Sova Charts Path to Hollywood

Peter Sova, ASC (foreground), on the set of Donnie Branco. Pictured in the background are (from left) director Mike Newell, 1st AC Michael Green and camera operator Dick Mingalone.
Peter Sova, ASC, on the set of Donnie Brasco. Pictured in the background are (from left) director Mike Newell, 1st AC Michael Green and camera operator Dick Mingalone.

Since he shot his last feature, Push (2009), Peter Sova, ASC, has been taking life a little easier. He occasionally teaches students, sharing wisdom gained over 50 years of experience, which include the movies Diner, Donnie Brasco and Gangster No. 1. 

Push was incredibly demanding,” he says of the Hong Kong shoot. “That was one of the reasons I stepped aside. I had something like 28 electricians, and only one or two spoke English. The weather forecasts said a typhoon would come, so we were working seven nights a week, 14 hours a night. When you do this for two weeks, you just collapse — at least, I do! If I were 28 years old, it would be different. Movies and producers have changed from the days when I shot Diner. There’s so much pressure now. And in Hong Kong, there are no rules like there are in Hollywood.

“I did it because [director] Paul McGuigan, with whom I’d made four films, asked me to,” Peter continues. “But when it was finished, my wife was ill, and I wasn’t even thinking about movies. I decided it was time to stay home with her and our new dog, a chocolate Lab.”

I asked Peter to recount his unique path to ASC membership. Growing up in what is now the Czech Republic, he dreamed of attending film school in Prague, but his family was labeled anti-communist, which created multiple difficulties for them. Peter abandoned his hope of becoming a filmmaker, training as a machinist instead.

Peter’s brother made plans to leave the country in 1966. No one knew that Dubček and the Prague Spring were around the corner. “I knew if I didn’t go with him, I’d never be able to escape because [the authorities] would keep such a close eye on me,” Peter recalls. “We found someone who could make counterfeit visas, and we started learning English. When we realized our guy was better at making Austrian visas, we dropped our English studies and started catching up on German!”

After Dubček came to power, Peter was able to obtain a visa to travel from Austria to the United States. His skill as a machinist enabled him to easily find work in Vienna and New York. During his first week in New York, among the five offers he considered was one from General Camera. He took the job and was soon converting Mitchell BNC cameras with rackover viewfinders to reflex. Each camera was a two-month job. He was in his mid-20s.

“The Czech trade schools were really good — the communists had taught me precision, fortunately,” he says. “But taking apart the Mitchell was scary. There were so many different parts. You had to make it run quietly, which was difficult. If the gears weren’t exactly right, then it would be noisy.”

On weekends, Peter could borrow cameras, and ABC gave him free film because he was fixing the network’s cameras. Developing the film could also be arranged. “You could learn a lot just from shooting on the Bowery in those days,” Peter recalls. “I watched the film and began learning to see the light.”

Eventually, he moved on to repairing cameras, and some of these jobs took him to sets. One director asked him to go along to New Hampshire on a shoot in case anything went wrong. On the job, he became the focus puller for the cinematographer, Vilis Lapenieks, who was known in Hollywood as “Crazy Vili,” according to Peter.

Soon Peter earned his first credit as a cinematographer, a short for public television titled The Jolly Corner. A year or so later, he added a 35mm feature film, Short Eyes, to his résumé. Adapted from a play, the movie was shot in the Tombs, a notorious detention center in Lower Manhattan. The director was Robert Young, and the cast included real inmates who had performed the play. “There was sometimes, I would say, a little tension in there,” recalls Peter. “Somehow they were getting guns and heroin inside. But they were always nice to me — they liked that I was a refugee.”

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago. Peter was asked to talk about his film The Reckoning (2002) at New York University as part of a course about the Middle Ages. Directed by McGuigan, the movie was filmed mostly in the U.K. and Spain. “In the north of England, the light is always soft, and the light in Spain is totally different, so moving from one to the other was a demanding change,” says Peter. “That was my greatest challenge. I got the biggest crane we could get in Spain, and I asked production to order a custom 80-by-80-foot double net. By putting that on a 150-foot crane, you can cover a lot of area. Because it was the Middle Ages, there were fires and smoke everywhere you looked. I had the effects team put little tubes through the net, so even the net was smoking. If the net ripped a little, even better, because we’d get shafts of light through it.

“I think for that day, it was the largest set in the world. It was a very difficult shoot, but the movie is pretty good.

“I realize students can’t afford to do something like that, but when I describe it to them, they get a good idea of what’s required to make a film like that. I tell those young people that they have to go for it and experiment, like I did when I was at General Camera. If I hadn’t made those first images, I would never have made it to the bigger projects.”




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