ONFILM Interview: Buddy Squires

Published on website: March 22, 2013
Categories: Documentaries , ONFILM
Buddy Squires (Photo by Douglas Kirkland)

“Film handles the subtleties and range of natural light beautifully with a wonderfully smooth rendering of highlights and shadows. And the process is entirely simple and direct. Shots are composed looking through a high-quality optical viewfinder that shows color, contrast and the qualities of light exactly as they exist in nature without any electronic intermediary. There is a direct connection between one’s brain and an image coming through the lens and off of a mirror. For work that should last through the ages, I love film and I intend to keep shooting it for a long time.”

Buddy Squires is an Oscar®-nominated filmmaker and Emmy®-winning director of photography best known for his cinematography on the films of Ken Burns. Squires’ cinematography credits include seven Oscar®-nominated films with two Academy Award® winners. He has 10 Primetime Emmy® nominations to his name. In 2007, Squires was awarded the International Documentary Association’s Career Achievement Award. His credits include The Civil War, Jazz, The Central Park Five, The National Parks, Ethel, New York, The Donner Party, Ansel Adams, Mark Twain, Nanking, The War, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, Strangers No More, Baseball, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and the upcoming Salinger.

A Conversation with Buddy Squires

Question: Your film The National Parks with Ken Burns was shot entirely on film. Why?
Squires: There’s a place for other technologies. But there are a lot of things that film just does better, and I want to keep doing those things. There’s a great sensitivity to light, and I don’t think anything really handles or interprets light as well and as naturally as film does. We would have had a very, very different experience with The National Parks had we not shot on film. But we did shoot it on film, every single inch of it. It’s tremendously beneficial. It begins with the physical process of being able to look through an optical viewfinder – there’s nothing but a lens and light bouncing off a mirror and into your eye and then into your brain. That is a very different experience than consulting a range of monitors and lookup tables and all the intermediaries between one’s self and the reality that one is filming in. To me that’s very, very important. There’s a great elegance and simplicity to shooting film.

Q: You mention simplicity. Are there examples that come to mind of situations where that simplicity has helped you?
Squires: You can be hiking along, you can be on a raft somewhere, you can be wherever you happen to be, and as long as you’ve got film ready, it takes 20 seconds to plop the camera down and start shooting. Things change so quickly, and film allows you to react to those changes instantaneously. I know what the film can do. The film indeed does have tremendous range and tremendous latitude and it lets me do things that are sometimes almost beyond reality, but not in a way that feels artificial and trumped up. There’s something very natural about shooting film in landscape work or any place you’re really paying attention to and reacting to light. The negative has tremendous range. For work that one really wants to last through the ages, there’s nothing as dependable, robust and well-proven as film. I still love it and intend to keep working with it for a long time.

Q: There is poetry in your images, even when you’re making a literal document of a place or setting. Is that conscious?
Squires: As much as possible, we try to deal with places that are real and authentic. My great teacher and mentor, Jerome Liebling, spoke of the sense of historical residue that can come from a given structure, object or location. To go into a place and feel that historical residue, to be in a place where history still lives, is a really powerful thing. That doesn’t mean that a documentary can’t also be impressionistic, but I’ve always tried very hard in documentary work not to attempt what Hollywood does. If we’re looking for the residue of things or we’re looking for the impressions of things, then I don’t want images that seem too current or glaringly realistic. I don’t want to do re-creations or see actors speaking lines. I’m not trying to do Hollywood on one-tenth of the budget. We’re not making films about fictional characters -- we’re making non-fiction films about actual people’s lives, it’s something else entirely. It’s trying to put oneself into a place and imagine how people would have interacted with that environment, with that place, with that thing. We saw it in Jazz when we filmed inside of jazz clubs. They weren’t specific clubs to the story being told, but there was something special that you could feel. You could feel the smoke in the air, moving through the instruments on stage, evoking a sense that a set had just ended and the musicians had stepped away. The worn keys on the piano, reflections in the fading patina of the saxophone and the finger marks on the neck of the bass suggested something about making that kind of music. Obviously, that is its own kind of construction, but it’s trying to imagine the details that one might have experienced had one been there. What does that feel like? How do you take people to that place emotionally in a way that goes beyond the obvious? I’m not trying to fake it, I’m trying to make it visceral, make it real.

Q: It sounds like you take great care in choosing what to shoot.
Squires: There is an economy to what we’re doing that’s often not present in many productions. One byproduct of the digital world is that people sometimes just shoot everything in sight and then let the editors try to make something out of it. That’s not at all the way we work. As much as anything, I make a point of not shooting. I mean, if an image isn’t good enough, I just don’t shoot it. If I’m not feeling like something is going to make it into a film, I’m not going to roll. I’m going to wait. I’m going to figure something else out. I’m going to try to find something that works. You know, just because a production may have gone to a lot of trouble and expense sending me several thousand miles to a location, that doesn’t justify rolling the camera, it just doesn’t. There has to be something that goes beyond one’s mere presence in a place to justify asking you, the viewer, to spend your time looking at it. Because ultimately, we’re trying to tell stories that people care about. I very much want to respect people’s time. I’m trying to create images that are everlasting, images that really connect to people.

Q: You said something earlier that caught my ear, which was the way that the film interprets the light. Can you elaborate on that?
Squires: Film is analog. You don’t suddenly get to a point in exposure where the white’s just clipping and there’s nothing there. I mean, in film you can over-expose to the point of there being no detail in the whites, but it’s not a sudden falling off the cliff – it’s a very easy, natural progression. I almost never worry about highlights in film. I know that they’re there to a reasonable degree, but when one is shooting digitally, you’re always saying, ‘Where are my highlights? Am I blowing out? Is it over 100? Is it over 110? Can I get this? The film just holds onto it. It grabs it in a very organic fashion. Film also handles color beautifully. I’m often shocked when shooting on digital and I’ve lit somebody and they’re wearing a certain color of dark blue, and I look in the monitor and it’s become purple. Film isn’t a direct one-to-one interpretation either. But there aren’t those kinds of surprises. There are different surprises.

I think there is something to the medium. It sounds very old school, but I even see it when people are shooting interviews. When you’re shooting an interview on film, people are more focused. You’re not just rolling for the sake of rolling. You have to justify why you’re turning the camera on at that moment. There better be a good reason, otherwise you’re wasting money and you’re wasting time.

Q: Does the subject sense that, too?
Squires: Well, sure the subject responds to it. If you feed them a ‘Hey, let’s chat attitude,’ then they chat back to you. If you give them a sense that, ‘This counts, this is important,’ you get a different response. We did an interview with James Baldwin, almost 30 years ago – it’s legendary. It was a 200-foot long interview, about five minutes, of which probably three-and-a-half minutes is in the film. It’s in the The Statue of Liberty (1985) film and it’s just unbelievable. We didn’t need to sit down and talk with Baldwin for two hours. Ken was able to get to the essence of what this great man had to say about that subject with tremendous focus and efficiency. It does infuse everything. It is a different aesthetic, and I like that aesthetic.  

Events change so fast and move so quickly, it’s a privilege to be part of history and a witness to its unfolding. It’s going to happen and then be over in an instant, and it’s getting that moment right and really feeling it that is so exciting. When you’ve laid the groundwork, you can work so quickly in film and move so intuitively. You don’t have to pull your eye away from the camera and consult the monitor. There is a direct connection between what I see coming through the viewfinder and going into my brain and what’s going to end up on the screen. I don’t need an intermediary.

Q: As a documentarian, are you aware that you are capturing, for example, James Baldwin, for posterity on a medium that lasts?
Squires: We routinely go back to footage that we shot 20 years ago, transfer it to high definition and use it in a new film. Film gives us that flexibility. I do think there’s a huge archival issue with the digital world. Sometimes I’m a bit afraid that the digital history of our time may get lost and squandered. Hard drive after hard drive crashes after sitting in people’s basements for a couple of years. Even if the studios do find ways to migrate their product to preserve their investments, the personal images that our work is built on, the photographs and films which sometimes languish in people’s attics for 20 or 30 or 50 years before their historical value is recognized -- those are all  in danger of disappearing. Maybe family photos will be saved, but hours and hours of motion pictures are being lost, I’m afraid. But yes, there is something absolutely wonderful about being able to film a subject at an important moment in their lives knowing that is preserved. What we do is a huge privilege – to walk into people’s lives and get them to tell us about the most interesting, involved, often intimate parts of their existence, present those moments to a large public and preserve them for the future.

Q: What are you working on right now?
Squires: A whole range of things. Ken and Lynn Novick are doing a series on an overarching look at the Vietnam War that’s rather huge. The Central Park Five film that Ken did with his daughter, Sarah, and his son-in-law, Dave McMahon, premiered at Cannes this year and is opening theatrically. Ethel, a film I shot for Rory Kennedy about her amazing mother has just finished a theatrical run. Ken also has a big series on the Roosevelts in the works, which was also all shot on film and The Dust Bowl is on the air soon. In the meantime, I’m also doing a lot of work on an HBO series called Masterclass with people like Wynton Marsalis, Renée Fleming, Bruce Weber and Kathleen Turner. It’s been a busy, busy summer.