Honoree Laszlo Kovacs an inventive, stabilizing force on the set

One might assume that when cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs walks on the set in the morning, he would first go over some calculations for exposures, or survey the light rigging, or studiously mull over the script pages to be shot that day. But what Kovacs actually does has more to do with superstition than calculation.

“When I was studying filmmaking in Hungary,” he says, “we had only three cameras to work with. One was an Arriflex O2C, another was a Czech camera that could shoot without sound, and the only 16mm camera was a windup Bolex. They were so precious, so when we got our hands on one of them, it was like magic. You could feel some kind of power coming from them. So every morning when I come on the set, I walk up to the camera and touch the magazine and say, ‘We’re going to have a good day.’ ”

Kovacs’ ritual has worked well for him — and for nearly 40 years. Starting with schlock like “Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies” (1963) up through landmarks of rebel Hollywood like “Easy Rider” (1968), “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) and “Shampoo” (1975) as well as

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“The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972) and “New York, New York” (1977) and, in the past decade, a string of comedies such as “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” Kovacs has embodied the ideal image of the modern cinematographer. His cinematographer. His ability to take a style that emphasizes soft light and a rich sense of atmospherics and to adapt it to a wide range of projects, has moved the American Society of Cinematographers to award him with its 15th lifetime achievement award.

For all his technical wizardry, though, the human qualities — rather than are what his colleagues first mention when thinking about Kovacs. “Laszlo has all the ingredients of a great cinematographer,” says his longtime friend, fellow lighting master and a recent ASC lifetime award honoree, Vilmos Zsigmond. “But No. 1 is that he smiles a lot. You smile, you keep a happy crew, and then everyone likes to work. That’s why we both hate yellers.”

“Otto Preminger once told me that there are two types of cameramen, which is what they used to be called,” notes director Peter Bogdanovich, who has collaborated with Kovacs over three decades, from his debut “Targets” (1968) to “Mask” (1985) and in between on such distinguished comedies as “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” “Both can give you whatever you want, but one type is boring, and the other type is fun. Laszlo is the latter. But he has something else which is invaluable on the set. He possesses extraordinary oak-like strength and reliability. If there’s a problem, he has a solution. If he knows what you want, he gives to you, only better.”

“He understands something that took me years to learn,” says fellow DP William Fraker, who also directed two Kovacs-lit films, the twisted psychodrama “A Reflection of Fear” (1973) and the visually spectacular “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” (1981). “When I was shooting ‘The Professionals’ for (director) Richard Brooks, he would get frustrated and tell me and my crew, ‘You guys aren’t listening. You gotta listen.’ That’s where most problems crop up. Laszlo, though, really listens, and if he has a question, it gets answered right there. Laszlo would have never had a problem with Richard.”

Kovacs’ native Hungary has informed his approach to lighting, and affected his choice of movies down to the present, where he is in New York prepping an as-yet-untitled comedy with star-producer Sandra Bullock. Fraker observes that “the overcast skies of northern and eastern Europe produce a softer light. Also, the film stocks Laszlo first used in Hungary didn’t have the quarter and half-tones of gray that we had with Hollywood film stock. The conditions trained East Europeans in a soft-light approach, quite different from the harder, direct light of traditional Hollywood. You see this with painters, whose work is dictated by the kind of light they live in. The same with cinematographers.”

And soft light, Zsigmond theorizes, is just the thing for comedies.

Still, for all they share in common, Kovacs and Zsigmond know their lighting approaches are different. Kovacs calls Zsigmond’s style “gutsy, contrasty.” Kovacs’ style subdues contrasts and tends toward embracing an atmosphere: In his extremely expressive landscape work in “Five Easy Pieces” or “Lone Ranger,” for example, the land becomes as much a subject as the characters themselves. (“We were definitely trying to take after John Ford in ‘Lone Ranger,’,” says Fraker.) “But Laszlo also wants to make his actors look beautiful,” says Bogdanovich, “which is one reason Barbra (Streisand) loved him on ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ It works wonderfully for comedy.”

The child of farmers, Kovacs grew up watching Socialist Realist films projected on a sheet in the village square. Following his father’s advice to leave the farm, he joined Budapest’s Academy of Theatre and Film Art in the mid-1950s. There, he met Zsigmond, and the two became inseparable. Their heroic guerilla filming of the 1956 street battles with invading Soviet forces and their subsequent near-death escape across the border are well-documented, but what is less known is their discovery of new European cinema, including the work of Antonioni, Fellini and the French Nouvelle Vague, that was banned in Hungary. “It was a liberation in itself,” says Kovacs, “to see such films, and I think these stuck with Vilmos and me as we struggled in our journey in America to become cinematographers.”

The two became known as “the crazy Hungarians,” because they worked hard, did any kind of job and worked fast. “I tell the students in my workshop sessions that a cinematographer has to be good, and be fast,” Kovacs says. “And when you’re done, you let your work be your best ambassador, because especially for a visual artist, it speaks for you.” “

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