Andrew Laszlo, ASC passed away in Bozeman, Montana on October 7 th after a brief illness. He was at home, with his beloved family. Andy was a mentor and great friend. I’ll write more about him shortly. Meanwhile, while contemplating this great loss, I think the following interview says a lot about him. It was conducted a few years ago, during the production of Cinematographer Style. Andy’s son Jeff Laszlo was the DP, Volker Bahnemann was Executive Producer.
Full text of interview with Andrew Laszlo, ASC in June 2007
Please tell us who you are and what do you do?
My name is Andrew Laszlo and I am a cinematographer.
I hear you have come out with a book.
This is my sixth book, the second on motion pictures; the others are biography and fiction.
Tell me about the book.
It’s a Wrap is a book that is a small compilation of my experiences on movie sets around the world, not necessarily from the point of view of a cinematographer on a job or an artist, but remembering the things that went wrong. The reason for this is that, after all these years, I have the tendency to remember some of the things that went wrong, most of which were very traumatic and terrible at the time. But looking back on them, some are actually very funny — at least I think so. These are the sorts of things that most people outside the movie industry seldom get to hear about. One hears about the stars, the glamour and the glitter, but seldom about what happens when something goes wrong. Small or big production, it doesn’t matter. It stops you in your tracks and it is very dramatic and difficult to deal with when it does happen.
Are there lessons to be learned from what can go wrong?
There are lessons to be learned every time something goes wrong — whether it is in the movie business or anywhere else. Or, one may not necessarily learn something, as long as one gets a chuckle out of it.
Give me some examples.
My book is full of them, so it is hard to come up with just one example. It may be too lengthy to describe it, but let me just say when you do a motion picture overseas and you work with a mixed crew and there is not just a language barrier, but a culture barrier between the two groups, work habits that accomplish the same things are not necessarily the same when performed by one group or the other. It can make things difficult.
What was difficult?
Working overseas with a mixed crew of two nationalities, work habits, work ethics and cultures are likely to clash. The biggest difficulty is the language, what gets lost in translation. On the miniseries Shogun, in Japan, the most difficult shot in the entire series, in my mind, took place at night on the water. After everything was positioned — and, of course, in water everything shifts constantly — Richard Chamberlain, playing Captain Blackthorn, was going to give the command “fire now” to a bunch of Samurai who then fired their muskets.
Everything was difficult. They didn’t have real muskets because the unconditional surrender after WWII forbade Japan any kind of firearms, so these were electrical gimmick guns that took a day to prepare. In any case, we had a bunch of Samurai in the bow of this boat, each played by Japanese bit players. The only thing they were instructed to do was to listen very carefully to Mr. Chamberlain, who was going to say “fire now,” at which point they were to fire their muskets. When they fired the muskets, all hell was to break loose. A large Spanish galleon, an ocean-going Japanese vessel and 30 fishing boats were squibbed to be splintered, and stuntmen were to fall in the water and “drown” and “die.”
In any case, it took us the better part of an afternoon, after months of preparation, to get this thing ready, so when night fell and the conditions were right and everything was in place, we could make the shot. Everything was in place shortly after midnight. Just as we were about to roll the cameras, Richard Chamberlain yelled over to our director, Jerry London, “Jerry, don’t forget to signal me when you want me to say ‘fire now.’” Of course the moment he said that, one of the bit players, none of whom spoke English, fired his musket. When he fired his musket, all the others fired theirs. The fishing boats were ripped to smithereens, the stuntmen were in the water “drowning” — it was an unbelievable mess that took weeks to re-rig and re-prep.
These are the sorts of things in the book. The book talks about some experiences that were not foul-ups or mistakes, but things that came to bear on my life. Example: The first large concert — the granddaddy of all rock concerts — the Beatles live at Shea Stadium in New York. There were 56,000 screaming kids in Shea Stadium, which is a three-quarter circle, focusing the noise on the infield, where I was. This is why I’m wearing hearing aids right now. Those are some of the incidents I am talking about in the book.
Why is it important for students to be learning this stuff?
I certainly hope the book will be read by students. Though it only deals with five or six episodes of my 50-plus years of filmmaking, I believe that one can and should learn from mistakes or somebody else’s experience. But I hope, aside from film students, the book will find a broader readership because many people believe that working in the movie industry is nothing but glamour, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a tremendous amount of glamour, of course, but filming is hard work. I am hoping that people on the periphery, or just movie buffs, will get a lot out of the book.
You teach a lot. What are some things that film students constantly ask you?
Going way back, as I’m sure you would remember at Dartmouth, I would be asked to come spend time with students whenever I was not working on a film — talk and lecture and get together for a hamburger and beer at the end of the day. Every time I would be talking with a group of film students, and it doesn’t make any difference if it is at a university in the United States or in the Czech Republic, invariably two questions would come up. The first question is: How did you, meaning me, start in the film business?
At that point, I take the opportunity, if the university has a soundstage and filmmaking equipment, and say, “You guys are lucky. Here you are; you have the use of this great studio, lights, cameras, sound equipment. When I started in the business, the only equipment I was trusted with was a broom, because I went through an apprentice system in Hungary at a time when there were no film schools there or, as far as I know, anywhere in the world. There was an apprenticeship system, which has been practiced for many years in many crafts and businesses. I was fortunate to get a job at one of the motion picture studios, and was given a broom to sweep the lab. I was promoted from then on. I find it interesting that some of these young fellows have no idea of how tremendously lucky they are to be able to go to a school and find themselves in an almost professional motion picture environment.
The second question, and there is a relation between the two questions, is that after I explain the first, someone will ask: How do I start in the business? And that is a very difficult question to answer. I could only tell them — and you may remember having heard this — that the most important element in getting into this business, and possibly succeeding, is commitment. One has to be totally and absolutely committed to it. It has to become religion. You have to eat it, dream it, talk it and take every opportunity to get yourself established. After that, perhaps the most difficult aspect of getting situated in the business is luck: what and whom you know, how you go about presenting and promoting yourself.
As I talk about how I got started and how they could get started, I also point out that they are entering a field, cinematography, that is very small and extremely competitive. In fact, whenever any person asks this question, I generally ask for a show of hands of how many people in the group of 40 or 45 want to be cinematographers. A hand goes up tentatively, then a second, then a third and so forth. I finally count 15 hands and point out that at that school, in that one class, that year, anyone with a hand up will have 14 competitors. Worldwide, I point out, though I never made any real study of this, there are probably no more than a couple of thousand people who do what I do: directing the photography of major motion pictures. Film production is an extremely steep pyramid: thousands of talented people are trying to get into and make it in the business. And there is only so much room at the top for a handful of people.
How did you get started?
My experience with the broom took place in 1946 in Budapest, Hungary. In a war-torn country like Hungary was at that time, there was no film production to speak of. So even though the laboratory where I swept the floor was in operation, mainly making release prints of American films that didn’t get to Hungary during the war, producing movies was so far off that I just didn’t think there was any future in my staying there. I packed a suitcase and left the country — illegally I might add — and just about a year later arrived in New York. At that point, my main objective was to keep my head above water, work and have enough money to live, learn the language, the faster the better, because that was the most essential element in getting work. Most importantly, I was trying to get work that was in some ways connected with photography.
For some time I worked in the laboratory of a company that printed textiles and wallpaper with a photographic process. I worked in the darkroom, as I put it, to keep my fingers in the developer. At one time, I worked as a door-to-door baby photographer. I had a camera and a few lights I could do the work with.
Then the greatest break of my life came. I was the number one person from New York City to be drafted by the army for the Korean War. I wound up in the U.S. Army motion picture school, which was wonderful. We not only had all the equipment, the school insisted we shoot 35mm motion picture film, day-in and day-out, thousands of feet and, of course, doing it is the greatest way to learn.
When I came out of the army it was a little bit rough. I was a young fellow, trying to enter the industry, which was very difficult because I had no track record. I tried absolutely everything to get work. In fact, I resorted to gags that nowadays I’m actually a bit self-conscious to talk about. I was turned down by so many producers, even smalltime ones; I couldn’t even get past secretaries. At one point, I sent out hand-printed résumés on sandpaper just so they would remember it. I sent out résumés on shirt cardboard so they couldn’t crumple it up and toss it in the wastebasket. The breaks finally came. I took any job offered to me, as long as I had a chance to be behind a camera, do some lighting, experiment with lenses and so on. Then better jobs were offered and that is how I got started. As I said earlier, the important thing is to stick with it.
What do you tell students?
I tell film students that it takes perseverance and sacrifice to stick with it until something comes your way. I also tell students that the day one pulls the plug and decides to go pump gas at a gas station, may just be the day before something would have come one’s way. You have to stick with it. Did I ever tell you the story about the hippie in Central Park? I was doing a movie in Central Park in the ’60s — you have to remember what a real hippie looked like in those days: a real skinny guy with an embroidered white shirt, some rope around the waist, long blond hair, bare feet. This guy came over to me and said, “Like man, how do you get into this business?” I said, “What would you like to do?” And he said, “Man, I don’t care.” I told him, “OK, if you don’t care, don’t get into it.” If you don’t care, why bother? I think that is the main point. You have to care! You are not going to get anything out of it if you don’t put something into it.
What defines style?
Style is dictated by a number of factors. I don’t think that any single style could, or should, be applied to films of different story values. There are a few great cinematographers who are known for strong style. Gordy Willis is one of those cinematographers. I don’t think the style he demonstrated so beautifully in The Godfather series has been equaled since. Most importantly, his strong style was right for the subject matter. So it is subject matter that is first and foremost with me in trying to come up with a particular style or look for a particular film.
You read the script and images begin to form in your imagination and in your vision. You examine the subject matter of the story. Is it fantasy or reality? Is it something that could or would have happened? Other considerations may come into play: how to apply reality to fantasy, and vice versa, and how it can be done. If I were to shoot on this lot on a day like this, well, this is reality, but it is not style. Style will come from how I enhance that reality. What will I do to the image so that it is realistic but will have an impact on the audience? I have to bring something to that reality that will affect the audience as they look at the picture. Is it a happy day? Is it a sad day? What can I do to create an impression, an emphasis? Techniques and tools come into play — lenses, film stocks, filters, focal lengths, all kinds of gimmicks that an individual artist may come up with and say, “This is what I feel; this is what I’ll do to enhance the image so it will serve the story best, as depicted in the script.”
Where do these ideas come from?
Some of it comes from experience, some of it comes from inspiration, and some of it just happens. The things that just happen may be just as important, if not more than the others. Things just come out of leftfield sometimes. I walked into the New York subway tunnels in connection with a movie I shot in 1978 (The Warriors) and the camera was already on a tripod; my assistants had it all put together and ready to go by the time I got to the set. Out of curiosity, I looked through the lens and what I saw was incredible, absolutely magnificent. Imagine a dark, curved tunnel with tracks and a light at the end of the tunnel that lit up the shiny parts of the tracks. It was beautiful. It was reality. It didn’t need to be enhanced; it was already beautiful. Not many people have the opportunity to walk around in the subway tunnels while the trains are running. Not too many people even know what subway tunnels look like, but when I saw this shot I knew it was going to end up in the movie.
You once said that mistakes or accidents are very good sometimes.
I’ll give you an example. We were filming a movie right here on this Universal Studios lot. We had New York Street and all the little alleys covered under a huge tarp. Most of the photography was to be day-for-night. We, the director Walter Hill and I, kept trying to come to terms with what our footage would look like photographed during the day. Neither of us wanted contrast. We didn’t want dark or contrasty shadows, but New York Street runs east to west. The sun comes up in the east as one arrives to work and by 11:30 a.m. it is straight overhead. By four in the afternoon, it goes down behind the hills at the west end of the street, so we had a real headache in how we were going to present the daytime scenes without harsh shadows and contrast.
That movie, Streets of Fire, was a very stylized picture. One morning I arrived 45 minutes before the call time and, because the tarp was damaged every day, we had a very large tarp repair crew that worked every night to fix up the damage from the previous day. The repair crew had certain sections of the tarp open, and when I walked on the set it was so beautiful, it blew me away. It was a foggy morning so all the daylight that was filtering down was very soft. Because the tarp was opened only here and there, wherever it was open, this soft light illuminated the buildings, with the elevated structure in silhouette in front of the lit buildings, or the elevated structure would be lit up and the buildings would be dark behind it. It was very exciting because this was the answer; this was how the day portions had to be photographed. But how do you do that? You can’t restrict your photography to 30 minutes per day and hope that you will be lucky enough to have fog that morning.
This was a wonderful accident where a problem that had been plaguing me for months was solved, the answer having come from heaven, so to speak. Since we couldn’t restrict the photography to foggy days or the early portion of days, the solution was to maintain the tarp. The philosophy of the production company, Universal Pictures, was that we had a “$3 million tarp we built for you for night photography. If you want to have day, roll the tarp back and you will have day.” But if I had real daylight with contrasty shadows, it would have disrupted the strong style of the rest of the movie and would have stood out like a sore thumb. My problem was how to go about getting the same results in an artificial way. The solution was not to take the tarp down, but to open it at strategic points and put silk panels in the openings so the natural daylight that came through the silk was soft and uniform. The problem was that, by this time, the tarp was proven to be a bad investment for Universal Pictures. Yet I was asking for thousands of dollars more for silk and installation. It became a big brouhaha. They just couldn’t understand why I needed the silk to photograph day scenes during the day. But in the end I had my way — we got the silk and the results turned out very well. The style of the film was maintained. Occasionally, an accident like this will provide the answer, but at no time should one rely on that. If it happens and it works, fine, but if not, you have to come up with the answers.
It says “DP: Jeff Laszlo” on the slate for this production. Is he related?
I’ve heard of him. A young cinematographer. I think we’re related. He’s my son.
Let’s talk about tools and production. How do you get to use them if production doesn’t let you?
It is a double-edged sword. Without production I would be out of business. There would be no job as cinematographer if it were not for production. I depend on production for my livelihood and work. One has to work hand-in-hand with production. If you are not allowed to do your best for production, what is the point in working on the picture? Production knows that. Yet on all the pictures I’ve shot, I don’t think there has been one, regardless of budget, where money was not tight and expenditures were not questioned. You would walk on the set and production would ask, “Why do you need 80 lights?” Answer: Because you’re certain you will need at least 60 and if some of them malfunction, it is much better to have extra ones than to have to wait for one when you need it. There might be a shot that calls for a brand new piece of very expensive equipment, of which there might only be three in the world, and production asks why you need it and if the shot could be done another way?
If you believe in your art, if you believe in your craft, why not go for the best? Most of the time, production understands that and goes for the extra expense, as in the case of the silk panels. The reverse of this is that every time a new toy becomes available, there is a certain amount of overuse of that toy. I remember shooting a picture in Africa and for the entire duration of the production, we carried a new wonder lens, a zoom lens. When it first came out, the zoom lens was touted to do away with dolly shots, crane shots and, of course, we all knew, it wouldn’t. It never did do away with dolly shots. The strong urge to use new equipment because you have it has to be carefully weighed. To use it just because you have it is not necessarily a great idea.
I designed a shot on this very picture because we had the zoom lens. A single take that would photograph an entire sequence in one, putting the actors in positions to accommodate the various focal lengths. But every time we got to the location for this scene, something went wrong. An early zoom lens was very slow and required a lot of light. When the generator got lost and we couldn’t shoot, we went back the second time. The generator was there but the electrical truck was missing and without lights the zoom lens couldn’t be used. I said I wouldn’t use the zoom lens if we had to go back to the same location again. When we did, and something didn’t work again, I laid out the shots using different focal length prime lenses and shot the scene in a “normal” pre-zoom lens fashion. When the dailies, “weeklies” as they were, came back, it became obvious that if we made the shot with the zoom lens it would not have been as good. This is an example of how positive or negative new tools or technology can be.
What is the relationship of technique to technology?
In the early ’60s, I was asked to talk at a television expo and I was asked what I thought of the new video technologies as television was coming into its own. I mentioned the fact that I just then came back from Alaska where I had filmed a show for Ed Sullivan. The opening sequence of the show was a supersonic fighter plane flying over Alaska, doing loops, rolls and what-not; the idea being that Ed Sullivan was brought to a particular Air Force base in Alaska to entertain the troops. Of course he wasn’t in the plane, but I was. I had a handheld Arriflex camera, which I think weighed about 16 pounds, but when we were pulling Gs, at every G you double the weight of the camera. Holding a 16-pound camera with a space helmet and pressure suit, being strapped into a supersonic fighter plane that was rolling and looping was quite a gag. However, the upcoming technology of television could not have possibly allowed me to take the same shots. Television cameras were huge, needed an immense truck on the street or in the back of the studio, and we would have needed a very long cable! I pointed out the fact that, even though new technology was coming along, we couldn’t have made the shot without film technology. This was one example of technology and the limitations of equipment then. The same thing might be true today, though in reverse.
Among many credits, Andrew Laszlo, ASC was cinematographer on The Night They Raided Minsky’s Lovers and Other Strangers, The Out of Towners, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Warriors, Shogun, I, The Jury, First Blood, Streets of Fire, Innerspace, Remo Williams, Newsies…