When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Jerry Lewis’ The Bellboy (1960), probably because a kid in the audience was knifed during the show, and we had to leave the theater. Or maybe Psycho (1962), which I never got to see — I was pushed through one of the theater’s plate-glass windows by a mob trying to get into the sold-out show. Fortunately, it was winter, and I was wearing a parka and a hat!
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Among others, Gordon Willis, ASC; Sacha Vierny; Raoul Coutard; Néstor Almendros, ASC; Christopher Doyle, HKSC; David Mullen, ASC; Robert Elswit, ASC; and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, for his earlier work. I admire all of them for their great, unique images and storytelling abilities.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I was given an Instamatic camera when I was 13. Then I got a 35mm Beseler Topcon, and later a 4x5 Speed Graphic. Seeing the works of greats like WeeGee, Man Ray, Horst P. Horst, Guy Bourdin and Irving Penn gave me the impetus to try my hand at it. Stills soon became series of stills, or motion images. That’s when I experienced Chris Marker’s brilliant La Jetée.
Where did you train and/or study?
I went to art school in St. Louis, where there was no film study except for film history, so I minored in photography. I got my practical training in New York at a non-union company where I was able to work in every department, from set construction to editing. I got my real start working in Italy in the 1980s and ’90s as a cinematographer, operator and Steadicam operator.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I wish I’d had some, but I was really on my own, as I didn’t come up through the normal industry routes. I did get to operate Steadicam for Néstor Almendros, who was a true giver, and I worked as an extra on Once Upon a Time in America, which allowed me to observe Tonino Delli Colli, AIC at close range.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Music, Surrealism, French New Wave and Italian Spaghetti Western films, Caravaggio, Hopper, James Turrell, and the writings of Thomas Pynchon and Italo Calvino.
How did you get your first break in the business?
When I was 15, I was an extra in a toy commercial. Years later, the mother of the friend who starred in that commercial recommended me to the non-union commercial studio in New York that had shot the spot. I interviewed and got a staff job. I went back there a year later and got hired as the assistant to the production manager. Two months later, I was the production manager, and after that I produced for them for four years.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Each project has its own moments, and they are all very different.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
On my first and only job for Reuters in Rome, I was sent to Brindisi with a defective light meter to film the Italian soldiers shipping out to the Gulf War. I shot color reversal 16mm, and it was 3 stops under.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Listen to your gut instinct and believe in it. And remember that the craft-service person on this job might be the producer on the next.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Anything by Thomas Pynchon or William Gibson. Last year at the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw a great exhibition about architecture and design, and revisited the Impressionists, too. Also, Criterion’s Blu-ray of Last Year at Marienbad.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’d love to do a real Western or noir.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Chef, proofreader or musician (if I could carry a tune!).
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Steven Poster, Sandi Sissel and Theo Van de Sande.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I feel that I am truly a part of the ‘art of filmmaking’ community but still need to prove myself every day. I really appreciate the chance to meet with other cinematographers and discuss our art and business.