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Cinematographer Jack N. Green’s Aerial Work Led to Gigs on Clint Eastwood Movies

Cinematographer Jack N. Green is proof that nice guys sometimes finish first — even in Hollywood.

Born in 1939, the San Francisco native traveled a long-rising arc in his career, which includes distinguished stints shooting aerial sequences for documentaries and some of the most iconic films of the 1960s, eventually becoming director of photography on a run of Clint Eastwood movies and more recent comedies such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Hot Tub Time Machine” and two “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies.

Green’s parents, Trudy and John Sr., had a shared fascination for photography and rigged up a home darkroom that made a strong artistic impact on their son. 

Graduating from high school and barber college at 17, Green planned to make that job his career. But all that changed when he was befriended by shop regular Joe Dieves, a former World War II combat cameraman. Enamored of Dieves’ stories, Green soon joined him, working on small television productions for companies like San Francisco’s W.A. Palmer. 

Dieves sponsored Green for union membership in 1965, and the next summer Green handled assistant cameraman duties for a documentary on the film “The Way West,” flying aerials over Oregon. He subsequently worked with John Lowry Prods., crewing on more helicopter gigs and moving full-time to Los Angeles in 1968. 

Risky aerials became Green’s bread and butter. He filmed airborne montages that appeared in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” chase scenes for “Bullitt” and naval pictorials for “Tora! Tora! Tora!” He earned his operator chops one set-up at a time, handling urban flyovers on “Dirty Harry,” Carmel’s enchanted coastline for “Play Misty for Me” and challenging coverage of rafting sequences for “Rooster Cogburn.”

“My break came with [cinematographer] Michael Watkins on [producer] Roger Corman’s ‘Fighting Mad,’” he says. A study in guerrilla cinematography in terms of the schedule and the crew, the picture required “off-the-cuff shooting” that few but Green could handle. 

When Green was drafted by friend and cinematographer Rexford Metz to operate B-camera on Eastwood’s “The Gauntlet,” the action film’s nocturnal schedule — which included crashes and steel-plated bus shootouts — taught him the Zen of minimal takes and how to give cinematographers what they want in difficult circumstances. 

He was befriended by Bruce Surtees, who would become his mentor, and more Eastwood fare followed. Green joined Eastwood’s troupe for ”Every Which Way but Loose,” “Bronco Billy,” ”Firefox,” “Tightrope” and “Pale Rider” -— shooting handheld coverage of the mining camp attack for the last film. Meanwhile, he continued to work on crash-’em-up pictures like “48 Hrs.” and “Beverly Hills Cop” to make the rent. 

With Surtees’ blessing, he moved up to director of photography on Eastwood’s “Heartbreak Ridge” in 1986. For the Charlie Parker biopic “Bird” in 1988, it was Green’s screen test of Forest Whitaker playing sax in a recording booth that sold Eastwood on the somber but high-key look of the film. 

The DP became a chameleon of visceral shooting styles, as seen in movies ranging from “White Hunter Black Heart” and “The Bridges of Madison County” to “Unforgiven” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” 

Now retired and living in Santa Rosa with his wife of 51 years, Susan, Green earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame thanks to myriad photographic talents and a focus on what was best for the picture. He says he always tried to serve the director’s vision and would happily relinquish his ideas “if the boss’s vision was better.”

His ideas must have been pretty good fairly often: He received the Cinematographers Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. 

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