John Schwartzman Recalls His Student Days at USC

John Schwartzman, ASC,  in Poland at Camerimage 2013.
John Schwartzman, ASC, in Poland at Camerimage 2013.

I asked John Schwartzman, ASC recently about his “origin story” — how he came to be a cinematographer. While the basic outline may be familiar to the cinematography world, the details of what he told me were eye-opening.

While John was growing up in southern California, his father was an entertainment lawyer. “It was not uncommon on a Saturday to have William Friedkin, Arthur Penn or Nick Roeg over to the house, where we had a tennis court,” John recalls. “I remember Nick showing me pictures from Walkabout, after he had just come back from making it. I was about eight years old. My curiosity was piqued. Who are these very artistic people who seem to travel so much and lead very exotic lives?”

As a boy, John attended summer camp at Talking Tree Camp in Malibu Canyon, when that area was off the beaten path. At age 6, he had a Kodak camera that took film cartridges, and he recalls the magic of going into a darkroom, cracking open the cartridges and making prints.

But filmmaking was not considered a proper profession in John’s family. Coming from a family of doctors and lawyers meant that undergrad was considered merely an extension of high school, and a chance to figure out what to study in graduate school.

“From my parent’s standpoint, they wanted me to be a lawyer or something like that so I’d always be sure to have a career,” John recalls. “It was a bit of a struggle. My family had seen the ups and downs that people go through in this business. The era of John Ford and William Wyler — guys who would direct 75 movies — was over. It wasn’t until I was actually making a living that my father finally realized that maybe I was pretty good at this, and that I had a chance. I did okay at USC Film School. I ultimately got tossed out, but it didn’t hurt my career. No one has asked to see my MFA degree.”

 John in his younger days. The ARRI camera is loaded with Agfa XT 320.
John in his younger days. The ARRI camera is loaded with Agfa XT 320.

Kicked out of USC film school? I hadn’t heard that one before. “I did a film with Phil Joanou, and we broke a lot of rules,” John explains. “They basically told me that as a result, I’d never get the credits I needed to graduate. Since then, the administration has changed, and they’ve been very generous to me.”

The film was called The Last Chance Dance, shot on 16mm color film in 1985. I asked John which rules he had broken. “In those days, you weren’t allowed to use any outside financing,” John says. “The movie had to be made within the parameters of USC. Phil and I knew that that would limit us. You got your equipment from the stockroom. But they didn’t say we couldn’t ask for favors. We went to Burns & Sawyer and Matthews every Friday afternoon, and if there was equipment — a head, or a small crane, or a certain lens – that wasn’t being used, we asked to borrow it for our film. I borrowed some 1200-watt HMIs from Tom Stern. USC took exception to the fact that our picture looked slicker — not so slick that it transcended a student film, but still, for 1985, it looks pretty good.”

John also got around the 20-minute time limit by cutting and mixing the movie outside of school, again for free. When it screened at the Academy, it ran 32 minutes. That did not go over well at USC, either.

“I thought that this was what they were trying to teach us – to be clever,” he says. “Be inventive, and use your schmoozing skills, because it’s only going to get harder in Hollywood. Boy, was I naïve.”

John adds that recently, while packing to head off to Hawaii to shoot Jurassic World, he came across the 16 mm answer print of The Last Chance Dance.

“There it was,” he says. “I was looking at my graduate school thesis film sitting in a can on a shelf. I didn’t have to migrate it to another format. All you have to do it shine a light through that thing and run it at 24 frames per second. 200 years from now, that will still be true. To me, that’s the beauty of film.”

John is planning to shoot Jurassic World on 35 and 65mm Kodak negative. His most recent projects, Saving Mr. Banks and Dracula Untold, were also film shoots.



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