Final Reflections from Bruce Surtees

Bruce Surtees during the Eastwood years.

Among the joys of researching and writing my upcoming book, Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work (coming this Fall from Abrams—find it here in the shameless plug department) was getting the opportunity to do an extended interview last summer with Clint’s original cinematographer, Bruce Surtees. Bruce passed away this past February at the age of 74 due to complications from diabetes, making the interview I did with him the final one of his illustrious career, as near as I can tell. Ironically, when we spoke, Bruce was upbeat about his health and said he was still receiving offers to shoot movies, but had no interest because he had keen memories of watching his father, Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (ASC), labor on movie sets until shortly before he died in 1985. Bruce felt he needed to spend some time relaxing in his twilight years.

“I could go back to work, because I feel like my health issues are in check,” Bruce told me last July. “I lost 50 pounds—it’s not that hard once you get away from craft services and aren’t eating all the time. But I don’t want to work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. anymore. I did that all my life, and now, I need to do other things.”

And so, Surtees was spending much of his time fly fishing and enjoying digital still photography and art at his Northern California home, near the Carmel region where he first settled in the 1970’s after shooting Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, there on location.

Despite his desire to avoid the limelight, probably because my book was about his friend’s art and aesthetic, Surtees agreed to discuss his Eastwoodian memories with me last year. I count myself fortunate I had the opportunity—he gave me great insight into Clint’s methodology, his view of cinematography, and how specific early Eastwood films and sequences were shot.

Fond Friends

In my book, Eastwood calls Surtees “the guy that Jack Green (ASC), Tom Stern (ASC), and all of us learned our boldness from. Bruce was absolutely fearless with light levels.”

Indeed, Eastwood, Green, and Stern—the two men who followed him for lengthy stints as Eastwood’s cinematographers—and many others, such as Eastwood’s longtime key grip, Charlie Saldana, all reminisce fondly about the late cinematographer, his creative and lighting philosophies, and the great influence he had on the Eastwood aesthetic to this day. Surtees, after all, worked first as a cameraman and then as a cinematographer for Eastwood’s mentor, director Don Siegel, and eventually hired Green as an operator (at Eastwood’s request), Stern as his gaffer, and Saldana as his key grip. So the fact that there was and is great visual synergy in Eastwood’s imagery and style from Play Misty for Me all the way to last year’s J. Edgar, shot by Stern (about which I wrote a cover story in the December issue of American Cinematographer) should be no surprise.

On location in the Eastwood years, Bruce Surtees (rear left) with colleagues and friends including then-gaffer Tom Stern (front left) and key grip Charles Saldana (front right).

Green recalls being schooled by Surtees to “stay off the moth side” in terms of aiming his camera lens away from an actor’s brightly lit side, toward the darker, shadier part of the image—an aesthetic that is easily recognizable today as a fundamental Eastwood look. He also recalls becoming close friends with Surtees after a rocky start between them on Firefox because Surtees was asked by Eastwood to work with Green without having any input into his choice of an operator. Green says he remains profoundly grateful to this day for Surtees’ decision to go to Eastwood and lobby for Green to be moved up to cinematographer following Pale Rider, Surtees’ last film for Eastwood in 1985. In my book, Surtees states he simply felt Green was ready and deserved the break.

Stern, meanwhile, today calls him a “brave artist who influenced me a great deal” and will happily go to great lengths to explain the pride he feels in having inherited the job and the aesthetic pioneered by Surtees on Eastwood’s behalf. It’s a responsibility that Stern says makes him often think of Surtees when he is working on an Eastwood picture.

Eastwood was in Atlanta busy filming Trouble With the Curve for his producing partner, and first-time director, Rob Lorenz, when Surtees passed away in February, but told the Los Angeles Times Surtees was “very creative, he had good thoughts and ideas.” In the same article, Stern reiterated what he had told me—that Surtees “was a very important mentor to me.” When I spoke with Saldana recently, he became choked up speaking about his old friend, with whom he stayed in touch long after Surtees stopped working on Eastwood films, recalling fondly golf trips and boat rides in Northern California with Surtees. The longtimers on the Eastwood team, in fact, are full of anecdotes and good memories of working with Surtees on many classic Eastwood films.

Looking Back

And Surtees had great memories himself near the end of his life. When we spoke, he waxed poetic about getting to live for over 40 years on the Monterey Peninsula, commenting on what a wonderful filming location that region is. “I need to be visual, I need to have exteriors right outside (his window),” he said. “I don’t like modern cities, particularly L.A.—they look like boxes. I believe that is why you have so many great Italian cameramen—you get up in the morning, in a place like Rome, walk down streets where you have lived since you were a child, and you get very visual. Italians are visual because art is all around them, and that influences their lives.”

He compared Eastwood’s camera movement to good ballet, suggesting that is a good way for young cinematographers to study “good composition in movement. Staging shots, a sense of timing and movement, when to dolly—we would shoot a lot like ballet in that sense,” he said. “Many movies are shot with a proscenium effect—back and forth, closeups over shoulders, very little real composition and movement to speak of. We would shoot with movement going on for a long time.”

Throughout our conversation, Surtees would emphasize the notion of simplicity—a philosophy that made him a good fit with Eastwood. Few lights, move lights around, and you are good to go if you have good composition and subtle lighting. He also declared himself a man out of the black-and-white era, and lamented the loss of the lighting skill in today’s cinema that was required to light classic black-and-white movies back in the day.

And speaking of low light, Surtees remarked that although Dirty Harry was directed by Siegel 40 years ago last year—in 1971—Eastwood was, as was common in the relationship between Eastwood and Siegel, deeply involved in how the movie was shot and put together. “A lot of what you saw in that movie were Clint’s ideas—dramatic points, story points, camera moves,” Surtees told me. “Of course, Don Siegel listened to him—he had a lot of great ideas. Why wouldn’t he listen to him?”

In particular, Surtees called Dirty Harry“a great location film” due to its strategic use of the city of San Francisco. In fact, he enjoyed reminiscing about how that film’s visuals came together. Among his memories

 

  • “One of the great shots is the helicopter shot (at the end of the Kezar Stadium sequence),” he explained. “We pull out and the (stadium) kind of fades away (into the fog). That was because the helicopter couldn’t come back down and land at Kezar Stadium. It was all fogged in and the helicopter couldn’t come back—it was too dangerous. So they flew over to Oakland to land, and it was fogged in there, so they ended up having to go to San Jose. But it worked for us—that is why the camera pulls away the way it does there.

 

  • “The difference between Clint and Don and a lot of people was they didn’t like to shoot up front in a city,” he said. “They were more interested in shooting the back of San Francisco. Everyone shoots the bridge, Market Street, Downtown, Chinatown. But we knew the best way to shoot Chinatown was to get in the alley behind all the Chinese restaurants, so that is what we did.

 

  • “And the scene where Clint’s character jumps on top of the (hijacked school bus)—that was not what you might expect. I decided to climb up on the bus and shoot the part where Clint jumps from the trestle bridge onto the back of the bus. I had an excellent operator, but I felt Clint was doing the stunt, and if he fell, he could have been badly hurt, so we probably wouldn’t want to try it more than once. So Clint did it and we got it, but his head almost fell into the matte box.

 

  • “Also, the scene where they find the dead girl—that was shot at dawn. In the script, it could have been any time. But we all felt it should be when the sun comes up, so you can see the outline of San Francisco and the (Golden Gate Bridge). Clint was always discussing things like that with Don Siegel and I.”

 

  • “For the alley shot, where they find another body in the film—I shot that just with the lights off the police motorcycle and the car. No motion picture lights whatsoever. They would have been too bright for that kind of scene, creating the effect of a hard light. I went into the alley and said, why should we light it? It’s already lit.”

 

But perhaps Surtees’ personal favorite shot he captured for Eastwood came near the end of Honkytonk Man when Eastwood’s character succumbs to his illness and dies on a bed in a cheap hotel room.

“That was one of the best scenes we ever did,” he recalled. “There was all this natural light coming in through the window before I tried to light the scene in any way. We discussed how beautiful that was, and I told Clint, wouldn’t it be nice to shoot the (dying scene) all in one take in the natural light? He said he thought he could do it, and that’s what we did.”

Bruce Surtees (L) and his friend, Charles Saldana.

All photos courtesy of Charles Saldana.

4 Responses to “Final Reflections from Bruce Surtees”


  • It is indeed wonderfull, lo learn more about these REAL PROS….

  • Dennis J Fraser MBE

    I have fond memories of Bruce Surtees. I was a key grip from England on Kelly’s Heroes when Bruce at that time was an Operator and then again on Firefox as Cinematographer, I doubled up with Charles Saldana on that show, it’s so nice to look back. Bruce was a pleasure to work with and a really nice man. God Bless.

  • Bruce lived just a few blocks from me in Pacific Grove and I would often stop and talk to him over the years. We’d have coffee or just stand on the sidewalk with his ever present dog and talk. I so enjoyed listening and picking up tips from him not only about shooting and lighting but about working with people. Whenever I drive by his house or his favorite coffee shop I instinctively look for him. I’m lucky to have spent time with him and he is missed.

  • Thomas Del Ruth ASC

    It was so sad to hear of his passing…I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bruce since 1953 when he and his family moved into a house two doors down the street. Bruce on occasion would let me ride in his Hot Roded 1946 Ford Convertible, Quite a thrill for a 10 year old..LOL…As the years passed Bruce was puersuing his own career, so Bob was kind enough to teach me all about film chemistry and the theory of light from his well equipped home dark room…subsequently bob hired me on as a second asst on The 1968 version of “Doctor Doolittle” ….
    Bruce and I once again reconnected in the early 70′s hiring me on the extra camera’s for “Blume and Love”. as fate would have it I moved to the Marina and wound up renting an apt not more then a block from Bruce’s place. I kept a sail boat in a slip down there and Bruce was an avid sailor so we spent quite a bit of time together for the next few years..But Universal Pictures moved me up to DP 1978 so now I was on my own and had to make my own way…I moved up to the Hollywood hill’s and for the most part lost my social connection to Bruce. to bad that happened, i only saw him once again in Vancouver,BC. in 1991 we were both staying at the same Hotel, he was shooting something for Fox and I for Columbia/Tristar….Now that he’s gone I’m so sorry i didnt keep that friend ship alive. He was really a very good man..
    1977 Big Wednesday
    1977 Three Warriors
    1976 The Shootist
    1976 The Outlaw Josey Wales
    1976 Sparkle
    1973 Blume in Love Second Camera

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