In a recent conversation with Levie Isaacks, ASC, we discussed music and its relation to cinematography — a favorite topic of mine. Levie has always loved music, but he picked up the guitar relatively late in life, about 15 years ago. He began attending a weekly jam session in Northridge, Calif., at the Blue Ridge Pickin’ Parlor, which is dedicated to teaching, repairing instruments and nurturing a family atmosphere. (The operation is now located in Granada Hills.) Levie says one of the things he has learned is that “your playing gets a lot better if you play with other people.”
The music at those sessions was mainly bluegrass. “It was just the greatest thrill,” says Levie. “It’s the sharing. It’s a joyous exercise. And something I learned just recently is that learning an instrument is one of the best ways to prevent or ward off Alzheimer’s or dementia, because you’re using your entire brain. It’s like learning a foreign language; you keep your mind working. There are also the motor skills. And I’m finding now that I can actually play by ear.”
On Man Up, a television series Levie shot a few years back, there were daily picking sessions after lunch. The cast and crew included mandolin, ukulele, keyboard, bass and guitar players. “It made everyone happy,” he recalls. “It has a healthy effect on people. It’s amazing how powerful music is in that regard. You can especially see it in children — they just start dancing automatically. And it lends itself to filmmaking. It’s a pressure valve, and it puts people in a good mood. You’re not coming back to work with the last problem you had in mind. Those rhythms come with a certain joy, and it’s a joy I also experience when I’m lighting a set. It’s just something I love to do.”
My mentor at American Cinematographer, the film historian George Turner, was a great fan of Lon Chaney, “The Man of 1,000 Faces.” Because of George, I know that Chaney grew up with deaf parents, and some of his extraordinary facial expressiveness and skill at pantomime was probably attributable to that. Levie’s parents were also deaf, and his first language was sign language. I asked if there was a connection to his vocation. “Definitely,” says Levie. “I was rooted in a visual language from day one. When Man of a Thousand Faces with James Cagney came out [in 1957], my parents wanted me to see it because of the association; they wanted me to look at the visual characters he had created. Sign language is a conceptual language. The signs often take the shape of something they mean. There’s a whole body language to it as well, and facial expression is important. I know my face was very expressive from a young age. That was just how I communicated.”
These days, Levie is enjoying the beautiful countryside near Sebastopol in the western part of Sonoma County, where he lives. He notes that Sebastopol was also home to the botanist Luther Burbank, and to cartoonist Charles Schulz, for whom the local airport is named. Christo’s Running Fence passed close by in 1976. “I did a project here back in the early ’90s, saw how beautiful it is, and decided it was where I wanted to live,” says Levie, who is originally from Texas. “It’s quite a historic region. It’s also wine country, with a fairly cool climate. It’s mostly pinot noir growing in this area.
“The beauty of this place serves my soul,” he continues. “I’ve started to do more still photography. You can really see the seasons change, and there are some really magnificent things that happen photographically. The landscapes are unbelievable, and the storms that come in produce some of the most dramatic skies I’ve seen. It’s just luscious with imagery here — rolling hills, green grass, the frost and the fog. It’s a place I just love.”