When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
I was raised by my mother, and she didn’t get home from work until 7 p.m. That allowed me to watch a movie every day on Million Dollar Movie — a dollar figure that gives away the era. Each week brought a new genre, and most of the movies were in black-and-white. I embraced them all.
Which cinematographers do you most admire?
I was spinning the dial of a hotel TV recently, and a single shot from America, America, shot by Haskell Wexler, ASC, made me sit down and watch the whole movie. ASC members Gordon Willis and Sven Nyqvist changed the way I looked at movies and changed the way all movies looked. Work by Robbie Müller, BVK and Juan Ruiz-Anchia, ASC made me try harder. Nestor Alméndros, ASC showed me, and all of us, the power of natural light. And I still hold images in my head from Henri Alekan’s work.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Seeing Cartier-Bresson’s work when I was in high school. I saved up to buy a 35mm Nikon, and to get access to my school’s darkroom, I became the photo editor of the yearbook, establishing a standard for sub-par yearbook effort that has probably not been matched since my tenure.
Where did you train and/or study?
At New York University’s film school, I took cinematography classes with a Czech named Beda Batka. He was overbearing and didactic but knowledgeable. He insisted all his students buy the American Cinematographer Manual. I still have that edition.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
I spent all my summers in a house without electricity; it was filled with daylight, and we used kerosene lamps in the evenings. Perhaps because of that, I appreciate natural light and warm light from flames.
How did you get your first break in the business?
Thanks to a sound mixer, Mark Dichter, who convinced a producer I was a responsible guy, I was asked to shoot a half-hour TV show featuring a fallen Hungarian golf pro named Julius Boros. It was a kind of travelogue, and Julius, who hated fishing and travel, wandered the globe, fishing in exotic locations. The soundman and I would fish, and when one of us hooked a fish, we’d pass the rod to Julius, whom we then filmed landing the catch. On good days, I could persuade Julius to sit in a canoe or skiff in ankle-deep water while I put my back to the shore and found a nice, watery background. A year later, that same producer set up a prime-time show in New York, and the next thing I knew, I was the director of photography. I assembled a hard-working, experienced crew and faked my way through two successful seasons.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
The most satisfying moment on all my projects is when I complete the first setup. I always feel like I’ve just lost sight of land and am heading out into open water.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
I refer to it as a color: cornfield black. I had to do a shot in Field of Dreams in which a thunderstorm wakes Kevin Costner out of a deep sleep, and he walks to the window to look out at his moonlit cornfield. We worked six-day weeks on that movie, and that shot was scheduled for late one Saturday night. I quickly lit the bedroom and then spent hours lighting the cornfield with a Musco and a bunch of Dinos. It took forever and involved meal penalties, overtime and exhaustive effort on the crew’s part. We made the shot and wrapped for the week. In dailies, as the camera came up to speed, I could see the cornfield best at about a 1⁄4 of a second of exposure. At 1⁄48 of a second, however, there was nothing out the window except for an occasional highlight on a stray corn stalk. After the first take, the director said, ‘Are we okay, John?’ Knowing all the takes would be identical, I said, ‘No.’ I think the only reason I wasn’t executed was that I felt worse than everyone else. We re-shot the scene with a greenscreen out the window, and the cornfield was comped in later. The next time I light a cornfield at night, I’ll know better.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When I wanted to quit a miserable show, the director, Virgil Vogel, said, ‘Kid, never quit. If you have to leave, get fired. If you quit, it will always reflect on you.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Great exhibits of still photography by W. Eugene Smith, Lee Miller and Angela Strassheim.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you have been?
Probably working with horses in some capacity.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Nancy Schreiber, Sandi Sissel and Haskell Wexler.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I was a bit reluctant to join the ASC because I have three kids, and I often felt I spent too much time away from them as it was. I’m grateful to have been invited, however, and to have overcome my shyness, if only slightly. The ASC brings together a body of knowledge, experience and dedication that is apparent to the entire film community. When someone outside the industry asks me what the ASC is, I always say it is an honorary society, because it is an honor to be invited to join.