ASC Awards: Honoree John Bailey is the ‘Accidental Cinematographer’

ASC honoree didn't plan his career path, but his versatility is well-established

John Bailey Cinematographer
Robert Primes

A lot of award winners through the years have expressed shock and surprise and claim they never expected to get what they were getting. John Bailey you actually believe.

“I’ve never received an Academy nomination or an ASC nomination or any kind of, you know, accolade from my peers,” says Bailey, who on Feb. 15 will receive the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor given in recent years to Roger Deakins, Dante Spinotti, Caleb Deschanel and Michael Chapman.

“I think this is by virtue of the kinds of films I do,” he says. “They’re not necessarily ones that call attention to the cinematography.”

That body of work includes “The Big Chill,” “As Good as It Gets,” “Silverado,” “The Accidental Tourist” and Oscar’s best picture of 1980, “Ordinary People.”

“That film was incredibly important to me, because it confirmed for me that I wanted to do films that dealt with the American family, the strains and bonds of those families,” says the 72-year-old Missouri native.

Lawrence Kasdan, who worked with Bailey on three features, originally wanted the d.p. for his directorial debut “Body Heat.”

“He had done a bunch of interesting things even before that,” Kasdan says. “Like ‘American Gigolo,’ very slick-looking, very interesting, and he’d come out of ‘Days of Heaven,’ where he was the operator and was just an interesting guy. He knew as much about cinematography as anyone I’d ever met. He could be prickly, but there aren’t too many cinematographers who don’t fit that description.”

Bailey has been described as “the accidental cinematographer,” perhaps a reference to his collaboration with Kasdan on “The Accidental Tourist.” (His eclectic range of interests can be seen via the ASC blog “John’s Bailiwick,” where he’s recently weighed in on Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” and Pieter Breugel the Elder.)

“I didn’t come to cinematography from a photographic point of view,” he says. “When I went to film school at USC, I had planned to study film theory and aesthetics. I thought there was a coming American New Wave, on the heels of the French New Wave, and I was going to be the American New Wave Andre Bazin.”

What happened instead: He took a beginning camera course and “became mesmerized.”

Having recently completed “A Walk in the Woods” with his “Ordinary People” collaborator Robert Redford, Bailey says his approach to style and technique is based on a close reading of the script and conversations with the director.

“I always pride myself in varying the work according to what seems appropriate to the film,” he says. “I like being a changeling from picture to picture — a shape-shifter. I’m not looking to put a personal mark on a film. If you can call that a philosophy, that would be it.”