Steven Fierberg, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland
“Filmmaking, like any art, should not attempt to capture an exact replication of reality. At its best, it’s a subjective distillation of reality by the filmmaker, poetically expressed in the medium. We show less so we can see more. … Looking at a painting, when you consciously see a night village beneath a whirlpool sky, you unconsciously feel the brushstrokes, paint and canvas of van Gogh’s Starry Night. Seeing the blurry figure with an agonized, upraised face, you unconsciously feel Rodin’s stained bronze sculpture of Orpheus. The detail is not held in the image, but in the physicality of the medium. When you see the softly rendered face of an actress with unessential background just out of focus, you feel the flicker and the sharp, dancing pattern of the grain. Film is the clay, the oil, the bronze, the stage, the music of our art.”
Steven Fierberg, ASC studied drama in England and earned an MFA from AFI. His cinematography credits include commercials, music videos (including a Latin Grammy for Robi Draco Rosa’s Mas y Mas) and a diverse range of more than 40 narrative films for the cinema and television, including Attila (which won an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award for Cinematography), Kingpin, Secretary, the first 25 episodes of the HBO series Entourage and the network’s pilot How To Make It In America.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Steven Fierberg, ASC
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
FIERBERG: I was born and raised in Detroit.
QUESTION: Were you a film buff as a youngster?
FIERBERG: I liked photography a lot, but never considered going to film school. My best friend in high school got a Super 8 camera. He showed me a short film that he made, and I thought it was really cool. After that, we made some short films together, including one while we were vacationing in New York. By then I was in college. I scripted and directed it. We both acted and shot parts of it. It was a black-and-white film that won a student award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan.
QUESTION: Where did you go to college?
FIERBERG: I went to Stanford University. I had to make a big decision about what I was going to major in. I didn’t know anyone in the movie business or any of the arts. Thinking that I could become a filmmaker was like a fantasy. Everyone I knew in Detroit was in the automotive industry. Then, a miracle happened.
QUESTION: What was that?
FIERBERG: I was trying to decide what I wanted to do when a student I knew got me a job as a P.A. on a graduate film project about the Chinese New Year. Basically, I carried the tripod. But, I was very excited to be a filmmaker, and everyone thought we were cool. One day, we were setting up to do some interviews, and I saw Francis Ford Coppola getting ready to shoot a scene with Gene Hackman. I was fascinated by the look in Gene Hackman’s eyes. They were shooting a scene for The Conversation. That was a moment of truth in my life. I remember thinking that if I didn’t try to become a filmmaker I’d ended up regretting it for the rest of my life.
QUESTION: Did you major in a filmmaking?
FIERBERG: I had a combined major. I studied film and drama, and also did a bit of painting and took classes in psychology. It wasn’t a disciplined program.
QUESTION: What did you think you were going to do in the film industry?
FIERBERG: Everyone in the film program thought they were going to be directors. Directors were auteurs. I ended up shooting a lot of student films for friends. Everybody was telling me that I was a really good at this … you should be a cinematographer.
QUESTION: What happened next?
FIERBERG: During my senior year, I was in an exchange program in England that dealt with both British drama and documentaries. I had a very good drama teacher from Oxford. I saw four or five plays a week and wrote my final paper on Harold Pinter, a great English playwright. It was a great experience for me, because I was a guy from Detroit where I wasn’t exposed to that much culture other than music. London was a cosmopolitan city that had European films in cinemas that I had never seen in Detroit. The art, music and photography scenes were incredible. My time in England was my first experience at being exposed to the larger world of art and culture.
QUESTION: How else did your time in London influence you?
FIERBERG: I was definitely influenced by Harold Pinter. I saw wonderful movies in London, including some Roman Polanski films, and Dog Day Afternoon, which Victor Kemper (ASC) shot. I couldn’t believe what a great film that was. I also liked the theater, dance performances, photography and other art exhibits that I saw in London. I was influenced by the whole environment.
QUESTION: What did you do after completing your journey to London?
FIERBERG: I went to New York and looked for work.
QUESTION: Why did you go to New York instead of Los Angeles?
FIERBERG: I wanted to spend part of my life experiencing life in New York. I remember thinking that if I go to Los Angeles first, I’ll never make it to New York. … I love New York City. The day I arrived, I walked down the street on 8th Avenue. I remember thinking this is where I belong. The stork must have made a mistake when he delivered me in Detroit. About five years ago, I found out that I was actually conceived in New York. My parents really wanted to live in New York, but my father had a guaranteed job in Detroit. There was a definite feeling of psychic energy.
QUESTION: What did you do in New York?
FIERBERG: At first, I worked in a camera store and took a lighting course at NYU. I met a guy who was a stage manager at a place where commercials were occasionally produced. He told me that he hated his job and was going to quit. I told him that I would do anything for that job. I asked him to let me know when he was going to quit. He called me one night and said he was quitting at 7 a.m. the next day. I showed up and pretended I was visiting him that morning. I had to be at work in the camera store at 9 a.m. I played innocent and asked if there were any jobs and got hired on the spot. I ended up working there on evenings and weekends for three months. I had no time off. They called me a stage manager, but I was really kind of a janitor cleaning up the mess. The stage was in an old building that they were trying to renovate. I went home covered with dust every night. But, I got to watch people work as the place got busier, and I learned how to build sets. The manager eventually gave me the greatest gift that he could. He fired me, because he knew it was time for me to move on. I got unemployment insurance for a year, which gave me the freedom to work on films as a volunteer.
QUESTION: How did you get started?
FIERBERG: My first job was working for Nancy Schreiber (ASC) on a documentary about women comediennes. I made up for not knowing anything by working for free.
QUESTION: How did you hook up with Nancy on this project?
FIERBERG: Someone I knew at Stanford introduced me to the producer. I didn’t have experience, but I had read every book about filmmaking that was available. I was a very quick learner, because I understood the principals. Someone else I knew at Stanford got me a job as an electrician on a Roger Corman film called Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The plane ticket to Los Angeles cost me $620. They paid me $150 a week, and it was a four-week shoot, so I actually lost money. But, it was the smartest thing I ever did because Dean Cundey (ASC) was the cinematographer. I was pretty good with cables because I had worked on the stage in New York, but everything had a different name. At first, they thought I was the dumbest electrician there ever was, but I learned the lingo. I met people on that crew whom I am still friends with today, and Dean was a tremendous teacher.
QUESTION: What was the next chapter in your career?
FIERBERG: I worked for free as a cinematographer on some low-budget films in New York and was paid for working as an electrician and eventually as a gaffer in Los Angeles. I always chose what I thought was the more creative experience over money. Dean (Cundey) once offered me a paid job as an electrician and I turned him down because I was going to shoot a movie for free. I lived on a very frugal budget for many years. I remember that it was a big deal the year that I earned $10,000.
QUESTION: Did you have opportunities to work on camera crews with other cinematographers who influenced you?
FIERBERG: I worked on a film with Adam Greenberg (ASC). That was another inspiring experience. Looking back, I sometimes regret that I didn’t come up in the traditional way through the camera crew system as an assistant and an operator. I missed the experience of working on crews with other cinematographers whom I admired.
QUESTION: You began shooting independent films and occasional episodes of television programs during the early 1980s. We want to ask you about one of the films you shot during that decade. Tell us about A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master in 1988. That was a really scary movie. Please share a memory?
FIERBERG: Renny Harlin was the director. It was a great experience working and creating a look that was right for scary scenes. The most frightening thing for me was that we finished shooting about three weeks before 2,000 prints were due in theaters. I saw the first answer print two weeks before the film was released. Half of the shots were still missing. They were being plugged in one at a time. There were three editors working 24 hours a day. The fact that it got done was amazing.
QUESTION: You shot a totally different type of movie the following year. What was Spike of Bensonhurst about?
FIERBERG: Bensonhurst is a neighborhood in Brooklyn. We only shot there for a couple of days. We mostly shot in Red Hook, another neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was a drama and a comedy about a guy who makes the mistake of dating a Mafia kingpin’s daughter. Ernest Borgnine played the Mafia boss and Paul Morrissey was the director. I had worked with him on one or two other movies and on music videos.
QUESTION: Tell us about your music video experiences.
FIERBERG: During the 1980s, I produced and shot music videos that were made for release in Europe. Paul (Morrissey) was the director and editor. I loved shooting those videos. I learned a lot while working with Paul. He was a big influence.
QUESTION: Why did you love working on music videos?
FIERBERG: Music videos gave me room to experiment and be creative. It was the same with commercials. I learned lessons that I use every time I shoot a movie or TV program.
QUESTION: Do you have a strategy for compiling such a diverse body of work?
FIERBERG: I try to shoot at least one feature, a television project, some commercials and music videos every year. That’s probably not a good idea tactically because people expect you to specialize, but I enjoy and keep learning by doing different things.
QUESTION: What have you learned by doing different things?
FIERBERG: When I was just shooting dramatic films, I had a natural knack for lighting, but I think my camerawork was conservative. At one point, I spent two years shooting commercials and music videos with extremely visual directors. That experience completely opened me up to experimenting. It’s the best thing I could have done.
QUESTION: You went back to school in 1995 and earned a master’s degree in fine arts at the American Film Institute with a focus on directing. Were you thinking about becoming a director at that point in your life and career?
FIERBERG: I had a short film that I directed at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. After that experience, I decided to enroll at AFI to get a better idea of what it is like to be a director. In a way, that experience was a revelation for me. I believe it made me a better cinematographer, because it made me more aware of how I can help directors.
QUESTION: You got a lot of attention in 2001 when you won the American Society of Cinematographers Award for the television movie Attila. What are your memories of that film?
FIERBERG: It was a period film about Attila the Hun who conquered much of Europe in the fourth century. It was a huge production that we shot in Lithuania. Dick Lowry is a wonderful director. We had a great collaboration. In the big battle scenes, we had seven cameras rolling at a time. Fires were the only source of light at night. We used fire boxes and developed a way of moving them to create shadows and brighter and darker places. I was pushing the film one and two stops and using a sepia filter to get a bit of a grainy look. I still get interesting calls from people who have seen the HD DVD.
QUESTION: Tell us about the 25 episodes of the HBO series Entourage that you began shooting in 2004.
FIERBERG: It was a dark comedy about a young actor who was a rising star and the posse of friends who surrounded him. We filmed beautiful people in cool places, but the point was not to glamorize it. I felt from the beginning that it needed a gritty informality like the French New Wave films. I wanted the audience to feel the energy of the characters in their gut. The visual style was impressionistic rather than cinéma vérité. I lit characters in glamorous ways, but I also pushed the film two stops even in the brightest daylight scenes. I wanted to desaturate colors and create a bit of grain and texture that was a subtle counterpoint to the beautiful people and glamour.
QUESTION: Is that how you think a painter might explain their interpretation of a portrait?
FIERBERG: It’s not like we are documentarians trying to catch something that is really happening. Filmmaking is more like impressionist painting. I chose not to backlight because we didn’t want the characters to look too glamorous. It’s a bit of an edgy look, which isn’t something that the audience sees on a conscious level. They feel it. … Visual story-telling is a very subtle language. Every decision you make can affect how the audience responds to the story. We didn’t want to pre-empt the dialogue, so we used a documentary technique of panning to characters only after they began speaking.
QUESTION: A couple of times in this conversation, you have brought up examples of why you “pushed” film in order to create grain. Can you tell us more?
FIERBERG: Grain is an important part of the film look that transports audiences to different times and places, and accentuates moods and feelings. You can have grain with images that are in sharp or soft focus. Either way, it is a different message for the audience than a grainless image. Think of the textures you see in different van Gogh paintings. Subconsciously, you are seeing gigantic brush strokes. That’s what makes them works of art. If you eliminated the brush strokes on the canvas, it would be a totally different experience. The medium of film is grain. It’s something you feel. The heavily diffused images that you see in old black-and-white films still evoke emotional responses because of the nature of film grain. Grain is what gives you texture that feels natural as opposed to images that look and feel virtual like you are watching a video game. That’s true on television as well as in the cinema, and maybe more true.
QUESTION: These are very important observations, which are very difficult to explain. How do you explain it to people who aren’t cinematographers?
FIERBERG: I tell them, imagine you are looking at a Rodin sculpture. You are not just seeing the figure that he sculpted; you also see and feel the texture of the bronze. The medium is what every art celebrates, whether it is painting, sculpting or filmmaking. I don’t want film to look perfectly real, sharp and with as little grain as possible. The Godfather would have been a totally different picture with realistically sharp images and fine grain. I also want the right amount of grain for the way it will be projected. If it is going to be seen on a big, cinema screen, I’ll probably use a finer grain negative. If it is a film for television, I want more grain so you can feel the film — that’s just my opinion.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of hype today about how you can save money by shooting with different digital cameras. What is your reaction to that?
FIERBERG: There are a lot of misconceptions. It is true that you can roll and do 10 or 15 takes of scenes with digital cameras, but think about the movies that touched you and stuck in your mind. How about Marlon Brando’s performances in The Godfather? I’m sure that he, Francis Ford Coppola and Gordon Willis (ASC) didn’t need 10 takes to get it right. The truth is that’s exhausting for an actor. My advice to producers and directors is to discuss the pros and cons of film and digital with the cinematographer before deciding.
QUESTION: What other advice would you offer to producers and directors?
FIERBERG: If you have questions about different film and digital formats for particular projects, have your cinematographer shoot tests with the actors. You might want to involve the costume designer and makeup artists. If you did a poll of makeup people, I’m sure that 90 percent of them would tell you that actors look better on film.
QUESTION: Why is that?
FIERBERG: Because digital images tend to probe under the makeup and skin tones. That’s just a personal observation I’ve made from tests that I’ve shot.
QUESTION: How do you think movies and television affect our culture and society?
FIERBERG: I think films and television are mirrors that are reflections of our culture and society. They can also educate us and influence how we act. Movies and television have had a tremendous influence on changing the culture for better and worse. It’s not always obvious. During recent years, the American movie industry has produced a number of movies where the hero finds glory in his quest for revenge. One could argue that can feed the idea that revenge quests always result in glory, which isn’t always true. On the other hand, I believe that films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner influenced progress in racial harmony and integration in the United States. I think that movies are the most progressive cultural influence that we have in the world today. When I was at AFI more than half of the students were from other countries. We had people from all over the world. There was no difference in the visual language. There was a student from Russia who knew about obscure American movies from the 1950s.
QUESTION: Do you have students and other young filmmakers asking you for advice?
FIERBERG: Yes, but there is no universal answer. I find out what they want to do, and try to give them advice that is right for their circumstances.
QUESTION: Tell us about How to Make it in America.
FIERBERG: It’s a pilot that I shot for an HBO series about artists, people in the fashion industry and photographers in New York. The main characters are in their late 20s, trying to find their place in the world. We shot the pilot at practical locations in New York. Our goal was to capture the spirit and a slice of life in that world.
QUESTION: How was the pilot produced?
FIERBERG: Rob Weiss and Stephen Levinson, the executive producers, wanted to shoot in 35 mm format for several reasons. One reason was that they want the audience to see the city outside the windows during interior scenes to establish the setting. That takes the latitude of film. They also want a flattering look for our attractive young characters.
QUESTION: What was your input to that decision?
FIERBERG: I asked, ‘Do you want it to look like a reality show, or do you want it to look like a dramatic movie that immerses the audience in a different world?’
QUESTION: How was a decision made?
FIERBERG: I shot a test with various digital cameras, and in Super 16 and 35 mm formats. We tested a popular digital camera for speed because we anticipated shooting a lot of night exterior scenes in the pilot. It was about equivalent to a 200-speed film. In contrast, I could push a 500-speed film one stop or even two, if necessary. There were other factors that favored film. We didn't have to control light and put diffusion on windows. We took the film through telecine and compared looks. That was the clincher. Film was a reflection of their dreams for the show. The produced chose 35 mm film.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about the pilot?
FIERBERG: It was directed by Julian Farino, whom I had worked with on many episodes of Entourage. We shot at practical locations in different neighborhoods while trying to capture the spirit of life in the city in the world of our characters. We moved quickly, and gave the actors freedom to trust their instincts. We mainly shot with a single camera. To be clear, I don't mind covering scenes with two cameras. There's a music analogy. The A camera captures the melody, and the B camera records the jazz. The B camera can roam and get moments and details that add poetry to your movie or your television show.
QUESTION: When you believe that film is the right aesthetic choice for a movie or a television program, how do you deal with questions about costs?
FIERBERG: The cost of the medium is almost always a small fraction of the budget. If I believe that not shooting on film will compromise the way an actor or actress looks, I'll ask a producer if it's worth it. I also think it's important for actresses and actors to understand how the choice of media can affect how the audience will see them perform.
QUESTION: If you were talking to a new journalist who was writing about filmmaking, how would you explain it?
FIERBERG: Film, like any art, is an abstraction of reality. Theoretically we are trying to capture the exact colors and feelings of real life, but we never do. If we did, it wouldn't be art. We are dramatists working with moving images. That was one of the great things about black-and-white film. They are an abstraction of reality. We should never lose sight of the fact that filmmaking is an artistic endeavor. Just like painting and sculpting, the medium itself should create some distance from reality.
QUESTION: That is an inspiring and insightful statement.
FIERBERG: Give the credit for those thoughts to Rudolph Arnheim who wrote a brilliant book called "Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye" in 1974. His book inspired and guided me on my journey as a cinematographer. Art, whether it is painting or filmmaking, shouldn't attempt to exactly mimic reality. We want to interpret reality and present it as a more personal vision.