When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Eyes Without a Face. I was about 7 when my mother dropped me off at a Saturday matinee, and I was so terrified I spent the entire movie out in the lobby of the theater, occasionally peeking in and being re-frightened into retreat. To this day, I have never seen it.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Gordon Willis, ASC, above all. He mastered both shots and lighting, and made shots that tell the story with a beauty and elegance that achieves perfection. The Godfather films and Pennies From Heaven are transcendent. Others: Gregg Toland, ASC; Raoul Coutard; Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC; Conrad Hall, ASC; and Bob Richardson, ASC. Richardson’s work in JFK, Natural Born Killers and U-Turn opened up a world of possibilities for everyone. Michael Seresin, BSC also deserves praise because his work, particularly Angel Heart, was highly influential in the ’80s.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Attraction to beauty and love of the equipment, a quasi-masculine expression of aesthetic ideals that could be acceptable in Detroit.
Where did you train and/or study?
In Detroit, I didn’t know anyone in the arts; all of my friends’ parents were auto engineers. I practiced with a still camera and a used 8mm camera, learned from my friends, and read every book on photography and the few about cinematography I could find. The resulting technical knowledge served me in good stead many years later, when I had a chance to work professionally, as I could learn very quickly because I understood the concepts. When I was older, I got into a British drama and film course in England and learned while going to four plays a week. Later, I began to really learn about light in a continuing-ed course at NYU taught by Thierry Pathe. I worked as an electrician for Dean Cundey, ASC; Adam Greenberg, ASC; and gaffer Mark Walthour, who were all generous with their knowledge. After becoming a cinematographer, I continued to learn about lighting from my gaffers, including Mo Flam, Steven Mathis, Dino Parks, Bruce McCleery and Rami Rao; and about staging and shots from directors Paul Morrissey, Andy Wolk, Dick Lowry, Steven Shainberg and Julian Farino.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Dean Cundey and Nick Smith, the guy who gave me my first job as a janitor at Mother’s Sound Stage in New York. Nick taught me how to build sets and use electricity without killing myself.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
I learned so much from taking painting classes. You start from scratch and learn to paint intuitively, and you learn when to stop. Watching movies is a constant inspiration, as are great photojournalists such as Salgado, Eugene Richards, Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.
How did you get your first break in the business?
Through my job at Mother’s, I learned how to clean and fix toilets, make coffee, sweep and mop floors, and occasionally ‘wrap’ a set or help build one. I also learned electricity and how to operate and fix the secondhand lights we had on the stage. After two years, Nick did me a favor by firing me so I could collect unemployment; this allowed me to survive while working on micro-budget films as a camera assistant. Nancy Schreiber, ASC was the first cinematographer to give me a chance.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
On Rock ’n’ Roll High School, my first film as an electrician in L.A., I made it to the end after four weeks of Mountain Dew-fueled marathons and knew we had done something good. I was able to pop the cork on the ‘wrap’ champagne bottle and hit one of the lights at the top of the gym roof. It seemed to somehow suggest all my dreams were being realized.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Forgetting to reset my light meter after using a higher-speed film and lighting an entire stage set with 100 units. I realized my mistake one hour before I had to shoot, leaving no time to fully relight for the minimum stop.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in college, Nick Ray came to show his films, and I spent the whole night talking to him in the lobby rather than watching the films. As he left, he said, ‘Remember, it’s a way of life.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The massive and beautiful Taschen book on da Vinci; Brokeback Mountain, which brought ambiguity and subtlety back to the cinema; and Clint Eastwood’s recent films, which brought tragedy back to American cinema after decades of happy endings. Also: Eminem, William Ball’s book on directing, Kazan’s and Cassavetes’ works (especially Faces), Murnau, Welles, Visconti, Bertolucci and Rossen.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I would love to do another musical and/or a tragic character film.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Choreography, architecture, possibly sculpting.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Francis Kenny, Jacek Laskus and John Newby.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I remember sitting in a drive-in with my high-school friends watching The Professionals, and when we saw ‘Conrad Hall, ASC’ onscreen, we respected it. To now be in the ASC Clubhouse with so many artists I admire is a dream I wouldn’t have dared hope to achieve. After so many years of working in isolation, I enjoy the camaraderie, the exchange of knowledge, the shared quest for elegance and beauty, the idealism and childlike purity, the hard-earned wisdom, and the passion of my fellow cinematographers. I feel blessed to have learned so much from them about my craft, my art, my attitude and my place in the universe.