Vilmos Zsigmond in Conversation

Cimino on Heaven's Gate

On October 12, 2013, at the Grand Action in Paris, I attended a talk with renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. It was moderated by Pierre Filmon. Most of the exchange focused on his work on three films: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and Deliverance.

Q: How did Cimino select you for The Deer Hunter?
VZ: He saw my previous films and liked them visually. Michael had done a lot of commercials. So had I. He thought we could work well together. He’s an incredible director. I learned so much from him. We got along very well from the beginning. He’s someone who is very sensitive of images. And I felt that Deer Hunter should be made with beautiful images, little dialogue, lots of visuals. Our collaboration was very much like two jazz musicians improvising. He’d suggest something, and I would run with it, and vice versa. Michael knows a lot about cinematography. But he let me do my job. He never told me how to light. That offered me a great freedom that is rare in this business. A director of photography needs to be very sensitive to the story. His work is about telling the story through images. It should never be about showing off.

Q: And about Heaven’s Gate? Any stories?

VZ: There’s a scene at daybreak, just after the battle scene where you see bodies on the ground. To get that, we woke up at 4am, travelled one hour to the location. We set up three cameras, two of which I operated. It was easy because I had one camera with a wide angle lens on a crane and another one with a zoom lens that I operated myself. So we waited for the sun to come up. It started to rise. Things were looking good. And it kept rising. And things were looking even better. And I said, Michael, we have to shoot now. He said, No, wait. And I thought it was a mistake. There would be too much light and reflections that would ruin the shot. And a few minutes later, Michael moved in front of the cameras. And he started to dance a Native American dance, chanting for the wind to come. And incredibly, a wind did start to blow. And it gave us the dust you see in the shot. The shot was much better than with just the sunrise. Never before or since have I worked with a director who could improve upon even what nature had offered.

Another thing you may notice is the scene of the Roman battle. There are about 60 extras. Michael spent a half-day casting them individually. He was looking for good faces. All of them came locally from Montana, but were of Eastern European origin – Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Serbian. Such was Michael’s attention to detail.

I love movies that are about something. I don’t like filming violence or special effects. I love movies that are about people. And it starts with a great story. Deer Hunter was a great script. It’s hard to shoot for six, eight, twelve weeks on a film that you don’t love.

Q: And about Deer Hunter?

VZ: It was a much more complicated shoot. The Vietnam scenes were shot in Thailand. But right when we landed, there was a putsch and a change of government. All our shooting permits were cancelled and had to be redone, and that took us three weeks. Things were not going well between Michael and one of the producers. You needed someone who could collaborate with Michael. I don’t mean who will tell him what he can or cannot do. I mean, someone who can sit down with him, understand what he wants to do, then help him to do it. This producer was replaced by someone who worked better with Michael. Who was on his side, instead of being against him. We lost a lot of time with the permits, then with this change of producer, but we still almost stayed on budget.

Michael struggled and fought hard throughout the edit. But in the end, he came out of it a hero. The film won Best Picture.

For Heaven’s Gate, Michael wanted to surround himself with people who could help him. We made a very good film, but we went more than double the budget. The schedule also went way over. United Artists was not happy. But Michael felt that the Oscar meant that he deserved to do what he wanted. The public and the critics hated the film. It was a real problem. A brilliant film, with no success. You have to remember the context. 1979-1980. The United States economy was doing well, there was no unemployment. Why would you want to do a socially conscious film at that time?

Years later, the film has been rediscovered by audiences. Festivals have nicely welcomed it in recent years. At the time, they wanted you to make a 100 minute film. This film at 100 minutes is garbage. All the beauty is lost. With the longer cut, you get to see what Michael intended. His genius. This cut is 3 hours and 37 minutes. To me, that’s too long. I think it would be ideal at 2 hours 30 or 2 hours 45. It would be a better film. A battle scene may have magnificent shots, but seeing the same thing conveyed in half the number of shots could improve it. Even at this length, I love the film, and I forgive its length. I think audiences do, too.

Q: What has Cimino been up to since? What’s he even made since 1986 and The Year of the Dragon?

VZ: Even I would like to know. He doesn’t return my calls. If you see him, please tell him that I would love to make another film with him.

Q: How did you shoot the Russian roulette scene in Deer Hunter? Did you have a shotlist? Certain intentions?

VZ: No shotlist. A lot of improvisation. Michael rehearsed a lot with the actors. Actors loved him because of the freedom he gave them. And we were working with five of the best actors. Deniro, Walken, Streep… We would look at the rehearsals, then look for what to shoot. Master, close ups.

The idea was not to stylize but to be as realistic as possible. Light the faces and add shadows coming from the palm trees on the other side of the walls. I would have lit it the same way if we’d been in the studio.

The eyes are important to me, and I always have a little lamp above the camera just for the eyes. I want to see the eyes.

It was difficult particularly because of the floating barge that we were on. Depending on the water level, it would rise eight feet or fall five feet. When the sun was not out, we used HMI’s, which were new. My gaffer had bought them, and we built parallels to put them on. It rained a lot, and we’d have to wait for it to stop.

Shadows are the most important thing for me. I light in order to make the shadows.

In the digital age, people think you don’t have to light, that it’s all lit. But without light and shadows, there’s no mood.

Q: And Deliverance?

VZ: When Boorman had heard about my filming during the revolution in Hungary, he thought that I was tough and courageous, and that I wouldn’t be afraid of a river.

Q: How did he hear about you?

VZ: He was looking for someone, and he saw rushes of Mr. and Mrs. McCabe (Altman) on the Warner Brothers lot. I was shooting in a very different way. I was flashing the film, making it dirty, using old stocks, bad stocks, making it look a hundred years old. Boorman thought if I could do something like this, then surely I could do his film.

We didn’t speak much after we’d decided some key things. We spent 4 weeks on location – scouting and learning how to canoe. In the last 2 weeks, the actors came and also learned to canoe. It’s really hard to keep your balance in a canoe. By the time the actors arrived, we seemed like pros to them. They got the hang of it. John decided not to use stuntmen. The actors would do all of their own canoeing. This choice really affected the film a lot. It meant I could shoot them however I wanted, in long shot, in closeups. It gave a realism.

I didn’t light the river much. And we decided something crazy – to never shoot when the sun was out. We wanted it to be overcast, because that fit with the color palette we had decided on. It would give suspense to just have three colors: the green of the forest, the white reflections off the water, and black. We killed all the other colors by desaturating the Technicolor. Too many colors work against the mood.

How to shoot the river was an important question. We decided it was a question of level. We needed the lens to nearly touch the water, to just be 2 centimeters above the water. Sometimes we had the camera in a waterproof box. We shot with a long lens, to better follow the moving canoe, giving speed and energy, without the need for a dolly.

Deliverance was my first time using an anamorphic lens. What I like is that it’s not too sharp. Today’s digital cameras are way too sharp. They are sharper than what the eye sees. I have made three or four movies on digital, and I always diffuse a lot of light. I work the same way as I would with film.

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A History of Civilization in 10 Minutes

So, maybe you could not make it to Clermont-Ferrand this year for the festival.

Well, the good news is, you can see one of the most remarkable films here – for free, on your computer.

It’s called Big Bang Big Boom. It was made by an Italian artist who calls himself Blu.  It’s a kind of History of Civilization in under ten minutes.  And people are calling this his magnum opus.

Though he has a huge following, Blu is totally unconcerned with money – he gives his films away to anyone who will watch. And each of his films has well over a million views (Muto for example has close to 9 million hits!).

Blu also retains a lot of mystique.  Like Banksy, he is someone who has retained complete anonymity, refusing to be interviewed or to attend festivals.

This is really impressive stuff.

When you can, take a break, click on this, and enjoy.

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Best Film School Today

As a young person wanting to enter the film industry, one of my big questions was always whether or not to go to film school. And if so, which one?  There are plenty of stories about people who learned everything on their own.  But I felt I would like the help of some formal training and in the end, I did a very theory-laden degree from the Sorbonne. An NYU screenwriting summer school class complemented this experience.  It gave me great exposure to films from around the world.

Before deciding to do that course, I inquired about a few other well known schools:

FTII in Pune, India – where many prominent people in Bollywood went

NYU – where Spike Lee, Joel Coen, Martin Scorsese and countless other legends trained

FAMU – in Prague, Milos Forman’s alma mater.

Lodz (pronounced Woodge) where Polanski and everyone from Poland went. This five year program even attracts international students who spend an entire year learning Polish before they start.

Den Danske Filmschole – where Lars Von Trier and other Dogma guys developed their style

This week at the festival in Clermont-Ferrand, I heard about the KHM in Germany. If I knew about this place twenty years ago, I’d have tried to attend. There’s still time. Maybe in twenty years, I can get a job teaching there.

The KHM of Cologne (Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln) is a truly unique school, founded on a novel idea – bringing together the teaching of artistic disciplines with media and science courses. In just 20 years, the school has become a goldmine of talent, clearly illustrated in the large numbers of international prizes received annually. Here’s a behind the scenes look at their success.

Founded in 1990 as an unprecedented teaching experiment, the KHM of Cologne continues its mission to educate future artists. « From the start, the school has provided a unique course load which combines arts, new media, and sciences… It all started with a key observation. We noticed that in the preceding twenty years, media and new technology have tended to mix and interact with art, offering exciting new possibilities, » remarks Ute Dilger, a representative of KHM.

You could even say that this wish to unify « Everything » in the process of making images is reminiscent of the days of the « Bauhaus » movement. « We are trying to best prepare our students for the future ».

Although KHM is based in Cologne, a city which is home to many television channels and media companies, the school is entirely government funded. Admissions applications are free of cost, and students are selected based on the submission of portfolios. « Our students should find the form of artistic expression which is best suited to them, and by providing them with such a diverse range of subjects, we help them make that choice, » explains Raimund Krumme, professor at the KHM. « If you were to only learn in one area of creative expression, you would definitely limit your creative potential. »

The school features an abundance of great professors, and the diversity of the teachers is another huge plus. « The professors are very accessible and we do so many things with them, » says Pauline Flory, a French student at the KHM. It’s an intense experience. Learning is constant, and being at the KHM means applying yourself all the time. « The typical student of our school has a great curiosity and a hunger to try all kinds of things to see what is possible. Our students are quite astonishing, and really unique, » beams Raimund Krumme. This one of a kind concept attracts students and teachers from all over the world.

With fifteen films in competition at Clermont-Ferrand and two Oscars for Best Short Film, the Kunsthochschule für Medien of Cologne remains a few strides ahead of other schools.

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2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2010. That’s about 11 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 8 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 41 posts. There were 7 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 1mb.

The busiest day of the year was March 8th with 155 views. The most popular post that day was Interview on the Web Series.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for stephen king, david lynch, the last picture show, kartik singh, and last picture show.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Interview on the Web Series March 2010


Stephen King “On Writing” September 2008


Lynch: Not Moving the Story Forward July 2009
1 comment


Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) April 2008
1 comment


Best Indian Short Films February 2009

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TOP 5 Reasons YOU Should Submit Your Film To The 2011 Kansas City FilmFest

1. Times a wastin’ – the next due date is December 15th.

2. Your entry fee is discounted if you upload your screener.

3. Our final judges include senior programmers from Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Slamdance.

4. Your film may screen in the state of the art, all digital AMC Mainstreet Theatre.

5. It’s our 15th anniversary and the celebration is going to be a real barnburner.

Kansas City FilmFest 2011 – Call for Entries – Our 15th year celebrating independent filmmaking.

Presented by the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee

All filmmakers, anywhere, are invited to submit your short or feature film – drama, comedy, documentary, animation, or experimental work. It must have been completed since January 1, 2009.

DEADLINE DATE:  December 15, 2010  (Other deadlines: 1/15/2011 & 2/04/2011)

ENTRY FEES:  Vary by short or feature and increase with each new deadline date

SAVE $5 on your entry fee by UPLOADING your screener to our secure website and save on postage too. If you prefer to send us a copy – SEND your screener (DVD-region 1), check, entry form to: KC Jubilee, 4826 W. 77th Terrace, Prairie Village, KS 66208-4321

EARN $5 for each filmmaker you get to submit a film. JOIN our Jubilee Affiliate Program. CLICK HERE to sign up!

Go to our website – for complete details, entry form, and pay fee online. You may also submit through WAB.

Check out our special CinemaJAZZ division if you have made a work (short or feature) inspired by JAZZ

Kansas City FilmFest is scheduled for April 6-10, 2011.

Visiting filmmakers will include – Andy Anderson, Elvis Mitchell

Jurors will include senior programmers from Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

If you have any questions – call 913-649-0244 or email:

Fred Andrews
President, KC Filmmakers Jubilee

PS – This is an awesome festival.  If you want to hear more about my experience with this festival (I have shown four times here, and I won Best Narrative Film in 2008), drop me a comment here or drop me a line by e-mail.  Kartik

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John Hughes really was Peter Pan, until 1987

This week, I stumbled upon a Breakfast Club audio commentary done after John Hughes’ death.  In it, Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall share stories about Hughes.  They marvel together at how plugged in to teen life he was.  To illustrate, Nelson recounts that in Sixteen Candles, Hughes added a detail to the props: Molly Ringwald’s notebook had The Psychedelic Furs written on it.  The amazing thing is that at that time, this band had yet to record their first album!  How do you get so up on teen culture?  To what lengths did he have to go to discover bands and teen lifestyle?  Clearly, it was his passion.  And it was not his generation.  He was in his 30’s when he made these movies:  34 on Sixteen Candles, 37 on Some Kind of Wonderful.  Was it an adamant refusal to grow up, to become the adult, the enemy?

I don’t know many filmmakers who steep themselves in youth culture.  While Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant come to mind, their films are dark and sometimes perverse.  They are like creepy old guys hanging out with kids.  It’s like, “Who’s the old dude?”  These guys have made some good films, but they are not films I care to see more than once.  And their relationship to youth culture comes off as a little bit pathetic and gross.

It wasn’t like that with Hughes.  His films soar with humor, life, emotion and well-observed quirkiness.  He was not a cultural tourist or cultural vampire.  There was no trying to be a teenager.  He WAS a teenage, and not only that, he was the coolest teen of them all.

Then in 1987, his career took a sharp turn.  Hughes shifted away from these teen films to focus on movies that would cross over beyond teenagers to all demographics.  And successfully: 1990’s Home Alone remains the top-grossing comedy of all time.

What changed?

Had he said everything he wanted to about teen life?  Maybe.  But I cannot help noticing that by “growing up”, he also moved into a life fraught with “adult” problems: pressure to succeed, conflict with Hollywood, and eventually, a retreat from public life altogether.  It’s a pretty high price to pay.

Below is the Op-Ed by Molly Ringwald, published in the New York Times on August 11, 2009.

ps – This week is Thanksgiving.  If you don’t know Planes Trains  and Automobiles, check it out!  Careful though.  While it will definitely make you laugh,  it may also make you cry.  You’ve been warned.


In life, there is always that special person who shapes who you are, who helps to determine the person you become. Very often it’s a teacher, a mentor of some kind. For me, that person was John Hughes. Along with the rest of the world, I was stunned when I learned that he had died of a heart attack last week at 59.

Not long after hearing the horrible news, I found myself talking on the phone to Anthony Michael Hall, my friend and co-star in several of the movies John directed. His experiences mirror mine to a large extent. Both of us were catapulted from obscurity and planted in the American consciousness through the films that we did with John. Michael, as he prefers to be called, will be forever associated with “geekdom” just as I will always be the girl whose 16th birthday is forgotten. But for both of us, what really matters is less the mark that these films left on the world than the experience of making them with John, the mark it made on us.

We stayed on the phone for a while reminiscing about our old friend and mentor. Since the days of John’s death, we have both been inundated with missives from friends and acquaintances, sending us their condolences the way you would for a close family member. Yet the strange thing is, neither of us had talked to John in more than 20 years.

Most everyone knows that John retreated from Hollywood and became a sort of J.D. Salinger for Generation X. But really, sometime before then, he had retreated from us and from the kinds of movies that he had made with us. I still believe that the Hughes films of which both Michael and I were a part (specifically “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) were the most deeply personal expressions of John’s. In retrospect, I feel that we were sort of avatars for him, acting out the different parts of his life — improving upon it, perhaps. In those movies, he always got the last word. He always got the girl.

None of the films that he made subsequently had the same kind of personal feeling to me. They were funny, yes, wildly successful, to be sure, but I recognized very little of the John I knew in them, of his youthful, urgent, unmistakable vulnerability. It was like his heart had closed, or at least was no longer open for public view. A darker spin can be gleaned from the words John put into the mouth of Allison in “The Breakfast Club”: “When you grow up … your heart dies.”

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Though it does seem sadly poignant that physically, at least, John’s heart really did die. It also seems undeniably meaningful: His was a heavy heart, deeply sensitive, prone to injury — easily broken.

Most people who knew John knew that he was able to hold a grudge longer than anyone — his grudges were almost supernatural things, enduring for years, even decades. Michael suspects that he was never forgiven for turning down parts in “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I turned down later films as well. Not because I didn’t want to work with John anymore — I loved working with him, more than anyone before or since.

John saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. He had complete confidence in me as an actor, which was an extraordinary and heady sensation for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old girl. I did some of my best work with him. How could I not? He continually told me that I was the best, and because of my undying respect for him and his judgment, how could I have not believed him?

Eventually, though, I felt that I needed to work with other people as well. I wanted to grow up, something I felt (rightly or wrongly) I couldn’t do while working with John. Sometimes I wonder if that was what he found so unforgivable. We were like the Darling children when they made the decision to leave Neverland. And John was Peter Pan, warning us that if we left we could never come back. And, true to his word, not only were we unable to return, but he went one step further. He did away with Neverland itself.

“I just remember how fun it all was,” Michael said on the phone.

It was: the concerts he took us to (the blues great Junior Wells at Kingston Mines in Chicago), the endless mixed tapes he made for us and, most of all, the work itself. It doesn’t even seem like you should be able to call it “work” because we enjoyed it so much.

There’s a scene in “Sixteen Candles” where my character, Samantha, and Michael’s character, “the geek,” have a heart-to-heart talk. The scene lasts all of six minutes, but it took us days to film because we were all laughing too hard. John, too. He sat under the camera — his permanent place before directors retreated to the video monitor — while the assistant directors stood around rolling their eyes waiting for him to stop laughing and reprimand “the kids.” But how could he? He was one of us.

About 15 years ago, I wrote John from Paris, where I was living, to tell him how important he was to me. I had been on a François Truffaut kick and had just watched the series of “Antoine Doinel” films that he had made with the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. There was something in the connection of actor and director that I recognized in us, particularly in the first film of the series, “400 Blows.”

After Truffaut died, I heard that Jean-Pierre Léaud had suffered a kind of breakdown, going so far as to drop flower pots on people from high-storied buildings. This is most likely a rumor, French film lore, but I think I now understand how painful it is to lose someone like that. John was my Truffaut. A week after I sent my letter, I received a bouquet of flowers as big as my apartment from John, thanking me for writing. I was so relieved to know that I had gotten through to him, and I feel grateful now for that sense of closure.

Toward the end of my phone call with Michael, we spent a little time catching up on mutual friends and family. I told him that my 5-year-old daughter, Mathilda, had just secured the part that she wanted in her theater camp — Tiger Lily, the Indian princess in “Peter Pan.” Michael made me promise to invite him to Mathilda’s debut as a fellow thespian. So in a few weeks we’ll drive to the theater and spend a couple of hours with Tiger Lily, Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys.

Turns out, you can return to Neverland. At least for a little while.

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Callback Trailer

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