Fortunato on Loving the Job, NYC and the Next Generation

A scene from Elementary. (Credit: CBS Television)

A scene from Elementary, a series Ron Fortunato, ASC, has worked on for four years. (Credit: CBS)

Though he travels for work like almost every cinematographer these days, Ron Fortunato, ASC, is rooted in New York City. He grew up in the suburbs and fell in love with the city when his sister lived in Manhattan, and he would take a train in to visit her. The films of Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan, shot by Boris Kaufman, ASC, were playing in theaters. So was The French Connection, an influential take on the urban milieu.

“This was the late 1960s, early ‘70s, and the city made a big impression on me,” he recalls. “I realized very young that this is where I wanted to live.”

Ron did live in Europe for a time, and he often wishes he could attend more events at the ASC Clubhouse. But he won’t be moving west anytime soon. “New York still affects me and inspires me,” he says. “There are still places to explore. I love walking, and I’ll leave early and walk a convoluted route. Sometimes you see something new. People say the old stuff is disappearing, and it is; the city is not changing in a way that I particularly like. But that’s probably something people have been saying for 200 years.

“New York has been so shot for movies and TV shows by now that it’s a little less adventuresome,” he says. “Locations get used over and over. I’ll be watching TV and see the New York Historical Society or the Surrogate Court. But there’s still new stuff. I’m scouting something tomorrow for an episode I’m directing. It’s a mansion that has never been shot in, and the owner is opening it up.”

The mansion is being considered as a location on Elementary, where Ron is starting his fourth season. For the past two seasons, he has alternated cinematographer duties with Tom Houghton, ASC. So far, Ron has directed three episodes. Mauricio Rubenstein will shoot the next episode he directs.

“Directing is such a challenge after being a cinematographer for almost 40 years,” says Ron. “I started really young, and now I’m 60. It’s an eye opener to realize how much responsibility the director has. I do like the control of it. Doing both, you become aware of the jobs in a more coherent way. I’d say I have a lot more respect for TV directors now.”

Ron Fortunato, ASC, and his crew at work on Elementary.(Credit: David M. Russell/CBS)

Fortunato and his crew on set for Elementary. (Credit: David M. Russell/CBS)

When I asked Ron for this interview, he laughed and said he doesn’t have a very interesting life. “We work our asses off, and then when I’m off, I so enjoy doing nothing,” he says. “My wife and I go out for lunch, go for a walk, and I’m in heaven. I do really enjoy music, and there’s a good jazz club just around the corner.

“If I hadn’t gone into filmmaking, I probably would have pursued music,” he continues. “I spend a lot of time listening to it — mostly jazz, but a lot of rock, like the White Stripes — and butchering Duke Ellington on my piano. I think a lot of cinematographers, when they listen to music, listen to it in a different way. It’s not just background; I really hear it. Even if I’m exercising and have headphones on, I pick an album and listen to it very consciously. It’s not just a random playlist. It’s very, very therapeutic.”

Fortunato at work on a Miles Davis video in 1984.

Fortunato films Miles Davis for a music video in 1984.

Also therapeutic for Ron is his work with young filmmakers. “I get a lot of inspiration from people in their 20s and 30s,” he says. “They are in a real excited stage of their careers. Last week, I had some people over for brunch who were on my crew at the beginning of Elementary and have since moved on. It was so cool talking to them about which movie they’re on and how thrilling it is. To me, keeping in touch and in tune with younger filmmakers is a really interesting aspect of getting older as a director of photography.

“There are people who can’t wait to stop working, but I don’t know many cinematographers or directors who are always talking about retirement,” he says. “I hope to work many more years — maybe not at this 60-hours-a-week rate. I really enjoy it. You can’t do this and not love it. When people ask me what my hobby is, I say music, but in a way, my job is also my hobby. It’s about making the quality of each day’s work better than the one before it.”




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