Janusz Kaminski – NY Times Magazine

Let There Be Lighting

The year was 1987, and flickering on the big screen of the Fine Arts Theater in Chicago was a film called ”Raising Arizona.” Sitting in the audience was Janusz Kaminski, a 28-year-old film student, and there was something in the vivid performance of the movie’s star, Holly Hunter, that resonated with him deeply, far beyond words. ”I was crazy about her,” he remembers. ”This girl with this wonderful voice, this beautiful face, who made me cry in her determination to have some kind of romance in her life. She was a very determined character.”

Determination and creative fire. Those elements had already powered young Kaminski, a budding artist and cinematographer, to slip out of his homeland, Poland, and spend six months in the purgatory of Vienna, sweeping streets and factories, waiting for immigration papers to America. He had already survived a broken home and the early death of his father. On the advice of a friend, Kaminski settled in Chicago, attending Columbia College, learning the English language and feeding a passionate knowledge of lighting and film until he finally felt ready to make the ultimate journey to Los Angeles.

Accepted into the American Film Institute’s program for cinematography in Los Angeles, Kaminski was soon one of the city’s most prolific young cameramen. He loved the Los Angeles actors, and with the appreciative eye of a newcomer, he easily found new ways to photograph the city. But it was Kaminski’s careful eye for emotional detail, the humanity within the striking visuals, that became his trademark. Before long he had filmed more than 30 half-hour movies, and had even realized an early dream of shooting features for the czar of low-budget independents, Roger Corman. One of his biggest early breaks came from the actress and director Diane Keaton, who asked Kaminski to film her television movie ”Wildflower,” starring Patricia Arquette.

Steven Spielberg, never one to miss the burgeoning work of a young talent, spotted Kaminski’s cinematography in ”Wildflower” and called him in for a meeting. ”I was a little nervous,” Kaminski, now 40, recalls. ”Not as nervous as I would be now. I didn’t know the consequences.”

Spielberg asked Kaminski to shoot a television movie, ”Class of ’61,” for his company. Kaminski knew it was a test, and when he accomplished the job with a flourish, Spielberg offered him ”Schindler’s List.” He was still barely 10 years removed from his rough-and-tumble upbringing in Poland and a bohemian life characterized by endlessly listening to Pink Floyd’s ”The Wall” and endless dreaming of jeans and the existential manna of American films like ”Vanishing Point.” He was now embarking on a creative journey that would change his life, and Spielberg’s, too. He was 32 years old.

”The goal of the film,” says Kaminski, ”was to work in black and white, but not to film the villains in the typical villainous ways. Whatever darkness was in the characters would come from inside them, what they were born with, not what we dictated in the lighting.” The masterly, even-handed presentation brought with it an emotional depth that surprised even the filmmakers. The young Kaminski had barely unpacked from the long shoot before he found himself on the awards circuit, side-by-side with Spielberg, hearing the word ”masterpiece” with intoxicating regularity. His life would soon change again.

It was at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards ceremony in January 1994 that Janusz Kaminski looked over to the next table. There sat Holly Hunter, with the director Jane Campion and others responsible for Hunter’s 1993 film ”The Piano.” Kaminski could barely contain himself. ”I leaned over and said, ‘Steven, man, there’s Holly Hunter, you’ve got to introduce me to her!’ They had worked together. So he went over to the table and said, ‘Holly, this is Janusz, he’s my cinematographer and he’s crazy about meeting you.’ Said it just like that.”

Notes were exchanged. And in the whirlwind of the awards season that followed, the two would find themselves at adjacent tables in many other rooms. Their budding relationship grew in the style of a Lubitsch film — a look here and there, as tuxedoed waiters swirled by and glamorous interruptions kept them from much direct interplay. At a later luncheon for Academy Award nominees, with Kaminski in Spain filming a commercial, it was Spielberg who hastened the inevitable, asking Hunter if she’d go out with his cinematographer. She agreed. ”From that moment on,” Kaminski remembers proudly, ”we were mostly together. Four months later, I moved in, and a year later, we got married.”

Along the way, Kaminski also received an Academy Award for his cinematography in ”Schindler’s List.” Publicly, he often deflected the pressures of enormous early success with self-deprecating jokes: ”They just gave me the award because it was in black and white!” Privately, he sometimes wondered if it had all been a fluke. ”I was a seasoned cinematographer in terms of experience in lighting,” he says today. ”But I was not seasoned in having the experience of working on big motion pictures.”

Kaminski barreled forward with a cheerful intensity, shooting, among other features, ”How to Make an American Quilt” and my film ”Jerry Maguire.” His fascination was less bravura photographic opportunities than character studies. With ”Jerry Maguire,” our intent was to bring an extra depth to the usual cherry-apple brightness of romantic comedy. Through many screenings of films like ”The Apartment,” and even driving together through neighborhoods at night, studying the home lives visible through windows, we arrived at a look for the film that gave me exactly what I’d craved — the rarest quality, real life on film.

Next came the three Spielberg pictures in a row, and they couldn’t have been more disparate: ”The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” ”Amistad” and ”Saving Private Ryan.” It was ”Amistad,” for which Kaminski received another Academy Award nomination, that brought an important personal breakthrough. ”Another door opened creatively in the making of that movie,” he says, ”and I walked through. I became much more experienced, much more confident. Testing the film, learning to manipulate the image, the composition, the filtration, working with photographic processes in the lab. Achieving different qualities not for the sake of making a better [shot] but making it more important storytelling. ‘Cause it’s always storytelling.”

Kaminski’s groundbreaking work with Spielberg contains sequences that will clearly outlive them both — the opening D-Day segment in ”Saving Private Ryan,” a hulking dinosaur staring into a child’s window in ”The Lost World,” the decadent sheen of ”Schindler’s List.” ”Working with Steven,” says Kaminski, ”you just go on and do your work. There is very little time to step back and say, ‘My God! I’m working with Steven Spielberg!’ It’s only later that you step back and glimpse what happened as an outsider and realize, ‘We stormed the beach at Normandy.’ What Steven has got is this: He’s not afraid. He very much encourages the artists that he surrounds himself with to take chances. And he rewards them by saying, ‘Let’s push it more.’ ”

During Spielberg’s two-year hiatus after ”Saving Private Ryan,” which earned the cinematographer his second Academy Award, Kaminski did what he’d often said he would never do — direct. The film is a supernatural thriller called ”Lost Souls,” to be released this fall. The experience was exhilarating and involving, he says, but one senses that the test-screening and marketing aspects of filmmaking left Kaminski longing for the creative cocoon of cinematography.

”It felt great to control all the elements,” he comments, ”but I never want to create any misunderstanding that I’m moving on, and never will be a cinematographer again. I’m a cinematographer who had a chance to direct a movie.” He pauses and smiles. ”What can we say about directing? It’s the loneliest profession in the world. This is not a democratic organization, making a movie, you know. I mean, if the movie is successful, it’s a collaborative effort and everyone is a part of it. If it’s not” — Kaminski laughs with the delight of a child — man, you made it on your own, by yourself!”

The breakneck pace of filming many movies back-to-back often involved fleeting glimpses of Hunter, the wife and friend he clearly cherishes. ”It takes great understanding of the commitment we make to our professions,” he says of their close partnership. ”But we’re very mature. We’re confident with who we are. We got married when we were adults, and when we were both very successful, so certain pressures that one would experience if the other one was not as successful, that’s nonexistent. We always manage to talk for two hours. It’s like any other marriage, where if you work 9 to 5, you get together and talk, you know. It just happens that when [we're both] working, it’s 5 to 9.”

Sometimes Kaminski finds himself utterly surprised by what he sees in his wife’s stage and screen performances. ”Several times I’ve attended readings she’s done,” he says, ”and it’s heartbreaking because she becomes maybe three characters, each of them fully created, as she just sits on the chair, not even moving much. Just the voice and the facial expressions create another character, you know, and it’s heartbreaking because you realize, ‘Whoa, there’s my wife, there’s the girl I live with, and yet, I’m so moved by her performance.’ I just love watching her. Just the way she touches objects.” He looks down at the table full of recent photographs he has taken of Hunter, each a different world of character and depth. After a whirlwind of filmmaking, and a life now far beyond the dreams of a determined young Polish teenager, one senses that we are at ground zero of Janusz Kaminski’s creative aesthetic: A classic face. A camera. A desire to push the limits of emotion on film.

”I’m completely fascinated by her,” he says.

Holly Hunter will be seen this spring in Joel and Ethan Coen’s ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and Mike Figgis’s ”Time Code 2000.”

Courtesy of NY Times Magazine – Cameron Crowe -  February 20, 2000