Filmmakers in Conversation: Ellen Kuras

Uploaded by walkerartcenter on 17.03.2010

Host: We are very pleased to have with us this wonderfully talent director of photography
and film director, Ellen Kuras. After graduating from Brown University with a double degree
in semiotics and anthropology, Ellen also studied photography at the Rhode Island school
of Design and at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York. She later took classes
in super8 filmmaking in New York as her interests were drawing her toward documentary film.
Her first film as a director of photography was "Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia"
in 1990, the first US film made in Cambodia after the war. The film won many awards, including
a Focus Award for best cinematography and a special Sundance jury award.
Then when "Swoon" thrilled the audiences at the 1992 Sundance film festival, Ellen garnered
the first of a record three Sundance cinematography awards. The first for "Swoon," the second
for "Angela" in 1995, and the next one for "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits" in 2002.
Ellen's impressive body of work ranges from documentaries to features, straddles the commercial,
studio, and independent film worlds, and is shot in a wideranging array of formats, from
miniDV to 35mm. She has been an ongoing director of photography for many celebrated directors:
Martin Scorsese, Michel Gondry, Rebecca Miller, Spike Lee, among others.
Ellen's cinematography has been nominated for two Emmy awards and three Independent
Spirit awards. She was the recipient of the Gotham Award and the Kodak Vision Award for
her career. I guess her career so far. I think she's just getting going.
With the 2008 release of the acclaimed documentary "The Betrayal," she entered the realm of director.
The film, made over a 23year period, was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary in 2009.
As hard as it was to select just a few films from her amazing career, we did show over
the past few days "Swoon," "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Berlin," and "The Betrayal."
I want to point out, also, in the exhibition "Event Horizon," which is currently on view
here at the Walker, is a work she made with the actor performance artist Ron Vawter, which
is titled "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," and it contains a stage set and a video based on a performance
that was done in New York in 1993.
She is quoted to say, "I always stick to the belief that if I got involved into films I
believed in it would be a good experience. I put my heart and soul into my films." We
are so pleased that she took time from her very, very busy schedule to come to the Walker
today to be with us, so will you please welcome Ellen Kuras.
Ellen Kuras: Hi everybody. I want to thank you all for coming here tonight. I know it's
the night of the Olympics and I know that you have hometown people who are in competition
there and I'm really glad you came out tonight, so thank you very much. I also want to thank
the Walker, Cheryl, and Kodak for inviting me. They've been asking me to come for a while
now and this is actually a perfect time, so thank you very much for that. I'd also like
to thank the sponsors who sponsor the Walker, particularly Target.
Because with the free Thursdays Target sponsors free Thursdays, as you know and for me it
was really important that I was able to show "The Betrayal" on Thursday night and be able
to come to the Q&A and have people be here for free.
It makes such a huge difference that people are able to enjoy the art all over the country
and be able to go to a place where they don't have to pay and where everybody and anybody
can come, especially in a place like Minneapolis where there are so many different people with
different ethnic groups and different economic strata, so I want to thank you so much for
doing that.
So how do I get from anthropology to cinematography? It's been a very interesting journey. When
I was at Brown University I had seen a few films and one of the few films I saw was a
recap of "Billy Jack."
It took me back from when I was a young girl and I had seen this film and I realized I
was really moved by the way that this film could tell the story about a reallife situation
and that it could move me and inform me and show me how people lived in the world and
talked about the human condition.
I thought I really want to do that in the world. I want to be able to make political
documentaries, at least at that time, to be able to say something about the world. So
it's really interesting that when I was in anthropology I could se that documentary film
was a means to be able to do that.
When I got out of school I started making this film called "The Betrayal." That was
back in 1984 and it was a at a time when I didn't really know that much about filmmaking.
I was really interested in this story about these Laotians who had come to this country
and who I had met as my neighbors in Providence and then in Rochester, New York.
I realized that in meeting them their story hadn't been told. I'm sorry, I'm just nervous
tonight. There's so much that I want to tell you about what I've learned over the years.
So when I first met these people when I was living in Providence I realized, seeing them
on the street, they had just come here from Laos. They were walking in their traditional
garb and walking with chickens along the street and I started to photograph them and to investigate
into what their history was and what their story was and I realized that their story
had never been told.
I realized that we in the United States never really recognized that we fought a war in
Laos. So I thought I really want to make a story about these people. I applied to the
National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant, which I got, and I started living
with these people and being able to understand who they were in order to make this film.
What happened was very interesting. In this, time I started think of myself as a filmmaker
and approaching the filmmaking process as a director.
Getting to know these people, wanting to learn their language, and in the process it was
very interesting. I started filming I'm sorry.
I started filming with them and in the course of filming I had hired a cinematographer to
come work with me and I sat down with him and said, listen, this is what I'm really
interested in. I'm interested in making the relationships with people and being able to
see what the relationships are through the camera.
When I got the dailies back it was really interesting because they were very wellexecuted,
they were very wellfilmed, but there was something that was missing.
I was sitting there looking and I was like, what is it that's missing?
I realized that it was the meaning. I was interested in how meaning is created with
imagery and how you can show the image to speak as loudly as words. So that's when I
decided to pick up the camera myself. And I thought, I need to investigate what this
is all about. I need to understand what meaning is all about. So I picked up the camera and
I started trying to make relationships happen.
I started trying to experiment with if I'm following a person along and I rack focus
to another person, what does that mean? It started a whole trajectory of inquiry in my
work, which I think has gone through all of my work even to this day, of how meaning is
created and how images can act as visual metaphor in standing for other kinds of meanings. So
an image can tell a story on its own.
In the process of making this film, I knew I didn't want to make a film that was a traditional
documentary. I knew I wanted to make a film that was more about worldview, that was about
more universal themes of philosophy and life and death and tell a personal story from a
first person point of view and how does one get to that.
These were all questions that I went into in trying to understand how to film something.
This actually started off my career as a documentary cinematographer because some people saw what
I had done, and they started saying, "Well, can you film for me?" It became then something
that I started...
It was a series of inquiries and questions, of how does one get inside of the character?
How does one be able to tell a story with images without having to always have the director
tell me what to do and enable myself to edit within camera? How do I challenge myself to
be able to bring a shot full circle?
It's one thing that I learned that was very important, which I think is very relevant
now, is that each shot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So how do I find that
trajectory to tell the story in my head while I'm filming a shot?
I find that even now, today, I do the same thing where whenever I'm looking at something
or I'm trying to film something, I'm always thinking about what is the story I want to
tell? What is the message that I want to tell?
I want to take a step back and just talk about cinematography, and being a cinematographer,
and being a director of photography because as I became a cinematographer, people would
say to me, "Well, what's the difference between a cinematographer and a director of photography?"
I see myself as a director of photography. A director of photography to me is someone
who is the director of the photography literally, but also the director of the crew and the
director who sets the tone and who's able to lead the crew.
It's interesting because I can be a very technical person or one can be a very technical person
and say, OK, the camera goes here, and the crane goes here, and this is where we're going
to set the lights. But it's a whole other thing to lead the crew and to take into account
everything that's going on, on the set.
It was interesting for me to make the comparison, to make the analogy, from when I was a young
girl and I was playing a lot of sports. I was often the captain of the team. I found
myself being in that same very spot. I thought this is like being on a team, and the people,
the crew, are my team members. I have to protect them, and I have to watch over them.
I think that people forget about that in the film industry sometimes, that we are a family,
much like everybody who works in a company becomes a family, that one relates with each
other and that you have to treat each other with respect.
I think that as I progressed and became much more of a director of photography in the role
that was organizing crews and that kind of thing, that's something that I came to realize
is that it's much, much more than just being a cinematographer. It's much, much more than
just pointing the camera and shooting. It becomes much more about the world and how
you live with the people in it.
But the other thing that the cinematographer does or that the director of photography does
is the thing that I do a lot with the director is I'm there to facilitate their vision. I'm
somebody who sits with the director and tries to get into their mind's eye to be able to
understand how it is that they want to tell their story.
Sometimes we sit down, and we look at books, and we look at movies, and we look at references
in order to understand what the tone is going to be and what the look of it's going to be.
I think much more now everybody's much more aware of what happens in filmmaking and cinematography,
and how much that sets the tone with the music, and with the images, and with the sound together,
that they all tell their story, but that the cinematography has so much to do with how
you get into a story and what the tone of the story will be.
Oftentimes I'm in concert with the director in sitting down and trying to figure out exactly
what the tone is going to be for each and every movie that we do. Many times, each movie
that I've done has been very different in look because so much of it has to do with
what the story is that we're trying to tell.
For those of you who know my work, "Eternal Sunshine" is a very differentlooking movie
and a very differentfeeling movie than "Swoon" is, and that is because they're such different
stories. It's not always the same formulaic approach to each film, but that it really
has to do with the story at hand.
It was interesting because this search for meaning for me started taking me on a path
that had many other questions that were related to it, and primarily in the world of documentary
that had to do with the search for truth.
In making this film, "The Betrayal," back in 1984 when I started it and then in 1985
when I met Thavisouk, who I made my codirector and who was the lead person and character,
and his family is a character in the film, I was interested in trying to find how I could
make a film that is about memory, that is a film that has to do with his world view,
that would be in his first person.
I started experimenting with ideas of point of view and questioning what the point of
view of a film is and how you could, in a sense, film the point of view of a person
and then have that person walk into their own point of view so that you have two different
perspectives at the same time.
How does one get into the mind of a character? How does one talk about memory and the past?
That was really the big challenge of making this film that we did together over so many
years because Laos was closed for the first 10 years of my making the film. It was really
difficult to get any kind of archival footage because Laos was a classified country at that
The kind of images that I was looking for were not so much just news footage or documentary
footage. I was interested in looking at and finding images that were much more personalized
or that I could make much more personal.
So oftentimes when I would find even scraps of footage, I would rephotograph them off.
I would project them on the wall. Because at that time we weren't really working in
video, I would project them on the wall, and I would rephotograph them to try and capture
that sense of the personal, of the experiential.
I wanted the audience to be able to experience with me that journey that he was going through.
At the same time, I questioned myself about docudrama, and about what is the borderline
between docudrama, and drama, and the truth?
I don't know whether you've seen the film, but in the film there were some moments where
I make pretend I'm Thavi in filming him running through the reeds. I tried to get into his
firstperson perspective. There were a couple of scenes that recreate, in a way, his experience.
During one Q&A, it was really interesting because somebody said to me, "So where do
you draw the line between something that is real or not?"
I said, "Well, it's rather about what the truth is, and what the intention of the truth
is, and how does that play in documentary in this situation, because in a way I was
being truthful to the spirit of what the past was, of what Thavi's experience was in trying
to put the audience in that place."
The whole idea of documentary and how documentary plays within fiction film is also very real
and was able to take me from being a documentarian into being in the feature world, because I
carried that experience and that inquiry into that same space, and still have.
I think it's evident in films like "Eternal Sunshine," where it was very much a film about
relationships, and being in the firstperson perspective, and being in a very intimate
perspective with the characters. That experience that I had had helped me in "Eternal Sunshine"
to be able to get to that more emotional place.
But documentary, and the experience I had from documentary, also helped me to able to
be a better commercial DP, commercial director, and also a DP on features because in a way
one has to be very extemporaneous in documentary.
As you can imagine, walking into a room you have to be able to assess right away what's
going on and what story you're going to tell. Some people say to me, "Well, how do you know
what to cover?"
I say, "Well, you have to talk to the director first, and in talking to the director to find
out exactly what the story is that they want to tell." What is the reason for us being
here? Why are we here? Why are we filming this? That tells me exactly what I have to
do in order to cover the scene.
So, being extemporaneous, sometimes you walk into a crowd or in a situation, and you have
to be able to figure your way through it right away. Sometimes you can light it, or sometimes
you can't light it, or sometimes you have to move over to the place where you can get
the best story and be able to tell the best story.
That's always helped me later on when I became a feature person, where I was able to on tech
tell, walk in and be able to say, "OK, I know where I'm going to put the camera, and this
is the story we're going to tell." But the creation of meaning has to do also, with being
able to take that and be able to pause it and put it into place, especially in features.
For example, when we walk into a location and we're trying to figure out what the blocking
is, I learned through time and through working with the directors that so much about where
you put the person in space, and the blocking and the lighting, and how a person may come
up, and whether you put them in the foreground, and there's somebody in the background, and
if that person crosses over the foreground, and then you react to the background, how
that creates a whole other meaning then if they're both in the background and one walks
So in a way for me it becomes a puzzle that ends up becoming something that we unfold,
and that works both in documentary and in fiction.
In terms of "The Betrayal," I made this film over 23 years, and the reason why it took
time over this trajectory was because it was a personal film and because it was a film
that, in a way, became a notebook for me to talk about, and to think about, ideas that
had to do with the universal. I was always looking for ways that the stories in this
film could touch upon the universal.
One of the first stories that came to me that Thavi and I were in conversation, and Thavi
said to me, he said I would ask him all of these questions about the philosophy of the
Laos, how they believed that the world began, the mythology, what stories he remembered
from his grandmother. What was very interesting that came out, is that he would tell me stories
like, he says, "When I was eight years old, my grandmother asked me, 'Do you want to know
where your umbilical cord is buried?'"
And he said, "Yes, I want to know." So she showed me the place overlooking the Mekong,
and she said, "I want you to remember, no matter where you go and who you become, even
if you become a rich man, I want you to remember that this is a place that your spirit will
return to upon its death."
That always stayed with me and I realized that it rang true for me, and that this was
the kind of this is what I wanted to touch upon in this film. I wanted it to move me
as a person, as a human being, as much as I wanted to move other people.
I realized that that was what I wanted to do in my life, is that to find the universal
currents that go through stories, that go through literature that we all can connect
with in some way, or that we can all identify with.
In doing that, we started embarking on a poetic storytelling, creative process that we worked
on together, that I would ask him all of these questions, and then write from them to be
able to put together this mosaic portrait of what had happened to this family.
One of the things visually, that was interesting to me it's what I said before about visual
metaphor and how the image can represent certain ideas thematically. In this film, I realized
that when Thavi told that story to me, one of the phrases that he also would say is in
Lao, they used to say, "To step out of water is to step out of the womb."
I thought, "Wow!" That has so many implications for us as becoming individuals, becoming human
beings, and the idea of being born and reborn again, and the river Styx. I started trying
to think about how does this work? How can we run this current through, and how can I
touch upon those themes, and show that visually in the film. How can I make a film that is
about the visual as well as the words?
What happens in documentary, and I found this over the course of making this film that was
very interesting about an editorial approach that whenever I would bring an editor to it,
they would always want to take all the words, and all of the transcripts, and cut together
the words, and cut together the story from beginning to end on black and white and a
piece of paper.
I said, "No, that's not the way I want to do this. I want to approach it from a completely
different way. I want to do it in concert with each other. I want the images and the
words to speak together. I want one to be able to stand on its own, and be able to work
them in so that, in a way, I could show an image and let it speak for itself."
So, I think I should show you a little clip here, which is the beginning of "The Betrayal,"
and in it, I think there are little snippets of you can tell of the first steps towards
trying to thematically tie together different ideas, and the challenge of being able to
tell the personal through the political, and the political through the personal.
Ellen: As you can see in the beginning here, one of the currents that goes through the
film is water, and it's something that recurs all of the way through the film. I always
kept it in mind when I was shooting. At a certain point, Thavi's mother, when she walks
through the water, and she steps out of the water, in my mind, I knew I wanted to tell
the story of how our lives are like that. We come out of the water and the waves keep
on going. They keep on continuing. It's like our lives; it's like a wave. All of the sudden
it's something, and then it's gone. I was trying to say something about impermanence,
and tried to link all of those ideas about Buddhism, and who they are, within the image
itself, so that it's embedded within the image.
One of the reasons why I met Thavi is because I wanted to learn how to speak Lao. I really
felt like, as a filmmaker, I wanted to understand more fully who these people were and how they
expressed themselves is so much embodied in language. That's how we ended up meeting,
is because I had put the word out in the community that I wanted someone to teach me how to speak
He came to my apartment twice a week, and would give me Lao lessons. So, I'd have to
learn things like, "Where is the bathroom" and "Excuse me" and really learned how to
speak, so that I could speak to the monks, and I could talk to the grandmothers myself,
and have that kind of interaction.
It was important for me to learn, in the course of making this film, about how to become much
more respectful and intimate when I was filming, and be able to find a place where I could
make myself as virtually invisible as I could while I was filming. So, in a way, I was becoming
the witness to what was going on in front of me.
Throughout the course of the film, there were times when I was there, and in another scene
I'll show you. I was there with Thavi's mother, and when I was there for a certain part of
the funeral, I was able to be very close, and very intimate, and to be able to get a
certain kind of feeling in the scene, and feel the whatever emotion was coming through
in the film in the scene and translate that onto film, because I was trying to make myself
as invisible a witness as I could.
I found that later on, this even was so essential for me, and is so essential form me when I'm
on set. I'm unlike other cinematographers, where I don't walk onto set and go, "Hi, everybody.
I'm here, and I have the biggest dolly. Here's my biggest crane." It's like, "OK, the cinematographer
is here." The cult of the DP.
But to, in a way, try to make myself as discreet as possible so that the actors can do whatever
they need to do in whatever situation. They're being real actors, or they're being actors
in a commercial, in a dramatic film, or whether they're real people in documentary.
And this has been invaluable for me. I remember when we were shooting, I was shooting "The
Ballad of Jack and Rose," which was directed by Rebecca Miller, and Daniel DayLewis was
the main character in that film. And it was a very intimate film, and sometimes I was
this far away from Daniel with the camera. And we were on top of each other the whole
time because we were in such small locations.
And at the end of the movie, we were sitting in the back on the porch, and he says to me,
he goes, "You know, El," he goes, "I didn't feel you at all during the whole filming of
this. I never knew you were there."
And I thought, "That's the greatest compliment I could have gotten from anybody, is that
he was able to be in his character, in his mind's eye, to be able to do what he needs
to do. It's so difficult for actors to be in their mind's eye. I mean, I tried it once,
not as a real actor, but when I was in "Eternal Sunshine." Michel put me in the scene, and
I was like, "OK." I thought, "All right, when do I go to hair and makeup?"
Ellen: Puts me in hair and makeup, and I go in the scene, and you're actually going to
see this scene. I have to show it because I laugh every time I see it. I was like, "Oh
my God, my debut." [laughter]
Ellen: And I'm standing there behind the door and I couldn't help but be the cinematographer
which is a very complicated shot where the operator had to back up all the way through
the hall like this. All the way through the hall like this, and I had to grab onto the
magazine on the camera, and push it back into behind me in the door, and then push him this
way so he wouldn't slam into the wall. And then stand behind the door ready for my cameo.
And I realized, then, I was standing behind the door, I thought [shrieks] Ahh! Who am
I supposed to be? What does my face look like? Am I supposed to smile? And then you're thinking
about every single eyebrow twitch, and every minute I thought, I don't know how actors
do this. It's so difficult, because it's very this is the place where it all happens.
And for me as a cinematographer, that's where it happened. It happens in my mind's eye,
that even though I'm watching the scene unfold in front of me, I'm watching it in my head
all come together.
I remember and this happens all the time when you're on set the moment the director calls
"action," all of the sudden everybody goes into this other space. I don't know how to
describe it, but it's like all of the sudden the dolly grip is in that space. They're in
the space of the story.
It's very interesting to watch, because you see, they I can see the key grip, I can see
the dolly grip, I can see everybody all of the sudden go into that space, as well as
the actors, where all of the sudden it becomes a choreography of timing and vision and using
the light and moment and breath.
And all of the sudden it goes full circle. And everybody knows that it all goes full
circle. And that's what I was talking about earlier, that every shot has a beginning,
middle, and end, and it comes full circle.
So some time during the course of that whole action, the director will call "action" too
soon, and all of us, we're like [inhales sharply] , and I don't cut the camera off, because
I know that the moment hasn't passed yet. It's like we've all got to go [exhales sharply].
And they're like, "Why didn't you cut?" I was like, "Because everybody was..." we needed
that one extra second to go.
And I said, "Next time you call cut, let me take that moment to keep on rolling," because
that's when everybody releases it. There's that magic moment right there where they think
that it's cut, but everybody is still in character, and that's when the magic happens. So those
are the kinds of things that I began looking for very early on, and that started to happen,
especially when I started doing this film called "Swoon."
I had moved from documentary. I did a film in Cambodia with a friend of mine, which was
the first film that was ever done in Cambodia after Pol Pot was there, and had moved from
documentary into dramatic film because of a woman whose name was Christine Vachon. And
many people know of her. She was, and still is, this prolific producer who essentially
was one of the people who started the independent film movement back in the early '90s.
And she started this program called "Apparatus," which was she and two other people who happened
to go to Brown they went to Brown, but I was before their time, so I didn't really know
them and they took Barry Ellsworth's trust money and started making independent films.
And so they made a film called "Poison" with Todd Haynes, which you may be familiar with.
And then the next film that she was going to do was a film called "Swoon."
And I hadn't done anything dramatic before at the time. I knew Christine because I had
assisted on a couple of her small shorts, and I didn't know, really, anything about
dramatic film. I hadn't shot anything in black and white. And so one named she called me
up and she said, "Listen, Ellen, I'm making this film with this guy called Tom Kalin,
and I want you to send in your reel because I think you might be interesting for it.
I thought, "Oh my God, send in my reel?" I don't have a reel. I mean, I've just been
doing these films. I don't really have a reel. I have them on VHS. And I was like, "OK, I'll
try and put something together."
And meanwhile I was shooting some documentary at the time, and we shooting 14, 16hour days
as usual. And I ran into her on the street like three days later. She's like, "Look,
give me your stuff." Like just, "Let me see your stuff." Or, "I'll bring Tom over to your
house and I'll let him see part of your film," which was the documentary film that I was
working on at the time. I was I had it on the Steenbeck.
So Tom came over, and he looked a little he looked at me film on the Steenbeck with Christine,
and then I met him the next day. It was very interesting to have a conversation with him,
because we didn't even talk about the script at all for the first hour of the film.
I had read the script and I thought, "Oh, my God, how am I going to film this?" I mean,
it was so new to me. It was a film that was very fragmented in nature. It wasn't a straightforward
screenplay at all. It was very artsyfartsy, and he wanted to make this 40minute art film,
And so when we got together, we started talking about structural linguistics. We started talking
about how image and films are propaganda, and how I was really interested in propaganda,
and how that well, I spent a year in France because I was interested in propaganda.
I thought, "I want to know how meaning is created. I want to..." because all films are
propaganda. Documentary films are not objective, so to speak, and they're not feature films
are not objective. They're all subjective. All film is subjective. Everything that we
make is subjective.
And I thought, but going deeper into that idea, it's how do we put those together? Every
single film, documentary or otherwise, has a persona behind it, that there are decisions
that are made that enable me to say, "This is how I want you to see the world," whether
it's a documentary or not. As a documentary filmmaker, I was making decisions about, "This
is what I'm choosing for you to see."
So I was really interested in what is that, and how does that affect decision making,
and how does that become propaganda, that our world is a series of propaganda that we
put out. The newspaper is propaganda.
So he and I started talking about this, and we started talking about a lot of different
films, and finally we came around to the script. And we both realized that we both spoke the
same language, and therein was the key to creating this bond that we ended up having,
and the reason why I ended up shooting "Swoon."
Because there was another cinematographer who was far more experienced that I was who
was really interested and who was sure he was going to get the film. And then Tom turns
around and says, "No, Ellen is going to work on it with me." And so much of that had to
do with the fact that we were able to see in our mind's eye and have a common language
and be able to talk about the ideas so that I understood, as a cinematographer, what I
was shooting.
It wasn't just about the shots. It was about creating meaning for the shots. It was about
trying to tell the story with the shots in a different way. It had many layers of subtext
to it that said many other things, for those who could see it, that it was there lying
embedded in the subtext.
And so, we ended up putting together this film called "Swoon," which we shot over the
course of 10 days. And it was supposed to be an art film, so 10 days seemed like a long
time to me, but it wasn't. We ended up shooting 10 days, and then we shot another 14 days.
We shot 10 days on $14,000, which is crazy, because when you think about one day on a
feature film that I do now costs $300,000, and we shot 10 days for $14,000.
And it was an essential experience for me, because we had very little money, but we had
ideas. And we had a very small little truck. And I maybe had two 5Ks, a few lights. But
what it taught me was how to make a lot out of a little. It taught me how to be innovative,
and it taught me, also, how to rely upon my intuition.
And it also taught me about the relationship between a director and a cinematographer,
which was key to the movie happening and for it to be successful as an experience, because
that relationship is so essential, because if you're on set, and you're with 120 people,
as I often am now, if I'm not in sync with the director, then everybody feels it. And
if I can't talk to the director openly and freely on the side, then it starts to break
down from there.
And Tom, we shot "Swoon" at a time when there were no video tabs. He couldn't see anything
through the camera. We shot it on my 16 camera that I had many years ago. And we didn't have
a lot of film, so we had to do one or two takes.
Sometimes we would do one take and he would say to me, "How was that?" And I'd be like,
"It was fantastic." That's the moment. I could see it. I could feel the moment. And the actors
could, too. They would look at me, and I'd be like, "That's it."
Even on the first take. And I'd be like, "We have it." And he'd be like, "OK, check the
gate. Let's move on." I was like, "Oh! Should we do a safety?" [laughs]
So that's how "Swoon" came to be. That was the thing about Tom that was so fantastic,
because Tom would say to me, "Do you know what you're doing?" And I was like, "No. Do
you know what you're doing?" "No." "OK, good. We're on the same page at least." [laughs]
It was a fantastic experience. And it was a great experience, also, because it enabled
me to understand what it was like to lead the crew, because it was the first time that
I was out there saying, "OK, here's my crew. You're my crew, and this is what we're going
to do. And I'm going to direct you to do this. I'm going to do that."
I mean, that's where you become the director of photography, where you start directing
all the action, and we're going to have the dolly track here, and this is the coverage
we're going to get. And so it opened up a whole new world for me, in terms of being
able to create this experience and discover the mystery of looking through the viewfinder.
And even now, I like to operate the camera because there's that whole world that opens
up when I look through the viewfinder and I'm discovering the image and discovering
what's happening and unfolding in front of me, and that I can really feel and see and
feel what's happening.
And that, I think, has been key to me in my work here, in my experience, is that somebody
said to me, he said, "You not only shoot with your head and your eyes. You shoot with your
heart." And I think that that's important, that we feel the emotion of what's happening
in the scene, and being able to connect with the characters and identify with the characters.
So, on that note, I'm going to show you a little clip from "Swoon" that we shot. We
shot it in 1990, and it came out in 1992. And it was kind of a shock because I won the
cinematography award for it at Sundance, and had no idea, really, what we had made. And
I'll tell you after you see the clip here.
Ellen: After we had made that film, I hadn't been able to see any of the dailies during
the course of making that film because we didn't really have enough money to process
the film until three weeks after. So, we ended up going back and filming another 14 days,
when we realized, when Tom started putting the film together, that, actually, we have
a movie. I mean, it was a real, live movie. And so, when we were at Sundance, we were
sitting in the way back, and we couldn't even get into the theater at the time because we
couldn't get tickets to the awards ceremony. And we were sitting in the back row, laughing
and talking.
And all of the sudden, they called out my name for the cinematography award, and I was
really shocked and surprised and pleased. And it was the first trajectory of moving
myself into the feature world, where I was able to then start working much more in independent
film and working in the dramatic world, which opened up a whole other realm of possibility
for me in being able to tell the stories.
One clip that I did want to show you, actually, from "The Betrayal" was... Can we still do
that? Aaron? I think it's still up.
I want to go back and I want to show you a clip from "The Betrayal, which really shows
about the idea of this invisible presence and being with someone and filming something,
and the importance of being able to have patience and to wait and let the person be able to
unfold, and not have the necessity to feel like you have to zoom in and cover all of
the scenes.
So I want to show this piece from "The Betrayal." And thank you very much, Joe and Aaron and
everybody. This is Thavi and his mother in conversation.
Ellen: As you can see, I was trying to use the idea of visual metaphor here, right after
Thavi's mother, after she cries, to use the image of going over the bridge. And when I
was in Laos, I didn't know exactly what story I was going to be using for that image. But
when we were doing it, I knew that, in filming it, it was significant, meaning that I was
looking for that idea of driving through your life, or on the journey of your life, and
as you're passing by, your life changes and becomes many other things that you never knew
it would become. But that's the journey that you're on.
And in a way, it became a metaphor, for me, for her life and her journey, much like in
the beginning of the film, when you see her walking over the hill, it's a part of her
journey. And that's how I was able to talk about Thavi's mother in a completely different
way, other than just showing her as Thavi's mother. She became much more of a figurehead
of this woman who was on a journey and representative of the longing for being back home and missing
what was her spirit in the old country.
And in many ways, that film was very much my story as well. People say, "Well, it's
a story about the Lao." But in so many ways, it was necessarily my story. And I think that
we all, as filmmakers, make stories which are about ourselves, but this one in particular.
And I think the reason why I stuck with it for so many years, even though I got very
busy making a lot of other films and would be shooting three movies a year and then doing
commercials in between and always having things to do, would always go back to that film,
because I realized that it was about my beginning, when my grandfather came to this country and
he was never happy here. He never found his roots here. He always felt like he was an
outsider, no matter what he did, and he always wanted to go back.
And that sense of what it means to be in another place. How does one derive one's identity
from a sense of place? How does one identify with oneself, with other people? And when
do you cease to become a people when you come to a different place? And what do you retain?
Do you retain your culture, and how does that happen?
And so, the questions that came up in the film were very much questions that I had posited
to myself, and it became a very existential kind of journey, for me, to make a film like
this and to question other films that I was making as well. That was always about where
am I in this experience, and how can I relate to it on a more universal level?
And with "Swoon," when I was doing it with Tom, I was trying to find things in "Swoon"
also that would enable me to connect with it in a different way. And part of that was
trying to understand filmmaking and understand what the characters were going through and
how to tell the story.
But suddenly, I realized that I was using devices that I used in "The Betrayal" in "Swoon,"
of how was I going to get inside the character and be able to show the story of Leopold and
Loeb and be able to film it dramatically.
And it helped me to understand how to film something dramatically, where we would start
with a script, and Tom and I would prep as much as we could in terms of talking about
the ideas, apart from the film, that we'd talk about the ideas about what we wanted
to say and how we were going to block it. And that's how we understood how to shoot
the film.
And that was a process that started me in a certain kind of direction of approaching
film, first with the director in private, and being able to talk about the ideas. With
Rebecca Miller, who I've made three movies with now, oftentimes we'll spend three months
in advance, meeting every other day or every day, at least for a few hours, and talking
first about the script as a general arc, and trying to figure out, what's the tone and
the feeling of the story? What do we want to say with these characters?
And my job, as a cinematographer, was to get into her mind's eye, to be able to understand
what she wanted to say so that I could help her to realize her story better, so that I
could say, "Oh, if you want to say this, if we do this over here, if I put a light here
by the window and have another light next to it which is a harder light, then the actor
can back up into that light and then look up into it whenever they want, at the right
time, so that they can start using the light to be able to impact on what's being said."
That influences the timing and the feeling and the tone of that particular scene.
So, what we would do after we would talk about the general arc is that we would go through,
page by page, the script. And I would say, "OK, what does this scene mean? Why does this
scene exist? There's got to be a reason for why you wrote it. So what is the essence of
this scene?"
And in knowing that intellectually, then I could translate that: oh, OK. I get it. This
is a moment where she has decided that she doesn't want to be with the guy anymore. But
we understand that through the scene and how she's written it, even though it's not explicitly
So I was like, "OK, great. How can we show that visually? How can we show that with the
blocking?" Are they at either ends of the room, or are they together, and then she walks
out and we focus on him? And how does that play out dramatically, so that the image and
how the actors are posited within the scene also are analogous or a metaphor for what's
happening in the scene, what the scene is about? And that helped me so much to start
to understand and construct how to shoot a scene and how to get inside of the character's
And prep was so important. I can't stress it enough. Whenever I speak in schools to
the students, I always say it's so important that you prep. It's important that you have
that moment to talk with the director, by themselves, so that you're not talking about
it on set in front of everybody else, because it's a very awkward moment. You don't want
to be talking about the ideas.
And in a way, Rebecca and I, we create a shot list for the entire movie, so that when I
walk onto set, the very first day, we've already made the movie in our heads. I already have
seen the movie. I know what the feeling of the movie is. I already know what the tone
and the pacing is, so that she doesn't have to talk to me, even.
Sometimes we don't even talk to each other in the morning. We laugh, and we have our
coffee, and it was like, "OK, she's going to talk to the actors." And I set things in
motion, because I already know where we are.
We're both on the same page. And what that enables us to do is it enables us to change
the program if we want to, but at least everything is in process and in motion. And it's analogous,
in a way, for our life. I mean, if you have some sort of plan, you can change your plan
along the way or deviate it, but at least you have a plan and you have a way to go,
so you're not vacillating, like, "Oh my god. Here we are on the set, and what are we going
to do?" and you're starting from scratch.
As I started moving into bigger movies and studio pictures, it became very clear to me
that part of my job as a director of photography is managerial. I mean, I have to make my days.
That is absolutely one of the bottom lines for me is that I cannot go over. Making your
days means that when you sit down with the assistant director, the AD, and you figure
out the schedule.
And sometimes, most times, you're shooting the film completely out of order. I mean,
it has nothing to do with the film. You're usually doing it because of the location.
And sometimes, at a given location, you'll shoot scenes 43 in the first day, and then
scene 68 because the location is down the street, and then scene one because it's a
night scene and you need to go into nights that night.
So, being able to figure out where you are in space and what's what, especially on a
film like "Eternal Sunshine," which, if you've seen "Eternal Sunshine," it's kind of like,
"Where am I, and what's happening?" [laughs] So we had to have a plan and figure out, in
the shot list, in order to know where we were, otherwise you would never be able to match
the light from one scene to the other.
With Rebecca and I, there were times when we were so much in sync that she would be
looking at the video monitor and I would be in a completely other room, shooting, and
she would laugh because, during the course of the scene, she would say, mentally, "OK,
now push in, or move in," and I would just start doing it, just on my own. [laughs]
So she would say, "How do you know to do that?" And that's what comes out of having a certain
kind of relationship with someone.
And oftentimes one sees that there are relationships that endure over time, like Sven Nykvist would
have a longterm relationship with Bergman for many, many years, and Bertolucci had the
same cinematographer for many years.
And the same is true for me, that I make friendships with my directors, and we share each other's
lives. And with Rebecca, I'm the godmother of one of her kids, and I'm very good friends
with Tom, and we have this ongoing dialect that becomes part of our life. But so much
of that came out of being able to have that trust with each other and being able to prep.
But with studio movies now, having to make your day is such an important bottom line
that sometimes I don't have the time to be able to light things the way I would want
to light, because we have to get a certain number of scenes in on that day, otherwise
everybody falls behind.
Soon after I shot "Swoon" and it came out at Sundance, I started shooting another series
of films. And one of those was "I Shot Andy Warhol." And what was revealing to me about
"I Shot Andy Warhol" is that we didn't have that many days to shoot, and so I had to come
up with a way of being able to shoot, as I did on "Angela" and then on "Swoon," that
would enable us to get coverage and to be able to film a lot of the scene without having
to what we call turning around.
So, what this means is that for any given scene let's say this is the scene. You do
your master shot. And sometimes people would think of the master shot as just being, "Oh,
that's the master shot," which gets in most of the action, as a wide shot. And then you
would go in and get your coverage, meaning that you would go in and get closeups of the
actions or cover the scene. If two people are talking, you would shoot them and then
shoot reaction shot.
But I never really found this interesting, and I was always trying to find ways of being
able to tell the story, again, with the camera in a different way. And I started using a
device which was called a moving master.
And that was that sometimes I would put a dolly track down, or I'd look at the action
and I would say, oh, OK, that character's coming up here, and they're speaking on camera.
And then they leave this way, and I can pick up that actor's lines on camera. But if I
dolly around, I can follow them around like this. And then they leave frame, and then
another person comes in.
And I suddenly realized that it made the action much more exciting, that I could follow the
storyline in a completely different way, and it became a choreography of all of us on set,
and be able to cover the scene with just a few essential coverage shots that would pick
up whatever dialog on the other side that we didn't have, in order to abbreviate our
time and be very selective about what we were shooting in the scene and to be able to make
our time.
It became a game for me, a game of choreography, of being able to shoot the action in such
a way that I would get most of the action, almost in a oneshot deal.
And "I Shot Andy Warhol" became much of that. And Mary was very much into it, where we would
posit the actors on set and start blocking them to the camera, and be able to move the
camera around on a piece of track. That would enable us to get a lot of that action and
make it much more dynamic.
And this also helped me later on, in "Eternal Sunshine," because in "Eternal Sunshine,"
Michel wanted us to be always handheld. He had done a movie before "Eternal Sunshine,"
which was called "Human Nature." And "Human Nature" was driving him crazy. I mean, I remember,
when I first met him, he was like, [speaks with French accent] "Ellen, I do not want
to make this movie in this stage."
I'm like, "OK."
He goes,"I want to shoot on the streets of New York."
OK. It's going to be winter, but that's OK.
And he says, "And I don't want to use any film light." I'm like, "Why don't you want
to use any film light?" [laughs] And he said, well, because he was in the stage, and "Human
Nature," that was part of the film. It was all artificially set up, and he didn't want
to wait for the DP to move the lights around, or he didn't want to wait for different things
that need to be done with the film lights. You have to get up on the ladder, get the
crane up, and adjust the lights and that kind of thing.
So he had set these parameters for me early on that I couldn't do this and I couldn't
do that. And it was a big challenge because, all of the sudden, I wasn't able to use film
I called back to my documentary experience of saying, "OK, how am I going to be able
to shoot this film in such a way that was freeflowing, that enabled us to allow the
actors to do whatever they wanted?" Because that was the other thing is that we didn't
have any marks for any of the actors.
So, normally, when you're doing a film, or you're shooting, the actors go through their
blocking. And the blocking is how the actors move in the space in front of you, whether
the actor is here and they move from point A to point B.
And usually the assistants are throwing down marks as you go, so that the camera assistants
can make the measures so that they can measure off the focuses, because, oftentimes, when
you're shooting, you only have this much depth of field, meaning that much leeway to find
the focus.
I mean, it's pretty amazing, on most feature films, that they're ever in focus. I mean,
I watch some of the assistants, and it's amazing what they're able to do, because somebody's
all the way off in the distance and the assistant is able to keep the focus, and the focus is
incrementally this small.
So, Michel said, "Well, I don't want to have anybody have any marks." I was like, "OK,
what else? [laughs] I'm ready, I think."
But, in terms of being able to block, suddenly I realized that I can use my moving master
idea, because, instead of me putting it on a dolly and me being on a dolly, I can move
my body around, much like I would in documentary, where I would move from A to B because I could
get a better shot over there and slink over there.
So, when we were doing "Eternal Sunshine," much like when we were doing "I Shot Andy
Warhol," I was looking at what the actors were doing in space, and then I would think
to myself, OK, where can I best put the camera, so I can best tell the story, and then help
to influence and help the director to bring the blocking in so that I can help him or
her to tell the story even better?
So, what we did with "Warhol" is very much that. There was a scene that we did in the
Factory. And I'm going to show you just a small clip in the Factory. But we were often
doing that.
And also, the thing about "Warhol" that was another challenge was being able to understand
the period. We were making a period film, because it was about Warhol's time in the
Factory, but I didn't want it to be obviously period. I felt like it would overburden the
So I wanted to find a look that was unique unto itself and that would be able to take
us into that world and put the viewer in the place of the person who was experiencing it,
which was mostly Valerie Solanas, who was the main character.
So, Aaron and Kristen are ready to roll "I Shot Andy Warhol."
Ellen: A
scene that recalls, for me, the importance of working with the production designer. And
that is the other person who's so important to the work that I do because, if it doesn't
look good in front of the camera, it's kind of hard sometimes to change it, unless you
turn off all the lights and you just put one light on. If the production design is like
[growls] you're like, "All right, turn off all the lights, and let's start over again."
But there was Therese DePrez, who was the designer on "I Shot Andy Warhol," was also
the designer on "Swoon." And she came in as an art director when the production designer
had gone to some huge movie in Los Angeles, and she ended up stepping up two days before
we were supposed to start shooting and was able to really put together "Swoon" in a way
that was pretty phenomenal. Because oftentimes we didn't have enough money to have the walls.
We had to have seamless as walls. So we were creating spaces out of nothing.
And Therese, when she came to doing the Factory in "Warhol," was phenomenal in being able
to reproduce some of Warhol's art. I mean, she went back to recreating the original silkscreens,
made them, and then made these silkscreens and started making some of the paintings of
Warhol, where the Warhol Foundation stepped in and said, "After the shoot's over, we have
to be there when you burn everything, because they're so close to Warhol's, we don't want
everybody walking off with them."
So, the thing about Therese, though, is that she and I worked very closely together to
design the look, and being able to figure out what lights that I was going to use and
how she could help me to create certain kinds of effect. So I asked her, I said, "Can you
guys bring in some of the stardust? And can you make lights that move and that can flare
the camera?"
Part of the whole thing about the Factory was that it was covered in tin foil. So I
said, "Well, if you're making these balloons," which were part of the Factory, "I want to
be able to use them so I can see part of the Factory reflected in them." So we both worked
in concert very closely in terms of deciding how something was going to look and feel.
And that actually runs through commercialsit runs through feature films, certainly so that
the designer can help the DP and the director to create the look.
So, for example, when I was shooting "Analyze That," I said to the designer, when we were
in the location, we had these green walls, and I said, "You have to help me here if you
can. I mean, if we can paint the walls or put wallpaper on it, it would be great."
Because the moment I would put somebody with flesh tone in front of these green walls,
if I'm trying to take red or magenta out of their faces in the transfer or, at this point,
it was photochemical process then the walls are going to go even greener.
So I had to understand color theory and what happened in colors when you take one color
out and what happens to the other colors, because that's part, in creating the image,
of understanding how colors influence each other, and which colors we perceive the most
and what colors become background and what colors become foreground. That all plays on
our perception and how we read the image, or how we receive the image.
So sometimes I'll say to the designer, "Can you make that yellow a different color, or
make it green, or make it much more subdued?" Because it's in the background, but because
it's yellow and it's the brightest thing in the frame, it's jumping forward in the plane
and becoming from the three dimension into two dimensions. My eye is going directly to
that, and I don't want that to happen. I want it backgrounded as much as possible.
Back in the times of "Warhol," this was before we did what's called a digital intermediate.
A digital intermediate now in the film world is we would take a film negative, and instead
of when you have a film, we used to be able to make a print of that film, and that's what
everybody would edit on.
But how what's happening is that we take the film negative, and once we develop it, we
transfer it, meaning we change it into an electronic signal. It depends now, how we
do it. There are lasers that can scan it, but back then the first transfers were done
with a light.
They would push the light through it, and it would literally translate that image into
an electronic signal, which then would go onto a piece of tape, or now it's data. It's
amazing how the technology is changing, but it becomes data.
What I do with that data then is I take that data, which then gets translated through a
computer and then gets projected on the wall as that image. I can color correct that data.
Now I can go into the image, and I can take certain areas of that image, and I can change
the way they look. I can take a color, and I can highlight it and key on it, and I can
change it to another color.
Or I can take a certain area, and I think most of you can do this now in Photoshop,
but before we never had Photoshop so it was always done electronically in the lab. Oftentimes
now in the very high end it's done in the lab.
But then you could take a part of the image, and you could make it darker or you could
make it lighter. You could change the way it was going to look.
Right when this started happening, which was after "Warhol," we started doing it about
10 years ago. I was one of the first people to start doing this process with cameraoriginal
negative and be able to change how the image looks within the image for a feature film.
Because we've been doing it with commercials for many years where we would do the transfer,
and change it to an electronic signal, and be able to have it on tape. But that was only
for television; it was never for film projection. So they were able to translate that electronic
image back onto film again, and most of the films that you see now oftentimes have been
treated electronically.
The big difference is that instead of it being an overall correction, where before in photochemical
where you could only say in that image you would sit with the lab guy, and you would
say, "That image is too red. I want to make it less red," or, "I want to add a point of
blue and a point of magenta," or whatever you wanted to do to change that. It was an
overall correction.
Now what we can do is we can go in and we can change it within the image for feature
films. That opened up a whole world to me because suddenly I wanted to be able to change
the way that the blacks felt. I wanted to be able to change the way the highlights felt.
I wanted to be able to change and control the image within the image.
When this first started becoming a new thing in the film industry, everybody started to
say well, the studios would say, "Well, what do you want to fix?"
I'm like, "I don't want to fix it. I want to change the look of the image."
Everybody started thinking that this new process where you could go in afterwards and start
changing the image within the image was something that you want to fix mistakes.
We cinematographers were saying, no, we want complete control over the image. We want to
be able to change the feeling of it. So I started very actively going in and started
to change secondary colors. I started to change different parts of the image to do different
One of the films that I was able to do that most on was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind," and that film brought together so many other things for me that came out of my commercial
work, my early commercial work, my work that I had been doing in the experimental world,
that was being able to try and do things as much as I could on camera.
Right around this time, I started doing a lot of commercials. This was back in 1995.
My first commercials were with prolific directors who were also interested in trying to get
some effects in camera as much as possible.
It was a whole other world that opened up to me in commercials because I was able to
experiment with the image. I was able to tell these stories in 30 seconds or in 60 seconds.
Suddenly I was able to create imagery that I'd never been able to create before and experience.
I was able to go and do a Navy commercial with Spike Lee. Now you can imagine, here
we were with Spike with the Navy SEALs. I thought where would this happen on earth except
in a commercial?
I want to show you a little bit of my commercial work that I did at that time. This is commercial
work because I think it fits within the chronology of where we are right now, of where I went
from shooting films like "I Shot Andy Warhol" to then moving into the commercial world back
in the mid'90s.
Ellen: That was just a smattering of things that I was doing and continuing with different
directors that I had started working with. That last piece, which was a Geoffrey Beene
piece, I shot with Tom way back, actually in the early '90s, because Geoffrey Beene
commissioned Tom and myself to make a film for his runway show. Instead of doing a runway
show with models, he wanted us to make a film. Tom decided that he would make a film that
was comprised of three parts based on three silent movies and that all of the characters
would be wearing Geoffrey Beene clothes. We ended up quoting "Blood of a Poet" and "Tinsel
and Stardust."
It was a period of making films, these small art films, that were enabling us to do this
kind of advertising whilst it still being something which was in the context of an art
film. It was very funny. I put up this Navy spot, and everybody was like, "Oh my god.
You did a Navy spot with Spike?"
I have to laugh back to that time because here we were with Spike, and we were on a
Mark V boat, which was one of the real SEALs. There we were with the real SEALs. I'm like,
oh my god, here we are with these real SEALs.
We're out in the boat, and we get out to the water, and Spike comes out. He's like, "Ellen,
tell them what to do."
Ellen: I'm like, "OK, get in the Zodiac. Let's go, guys. Let's go, guys. You guys are the
SEALs, and I'm going to tell you what to do." But we ended up doing that, and it was a great
experience for me because here I was. I was jumping out of the helicopters with them,
and the Zodiacs, and was able to try and capture a certain spirit of working with the SEALs,
and being able to direct them, and think about now what would I do with them? If I had to
tell them what to do, what am I going to tell them what to do?
I do want to move to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which is a film that seems
to strike everybody. It's moved a lot of people. No matter where I go in the world, people
have seen that film, and they're very struck by that film.
It was not an easy film to make because we made it in the dead of winter. So the thing
that I remember when I was thinking about "Eternal Sunshine" is that we all froze our
butts off, especially in the snowstorm in that one scene which everybody remembers about
the bed being on the snow.
What we all as a crew remember is that we got to the middle of the shoot, and we had
had zerodegree weather. You here in Minneapolis I'm sure are used to that, but we in New York,
we're not so used to zerodegree weather with a wind chill that makes it minus 20.
You know how it is in the wintertime. Sometimes we'd have that lull, and there are a couple
of warm days. You think spring is around the corner. Well, this was in March, and we were
just about to go from the studio because finally we convinced Michel that we wanted to shoot
a couple of days in the studio because it was so cold outside, even though we knew that
he wanted to be in a real place in a real apartment, which was Joel's apartment.
We were in this apartment house in Yonkers, and we were shooting all night, and the crew
had no place to stay other than outside. We were shooting all night, and the residents
were getting a little upset at us that we ended up building part of that apartment on
the stage.
We were there for about a week, and the next week we were going out to Montauk. So we thought
everybody was all excited, "Oh great, we're on our way to the beach." The two days before
we wrapped on the stage, it was so warm. It was like 65 degrees. Everybody was outside
at lunch going, "Oh man, I can't wait to get to the beach."
So we traveled to the beach, and that night there's a blizzard. We were all like, "Oh
my god." We were convinced that we weren't going to shoot the next day. Sure enough,
at five in the morning I get the call from Anthony Bregman, who was a producer, and he
said, "No, Michel wants to shoot."
I'm like, "OK. What are we going to shoot?"
He's like, "OK, we're going to go to the beach." So we end up going to the beach. He wanted
to do this effect where the room would become that we would find ourselves outside.
So I had to work it out with the grips, in this blizzard, how we would make this effect
of being able to create this black box that we could shoot in that was actually on the
beach, and then be able to collapse it and fold it out so that all of the sudden they
found themselves outside on the beach.
So this was the logic of "Eternal Sunshine," and it follows a lot of the work that I had
done before of trying to do things in camera, like in the Pepsi spot that you saw, there
was a lot of those devices that we did in camera.
I took a lot of pieces of glass. Some of them were rounded. I took magnifying glasses, and
I started playing around with certain devices within the camera so that we could get to
a certain effect. It would be real. The actor would be able to hold it, and it would feel
like a real effect, and then be able to augment that slightly later in post, which was what
"Eternal Sunshine" was all about, that when Michel first came to me or when I was actually
invited to meet him to think about doing this film.
I was a little bit ambivalent in the beginning because I had seen his earlier work, and I
thought a lot of his work looked like it was shot in VHS, because so much of what Michel
wanted to show was he wanted to show the transparency of the effect between time and space.
His inquiry into time and space was very interesting to me, but I was worried about how the film
would look, and how he was going to plan to approach this idea of how to make Kate disappear.
So when I walked into the meeting with him, he showed me a book. This is often how meetings
start, where we show each other books, and we try to plan. We inspire each other.
He showed me this book, and it was a picture of a peeling photograph. All of the sudden,
it was like this whole world opened up to me, and the door flew open. I was like, "OK,
you're on. I can understand where you're coming from. I want to do this film with you because
I think that we can go to places that other people haven't been able to go to before on
film as much as we can in camera."
So much of what we did was using pieces of mirrored glass and using glass and using dimmers
to be able to dim up lights and dim them down so that we were playing with the whole idea
of illusion, and what is illusion, and what is real and what is not.
How exciting that was for me to be able to find those questions again in a different
truth. What is the illusion? Cinema is an illusion. How much can we push that illusion?
So much of what we did was to put into place in camera as much of the effect as we could.
Sometimes we would do it with production design and oftentimes in concert with the production
designer. You'll see in the next scene, and I'll explain through it after we're done,
is how we would use production design to slowly erase parts of the image so that you would
feel like Kate was beginning to be erased.
The other thing about "Eternal Sunshine" that was fascinating, besides the fact that it
was about memory, it was about recalling memory and how the mind works, that you could go
anywhere because when you recall a thought, it could come from anywhere.
Again, for me it was about how to show that visually. How do we go back to that you're
in a person's mind? How do we get into that person's mind so that we understand that time
and space collapse or it expands, or we went from one location to the other?
So there were often times on "Eternal" where we would be in one space, and we would build
part of the set in that space so it would look like another space. There was a whole
scene that we did in the Chinese restaurant, which was we shot in a normal Chinese restaurant,
and then the production designer replicated that Chinese restaurant.
I had to take notes what all the lighting was, and then we built that same Chinese restaurant
in the Columbia University library and had to light it exactly the same so that when
he walks out of that space, he's in another space physically. This is what we did for
"Eternal" all the way through.
I'm going to show you the clip, and then I'm going to tell you some more stories about
how we managed to get what we managed to get. Here's a small clip from "Eternal Sunshine
of the Spotless Mind."
Ellen: The evercolorful "Eternal Sunshine." That was just the beginning of it, too. Michel,
like I said before, he didn't want me to use any film light, so I often had to resort to
humor to get around that, and resourcefulness, because he really didn't want film lights.
He's like, "Ellen, I don't want to use film lights." "OK, OK. I'm not going to use film
So I ended up devising what I called the miniMoscow. Now a Moscow light, as you know the stadium
lights that you see at the football stadiums, well, we have lights like that which are called
Moscow lights, which are on trucks, that have arms that come up. They're mobile trucks,
but they're huge lights. If you get caught at night, and you need to make something day,
you use one of those trucks. Just turn them on outside.
So I ended up calling my miniMoscow. I had a Cstand, and then I had clip lights on it.
I had like five clip lights, and I was like, "All right, you guys. Bring in the miniMoscows,"
so that I could put it in the middle of the set." I was like, OK, I'm going to light it
with this.
I ended up finding ways of lighting "Eternal" with lots of little bulbs. That all started
from when I walked onto the set, and Michel said, "Why don't you use the lamps?"
I said, "OK."
So I turned on the lamps, and I said, "It looks like a lamp shop with all the lamps
on." I was like, OK, I have to be a little more innovative about this.
What I ended up doing is I ended up cutting holes in the lamp shades so that they were
always away from camera so that if Kate and Sam were sitting on the couch and the lamp
was right there, I would move the shade around so that the hole in the shade was giving them
extra light. Then when we would turn around and come around for the coverage, I would
just turn it around and turn it the other way.
There were often times when I would have refrigerator bulbs, which would be on little dimmers, and
I would put them next to that TV that we see, the monitor that Mark Ruffalo was always around.
Whatever side I'm on, there would always be a light bulb on the other side.
I was always fiddling with the light bulb, because I would have a dimmer that was right
below it just outside of shot. It would be hand held, and I would just reach down, and
I could make it brighter or lower, or do whatever I wanted.
Much of what I was saying about the choreography and the blocking of the actors helped me enormously
in this film because, like I said, we had no marks. The camera assistants were phenomenal
focus pullers because they didn't know where I was going to be, and they didn't know where
the actors were going to be. So they were always having to surmise what the distance
was on the spot.
What would happen in the morning, and this is what usually happens on set in a feature,
is that all of the actors hopefully get there on time. Because if they don't, then everybody's
waiting around for them, which is death do us part because everybody gets really bored.
Then by the time the actors come, and they're like, "We're losing the light," and I'm like
"No, shit! We're two hours behind, because you guys were late." So, it always ends up
falling on the director photography to save the day, but I was like, "OK."
So, anyway they come in, and usually they spend time with the director in talking about
the scene. Hopefully, they have rehearsed it already, and if they haven't, that's the
time that they do it in the morning. We send the crew away. Usually, I am there with the
director and the script supervisor. Then they talk about how they are going to play the
scene out, and how they're going to move around in the set.
Usually, I try to put my two or three cents in, so that I can do it like I was saying,
for the camera, so I can start making these stories. Sometimes I'll figure it out with
the director beforehand, and we'll tell them what to do, but sometimes the actors will
say, "Well, I'll never do that. I want to come over here."
So, what ended up happening is that we would place the actors, and we would let them play
out the scene first, before any of the crew would come in. I would think about, OK, Kate
is coming through the door, and I know that Jim is standing here, over by the television.
I have two cameras, which are two handheld cameras that can move. So, I know that when
she comes in the door, she is going into the kitchen, as coming out the other door. He's
going to move to the other side of the room.
So, what I would say to my B camera operator and I would think about, how can I choreograph
the cameras, so that we can get the coverage? Two moving masters, instead of it being a
master and coverage, two moving masters, so that the director can cut from one camera,
and use both cameras as part of the master and part of the scene, the meat of the scene.
So, I would say, "OK. You get Kate coming in the doorway, and follow her to the door.
Then let her lead frame into the doorway, and pickup Jim as he is walking this way.
I will then be on Jim, and as he crosses in front of my camera, I'll stay and let him
lead frame and pickup Kate as she comes out the other side."
That's how we ended up choreographing the entire movie, and being able to make it so
that they could cut the scene together and it would have a dynamic feel to it. Also,
what was key was that we were doing different kinds of devices, whereby the same character
would appear in the scene.
One of these scenes, if you have seen the film it happened in the kitchen, where all
of the sudden I call it the "chase" scene, where Kate is starting to be erased from his
memory. So she goes through the bathroom. We had a whole cut in the other side of the
bathroom. She goes out the other part of the set, and comes out behind me, behind the camera,
and then we have a double that comes in.
I mean, we had this whole thing where we were using doubles, and creating parts of the set
to be able to create the illusion. That's why it was important that the cameras seemed
like they were getting everything in one shot. We were trying to create the illusion of cinema
in many respects.
Michel, he was a very interesting director to work with, because my prep period with
him was really funny. I was like, "OK." One of my demands in the beginning of any movie
is to just say, "OK. I'm putting my foot down, that I need at least four days with the director
alone, where I can take them away someplace, to my house or wherever. "
So, we have unadulterated time. We can sit and do what I mentioned before was that time
by ourselves, so we can hash it out ourselves. So that I can say, 'Well, what do you mean
by that idea? Do we want to do this, or do we want to do that?'" So I'm not putting he
or she on the spot in front of the crew.
I took him away for four days. We spent three days talking, and we talked mostly about the
technical and the transitions. We kept on talking about how we were going to make Kate
disappear, and how that was going to happen, and these different devices.
At a certain point, on the fourth day, I said to Michel, "I think we better start talking
about the script. We haven't even started the shot list, and we're only on page three.
What are we doing to do?"
He didn't know sometimes what he was going to do. So, I had to take a step back, and
realize that I had to adjust myself to him in the way that he creates. He is like a 7year
old kid, who takes a bunch of construction paper, and sits there and cuts up all these
papers, and then throws it up on the wall, and there is some art piece on the wall. Yet,
he is constantly needing whatever he needs at the minute to be able to do it, only he
cannot explain what he is doing.
So, I though, "OK. That is valid." I came to understand that I had to be able to try
to enable him to be as extemporaneous as he possibly could, and in conjunction with him.
So, when we were doing the scene where you saw where the UPS truck almost hits them,
we were standing there in the cold again. He turns to Michael Hausman, who is a legendary
producer in New York, who has produced many, many movies all over the world, and has won
countless Academy Awards. He did "Brokeback Mountain."
On "Eternal Sunshine," he decided that he was going to become the assistant director,
which is a very rigorous job, because assistant director is kind of the commander on set.
The one who is the schedule keeper and the time keeper. At the time, he was 67years old.
He would be the first person out on set in the cold, and waiting for me, because I would
be the second person on set.
I would come out and go, "Commander, so what are we doing today?" Even though I knew what
we were doing today. He'd be like, "OK. I'm going to call 'French Toast' in." He called
him "French Toast."' He called Michel, "French Toast." So, of course that made me frantic.
[laughs] Being humorous on set always helps, particularly when it gets tense. He'd be like,
"Where is the Frenchie?"
So this day Michel comes in, and we're putting together the scene. We're just about to film
it, and all of the sudden he turns to Michael, and he says, "Michael. Michael. I need the
Michael is like, "What fence?"
He says, "You know the fence. I need the fence."
He goes, "OK. Dan, Michel says he needs the fence."
"We're here in the shop," which is like three miles down the road. "We're making the fence
right now. It doesn't play until three days from now."
He looks at Michel, and Michel gives him a look. He said, "Bring the fence now."
So, cut two. I'm like, "OK. What is happening now?" There is a truck that starts showing
up, an open bed truck. You see all of the art department there with the fence, painting
the fence as it is coming. To me, that was the metaphor for how we made "Eternal Sunshine"
with Michel. He would be like, "I need this. I need the snow."
That is also how we also came up with ideas in certain parts of the chase scene. For me,
it freed my mind in terms of the lighting, in being able to be very expressive with the
So when they were doing the chase scene on the ice, I had the grips build a sled, so
that I could ride on this little sled, and they could skate behind me. I would be on
the sled chasing them as they were running down the ice, and had a light that was attached
to me that I could follow them with.
One of the ideas that came out in "Eternal Sunshine" in terms of trying to find the memory
that Michel and I talked about was how do we depict the memory in this scene? How can
we show that?
I thought, one of the ways that we see memory is often times, you feel like you've got blinders
on the side of your eyes. So, you're seeing memory almost through a tunnel. So I decided,
and we both agreed and worked on the character of it, that we would have what was called
a "memory" light, but it couldn't be a film light. I was like, "OK."
So I ended up going and experimenting with different lights. I ended up coming up with
a bicycle light for a few of the scenes, and then we would use a bigger PAR can for other
scenes where we needed to project the light more.
This is the light that became in a way, the light into one's mind, into the depths and
the recesses of one's mind, and it became the metaphor for that. So, we started using
that in certain scenes to be able to convey the idea of appearing into the abyss of the
So, there were many things like this that came out in "Eternal Sunshine," that ended
up making "Eternal Sunshine" what it was.
But in all of these experiences of working with different directors and working with
different people in film and being part of the film community, I've realized that it's
not easy to be a filmmaker, because we have one of the most rigorous jobs out there, in
terms of our hours, in terms of our commitment, in terms of our passion.
It's why I'm so protective of my crew and the people that I work with, because, like
filmmakers of many years ago, in the olden days, I've stayed friends with and I keep
the same crew over many years, and we become a family.
I mean, I spend most of my time on a film set, and so that experience of making the
film has to be an enjoyable, passionate one. It becomes our life. And so many of us work
16, 17 hours a day together, and that it becomes a unique experience.
And it's very clear to me that so many of the people, the grips and electrics and the
production assistants who work on the set, they're there because they really want to
be, because they also care about the stories. I can't tell you how many people, grips and
electrics, have asked me if they could see the script, because they want to know what
the story is. They are interested as well.
And in the course of that, I realized, too, in terms of being a leader, that I don't have
to be a jerk in order to be successful. There's not the cult of the director or of the director
of photography, that you have to be somebody who's arrogant in order to lead the crew.
You can be talented and lead the crew and encourage people in a way that makes every
person feel valuable there, much like you can when you're working with your colleagues
in a company, is to treat people with respect.
And that's something that I really encourage on my set, and I am really, strongly encouraging
that. And people know that about me, and they know that I will protect my crew. It really
makes the experience that much more meaningful, in many ways. And it makes the work more meaningful.
You can really see it in how it comes out in the work.
And I think back to being here. In a way, I've come full circle, because when I started
out in the film industry and first started making films and thinking about making films,
way back in 1983 and 1984, I started out as a filmmaker who wanted to say many things,
and has ended up doing that through cinematography, and in a way has been a director all along,
in terms of what I've been able to do in terms of the cinematography.
And now I feel like I'm back into moving into becoming a director again, to be able to work
with putting the image together as a whole, and being able to work with music and work
with the actors again and be able to place the wardrobe, in a way that creates the entire
image. And I've realized this more and more, in terms of, when I was finishing my own film,
and I had the incredible pleasure of working with someone like Howard Shore, who came onto
the project.
We were looking for a composer. And I've done a lot of work with Marty Scorsese in the past,
and so I've known Thelma Schoonmaker, who was his editor. And one day I said to Thelma,
when we were locking picture, I said, "Thelma, do you mind taking a look at this film I've
been working on and see if you could make some comments?"
And she was so moved after she saw the film, she said, "However I can help you, I want
to help you in whatever way." So I was like, "OK." And I didn't want to bother her because
she was really busy working on a couple of films with Marty.
So a month later, she calls me and she says, "So how you guys doing?" [laughs] And I was
like, "Aahh! We're frantic! We're trying to finish the film for Sundance, and we need
a composer."
And she was like, "Oh, I'll just call up Peter Gabriel and Howard Shore and tell them that
they should do the film."
And I was like, "Oh, great! [laughs] Please do!"
Ellen: So, I end up getting a call from Peter Gabriel, who was very gracious, and he said
he would love to work on the film, but he was really busy working on an album. And he
said, "Listen, I'll put my people on it." And then I got a call the next day from Howard
Shore, from Paris. And Howard said, "I've seen your film, and I really want to talk
to you about it in person." And I said, "OK."
So I went to go and have a meeting with him. And of course, the only day that he had available
that I could go and have a meeting with him and have a screening of the film, which was
the fine cut by that point, was the day that I was supposed to be prepping a music video
with Michel and Bjork in Brooklyn. And I had to go all the way to northern New Jersey in
the middle of all of this.
So I said to Michel, I was like, "Listen, Michel, I'm going to miss part of the prelight.
I've got to go and show my film to Howard Shore." So, I leave the set. I'm there at
6:00 in the morning, and I leave the set at 11:00, and I'm like, "I'll be back soon."
So I drive like a bat out of hell, all the way over to the other part of New York. And
I show the film to Howard, and we come out of the screening, and I thought, "I hope he
likes it."
And he says to me, he says, "Do you want to have a cup of coffee?" And I said, "No, I'm
fine. I'm really fine." And I'm thinking like, "Bjork just showed up. I've got to get back
over there." [laughs]
He goes, "No, no, let's go and have a sandwich. Let's go have a sandwich." So I said, "OK."
So he sat down and he said, "Listen, I really want to work on this film. I think that it's
a piece of poetry." I was so moved by what he said, that he actually got it, he understood
it, and I thought, "Oh my God..." My fear in making the film over years was that the
messages and the subtext wouldn't come through. But here he was, Howard Shore, he was understanding
what I was trying to say, and he wanted to say it also with music.
And it was an incredible experience working with him, because he completely embraced myself
and Thavi in inviting us in to be part of recording all of the music, and talking about
music in a way that was analogous to me being a cinematography, in terms of the color palette
and the timbre and the tone of the music and the pacing, and everything that we talk about
in terms of camera.
And I realized how our worlds are a little like intersecting worlds. We're like circles
within circles. The music and film and the visuals, they're so much analogous to each
And the last thing that I want to say before I open up some questions to you is, way back
when, when I was at the Visual Studies Workshop, which was back in about 1982, I remember,
I had this thought that I would want to become a filmmaker, and possibly go into being a
photographer or a filmmaker or a cinematographer. And I remember thinking, "I don't know if
I have it."
People talk about whether you have it or you don't, or whether you have the talent or you
don't. And I was kind of obsessed with that idea, and I thought, "Well, I don't know if
I want to do that, because I don't know if I'm talented enough."
And so I was sitting there. I was in the library, and I was doing research for a project I was
going to do on a Fulbright grant. And I called my mother and I said, "Mom, am I doing the
right thing? I don't know if I'm doing the right thing."
And she said to me, she said, "Elle, you'll never know unless you try." And I have to
say, thank god that my mother said that. And I think it's been a theme for me in my life,
and hopefully you in yours, is that you will never know unless you try. You have to try.
And so, with that, I say thank you so much for coming tonight. And I want to open up
to the audience, to any questions you may have.
Host: It's getting quite late. I wonder if you want to...
Ellen: Oh. Is it? Oh my gosh. [laughs]
Host: How are you doing, my dear? [laughs] I think you spoke so well right now at the
end. I don't know if we need to have questions. How do you feel?
Ellen: OK. Yeah, that's fine.
Host: Is that all right?
Ellen: I can meet you in the lobby if you have any questions that you want to ask.
Host: Is that all right?
Ellen: Yeah, that's fine.
Host: OK, that would be great. Thank you so much.
Ellen: Thanks. Thanks a lot. [applause]
Transcription by CastingWords