When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Gone With the Wind and On the Waterfront. I saw Gone With the Wind on a big screen, and it seemed larger than life. In Waterfront, the gritty look of Boris Kaufman, ASC’s black-and-white photography left an emotional impression on me.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
ASC members Gordon Willis and Owen Roizman. In my view, The Godfather Part II is the greatest movie ever photographed.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I don’t think any child growing up where I did in the 1950s was without a Brownie camera. As the limitations of my early cameras presented themselves, I gradually worked my way up to more sophisticated equipment, and that trend continues today.
Where did you train and/or study?
At the age of 12, I spent summers and holidays making deliveries on foot in New York City for General Camera Corp., which was owned by my father, Dick DiBona. I made deliveries to the sets of movies such as Up the Down Staircase, shot by Joe Coffey, and Goodbye Columbus, shot by Jerry Hirschfeld, ASC. Jerry was one of the owners of a New York commercial house called MPO Videotronics, and I made lots of deliveries to commercials being produced there. I later went to college at Emerson in Boston, and then came back to New York to work in the industry.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
When I started out as an operator in the 1970s, I worked for a long list of illustrious cinematographers, including [ASC members] Jerry Hirschfeld, Sven Nykvist, Woody Omens, David Quaid, Owen Roizman, Fred Schuler and Vittorio Storaro. I would have to say, though, that the greatest impact on my career came from the 10 enlightening and enjoyable years I spent working with Gordon Willis.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
In high school and college, I was an illustrator and painter. While visiting museums in the Northeast, I developed a feeling for orienting objects on a page or a canvas, which is the basic principle of composition. Observing where an artist created the light source for his painting eliminated a lot of trial and error.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work for my father at General Camera Corp., where I spent my time cleaning, fixing and delivering equipment. By doing so, I gained a familiarity with and knowledge of motion-picture equipment.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
I’d have to say moments. I’ve had the great fortune to work and learn through my associations with some of the great talents in the industry. Working with Gordon Willis would top the list. I got a chance to implement a lot of that experience on a project called Rain, which I shot and directed last year. It’s a feature written by Andrew Neiderman, who also wrote the novel The Devil’s Advocate. The film stars Faye Dunaway, Robert Loggia, Khandi Alexander from CSI: Miami and Brooklyn Sudano (Donna Summer’s daughter).
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Luckily, no, but I’ve witnessed some beauties. Maybe in private conversation I’d admit to some, but in print? I don’t think so! These are your friends that you go to battle with.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Early in my career, an old veteran told me, ‘The industry is a lot of fun, but never forget it’s a business with a lot of money being spent every second. Don’t laugh your way out of your job, and if you stretch your arms out and you can’t touch the camera, then you’re probably in the wrong place.’ Good words to remember.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I’m still more inspired by classic films of the past. They had good storytelling, and their ‘demographic’ was simply the ticket-purchasing audience at the box office. Given the direction the industry is taking, you’ll see fewer and fewer classic movies being produced. I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s an undeniable trend.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I’ve had the opportunity to work on all types of films. I’ve found that comedies are usually the happiest sets. But if you love the industry like I do, what makes it interesting is coming to work each day and facing a different set of problems you have to solve. In terms of genres, I’d have to say I enjoy them all.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
In college I played basketball, and when I was young, I thought it would be nice to make a living playing a game I loved. On the other hand, as a two-time cancer survivor who has counseled so many people stricken with the disease, I would have to say that helping people so deep in fear is more fulfilling than I can put into words. My, how the cycles of our lives make us grow.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman and Fred Schuler. I was thrilled.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I’ve been a member for about a year. Obviously, one of the biggest thrills is being in such great company. I enjoy being among people with such high standards of excellence, but I’ve also enjoyed meeting so many great human beings. I feel honored, and I hope to do my part to carry on their tradition.