I hadn’t spoken with Aaron Schneider, ASC since about 2010, when we collaborated on a Cinegear panel about the anamorphic format and Get Low, his feature directorial debut. When we caught up a few weeks ago, I asked him to think back on that fork in his road — the transition from award-winning cinematographer to director.
“It was a very big decision,” Schneider recalls. “The pressure on a cinematographer, or anyone in the industry, is to establish a path and stay closely to it. It’s a hard transition to make because not everyone wants their cinematographer to be a director. You have to decide whether it’s going to be an absolutely permanent change, or if you’re going to treat it as dabbling.”
Wally Pfister, ASC’s name came up as an example of a cinematographer whose extensive and stellar career behind the camera laid the foundation for a jump to directing. Aaron pointed out that his jump came at a different, earlier point. He had come out of music videos in the ‘90s, and made a name for himself in television, especially on Murder One, for which he earned an Emmy nomination and two consecutive ASC Awards. That led to three respected features and second unit work for Russell Carpenter, ASC on Titanic. A pattern emerges in which a degree of success in one field serves as a platform for a leap to the next opportunity.
“The Oscar meant total success in the eyes of the audience. But in truth, the Oscar opened doors, but it didn’t get me inside.”
“It was on the set of a Disney movie, the last movie I shot, that I got bit by the directing bug,” Schneider recalls. “Although I was having a good deal of success, it wasn’t enough star power to get a movie as a director. I was in my early 30s, unmarried, with no mortgage. I knew if I directed a movie with the intent of creating more opportunities, it would have to be something really special. I looked at my finances, and my future, and thought about what was going to make me happy. And essentially, I hit the reset button.”
He took every penny he had saved, went to North Carolina, and made Two Soldiers, his adaptation of a Faulkner story. “I knew that I might be doing some damage to the momentum I had created for myself, and that it would take me off the map for a while. I thought it would probably create the perception that I had aspirations apart from cinematography, and I wasn’t sure how that would translate. Plus, when I finished, I knew I’d have no money in the bank account.”
Aaron’s family encouraged him, as did his friends in the cinematography world, including Beverly Wood, Phil Radin, Brian Spruil, Leon Silverman and others. The project snowballed, and Alan Silvestri came on as composer. The film was turned down by more than a dozen film festivals before being accepted at the Palm Springs International Short Film Fest, qualifying it for Oscar consideration. And in 2004, Two Soldiers won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Aaron’s directing career was launched.
At that point, there was an explosion of interest but Aaron still needed to pay the bills and sustain himself. He continued shooting TV pilots for two of his favorite directors, Thomas Schlamme and David Nutter, who both encouraged him in his directing aspirations.
“The Oscar meant total success in the eyes of the audience,” he says. “But in truth, the Oscar opened doors, but it didn’t get me inside. For a while, it was a strange mix of two worlds. I’d be in the scout van with my gaffer and key grip, and on the phone with Robert Duvall or a financier. You feel two different worlds tugging in different directions, and it’s like having one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat. You soon begin to realize that these two worlds cannot co-exist. You have to make a choice or you’re going to end up in the lake.”
Get Low was financed piecemeal, a true independent, and picked up by Sony Classics. It was photographed anamorphic by Aaron’s friend and colleague David Boyd, ASC, and starred Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. Critical acclamation included a Spirit Award for best first feature and a SAG nomination for Duvall.
“I prefer to call myself a filmmaker,” Aaron says. “From my point of view, I never really put on a different uniform when I moved from cinematography to directing. I never thought differently. It was like an extension of everything I had been doing and learning up to that point.
“Before you know it, after two and a half years of sacrifice and investing yourself in the project, cinematography, your first love, is waving at you in the rear view mirror,” he says. “Now I’m in meetings where my previous life as a cinematographer is somewhat lost, in a way, because the people in those rooms don’t really understand cinematography, and how the craft is interwoven with filmmaking in general. Only cinematographers really understand that cinematographers are filmmakers. Everyone else sees them as technicians and as a result, they don’t take it into consideration. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity, because I’ve been able to parlay my cinematography experience into language that helps those people see me as someone with a deep understanding of filmmaking.”
One final anecdote that affirms Aaron’s point that only cinematographers truly understand cinematography: After an Academy screening of Two Soldiers, he received a phone message from one of his heroes — Caleb Deschanel, ASC — insisting that directing was the right path.
Aaron still has the tape.