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A veteran cinematographer well known for his contributions to independent cinema, Frederick Elmes has collaborated with directors including David Lynch, John Cassavetes, Ang Lee and Jim Jarmusch.
Elmes, 73, who will receive the lifetime achievement award at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards on Jan. 25, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his career and how Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) marked a “turning point.”
Tell us about the look that you and David Lynch conceived for Blue Velvet.
We tried the whole idea of desaturating the color and shifting it in one direction or another. It wasn’t helping the story, and it didn’t seem to have any emotion attached to it. And then we decided, let’s look at the normal film stock of the era, and we’ll support the color in it and we’ll make the colors richer, not through any tricky means, but by helping with the art direction and the costumes and being conscious of exactly what’s in front of the camera and the way it’s lit. We liked the results; we thought it was more real and had emotion to it.
What are your thoughts on today’s state of independent film?
Independent filmmakers push a little harder or work a little harder or find a way to do it with less money just because they need to tell that story. I saw a film in this year’s batch, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I thought they did such a good job, and they were filmmakers that I didn’t know, telling an odd sort of story in a really unique and original way. And that’s really independent film to me. And when you look at other films that are successful this year, like Honey Boy, I think that the independents are doing great and they will always continue to do well, because there’s a desperation in the filmmaking that causes them to try harder.
Would you share an experience on a film that taught you something that stayed with you?
John Cassavetes asked me to work on [1976’s] The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [as a camera operator] when I was a film student; he was really into the enthusiasm of young people and the independent spirit. I remember one incident when [actor Ben Gazzara] was running across the room. And it was a difficult shot because I had to pan with him and keep him in frame and keep the composition, and he was going fast. I finally got it right, at least I thought it was. John said, “Let’s try one more.” Ben came running out, and just at that moment, John walked past the camera and bumped me with his elbow. So the camera’s panning and then, bump, the camera jerks and then pans through the finish of the shot. I said, “Oh, it moved.” And John said, “Yeah, I know. I think that’s just perfect. I think that’s the little bit of energy that it probably needs.” And that was the take which is in the movie. Maybe a little less than perfect is best sometimes. I learned that from John.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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