Documentary Filmmaking / Michael M. Pessah, ASC and Buddy Squires, ASC

Episode #121

Documentary Filmmaking / Michael M. Pessah, ASC and Buddy Squires, ASC


In this episode of the American Cinematographer Podcast, cinematographers Michael M. Pessah, ASC and Buddy Squires, ASC, talk about about the responsibilities of the documentary filmmaker and the technical and the theoretical aspects of their own work, as well as their favorite filmmakers, photographers, and artists.


Michael M. Pessah, ASC’s credits include Scandalous, which was nominated for a 2021 Emmy, and Viva La Causa, which was shortlisted for a 2009 Academy Award. His scripted work includes the features Block Party, Smiley Faced Killers, Saving Flora and additional photography on Season 5 of HBO's Insecure. He’s done music videos for Halsey, Yoshiki, and Five Finger Death Punch, and commercials for Ford, Ralph Lauren, and Red Bull.

Buddy Squires, ASC’s credits include six Oscar-nominated films, one Academy Award winner, 22 Emmy-nominated productions and 10 Emmy Award winners. His work on documentary features and television specials includes The Central Park Five, The National Parks, Jazz, and The Civil War. His producing credits include The Statue of Liberty and Coney Island. His directing credits include Listening to Children, People’s Poetry, and Beyond the Beach.


Iain Marcks: So from what I understand, the two of you have never met before, but you actually have something in common other than the three letters after your names.

Michael M. Pessah: As it happens, Buddy and I are both graduates of the same very small New England liberal arts college, Hampshire College. And I would say a very formative introduction to documentary was when a 16 millimeter film print of Brooklyn Bridge, which Buddy helped photograph, was shown on the walls of the film-photo building over there. And I remember I remember just being struck by how exquisite the photography was, and what a beautiful film it was. Certainly, Buddy and his director, Ken Burns are very important to alumni there. And Buddy's work has just always been a tremendous inspiration to me.

Buddy Squires: It's a really interesting thing how the same education yields people who go to different aspects of things. There's a third ASC member of [Newton] Tom Sigel, who, for a college that started in 1970, with an average enrollment of 1000 students, made us the highest per capita — except perhaps USC or UCLA, or AFI — for ASC members. But it's really interesting how education informed all of us in that place. And it was formative for all of us. But we ended up in very different paths. But I think I'll still share a lot of similarities and the fact that we have social concern for the effects of our work, but also pushing things aesthetically and trying to do as much as we can to make ourselves anew. We're not imitating our professors. We're taking inspiration from them and moving well beyond anything they would have thought of. Not beyond, but into different directions.

Iain Marcks: Is that something that Hampshire College has a reputation for?

Buddy Squires: I would say so. I mean, I think that, you know, we've, as Michael mentioned, you know, I first started working with Ken Burns there. We were classmates together, Jon Krakauer went to school there. There's a lot of people who took their passions and turned them into artistic, professional lives that are exemplary in their own right. Michael Peyser was their producer. Lots of different people over the years. It's a place that really encourages independent thought and independent study, independent work. And that's effectively what we all do.

Michael M. Pessah: And I certainly remember from my time there, a lot of our experience, I think, you know, as someone that was very interested in cinematography, we were just sort of handed 16 millimeter cameras. And we saw a lot of Stan Brakhage, and a lot of Bruce Conner and a lot of Maya Deren. And we were sort of sent off to go and explore what these Bolexes and Eclairs could do for us. In some ways, that was just such a great introduction to cinematography, you sort of learned it from the kind of inside out instead of from the outside in. We weren't told what we should or shouldn't do, we just went and shot a lot of film and came back and saw what excited us when it came back from the lab. And it was, it was such a great way to kind of learn our craft.

Buddy Squires: Absolutely. And the only thing we were not taught in any depth was “Hollywood”. We didn't really study Hollywood films at all. We were far more likely to study Rashomon, or the [Battleship Potemkin’s] Odessa steps or Stan Brakhage’s work and I think it allowed us all to reinterpret things in different ways.

Michael M. Pessah: I remember the first film I made there, and again, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, I used the photocopy machine in the library as a light source. And I remember being in the library and seeing the photocopy machine and thinking, Wow, that might be the brightest light we have here. And I built a whole short film around the light of the photocopy machine kind of moving across someone's face. And, you know, who knows if I was given a big light kit, I might not have looked around the world and kind of tried to discover, you know, light as organically as maybe I did at the time.

Buddy Squires: But then I can see that when I look at Michael's work. I see such a beautiful stylization and a unique vision and a unique way of doing things that comes from saying, How do I approach this scene? Which has been done a million times before. We've all shot interviews, we've all done these kinds of things. How do I make this mine? How do I do it with my own style? And his work is gorgeous.

Iain Marcks: Michael, what year did you graduate?

Michael M. Pessah: 1999.

Iain Marcks: And then what year were you, buddy?

Buddy Squires: I graduated in January 1977. So a few years before,

Iain Marcks: Buddy, what do you remember about some of your earliest filmmaking experiments at Hampshire College?

Buddy Squires: Oh, gosh, they were all experiments because none of us had ever done it before. I was really interested in this idea of not controlling things. And so one of the films I made involves hitchhiking cross country in long-haul trucks and taking a 16 millimeter Eclair and one other person doing sound, and traveling across the country filming what we found along the way. And the pure serendipity of having a friend with a CB radio drive us down near a truck stop. And I started asking if somebody wanted to take some kids across the country with them. And it was really very much that idea of let's let go of control and see where it goes and see what interpretation we can give to the circumstances we find ourselves with. I can't say it's a great film, but certainly a great experience.

Iain Marcks: Do either of you feel that the nature of the curriculum at the school lent itself in particular to documentary filmmaking?

Michael M. Pessah: I'll take that. And I think first of all, the kind words you said about my work, Buddy, meant so much to hear. Again, your work, from the very beginning, was an inspiration. And I have so many vivid memories of pulling the 16 millimeter prints of your work. And then, you know, cycling through the long form work you do with Ken Burns, just just being blown away by it and your approach to the interview, I think for not just me, I think for all of us, you know, just set a high bar and I think is a touchstone for any cinematographer that's filming a human face. So thank you for saying that. I think, you know, Hampshire had a very strong tradition of both experimental filmmaking and of social justice filmmaking, and also of non-narrative filmmaking. That type of work has been very valued by the faculty there. And I think also it was the type of place where the line between documentary and scripted filmmaking was always blurred quite a bit from the very beginning, because I think the school is so small. And I also think just the organic nature that it approached all of cinema, this sharply drawn line between Well, this is scripted storytelling and this is documentary storytelling, never existed. And that's very interesting because I think that is much more common now, right, where you have Hollywood cinematographers that are going back and forth and doing documentaries. Certainly the tools of documentary are almost the same now as something you might shoot a big-budget action movie on, and you're seeing documentaries with incredibly elaborate recreations. And so in many ways, this synergy between scripted and documentary storytelling was very ahead of its time over there.

Buddy Squires: I completely agree. The other distinction, which we did not make was really the distinction between the still photograph and the motion picture. It isn't that they are two different mediums. We didn't understand them as such. But for us, at least when I was there, they were taught, really as one discipline. The main professor at the time, who started the department was a great photographer named Jerome Liebling who was part of the Photo League in New York in the 1950s. And very much a part of the concerns social justice, but also highly aesthetic tradition of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, and Bernice Abbot. And we were taught, really all together, we didn't really have classes in some ways. I mean, we did have classes, and they had some names, but they were meaningless. It was essentially, we all gathered all of us beyond the first year or two, several times a week. And we watched each other's work, and we critique each other's work. The film classes largely were about watching films and watching everything we've talked about — Man With a Movie Camera, you know, on and on and on. It was just an exposure to other ways of filmmaking that most film students weren't getting. And at the same time, a real concentration of the importance of the single image. You know, I still remember to this day being photographed with Jerry [Liebling], and we would all go out and do exercises together. In the early years, people took trips to Mexico together and just walking down by the Connecticut River and having, just kind of pick up a leaf, a really large leaf and just kind of say, Well, you can see it from here, and you can see it from here. But what happens if you get it this way? And there's this kind of backlight. It's just like, what do you see? What are you looking at? What do you care about? You can see it in Michael's work, you can see it in Tom [Sigel]'s work. Even if it's a job or an assignment, it's putting one's best self into that.

Iain Marcks: Looking at the world this way, what does that reveal that might otherwise go unnoticed? Just like, you know, walking down the road and picking up a leaf and looking at it from this direction. And looking at it from that direction. It sounds to me like you're learning to look at the world through a different lens.

Buddy Squires: I mean, what I'm talking about, there's a tool, you know, we use light as a tool. Light is not, doesn't have value in and of itself. Composition is a tool, the way you see really reflects just what you're interested in and concerned about. But it's then being able to take those tools and techniques that one learns, and put them into the service of the story you're trying to tell. You know, whatever that story isn't, it doesn't have to be a deeply important social story. It can be whimsical, it can be, you know, very playful. I mean, one of the films that Ken did in school though really received a lot of acclaim was called Yan's 400-Foot Movie, and it was basically, Ken was operating the camera and this guy, Yan Kapretz, an early Hampshire student, is like walking down a road in Amherst, Massachusetts with a mirror and Roger Sherman is doing sound and Roger’s brother Tommy is on a bicycle kind of floating in and out of the frame. And it's just this kind of lovely experiment. What happens when you turn the camera on and roll for 400 feet until it runs out? What do you see? So what do you get out of that? There's nothing terribly important about it. But it is an exercise in understanding time, and understanding the choices that one makes throughout time. And what do you see on the camera? What are you not seeing? What is this piece of sound doing? What's the voice doing? You know, I mean, I can catapult that right ahead to a wonderful film that Ricky Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker did with [Jean-Luc] Godard, which actually, Godard abandoned, it was initially supposed to be called One AM, which was “One American Movie” and became One PM for I can't remember what the PM was. [“Perfect Movie”, "Pennebaker Movie", or "Parallel Movie". — Ed.] But basically, there's a wonderful scene in there, where Ricky I believe, is filming Black Panthers at night on the streets in Oakland, and just kind of almost spinning in a circle in the midst of these guys. And there's something so magical about the way he comes in and grabs a face and then moves off to the next thing and moods never quite settles into exactly, you know, any one thing, but it's so beautiful in the way that it it samples, that environment, all these things build on each other. They're just different ways of finding one's way in a world and how one then takes the knowledge of that. Having seen those things, then informs what I'm gonna go do tomorrow when I'm filming a climate march in New York City, because that's somewhere in the recesses of my mind, and maybe something I can riff off of.

Michael M. Pessah: And I think it's thinking that I think cinematographers are maybe sort of one of the more perfect distillations of this, but it's something that every artist has always done, whether it's, you know, Virginia Woolf, or Vermeer or Caravaggio, or [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. Artists are walking around the world and seeing the sort of marvels that are there, and processing them and putting their stamp on it. And hopefully, other humans are out there to find it interesting.

Buddy Squires: I mean, in so many ways, you know, what does an artist do? They just reorganize the world and present it in the way that makes most sense to them.

Michael M. Pessah: I'm glad you mentioned Godard. You know, we're talking about the overlap of documentary and scripted, I think, you know, if you look at, for example, Sympathy for the Devil, which Anthony Richmond, ASC [BSC] photographed, that's a really incredible example, you know, along with, you know, Medium Cool, of filmmakers and documentarians that were embracing the ambiguity between scripted and the documentary form and made some really, really interesting films.

Iain Marcks: One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to the both of you about documentary filmmaking is because you both have such well defined and well-articulated positions on the subject. And so what I'm interested in is how you go about translating your experience of the world through the work that you do as documentary filmmakers.

Michael M. Pessah: Well, I think, and I'm sure Buddy would be the first to agree with this, it's such an important part of making any movie right, telling any story, whether it's scripted, or documentary, is listening to where the film wants to pull you, you know, there's always a force of gravity. And you could sort of barrel in didactically. But I don't think that's how good movies are ever made. You go in with a sort of idea in your mind of the story. And then most of the time, the ground shifts under your feet. And the movie itself surprises you and you and you have to sort of answer the call of that. And the good cinematographers and the good filmmakers are paying attention to that and are able to sort of pivot. And I think that's true, whether you're making a cinéma vérité documentary, or if you're making a $100 million movie, it's about sort of listening to where the story is pulling you.

Buddy Squires: Yeah, I mean, I very much would agree with that and just expand on it, and for myself, I usually respond to this kind of question with, If my presence is the most interesting thing in the room, it's not a very interesting film, or not a very interesting scene. I'm interested in being places where something much more essential than my presence is happening. And then my job is to try to see that, understand it, and bring that to an audience as best I can. I actually find that people who are more involved within certain limits are great and fantastic, and that I don't, I mean, even you know, in kind of thinking over, you know, various films, if one looks at [Frederick] Wiseman's work, to my mind, the very best of those films is Titicut Follies. And it's the one film that is really much more actively photographed than the others. While Fred is brilliant, and I would never do anything but sing his praises, the way that John Marshall really committed himself to those scenes, and he was in the middle of them. And to me, it's far more effective than sitting back on a long lens in the corner of a room and not being involved. I happen to work, and I love working very close, in largely perpetual motion in a scene but not frenetically, because that, to me, puts the viewer in the middle of the scene. I don't want to be that outside observer. I want the people who are watching my work to feel like they were in the middle of that scene, that they experienced it as one of the participants might have, or as you know, another observer in that conversation might have.

Michael M. Pessah: I'm so glad, buddy, you brought up Titicut Follies. You read my mind. And my very first internship was with John Marshall back when he was at DER [Documentary Educational Resources]. And you know, you look at that film and you look at what Wiseman and Marshall captured in Titicut Follies. Would people have behaved that differently if it was a hidden camera, not someone walking around with a Sony a7 or a tiny handheld camera. You're talking about someone shooting with film and reloads and everything that's required. And those filmmakers managed to make themselves disappear. And you had people in that documentary behaving in a way that they would have behaved if there was no camera there. If you're looking for a control group or a case in point, you know, there's many many cinéma vérité documentaries where people seem to forget the presence of the camera, and I think it's an important part of the documentarian’s job.

Buddy Squires: It's shifted a lot over the years, and what's shifted isn't so much the filmmakers but the subjects. So a film like Primary, which is one of the greatest films of all time, could not be made in the same fashion today, because everybody is very media aware, media savvy, everybody wants to present a certain gloss of themselves to the camera. And that really wasn't present in Primary, or in a lot of the early Leacock-Pennebaker work. So we can't really approach the world in the same way. Although the tools now can be much smaller, you can in fact, go out and shoot an entire good-looking film with an a7 and be relatively small footprint, but you're still there. And for that matter, sound is still sound. And you're still going to have somebody running around with a boom and radio mics and whatever, no matter what you do to shrink the cameras, and really vérité films don't work without good sound. I mean, sound people are the unheralded heroes of the vérité world. You can always cover a bad shot, you can't cover bad sound.

Michael M. Pessah: And I think another thing that's changed is that the average citizen is a much more savvy filmmaker, than maybe they were 40 or 50 years ago. Every telephone is an incredible filmmaking device. And people are very aware of composition and camera movement and how to compose a shot.

Iain Marcks: And perhaps it could be that even in the time it has taken for this technology to advance, that people maybe don't mind having cameras around as much as they used to.

Buddy Squires: It's almost the opposite, though, because I think people play to the camera now more than they ever did. And I think that that becomes its own task to get past that TikTok, you know, YouTube presentation of oneself that that consciousness makes it difficult. There are a lot of great films being made, but I can't say that there are way better documentaries being made now than there were 60 years ago. They’re different films, and they have wholly different abilities to be in certain places and do certain things. But there was a kind of raw energy, if you want to call it truthfulness to some of that early work, which is very difficult to approximate these days.

Michael M. Pessah: You know, one of my favorite documentaries ever is Monterey Pop. Take a look at the work Pennebaker and his team did on Monterey Pop, and there is a truthfulness to the performances on stage that's extraordinary. You're looking at Janis Joplin and Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix at their peak. And they're all sadly not going to be around for many years longer. The truthfulness of their performance, playing to the crowd and not to the camera. The honesty of the crowd reaction shots as well, is something truly extraordinary. And you jump ahead, you know, seven, eight years later, you look at some of the concert films in the 1970s. And without mentioning any of them, specifically, the genre already sort of fell into, like a series of tropes that were all sort of based on those early concert films. And I think it's because exactly as Buddy said, performers started being aware of the camera. And even if you look at Woodstock, which was, which was just a few years later, you have the performers on stage at Woodstock, that are playing to the camera in a way that they weren't for some of the earlier concert films. I think it's also worth mentioning that, you know, documentary is also a medium that's like very much in its infancy compared to narrative filmmaking. If you look at, for example, Dinner at Eight, the 1930 screwball comedy, it has much more in common with narrative films you'd see in the theater now then, a documentary from 1930, [Robert] Drew and Pennebaker and Leacock, right, invented a camera that allow you to do sync sound vérité relatively recently, right? It was only in the 1960s. And the interview, as we sort of understand it, even though we now think of it as a very rudimentary part of documentary filmmaking, the interview itself is a pretty rare element in most of the early documentaries, right? They were just newsreels. They were what we'd call now, B-roll and voiceover.

Iain Marcks: So to that point, when you're sitting down with the subject, you know, who's there, because you're there, and they're sharing their experience, what is the responsibility of the documentarian, the cinematographer, the filmmaker, to help that person tell their story?

Michael M. Pessah: It's an interesting balancing act, because you want to capture the truth of the person that's in front of you. But by sitting down in front of your camera, the person you're photographing is making themselves very, very vulnerable to you. And with that, I think you need to be mindful of that responsibility. And so something as simple as the background that's behind someone that informs who they are tremendously, you know. Is someone sitting at a desk in front of a library or is someone sitting in their child's bedroom? Or is someone sitting with the Hollywood sign across the width of the frame? It could be the same human but those backgrounds are saying very different things. And I think you can say the same thing about how you light someone and the focal length you choose. You want to try to find this balance between representing the authenticity and verisimilitude and the truth of the person that's allowing you to photograph them. And at the same time, you want to take care to kind of do justice to them.

Buddy Squires: Absolutely. One needs to honor the subject. And at the same time, recognize that we're working for directors, and the directors have a particular vision, and they have a particular notion that they're trying to achieve. And we work in a very cooperative world, it's not just like, I walk in and say, I'm going to do this. It's like, well, if that doesn't serve the film, then I'm not doing my job, you know, and if I only want to do what I want to do, then I have to only shoot when I'm directing as well. One has to understand that there's a cooperative nature to it. And but it is a responsibility, it's a great responsibility to treat people with dignity. And I've often found that, you know, I work just as hard to light an economically disadvantaged person in a detention camp, if I have the ability to light, as I do a presidential candidate. There may be different concerns, because there's always other people involved in politics, but I'm just trying to give them their dignity, and allow their story to be told. And it also depends on what their relationship is to the story. If you're doing a film, I'm doing a film on Reconstruction right now, the interviews in that film, we're not particularly interested in where that person is right now, because that person is talking about something that happened 150 to 100 years ago. So I'm only trying to create a space within the limitations that I have of a very small crew, and usually locations that are tight and quick. And we've got to get two or three interviews done in a day to let that story come forward. If I'm doing a film about a mother waiting for her four-year old daughter to come out of a heart transplant, well, then I'm a whole lot happier being in the corridor outside the hospital, with all that tension and energy around it, than I am in some setup studio space. So it really just depends on how one serves the film best.

Michael M. Pessah: And I think a really good case in point, if I'm allowed to ask Buddy a question about it directly, I'd love to, one of the, in my opinion, one of the great documentaries of recent memory is The Vietnam War. And it's truly truly an extraordinary film. I hope anyone listening takes the time to watch it. And one of the things that's so extraordinary about it was the way that both sides of the same battle, were told by both the Vietnamese soldiers and the American soldiers that were opposing each other at the time. And the way Buddy photographed the American veterans, and the Vietnamese veterans with such equanimity, the images spoke values. And I hope maybe Buddy, you can talk about your experience filming that.

Buddy Squires: Well, thank you for that. It really means a lot to me that you saw that and appreciate it. And it's just what we do. I mean, we have more ability to control the circumstances when we're in the US. And I can say, No, let me see locations stills of this. Nope, I hate this place, hate those white walls, you know, give me something else. In Vietnam, we didn't have a whole lot of choice. And we pretty much had to take whatever was given us in terms of locations. But you know, I don't, I don't use a whole lot of gear. And we took pretty much the same package, which really amounts to, you know, a half a dozen lights and some stands and, you know, one camera and a tripod, to Vietnam. And, you know, if we were in some kind of Soviet-era block apartment building, with a tiny one bedroom apartment, we would approach that the same as being in a southern mansion, except I wouldn't have as many possibilities for depth. But we would try to find those elements that allowed us to bring those people forward to let their stories come out. I mean, the war ended 50 years ago, at this point, so they weren't in situ as they might have been. So trying to find that space— But in whatever it is, it's tricky, because there's so many people and so many films have lots and lots of interviews, and there are plenty of people who are very good at it — But having a consistent style throughout a film, I think really makes a difference. You have to take the hand that's dealt you, which is the thing about documentary work. You take the hand that's dealt you and you figure out how to work with it. In Statue of Liberty, the second real film that Ken and I did out of college, we tried and tried and tried to get an interview with James Baldwin. And finally he agreed and the only location we can come up with was, Michael will know, this was in one of the center rooms in [Greenwich] house three at school. And they're these kinds of donuts. They were these circular buildings with a kind of central communal space and little apartments off of either side. And the only thing we could find that was quiet was a donut which just had a pure white wall, slightly off white wall and Baldwin finally showed up I think an hour or two late, and I lit this very dark man at a time when we were shooting, you know, 25 ASA film, I think. And just this very simple lighting in front of the simple white wall, and we shot I think 200 feet, and I think 180 of it are in the film, because it's just letting Baldwin be Baldwin. It's taking the situation you have and then figuring out a way to let that person come through, whatever that means,

Michael M. Pessah: Buddy, when you're plotting out your interviews, do you think about who's left to right, and who's right to left? And how they might cut opposite each other? Or do you just look at what works best for the...

Buddy Squires: What works best for the room and their face, is really what it amounts to. And very often I don't see people, beyond a photographed until they walk in the room, and I don't really have a chance to flip it. So luckily, certainly the films I do with Ken are large enough and long enough that you're not going to really end up in too much of that. There are films in which I have shot where the director is very conscious: I want this person in conversation with this person. And then we will work to make this person screen left of this person's screen right and have that conversation going. But I would say it's a small amount of the time. But I mean, the work that you did on the Inquirer project, and clearly that center frame stylization is nothing you would do without consultation with the director. And they say, We want this, we want a lot of space. We want these really cool environments. We want this beautiful high-contrast lighting, because that's the story we want to tell, and it makes sense for that film.

Michael M. Pessah: The movie Buddy's talking about was the film Scandalous that was put out by Magnolia, and the director Mark Landsman had this idea that the images in the interview would have the sort of same sense of sensationalism as the story of The National Enquirer, which is the topic of the film. The film tells the story of American history over the past 40 years through the kind of pages of The National Enquirer and as the sort of tabloids changed, so did the United States. That's a great example of collaborating with a director and following their vision, not the least of which is just finding somewhere to put a boom mic. We talked about, do we just shoot a plate and stitch the boom mic out? And, you know, we thought the light would change too much, we might get into trouble that way. And just in every one of those frames, you know, we also had to find somewhere to hide a microphone. But I think another fun thing about that documentary is that we use a lot of natural light. And we plotted it out so that the questions that kind of get into the third act of the film would often be right around the time the sun would be setting. As you look at the movie, you're seeing the same interview, dip from day to night, all around the same time in the film. And it took a little bit of planning with lighting and how to dim the lights up as the sunset. But that was a fun experiment and a bit of a challenge in terms of how do you tell an interview that begins during the day and ends at night. And as a single camera movie, that would have been a challenge. The wide shots are so wide that you want to have that B camera to help get closer to the human face.

Iain Marcks: We've been talking about capturing and conveying truth. What role does stylization or a personal style play in this process? And is there a balance that must be struck between exercising style and telling the truth?

Buddy Squires: The first question there is one's use of the word “style” and “stylization” because they're very different things in many ways. You know, I think I do have a pretty distinctive vérité style, it's very much handheld, very much trying for continuous movement. My favorite shots run between a minute and two minutes long. And I tend to squeak you know, one or two in every major vérité film I do, because to me, there's something magical about watching that all evolve. Stylization is a slightly different thing that is saying, you know, We want all these interviews to feel like they're ripped from the pages of The National Enquirer, and we're going to go to the trouble and expense to get these kinds of settings. And we're going to figure out where to hide the mic and whatever. And we're going to use this, this camera and this lens and this type of lighting. So the two things are a little bit different. One's own personal style is critically important, but it's hard to say exactly what that is. Other than that, I don't like having in a vérité situation, I really do not like having another camera around. There are times when I'll do it, if I'm covering a class and somebody is speaking and you know, and I'm kind of going back and forth between whatever's going on and somebody's on, on sticks on a lock-off on the person leading the class. Maybe I'll do that. But I like to be free to roam and see and make those connections as I see fit in the moment. That's the art of it. The art of it is finding where I want to be, when. The most important thing about that is listening. But it also, one has to then also be in tune with the director because I can go mad trying to create these long connections between things. But if all anybody can use material for is as a montage of images, I'm far more efficient if I forget that entirely and start going for like this beautiful close-up and this person playing with their fingers on their pencil. You have to know what the film is and how your own style is going to relate to that. Ultimately, what we're hired for is our style. The reason why somebody's going to hire me instead of Joan Churchill, [ASC] for something is we have different styles and different approaches, you know, and if somebody wants more of what Joan does, then they're going to probably gravitate towards her. If they want more of what I do, they'll gravitate towards me, and there's certainly no wrong answer. She's like, incredible, but we do things a bit differently; also, I'd say similarly enough that when we do films together, it works. But you know, there are people who will come in and like, just work with primes. I don't work with primes, primarily. I work with zooms. I really love working with zooms in a vérité situation. But that's a different look, a different style.

Michael M. Pessah: You know, I always like to joke that, you know, no choice is still a choice. The very act of picking up a camera and hitting record, and knowing when to push the button to stop recording is unto itself a very dramatic filmmaking decision. Even if you walk into an available light situation, you have someone standing in front of a window, as a cinematographer, from the very beginning, you're making a decision about how much of the detail outside of that window do you want to hold? Or how much do you want to favor the detail on someone's face? Is it a silhouette? Are you letting that window blow out? Are you doing a little bit of both and getting a pickup looking out the window with an ND and then you pull the ND to see someone? Even in the most bare bones of lighting or filmmaking scenarios, you're making thousands of micro-decisions every minute.

Buddy Squires: Sure, if you take Jim Jarmusch’s films, you know, they're these series of single-shots, action happens in front. That's absolutely a style. And it's a unique style. And nobody does it the way Jim does.

Michael M. Pessah: I love, Buddy, how you talk about your technique, filming single camera coverage. And I think that's such an incredible experience for a cinematographer, because you really are your cinematographer, in many ways, and editor at the same time. And I think we all have that moment you're filming someone's face, and you know, there's something interesting happening on the other side of the room. Or maybe you want to dip down and get a cutaway of their hands. And you're thinking to yourself, when is the perfect moment to sort of step away from this shot and pan over and find the other action? Even if you then transition into filming, like multi-camera, or even narrative, right? You're that part of your brain is always sort of spinning and you're thinking about, Is this person about to complete their thought? When's the best time to kind of find another shot? What is the editor going to need to help tell the story? The flip side of that is, when does a pause speak volumes. And even when someone seems like they finished their thought, the most important thing in the world for you to do is to keep the camera on their face, because the thing that they're not saying is so expressive, and the pause itself carries such weight.

Buddy Squires: I mean, one always has to think of, you know, if there are people talking, am I more interested in what's being said, or how it's being received? Is this the actual point of this, like, who else in the room is receiving this thing? And how do I go about doing that? And I really, you know, whenever I do lectures or talks, whatever, listening for me is the most important thing. And it's the thing that, frankly, directors comment on like, you know, You listen really well, you know. How did you know to move at that time? Well, I knew because I was listening the whole time. And I knew a pretty good idea where it's going. You can be wrong, you make mistakes all the time. It's just keeping one's composure and not going, Oh, I missed it. You know, you never really miss it, you just gonna, like, float over to it and find that you hear that thing like, Oh, that was the line, I really want it. Well, find a way to get over where you want to be be at that moment.

Michael M. Pessah: Again, talking about the sort of micro-decisions, you make. Something as simple as someone walking into a house, if you know they're going to be walking into a house to meet someone, you could be inside to receive them, you could be behind them and walking through the door with them. That's a monumental decision in terms of the storytelling. You know, when you're filming a documentary, these are all things that you're thinking about very intently. And sometimes if you're making a narrative film, right, you filmed the door from both sides, you filmed someone walking through the door, and you filmed someone walking into the room. And sometimes it's really good training for making scripted work, when you have to really think about okay, someone's only got to walk through that door once. Which side tells the story best?

Buddy Squires: Or do you want to come to the door behind the person and walk in with them and deal with all the exposure issues and color balance issues and everything else that involves doing that. And it's very true. It's also knowing, like, you have to know what the film is about. You also have, to my mind, be endlessly aware of when things are changing. So I'm pretty sure it's Gimme Shelter. And I'm not sure who's on camera in this moment. But it's a very famous moment of the film, where [Mick] Jagger is on stage. And he's singing, but as if it was Leacock or Pennebaker, who knows, there are many, many cameras on that film, the person notices that there's this other person who's not a member of the Rolling Stones, who's starting to act a bit strangely. And they've got the guts or foolishness to not focus on Jagger, but to focus on this other thing that's happening on the stage, which ultimately ends up being the key to which that film revolves around. You have to be aware of the possibility of ignoring Mick Jagger because something else is going on that's more important than Mick at that moment.

Michael M. Pessah: Stephen Lighthill, who was, of course, ASC president, was one of the camera people on Gimme Shelter. And I remember talking to Stephen, about that. And this is, I think, at a time when people weren't on intercoms. And you know, there was no, there's no control room. And I asked, How did you know when to find the action in the crowd? And exactly as you said, You could see the Summer of Love sort of deteriorating in real time in that film. And Steven said, You could just feel it in the air, that something really bad was about to happen. If the folks filming Gimme Shelter weren't paying attention to what was happening around them, you know, one of the greatest documentaries ever would not exist as we know it.

Iain Marcks: On the subject of working in intense environments. Buddy, I'm thinking of the scene in the Afghan ER, in your film Beyond the Beach. What can you tell us about the way being behind a camera transforms your awareness of danger, or ability to process other people's trauma in an objective way,

Buddy Squires: What Iain’s talking about is the scene in a film I made about an Italian NGO called Emergency that provides free warzone health care to all any side of any combatants anywhere, and they've run this incredible trauma hospital in Kabul for the last 30, 40 years. And I happened to be there doing a film about them, when there were some massive protests. There had been a huge truck bomb that went off the day before we got there. And there had been mass casualties that day, 130 to 150 people in the hospital. And then the next day, there was a protest and the military opened up on the protesters, maybe a half mile from the hospital and all these people started filtering in lots of people with lots of weapons, and lots of very badly wounded people. And we were in the middle of it. But to me, I mean, one always has to be aware of the safety of whatever one is doing, you don't want to walk off the end of a cliff, because you're too busy photographing something, but I trusted the people around me, and in many ways, the camera is this incredible license to actually look and see what's going on. So as you watch these heroic doctors and nurses, people trying to bring some calm and order to the situation and trying to administer to these people, one of whom pretty much dies on camera, it’s a huge responsibility to be there. It's also a privilege. And one just does one's very best to be as present and honest, in that situation as one can. And yeah, sure, you don't want to get yourself killed, you don't want to get your crew hurt, you know, you've got to be very careful about those things. But, you know, we take risks, hopefully, they're calculated risks. And, you know, everyone who's ever not made it through something, because they've been badly wounded has probably said that before. So one is always aware of that. But I found some of the most interesting experiences have been when I have been willing to take a risk. There's a wonderful interview with the head nurse at the hospital, who is talking about what happens, you know, during a bombing, and she's like, you know, What's to be afraid of? Bomb goes off, boom, it's over, you know, then people start coming to the hospital. The situation we were in at that moment was it actually felt like civil war might have been breaking out in Afghanistan that day, and there was a real, there were real concerns. And we ultimately left the country, because we had credible intelligence that there was a possible civil war breaking out. So we stayed, we got the footage we needed and then we got out. But you always try to honor the people that are in front of you. And if they're risking their lives to do something, and you're not being foolish with yourself or your crew, then you go ahead and there are times when you go like, Nope, we're done. Let's get out of here.

Iain Marcks: There's a moment in the film that we were talking about where a small child is brought into the ER, and they've been gravely wounded. And that was really hard to watch. What was that like to film you know, because on the one hand, you have to empathize with your subject at the same time, you have to intellectualize your work as a filmmaker.

Buddy Squires: There's a really fascinating and tricky line of empathy and exploitation. One never wants to exploit. One wants to tap into their own empathy. I think in that situation, allowing the empathic part of me that says, This is actually what happens in war. This is what happens. This is when people talk about cluster bombs, when people talk about what happens, because that's, you know, in fact, what had happened to that child is that he crawled out of the tent he was living in, and a landmine that hadn't been cleared went off in his face. I think it's vitally important to see that and feel that and understand that in some ways, somebody observing it on film probably was harder than me being there, because I was within a whole situation. I was in a hospital, there was an operating room there, there was an MRI there, there were people attending to him. And what I'm doing as a filmmaker is presenting that wounded part of that child to you, I pray not in an exploitive way. But we do need to see these things. And it's really tricky to understand, at what point is one being exploitative, and at what point is one trying to tap into empathy to in fact, say, in a larger sense, These things shouldn't be happening. There was no war going on in Afghanistan at that moment. This is just a leftover refuse of war, that wounded that child. And it takes so many legs and arms and eyes from, from small kids all around the world. I hope it didn't upset you. But if it maybe somewhere made you a little bit more conscious that that's the reality we talked about. When we talk about all these munitions going into places and bombs going off, etc. It's real, it is what makes Nick Ut’s photograph of the “Napalm Girl” in Vietnam so potent, because this child is through no fault of their own, being hideously burned by this act of aggression by the Americans. There's no other way to understand it.

Iain Marcks: Well, it is upsetting, But therein lies its potency.

Buddy Squires: Yeah, and so I guess we want to be potent. But again, it's really, really important to understand. And we're confronted with it more and more, with our understandings of What does it mean to drop into somebody else's culture and to make these very powerful images of victims of war?

Michael M. Pessah: It's, it's hard to underestimate the power of a particular image to change the way the world is seen. Right? I always say that one of the most frightening sequences in any movie is the beginning to Harlan County, USA. Barbara Kopple’s film, where you're, you really understand how dangerous those coal mines were, and the camera descends right into the earth. And when you come out, you really understand what it was that those coal miners were fighting for. Right? Or you can use, you know, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, right, as another example, you know, as a film whose imagery really shaped the world. That's something that every cinematographer and every documentarian, I think, is mindful of.

Iain Marcks: As you see more of the world through your work, does that change the way you approach your work?

Michael M. Pessah: I'll speak for myself, which is that, that's the really fun part of what we do is that everything changes, and you as a human being changed from year to year, and you see the world differently, right? You relate to you and relate to other humans in a different way than maybe you did five years ago. Certainly the technology, right of how you tell a story changes, and also the sort of currents that you're swimming in, stylistically, change, right. And I always say, you can kind of make a chart of the way the world feels about lens flares, right? And they kind of come in and out of vogue every seven to eight years. They were considered not great in 1960. And then they were fantastic in 1968. And then people didn't like them again, and then they came back. So it all sort of changes. That's the fun part.

Buddy Squires: Yeah, we are obviously the sum total of our experience when we bring— The person I am now is a very different person than when I went off to do a film on the Khmer Rouge in 1980. I am now a father and I've gone through a stage of, my kids are teenagers. But, you know, at a certain point, I was going off making very graphic films, and I had a two year old and a five year old who, like, I didn't want to watch my films. So how does one understand that it's not just, How gory can I be? How do I get to the same place in a more sophisticated way? And how can I be more subtle and by being more subtle, perhaps more effective? If there's something that maturity brings, maybe it's that it's just knowing, okay, like, you know, I figured out how to like, make people wince, you know, when I was 25. Now, I don't just want to make them wince. I want to make them actually think about why they’re wincing, and how do I affect that in any given image?

Michael M. Pessah: You know, you look at you know, Michael Apted’s, 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up films. I remember someone said to me, a colleague said one of the incredible things about the films is just that you're watching the subjects age with every seven year cycle of those films. You're also watching Michael Apted in a different phase of his life and relating to his subjects in a different way. And I think that's one of the things that's sort of extraordinary about the film is they're, they're all sort of moving through life together, the filmmaker and the subjects.

Buddy Squires: And there's also just staying alert and awake to the opportunities that present themselves now, I mean, in a very different vein, I'm doing a large film for Ken and Sarah Botstein and others on the American Revolution. And one of the tricks of doing all these pre-photographic stories, when we did The Civil War, we were blessed with having, you know, hundreds of 1000s of glass plate images of that war that that film really relies upon, in addition to all the other stuff we did, none of that exists for the Revolution. And so how does one do that, and still stay true to what we have evolved as a methodology of working in which we don't do big recreations with people speaking lines and recognizable characters? And how do we do that in a way that is in keeping with the kind of impressionistic thing that we do. And, you know, recently I discovered the joys of working with an a7, handheld close up wide angle with no depth to shoot a 1000-person recreation, and see that close up on the hammer of the musket, and feel 100 people in the line behind it, but not see those people's faces, not see that they're out of shape, and couldn't possibly have been through a war, that their tents are way too clean, or whatever. All that artifice is— And I'm able to find the little detail that tells the story, but also feels like it's of a larger scale and larger scope. And that's taking advantage of a technology that didn't really exist until a couple of years ago. So how do we take all these new tools that are at our disposal and make them work for us, bend them to the stories we're trying to tell?

Michael M. Pessah: Yeah, I one of my favorite, quote unquote recreations is the coffee cup that Errol Morris films I think in I think in the film, Mr. Death [The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.], there's the very, very slow motion macro photography of cream, kind of dripping into a coffee cup. And I think that's there to sort of be a visual allegory for what's going on inside this this sort of subjects mind. As Buddy mentioned, the recreation doesn't need to be something with hundreds of people in period wardrobe. Sometimes the most evocative recreation is just a macro shot or something that is, you know, more of an allegorical image. I did a film about the pianist Arthur Schnabel. And the director of Matthew Mishory, he said, There's lots of archival of this person. We're we're going to tell this documentary using only interviews, and only very evocative recreations. So we shot a lot of Super 8, we filmed a lot of landscapes, some interviews, but that was an interesting stylistic exercise for a documentary. That's a fun part of making documentaries is two filmmakers will tell the same story in such different ways. And it's such it's such a flexible form. Tangented off a little bit there.

Iain Marcks: But no, it's an interesting point. I mean, one of my favorite recent documentaries is Get Back, which was directed by Peter Jackson, using footage shot by Tony Richmond, again, for Michael Lindsay Hogg’s Beatles documentary, Let It Be.

Michael M. Pessah: You know, I mean, a great recent example is you have Fire of Love. And Werner Herzog made another documentary about the same two people using almost exactly the same archival footage. It's a beautiful double feature when you take a look at those two films and seeing how how different they are and how the filmmakers approach things in such a different way.

Iain Marcks: All right, last question. And it's an easy one. I want to ask the two of you about your favorite documentaries. Michael, you already mentioned Monterey Pop, and I wanted to give you another opportunity to maybe talk about a favorite performance or something about it from a cinematographic angle that stands out for you.

Michael M. Pessah: I could talk about for hours. It's such an extraordinary film on, first of all, on a on a technical level, the way the camera is able to break off from the stage and film, you know, the Summer of Love as it's happening in real-time, all the amazing faces in the crowd, and the way that the performers are photographed, you know, in a very raw way, you have a camera that's capturing something very, very close to what the audience might have seen. And you also have the camera getting closer to the faces of the performer, then we had really ever been allowed to previously, and I were to pick out a favorite moment— I'll give you two.

One is the incredible sequence of Otis Redding, where some very, very brave and brilliant camera person got right behind Otis Redding and found the backlight. So as he moves on the stage, his head ducks away from the backline and the cameras incredibly flared out. And they hold that shot — brilliant editing — they hold that shot for more than a minute, as the silhouette of Otis Redding, who I think we all know, died a few years later, as the silhouette of Otis Redding moves back and forth. And the audience is just showered by light as he moves on the stage. And it's just one of the most beautiful visual moments in any film. And certainly, if you look at the Hollywood films a few years later, a lot of them steal that visual technique.

The other is the moment where we see Janis Joplin on stage. And I'll say that what's incredible is not just Janis Joplin's performance, and how close the camera gets to her face, and how we see her as a person as a performer in an intimate way that I think we often hadn't seen female performers before, and the way she blows everyone away. My favorite shot in the entire sequence is that Mama Cass, who was in one of the biggest bands at the time, the Mamas and the Papas, who had been involved in organizing that performance, Mama Cass is in the audience, and she is having her world turned upside down by Janis Joplin's performance, and she's there with her hands on her face because she has seen the future of music. And whoever found her in the audience and got that reaction shot deserves a medal because it's one of the great reaction shots in all of cinema history.

Buddy Squires: It's a fantastic image. Mama Cass and Janis Joplin, I never would have put the two in the same sentence. I'm always terrible with the kind of “your favorite”, “your best”, I'm never good at those because there are really so many and you have mentioned a lot of them. I mean Primary certainly, you know, the early Leacock-Pennebaker work, but I would have to say, as a whole, that body of work is very influential to me and I love all of it. You know, Streetwise is a great film that people don't think about very much anymore, but Martin Bell's film of Seattle street kids who was cut by my friend, Nancy Baker, and it's a really wonderful immersion into the lives of these young teenage runaways and, and the lives that they're living, and put together pretty simply. And when I look at it closely over time, and like, Oh, there's a lot of interviews in there. It's not quite vérité, it's not purest vérité, but I think that these labels are ridiculous. Anyway, I don't really care about purism. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s fantastic film, of Werner is like one of the great films of all time, you know, narrative documentaries, whatever, because Herzog is a force of nature. And, you know, it was very important in my kind of early understanding of film beyond Hollywood, so whether you know, I mean, Aguirre [Wrath of God] is still one of the great experiences of all time to watch, that film, at least when I did originally, and Fitzcarraldo and the documentaries, and to see Les in his kind of wonderfully irreverent way, just kind of like lay Werner out and say, like, Oh, dude, who are you? And what are you doing? It's so delightful and wonderful. So the list just goes on and on. I mean, there are just so many films that are really exciting and make me happy to watch them and then have informed me. Harlan County, USA is unbelievable. Every generation is kind of kicking up the things which are important to it, and those things which are culturally important. So we might go back now, we might watch Primary. Well, it's kind of dated, and it’s— It was amazing, and you have to see it for when the timeframe that it was, and we will never have Jack Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, or anyone, that exposed again in our politics and to be able to really feel that for all the limitations for all the Auricons that they just figured out how to make crystals, to the kind of help keep the sound in sync and, and all the difficulties of making that film. It's a tremendous film.

American Cinematographer interviews cinematographers, directors and other filmmakers to take you behind the scenes on major studio movies, independent films and popular television series.

Subscribe on iTunes

Subscribe Today

Act now to receive 12 issues of the award-winning AC magazine — the world’s finest cinematography resource.

July 2024 AC Magazine Cover
June 2024 AC Magazine Cover
May 2024 AC Magazine Cover