"The Life and Times of Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC"
Esteemed Cinematographers Caleb Deschanel, ASC, Fred Goodich, ASC, Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, Yuri Neyman, ASC and Haskell Wexler, ASC discuss the work and legacy of Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC as captured in early 2015.
Note: The following excerpts are taken from discussions captured for the upcoming documentary "Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond" directed by Pierre Filmon.
Caleb Deschanel, ASC: My first memory of you (Vilmos) was when I heard about you and Laszlo coming into the country. I think Haskell has a great story about that, but you guys were getting to shoot movies, and in those days you couldn’t get in a union and it was really difficult if you were a film student. You really never had any hope of getting to work. You and Laszlo both came in and started doing low-budget movies. It kind of revolutionized Hollywood in a lot of ways. I was never really interested so much in Hollywood movies because I never thought they were accessible, but I was interested in the French New Wave and a lot of European cinema and that's kind of where you came from. You came here and brought that sensibility to Hollywood. Haskell was telling me a story, the other day, when you first came in the country. You knew of him because he had taught at the Hungarian film school, he came and lectured.
Haskell Wexler, ASC: I was interested in how he and Laszlo came to the country. They had footage of the Russian invasion of Hungary. He had been a recipient of what I discovered was an excellent film education. The school was good, but his sensibilities about having his country invaded and having footage of that, which gave them some distinction, moved them to come to America and I thought this was an artist of some consequence. I think the first time that I met you, you came to my house in Hollywood.
Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC: That was the second time. The first time was at the San Francisco Film Festival where I had a crazy film called “Futz.” Remember “Futz?”
Haskell: Oh yes!
Vilmos: I was very depressed because the critics asked all kinds of questions. I knew that the film was not good because nobody liked it. At the end of the show, Haskell came to me he said, “I know how you probably feel about this movie, but let me tell you something… this is great photography, I love your photography and if you need any help in Hollywood come to me,” and that's what he said. He was my first mentor in America.
Haskell: That film is available now because I just saw it. Actually, it is very well photographed and very different from what we've been doing here in the states.
Vilmos: I have to thank you for that because it started my career in Hollywood.
Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC: I went to my first Oscar party at a private house, which was Vilmos' and Susan's, and Debra, my wife, and I had just moved down the street in the Hollywood Hills and your television died…About sixty minutes before the Oscar broadcast and there were nominees coming. John Seale was there and everything. Vilmos is tearing his hair out. I knew at my house I had 100 foot of coaxial cable because we were having repairs made. I ran down the street and I came back, and that’s the most impressive thing…I just gave you the cable and you hooked it up to a neighbor’s antenna or something.
Yuri Neyman, ASC: I heard about Vilmos a long way back in the Soviet Union and even saw one of his films, but in the Soviet Union they showed the film in black and white. Well, you can imagine that I saw “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” in black and white first. Definitely I noticed the name and it was interesting that my very first film viewed abroad, when I emigrated from the Soviet Union, was in Rome… “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Marina and I, we had our son in a stroller and we changed. She went first and I went second, because it was the first time ever to see a foreign film, in color, abroad. This brings up another interesting thing about Vilmos… that he is probably one of the best representatives of international style of filming, because we have American school, we have Hungarian school, Russian school, French school, but Vilmos, in my opinion, represents the international school. He was trained by film noir teachers, like you told me, in the Hungarian school. Then a big influence on you was Neorealism in some Urusevsky old Soviet films. Plus you came to the United States and got the best from the American school of cinematography. Well shaken and now you have Vilmos, because he is probably the best representation of the spirit of cinematography as international art. Vilmos opened to many people then, and still opening now, that light is not only for exposure, light is for expression. Framing is what the cinematographer is saying, his interpretation of the script, and many other things, which are forgotten very often. Vilmos, from his very first work to his very last works, which we’ve seen probably two months ago, is still very stubborn, doing exactly the same things. He is showing what can be done by an artist, a cinematographer, without any stops. This is what is very important for us to remember.
Vilmos: Thank you very much. Very nicely stated. All I can say is that it doesn't hurt if somebody, when he’s twenty-six years old like I was… a cinematographer in Budapest when the revolution came and I decided to move to other countries and learn something more. I thought that I knew everything they could teach, but I needed more. I learned from, as you said, Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, the American films happening in those days. It was not only Laszlo and I; we had Haskell, Owen Roizman, Johnny Alonso. We had a group of people who were ready to do a different style of movies. We were lucky to get here at the right time, the right place even if it took 10 years to do it, but we made it. That goes to show what a great country this is, that we could do that. Not many places you can do that.
Caleb: I remember the first time I was really aware of you as a cinematographer was “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” where you had done a lot of that pre-flashing. Everybody in those days, that had seen that film, would go, “How did they do that?” I have to say that there were all these people who would start flashing film. Somebody even developed some process of some light thing that went on the front of the camera.
Vilmos: The Lightflex.
Caleb: It was this strange process that would allow it to be pre-fogged without pre-fogging it and it was all the outcome of what Vilmos had really started in those days.
Fred Goodich, ASC: When I saw “McCabe” I had to meet you and I don’t know if you’ll recall, but I had a friend who was the 2nd AD, Irby Smith, on “McCabe” and I said, “Please, is there anyway I can meet this gentleman?” because frankly, I had never seen a narrative film that had an individual stamp of a tone, a look to it that was sub-textual. It was emotional and it fit this lyrical quality of this very wonderful film in its own way, the storytelling of Robert Altman. I called you, Irby gave me your phone number, and we had breakfast right on the coast and we sat. I asked you for an explanation. I asked you how I could ever learn those kinds of things that you learned, and you were very gracious to talk and that was our first encounter. I noticed throughout your career, following your work, that you had an individualism. That every project had its own visual feel, its own visual language, its own surface and it fit, and that became an inspiration to me. Respect to each project having its own vision. Thank you for that.
Caleb: Speaking of which, “The Deer Hunter” suddenly opened my eyes to widescreen, which you really have done a lot of. It's such an extraordinary film. It's a real watershed film in terms of a big Hollywood movie that also had a grittiness, a harshness… the whole atmosphere of Pittsburgh in those days. It's a really wonderful, wonderful film. I think, you know, to me, it’s one of the great films of the 1970s, and you brought so much to that, and so many characters were introduced to the public there, you know, between Meryl Streep, and Robert De Niro of course did The Godfather, and he was just wonderful. And The Deer Hunter is such an extraordinary film. When you started that film, how did you approach it? How did you work with Michael Cimino on that?
Vilmos: Yeah, it’s a tough question, because you know we can go into what this, that, “what makes a good film?” because it’s not only cinematography. It’s story, it’s directing, it’s production design. I mean it’s really hard for us you know to say that “this was my film” you know, and all “I do this.” And we ALL did it actually. That’s the whole thing. It’s just a miracle when so many good people get together, have a good subject, as becomes a classic. That’s one of the miracles of filmmaking, and not often happens. You had a couple of those. Haskell had a couple of those. And Stephen had a couple of those.
Stephen: I mean the neorealism you experienced, that we admired, that I new about living in England, and then I saw Pittsburg in an American film, but it wasn’t what I thought was American. You know, living in London there’s some…I remember it clearly, the opening of the film. I remember the opening of the film, the beginning of that film more than anything else really because something somehow was being honest, clearly, about these working class stiffs who were being sent to doe in a foreign war. And it was so unusual…
Vilmos: But you know interestingly that we were lucky for that era, because whatever happened in the late 60s and 70s, it was a miracle in the American history of movies, because it changed. People all wanted to make some new films, and yes, it was a European influence for most of us, and for the people who were not coming from there, for Americans also.
Haskell: If you have good story and good actors and a good production designer, and all those things you know, and even a good gaffer. You know when we say “The image is us, and I did this,” we have to know, the public may not have to, but we have to know we’re the sum total of a lot of people. And that’s important.
Caleb: Film is art, I mean, it really is the only art form that has the input of so many individually creative people. In the end the director brings it together and makes it a unity, but it’s amazing how many independently spirited creative people creative people are involved in making a movie, and when it comes together it’s wonderful. I mean you look at Heaven’s Gate, which has been trashed but is a beautiful film and you did such a wonderful job on, and it’s the same creative…I mean there’s something magical that happens on good movies that can bring together all these different creative people who are all excellent in there own way, and it can either work or not work. And I think that’s the key, you know, to keep trying to find that magic. And I think you found it so many times over the years, you know, which is sort of the legacy, you know, of all the work you’ve done.
Vilmos: I always think that we are part of something great, if it happens, because if our work will not be there, like in Deer Hunter, let’s say that somebody else shot it or something, not one of the good people, it would not be as good a film. Every step of action…designer…it would not be the same film. So that’s why all job is very important, and it can only be together with other people. But we still have to be good. So we don’t have to deny, say “no, no, this, I’m not an artist.” Yeah, we are partially artists, and that’s why I think it’s great who, when many cinematographers want to be cinematographers fro the money. And I never felt somehow that I would take the paycheck because was going to make two hundred million dollars, you know. I turned Jaws down, believe it or not, and I’m not sorry for that, you know, because I did Close Encounters after that, which I will not have probably shot actually if I did Jaws. So you know, you have to be lucky also, when you select the movies. You go select a movie and you have no opportunities. You cannot be great. You can say, “oh, the photography is great” but what’s the point? The movie’s not great.
Caleb: Getting back to The Deer Hunter is that one of the wonderful things about that movie, and you know Stephen, you were begin in to talk about, you know, films in England and you know, the Italian films after the war and that kind of realism. Is it, The Deer Hunter, the Pittsburg of The Deer Hunter Is very much like those cities that are coming back from the war and everything, and there’s something very gritty and almost dark about it, but there’s a joy that comes from it and there’s never a condescension about the attitude towards the people and the city, even as poor and as, you know, beleaguered, and as oppressed the people are. And then like you say they go to Vietnam and it’s even…But it’s so beautifully done in terms of it’s respect for the humanity of those people in those cities, and in Pittsburg particularly in The Deer Hunter, and it’s really wonderful.
Vilmos: It was like a documentary style, you know, basically. That’s probably the easiest kind of movie to make because it’s there. But you Photograph. The difficult ones, where something is not there, and you have to add something to it. Those are the ones which, where you can say that “wow, the cinematography made a good movie out of it.” And that means that it’s not necessarily good, but somebody feels that yeah, the cinematography was exceptional.
Caleb: The thing is if you look at still photographs, and there are great still photographers, there’s a reason why, you know the Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the people like that, because there’s something about there personality that they bring to it that allows the subject to be free, and to be able to be themselves. And I think, you know, to some extent a cinematographer brings that to the situation as well, and I think when you realize the percentage of films you’ve made that have been so incredible and wonderful, you have to say that there is certainly something about the person behind the camera as well. So I appreciate you being humble, but…
Vilmos: I have to be, because I tell you there are many many great cinematographers out there, and I always admire and learn from them, and we always learn form each other. That’s the interesting thing, you know.
Caleb: I would say I steal from other people.
Vilmos: (laughs) You guys call it stealing...
Stephen: This quality that the cinematographer brings to many productions. Yours, yours…I once had an interview a producer who took me into a private room and she made sure no one was listening, and she sat down with me, and then she said to me “Stephen, I hear you’re obstinate.” I said “yes.” But she was saying it as a criticism, that if I was going to get this movie I couldn’t be obstinate. I said, “but that’s what I do.” You know. That’s what you do, you do, you do. It’s part of our…that’s the game. You’ve got to be. And because in the end at some point, you’ve got to say “the light’s terrible. We can’t do this” or “we’ve got to go faster, it’s great.” But you’ve got to have some strength, and that’s what you’re talking about personality in the cinematographer’s going to be translated into behavior.
Vilmos: And the other part, you know, like if I hear for months to be good and fast. And that’s another thing which I always had to decide myself. Is it worth actually for me to fighting certain things…decided yes, it was worth fighting certain things. One lesson I got from my teacher, he said that “Listen. If you are the cinematographer, every single shot has to be good. Not only every second shot. You cannot give up just one shot of a sequence, because if you give up one shot and it’s not good, then you are going to give up another one, and the movie is not going to be as good as you want it to be. So then because of that, you sometimes have to fight time, and take the time, even if the producer is hating you for that and they are telling everyone plese don’t hire this guy because he is slow." And I never thought I was slow, but I got so many criticisms about that.
Caleb: No, but that’s the first thing producers learn in producing school, is that cinematographers are slow. So it always becomes the universal pronouncement about a cinematographer.
Fred: There was this syllogism I remember. Good fast and cheap: you can have only two of those. And a lot of producers, they want to shoot the budget. They don’t want to necessarily shoot the movie. I really appreciate, and this is what I’ve seen in your films and your films and your films and your films, that the every shot is a moment, a blessing, it’s an advancement of the narrative. It’s not just filler, it’s there for a purpose, and that approach to cinematography is of the highest, you know, and you got to be stubborn you got to be a pain in the ass sometimes. You know, I don’t know how many times I’ve had producers say “stop being such so stubborn.”
Haskell: A pain in the ass, but not too many times. [all laugh]
Fred: I think you always said that the, if I might just counter this just a little bit, you’ve always said that it’s the director’s vision that you’re working with, and the cinematographer’s essentially working for the director, as is everybody else on the crew in one fashion or other. And I think it was directors of that period, late 60’s early 70s and into the…you know, giving you guys a chance to do something.
Vilmos: That’s absolutely right, because if you think about all the directors I work with, they were all, almost all of them new coming, younger generation directors came from different areas. Jerry Shaftesbury was a still photographer. Brian De Palma was a hot shot guy who always want to do something different, you know, and it was easy for me to work with him because he was crazy. I mean we do eight shots, you know, 360 degrees of someone, 120 degree shots you know. And you have to light it. And Altman. Altman was a new generation guy. All these directors actually have create that 70s, 80s style, and be there to help them.
Yuri: Vilmos, what’s interesting in your films is that you work with many directors, and you work in old Hollywood, in new Hollywood, and what became now old Hollywood for new people. But you have been able to keep your style, so called, Vilmos style, no matter what. And this is the most interesting because it is very rare when you can recognize style, even on totally different movies. There’s a something what you doing in every movie, and this is one of your secrets, right?
Vilmos: Well I don’t know if it’s secret because I don’t even think about it because the way I light, actually that’s the only way I can light. I cannot light with soft lights. I haven’t learned it yet. It’s probably too complicated for me to use soft lights. It’s so much easier to use a directional light and soften it up if I need it. I can do that, but vice verse I cannot do that. I cannot start out with Kinoflos and try and make it look like sunshine coming through the window. That’s one thing that you learn probably, very first time when you are becoming a good cinematographer that look at what the painters did, actually, in the paintings.
Yuri: You’ve been a bit stubborn, to use the basic same…
Vilmos: Right! I’m stubborn. I’m still doing that kind of a style, how the painters are painting. Like Rembrandt and the Dutch painters, all that. Those for us were, we learned from. And tried to do it in films.
Yuri: Vilmos, who was your biggest influence artistically as a cinematographer, because it must be one, right? Biggest influence on you, maybe not in style but…
Vilmos: Well you know in the early days I loved Freddie Young’s movies. All the big, you know…Ryan’s Daughter. Everything. Dr. Zhivago. I mean those are actually the photographer’s delight actually for us you know. I mean you have a director David Lean who likes the big canvas you know, and if you get under that influence and try to do that, I mean you cannot go wrong if they let you do that. Before that actually was actually a Russian cinematographer called Urusevsky, who was a genius actually, and for my lighting style. And there was another cinematographer in Budapest, [name], who had that same style what Urusevsky had because he was, I mean in lighting, everything was lighting. Always said that lighting was everything. Composition, it doesn’t matter if it’s like this, this, this, I accepted that. Even they cut heads off. But lighting it’s not right, I can’t stand that, when the lighting is not right and it’s false.
Fred: To get back to digital for a moment, you have been shooting digital for the last number of projects...
Vilmos: Last three or four movies I did that way, yeah. But I don’t mind to shoot on digital, but just the problem is that I like to have a nice big screen on the set. And unfortunately, I have to light it, I have to light it and shoot it the way the screen shows. There’s no other way for me now to shoot. The view finder now I cannot see a goddamn thing it’s so bad. Now, but the problem is what we were talking about. That shot, what I see at the soundstage, I will never see it again after it went actually into post production and all that. Because it doesn’t match. The only time I could do, one shot out of my eighty shots in Canada, a very low budget movie. They did it for one million dollars, and we had a technical truck out there and on the location. And I lit it for that screen, which was perfectly done. And that same guy who actually did my dallies every day, and at lunch time actually fixed everything perfectly, that same guy went back actually to Toronto and then actually timed the movie on that same screen when we had to make changes. Nobody’s perfect. I didn’t do dallies hundred percent right and had to make changes. And that’s the only time I saw the movie the way that I shot it, and if it was bad, that was my fault. I knew that. But this is such an easy solution, I think. Get the goddamn truck and a big screen, and there on the set you finish actually your timing. Not for every shot, but at least for ninety percent. And it won’t take that much money. And nobody’s doing it.
Stephen: But as soon as there’s more money there’s going to be more people and then it will get screwed, you know? It’s like the larger the budget…I watched the credits of a movie I saw about three days ago, and I think there one thousand people. The credits for a big movie recently was about a thousand people.
Yuri: Vilmos, if you look backward, if any movies you wish you would do differently?
Vilmos: I would not do differently, but I would not do it. But no, I am honestly, I know what you said, that you always think how I would have done better. I never really hade this problem, because I accept my mistakes, actually. I will think that I did the best that I could do under the circumstances, and I could not have done any other way. I don’t, I don’t think so. That’s my approach. I have a positive approach. I don’t go back and say “oh, if I would have done this.” Forget it. One thing I would probably do differently. When I got an Academy award I would know that I have to thank that for my director, Steven Spielberg. Which I forgot to do that, and that was the worst thing I ever did in my life, and you know I have to apologize now for Steven Spielberg. Because he deserved actually what I got, because that was his movie, and I was just a young kid, twenty-eight, thirty years old. I made that mistake because the movie was shot under terrible conditions, everybody wanted to fire me. And maybe that was inside me, when I had to thank you know, some people I didn’t think about because they were not nice to me. And for years actually it was haunted me. That was not fair. But for my defense, close encounters got eleven, I think eleven nominations, right? And I was the only one who won. That was a big big big big thing, you know. Cause I had thought this and the first award that came out was for photography. If I knew that it would be the last one, I would have known that nobody else…I definitely would have said, I’m sure, I would have said that “sorry, but this award is really Steven’s award.” But you know, those people never forgive. Once you make a mistake it’s a mistake. You live with it. That’s the only one I would do differently.
Caleb: But I also think in terms of what Vilmos was talking about, the importance of lighting is that there’s a thought process that goes on with digital photography where the speed of the cameras becomes so incredible that people think that you don’t have to light, because you can shoot in natural light anywhere and everything. But really, the emotional impact of an image is really brought to a scene by the lighting, which is what I think Vilmos has been saying, and I think there’s a real danger to ignore the fact that because you can shoot it without any light doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good and doesn’t mean that the lighting that just happens to be there is going to contribute anything to the emotional story you’re trying to tell.
Yuri: There’s lighting for exposer and lighting for expression. So basically even with 5000 ASA, have to find a way how light for expression. Is different technique. No mixed up exposer and expression.
Vilmos: It’s more difficult to shoot with 5000 ASA than…
Haskell: I know Owen Roizman's producer said “let’s shoot with available light” and Owen said “Yeah, what’s available on the truck.” Now what you see right here in our room shooting, is that window area is a big fill on us, but he didn’t want to count on that. So he took a light there, and bounced it on the light to the ceiling to supplement that. And that’s available. So you do, in video, you do, and actually in other films, you do use what’s integral to the set, but you have to have set up to sustain that depending on how long the scene is.
Fred: You know light is a palpable thing in our hands, and that’s what, in a way, we can say we each have a personality in the way that we light. Because it really is something that we mold, and it can be destructive, and it can be creative as well. Your eye is determining what it’s supposed to do.
Note: The following excerpts are taken from discussions captured for the upcoming documentary "Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond" directed by Pierre Filmon.