ONFILM Interview: Richard Crudo, ASC

 

Published on website: December 28, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Richard Crudo, ASC. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

“People marvel at the complexity of digital technology, and much of it is indeed amazing. But film technology is even more astonishing. It sees the world the way our eyes do. It’s part of a universally interoperable standard that does the same thing every time out. Film cameras are compact, lightweight and durable. Film’s images are tactile and can be archived for hundreds of years. Best of all, its continued refinement is driven by the creative demands of the people who use it. But when you get down to the ultimate issue, the only thing that matters is the beauty of what film allows you to create – even when it's intended to be raw or ugly. Right now, no other technology even comes close to giving cinematographers that kind of freedom. The greatest compliment is that every effort of digital manufacturers is pointed toward replicating the look of film. If that's all you're interested in, I always ask, ‘Why not shoot film to begin with?’”

Richard Crudo, ASC’s cinematography credits include Federal Hill, American Buffalo, Outside Providence, American Pie, Down to Earth, Grind, Out Cold and Brooklyn Rules. He recently directed the independent feature Last Night. Crudo also served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers for three terms.

 

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.] 

A Conversation with Richard Crudo, ASC

 

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

CRUDO: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, which was primarily a working class neighborhood, including many first generation Americans. My grandparents were European immigrants from Ireland and Italy. My father was a lawyer and my mom did various things, mainly helping my dad. No one in my family was in the motion picture industry.

QUESTION: Were you a still photography hobbyist?

CRUDO: I took some pictures and developed them in a home-made darkroom, but I was primarily a sports-oriented kid. We played every sport in Brooklyn depending on the time of year, including basketball, football, stickball, roller hockey, but baseball was my favorite. One of the great things about growing up in Brooklyn was that when you walked out of your house there were a thousand kids on the street, in the school yard up the street and in a park two blocks away. You could get a game going any time of day.

QUESTION: How did you get into photography?

CRUDO: There were always cameras around the house, including an old Kodak Instamatic. You just dropped in a cassette, took your pictures and brought the film to the drug store. A week later you got your prints. I got into 35 mm photography in high school. We had a darkroom at the school. It dawned on me when I was in college that there’s more to it than just taking snapshots of your friends playing ball.

QUESTION: Were you also a movie fan?

CRUDO: Sure. We were all movie fans as kids. When the weather was bad and we couldn’t play ball, especially in winter, we went to movie theaters in our neighborhood on weekends and in other free time. They weren’t multiplex theaters in those days. There were big screens and 2,000 seats. I have great memories of that experience. It was a lot of fun going to those theaters with your friends.

QUESTION: Did you get to go to Radio City Music Hall on special occasions?

CRUDO: Sure. I remember making special road trips with my folks to Radio City in Manhattan to see revival presentations of movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. I also remember seeing That Touch of Mink, a Cary Grant/Doris Day movie and a stage show with the Rockettes dancing. Radio City Music Hall is a marvelous place. We went there about once a year.

QUESTION: Where did you go to college and what was your major?

CRUDO: I went to St. Johns University and majored in history. I’m still a big history buff. I was also very involved with playing baseball. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I took a filmmaking course because it was an easy A. One of my teachers was a commercial director/producer. His name was Alan Seeger. He opened my mind to the idea that movies could be more than pure entertainment. It had never occurred to me until then that somebody could actually make movies for a living.

QUESTION: Did he ever take you out with him when he was shooting?

CRUDO: The summer that I graduated, I got a job through him on an educational series for public television. He was writing, directing and producing a couple of episodes. I got hooked up with one of the cinematographers, Greg Andracke. I spent the summer working as kind of a P.A. for him. That was my first real exposure to cinematography. Greg was a regular on 60 Minutes and other televisions news and documentary crews.

QUESTION: What were the next steps on your career path?

CRUDO: After I became an assistant cameraman, I worked on a tremendous number of 60 Minutes, 20/20, Our World and also on PBS documentaries with different cameramen, especially Chuck Levey and Greg Andracke. Some jobs lasted for three days and others were three weeks. It was fabulously interesting, because I was exposed to people, places and events that most people never have opportunities to see and experience. I went everyplace from the White House to minor league baseball teams.

QUESTION: Looking back, does that experience help you when you are working as a narrative film cinematographer, and if so, how?

CRUDO: I don’t think I have had a job where I didn’t learn something. Greg Andracke is a very good cinematographer. He did some very nice portrait lighting when we were doing interviews. I learned a lot from him and from some other cameramen. Greg was the first cinematographer whom I worked with on documentaries who used polarizers, grads and different combinations of filters coupled with tasteful lighting. Greg also wasn’t afraid to go dark when that’s what a story needed.

QUESTION: Where were some of the places you covered stories?

CRUDO: I travelled to most states in the union and to Canada and Mexico.

QUESTION: Did you also go to graduate film school?

CRUDO: I took classes at Columbia University which was sort of a cloistered environment where you got to look at movies in a different way. Milos Forman was the chairman of the film program and there were a lot of visiting instructors who were working in the industry. I was also working on camera crews on low budget independents while I was trying to get into the camera union. I finally got in during the mid-1980s.

QUESTION: How did that affect your career?

CRUDO: I was fortunate to work on crews with some terrific cinematographers, including Gordon Willis. That was a terrific experience. It was the best film school in the world. Doug Hart brought me on as a second assistant on a bunch of commercials with Gordon, and on Presumed Innocent, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Money Pit. What more could anyone who wants to do this work ask for?

QUESTION: Thinking back, what did you learn from that experience?

CRUDO: It was like a dream come true. Suddenly, I was working for the guy who shot The Godfather, Godfather II and all those great Woody Allen movies during the 1970s and ‘80s, including Annie Hall and Stardust Memories. I remember thinking, life couldn’t be better than this. I learned so much from watching how he approached the job. Gordon had a way of simplifying and stripping things down to the barest essentials. He was always totally focused on serving the story. Gordon used to say that it took him 30 years to learn to do things as simply as possible. I never understood what he meant until I became a cinematographer. I’m not talking about technology. I’m talking about taste. Gordon instinctively asked himself, how is this shot in this scene going to serve the story? I learned that no matter how much you plan, it always comes down to the moment when you are shooting. There are so many things that can influence you – the director, the actors, the setting and what is in the air at that moment. The biggest challenge is recognizing opportunities and doing it simply and elegantly in a way that serves the story.

QUESTION: Pick out a movie and give us an example.

CRUDO: Gordon shot a film called Zelig that takes place during the 1920s and ‘30s that has kind of a pseudo-documentary look. It’s very subtle and sophisticated cinematography mixed with newsreel footage from the period, and it was all done optically with no digital effects or compositing. I think two movies changed our world. One was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which Conrad Hall shot in 1969, and the other one was The Godfather that Gordon Willis shot in 1972. Those two films opened the floodgates to different types of thinking about cinematography and new ways of thinking and looking at things. It’s almost 40 years later and both of those films are still as contemporary as they were when they were shot.

QUESTION: Didn’t you also get to work with Michael Chapman?

CRUDO: I worked with Michael Chapman a couple of times as an assistant cameraman. The most memorable film was Ghostbusters II. Michael had worked for Gordon as a camera operator. I learned a lot from working with him, too. I used to listen to Gordon and Michael talk about what they were going to do and why, and then watch dailies and the finished movies. I’ve got thousands of pages of notes that I made about what they did, why and how it worked. That was an important part of my education.

QUESTION: Who else influenced you during that period?

CRUDO: I worked a lot with Larry McConkey, who is the best Steadicam operator in the world as far as I’m concerned. Larry can do amazing things with the Steadicam. You can give him the most ridiculous challenge and somehow he always makes a better shot than the original concept. We were doing a public service spot one night on the lower east side of Manhattan in a tenement building. The shot went up the staircase to the roof, out onto the roof, around the skylight where it finds a character. Larry ran up a stairway carrying an ARRI 3 camera on a Steadicam. I was following with a focus box. The stairway was barely the width of my shoulders. The height of every step was a different height and at the top there was a foot high concrete lip that you had to step over to get out onto the blacktop on the roof. Larry’s camerawork was absolutely amazing.

QUESTION: That highlights how collaborative artful filmmaking is.

CRUDO: It takes a lot of people to make a film worth seeing. After I became a cinematographer, I had the great pleasure on a number of occasions of having Larry work on my crews. I always ask for his opinion about how we can make a film better.

QUESTION: How and when did you get an opportunity to step up to cinematographer?

CRUDO: Michael Corrente and I had some mutual friends in New York. He was working as a carpenter in New York and had written a script called Federal Hill that he wanted to direct. We shot some short films together. By then, I’d shot some 16 mm short films for students and also educational and industrial movies. Michael eventually raised about $80,000 from friends and neighbors to produce Federal Hill in 1993. It’s a black and white film.

QUESTION: Why was it produced in black and white?

CRUDO: It was an artistic choice. We both felt it suited the story. The characters were guys who were on the fringes of the mob. Their world was a gritty place. Black-and-white film suited the material. We shot it in 35 mm format on Kodak Double-X 5222 negative at practical locations all over Providence, Rhode Island. I had one camera and four Panavision Primo lenses: 27, 50, 75 and 100 mm. The biggest light we had was a 2K. Trimark Pictures released the film, which got some modest notice. Then, they decided to colorize the home video release, which got a lot of notice.

QUESTION: We remember that the ASC, DGA and Artists Rights Foundation took it on as an issue and got a lot of attention, but the video cassette was released in color.

CRUDO: Basically, the folks at Trimark said that colorizing Federal Hill was the difference between selling 10,000 VHS units versus 50,000. They agreed that I’d supervise colorization, which meant I showed up once a week to review what had been done. They invariably put so much color into the film that it looked like an explosion at a paint factory. I tried to pull as much color out leaving just enough so they could say it was a color film. I personally think the VHS has a waxy, plastic quality. Ultimately, they ended up releasing two versions, black and white and colorized.           

QUESTION: When did you move from New York to Los Angeles?

CRUDO: I moved to Los Angeles in February of 1991. I had been working in the industry in New York for 12 years. It was a small community with limited opportunities. I’d been to Los Angeles a couple of times and it appealed to me. It was the capital of the industry with a lot more opportunities to meet other filmmakers.

QUESTION: You also occasionally shot a few very low-budget films during that period.

CRUDO: They weren’t particularly good movies. There was very little money, very tight schedules and a lot of the people were new to the industry. It was a learning process for everybody, especially the directors. Some of them never made a second movie, but a lot of the people who worked on those films went on to have decent careers. I had great times on all of those films. They all had unique challenges. One of the lessons I learned was that every worthwhile film begins with the concept. Shooting those films was a terrific learning tool. I learned what not to do.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example or two of lessons you learned?

CRUDO: I learned how to tell stories with pictures. Moviemaking can be a very subtle medium. You can accomplish so much more if you structure things properly and work in a collaborative environment with the actors, directors, your crew and everyone else.

QUESTION: Collaboration is a really important part of what you do.

CRUDO: It’s particularly nice if you work with the same people a lot. Then, collaboration becomes second nature.

QUESTION: We are going to ask you to share memories about a couple of movies. What do you remember about American Buffalo?

CRUDO: American Buffalo was another Michael Corrente movie. The script was based on a David Mamet play about two guys stuck in a junk shop. The actors were Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz. Most of the story plays out in a pawn shop in a claustrophobic setting. The only thing that changes is day and night. We tried to keep it feeling very naturalistic. That film was produced in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in an existing store that was dressed for the movie. The art direction was very good. The palette was all dark colors. Nothing really jumped out at you. The wardrobe was dark.

QUESTION: Was Music From Another Room another memorable movie experience for you?

CRUDO: I’m very fond of Music From Another Room. Charlie Peters was the writer/director. He did a great job. It’s a romantic comedy that is quirky and offbeat, but very accessible. Jude Law and Gretchen Mol were the stars. We all worked very hard and put a lot of love into this film.

QUESTION: Does passion seem to be in the genes of all cinematographers?

CRUDO: We love what we do. We have a real passion for it. Just because you get knocked down, doesn’t mean you can’t get back up. That’s life. You can visit any set anywhere in the world and I think you would be very hard pressed to find anybody who loves what they do more than the cinematographer. I’m not just saying that because I am a cinematographer. I’m saying it because I’ve been on a lot of sets, and as a rule I think you won’t find a group more passionate about what they do than cinematographers.

QUESTION: How about American Pie?

CRUDO: American Pie was fun. Practically everybody, including all the actors were new to filmmaking. The Weitz (Chris and Paul) brothers were first time directors. I remember laughing out loud while I was reading the script. It’s that funny.

QUESTION: Can you tell us more?

CRUDO: The story is about four high school guys who make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night. It is a bit vulgar, but it has heart. I think that is what distinguishes it. It’s a very funny film, which was fun to shoot. Everything that was fun on the set was funny in the movie.

QUESTION: How did you prepare to shoot a movie like that?

CRUDO: I was working with first time directors which I’ve done more than a few times. I knew I had to be ready for anything, and ready to shoot in any direction at any time, because the ideas were coming fast and furious. In that situation, you have to stay light on your feet and use as little hardware as possible. I kept it simple and clean. We had young actors, who were fairly undisciplined. I gave them as much freedom as possible, so they felt comfortable. My job was to serve the story and keep it tasteful.

QUESTION: Please share a memory about Down to Earth.

CRUDO: Down to Earth was a remake of Heaven Can Wait, which was a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. I met with Bill Fraker, who shot Heaven Can Wait, before I went to Toronto to film Down to Earth. I wanted to get his advice and his blessings. He couldn’t have been more generous. We took a slightly different approach. Down to Earth is a little grittier and a more urban type of story than Heaven Can Wait. Chris Rock was a lot of fun to work with and it was my second film with the Weitz brothers directing.

QUESTION: How does it feel to be looking back and talking about those films?

CRUDO: There’s not one frame of film that I’ve ever shot that I wouldn’t like to have back to shoot again. The cinematographers I know are never satisfied. That is because we have a passion for what we do. We learned from the generations of cinematographers who preceded us and invented the methodology that we inherited. I feel that it is incumbent on our generation to maintain as much of those traditions and sensibilities and pass them on to the next generation. New technologies affect the way we work. Cinematographers are now timing more and more films with colorists at digital intermediate facilities rather than traditionally at film labs. We all want to work with colorists who share our sensibilities. People who have a digital mentality tend to refer to cinematography as image capture. People with film sensibilities refer to cinematography as image creation. There’s a big difference in those sensibilities that defines the schism which separates filmmakers and digital mavens. It’s a tricky time. We have got to do the best we can to keep passion for the art alive. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

QUESTION: Have you timed films at D.I. facilities?

CRUDO: I’ve timed parts of films in D.I., but never a full feature. It’s a great tool.

QUESTION: Do you think it’s right for every movie?

CRUDO: Absolutely not. I see movies that were timed in D.I. that look artificially clean. In contrast, look at what Wally Pfister did on the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. That film has amazing scale and scope using traditional photochemical timing. I don’t know how you would improve upon that in a D.I. It looks terrific. Just look at all of the great movies that have been optically timed. Would The Godfather have been a better movie if it was timed in a D.I.? … That’s a ridiculous question. The obvious answer is no. D.I. is like all new technologies. It’s a tool that has its place. You shouldn’t use it arbitrarily. That is a decision which should never be made without the cinematographer.

QUESTION: What is your advice to directors when they ask about doing D.I.s?

CRUDO: My advice is to get as much of the look you want on the negative while you are shooting. Use D.I. to enhance that look a bit, if necessary.

QUESTION: How about shooting films with digital cameras?

CRUDO: When someone makes a digital camera that can deliver what I saw in The Dark Knight, I’ll be impressed. Until then it’s still a toy to me.

QUESTION: You have served three one-year terms as president of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). What was that experience like?

CRUDO: It’s impossible to describe the emotions you feel standing in the clubhouse where Leon Shamroy, Arthur Miller and other iconic cinematographers met, or going to meetings with our senior members, Owen Roizman, Victor Kemper, Haskell Wexler, Billy Fraker, Ralph Woolsey, so many others and the current generation. They are inspirational. Feeling passionate about what you do is what makes it worth getting up and out of bed in the morning. I began my career in New York and got to work with Gordon (Willis) and Michael (Chapman). Owen (Roizman) and Victor (Kemper) also began their careers in New York. After I came to Los Angeles, I met Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond and so many other great cinematographers through ASC.

QUESTION: What are some of your thoughts about contemporary times?

CRUDO: I long for the days when the studios like Paramount were making Taxi Driver and pictures like that for mainstream audiences and people were going to them. Try proposing a movie like Taxi Driver to a studio today. I have friends who are writers who have filing cabinets full of scripts that are never going to see the light of day. There’s no shortage of good material for making films. There is a shortage of good being made. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s not room for making lighter films. Movies can be lighthearted and also be intelligent. Some of my favorite movies came from what’s called the British Kitchen Sink films during the early 1960s.

QUESTION: What are some of the films you remember from that period?

CRUDO: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Darling, Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger, Georgy Girl, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar are a few titles of films I remember enjoying. They were slice-of-life stories made for adult mentalities. They also had terrific casts, including Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Peter Finch, Richard Harris, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Lawrence Harvey and Richard Burton got their starts in those films.

QUESTION: Do you believe there is room for these types of movies today?

CRUDO: I do believe that there’s a place for films like that today. The question is how you market them to reach reasonably intelligent audiences who’ll appreciate them.

QUESTION: If you could go back in history and work with a director who would it be?

CRUDO: I’ll answer that question in a somewhat broader sense. In an absolute ideal world, I’d have been a contract cameraman at one of the studios in the 1930s and ‘40s, and would’ve worked with their contract directors and actors. That would have offered me opportunities to work on a broad expanse of different types of films, including Westerns, comedies, romances, detective stories and others with the same directors, actors, production designers, etc., over and over again so you develop a rapport.

QUESTION: Do you occasionally talk with students and other young filmmakers?

CRUDO: All of the time.

QUESTION: What questions do they ask you?

CRUDO: Why can’t we shoot more film? Seriously, they do a lot of work with digital cameras, because it’s cheaper, but they’re all eager to shoot film. The graduate students have more access to film. They have a lot of technical questions, but I try to steer away from that and get more into taste issues and collaboration. It’s not just schools. For some reason, people refer students and other young filmmakers to me all the time. I spoke with two young people last week who want to be screenwriters. They were recent graduates who had just moved to Los Angeles. I asked them if they had a remote interest in doing anything else. They said no. I told them, ‘Good, you passed the first test.’ You’re halfway home, because you’re passionate about what you want to do. I told them to keep at it and, if they have that passion, someday they’d get a chance.           

QUESTION: You recently directed your first feature film. It was called Last Night.

CRUDO: I always wanted to direct and this opportunity came along. It was a low-budget, independent feature that I had a great time directing, but I’m still a cinematographer.

QUESTION: Did you learn anything from directing that helps you as a cinematographer?

CRUDO: Truthfully, no. The two jobs are inter-related in my mind. When I’m shooting, I have to get inside the director’s head and grasp everything they’re thinking and feeling. You also have to think like an editor when you are blocking scenes. The common denominator is you’re all telling the same story.    

QUESTION: What role do you think films play in our world?

CRUDO: Movies are a chronicle of our times and culture. Look at any movie from any time and it tells you about the culture and the people. It’s like any piece of art; it’s an interpretation of how we live and how we see the world. It’s different than reading a book or looking at a painting, because there’s a sense of reality. When you watch a movie about the Old West you come away with pretty strong sense of what it must have been like to live in Dodge City in 1875 or wherever it was set. That to me has been a big part of the magic and the great attraction of movies from the beginning.

 

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