When you were a child, what films made the strongest impressions on you?
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a window into another world, and Splendor in the Grass was emotionally devastating. In university, I was taken with A Clockwork Orange and Harold and Maude. As a film student, I was invited to the set of Easy Rider, and besides being an extra, I was able to meet and spend time with Laszlo Kovacs [ASC]. His work inspired me.
What sparked your interest in photography?
My daddy was a still photographer and journalist for a newspaper in Paris, Texas, and as a child I spent countless hours with him in the darkroom. I started wearing a camera around my neck at around 5. My Leica M is never far from me, even now.
Where did you train and/or study?
I received a BFA from SMU, and an MA from the University of Wisconsin. My early years working for NBC News in New York City sent me to many parts of the globe — and to film in war zones — and that opened up my eyes and my soul in ways that formal education did not.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Joan Churchill [ASC] and Judy Irola [ASC] showed me that there was a way in the ’70s. Having two close friends and mentors pursuing the same goals was invaluable. We are still very close. Operating for Robby Müller was a master class every day. He was so kind and such a painter with naturalistic light.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Photographs by Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark and Nan Goldin have always been my inspiration. Films by Shirley Clarke and Agnès Varda have been lifelong companions.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I was hired by NBC as part of a class-action lawsuit in 1974. IATSE Local 644 offered membership to a small number of minorities, and I was one. By 1978, I was given the opportunity to ghost numerous cinematographers on Local 644 NYC shoots — and this offered the opportunity to operate for Jan De Bont [ASC], Mario Tosi [ASC], Michael Butler, Haskell Wexler, Michael Seresin [BSC] and Robby Müller.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
When Salaam Bombay! won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1988, we were simply elated. This had been such a huge emotional endeavor. And when Master and Commander, on which I served as 2nd-unit DP, won the Oscar for cinematography in 2004, I felt so proud to have worked with Russell Boyd [ASC, ACS].
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Oh, yes — but the most painful one was on a documentary, thinking the camera was rolling and it was not. After having worked on so many documentaries with my Aaton 16mm camera, that standby switch on video cameras eluded me.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When I first started shooting feature films, I was once fired for ‘taking too much time’ lighting with my gaffer. I was crushed, and found the nerve to call Haskell Wexler for some advice. He told me, ‘Get right back out there. I’ve been fired from more films than you have seen.’ I tried to toughen up after that — and for sure to speed it up.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I recently re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude and marveled. The book How to Change Your Mind was revelatory. The contemporary opera performance The Sun and the Sea at the Venice Biennale was masterful. Cold War’s cinematography rendered me speechless.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I enjoy doing both action and horror, but my joy would be to do a thriller.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
For some while, I considered playing clarinet in symphonies after university — but for now I’d be a chef.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Haskell Wexler, Robert Richardson, Robbie Greenberg.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Clearly it is an honor to be among such special people, and I cherish the friendships and the sharing of interests and information. The educational outreach and upcoming mentorships really interest me. Now with efforts toward inclusiveness, it’s also great fun.
Sissel was recently honored by the Bulgarian Society of Cinematographers.
You'll find her personal site here.