When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Like most kids, I was a sucker for horror and sci-fi films. Two that scared me to death at an impressionable age were the original The Thing, photographed by Russ Harlan, ASC, with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and The Man from Planet X, directed by Edgar Ulmer and photographed by John Russell, ASC. At that age I didn’t have any idea that movies were made; I thought they just sort of happened.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Néstor Almendros, ASC was my true mentor. What I most learned from him were simple manners and respect for the crew. Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s work on The Conformist made me decide to become a cinematographer. Gregory Sandor, who photographed Two-Lane Blacktop, the first studio film I did as camera assistant, taught me how to set key-to-fill ratios and how to be consistent through the coverage of a scene. His one-light dailies looked like many cinematographers’ answer prints. Willy Kurant, ASC, AFC, one of the great French New Wave cinematographers along with Coutard and Almendros, is a longtime friend who photographed a film I directed. And Laszlo Kovacs, ASC was the great exemplar of an artist who always did the most beautiful work, regardless of the assignment. His work always served the script, and it bothers me that the Academy never nominated him.
What sparked your interest in photography?
In college I was interested in fiction writing, but as a student in Europe I discovered the ‘art film.’ Its two key exponents were writer/directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Their ‘writing’ was a watershed to my generation.
Where did you train and/or study?
The University of Southern California (USC), when it began the graduate program.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Woody Omens and Gene Peterson at USC. Woody was the first person to give me encouragement in film school, and he is a dear friend to this day. Gene was a wild and crazy guy; he spent summers shooting wildlife films for Disney. He loved regaling us with stories of waking hibernating bears and filming them in their lairs.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The sculptor David Smith, the painter Mark Rothko, the photographer Paul Outerbridge, and the ever-fertile composer Elliot Carter, who turns 100 next year. Carter is the only person I’ve ever asked for an autograph.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I had a job filling lab orders for stock shots for the American Airlines library. In 1965, if you saw a shot of an AA jet in the air or on takeoff or landing, I probably provided it. My second job was syncing 16mm dailies for a Headstart documentary being edited by Verna Fields.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Maybe I could have answered that 25 years ago, when there were a lot fewer to choose from.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
In American Gigolo there’s a Steadicam POV shot of a character stalking Richard Gere on Westwood’s sidewalks. Somehow, the shutter on the Panaflex slipped from 180° to 40°. The shot was 2 stops underexposed. I only spotted it afterwards. We pushed the roll 1 stop and printed it up 1 stop. Since I always overexpose day exteriors, the negative was fine, but the accidental effect was a disquieting, picketing stutter of foreground parking meters between the camera and Gere. Some students have remarked on what a ‘bold choice’ that was as a psychological window into Gere’s anxiety. Yeah, and a window into ‘critical studies.’
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Early in my career, as an assistant doing commercials, I found myself sitting at the top of a Titan crane next to the great Phil Lathrop, ASC, waiting for the sun to set for a wide beauty shot of cars. He sat there patiently behind the lens. I leaned toward him and said, ‘I’m just starting in the business and hope someday to be a cinematographer. What advice could you give me?’ He looked at me so hard I felt like bailing off the crane. ‘Only one thing, kid,’ he said. ‘Sit down whenever you can.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I recently spent three days in the National Gallery in London, reviewing the history of Western art from Cimabue and Duccio to Van Gogh and Gauguin. I had headphones pressed to my head and was caught up in the commentaries and the amazing textures of paint you can only see at close scrutiny. It was a transcendent experience in one of the world’s greatest collections.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
After the misfired experience I had on The Producers, I would still like to do a musical.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
My father was a machinist, and I spent summers working lathes and mills in his machine shop. I would like to be a sculptor in steel.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Principally the late, generous John Alonzo.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
The sense of community and fellowship is something I carry with me even in the darkest and most desperate hours on the set.