Interview with Paul Sarossy

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

REVENGE OF THE HYPERACTIVE CINEMATOGRAPHER

an interview with Paul Sarossy

Paul Sarossy was born in Barrie, Ontario in 1963. Since graduating from York University in Toronto in 1987, he has worked as a cinematographer on over thirty features, ranging from underground punk favourite Terminal City Ricochet (1990, starring Jello Biafra) to Paul Schrader’s Oscar-winning Affliction (2000). His credits also include Denys Arcand’s Love and Human Remains (1993), Joe Mantegna’s directorial debut Lakeboat (2000), plus the Hollywood productions Picture Perfect (1997), Duets (2000)

He is best known, however, for his collaborations with Atom Egoyan – he has been Egoyan’s DP (director of photography) on Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Felicia’s Journey (1999) and Ararat (2002).

In September 2001 his directorial debut Mr In-Between premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Over two years later, the film is about to be released in the UK. I spoke to Sarossy on the telephone about Mr In-Between and his previous work as a cinematographer.


Neil Young : ACCORDING TO IMDb, YOUR FIRST CREDIT WAS EGOYAN’S SPEAKING PARTS IN 1989. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

Paul Sarossy : In fact, that was my second film. The first was a terrible b-movie called Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter, which was actually a very happy experience. It was a typical dilemma for somebody who wants to be a cinematographer – until you’ve shot a feature, no-one believes that you actually can. Revenge was an incredibly low-budget film, made by friends of mine from film school in Toronto (York University). And it was my passport to the world of feature films. Everybody involved was equally inexperienced, so there was no fear of hiring a first-timer.

THIS GOT YOU ENTRY TO THE GUILD?

Well, it wasn’t so much that. When I left film school it was 1986/87, and that was an amazing time for young directors and cinematographers in Toronto. It was the beginning of the whole music-video scene, with lots of low-budget commercials being made, and people were hired straight out of film school. It was a tremendous break for me to go from nothing to being a fully-fledged cinematographer, I didn’t have to work my way up through the whole established union hierarchy of jobs.

IT SEEMS LIKE A BIG LEAP FROM RADIOACTIVE REPORTER TO ATOM EGOYAN.

I knew him when I was in film school, and when I started working with him it was a wonderful opportunity because his usual cinematographer Peter Mettler was directing his first feature. Atom’s one reservation was that I hadn’t shot a film by that point, then Revenge appeared out of the ether. So he waded through that b-movie and I got the job.

SO DO ALL EGOYAN’S CINEMATOGRAPHERS GO ON TO RENOWN AS DIRECTORS?

Well, working with Atom is a great film school.

YOU LEFT FILM-SCHOOL IN TORONTO IN THE MID-TO-LATE EIGHTIES. WAS EVERYONE UNDER THE SHADOW OF DAVID CRONENBERG TO SOME EXTENT, WHICH IS HOW IT APPEARS FROM A NON-CANADIAN PERSPECTIVE?

Definitely. David Cronenberg was the one local success story, really. He was this film-maker who had the magical ability to be able to make the films he wanted to make, and not the ones he was obliged to make by the studios and the distributors. And his success, staying in Canada, opened the door to the likes of Atom, Patricia Rozema, Bruce MacDonald. Cronenberg was pretty much unique because he showed that it was possible to have a major career and remain in Canada. There was always the tradition of Canadian film-makers who moved to Hollywood – like Irving Kershner, Norman Jewison, Ted Kotcheff. People like that made their fortunes in the US, but Cronenberg showed that you didn’t have to move.

WAS THERE EVER A CHANCE OF YOUR WORKING WITH CRONENBERG?

I was briefly involved with Crash. His usual cinematographer Peter Suschitzy was hired for Mars Attacks!, so I was going to step in. But then the schedules changed and Peter slotted back in.

CINEMATOGRAPHERS SEEM TO HAVE VERY DIFFERENT KINDS OF CAREERS FROM DIRECTORS.

The rhythms of the two careers are radically different, as has now become clear to me that I’ve done both jobs. Since I made Mr In-Between two-and-a-half years ago I’ve shot ten films. It’s remarkable how quickly cinematographers can just jump from one job to the next, back to back. You grow accustomed to it. But when you’re directing you have to have much more ‘career patience’ because of the time needed to develop the script, etc. In fact, the actual shooting of the film is pretty much an afterthought.

IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF CINEMATOGRAPHERS, MEANING D.P.S HAVE TO FIT MORE JOBS IN?

The mystery is the number of first-time directors. As a cinematographer I read a lot of scripts, and I’m struck by the overpopulation of first-time directors. I wonder where the experienced ones are fitting in. From a producer’s point of view, it often makes sense to pair an experienced cinematographer with an inexperienced director. And seldom the other way around.

SAROSSY IS A HUNGARIAN NAME – WHY DO SO MANY CINEMATOGRAPHERS COME FROM HUNGARY (JOHN ALTON) AND POLAND?

It’s true that, for being relatively small countries, Hungary and Poland have a higher incidence of cinematographic heritage. I’ve wondered about it, and I think it might come down to something as simple as the existence of a few professors at the famous film schools in those countries. Something as basic as that really can have a profound effect.

WHAT IS YOUR HUNGARIAN BACKGROUND?

My father is Hungarian – he was a refugee after the Second World War. My mother is Estonian. And cinematography was in the blood, because dad was a cameraman. He worked in Canadian TV during the pioneering days of the 1950s and 1960s. He was a newsreel cameraman then did commercials, but at that time there wasn’t a feature-film industry in Toronto. So perhaps I took over where he left off.

HOW DID YOU BECOME A CINEMATOGRAPHER? WAS IT ALWAYS THE PLAN TO DIRECT EVENTUALLY?

I went to film-school with the intention of becoming a director, but I rapidly found myself working as a d.p. (director of photography – i.e. cinematographer), largely because I was familiar with cameras because of my father. I very quickly started shooting films for other people, and I didn’t really dwell on my directing plans. Subliminally, I think, the intention never went away. Then Mr In-Between fell on me out of the blue. In fact, it was quite like how you’d get a cinematography job – I got a call, saying we have this project, can you be ready to direct it in two weeks? There was no time to contemplate it, I just had to dive in.

HOW DID THEY CONTACT YOU IN PARTICULAR?

We’d been speaking on very tentative terms, the producers and I, about another script. Then suddenly they were confronted with a chunk of money that they had to spend before the fiscal year-end came. The dilemma was – do we drop the project or make it in a very rapid period of time? That was part of their challenge to me: do you think you’re up to getting together all the cast, crew and locations – in four weeks?

WAS THERE NEVER A QUESTION OF YOU BEING YOUR OWN D.P., AS STEVEN SODERBERGH IS NOW DOING?

There was some inclination to do that on the producers’ part, but it occurred to me that it was a unique moment for me – to experience the set from the perspective of a director. So I wanted to work in a conventional way and rely on my d.p. as a creative ally – and we were blessed with finding Haris Zambarloukos who ended up being the cinematographer. In retrospect I’m very glad that’s how it happened – the best way to learn about directing is simply to sit in that seat and do it. Now I’m much more conscious of the moment-to-moment dilemmas that directors face.

YOUR PRESENCE MUST HAVE MADE THE CINEMATOGRAPHER SOMEWHAT NERVOUS.

Well, yes, there was a bit of pressure on, but I was very determined not to complicate his creative urges. I felt it was very important to give him enough room to work, and he was such a talented cameraman that it turned out to work very well.

MANY PEOPLE AREN’T FULLY AWARE OF WHAT A CINEMATOGRAPHER ACTUALLY DOES. IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT A LARGE PART OF THE JOB LIES IN THE USE OF LIGHT?

The role of the cinematographer varies depending on which director you’re working with. It’s definitely the case, from my perspective, that cinematography is largely about the lighting of the film. The frame of the film is the director’s canvas: how the frame relates to the staging, how the actors fit in, what’s seen and what’s not seen. But how the frame is lit, and the mood of the frame, that’s very much the cinematographer’s realm. Some directors are very conscious of lighting, others are almost totally unaware of it.

WHERE WOULD EGOYAN FIT IN TO THAT SCALE?

He always allows his collaborators incredible freedom – but in terms of cinematography he’s very much the owner of the frame. When it comes to lighting, however. he’s kind of innocent on some level. He does give me tremendous liberty to contribute my part of the storytelling.

MOVING ON TO MR IN-BETWEEN. THIS IS A LOW-BUDGET FILM – HOW LOW?

The budget was 500,000 – very small, and a budget that low does compress so many issues in terms of locations used, shooting days, etc. We were incredibly fortunate, however – at first it seemed that the budget was so low that we’d have no choice but to shoot on DV. We were helped enormously by Hugh Whitaker at Panavision, who said “Paul Sarossy will not shoot his first film in England on video!”. He donated equipment and gear, and enlisted the help of labs and film-stock companies, which allowed us to shoot on 35mm.

WERE YOU SO RESISTANT TO THE IDEA OF SHOOTING ON D.V.?

Well, DV is ineviyable – it’s the future. So far, I’ve managed to avoid it. If you can embrace it as a medium, and find its virtues, DV can be a fabulous way of making a film – but I suspect too many people attempt to imitate 35mm with video, and are disappointed.

SPEAKING OF BUDGETS, YOU WERE ALSO 2ND UNIT D.P. ON X-MEN JUST BEFORE MR IN-BETWEEN. HOW DID THAT COMPARE AS AN EXPERIENCE? DID YOU HAVE UNLIMITED FUNDS?

Films on that scale are like an enormous freight-train rolling down the tracks – it just barrels on, and there’s no question of not being able to afford this or that. We were able to have an incredible number of reshoots, and there were all these separate units going at once. Things like pre-lighting a set that wouldn’t be shot on for weeks – that burns up cash because of the manpower needed to light sets. The scale is staggering compared with the normal scale of moviemaking – let’s call it a ‘humbler’ scale.

WHICH DO YOU PREFER? ON A MASSIVE-BUDGET MOVIE DO YOU HAVE PANGS ABOUT THE PROFLIGACY OF IT ALL?

If one dwelt on it, you could find all sorts of moral dilemmas – but from a purely creative point of view, on both kinds of film the people involved just want to do the best job that they can. I think there’s a magical in-between budget, one that gives just enough resources to do what needs to be done in time, but not so large that you get enmeshed in the political tentacles possessed by a top-heavy big-budget production, where you’re under the thumb of so many layers of studio people. Atom seems to have found that magical in-between level.

SO IN A WAY HE’S ALSO “MR IN-BETWEEN”.

You could say that.

WHY HAS IT TAKEN SO LONG FOR MR IN-BETWEEN TO BE RELEASED COMMERCIALLY?

Between the wrapping of the film and its premiere was actually a very quick amount of time. But that was at the Toronto Film Festival, where it screened on the Saturday before the Tuesday that was September 11th 2001, which of course had such an impact on life for the following few months as the world was staggering under a new reality. In the meantime the movie has been travelling the world to various film festivals gathering momentum again, so it has taken quite a while to pick up distribution.

WHAT SPECIFICALLY WAS IT ABOUT THE FILM THAT MADE IT OUT OF STEP WITH THE WORLD AFTER SEPTEMBER 11TH?

It’s definitely a dark film, but I don’t think it’s quite so simple as “Because of the subject matter, it found itself in a climate that didn’t respond well to that kind of film.” Because, ironically, lots of post-9/11 films are kind of bleak and violent – it’s not true to say that the world was looking for softer, cuddlier films. Mr In-Between is definitely a challenging film, inasmuch as there are tragic dimensions to it – the comfortable resolution of Hollywood films, where the hero gets the ‘maiden’ and the bad guy gets his just desserts: that doesn’t happen in this movie.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FILM, LOOKING BACK WITH TWO YEARS’ HINDSIGHT?

Like any film-maker, I look upon my work with a certain hope for improvement, and there are always aspects that I wish could have been done differently. When I see the film with an audience I’m often amazed and surprised at what works and doesn’t. I’m absolutely thrilled with the notion of making another film, and exploring other subjects. But I’m also thrilled to have made Mr In-Between.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

Of course, I’m discovering that when you’re a director you often have to wait for things to move very slowly. There’s a script I’m keen to do set in England called The Earthquake Bird, which is a very interesting kind of psychological drama-thriller. And there are two projects in Canada which I’m hoping will get beyond the development stage.

DO YOU SEE YOURSELF PRIMARILY AS “A CANADIAN FILM-MAKER”

Well, I can’t deny my Canadian roots. I was thinking about this in relation to Mr In-Between, which presented a version of London very much viewed through Canadian eyes. I find London to be an incredibly exotic and fascinating city, full of amazing textures and smells. I hope that affected the way I made the film, and that it’s perhaps a different kind of film from that which a London native would have made, because they’d be more accustomed to the place. If that makes me a “Canadian film-maker,” then so be it.

DO YOU FEEL ANYTHING OF THE TERRITORIAL IMPERATIVE THAT HAS KEPT CRONENBERG AND EGOYAN WORKING LARGELY WITHIN CANADA?

My experience as a cinematographer is that I’ve travelled all over the world shooting in all different kinds of locations, and I’ve very much enjoyed that. As a director, I would hope to do the same as well. I don’t know if I have a great “Canadian story” to tell – I guess my priority would be to tell a great story, rather than a great Canadian story.

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING LIKE ARARAT, WHERE EGOYAN DREW ON HIS ARMENIAN-CANADIAN BACKGROUND? WOULD YOU GO INTO THE HISTORIES OF ESTONIA OR HUNGARY FOR A FUTURE PROJECT?

In terms of Ararat. if that’s the truest story you can deal with, it’s probably a great virtue as a film-maker to have that to draw upon. I’ve always had a lot of respect for film-makers who can function in spite of genre – I’m thinking mainly of Billy Wilder here, and how easy it was for him to jump from one genre to the next. For me that’s a tremendous ability to aspire to – Wilder’s cultural background [in Vienna] must have had an influence on the work he did, to be able to adapt to so many other storytelling viewpoints. I’m interested in the universality of storytelling, rather than the specificity of dealing with one particular place in the world.

BUT BOTH MR IN-BETWEEN AND YOUR POTENTIAL NEXT MOVIE THE EARTHQUAKE BIRD SOUND LIKE SIMILAR KINDS OF DARK, PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER DRAMAS.

Since Mr In-Between started being shown at festivals, I’ve been receiving all these scripts for films about killers. When, of course, the picture chose me rather than the other way around. It seems I got typecast immediately, but I’m very much attracted to many kinds of stories. It just so happens that I’ve been surrounded in the last year and a half by scripts that have been very similar in tone. But the Canadian projects I’m developing are quite different from that: one is comedy, and one is romance. I know I had to beware the pitfall of only being associated with a certain kind of film.

SOME PEOPLE, JUST SEEING THE TITLE, MIGHT THINK MR IN-BETWEEN IS A MUSICAL. DID YOU EVER INCLUDE THE ACTUAL SONG IN THE FILM?

The song isn’t in the finished version – there was a period in the film where it’s referred to in speech, but it ended up on the cutting-room floor.

YOU’VE SHOT MANY DIFFERENT FILMS OVER THE YEARS. IS THERE ONE THAT YOU’RE ESPECIALLY PROUD OF?

Of course, all the Atom films are very special to me. But if I had to pick just one, it would be a film I did earlier this year for John Duigan called Head in the Clouds. It’s a romantic drama set in Paris during the 1930s, up to the Occupation, with Penelope Cruz, Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend. One of the nice things about being a cinematographer is to photograph some of the most beautiful people in the world. But Charlize Theron isn’t just a glamour-queen – she’s working very hard to be taken seriously as an actress, and she’s a pleasure to work with. Every day she’s on set right on time, with a big smile on her face because she’s so happy to be working in these kinds of movies. It’s difficult for people who are that good-looking to be taken seriously, but she’s a terrific person and I’m sure she’ll continue to do very well for herself. And the film itself was really a glorious experience for me – it was a delight to do what I call ‘old-school’ Hollywood glamour cinematography: they built a Paris set indoors in Montreal, so you don’t have to wait for the sun to come out. You can place the sun yourself to the ideal point in the sky and see how it shines.


1st September 2003

by Neil Young