When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The African Queen. I was only 6 when I traveled down the river with Bogart and Hepburn, but those characters, molded by John Huston and bathed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, BSC, were etched in my memory forever.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I’m astounded by the careers that ASC members William Daniels and Charles B. Lang carved out of an art form that was still in its infancy when they first stepped behind the camera. From the silent era to the mod and crazy Seventies, they were always at the forefront of cinematography. And Robert Surtees, ASC could shoot any genre, from Hollywood noir (The Bad and the Beautiful) to widescreen epics (Ben Hur). His work was as daring at the end of his career as it was at the beginning. Watch The Graduate and you’ll see the definition of avant-garde cinematography.
What sparked your interest in photography?
While I was in high school and college, I watched classic movies and European art films at the Sign of the Sun bookstore in San Diego. An old 16mm projector running scratchy prints from the Janus Collection, along with endless doses of coffee and cigarettes, sent me on this amazing journey.
Where did you study and/or train?
I was an English literature major in college. The craft of storytelling was my first lesson. In the world of film, every day offers a new lesson. You never stop learning.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Frank Zuniga, Milas Hinshaw, Michael D. Lonzo, Ron Dexter, Gene McCabe and Kees Van Oostrum, ASC. I’ve wanted to publicly thank these generous and patient mentors for many years.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, Raymond Chandler and James Salter, all master wordsmiths. J.M.W. Turner, Edward Hopper and Emil Kosa Jr., all masters of light.
How did you get your first break in the business?
One fateful day while I was still in college, I was checking the surf on a beach in Santa Barbara. I observed a small film crew shooting tests for an upcoming TV movie. Somehow I gathered enough courage to approach the director and convince him of my desire to work in the movies. Two weeks later, he hired me as a gofer on the Disney show Three Without Fear. The next day, I left school and moved to Hollywood.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
About 25 years ago, I shot several interviews for the PBS special Starring Katharine Hepburn. I had the honor of lighting Henry Fonda on the veranda of his Beverly Hills estate. After the shoot, he said, ‘Thanks, Russ, you made it easy for me.’ I will never forget that moment.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Too many to list. Mistakes can often lead to aesthetic revelations; yesterday’s lens flare becomes today’s artistic highlight. Be bold. Your blunders will teach you more than your triumphs.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘Tell the story and make your stars look great.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The Motorcycle Diaries, because it felt like a film from the last golden age of Hollywood, the late Sixties and early Seventies, when so many intelligent, interesting, provocative and passionate movies were created. My muse is Peggy McClellan, Renaissance woman, who inspires me every day.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
Like most cinematographers, I’d love to shoot a picture in black-and-white. I’d also like to shoot a musical in the style of the classic MGM musicals of the Forties and Fifties; I would design endless, sweeping shots that showcase the natural beauty of the dance without gratuitous and irritating rapid-fire MTV editing. My ultimate goal is to tell a good story with absolute economy. Elegant simplicity is elusive and difficult.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I cannot imagine doing anything else.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
George Spiro Dibie, Bobby Liu, Harry Stradling Jr. and Don FauntLeRoy.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
This must be a dream. Please don’t wake me! ASC members have so many opportunities to give back to the film community. We nurture and encourage students, share technological advances, honor the grand heritage of this glorious art form, and celebrate the exciting future of the movies. But really, the best part of being an ASC member is the chance to hoist a glass of cheer and share war stories with some of the finest, most gracious men and women I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.