Vilmos Zsigmond | The Backlot Podcast | New York Film Academy

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a cinematographer whose career spanned six decades and close to 100 movies, whose work did nothing less than change the face of film photography. He brought beauty and darkness to the gritty, earthbound realism of movies like Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters, he won himself an Oscar while making us believe in the unbelievable. We’re talking about the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond. Shortly before he passed away in 2016, Mr. Zsigmond shared stories from his remarkable career with our students, including his work on the Academy Award winning Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, a film which had a bumpy road to the screen, thanks in no small part to its talented but complicated director Michael Cimino. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: When I first read the script, I liked it very, very much. And when I met Michael Cimino I, we had a great time, you know, just to talk about movies and all that. We did like the same kind of movies, you know, going back to the classics and later movies. And then we thought that tastes is pretty, pretty close to each others, you know. And I didn’t even realize that we are going to make one of the best movies of all time, you know, at least in my time, you know, and I was very happy to work with a director who knew exactly what he wanted. He was very diligent about it, to get what he wanted. And he had a lot of fights with producers. And a couple of producers had to leave because he just couldn’t stand them because they were trying to not get the quality what he wanted to get, you know. And then finally, he got a producer from England who was already had a lot of experience and he really knew how to handle Michael. 

Eric: Michael Cimino and Vilmos Zsigmond were blessed with a remarkable cast in The Deer Hunter, including Fredo Corleone himself, John Cazale, easily one of the finest actors from 70s cinema, who unfortunately had been diagnosed with cancer right before filming began. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I mean, it was like five major stars in a movie like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep. This was the first movie Meryl Streep was in and in the case of her work – and of course, so it was like an amazing cast, all New Yorkers and they all knew about each other. Cazale was one of them, you know, who who was basically, had cancer and he was basically dying and they didn’t even want to insure him for the movie. So Michael Cimino had actually promised that if anything happens to Cazale during the production, he will write the character out of the movie. And we were very lucky, of course, that he survived, you know, the movie, which was quite long, three, four months, maybe five. And he only died maybe, I don’t know, five months later. It’s too bad because he was a great actor. 

Eric: The Deer Hunter is almost like three distinct short films. A tale of friendship on the eve of being sent into battle, the horrors of war, and the difficulty of returning to normal, with each section necessitating its own unique visual approach. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: We had to think about, you know, that the first part was like introducing the characters and we kept the first part actually more saturated with colors, you know, like reds. You know, the steel mill gave us the orange color of the steel flowing and the blue came basically from the overcast exterior, you know, so I tried to mix the light a little bit, you know, blue and orange. And so that was for the first part. And the second part was mostly like a documentary in the war in Vietnam. And that was like newsreel quality. And we had to do that because, I mean, a lot of shots we had to borrow from newsreels of those days and those were shot on 16 millimeter. And we had to almost match the quality of 16 millimeter. And in order to do that, I pushed the film two stops. That means that I underrated the film and we developed longer. So to make it a little more grainy and more like the quality of documentary or newsreel of those days. And I think it worked pretty good because I don’t think that you can tell too much, which were the documentary footage which was the one we shot because we shot a lot of things which matched the documentary footage. They’re getting out of the helicopter, the soldiers, you know, De Niro and Christopher Walken, they just walk into the place and we have a lot of shots of documentary and you cannot tell that we did that, you know. The third part of course, it was probably the most difficult thing, because I think the key there was, I don’t know which of the actresses say something of, what a gray day. That one word Gray was what captured it and tried to make that whole sequence sort of gray, sort of not contrasty enough and just just make it, you know, somber and make it just set the mood for that whole sequence when they’re coming out from the graveyard and then go inside and and that whole sequence there, which was so amazing for me because I mean – when I read the script I asked Michael that, Michael don’t you think that thing that, you know, that they are going to sing, you know, “God bless America.” Don’t you think it’s too corny? And, you know, hey looked at me and said, well, you know, you think it’s corny but just wait when the actors are going to do that scene and you’ll change your mind because you will be crying. I said, OK, we will see, you know. And I really honestly, when that scene, we shot it, I mean, I was crying behind the camera. I remembered what Michael said and he was correct. You know that, he knew exactly how that scene has to play.

Clip: [The Deer Hunter clip]

Eric: When collaborating with a director’s specific vision, a DP might need to shoot multiple takes to make the director happy, sometimes at the expense of a less than thrilled cast. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: We shot a lot of film, but I don’t think that it was like the Heaven’s Gate kind of. In Deer Hunter we had great actors and I don’t think that we repeated so many times. I mean we repeated many times because Robert DeNiro, he always likes to do something better on the next take and all that. And, you know, you deal with great actors. They sometimes want to have more takes. And there was one scene when we shot about 12 shots. That was also I didn’t know why Michael Cimino wanted to do so many takes. That’s at the wedding and they are dancing on the floor. We did take one, take two, take three. They all look the same to me. And then to seven, eight and finally I asked Michael, Michael, why you have to take so many takes. He said, just shut up and just do to the shot. Okay and finally we do I think it was take nine or something like that. But the actors were already so tired of dancing and doing so many takes and De Niro and Christopher Walken fell on their asses, you know, and they’re dancing, you know, they and they kept acting, you know, because they didn’t want to stop. He didn’t say cut. Michael didn’t say cut. But this was an unusual thing, you know, that happened. And I let the camera roll and that ended up in a movie. 

Eric : An issue that can arise with so many takes is not every actor peaks at the same time. As was the case with Robert Altman’s neo-western McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Vilmos Zsigmond: Warren Beatty needs a lot of takes. And the other problem, you know, with Julie Christie, because she is such a talented person who who does it the first time, right? The second time is still good. The third time she’s already bored. Warren Beatty’s just warming up, you know, and then we got to take six or seven or eight and Julie Christie might be sleeping there next to him, you know. So, I mean, you know, you have to always work around people how they like to work. And Warren is a very hard working actor and a good director. And he knows when he needs another take. Funny story. One time, we had one scene for the whole movie when he’s drunk and he has this monologue going on for like six minutes. And one roll of film is like ten minutes long. And we kept shooting with two cameras, one wider and one tighter. And we went already something like thirty seven takes. We started at nine o’clock in the morning shooting and it was already eight o’clock at night. And still Warren wanted to have another take and Altman said, Warren I think we got the shot on take seven and if that’s not good enough, we got it on take nine and we are not doing any more takes. He said, no just do one more, one more. Altman said, OK, you take one more, I’m going home. Vilmos is going to be behind the camera. Just go ahead and and do another take. And he left. 

Eric: Working with directors like Michael Cimino, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg meant that Vilmos Zsigmond got to witness firsthand some of the greatest performances in American cinema. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Well, you know, I pretty much saw it through the camera because I always operated the camera, so through the camera you always see the performance like you will be in a movie theater. I see the movie basically while it’s being made. I remember, for example, from this movie, that scene when Christopher Walken dies in Robert De Niro’s arms, you know, when he shot himself, you know. That was not rehearsed, absolutely not rehearsed because Michael wanted them to do it, like improvising because he believed that the first shot is going to have the best performance because it’s going to be fresh and new and without thinking about it and just let the actors do it. So we had to be careful with the two cameras. We had to sell it because we didn’t know exactly what they are going to do. So how are they going to move? The lighting was set pretty much, you know, that they could do anything they wanted to do because there was enough light. We had the key light. We the fill light. We had the cross lights. So no matter what they did, they will be lit enough, you know, that they can do anything that they want to do. I didn’t expect the depth of that performance what they did at that time. I mean I didn’t think that Robert De Niro have a performance like that in that. I mean, it was amazing. I mean, again, that was a scene which I was crying behind the camera with Robert De Niro, and, you know, it was just incredible. 

Clip: [The Deer Hunter clip]. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: After that, everybody was silent. And nobody said, let’s make another take. It was no other take. Because it would have been impossible to get that same performance, you know? It was incredible, really. 

Eric: That’s a good lesson for an actor. If you want to avoid a lot of takes, be perfect in one of them. Easy, right? Though working with Robert Altman also meant sometimes coming to the set with no idea of what they were going to shoot. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Altman, obviously, well he was a great director because he was the great improviser. To the point, you know, that me never shot the screenplay. We had a story written, but it never shot that. Every night Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Altman sat down for a couple hours and wrote the next day’s script and I was complaining about it that I’m not going to be prepared, you know, because I don’t know what we are shooting and where we are shooting. And he said, don’t worry about it. You will know in the morning what we are shooting. So you go on the set and Robert says, Vilmos we shooting over there at the edge of the set. You know, that was a big little village that we built. I said, wow that’s big news for me because we are not even cabled there. You know, we have to cable 400 feet, 500 feet and, wow how long is that going to take? Well it’s going to take three, four hours until, you know, they cable and put some lights and all that. OK, go ahead and start doing it. And he never pushed me. He never came to me that why is it taking so long or when are you going to be ready? He knew exactly how long is it going to take if I said he’s going to take three, four hours. And the way he was prepared and we still finished at four o’clock before the sun went down. And he was very good at using two cameras – many times, using scenes in one shot. 

Eric: Mr. Zsigmond also cautioned that when a director tries to control too much of the filmmaking, well, that can cause its own problems. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: There are many, many things the director can do, you know. A lot of them would actually get involved with the camera. And that’s not good news for me because then what am I going to do? But, you know, that happens. And then so I just have to follow the directions, you know. Some directors want to set up the shot themselves. You know, this is where we are shooting. And then other directors would just tell me that, OK, we are going to do a long shot here and maybe coverage and the camera will be somewhere here. And then he goes and talks to the actors because that’s the most important thing for him, is to rehearse with the actors on the set. In the meantime, I’m doing my job. If I cannot do it, I have to wait until the rehearsal is over. But at least I know what the actors are doing. So that helps my job because I know exactly. We make a walking rehearsal afterwards and make certain marks where they will stop or they go from A to B or C, so we know that, and we have a couple of stand ins who we will light the scene and then when I’m ready with the lighting, we go and start shooting. So it depends on what the director wants to do, really how much work he wants to do himself. You know, many of directors get involved with the props. Many of them, you know, that’s so important for them, that how the things on the table is set up and all that, you know. And mostly commercial directors do that because they shot many commercials and there the props are very important. But many directors who came from commercials, they waste their time, you know, to work with things which is not really that important, but other people cannot do. But it always depends on the upbringing of the director. What the directors learn to do and what they like to do, because many times they want to operate the camera. I don’t like that part at all, you know, because, you know, we have many directors, you know, who like to play the game. And instead of watching the scene from the outside and maybe on the video playback, whatever. So I think their job is really to to really direct the actors and not to operate the camera because operating is a job anybody can do that, you know? Good operators can do it. Bad operators, you don’t hire them. 

Eric: One filmmaker who impressed Mr. Zsigmond right away was Steven Spielberg, a director he worked with so early in his career that Mr. Zsigmond initially said… 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Who is Spielberg? Who was Spielberg in those days? I mean, he was a kid. He was a young guy who did one TV show, called Duel. And he wants to shoot me his movie. I said, well, I’d rather shoot another movie which is going to win the Academy Award. And that was a western, I can’t remember what the title was. But my agent said, well, you have to meet this guy because he is really a brilliant young guy. So I sat down with him for a coffee. And we started to talk and talk and talk and I’m telling you, I fell in love with this guy. I mean, I really I mean, he was brilliant, you know, in the conversation. He was talking about all the movies that I haven’t seen. He saw all the movies which everyone’s made. And he was educated very well to be a film director, you know. So anyhow, after that conversation, I said, OK, I give up the Academy Award, you know. And it paid off because I got the Academy Award on his next movie, what we did together. So it was a good investment. 

Eric: That good investment eventually led to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A groundbreaking sci-fi drama that faced some pretty stiff competition from another science fiction property. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Steven wanted to do that movie a long time before he was still probably a student and he wanted to do it low budget, 16 millimeter low budget. And that’s how this started out. When he started to make the movie, we had a very low budget because they thought that Steven really can bring it in for very little money. It didn’t happened. Because it started to grow. Suddenly he got actors like Richard Dreyfuss and once you have Richard Dreyfuss, you have to have other good actors. And everything started to escalate to the point that probably became about 25 million. That was a question mark, whether we did the right thing or not, to spend all that money on a movie which might fail. And it almost failed, you know, because it was in competition with George Lucas’s film, at the same time, you know, a little film like Star Wars and Star Wars got like nine or eleven awards. And Close Encounters got only one. It should have been the other way around, I think, because today everybody is very happy to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But I don’t know how many people want to see Star Wars. I don’t know. I certainly don’t. 

Eric: By working in the industry for decades, Vilmos Zsigmond had to adjust to the changing technology of cinema, including the use of video tap, when a monitor is attached to the camera, which was a game changer for how movies were shot. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Many, many directors actually lost their place from the camera and they like to be back, you know, where the video monitor is and watch the scene there on a tiny little monitor, which is ridiculous because you can’t see anything, you know, really to determine if the shot was good or not, you know. You can’t see the performance, really, on a small monitor. That’s why many of those directors like to make so many close ups, because the close ups show up on a monitor. So they can you know. I hated that when it happened, you know, but I always urge, you know, new directors when I work with many new, upcoming directors, first directors, I always told them be by the camera and watch the scene from that. That’s when the good directors do. Altman did that. Spielberg did that. Jerry Schatzberg did that. Brian De Palma did that. That’s where their place is. Is by the camera. Not at the monitor. The monitor is there only if you want to playback something and see what the actors did so you can match it. And it helps the script person very much because I could always admire those script supervisors that, how did they remember what the actors did in the shot? When you have four or five actors that do all kind of different things and you know, mostly things with props, you know, because in the middle of the thing, they pick up a glass and drink some water or something, and they had to watch that they do it every time in the same sentence and the same words. If they don’t do that, they have to make a note, because then at the end, when the director is going to say, OK, print take five and print take nine, they better know, you know, what they did with their hands. Otherwise, it will be a mismatch. 

Eric: Technological innovations also means the modern DP can adjust their cinematography digitally in post-production, which makes Vilmos Zsigmond’s earlier work that much more impressive for pulling off their look without digital processing. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: But then McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the next film I did, I knew that we cannot do that with bright colors like Technicolor, the like the days in those days when everything was so bright and colorful. And I actually studied the film Freddy Young, who was shot in London called The Deadly Affair. He used the technique of flashing because he didn’t have enough lights and he wanted to make the film more sensitive to work in interiors. And they didn’t have many lights, low budget. And I thought it was an interesting idea. And I made some tests and then I suggested to Altman that they should probably try out and test this how the flashing is going to work for the film. And so we made a test and he loved it because, you know flashing makes things look a little bit gray, but you had exposure at least. His idea was to make the images more like faded images of the days, like it was about the turn of the century when they were doing stills. They would all sort of different looking and then because of the times, you know, it was faded. And that’s what he wanted actually to shoot the whole movie with that idea. And that worked for that one. And for a long time afterwards, I tried to use it in a limited way, but I had to use it almost on all my films. Not much maybe because you couldn’t really tell too much which film and where I was flashing the film. Sometimes it needed, sometimes it didn’t. It depended on exteriors and the sun is shining on one shot and then overcast. And the only way I could actually balance it out if I was, I use flashing on the contrasty sunny days and didn’t use the flashing on the overcast days, so so that was one way to change the look of the film, which we could not do, of course, because we didn’t have digital intermediate. We had to try to do things. You know, other cinematographers did it differently, like Gordon Willis got the same result by simply just under exposing the film. And that worked very well for him. 

Eric: When working on Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Mr. Zsigmond marveled at the swing shift lens system, which helps give Mr. De Palma his trademark split screen deep focus shots. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I think I used a swing shift, actually on Black Dalia. You know a lot of other movies I used that actually, and mostly with Brian De Palma because he loves a great depth of field, you know, and that’s good. You know, that some people like one person being in focus and the other one out of focus, even if they have lines. To go, ping pong focus, you know, back and forth. I don’t like that either, you know, too much because that shows you we are making a movie. I know in my photography, I always I don’t want to hide it that we are shooting a movie. I want them to feel that they are seeing the real thing and whatever takes you away from that mood, you know, like the shaky camera. You know, I think it’s ridiculous because it reminds you that we are shooting a movie. I mean, that’s not the idea to make a good movie. And I think, yes, you shake the cameraman, somebody running, and you try to do the point of view of that person. Yes, that’s great. But to have that handheld camera going all the time through the movie with no reason at all, it’s ridiculous. But that’s the style now. 

Eric: So to be clear, if you’re going to shake or move your camera, make sure there’s a reason why. On the technical end, Mr. Zsigmond also described how he approached trading nighttime exteriors, which can be a battle for even the most seasoned camera person. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I like to light very natural, in a natural way, so my style is to be very real as far as the lighting goes. I don’t want to light something which I cannot explain where the light is coming from. That’s why I bring in lights from windows, from doors. Lamps, actually from the ceiling. If there’s an overhead light, I want the light coming from there. So if you follow reality and the skin is going to look real and you know, my feeling is that the audience, when they see a movie, should never think about where the light is coming from. They should just accept the image like a true image that it looks real. Like we didn’t use any light at all. If somebody can see that a light is coming from a wrong direction, they will see it. So that made it difficult for me on a Woody Allen movie. He used a Steadicam, I would say about 50 or 60 percent of the time. And the Steadicam went from room to room, you know, in 360 degrees sometimes. So so everybody had to be hiding, you know, somewhere so the camera don’t see them. So in that case, also, the lighting was difficult because I could not see lights. So where do you put the lights, when you have a low ceiling. Woody always works in real apartments. He doesn’t work on stages. So the question is always, how to light and not see the lamps? And that usually end up with under lighting the set. That was really exciting for me to do what Woody wanted to do and come out all right and make it actually acceptable lighting for the scene. 

Eric: All of the planning in the world, though, might not be able to compensate for a limited budget or worse, faulty equipment. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: So we’re getting to the point that night shots are getting easier to shoot because if you have a street brightly lit, you can almost shoot available light, with some additional lights for the actors when they come closer. Then you just have to match the color temperature and then you can get away with very little lighting. So that’s today. But in The Deer Hunter days, we had a real problem because remember the scene near the end where De Niro is coming on a boat and a lot of refugees are coming through a bridge. I mean, we had generators which broke down and at the end we had hardly any lights, you know, left. Because we had bad equipment, because we had to get the equipment from Thailand. So it was very underlit. And we were just hoping that it’s going to come out in the film. Wide open and flashing. And, you know, luckily I saw that on the Bluray. It looked actually better than it looked on film, that scene. Because, you know, when you go to Bluray, of course, you digitally can improve things. So the contrast went back a little bit. And you can see the actors much better. De Niro in his white suit, you know, in the, on the boat when it was coming. On the film, I didn’t see that. 

Eric: How a DP approaches their lighting is especially important when filming what might be the most expensive part of a production, the star. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: With Bette Midler, for example, in The Rose. Bette Midler needed the most diffusion in my life. But, you know, interesting, when you start from day one on the whole scene, I have to use diffusion on men also, because otherwise it will not match, you know. One shot is sharp, the other shot is soft. It will be ridiculous. So I had to use that same diffusion basically on everybody and all the time, regardless of what the scene was or where. And, you know, the combination which really worked beautifully on Bette Midler. But I’m not going to tell you the combination because then you will steal my job away, you know. It’s a matter of also do it with the lighting also, because you have sharp lights and you have diffused lights and when you come into a close up, I usually have to soften the light. You can use the Kino Flos many times, even if in the long shot you used the directional lights, you can actually replace that in a close up, if it comes from the same direction, with a little softer lights and that will help already. So it’s a matter of, you know, you have to shoot tests before you do a movie and you have a problem face. Aging stars who would like to look 20 years old, you know, and you have to make a lot of tests and even test filters, lighting directions and all that. Many times I even do that technique that I’m going to not have a full exposure on their face. I will keep them a little bit in the shade. And that helps a lot, you know, and so you just have to test it out and then whatever works, it will work. 

Eric: So does a man who shot close to a hundred movies have a favorite scene? 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Oh boy. Thousands of them. The one I already told you about, that De Niro and Christopher Walken, when he dies. That’s probably one of the moment I will always remember in my life. But there are so many interesting scenes, like Heaven’s Gate has a lot of them, you know, like the roller skating rink, you know, I mean, that’s a classic there, you know. And so many beautiful shots, you know, when the immigrants are coming along, dusty road. And we actually it was interesting. I wanted to shoot that in the early morning sunlight. And Michael said, OK, people sigh and he got ready actually to direct that scene by afternoon at four o’clock because there were hundreds of extras and a lot of wagons and a lot of people. And so by the time we rehearsed the whole thing, it was four o’clock. And I said, Michael, I lost my early morning feeling. But you know what? I have a late afternoon feeling. So it turned out actually, it was really beautiful in the afternoon. It was like a painting, you know, and sometimes you get lucky, you know. 

Eric: Mr. Zsigmond’s advice for our students came with a warning as well, be patient. It’s going to take time. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Hard to succeed in show business. You have to work hard and you cannot become what you want to become in a year’s time or two years’ time, or three years’ time. I usually say that in order to start to do something, five years. You need five years from the start. Let’s say that you finish film school and then you want to become a cinematographer who is wanted by other directors, it’ll take five years, sometimes 10. For me it took 10, because I didn’t speak English. It took me five years just to get to the point that my English was acceptable and I understood what I said. Most of it, but I just understood that the director was telling me. I mean that was the problem at the beginning, because how could you get a job and you understand what the director wants to do? It’s impossible. You don’t have to learn the language, that’s good for you because you are in America, everybody speaks English, right? So that’s why I say five years is a good time. But you should always be determined where you want to be in five years from now. You can try to make it in two years, but you have to determine and work on it and you’ll end up five years anyhow. 

Eric: He also shared his formula for having a long career. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I am not the only one, I think, because if you look at other cinematographers, we have long careers that usually than the average. And the only way I can explain that you stay young if you keep working. The worst problem is when somebody gets 65 years old and had to retire. Cannot do the job that he or she was doing and I think then his head is going to deteriorate because he’s not using his brains, you know. He’s not really living the way he used to live. And I can only suggest everybody to never retire. Let death takes you away from this world, not retirement. But if you don’t like your job, then retire early. 

Eric: Vilmos Zsigmond continued to DP well into his 80s, including The Mindy Project. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 85. If you get a chance, check out his remarkable work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. For my money, the most realistic looking Western ever committed to film. Or watch one of his dozens of other titles. You won’t be disappointed. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by Michael Pessah. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive Produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

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