In the past week two of the greatest cinematographers of all time died -- Vilmos Zsigmond and Haskell Wexler.
Zsigmond, was director of photography on such classic movies as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “McCabe and Mrs.Miller.” In a 2003 survey conducted by the International
Cinematographers Guild, Zsigmond ranked among the 10 most influential cinematographers in film history.
Wexler’s work in both film (“The Conversation,” “One Flew
Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”) and in documentaries (“Interviews With My Lai Veterans.”) has had a profound influence on the way both are shot today. His work opened the creative doors to films being more realistically shot and documentaries attempting to achieve the artistic gravitas of a feature film.
The two artists knew each other very well. Early in their careers, both were commercial directors working at the same production company. And in 1975, their work as cinematographers on the films, “The Deer Hunter,” and “Coming Home,” competed for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And yet they were also very different Professional Artists throughout their career.
1 When learning your trade you often have to pay your dues by working
on cheap / exploitation flicks or educational / industrial movies.
Zsigmond worked his way into studio projects by shooting B-movies like “The Sadist” (his first credit in 1963); “Incredibly
Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies,” “Horror of the Blood Monsters,” and “Five Bloody Graves.”
Wexler’s “apprentice” work had his share of low budget exploitation films (for producer Roger Corman), but what proved to be influential in his career style was shooting educational and industrial films in the 1950s. This led to a career-long pursuit of shooting both fiction and documentary films.
2 The Two Cinematographers had different “styles" that guided their careers.
Zsigmond was proud of the fact that none of his films ever looked the same. He tackled almost all genres, epic and small productions, and worked with a variety of directors. And yet, there was a distinctive look to every film Zsigmond shot. “The Long Goodbye” looks completely different than the movie “Blowout,” even though both are considered “film noir” movies.
Variety called the look of a Haskell Wexler film, “cool, uncluttered but visually distinct.” Clearly shooting documentaries allowed Wexler to create a unique way of shooting Hollywood movies. The influence is on display in the 1966 Oscar-winning film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (with director Mike Nichols). The colorless, but cluttered (in the background of the frame) look is almost clinical, a film shot by a coroner trying to capture the details of a dysfunctional marriage that died long ago but somehow keeps on lurching forward like a walking corpse.
3 When shooting a genre movie, attempt to do something different.
Zsigmond’s big break came when he was hired to shoot director
Robert Altman’s film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” He made the most of his breakthrough effort by shooting the "revisionist" movie with a palette of desaturated dark colors. This gave the film an
intentionally melancholy look so it would contrast with the bright, vibrant glossy look of most traditionally shot studio Westerns.
When Haskell was given the chance to shoot a suspense-thriller, his documentary look was groundbreaking in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece,"The Conversation." The movie is shot almost like a documentary film, with the filmmaker attempting to plunge the audience into the world of the main character, Harry Caul, by utilizing banal images and sounds, with the constant repetition of both. Only by digging deeper do these images and sounds begin to reveal something more complex, perhaps a sinister underworld hidden in plain sight within the seemingly boring veneer of every day life... or people.
4 A relationship between the Cinematographer and his camera is not
necessarily the key relationship in achieving the best work.
Zsigmond believed “a cinematographer can only be as good as the
Supporting his quote was the multiple films he shot for just a few
directors. He shot two revisionist movies for Robert Altman, now
considered classics – “McCabe and Mrs. Miller and “The Long Goodbye.”
But he tasted both success / and failure (but not necessarily with his D.P. work) with the directors Brian De Palma
(“Blowout” / “The Black Dahlia”); and Michael Cimino (“The
Deer Hunter” / “Heaven’s Gate”).
The two films he shot for Steven Spielberg could be the most telling. He worked on “The Sugarland Express,” which was Spielberg’s first theatrical production. The work went well enough that a few years later the two teamed up again on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
The movie ended up getting an Oscar for the great cinematographer, but ironically, Zsigmond never worked with Spielberg again. He felt his creative input during the production of “Third Kind” was ignored.
As an artist, the key relationship for Haskell Wexler was his subject matter -- “One person has a responsibility not just for himself but for inter-relationships with the existences of others and the world.”
Wexler gave up shooting cigarette commercials because he eventually believed the products were killing people. He would spend most of his career shooting both documentaries and fictional films, often choosing his projects based on how he felt on a soulful level about the content and themes of the work. His celebrated film, “Medium Cool" was not a paid assignment, but a labor of love which he financed because he believed in the content. My favorite Wexler shot film, “Coming Home,” exhibits the same passion he had for all of his documentary films, the work of an artist using all of his craft to reveal the "truth" in the screenplay he was trying to capture on film.