Deep Focus

“I would sooner fail at trying to do something different than succeed by copying everyone else.”

On my very first Guild job, Crimes and Misdemeanors, I saw Sven Nykvist pointing out the window to [gaffer] Ray Quinlan, and in his heavy Swedish accent softly whispering “a little more sunshine” or “a little less sunshine.” He didn’ t get technical; he saw the process as painting with light.

The biggest difference with my father’s generation [cinematographer Carl Norr] is that they respected those who came before them for having more knowledge and skill. The onset of MTV and a revolving door of younger people running agencies has meant it’s all about the next trendy talent — not the most experienced.

What really bugs me is that when there was no digital or HD, everything was shot on 35mm, whether it had a $100,000 budget or it cost $5 million. These days most indies claim they can’t afford to shoot film.

I started researching Super 8 on Sinister, where Ethan Hawke’s character finds this frightening old footage. I was able to shoot with Kodak Vision 3 stocks, Leica lenses, and get a gorgeous 2K scan at Cinelicious in LA., all for a very reasonable price. It’s cool to be using two format extremes — HD with the ALEXA and Super 8- in the same movie.

There was a scene on The Hottest State that took place on a train but the budget was too tight to do it. So I drove with [actor/director] Ethan Hawke, [lead actor] Mark Webber, and first AC Chris Reynolds to New Mexico, where we boarded a train at 5 a.m. with our lightweight ARRI in a duffel bag. It wasn’t contracted or insured and the conductor had to be reassured that we were “shooting tests”, but as we rode back to El Paso, with the sun rising across the barren landscape, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

I love the limitations of an indie budget because it makes me take more chances. Drastic things happen at the last minute like losing a location or equipment and you have to not only make do but figure out how to do better. I would sooner fail at trying to do something different than succeed by copying everyone else.

Working on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Ellen Kuras, ASC and Michel Gondry opened my horizons to a whole new film aesthetic. Michel introduced me to French New Wave cinema and I felt honored to observe him reinvent the genre. What I learned from our collaboration is something I bring to every project.

Even though Sympathy for Delicious won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, it was still a hard film to market. Because distributors were able to see the positive audience response while screening in Park City, it gave them confidence to pick the film up.

No matter your path in this industry, always remember your goal. If you really want to move up, always keep shooting, whatever you can. While on Sabrina as an AC, I was starting to build my reel and the crew helped set me up to shoot gaffer Gene Engels fishing at dawn (after hours, of course), a beautiful shot that stayed on my reel for years.

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