Vilmos Zsigmond: Hot Shot With a Camera

A close up on Academy Award winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond

Director Jerry Schatzberg listens to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond behind the set for the Warner Bros. movie 'Scarecrow' in 1973. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

What distinguishes Vilmos Zsigmond from other cinematographers is of course talent but, more, physical stamina," says director Michael Cimino. "You just can't be great without it. On a movie, you often work fourteen-, sixteen-hour days, six days a week, for six months. It is so easy to let up because of fatigue. Vilmos will always say, 'We know it's good; is there a way to make it better?'"

Stamina indeed. Vilmos Zsigmond has been working nonstop for more than twenty years and has shot some thirty-eight films, including The Rose, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (for which he won an Academy Award), Obsession, The Sugarland Express, Cinderella Liberty, The Long Goodbye, Images, Deliverance and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He has just returned to L.A. from a grueling twenty-six weeks in the wilds of Montana, where he filmed Cimino's western epic, Heaven's Gate. He'll head to England in April for the film's remaining sequences, but in the meantime Zsigmond will shoot a commercial, attend a film festival in Florida and finalize details on an upcoming project, The Border, with director Tony Richardson and star Jack Nicholson. On top of all that, he'd like to squeeze in a little skiing in Aspen.

Zsigmond has been described as the "poet-magician" of cinema-tographers, and it's easy to see why. His eyes dart magically as he talks with love and passion about his craft. He has a keen understanding of what he does, and in a town where egos rank right up there with the ayatollah's, Zsigmond is refreshingly modest. He frequently makes jokes about himself, then bursts into laughter.

"A cinematographer can only be as good as the director," he says simply. "The story is the main thing, and the director knows the story and the characters better than anyone. I like to be on a picture at least four weeks before it starts, talking to the director, watching rehearsals, thinking. Then I can come up with ideas — how to light it, what kind of a mood I want to build. The most important thing for a cameraman to know is the kind of story the director wants to tell. Then visually, with my lighting and mood, I underline what he is trying to say. The cameraman shouldn't have his own style. He doesn't have the right to, because he might kill the story, kill the director's concept. Together, they should create a style for that particular film. A good cameraman should be able to make his films look different every time."

It is nearly eleven in the evening when we sit down to talk. Zsigmond, who has been up since dawn yesterday scouting locations in Bakersfield, is raring to go. "I need to know how the director thinks he will cut the scene so I can concentrate on the overall look," Zsigmond says. "If I know he is going to use the master shot for a long time, I will be damn sure that it looks good and everything important is there. If I know he will only use that shot for the entrance, then I am not going to spend two or three hours lighting it. This is important, because today in movie-making you have to be very economical. We don't have all the time to shoot." Zsigmond grins. "We had lots of time on Heaven's Gate the first couple of months, then United Artists cut off the money, which meant we couldn't fool around anymore. If you spend three hours on the lighting, it had better be on the screen."

Zsigmond pauses just long enough to take a sip of wine. "Photography cannot dominate the scene. Many times it does, and you don't end up with an excellent picture. Black Stallion is one of those pictures; superb photography but the story doesn't live up to it. Same thing with Barry Lyndon; the photography took away what was inside the story. I found that with Days of Heaven, the photography was just too beautiful." Zsigmond shrugs. "If I had photographed that movie, I probably wouldn't have won the Academy Award. I would have made it more gritty, more like what peasant life was like under those circumstances. Many cameramen like to end up with the best photographed movie, whether it belongs to the movie or not. Vittorio Storaro is one of them. He is a master technician, an artist. When the subject really requires it, like The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, even 1900, he can give it. But when he did Agatha, he was better than the film."

Zsigmond tugs at his beard and pushes his unruly hair back from his face. "Michael Cimino said that when we work together, it's like playing jazz. He starts with one instrument and then I come in with mine and kick it back and forth. He's right. The director and the cameraman should act like musicians, but there are other members in the band: the art director, the actors…. The ensemble is important. Take Sven Nykvist. He is always good when he works with Bergman, but never as good with other directors. Maybe that shows that he was more honest in his approach to photography? Maybe he didn't want his photographs to dominate a mediocre film, so he just let happen what had to happen."

Zsigmond is particularly proud of his work on Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. "We had such joy making that movie," he says a bit wistfully. "I don't think we enjoy making movies today. It's become such an economical venture — if it cost $5 million, then you have to make back $10 million. With McCabe and Mrs. Miller, we were just making a movie. We had these wonderful actors living on location in the sets we built. At night we would get together to watch 'dailies.' We had so much film, two cameras going all the time. Altman covered the hell out of every scene. We knew we were doing something great.

"Altman wanted to show the Northwest as it was, which was cold," Zsigmond adds. "That's when a cameraman can help tremendously — creating the cold, muddy, rainy look. We made it look like old, faded pictures. We tried to create excitement when turning on a lantern, because in those days it probably was exciting. What else happened during the day, right? "To create this mood, Zsigmond used heavy fog filters and backlighting, and when the rushes went back to Hollywood, overexposed and grainy, there was much talk of firing him. But Altman backed him all the way. They had the same vision.

Zsigmond still shudders when he thinks of lighting the airplane hangar that was used as a set for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was the biggest set he'd ever seen: 600 feet long, 400 feet wide, 100 feet high. "We had come from Wyoming," recalls Zsigmond, "and they wanted to shoot the next day. I said, 'Wait a minute. I have to light this.' Steven [Spielberg] thought he could get the look he wanted with available light. He didn't realize that reality and reality on film are different. We had to bring in all the lights in Hollywood, and Columbia made me the bad guy, saying I was using too many lights."

Not even all the lights in Hollywood could solve the difficult problem Zsigmond faced with The Deer Hunter. He was "trying to get a cold, rainy, autumn look for the steel-mill areas around Pittsburgh, while shooting in the middle of a very hot summer." The solution was to defoliate the trees, chemically spray the grass brown and water the streets to make them look cold.

"Sometimes," Zsigmond continues, "you have to create a lot of light to make it look real. Like with Barry Lyndon, I wouldn't have fussed around with all those candles. In order to get a candle effect, the light on the face doesn't necessarily have to come from a candle. To photograph with one foot-candle of light, you need a high-speed lens, and a high-speed lens doesn't have any depth of field. So if I had to change the focus from one person to another under those lighting conditions, it would be very obvious. What I would most likely do is hide a light bulb behind the candle and make it look like the light was coming from the candle, but better."

A native of Hungary, Zsigmond fled in 1956 with colleague Laszlo Kovacs and 30,000 feet of film the pair had surreptitiously shot of the brutal revolution, which he describes as "just like what is happening in Afghanistan. The Russians came in and we waited and waited for the West to do something," he explains sadly. "But now, like then, the West couldn't risk a war." He pauses. "We actually left with the feeling that we might come back. We were naive. We thought things would change, and we didn't know how much we would love it here. There is no way to go back once you are free."

During the first ten years Zsigmond was in the United States, he could not get into the photographers' union. He labored in photo labs, portrait studios and at an insurance company. He shot such forgettable films as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed-Up Zombies, Psycho a Go-Go! and Rat Fink. He finessed the union's rules by becoming a corporation and sliding in through the back door. "They hated me for that. I didn't do it their way, but there was no way I could. They were mad because I made many, many statements to the newspapers and I operated my own camera, which I love to do. I was not used to a system where you set up every shot and then give it over to an operator to shoot. I am used to that now, but then, they didn't understand. I couldn't have existed otherwise."

Although at the top of his profession, Zsigmond did not receive an Academy Award nomination until Close Encounters two years ago. "I feel," he says softly, "I should have been nominated before: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, Deliverance, Cinderella Liberty. I had to wait a long time for my nomination and the first one I got, I won." Zsigmond laughs ironically. "Then I was nominated for The Deer Hunter. I should have gotten it for The Deer Hunter and not Close Encounters. Close Encounters is a good film for what it is, but Deer Hunter is much better." Zsigmond is certain to get a nomination this year for his fine work on The Rose.

"Lighting is where the cameraman can become an artist," Zsigmond sums up. "The uses of lenses, the composition, many times come from the director. But with the lighting I can come in and create the mood. That's my job. I am trying to become a cameraman who lights so well that the audience can't tell that the film is lit." Zsigmond stops to think about what he's just said and bursts into laughter. "I want the audience to look at my film and say, 'Hey, that guy didn't use any lights at all.'"