ONFILM Interview: Greg Gardiner

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Greg Gardiner - Photo by D. Kirkland

“In high school, I took art classes and sang in musical productions, although I always found myself helping with the sets and lighting. When I decided I wanted to make movies midway through college, the closest major was drama. I was no actor, but I met great people, worked hard, and made films; not much different than my entire career being a cinematographer. I always see the cinematographer as a filmmaker, not a cameraman. I love that cinema is entertainment, but it is certainly art as well. Like other art forms, we are influencing our audiences. Cinema, through our portrayals, allows people to experience emotions and events they might never come to know in their real life. We do have the responsibility to tell the truth.”

Greg Gardiner earned a Cinematography Award at Sundance for Suture in 1994, in addition to an Independent Spirit Award nomination. It was his first feature cinematography credit. His subsequent work includes To End All Wars, Orange County, Men in Black II, Biker Boyz, Elf, Herbie Fully Loaded, She’s the Man, The Game Plan, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and Race to Witch Mountain.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with Greg Gardiner

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where you were born and raised?

GARDINER: I was born in upstate New York, but my family moved to Southern California when I was 6 years old. My mother taught Latin and Greek at a high school. Later, she became a guidance counselor. My father is a lawyer. He worked for General Dynamics until he retired when he was 55.

QUESTION: Where you interested in photography and moviemaking in high school?

GARDINER: I was interested in art classes in high school, and also was involved in musical theater. My father was an Irish Tenor and he would sing at times. That was his hobby. I was fortunate enough to inherit his voice. I sang in The Music Man in a junior high school play and was in a barber shop quartet. I was enamored with Lawrence of Arabia. I wrote my senior paper about that film. I also saw The Godfather with my father. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was another one of my favorite films.

QUESTION: How about still photography?

GARDINER: The truth is that I wasn’t into cameras and photography. I was interested in theater. I was the kid who lit sets for stage shows and things like that.

QUESTION: What did you do after high school?

GARDINER: I enrolled at the University of California at Irvine. They had a terrific theater department. I played the street sweeper in My Fair Lady in college, but I never thought about making it my life’s work. I’m an outdoors person, and into hiking. I couldn’t imagine spending my whole life sitting in dark theaters.

QUESTION: Did you consider exploring other career paths?

GARDINER: I was good at biology in school. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian at one point. I was a groom at the racetrack in Del Mar near my home during summers while I was in school. I love animals, including horses and dogs. I still ride horses.

QUESTION: Did you take any film courses at Irvine?

GARDINER: Carlton Moss was the head of the film department. I changed my major to drama and got to write a one-act play that was produced by a graduate student. After that, I took every film course available. I shot a 16 mm film that took place in a barn. I remember driving around Orange County trying to find a barn. After two weeks, I had no barn. I remember thinking at the time that this must be a really hard profession. I eventually found a barn, shot that movie and edited the film. The problem was that I didn’t have the $100 needed to get an answer print from the lab. I heard that Knott’s Berry Farm had jobs available for people to dress up like ghouls and scare people visiting the park during Halloween. I did that for four nights and raised the money to pay for my answer print.

QUESTION: What did you do after you graduated?

GARDINER: I got a job as a tour guide at Universal Studios, and I also worked for free for Carlton Moss who was producing medical and industrial films. Carlton was my mentor. He was a great person who was very kind to me. After a while, I got a job at a rental house in the grip and electric department. My job was loading the packages and delivering them to the sets. I got to meet some gaffers and got a sense of what they did. On weekends, people would come to our facility to do makeup and hair tests.

QUESTION: What was the next step on your journey?

GARDINER: I delivered a dolly to a Roger Corman film and ended up working on five or six of his pictures as a best boy. I heard that Werner Herzog was shooting Fitzcarraldo in Peru. I loved his films, so I took off for Peru with my light meter. I told him I’d work for free, but he said, ‘No Americans.’ I was crushed, but I explored the area for months.

QUESTION: What happened after you got back to Los Angeles?

GARDINER: That was around 1982. I worked on electrical crews on low-budget films. A few years later, I met Robby Müller and worked as an electrician and gaffer on Repo Man, Paris, Texas and To Live and Die in L.A. There were times when he had to shut down, because he ran out of money, but it was a great experience watching him work. Looking back, I learned things working as a gaffer that helped me as a cinematographer. I remember working on a film where we were lighting the Hoover Dam on rafts. I learned practical things, and watched what different cinematographers did and how they worked with people. By the early 1990s, I was working as a camera operator and second unit cinematographer.

QUESTION: How did you transition to cinematographer?

GARDINER: The first full feature I shot was Suture in 1993. It was a black-and-white film. During the next several years, I worked on Viper and other TV series, and on various movies, including Homegrown and Somebody is Waiting.

QUESTION: You forgot to mention that Suture won the best cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival. It also earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for cinematography. As your career has evolved, did you start getting questions from younger filmmakers asking for advice? How do you answer that question?

GARDINER: There are always questions like that. The only answer I have is that you have to be willing to go through the process of watching and learning one film at a time. There have been times when I have had three projects at some stage of work. I was doing second unit on one TV series, prepping another one and waiting for a movie to start.

QUESTION: You have worked on very diverse films. Can you share a story about To End All Wars, a film you shot in 2001? That was an independent film about four allied prisoners of war in a Japanese camp that was mainly filmed in Hawaii.

GARDINER: Every film is a new experience. I remember scenes that we filmed underwater in a pool while it was raining and cold. That was hard on the actors. Right after that, I shot the pilot for The Tick, a TV series produced by Barry Sonnenfeld. After that, Barry offered me a chance to shoot Big Trouble, which was my first studio feature. After that film, I shot Biker Boyz for DreamWorks. I loved the energy in that film.

QUESTION: What are your memories about that film?

GARDINER: We had a terrific cast, including Laurence Fishburne. The story was about a motorcycle gang. There was lots of action. We had a first-time director. Reggie (Rock Bythewood) did a fantastic job of telling the story, which is what it is all about. There were other directors who would have wanted to shoot the motorcycle action scenes in front of a bluescreen; he wanted the visceral energy of filming real action. We shot those scenes mainly in practical light. I designed a sled with a jib arm on the back.

QUESTION: A few years ago, you shot Herbie Fully Loaded. It was the next chapter in a series of films about a Volkswagen with human-like characteristics, starting with Herbie Rides Again in 1974. This was the fourth film in the series. There was also a television series called Herbie, The Love Bug. How did you approach that challenge?

GARDINER: It was Angela Robinson’s second film as a director. We agreed that the film had to feel familiar to people who remembered the original Herbie, but with a more contemporary look. The trick was making the audience believe that Herbie is a magical car with human feelings. I showed Angela the lenses I was using for different shots and explained that each one had a purpose that evoked feelings. For example, one lens might make Lindsay’s (Lohan) character more prominent in a shot.

QUESTION: Can you give us another example?

GARDINER: There is a scene where Lindsay came into a kitchen at night where the only visible source of light was motivated by a lamp on the porch. Angela told her to turn away from the light at first, so the expression on her face was masked in shadows. When she turns into the light, the audience can see she feels guilty without a word being said.

QUESTION: You shot a recent film called Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins about a Los Angeles talk show host who goes home to visit his family in the Deep South. That film had James Earl Jones and Martin Lawrence in the cast. What do you remember about that experience?

GARDINER: The director was Malcolm Lee. It’s a simple story. We wanted to make it as cinematic as it could be. Malcolm loves working with cinematographers. I would love working with him again. It was a collaborative feeling.

QUESTION: Where did you shoot it?

GARDINER: In Louisiana. There is an interesting scene with the family involved in a race on an obstacle course. We were shooting on a big ranch. I drove around and found a perfect place to shoot that scene on a curved road in the bayou. We used flying and handheld shaky cameras to create a feeling of energy.

QUESTION: We notice that you have worked on four or five films directed and/or produced by Barry Sonnenfeld. The latest was Hackett a 2008 television movie. What is your relationship with him?

GARDINER: It starts with being at the right place at the right time and making your best effort. The more you work with a director the more you get into each other’s minds.

QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question. Will you name a film shoot by another cinematographer that you wish you had shot … or that you admire?

GARDINER: Conrad Hall (ASC) comes to mind. I loved his work on Searching for Bobby Fischer and also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I wish I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Conrad Hall or better yet, listen to him talk.

QUESTION: Do you think of your work as a cinematographer as creating pure entertainment or is it something more?

GARDINER: I love shooting film. It is definitely a form of entertainment; there is nothing wrong with that. It is also an art form – a way of expressing yourself. That was one of the things that drew me to it. For lack of a better word, you are delivering messages by helping audiences experience them like they really happened to characters who are like people in the real world. There’s a responsibility to tell the truth.

QUESTION: Do you have any final thoughts to share with readers?

GARDINER: I love filmmaking. I love everything about it.