Camerimage Interview: Cinematographer Tom Stern

Nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Changeling in 2008, cinematographer Tom Stern is best known for his frequent collaboration with director Clint Eastwood. Although he didn’t become the full-fledged director of photography until Blood Work in 2002, Stern’s history with Eastwood goes back even farther, as he explains in the below interview with ComingSoon.net from this year’s Camerimage Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

If you missed them, be sure to check out our previous Camerimage interviews here.≠

CS: You’ve attended Camerimage a couple of times. Can you tell me what keeps you coming back?
Tom Stern:
I really enjoy this festival. I guess it’s my fourth or fifth time here. It’s wonderful to meet other DPs. I’m a big world cinema kind of guy. I love filming all over the world. You end up with friends all over the world and, because of our schedules, it’s difficult to stay in contact. I’m fond of saying that every DP that’s not working is here. Marek [Zydowicz] has organized like a pagan ritual festival where we all get to come hang out and talk about what it is we do and address common concerns and challenges. Stuff like that.

CS: There’s also that sense of constant evolution of the art form. You strike me as someone who likes to keep very much on the forefront.
Stern:
Yeah, I do. Unfortunately. It’s kind of boring, but the tools are changing rapidly. For me, it’s all the crap. When I do a movie, it’s like six or eight big huge trucks. But functionally, it’s the same as a hammer. It’s just a tool. It’s a complex tool and it’s an expensive tool, but it’s not that hard to understand it. My feeling is, the greater my understanding of it, the deeper I can bury it. We’re in a time where the rate of innovation is incredible. It’s funny because there was a time where it was almost like Pleistocene, aka zero, for the first 90 years. Okay, you invent it. Big. Then, after 30 or 40 years, they adapt it. They add sound. Oooh! Then color. Then the cameras got smaller. That’s basically an arrogant 90-year recap of the movie business. It’s kind of relaxed and lackadaisical. Esoteric. We were like priests because no one else could see the image. It had to be developed. Then, in the last ten years, the rocket got lit. It’s interesting watching the energy being expended as people — individuals and organizations — try to adapt.

CS: Do you think it’s all part of a fervor for change and that it will settle down again or that all this new stuff like digital and 3D is the wave of the future?
Stern:
Well, it’s two different deals. Have you ever seen a typewriter? Have you ever used one? Would you miss it? Who gives a s–t? It doesn’t make any difference in my view. The second point of things, though, if you take IMAX and 3D and all the other stuff, I would tend to call that immersiveness. There has been a more or less continual quest to increase immersiveness. Artistically, it’s kind of an interesting idea in general that gets pursued in all sorts of arenas. Not just film. I think what drive it in the film business is money and, quote-unquote, “product differentiation.” To me, there has always been kind of a carnival sideshow aspect to it. You know that guy Michael Todd who was married to Elizabeth Taylor? When he died, he had the intellectual property — the patents — on, like, Smell-o-Vision. The idea is, you’d sit in the theater. If horses went by, you’d smell horses or whatever you saw. It never took off. Then there’s Cinerama and all that stuff. Now there’s IMAX, which is sort of really cool, but it’s not that cool to me. I don’t know and mega-serial IMAX viewers particularly. It always seems to end up being a little niche-y. Then 3D is — I was talking to Clint [Eastwood] about it and he rolled his eyes and said, “I’ve been in this business long enough that this is the fifth time 3D has come to change everything.” I’m gonna wait and see. For me, the overall rubric is about trying to increase the immersiveness. At the same time, people are looking at tv series on iPhones, which is going totally the opposite direction. It’s a time where it’s unclear. It’s weird.

CS: As far as your repeated partnership with Clint Eastwood, can you tell me where you first met and how you form that creative bond?
Stern:
He has a very flat organization and always has and he’s got the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We started through some bizarre thing where I met the guy who was shooting his movies and who, before, had operated his films. They went off to do “Firefox.” There’s a joke about tomatoes. Actually, it’s not a joke, it’s a fact. There’s two kinds of tomatoes. There’s tomatoes that travel and there’s tomatoes that don’t. That’s actually the case. The best tomatoes don’t travel. Then there’s other tomatoes that you can ship around the world for two months and will still look like a tomato. They taste like s–t. They say people are the same way. It turns out that the gaffer at the time who had that position was a tomato that didn’t travel. He flipped out and there were some issues in Austria. Suddenly there was an opening and I was asked if I would like to do “Honkytonk Man” in 1981. That’s where that all started.

CS: What gets you excited for a project?
Stern:
The story. That’s it. Three things. Story, story and story.

CS: How often are there creative differences — not necessarily between you and Mr. Eastwood but any director you’re working with — about how to shoot a movie?
Stern:
The way these thing work is kind of cool. It’s actually really weird because it’s like a Masonic ritual and no one talks about it. In fact, it would be a really good thing for a bunch of us DPs to get together. I assume the meetings are all the same. There’s what is called “the meeting.” You set up “the meeting.” That’s when the guys who sent you this script — say you’ve never met them — some guys will then send you a look book and [et cetera, et cetera]. That sort of stuff. At the level we work at, they wouldn’t be talking to me unless they knew my work. Guys like me don’t have sample reels or anything like that. It’s like, if you have to ask, this is not going to work. They kind of know where I’m coming from. You get introduced and what you have to say is, “I’m a really big fan of your work” and they inevitably say, “Well, I’m a really back fan of your work.” It’s all about fans. Then you sit down and get into it. You have this discussion. Now that you bring it up, it’s curious. I’d love to talk to some of my other colleagues about it if they would loosen up enough. Mine are famously long. I went to a school called St. Johns College. There’s a lot of dialogue and I’m really interested in that. At that point, you get an idea of how the director sees his take on the story and he really wants to know what your take on the story is, just to see if you’re worth a s–t on one level and, on another, to see if there’s an interesting synergy. Basically, you’re doing the bass line for his lead guitar. Ideally, there’s a resonance. I was talking to some people earlier about empathy. I believe in a hierarchy where me, in my world, is subservient to the director. That ain’t ever gonna change. I also have a constituency called the producer. There’s an ethical thing that you have to deal with very carefully. My other constituency is the actors and my crew. I protect my crew. I honor my actors. I’ll never get between the actors and the directors. I’m always going to tell the producer the truth and be transparent with them so they know how their money is being spent. Then I’m always going to do what the director wants me to do. It’s very important that the director and I are on — it would actually be boring if we were on the same wavelength, but it’s important for me to be on a similar wavelength. Because of that hierarchy thing, I enjoy being empathetic. I try to kind of sniff how how the director is vibrating. Then I’ll try to get my vibrations in sympathy with him. I am totally adverse to being trapped in a style. I have taken pictures simply so I can go, “Hey, f–k you. You want to talk style? Check this f–er out.” It’s totally different. When you come out of the meeting — and, historically, I’ve always been offered the picture after the meeting, so I don’t know what it would be otherwise — you decide whether it’s going to be good to go forward or not. Most film directors are pretty interesting people. I’m not saying my approach is the only approach or the right approach, but it’s my approach. I think other people are not as mutable and flexible as I like to be. If this is their artistic sphere, maybe it’s a little less flexible perhaps. Thus, there might be directors that, not that they don’t want to work with, but that they probably shouldn’t work with.

CS: Do you have a personal gem that maybe isn’t so well known that you’d like for people to rediscover.
Stern:
No. I don’t care. I tend to see them when I shoot them. I actually see it when I prepare it and, after that, it’s downhill-ish.

CS: Are you still working on “Jersey Boys” or is that full shot now?
Stern:
We finished it.

CS: How was that?
Stern:
A lot of Four Seasons music. No, it was a nice break for what I was going through and stuff. A lot of singing and dancing and stuff like that.

CS: It seems like a nice change of pace for Eastwood.
Stern:
Yeah, I was like, “Wait, what are you doing?” I think we were supposed to do something else. We had talked about doing something else and I was tied up. Then he says, “We’re gonna do ‘Jersey Boys.’” I was like, “Huh. Okay.” That pleasant. We did most of it in LA, so I got to see a lot of friends.

CS: Are you doing “American Sniper” now?
Stern:
Yup.

CS: I’m guessing there won’t be as many songs that get stuck in your head on that one.
Stern:
No. They were stuck in my head in the ’60s. I spent 40 years getting them unstuck.

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