When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Song of the South (1946). When I was 6, I saw this projected in the Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Gregg Toland’s [ASC] spectacular color cinematography started the ball rolling.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC is my all-time favorite. His work is beyond compare. Early on, I asked him how he lit a [particular] scene, and he said, ‘Go back and look. You can see the light.’ I thought he was being mystical — remember, I worshiped him — but then I watched again, and he was right: I could see the lighting unit reflected in a table!
What sparked your interest in photography?
I was a professional musician out of school, and between bouts of starvation I would shoot stills as a pastime.
Where did you train and/or study?
I never attended film school or had any formal instruction. I ran the lab at the Paramount Pictures Camera Dept., and to get the film machines clean, I would run a few test rolls every day. That gave me an opportunity to shoot film every single day and learn. How lucky can a guy be?
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
One day at Paramount, Barry Sonnenfeld called me to his trailer. He was sitting on the porch, smoking a stogie. He said, ‘So, I hear you want to be a cinematographer. Got some advice for you: just overexpose, and you’ll be fine!’ You know what? He was right! (Not so much for HD, though.)
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC suggested many years ago that I study Caravaggio and La Tour. I also have an affinity for Van Gogh, especially his later works.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I literally walked onto the lot at Paramount, waved at the guard like I belonged there, and walked to the camera department!
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Recently, while shooting the feature Shreveport, director Ryan Phillippe and I were 80 feet up in a Condor. Even though I despise heights, a moment of serenity came over me as I witnessed the most astonishingly beautiful composition of my career.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
While still an assistant, I coned a roll in the bag in the hot desert sun. The first AC, Brian Sweeney, took one look at the sweat pouring down my face and said, ‘Oh, no!’
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Always let the people you’re working with know if you are unsure about something. It’s much better than explaining why a mistake was made.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Films: The Skin I Live In, Melancholia and Skyfall.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I would love to shoot a Woody Allen picture. That would be nirvana.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would probably still be a starving guitarist.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Roy Wagner, Victor J. Kemper, Isidore Mankofsky and Sol Negrin.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure this is not all a dream. It has definitely made me focus on the art form and no longer take any job for granted, as I now represent something far greater than just my own career. What a blessing!