How I Got Into Cinematography

October 20, 2023
I got into cinematography completely by accident. One day at NYU, a professor set up a film exercise. He assigned Jim (Jarmusch) to write a five-minute film, me to shoot it, and someone else to edit it, all completely at random. I’d never shot anything before. But I think because I didn’t have preconceived notions about lighting and technical things, Jim and I worked together very well. I approached it like a kind of second director. Of course, Jim was the director, but I’m just saying the way I conceived the shots was more like a director than a cinematographer: “What’s the best way to shoot this? What’s the best way to have the camera help this story?” But, more than that, I think Jim and I were both excited about each other’s ideas. We liked each other, and we discovered we had elements of the same sensibility.
I would shoot a few films to help me feel I was still involved in filmmaking, but most were for first-time directors, and I’d end up designing the entire visual world of the film, which ultimately kept making me ask myself, “Why aren’t you doing this for your own film?”
Since I couldn’t really answer that question, I’d finish other people’s films and go back to painting apartments. One day, I was in a tiny bathroom using some newspaper to cover a medicine cabinet, and I noticed it was a page from the Arts section of the New York Times and there was an article that read: “Stranger Than Paradise wins the Caméra d’Or at Cannes.” I’ve got to be honest with you; it was a heavy moment.
Jim’s film was a great accomplishment on many levels, and I think it was massively influential in the independent film movement and to me. What seeing that article did was force me to look at myself and ask, “Why are you standing here with paint dripping from your elbow?”

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Independent Filmmaker & Musician