ASC Close-Up: Ueli Steiger

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you? 
First, I fell in love with Mary Poppins. That started me off sneaking into every movie I could. Soon these would include Italian movies, too — Bertolucci, De Sica, and the wonderfully opulent widescreen world of Visconti. 

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
When I first saw the extraordinary naturalistic lighting of Sven Nykvist [ASC] in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and of Miroslav Ondricek [ASC, ACK] in films like Silkwood and Amadeus, I was hooked.

What sparked your interest in photography?
Early on, my father showed me the ropes in his homemade darkroom. I started to develop and print my own pictures, and took his 8mm Bolex to shoot little silent featurettes with my best high-school pal, starring our classmates.

Where did you train and/or study?
Trying to get into movies but not knowing how, I enrolled at the University of Zurich, studying linguistics, English literature and art history. During a holiday break, I finally got a PA job on a real movie. This changed everything, and gave me the courage to apply to film school. I ended up at the London Film School with a grant from the city of Zurich. 

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
The head of the school’s camera department — Bill Oxley, a retired camera operator — put the spark in me. What a great chance to learn from an old pro! London Film School is also where I met Néstor Almendros [ASC]. He gave me a great critique of my term project and made me realize that I really wanted to become a cinematographer. 

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Visconti, and the bold grammar of Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro [ASC, AIC]. 

How did you get your first break in the business? 
After film school, I got a call from my friend and former classmate Fiona Cunningham Reid to operate on a no-budget Oxford student movie. I was probably the most experienced on set — and I knew I knew nothing! But out of this little film, Privileged, a lot of careers started. Michael Hoffman directed it and Rachel Portman did the music. The cast: Hugh Grant, Imogen Stubbs, James Wilby. The first AD became a producer, the PA a Hollywood executive, and the boom swinger a prominent writer. Michael’s next film, Promised Land, was produced by Robert Redford. As an unknown Swiss cinematographer, I could not shoot it — but I was hired as second-unit cinematographer. When the first-unit director of photography was let go after the first week of shooting, I was asked to jump in until they could find somebody else. They kept me on with Michael Chapman [ASC] standing by — I’m sure because I was so cheap! This got me my first credit as a cinematographer in the United States. And then Dennis Hopper called; he chose me to shoot The Hot Spot. Michael Hoffman was able to get me on his first studio picture, Soapdish — and when Cameron Crowe hired me for Singles, I had landed in Hollywood. 

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
It’s always after another day where I couldn’t stop the movement of the sun, and it still all cuts together well. 

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Many. But I don’t seem to remember them!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From my production-designer friend and mentor Eugenio Zanetti: If you want to make a point, make the point. Be clear. Make an image that tells the story. Choose a color and use it. 

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Every Oscar season I am blown away by how well-shot most of the movies are. How do they do it? 

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I love comedies, and I love big, entertaining tentpole movies — but most of all, I love musicals. How great would it be to get involved in one?

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I have no idea. Maybe be a mediocre director?

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
James Glennon, Sandi Sissel and Steven Poster. 

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It was a big step. All of a sudden, I realized I’d landed somewhere I never thought I would be. I felt grown up! I am really proud to be part of the club. 

Photo by Anne Wilk. You’ll find much more about Steiger here.

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