Can you start by telling us about how you ended up gravitating towards film, your path to becoming a cinematographer and how your specific aesthetic developed?
I grew up on Spielberg’s cinema, so naturally I’ve always loved movies. When I was 13 or 14, I abandoned my serious practice of drawing comic books in favor of total investment of time toward the study of the history of film. This switch came after seeing a string of older European movies on PBS late at night. The women in those films were so beautiful, the music was cool, and, sure, the photography was neat. I started to find heroes in those film directors and so I wanted to become one.
I was never interested in becoming a cinematographer. That happened when I moved to NYC. I’d become pretty adept with all the film gear we had at school. When I wanted to move to New York, a friend there asked me if I’d be interested in shooting a web series with him. The company that was producing the series was called Studio Next and the creative producer there was Doug Tirola, who would later produce many of Robert Greene’s films. He started sending me out to shoot all kinds of random things for the site. At the time, I was also working at Kim's Video and Music in New York’s East Village. A customer there saw me in Chelsea shooting something and asked if I knew how to shoot on 16mm film, because his friend Ronnie Bronstein was looking for a cameraman for his first film. I spent the next four years shooting FROWNLAND.
The style of that film was purely one of function. I was still nervous about exposure and really had no clue what I was doing with the two or three lights we had. It's a flat, yucky looking movie. I enjoyed it. I was doing more and more documentary things on all the different miniDV cameras that were being churned out then. I began a love affair with the Panasonic DVX100 which I enjoy operating for fun to this day. Applying the documentary “style” to fiction was a fun trend I was good at. I wouldn't say that I have one look that I go for though. It changes a little for each film. I hope.
Over the course of your career, you’ve worked with a range of different directors, stretching from established greats like Albert Maysles and Abel Ferrara to more emerging figures such as Jessica Oreck and Charles Poekel. It is different working with people that carry a degree of reputation and does that affect the collaborative process in any way?
Working with established or not established filmmakers makes no difference. There are great filmmakers who don't really get too involved with the photography, they’re more word-oriented or focused on the actors. And then there are directors that have very particular ideas about how a film will look and play out. All this is fine. I can get frustrated with filmmakers that only know what they don’t like and not what they do. And that happens with first time filmmakers as well as fairly experienced ones.
As you mentioned, you used to work at legendary New York video store Kim’s Video and Music, where Alex Ross Perry and Kate Lyn Sheil also worked. It’s always very tempting, perhaps too tempting, to talk about filmmaking scenes emerging from such situations. But given you’ve worked with both Alex and Kate so frequently over the years, how would you describe the importance of such (working) relationships?
Kim's video was a scene. Many video stores cultivated enthusiasm as well as wonderful, personal connections between customers and employees. Economic gaps were bridged and secrets told. I think America is missing a lot with the loss of such businesses. I continue to work with so many people I met through that place: Alex Perry, Robert Greene, Jessica Oreck, Maiko Endo, Kate Sheil, Mike Bilandic, Jay Giampietro, Nathan Silver, Ethan Spigland, Michael Almereyda, as well as all my best friends with whom I’ve been collaborating on a film called MANIAC CITY. That film will be the true child of the third floor of Mondo Kims.
To move from one past medium to another, much of your work has been on shot on film at a time when that’s more the exception than the norm. What’s your relationship to celluloid and how did your approach change for digital works like HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE?
I’ve been switching back and forth between film and video throughout the entire fifteen years I’ve been shooting. I’m not adverse to video, I embrace its gifts and its flaws. I find the video image these days too harsh and brittle and ugly. But I like the Sony cameras, I like the soft sensors and the body of their cameras tends to make a little more sense to me than others. Nothing is more comfortable to me than a 16mm Aaton, but I understand that film isn't the right choice for every project.
With video, I use filters and older lenses. This is pretty common, yet I still don't like looking at many of the films shot on video. I rarely see new films outside of festivals, they’re very often not so magical anyway. I see a lot of repertory cinema and it's the old films that still inform my aesthetic decisions. I really like how KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE turned out. I’ve shot Kate in about 15 different projects so I’m pretty familiar with how she photographs. Her skin is super sensitive to temperature, she turns pink very easily! I think she gets more and more beautiful as she gets older and she and I have a great unspoken sense of what we are doing while the camera is rolling. Our familiarity made it easy to get magic moments every day of the shoot. I guess Robert had something to do with that too.
Your name is the very first to appear in the end credits of Ted Fendt’s SHORT STAY, which was also coincidentally shot on film and will be one of the only titles at the Forum to be screened on 35mm. What’s your relationship with Ted and how does he slot into the scenes we’ve talked about already?
It’s always an event to see a new Ted Fendt film. When BROKEN SPECS played in a short program at BAMcinématek in 2013, Ted instantly became The Man! There was a whole group of us together watching: Josh Safdie, Dustin Defa, Jay Giampietro, Mike Bilandic and more. We laughed so hard all together and also recognized a controlled filmmaking that is so classic, yet entirely uncommon in this century. He’s influenced us and we enjoy catching moments and exchanges in films that you could call “Fendt-ly”. I hope that the feature is much like the short films. They always feel like they’re over too quickly, which is a rare feeling to have while watching shorts, a feeling as rare as the quality these films exude. The casting is always so perfect and those are his real pals! I guess a lot of us have the fortune of casting people from our lives. I respect Ted and his team so much. I would never dream of visiting their set and bringing my heavy energies and dumb ideas. I lend him my camera and batteries whenever he needs them. But I’d be curious to find out why I’d be so prominently thanked at the end of his feature. I tease him about his hair, his coat, whatever I can find to tease him about, every time I see him! And for this I get thanks!