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When the American Society of Cinematographers celebrates its 36th annual ASC Awards on March 20 at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood, Ellen Kuras — whose cinematography credits include Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ted Demme’s Blow — will become the first woman recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers’ lifetime achievement award. “[In some ways,] things have changed so much,” says the cinematographer and director, remembering when she was invited to join the society in 1999. “There have been a lot of new opportunities for women working in episodic, working in television and commercials. While things [overall] haven’t changed enough — and really they haven’t — there’s so much more room for us to be able to be much more inclusive and to encourage inclusivity, not only for women but for people of color.
“We have to make it part of our mind-set and our cultural approach to training people,” she adds.
During the ASC Awards, the society also will honor Peter Levy (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Californication, 24), who will accept the career achievement in television award, as well as cinematographer and outgoing International Cinematographers Guild (IATSE Local 600) president John Lindley, who will collect the president’s award. Panavision’s lens expert Dan Sasaki will receive the ASC’s inaugural Curtis Clark Technical Achievement Award, which recognizes an individual who has made significant technological contributions to cinematography and is named after DP Curtis Clark (The Draughtsman’s Contract), who has long led ASC’s technical initiatives.
As a DP, Kuras is a three-time winner of the award for best dramatic cinematography at Sundance and has earned other accolades for her body of work in features, television and documentaries, which includes projects with Martin Scorsese (The 50 Year Argument), Spike Lee (Summer of Sam) and Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity). She notes that when she is filming, top priority is always creating the images that give meaning to the story. That approach also is one that she uses as a director. Her latest projects as a helmer include Amazon’s The Terminal List and Apple TV+’s Extrapolations. For her directorial debut, The Betrayal/NeraKhoon, she was nominated for an Oscar and Spirit Award for best documentary and won a Primetime Emmy for exceptional merit in nonfiction filmmaking.
“Being a cinematographer was invaluable to becoming a director,” Kuras says. “[As a cinematographer], it was always about, ‘What do we want to say?’ So when I became a director and I started looking at a scene, I approached it very much like I had as a cinematographer. I would start to analyze the scene for the meaning. And it became part of the whole.”
Kuras also talked about on-set safety concerns. “The big question that’s come up is, is it up to us to pull the plug on something and say no. And how do we empower the younger DPs to feel like they can say, ‘No, if I’m seeing something, I’m going to say something,’ and to step up and to feel like you have the power to do that? I know that a lot of young DPs — having spoken to them, and these are both men and women — didn’t feel like they have the authority to be able to say, ‘I don’t think that this is right.’ ”
Safety also has been a primary focus for honoree Lindley, president of Local 600, whose credits as a cinematographer include Field of Dreams, Pleasantville, You’ve Got Mail and Reservation Road. The California IATSE Council is sponsoring state Sen. Dave Cortese’s SB 831 bill that would require a safety supervisor on sets at all times while additionally strengthening firearm safety rules. “[After working with a safety supervisor while shooting in Australia,] I encouraged other guilds and unions to join Local 600 in pushing for a safety supervisor. This was eight or nine years ago. It went nowhere,” he says, citing incidents since then, including the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins last fall following the discharge of a gun on the New Mexico set of Rust.
“Clearly there’s a need for a safety supervisor — not just when we’re using firearms but all the time,” he asserts. “[Sets] can be a dangerous environment, even with the most responsible, capable, experienced people. A safety supervisor is a position that I’d like to see instituted.”
For Kuras, this issue is tied to the race to produce more and more content. “The studios are looking at the bottom line, and they’re trying to create as much content as they can in a shorter amount of time,” she says. “And what ends up happening is that people get tired. I’m talking about both on- and off-set. If people are doing a 14-hour camera shooting day, by the time they get into their car and try to drive home, it’s really difficult. There have been so many times when I myself have been driving home and have come very close to having an accident. This is something that needs to change.”
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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