×

Spinotti: Forever young & curious

ASC Awards 2012

The problem with lifetime achievement awards is their sense of valediction. Of finality. Of farewell. Dante Spinotti had that feeling when he heard he was getting his.

“I wanted to say ‘Yes, thanks, why not call me back in 10 years,’ ” he laughs. “But I didn’t want them to change their minds.”

Slim chance of that. Spinotti, 68, who will receive the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, is a long way from hanging up his viewfinder. Known for moving gracefully from genre to genre while maintaining years-long relationships with certain directors (notably Michael Mann and Brett Ratner, with whom he’s done at least a dozen projects), the Italian-born cinematographer is also renowned for his adaptability to new technology, and his devotion to story. “You feel proud about what you did, if what you did made for a better film,” he says.

In this regard, sometimes, the audience may not even be aware of what Spinotti is up to. “Take the exteriors in Chicago in ‘Public Enemies,’ ” says Mann, referring to his 2009 gangster epic. “Part of the reason they have a period feeling is because Dante made the observation that street lighting was different in 1933: narrow columns of light and then it got dark until the next streetlight. And while audiences may not even know why it feels period, in addition to the period vehicles and the wardrobe, the light is a reason they’re feeling it.”

Spinotti is an artist with lighting, Mann adds. “It sounds simple, but it’s the simple truth.” The director says his longtime d.p. — their other films together include “Heat” and Spinotti’s first U.S. feature, “Manhunter” — is capable of using light to create a sense of time having slowed down, “because the anxiety is so torqued up.”

“I’m thinking of the lobby of the Seelbach Hotel in ‘The Insider,’ when Pacino (as “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman) shows up to see if Wigand (the tobacco company whistleblower played by Russell Crowe) will be there and the scene is basically a man in an armchair reading a newspaper,” Mann says. In addition to Pacino’s performance, the director says, “the effect comes from the very concentrated, directional lighting with intense lights, illuminating the newspaper, and the dust in the air, and providing a hyperawareness of the anxiety of Lowell Bergman.”

Spinotti’s impact doesn’t always have to raise the hairs on your arms. “His work on ‘Last of the Mohicans’ was exquisite,” Mann says, recalling Spinotti’s use of candle and firelight and the soft glow of real flames.

“As good a cinematographer as he is, he’s a better man,” says veteran producer Marc Abraham, whose directorial debut, “Flash of Genius,” was shot by Spinotti. “He’s one of these people who seems devoid of ego. He’s got one somewhere in there, but it doesn’t drive his decision.”

Abraham says when they were making “Genius” he’d tell people “I’m going to do it exactly the way I want to do it, until Dante gets here and tells me how I ought to do it.” He added that as much as he’d always expected his first directed feature would be shot on film, Spinotti persuaded him to shoot in HD. “You’d think it would be the opposite, but he’s also got the energy and attitude of a very young man and is super curious.”

Back in 2003, Spinotti and other ASC members collaborated with Digital Cinema Initiatives to develop standards for digital projection. “Dante said the one thing that happens with new technology is, it always feels cold,” says fellow member and former ASC president Daryn Okada. “So we came up with this idea to develop scenes that would test color, movement, technical challenges to digital projection, but at same time have emotional value.” What they finally decided on — predictably, Okada says — was an Italian wedding scene. “But the genesis was Dante, scenes with emotionality.”

For Okada, Spinotti’s standout trait is an ability to maintain his art in any genre. “I’ve watched a lot of his movies and what I always found amazing, regardless of any challenge in production, is the incredible level of artistry no matter what genre he’s in. And without calling a lot of attention to himself.”

Spinotti — whose filmography includes such disparate titles as “L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “Beaches,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Red Dragon,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” — says what he feels mostly about his award is gratitude.

“Making a movie is not a lightweight affair,” he says. “But you have to be thankful to all the people you meet in this fantastic industry. There are challenges. And risks. But they all are worth facing.”

ASC AWARDS 2012
TV’s big-screen canvas | Digital’s increasing domain | Forever young & curious

Popular on Variety

More Scene

  • Jessica Biel Limetown Premiere

    Why 'Limetown' Star & Producer Jessica Biel Thought the Show Was Based on a True Story

    In a world of increasingly outlandish headlines, the story behind “Limetown” — in which an entire community in rural Tennessee disappears overnight — seems plausible. Even Jessica Biel, who executive produces and stars in the Facebook Watch television adaptation of the hit 2015 podcast, was initially convinced that it was real. “I just thought I [...]

  • Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Watchmen

    Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Talks 'Watchmen,' 'Matrix 4': 'I'm Not Nervous At All'

    Yahya Adbul-Mateen II is facing some serious pressure. The actor is in the middle of a massive career surge, taking on roles in HBO’s “Watchmen” and the upcoming “Matrix 4” — and with those roles, the expectations of their fans.  “I have the responsibility of upholding something that was already done while also bringing in [...]

  • David Lindelof Watchmen Premiere

    'Watchmen' Creator Damon Lindelof Weighs in on Martin Scorsese's Marvel Criticisms

    Damon Lindelof disagrees with Martin Scorsese about his recent claims that Marvel movies don’t qualify as cinema. The director’s proclamation, along with the polarized critical reception of “Joker,” are the latest salvos in a long history of questioning comic book movies’ place in cinematic history. The lingering question: Can superhero fare be considered “high art?” [...]

  • Anne Hathaway Modern Love

    Anne Hathaway Talks Mental Health Awareness, Playing a Bipolar Woman on Amazon's 'Modern Love'

    In Amazon Prime’s upcoming “Modern Love,” Anne Hathaway sheds light on an important facet of living with mental health issues, playing a bipolar woman who struggles with dating. “We’re all becoming more sensitive, wiser and more cognizant of gentility, and especially emotional gentility. I think those conversations are starting to happen. And I think the desire [...]

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content