Foreign-born ASC members tell diverse stories

Think of Hollywood as an idea rather than a place. Picture ASC as a melting pot for talented cinematographers. Keep those thoughts handy while you read about Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters,””The River,””Deer Hunter,”etc.) and Laszlo Kovacs (“Easy Rider,””Five Easy Pieces,””Slither,”etc.). In 1956, they were students at the state film school in Budapest, Hungary.

“We were only infrequently allowed to see American films,” Kovacs recalls. “I remember seeing ‘Citizen Kane.’ That was my introduction to Gregg Toland. We were told to study his lighting and camerawork, but to ignore the story. We never dared dream that someday we would be in Hollywood.”

That year a citizen revolt rocked Budapest.

“We borrowed an Arriflex camera, hid it in a shopping bag and walked around the city filming the revolution,” says Zsigmond, “including civilians fighting Russian tanks.”

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Zsigmond and Kovacs decided it was important to smuggle their 30,000 feet of 35mm film out of the country. They carried it in potato sacks, walking through the forest, evading Russian patrols and Hungarian border guards. They were caught and searched, but managed to hide the film in a haystack. Kovacs also had some still pictures hidden in the bottom of a pants leg where it was tucked into his boot.

“An officer searched me,” he says. “I thought I’d be shot, but he didn’t find the pictures. We got away by pretending to be local peasants working in the fields.”

Zsigmond and Kovacs ended up at Ft. Kilmer, N.J., with some 40,000 other refugees. Eventually, both of them worked for a Los Angeles company that processed X-ray film. They spent every spare moment working on low-budget features.

Finally, their courage and diligence paid off, just like a Hollywood movie with a happy ending. In 1964, Zsigmond was the first cinematographer to use a Panaflex camera. It was on a Spielberg film called “The Sugarland Express.” Robert Gottshalk (Panavision founder) brought him the camera mid-way through the making of the film. The next day, Zsigmond put it on his shoulder, and made the audience a participant in the movie. It was the talk of the town.

Zsigmond became an ASC member in 1973, and Kovacs followed two years later. Approximately 15 foreign-born ASC members live in the U.S., including Mikael Salomon (Denmark), Stephen Goldblatt (U.K.), and Theo Van de Sande (Netherlands).

Other ASC cinematographers live in their native lands, including Sven Nykvist (Sweden), Vittorio Storaro and Giuseppe Rotunno (Italy) and Lajos Koltai (Hungary).

“When I was a student, they (Kovacs and Zsigmond) were my heroes,” says Koltai.

Goldblatt was an outstanding still photographer in England. He took the last portrait of The Beatles. Goldblatt made his mark as a cinematographer in the U.K. before moving to Los Angeles. He earned an Oscar nomination for “The Prince of Tides.” His other credits include “The Pelican Brief” and “Lethal Weapon.”

Salomon also started as a still photographer in his teens in Denmark. He used to visit a documentary film company so he could read their copy of American Cinematographer. They asked him to film a documentary. In the early 1980s, he visited the U.S. to shoot a cable movie. Soon afterwards, Jim Cameron tapped him to film “The Abyss.” Salomon earned an Oscar nomination for his work on that film. His credits include “Always,””Far and Away” and “Backdraft.”

Why did he move to Los Angeles? “It’s the place to be if you want to be in the mainstream of filmmaking,” Salomon says. It’s also where his boyhood dreams were centered.

Greenberg was born in Poland just before the Nazi invasion. His family fled to Russia, and ended up in Siberia. Greenberg survived, and after the war, he emigrated to Israel, where he worked in a film lab. Later he shot many documentaries, and subsequently became one of Europe’s top cinematographers until he moved to Hollywood.

“I took a chance,” he says. “I moved my family in the early 1980s. I didn’t speak English. I had no connections. But I had to find out if I could make it in Hollywood.”

Director James Cameron chose Greenberg to shoot “The Terminator.” Later, there was a successful reprise on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which earned Greenberg an Oscar nomination. His other credits include “Ghost” and “Dave.”

In high school, DeBont told his mother someday he would work in Hollywood. He couldn’t point to it on a map, but he knew Hollywood was where they made films. DeBont studied at the national film academy in Amsterdam. He became an eminent cinematographer in Holland, and moved to the U.S. during the early 1980s. His credits include “Die Hard,””Black Rain” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

What are the differences between U.S. and foreign-born cinematographers? “In Holland, if you drive 100 miles in any direction, people speak a different language,” says Theo Van De Sande, a two-time winner of the Golden Calf Award, the Dutch equivalent of an Oscar. “You are exposed to different influences in architecture, art and culture. You draw on different visual memories.”

Van De Sande’s U.S. films range from “Crossing Delancey” to “Wayne’s World.” He believes ASC has an important role to play in defining the future of the art form. “We have an obligation to lead the way in fighting for the artistic integrity of our work in the coming digital age,” he says.

Kovacs is optimistic. He says the first 75 years are “just the beginning. I believe we (ASC) will play a role in bringing cinematographers together, so we can learn from one another. There shouldn’t be boundaries between artists in Russia, China and the United States. We speak a common language with a visual grammar. We have to extend farther, and reach out to more people in different cultures.”

The first ASC member from another country was probably Karl Freund. Freund was a Czech who worked in the German film industry during the 1920s. He photographed a number of classic films made during the days of the Weimer Republic, including “The Last Laugh,””Metropolis,””Variety” and “Berlin.”

Freund followed director Frederick Murnau to Hollywood around 1929, after the demise of the Weimer government and the rise of Nazism. In 1933, ASC made Freund one of their own. He won an Oscar in 1937 for “The Good Earth.” He was the first European-born cinematographer to win an Oscar.

Freund lensed a number of other classic films, including Key Largoand Pride and Prejudice.In the early 1950s, he filmed The Lucy Showin front of a live audience with multiple film cameras. His concepts for filming sit-coms have endured for some 40 years.