Friday, April 24, 2009

Salem Film Festival 2009: Celebration of Cinematography Seminar with Vilmos Zsigmond

One of the highlights of the 2009 Salem Film Festival was the appearance of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The Oscar winner was touring with a seminar entitled A Celebration of Cinematography which showed clips from his Award worthy (and winning) films; in addition, the fest held a screening of the documentary No Subtitles Necessary about the volatile and subsequently healed relationship between Vilmos and fellow legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The seminar was something special – an event I’ll remember for a long time as Mr. Zsigmond answered question after question from the crowd about film, the art of cinematography, the state of films today, and how there is a difference between cinematography and simply ‘shooting’ a film. Sadly he didn’t answer my question about Heaven’s Gate…notes from the event after the jump…

The seminar started out with a stellar collection of clips from Zsigmond’s impressive resume. We were treated to clips from films that ranged from The Sadist and The Hired Hand; to his more famous work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller; and finally more of his recent stuff that included Intersection and The Black Dahlia.

Zsigmond talked about his career beginning in still photography. Coming from a bourgeois family, filmmaking was seen as a step down, and your skills as a photographer is Hungary were to be used for a higher (more political) purpose. He also mentioned how he had to convince the people that his work showed that he was a man of the people. This led to him getting a scholarship and going to school to learn the art of filmmaking; which was a natural transition according to him, as really being a cinematographer is all about knowing how to use and manipulate light.

When asked: What is cinematography? Zsigmond replied: “God is light.” This led to a discussion about lighting in movies, and the cinematographers who can bend this light to recreate reality are the true auteurs; very old school definition of cinematography. Zsigmond said that as a cinematographer you can’t always rely on the writer to guide you through your shots. This led to my question where I asked him if there had ever been a film where he knew the picture was sinking, and wanted to make his photography the lasting impression, not the bad press of the film (I was speaking, of course, about Heaven’s Gate, but I never mentioned the title of the movie…I was also speaking to some of his lesser known failures like Intersection, Sliver, and The Black Dahlia – all movies that were not very good, but were filmed nicely) – of course, Vilmos ever the diplomat, laughed and said “never, you always do what the director tells you to do.”

We then had someone ask about the infamous scene from The Long Goodbye where Arnie takes his clothes off. Vilmos is a great story teller. He also treated us to some stores about McCabe and Mrs. Miller and how Altman wanted to make the film look like faded photos from the old west. He also mentioned how Altman purposely “destroyed” the soundtrack to the film so that it was almost impossible to understand. This was great stuff, but really if you’ve seen the fantastic documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, then you’ve heard it all before. Still, to hear it in person was fantastic.

Piggybacking off of my question, someone else asked what the role of the cinematographer is. Zsigmond responded that really there is a triangle of filmmakers: on the top is the man making all the decisions, the director; and on the base corners of the triangle are the production designer and the cinematographer – who he called the “right hand of the director.”

He then went on to mention that the Art Direction can have a huge hand in helping out with the cinematography. He mentioned the great Art Director Dante Ferretti whose work on The Black Dahlia made Zsigmond’s job “a joy.”

He mentioned that he is not too keen on the whole digital craze because these DP’s who shoot digital don’t learn the art of lighting, since with DV everything is automatically adjusted, sometimes it looks “too clean...fake.” He then mentioned he likes working with directors who can tell a story in one shot; that movies are all about cutting these days, so what can an editor do with a five minute take? Nothing, rarely can they chop it up. He mentioned that chopped-up films of late like Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight don’t showcase the cinematography well and takes the viewer out of the story; he likes long takes, and he continued by saying that any good cinematographer will make you unaware of their work, they suck you into the story so that you focus more on the film than the filmmaking. One of my favorite quotes of his was this gem: “cutting reminds the audience they’re watching a movie.” It’s an interesting comment, and I think it would be a worthwhile debate: does that matter? I can think of tons of films that are good solely because of how good they look, but it almost seems like Zsigmond is saying that if you recognize the aesthetics immediately, and aren’t paying attention to the story, then you’re not watching a good film…I thought this was fascinating.

We then moved ahead towards his favorite directors to work for, and his relationships with them; also, what his favorite scenes are from movies he shot. He said he loved working with directors who knew a little something about cinematography. He specifically mentioned DePalma’s name, and credited the director for getting him to respect the zoom lens. He likes directors who direct, and don’t let the cinematographers run wild – this correlates with a previous point he made about DP’s who shoot their “own movie” even though they are employed by the director the mentioned how some cinematographers “try to be too pretty” and are concerned with making the film solely about aesthetics – taking away from the narrative –and that’s not what film should be.

He spoke on some of his favorite scenes – the ending of The Deer Hunter: Zsigmond had reservations about the scene thinking it was too verbose and overdramatic, but Cimino told him “when we shoot the scene, you’ll see”, so, he acquiesced and ended up in tears at the end of the scene. He also mentioned how weird it was working with DeNiro as je liked (and preferred) to shoot the rehearsal first, any other way wasn’t natural for an actor. He also mentioned that the death of Christopher Walken was not rehearsed and had everyone on the set in tears. Zsigmond then mentioned that composition (mise-en-scène) is natural when working with such great directors, and that lighting (alluding to his earlier response about what a cinematographer does) is what adds that other element that allows the cinematographer to develop their own style. He then mentioned that the great DP’s all have similar lighting styles.

He then closed the seminar by talking about how Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the hardest film he’s had to shoot. Finally, Zsigmond told the audience that film should be relished and enjoyed, and then you can go back and study it.

It was a tremendous (and brisk) two hours and well worth the price I paid for my weekend pass to the festival. Next up are reviews for the rest of the films I saw at the festival, starting with Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece Adoration.


Post a Comment