A Conversation

“Tell us about your life.”

I was born in the small Welsh village of Llechryd in Cardiganshire, Wales UK. My parents had endured a long war in Italy and found a way out by running off to the United Kingdom. They came from a small town near Naples called Pisciotta and didn’t speak a word of English. My father who had been a musician was forced to become a dairy farmer and my mother who was a great cook ended up cooking for the British. She’d spice up their mashed potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with some Italian flare. 

 

I grew up in an environment that resembled the landscape from “Barry Lyndon,” a film I love very much. By the age of five, I could speak English, Welsh and Italian. Since I had a dark complexion, the Welsh thought of me as bringing them lots of luck and so I’d collect quite a lot of shillings during the Christmas holidays. My favorite poet is Dylan Thomas and I play A Child’s Christmas every year with great nostalgia. 

 

When I was ten years old, my father decided he wanted to move to Birmingham, England where he worked in a plastics factory. There I attended high school, wore a uniform and ran the mile for my school. I won many races and traveled around the UK competing. My favorite British film that defines my school days is The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

 

Meanwhile, my father had two brothers in Rochester, New York who wanted us to leave the UK and move to America. So in 1969 we packed up our bags, boarded the ship the SS United States (now docked in Philadelphia) and moved to Rochester. 

 

I passed a series of high school exams called O levels and was accepted to a wonderful college, St. John Fisher, at the age of sixteen. There I studied hard, was introduced to filmmaking, and took photographic courses at the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as other courses from the University of Rochester. 

 

I graduated at 19 years of age and went to work at WXXI TV, the local PBS station. There I met a master cinematographer, Stan Lipinsky, who had worked for the Canadian Film Board. Eventually, I worked on several documentaries in 16mm and even learned to process film. 

 

After a few years, I began seeing the United States, freelancing and living in such places as Dallas and Chicago, and eventually doing lots of freelance work for the Eastman Kodak Company. 

“What shaped you as an artist?”

During my childhood growing up in Wales, my parents used to visit Italy during the summer months, and just like Cinema Paradiso, people would bring out their little chairs watch films projected in the piazza. We’d watch all the neo realistic classics. My favorite was Umberto D by DeSica. 

As a child, I never really knew the importance of these films but did when I became an adult. It has been exciting for me to rediscover these films through the years, knowing their influence on the world. They have remained with me as memories of a shared experience with people who are no longer with me.  

Wales was a very special place for a kid who would speak Italian in the house and then English and Welsh at school. I was an only child, so I learned to be alone and to observe everything around me. The film that made a big impression on me while in Wales was The Ten Commandments, not knowing that one day I would meet Charleston Heston in Hollywood while working on a film on Cinematographers. 

When I was about ten years of age, a friend of the family in Italy gave me an Italian Farrania 35mm still camera. He gave me a quick lesson and so I became the official family photographer and I’ve continued to this day. In the early days, I was fascinated by old faces, photographing older people in Italy. Many were making fun of me and pulling my leg. Today those same people are asking me for photographs of their grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. Many of the pictures I took were made into porcelain images and placed on tomb stones in the cemetery. 

There’s a little book written by Robert Bresson, "Notes on the Cinematographer" in which the word "cinematography" is not just the work of a cameraman but has to do with writing with images and sounds. 

I’ve always loved Fellini which led me to reading Carl Jung in which he states that creativity is based on child's play. “Without playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth.” 

As a teenager in Birmingham, England, I often used to go to the cinema and watch films alone. Without knowing it at the time, I was introduced to such filmmakers as David Lean, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone and a good dose of comedies by Norman Wisdom. 

On a practical level, the person who influenced me the most was a director by the name of Richard Young who had been with Eastman Kodak Company since the sixties; he helped me grow throughout my professional career. 

I try to study other disciplines and apply their techniques to cinematography - everything from abstract paintings and the writings of Kandinsky to making espresso.

“You're a cinematographer who sometimes directs. Please talk about that.”

I prefer to work primarily as a cinematographer but sometimes, if the right project comes along, I like to take the leap into directing. It is crucial that each individual make a film so that he or she may understand the whole process from beginning to end and know how much things really cost and how long it takes to get a project off the ground. 

But working with other directors is very exciting for me because I consider them my close friends, especially if we share the same sensibilities. And I always want to help the director with all of my strength. 

Creatively speaking, I work differently than the formality set by the industry. My directing begins off the set so that when I start filming, the mood has already been established. I made a film in Wyoming, Woman in the Wind, with Colleen Dewhurst. She was a genius. We hit it off and we had all the interpretative discussions off the set. Once we flushed all that out, I could concentrate on the photography. I feel at ease with a camera; it is my childhood friend and it never let’s me down. 

“You love the film image. How do you feel about electronic cinematography in its current state of evolution?”

Let me begin by quoting Jean Luc Godard: There’s no point in having sharp images when you’ve [got] fuzzy ideas. 

In a certain sense, it really doesn’t matter which medium you use, just so you understand its foundations and use it well. I'm convinced that no digital camera can be used well without a complete understanding of what has come before. My training was with Eastman Kodak and we made films that promoted photography and cinematography. So I got to travel to Hollywood and other cities in the USA and Europe where I met many prominent individuals in the film business and watched and filmed them at work. This greatly reinforced my respect for film. 

I think the times are exciting and I’ve embraced digital cinematography but I’m also not giving up on the beauty of film, especially in capturing the human face. In all honesty many of the digital cameras on the surface can become quite deceptive. There’s too much gazing with hypnotic absorption at new electronic marvels. So one has to pick a tool that is right for the job and lift the eye above the camera. 

The film image drifts like life in a continuous unpredictable flow. Art becomes a surprise; it cannot always be planned out. 

“What do you bring to a project?”

One of the main things I bring is my own espresso pot and I share good coffee with the crew. At first glance you may think this is a joke but it is an important part of getting to know a crew, especially with individuals I have never worked with before. First things first … electrical power for my espresso, then we light and set up cameras. 

My approach to my work is to be respectful to other people. I’m a well trained observer and I like a quiet set. I call everyone “My Friend.” It is vital for me to create an atmosphere that is trusting. I don’t like to work with tension, which I find quite destructive to creativity. My aim is to direct an overwhelming amount of possibilities into a coherent and emotionally driven piece of work that affects the viewer strongly. 

Talk about your use of light and camera movement. 

Before discussing lighting, one has to be able to cope with the non-cooperativeness and the stubbornness of nature. Understanding the subject matter determines whether additional light should be employed. I read somewhere there is no such thing as bad light; there are only bad uses of light. 

 

My approach is to personalize lighting and not to rely on manufacturers to do the lighting. And what I mean by this is that I just don’t want to aim a bare light at something and call it lighting. I have to inject something that is me. So I’m known for using all kinds of shower curtains, so much so that many times crews have worn shower caps on the set just for a laugh! 

 

I have mixed feelings about camera movement. Sometimes it is quite unnecessary. Some of the greatest films ever made use simple moves with normal focal length lenses. The Godfather, photographed by my friend and master cinematographer Gordon Willis, was shot with a normal lens with minimum movement. The one director who really knows how to move the camera is, of course, Stanley Kubrick. The most elegant move I like to achieve is with a remote controlled head on a crane arm, placed on tracks. I used this technique at the Scala di Milano with Riccardo Muti conducting at the Cattedrale and for my Princeton film. The same technique was used when I worked with Roger Deakins on A Beautiful Mind. The arm becomes a floating human eye, a hand held effect, but smoother and much more elegant.

© 2017 Gerardo Puglia