Adam Kimmel [Interview]
July 6, 2012 4 Comments
There is something about a great film that can make you feel so many emotions and make you start to questions where the real world and the world of film cross paths to create your own crazed plain of existence. Everybody has one of these films that affect them in such a manner. Hell, maybe you have a dozen of them. When a film is written, directed, and shot so majestically perfect, there are very few end products in this world that can drive you to emotional bliss and/or insanity.
Adam Kimmel happens to be the man behind the lenses of three films in particular that hold such a strong place in my heart for different reasons entirely. He’s shot over two dozen projects in his career, and has earned a solid reputation as one of the greatest directors of photography to work with in the business. He has two Independent Spirit nominations under his belt and has stared down actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Ryan Gosling, Denis Leary, and the list goes on and on. A stellar and thriving career to say the least. But, the three films that get to me? the powerhouse 90’s independent film Beautiful Girls. The only movie that almost brought me to tears, Lars and the Real Girl. And the amazingly gripping Capote.
Adam Kimmel was nice enough to answer a few questions we threw at him. But, to be perfectly honest, the world of cinematography is a blunder of characters and figures that I simply do not understand. I’m a writer (at best). The technological aspects of film making are confusing and scary to me. Thankfully, my dear friend and fellow Trainwreck’d Society, Chris Eaves, is an independent filmmaker/screenwriter/DP/all of the above based in Portland, Ore. He has been working extensively with Sound Skript Entertainment, who has creating some amazing work, and have even more great projects to look forward to. So, I was fortunate enough to get Chris to ask a few questions about the creative process of shooting a film, the equipment to use, etc. Thank you Chris for helping out with this one, and keeping me from asking ridiculous questions like “what does Emily Mortimer’s hair smell like?”. That could have been embarassing.
So come along people now! Check out this amazing interview done by Chris Eaves with the acclaimed cinematographer Adam Kimmel. Enjoy!
Do you have a certain style you use in your role as DP and can you point to anyone specifically who has influenced or guided that style?
I don’t like the idea of imposing a style on a project, but usually by the time someone has shown an interest in working with me, there’s work I’ve already done that has sparked that interest, and so that can become a point of departure to develop our own sensibility. I’m never interested in making the same film twice, but hopefully the choices I’ve made and the accumulation of work starts to steer things toward me that I’ll want to be involved with. As for guidance, I think almost everyone I’ve worked with has influenced me, I try to always be learning, and in one way or another, everyone can teach you something. I think we are all the sum of everything we’ve done.
Does your approach as DP change depending on the project’s director, screenwriter, producer, etc?
Yes, I hope it does, as each film has its own requirements, its own personality, it’s own strengths and weaknesses. I had a great lesson early in my training by working with the same cinematographer on two films in a row, each with a different director. I was an apprentice to the camera department and it was all new to me, but on that first film I watched the way they functioned together and thought I understood. When I went on to the second one, I saw that the way the cinematographer works should really be in balance to the way the director works, and that it could be a completely different version of the job because of that. The cinematographer was Michael Chapman, and the films were Phillip Kauffman’s The Wanderers, and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
What do you look for when designing your shots?
I like the idea for shots to come from the mood or emotion of the story, this goes back to trying to choose projects that I have a feel for because without that I think it’s possible to start creating shots that aren’t part of the whole, but I like to prep in a way that allows the clearest ideas to be explored first, and for those to then start informing the rest of the story, to build on that until we can go through the script and have a sense of where we’re going with every scene and every transition, (and of course to know that we may alter or completely discard it as new people and elements come together.) But as we refine and flesh out the scenes, I start to truly know the language of that film and it becomes more second nature to know what belongs or feels out of place. I think that’s why I like to start with whatever presents itself most clearly in the beginning, so you build on your strongest and clearest ideas. Shot listing is where you make so much of the film, and it’s a process I really enjoy.
Do you consider your career work or fun?
You create beautiful imagery in order to tell stories. Do you have any desire to create your own works?
Honestly, I think everyone has stories to tell, but I feel that when a collaboration between a writer, a director, and actors is strong, that I do get to create my own work, there shouldn’t be cinematography that functions independently, that’s separate from the narrative or the performances, so even though my expression may come through light, and composition, and movement, I’m still expressing my ideas , and I’m going to arrive at those choices differently than any other person offered the same possibilities.
I didn’t attend a film school, but I always thought it would be a great learning experience for students to each have the exact same script and resources, but to see how many ways you could arrive at telling the same story. Each one of us brings our sensibilities in, and if it all works well then trying to unravel it becomes like trying to separate the pages of a book from the story they tell.
What is your most recent memorable experience at the movies – good or bad?
I saw Wim Wender’s film Pina in 3D and thought it was just stunning, he spoke before the screening and explained the long and winding path it took to get made, and it was a great chance to remember how many things have to happen in just the right way before we can see what was in the directors mind, but when someone gets it right, it’s still pure magic to me.
What movies did you grow up watching?
Because of television, I watched all kinds of movies as a young kid, and loved things like the Twilight Zone as well. Then once I started choosing for myself, there were so many great films that caught my attention – remember, this was a pretty thrilling time to be discovering movies – Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, Badlands, The French Connection, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Exorcist. These are all films I saw in the theater when they were released, and that’s when I started to be truly moved by the power of film. I was fortunate in that my mom was very much aware of what was out there and never held my curiosity back. I was still quite young when I started working on films and getting to see behind the curtain and watch how it was all done, just sealed my fate to pursue this as long as I’m allowed.
How did you find your way into the film industry?
From about age nine I was aware of how much certain films effected me and I wanted to know how they were made, so I asked for a super 8 camera for Christmas and my dad took me to pick one out. My brother and I immediately started making little narrative films: coming up with ideas, figuring out the mechanics of lighting and shooting and editing, and then creating soundtracks to the edited films (this usually resulted in having to hit play on a cassette player at the same moment you hit run on the projector) but regardless of how we arrived there, we were telling stories with a camera. By the time I was seventeen, I had become pretty passionate about making these films, and my Dad offered to introduce me to someone he’d known since childhood who was a DP on commercials, I jumped at it and worked on a hand full of low budget TV ads as a P.A. I was really only interested in the camera and so at lunch or wrap I would hang around the camera assistant and ask questions, or try loading short ends with my eyes closed. After a few months of this, he offered to try to bring me onto a film he was going to be the operator on, the film was The Wanderers and he made it happen. After that I went on to Raging Bull, and then to Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, with Ralf Bode shooting. I had three years of working as a trainee with great people on memorable films. After that, I was the second A.C. on a Jack Lemmon film called Tribute, then five years as a very busy first A.C., (a job that I always loved). Around 1986 I started shooting. Actually Caleb Deschanel was someone I had always greatly admired, and I was assisting him when he sort of gave me the push to start shooting on my own.
Who has the best catering?
Some of the best meals I’ve ever had on set were in the most remote place you can imagine, where you may be offered only one choice and you eat in some little makeshift shelter, but it’s real food cooked by the local people and there’s nothing missing. Like Salmon just caught and cooked over an open fire on the bank of a fiord in the north of Norway.
What do you think about when choosing a project?
I look at the whole project, the script, the director, the other people involved, the resources etc. but it’s also based on where I’m at creatively at that time. There are films I might be interested in now that I wouldn’t have been ten years ago, and vice versa. But ideally I want to feel like I’m the right choice for the project as much as that it’s the right choice for me.
Have there been any projects you have passed on and later regretted it or took and later regretted taking it?
No regrets, but there are always those moments when you wonder what would be different if you had made different choices.
What are your thoughts on the growing use of DSLRs for low budget filmmaking such as Cannon 5d Mark II?
I think it’s fantastic to have the accessibility and immediacy that these cameras offer, and I’m sure there are stories being told that might not have been without them, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for everything. Now more then ever, with all the options out there, I think choosing the right equipment for the job is critical and a huge part of the creative process.
What is your camera of choice?
What was the last moment while working on a project that made you smile?
In Paris on the glass roof of the Grand Palais, lighting of the Palace, the Pont Des Invalides and the Seine in the distance. (That was last night, and I’m still smiling)
Be on the look out for more great works of art from this cat coming soon. Check out his website to see what he has in line, and check out his latest film, a short entitled I’m Here, directed by the legendary Spike Jonze brought to you by Absolut Vodka.
Also be sure to check out the work of Chris Eaves and Sound Skript Entertainment at their Facebook page.