day. Since so much of our site’s content is lost in other designs,
hampered by ad code messing with the pages, or surrounded by gas and
low on evil, I’m going to start reprinting them for new eyes. You’ll
see classic Smilin’ Jack Ruby, stuff from me when I was relevant, early
Devin, and if there’s a God… some Brian Koukol. So, look for the CHUD
Rerun branding and enjoy. It’s nice revisiting some of this stuff. –
***END OF WARNING***
Republished from May 13, 2002. Interview by Smilin’ Jack Ruby, now known as professional screenwriter Mark Wheaton. I couldn’t be prouder of this cat.
Zsigmond, ASC, is one of the most famous cinematographers
of the past few half-century with a career spanning
six decades following his escape from Hungary
during the short-lived uprising and subsequent
Soviet takeover of the country in 1956. He came
to this country with another equally notable shooter,
Laszlo Kovacs and the two men legendarily each
have t-shirts that say, "I’m not Laszlo"
and "I’m not Vilmos" as they have sometimes
been confused for each other in their parallel
beginnings in Hollywood were marked with a number
of genre low budgeters including the humorously
titled The Incredibly Strange Creatures
Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies,
The Time Travelers from notorious Reptilicus
director Ib Melchior and then a number of films
for Al Adamson including Psycho a Go-Go,
Horror of the Blood Monsters (aka Vampire
Men of the Lost Planet aka Creatures
of the Prehistoric Planet aka Night
of the Wolf) and Five Bloody Graves.
Zsigmond’s career took a different direction after
he shot Peter Fonda’s follow-up to Easy
Rider, The Hired Hand, which
was Fonda’s directorial debut.
Hired Hand, Vilmos shot McCabe
& Mrs. Miller for director Robert
Altman as well as Altman’s next two films, Images
and The Long Goodbye. After Images,
he hit the great outdoors with John Boorman
on the treacherous shoot for Deliverance,
but soon caught the attention of a young
director making his first feature film and ended
up shooting The Sugarland Express
for Steven Spielberg, a collaboration that resulted
in Zsigmond’s first Oscar nomination and win three
years later when he shot Close Encounters
of the Third Kind. Around this time,
Zsigmond shot a number of other high profile films
including Obsession, his first collaboration
with Brian DePalma, The Deer Hunter,
for which he received his second Oscar nomination,
and The Rose for director Mark Rydell
for whom he shot the James Caan-starrer Cinderella
Liberty in 1973. Zsigmond was also one
of the cinematographers on Martin Scorsese’s The
Last Waltz alongside DP’s Michael Watkins
and Michael Chapman.
the ’80s and on into the ’90s, Zsigmond remained
a favorite of top directors and shot movies like
Blow Out and The Bonfire of
the Vanities (both for Brian DePalma),
Jinxed! (for Don Siegel), The
River (for Mark Rydell – resulting in
Zsigmond’s third Oscar nomination), Fat
Man and Little Boy (for Roland Joffe),
The Witches of Eastwick (for George
Miller), Maverick and Assassins
(for Richard Donner), The Ghost and the
Darkness (for Stephen Hopkins), The
Crossing Guard (for Sean Penn), Sliver
(for Philip Noyce) and most recently, Life
as a House (for Irwin Winkler).
an introduction like that, how could you not want
to read this interview? Without further ado,
here is Vilmos Zsigmond and me talking about just
about everything and answering you guys’ questions
from the message boards.
Jack Ruby: As a filmmaker, what made you want
to become a cinematographer and take on that part
of the process rather than being, perhaps, a director
or an editor?
Zsigmond: It never occurred to me, actually, to
be a director in those days because my background
was really still photography. The next step was
to get acquainted with the movie business. I
always loved the photography aspect of movies
and I think it’s the best fun to be in that position
– lighting and photographing, framing the pictures
and I feel that that is the most interesting and
enjoyable part of movie-making.
When you moved from still photography into moving
pictures, what was one of the first major differences
you might not have anticipated that you had to
learn pretty quickly once you started?
The way movies are made, the big difference immediately
I recognized was that when I do a still picture,
I’m doing it all by myself with no help. I’m
designing everything. I am my own art director.
I’m doing everything. I’m directing, editing,
whatever, you know? Now, when you are shooting
a movie, you have to collaborate with many, many,
many people. First of all, the director with
all his own ideas and I can only just help him
with that. I cannot change his idea. Sometimes,
of course, we have arguments and we try to help
each other out on which way is better to go.
S.J.R.: What’s the best way you like to work
with directors? Do they mostly come to you already
with ideas or see you as a collaborator?
Well, you always like to be the collaborator.
I don’t want to take over the movie, because if
I want to do that, I should really become a director
because then you have the control of everything,
basically. I’m very happy to just be the visual
part of it, doing the visual part of the movie.
I’m always looking for directors who are very
strong, they have great ideas, but on the other
hand, that need help. It means they rely mostly
on my eyes. As the cinematographer is usually
more visual than the director is and full cooperation
is really the answer and to make a great film,
you need a good director and you need a good cinematographer.
Besides that, you need a good production designer.
So, when I’m talking about collaboration, that’s
really what it is. Everybody does his or her
best in a good movie and then in the end, you
enjoy it and you don’t even think about what was
my idea or what was the director’s idea. It’s
a collaborative effort and that’s the beauty of
Have you found many directors who wanted to work
with you specifically because they were on their
first picture or so and were looking to be taught
a think or two about cinematography?
That’s actually true and that’s why many, many
directors like to switch or change cinematographers
because they learn from each one of them certain
things, which they didn’t know and that way, in
the future, they can probably apply those things
in their movies. All directors would like to
be in that position where they would call the
shots and would know everything about making movies.
Kubrick was one of those directors who actually
did practically everything in his movies. He
actually directed, photographed, wrote, lit, edited
– everything. A few people can be like that.
Spielberg is, in a way, like that. I feel that
he can do it all, but he’s relies also on his
cinematographer. In a way, I really like to work
with people who know a lot, but they also give
me space so I can add something to the movie.
With some of the changes happening right now with
the advent of digital filmmaking, especially with
the Star Wars films, how do you feel about
some films that seem to be bouncing a step and
getting their vistas made right in the computer?
There are a lot of directors out there that don’t
like to deal with actors, I think. Many of them
have said something like, in the future they will
actually manipulate the actors on their computers.
But don’t believe all this (laughs), because
I think that film is still an artform and it doesn’t
really matter if you’re using a digital camera
or a film camera. At the moment, I like the film
camera better because the film is still is still
one hundred times better than any digital image
at the moment. So, there are certain movies that
you can’t really do digitally. Star Wars
is one of those movies that you can really
do digitally, because that’s a digital movie.
Why shoot it on film? You have to manipulate
every single frame of it in post, so you might
as well start out with the digital photography.
That’s perfect for that. But this is just one
small percent of the movies which have to be done
that way. I don’t even want to say five percent
of the movies are going to be shot that way, because
I think film as an art form exists today, it will
exist in the future. People still would like
to see movies with actors and as far as which
medium I’m going to shoot it with, that all depends
on which medium is better. At the moment, film
is better. Ten years from now, probably, we will
reach the point when they will invent better cameras
with better resolution and we will have to switch
over to that because that’s going to be better.
Have you done much experimenting with this new
24 frames-per-second digital camera that some
are saying may one day replace what’s currently
being used as the standard?
Not this camera yet, actually, because I think
you will need more resolution in the future to
match the beautiful images that we are getting
on film nowadays standing up on the negative.
I think digital, basically, is going to be stronger
in the future when it comes to post-production.
Even in manipulating the images, I would like
to do my dailies in a digital way because you
can do so many things in that stage that I cannot
do in real photography. Like, I have a white
sky and I need a blue sky. It’s overcast and
I would like to make it look like it’s sunny.
I cannot do that today with the film camera as
well as I can do it shooting on film and then
transfer it – scan it – into a digital shot and
then I can do everything with it. I can make
the sky black if it’s a night shot. I can do
day for night photography during the day. I can
do so many things, actually, in that stage. And
then at the end, at the moment, you have to still
go back to film because out of the millions of
theaters in the world, only a few of them are
digital. What can you do? You have to go back
to the film to project them.
Do you feel at this time in your career, despite
such recent divergent projects as Mists of
Avalon and Life As a House, that you’re
known for a certain kind of film or look that
people seek you out for?
I don’t know if they know me as much for the look.
Maybe they do, but I think if people are analyzing
my movies and I did so many different kinds of
movies – I did science fiction, I did comedies,
I did musicals, I did so many and they all look
different. I don’t think that they can recognize
that that’s my photography. I hope they can’t
recognize it because I like to shoot all my movies
in a different way. The only thing is maybe the
approach to photography is maybe they can sense
that I always try to tell the story the best possible
way. I create the mood for each scene in a way
that the audience feels that they are right there
with me and they feel actually in the mood that
was right for the scene.
You mention comedies. After being known so much
for wide, epic vistas in your photography, what
kind of decision was it for you in 1984 to take
on a comedy like Real Genius that is filmed
in an entirely different way?
You know, a movie is a movie. There are different
kinds of stories and it just happened to me that
I liked that story of Real Genius.
I love to make movies about young people – young
scientists that are inventing things and all the
writing they did was very funny and very true.
I liked to work with Martha Coolidge, the director,
and we worked together really hard to create that
atmosphere that you felt like you were at that
college and doing those wacky things, you know?
Will you talk about working with the same directors
at different points in both of yours’ careers
as is the case with Brian DePalma with whom you’ve
made three movies, but each at long intervals
I like to work with talented people, I must say
that. That’s my weakness. I really like to work
with good directors. That doesn’t mean I don’t
like to work with starting up young directors,
that’s fun also. Spielberg was very young and
starting up when we did Sugarland Express
and I loved that, but the main thing was that
I really loved his talent. He was a beginner
in those days, but he was incredibly educated
about movies and he was great fun to work with
and I did like to work with him a second time
when we did Close Encounters. Unfortunately,
we stopped at that moment and we didn’t work together
after that. I feel very sorry for that. I would
work with him any time because he is so very talented.
Mark Rydell, I actually did four pictures with
him and every time it was a joy and again, if
he will have a film in the future, I’m sure that
we are going to work together again on that one.
With Brian DePalma, I did three pictures and every
one was enjoyable again because I loved the way
Brian DePalma prepares a movie. He storyboards
everything, but once we are doing the movie, he’s
really not that strict about it like Hitchcock
used to be. It was no fun to work with Hitchcock
as I understood from cinematographers who worked
with him. He wanted exactly the shot that he
put down in the storyboard. (laughs)
That’s not funny when you can see that something
can be better when you’re out on the stage. The
flexibility that Brian DePalma has also makes
A number of people commented about The
Crossing Guard that it was the best
Jack Nicholson has ever looked on screen.
Are there certain actors moreover than directors
that you just enjoy photographing for the
screen and like to be involved with?
Jack Nicholson is one of those actors, actually,
who are really true, honest actors who don’t
care how they look. They want to look like
the character and they don’t like to look
pretty. Jack is very great about that because
we had a discussion about that. I said,
"Jack, do you want me to make you look
younger in this movie? What do you think?"
He said, "No, no. I want to just look
the way I am. This character needs to be
exactly the way I am. Don’t even try to
make me look prettier because it’s not going
to work." So, it’s great to work with
actors like that. Women are so different.
When you work with women, they say, "I
need to look pretty," now matter how
bad they should look in real-life! (laughs)
So, in the movie I had to make them look
pretty, right? Luckily, men are not vain,
but I’ve had a few actors who are, actually,
but Jack is not that kind. Jack is great
to work with.
Will you talk a bit about how you approach
shooting a movie that is almost all exteriors
like The Ghost and the Darkness?
Well, I think all cinematographers, at least
most of them, would love to do everything
on location because you cannot cheat on
location. It’s there, it’s part of the
story usually. You have to deal with the
elements. You have the sunshine, you have
rain, you have fog – it really makes you
work harder to try to match things during
the day to make it look like it was shot
within five minutes, movie time, you know?
(laughs) So, I think it’s a big challenge.
To work on a stage, on the other hand, is
not as much of a challenge. The challenge
when you work on a stage is to make it look
like it’s location and that’s what I try
to do. On the stage, I try to look for
the harsh sunlight coming in and let it
flare out. Make it look like a location
where you cannot control the elements.
That makes it look real and not phony stage-y
lighting, which you know from faraway was
shot on a stage.
Have any developments in filmmaking over
the past few years made it easier to shoot
stages and make them appear more like locations
or is it just learning the tricks of the
trade that has helped you shoot things to
look less stage-y over the years?
I don’t know if it’s really true that today’s
interiors look actually better than twenty
years. I’m not sure if I would say that
because today’s technique makes you be more
lazy. You have films, you know, and fast
lenses and there’s a lot more to capture
– things at a very low-light and you are
pushed more to shoot available light, which
is not really my favorite way to shoot because
anybody can shoot available light. It’s
there, it exists and it’s true, but does
it tell the story for you? That’s my question.
I’m always looking in the lighting to tell
the story in a different way than it actually
looks in real life because it’s, for me,
more contrast sometimes has to mean it’s
softer than normal. Each story has a different
approach for me and I try to work with lighting
that will tell you visually the story better
than if it was shot in available light.
How do you feel about the kind of technology
being used right now in digital transfers
of older movies as they’re being put on
DVD? Also, what kind of involvement do
you have when they call you in to work on
Well, that happens a lot, you know. When
they don’t call me, for example, to be part
of the transfer session, some interesting
things can happen. I shot The Long
Goodbye with a lot of flashing and
pushing the film and it had a certain hazy
quality and set the style for it. When
they called me to come and look at the movie
when they transferred it, I didn’t see,
actually, my work. Everything was cleaned
up! It looked like I shot it today. It
didn’t have the atmosphere, it didn’t have
the work that we put in. It was hard work,
you know? (laughs) I told them that
that was the way it should look and they
said, well, we’re sorry that we didn’t call
you before, but do you want to try to make
a better version of it? So, we went back
and I worked another week on it with them
and made it look exactly the way I shot
it. They were really surprised that, why
did I choose that kind of a style in those
days. But, it’s part of film history.
When you look at those movies, yes, we were
flashing the film. That was the style.
We were sort of revolting against the very
bright and technicolor movies of those days.
We wanted to make it look more natural,
more funky, more like European films of
those days. That was the idea. That’s
why they hired me. That’s why Altman wanted
me to do something different from the Hollywood
stuff. We had to restore it to the same
kind of approach and now on the DVD, we’ll
finally have my approach so people can see
how it was done in those days.
Have they ever called you in earlier to
prevent mistakes like that from happening
They were very sorry for that. They said
that they would never make that mistake
again! (laughs) I don’t know why
they didn’t call me. They maybe thought
that I was already dead or moved to Australia,
I don’t know. Most of the time, I would
say 90% of the time, they call me. I’ve
done restoration over the past two years
on many, many movies like Real Genius,
Hired Hand, Cinderella Liberty, Close Encounters
of the Third Kind, Deer Hunter, perhaps
I’m missing a lot, but I’m spending a lot
of time nowadays on restoring these old
What’s it like to go back and look so carefully
at these movies again after so many years?
It’s a joy for me, actually, when I can
still save a movie for the future because
many, many of the old movies are gone.
We cannot actually restore them back again
because they are far too gone to the point
that there’s no return. You can probably,
maybe, for a lot of expense you can do something
by scanning it in and try to re-do the whole
image, but that’s very costly nowadays.
No one’s trying to do that, yet, because
it probably costs into the hundreds of thousands
of dollars to do it that way.
From older films to newer ones, how do you
feel about a lot of filmmakers today relying
heavily on a certain style to tell a story
rather than focusing first on "story?"
First of all, I hate all kinds of movie
which depend on certain artificial elements
and they push that through a movie like
in the violent movies where everything is
based on violence and not really character
development. The same thing with effects
movie with explosions and fires and all
that where the story depends on those effects
and have nothing to do with the human behavior.
If you put a style to a movie that doesn’t
really belong to that kind of a movie, then
I hate that and I stay away from that kind
of thing. I really don’t remember having
done much of that except maybe, since I
mentioned The Long Goodbye before.
The Long Goodbye was maybe
the only movie where we’d find some crazy
way to move the camera every single shot
– right and left and zoom in and out and
up and down, so this was a movement just
to move the camera. But, you know, people
liked it (S.J.R. note:
Including the National Society of Film Critics
that gave Vilmos the award for Best Cinematography
in 1974 for his work on the film),
so that’s the strange thing about it. I
didn’t like it that much, but people loved
So, who in the field of cinematography’s
work do you really enjoy these days? Who
do you seek out?
I really love Roger Deakins (S.J.R.
note: Five-time Oscar nominee Deakins has
been the Coen Brothers’ shooter since Barton
Fink and also shot A Beautiful
Mind last year. Another career
highlight would definitely be The
Shawshank Redemption). I
think he’s really great and he really reminds
me of my early Hollywood days when we tried
to stretch the limits, to do something different-looking.
The Man Who Wasn’t There,
shooting it in black and white, I thought
it was brilliant and I think he is one of
the best cinematographers today and I respect
him. There are, of course, many, many,
many good cinematographers today and unfortunately
they don’t work as much as many of those
people who do those crazy, stupid movies.
I try to stay away from those movies.
As a lot of these questions are coming in
from readers, someone wanted to know what
advice you’d give someone wanting to become
Well, it’s hard to give anybody any advice.
I’m just optimistic about the future. I
think that the phase of these kinds of movies
being made today which are totally anti-story
and anti-character movies. I think that
in the future it’s going to stop and we
are going to go back to the real movies.
I hope that film is going to stay as an
artform and that people won’t forget that
there are good movies also to be made.
What I would suggest to the young people
is to not forget this and don’t try to get
assimilated into today’s Hollywood style
of movies because I don’t think it’s going
to last long. To feel that these are the
only kind of movies that are going to be
made and if that’s the truth, actually,
that’s even worse a reason to become a cinematographer.
I think that they should work very hard
to try to rely on all the classical movies
of the last hundred years. You can go and
study them and they can try to stay in that
line and make artistic movies rather than
movies which make a lot of money and sell
a lot of popcorn.
A guy from here in Southern California wanted
to ask about the new commercials and previews
that you will see on television and at the
movies – including the one featuring you
for the L.A. Times – and how you feel about
some of these shorter bits turning out to
be more creative and interesting in a short
amount of time versus the features that
Well, you know, commercials are good for
one thing, actually. It’s very good and
I suggest to the young generation to get
into that because, first of all, it’s a
good income and you can support yourself
until a good subject comes up. I do commercials
because of that because I don’t have to
take any film that comes my way and shoot
it. If I don’t like the story, I don’t
shoot it. I stay and do commercials. That’s
been my idea for the past ten years. That’s
why I shot a lot of commercials and sometimes
I enjoy the commercial shooting and sometimes
I really hate it, but in thirty seconds
or one minute, you can make some remarkable
work shooting in one or two or three days.
You can enjoy something if it’s cleverly
done. Again, I’m really doing it just to
be alive until the next project comes along.
What are you working on right now or what’s
next for you?
I haven’t done a commercial now for awhile
and I haven’t done, actually, a feature
film since Life As a House.
I only did one film, an opera filmed in
Hungary. I hope that’s going to come out
in the theater pretty soon. Definitely
it’s going to be available on DVD and that’s
going to be something interesting for people
to see because I think it was done beautifully,
low-budget, very fast and it very much looks
like an opera shot in a filmic way. Everything
What’s the title of the opera?
The title is difficult, but it’s Bank
Ban. It’s Bank, the wife’s story
of Hungary. When the king is out fighting
in a war, there’s a viceroy who is actually
the king. It happens in the 13th
century. It’s shot in 13th century
locations and the lighting and everything
is candles, torches, fires – the whole movie
is lit that way so it all seems like natural
light. The music is great, the singing
is great. There are internationally famous
opera singers in it.
that’s a bit of interviewing with the great
Vilmos Zsigmond, merely scratching the service
of course, but I hope I got everybody’s
questions in that I could (though some may
have been re-worded a bit) and that y’all
found it as interesting as I did while I
was doing it!