‘American Horror Story’ Cinematographer Michael Goi Talks About His Start in Hollywood

michael goi CInematographer Start in Hollywood
illustration: michael Hoeweler

Michael Goi is a four-time Emmy nominee, most recently for “American Horror Story,” and a former president of the American Society of Cinematographers. When the Chicago native was at Columbia College, he shot 125 films in four years, a record for the school. He thought about being an editor, but realized early on that he loved to shoot. “I love the dynamic of being on a set. I love that vibe,” he says. His earliest mention in Variety was Jan. 15, 1988, when he was DP on his first feature film, “Camper Stamper” (released as “Moonstalker” by the video company Complete Entertainment). Goi worked in Chicago on multiple films and commercials after he graduated in 1980, but a decade later he realized he needed to move to Hollywood. Since then, he has chalked up dozens of film and TV projects.

Did you have an early idol?

Robert Surtees. I saw “The Graduate” by accident when I was 8. My parents thought they were taking me to a cartoon festival, but that only played until 1 p.m.; then the theater went to its regular features. I’d never seen a movie with so much darkness, or with people pressed on the edge of the frame. I became fascinated, and went back to see it 100 times in the movie theater. I started shooting 8mm when I was 8, and bought my first 16mm when I was in high school.

Was “Moonstalker” your first paying job?

No, when I was in high school I was paid a modest sum to shoot Spanish commercials on spec. Then I did an industrial film for Sears. “Moonstalker” was my first feature. [Writer/director] Michael O’Rourke and I became friends and enjoyed working together. The film was shot in 12 or 13 days for $125,000.

When did you move to Hollywood?

In 1991. It became clear that if I stayed in Chicago, I was always going to be on the B- or C-camera crew. It took a lot to decide to move to L.A. I didn’t know anybody. And there was a recession. Most film companies had no money. I’d done six features and 300 commercials but could not get a job. Two cinematographer friends gave up. Finally I got a job as a grip on a low-budget
martial-arts movie in Vegas. So I was on the set. Then those producers did another project. That’s how it happens: You work for no money with a crew, then when those guys land another film, they say, “We worked with this guy; he’s good,” and it spreads.

So persistence paid off.

Persistence is one of the most important qualities in a career. One of those other two cinematographers was an amazing talent, but he wouldn’t do anything “beneath him.” So he didn’t work. I refused to give up. And I diversified. To one group of people, I was the guy who worked on martial-arts films. To another group, I was the guy who had shot tons of softcore. I was also experienced in edgy and independent films. This meant being able to keep working and to advance.

Any other advice?

Nobody makes it on their own. You need to establish contacts with people. I always say, “It’s not who you know; it’s who knows you.” People need to get over their fear of contacting people.
Eventually, it becomes easy. Also, learn to love interviewing for a job. It’s my favorite part of the business. You’ve read the script and the project, at that point, is perfect in your mind — at its purest. Most people in interviews are afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing. They try to read the room so they can tell interviewers what they want to hear. Don’t do that — they will think you don’t have any original ideas.