Robbie Greenberg, ASC Goes Back to Stills, and Finds Funding for a Feature

Robbie Greenberg has been spending time at his property in the Pacific Northwest, walking in the woods and “relearning” still photography. Work has slowed down for Robbie, but he shoots and directs the occasional commercial to keep his hand in. And he’s deeply involved in developing a project that has financing and distribution deals with Sony.

Robbie’s first steps towards cinematography were in stills. He came to the Bay Area in June of 1969, ostensibly for the summer. He had always been interested in photography but never had the opportunity to pursue it. As summer waned, he sold his car and used the money to buy a camera.

Robbie says his Leica M Monochrom delivers film-like tonality. Here, the subject is his two-month-old grandson.
Robbie says his Leica M Monochrom delivers film-like tonality. Here, the subject is his two-month-old grandson.

He spent much of the next seven years either in the darkroom or lugging a 4X5 camera around. He took up with like-minded friends in the underground art scene and learned from a talented mentor. Through this period, he was discovering that cinematography was his true calling.

“I found that I wanted to be able to create the light that stimulated me in real life,” he recalls. “The only place you could do that was Hollywood. In 1975 I moved south and began my quest, having some experience shooting documentaries and a lot of music festivals. My first year in Los Angeles, I worked for Warner Bros. Records, shooting the precursors to rock videos on 16mm film.”

Robbie still maintains a home at the beach in Los Angeles. Recently, he went back to the still photography world. He’s been sharpening his skills with a new Leica M Monochrom camera, which shoots only black and white images. He’s been doing mostly portraits, some of friends and some of his new grandson. I asked him if shooting stills felt different after all his years of filmmaking experience.

A shot Robbie took in Cape Town in January 2013.
A shot Robbie took in Cape Town in January 2013.

“I feel different, but I don’t think I can put it into words,” he says. “In some ways, at this point, it almost feels more challenging to make a good still photograph. The energy that I had to put in when I was doing a film in terms of the crew, the production, the schedule, the money — I loved all those elements. But with the absence of those elements, still photography is a very relaxed pursuit. I point the camera at things that I know will photograph well. Not all the photos are great, but there are not technical issues. I’m not worried about something turning out. I used to spend a day in the darkroom getting a good print. Now I can get a good print in a half hour — fifteen minutes if it doesn’t need much work. Push the contrast a little, play with the highlights, and hit print. It’s pretty outrageous!”

The feature project is called All Saints. Robbie met the director, Steve Gomer, two decades ago while advising at the Sundance Institute, and in the mid-1990s shot his feature, Sunset Park. Gomer found a story in a Tennessee newspaper about an Episcopal priest who came to the priesthood later in life. The priest’s first assignment was to travel to a small town in order to close and sell a church. Upon arrival, he found a small nucleus of older parishioners who desperately wanted to keep their church, along with sixty families of political refugees from Burma, farmers who were also Christian. One stormy night the priest sensed a divine command to maintain the church as a mission and to use the property as a farm.

Robbie plans to shoot the film. “In the next month or so, we’ll start going out to cast, and see what happens,” he says. “The parts are good, and hopefully we can get good people interested.

“It will be a fun experience,” he says. “I’m mainly interested in making a good movie. I’m looking forward to doing something more personal. It’s interesting to be in a position where money is not a driving force. It’s much more about the work. It’s nice to have the time to walk in the forest and think about how to make this film better.

“It’s a very interesting time,” he says. “I’m appreciating what I have. Even though I’ve had this house for 23 years, I feel I’m discovering the forest for the first time. I’m more receptive to what’s around me. Becoming a grandfather is very different, too. You look at your own kids, and you ask yourself, ‘How well am I going to do at this?’ With a grandchild, there’s none of the neuroses. I just look at the marvel of birth and growth.”

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