When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Lawrence of Arabia. Before the film, we went to a then-favorite New York restaurant, La Fonda del Sol, and for dessert we had the most amazing hot chocolate. It warmed the soul in ways none of us understood until it was revealed half a century later in the film Chocolat. The mystical psychoactive qualities of the hot chocolate must have unlocked an early appreciation of Freddie Young’s awesome cinematography.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Andrew Laszlo, ASC, who got me started and keeps me going; Haskell Wexler, ASC, because the moment I wanted to be a cinematographer was when I saw the opening of Medium Cool; Marcello Gatti (Battle of Algiers, Burn); and Raoul Coutard (Breathless, Drummer-Crab). When I first saw Claude Lelouche’s A Man and a Woman as a young kid, I didn’t have a clue what the story was about because my French wasn’t good enough yet, so I focused on the cinematography. After seeing the film 20 more times, I learned French, something about relationships and a lot about handheld cinematography. Also, I have to mention Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, for the stunning close-ups on Dominique Sanda in The Conformist, the 3-year-old emperor running outside where thousands are bowing to him in The Last Emperor, and the brilliant golden light in Tucker.
What sparked your interest in photography?
My father was in publishing and advertising and was an accomplished still photographer. (He also wrote a couple of books, so maybe writing books is genetic!) Twice a week, he’d convert our New York City kitchen into a darkroom, and we’d develop and print pictures until the fumes made us dizzy. He had more Leicas than any one man deserved, I thought, so at age 8, I borrowed one of his favorite M2s, loaded it up, and took it on an expedition to the playground, where I chipped off a small corner of the body. He was not amused, but luckily, he decided to teach me how to take better pictures and better care of equipment something I’ve remembered to this day.
Where did you study and/or train?
Collegiate School in Manhattan and Dartmouth College, where I earned a degree in art, drama and film. I worked part-time as a projectionist for the film society, a great way to see thousands of films while honing my reflexes performing reel changeovers.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
When Joseph Losey taught directing, PBS gave me a grant to do a documentary about him. Maurice Rapf got me started on screenwriting and editing. He had a print of The Big Sleep that we ran back and forth on a Moviola to analyze cutting and pacing until all the sprockets wore off. And then came Andy Laszlo, ASC and to teach cinematography. Andy helped me get started in New York, helped me get into the union, offered me my first operating job on a feature and continues to be a mentor.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Impressionism. “Location painting” was made possible by “portable” metal tubes to store the paint, just as lightweight, handheld cameras facilitated cinéma vérité.
How did you get your first break in the business?
After graduating from Dartmouth, I gave myself 30 days to see if I could get film work. If I couldn’t, I had a job lined up as a ski instructor in Jackson Hole. On the 29th day, I read a New York Times article by Mel London of Vision Associates about how hard it was for young people to get into the business because none of them wanted to do the grunt work of carrying cases. I called Mel, volunteered to carry whatever he wanted, and was hired the next day; I carried cases for him and cinematographer Herbert Raditschnig on a round-the-world Coca-Cola theatrical short subject, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing. By Barcelona, I was shooting second unit, and I stayed with Vision Associates for the next five years as staff cameraman. Mel is another mentor from whom I still seek advice.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Magic hour whenever and wherever we may be the adrenaline rush, the thrill of chasing the perfect angle in the perfect light, and the thrill of watching the truth at 24 fps.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
In Moab, Utah, we were up all night, using nautical navigational aids (in Utah?) to prepare a 600mm shot of what we hoped would be the most beautiful sunrise the world had ever seen. This was before the days of David Parrish’s helpful Sunpath. The sun rose, and we were aimed 180 degrees in the wrong direction a slight arithmetic error!
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘The only reason to be late for a call is being dead.’ This was drilled into me by Mel London or Freddie Young, BSC.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Every issue of American Cinematographer has been an inspiration. Also, Storaro’s Scrivere con la Luce and Andrew Laszlo’s Every Frame a Rembrandt and It’s a Wrap!
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
My favorite genre is the French New Wave. I would like to try Imax.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
What I really want to do when I grow up is write for American Cinematographer. Recently, executive editor Stephen Pizzello and publisher Martha Winterhalter asked me to write a column. I pinched myself to make sure I hadn’t been late for a call.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Andrew Laszlo, Sol Negrin and Michael Negrin generous, altruistic New Yorkers who have been enormously helpful to so many of us, so often. When I took my first camera assistant test for the union, Sol was there to help me through it.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
These are really smart, talented people. Most rewarding is the flurry of ideas, advice and enthusiasm for sharing information. Above all, the dream team who work at the ASC and the magazine Patty, Delphine, Saul, Marvin, Brett, Doug, Sanja, Rachael, Stephen, Martha and everyone else are a dedicated, helpful, friendly crew who make the ASC a vibrant, educational, and exciting Society.