s Eve 2011, the taverna in Stavros, near his home on Crete, burned down, destroying Walter’s Oscar for Zorba, which had been on display there.

“Walter wasn’t too upset,” Tom relates. “He said, ‘it was the end of an era that had lasted long enough,’ and confessed he’d grown a bit tired of posing with the Oscar and answering the same questions year after year.”

Tom has made a study of Walter’s work, and in the mid-90s had a chance to see one of Walter’s early black and white films, Beat Girl (aka Wild for Kicks, 1960), at the Venice Film Festival as part of a series about bohemians, hipsters and Beatniks. A film Tom shot and Janet directed, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, was also screening.

“In Beat Girl, about youth in the ‘50s, Walter’s lighting was magnificent,” says Tom, “particularly in the close-ups and smaller shots. On some bigger shots you could tell they ran out of time or lights — meaning they literally used all the lighting instruments on hand — but the artistry was still there. It reminded me of some of László Kovács’ very early Hungarian films, where the black and white portraiture and the lighting was beautiful because they lit faces like moving portraits.”

Tom has been keeping busy. After seven seasons and an Emmy nomination on Rescue Me, he has worked on episodes of Person of Interest and shot the MTV series I Just Want My Pants Back. His recent feature work includes They Came Together, starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, and directed by David Wain, and he has been taking on commercials and pilots as well. I wonder which future ASC member wandered by his set and ended up learning some invaluable, inspiring lessons.

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