When I caught up with Terry Stacey, ASC, he was in the midst of shooting his fourth film with Lasse Hallström, A Dog’s Purpose. Other recent assignments include Special Correspondents, a comedy directed by Ricky Gervais; Elvis & Nixon, with Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon; and The Confirmation, a modern-day retelling of Bicycle Thieves. Terry also took over from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw for the final leg of McFarland, USA, and recently filmed a pilot called Flesh and Bone, about the dark side of the New York ballet world.
Terry was born in England, and I knew his background included stints as a musician and as a documentary filmmaker. I asked how those experiences inform his thinking today. “My father was an airline pilot and a Super 8 enthusiast, and I think that inspired me,” says Terry. “I was used to traveling, and I was such a crazy America-phile. I was obsessed with anything from Kerouac to Sam Shepard. When I finished college at the University of Manchester, I basically wanted to go to New York and play music. It was the early ’80s, and there was a big underground Super 8 scene in New York. Every club was projecting Super 8 films that people had shot. This was way downtown in Soho, when Soho was still a bit grim.
“My friends and I made and edited films, and I got a job at the Collective for the Living Cinema,” he continues. “I got to use the equipment for free. I was working as a bartender, playing drums in the band, and making these little Super 8 movies.”
Eventually, the travel bug bit, and Terry quit the band and went to South America with a 16mm Bolex. There were stops in Caracas, Cartagena, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. “I came back with box-loads of footage,” he recalls. “I shot it all available light, hanging out of trains and buses. When I got back to New York, I realized I wasn’t into being in a band anymore. I was a good enough musician for the band, but it definitely wasn’t my career.”
He returned to the U.K. In London, he shot whatever he could — weddings, industrials and the occasional music video — and compiled a reel. Then he got a break. “On the notice board at the Camden Film Co-op was a postcard of a sunrise,” he recalls. “It said, ‘Wanted: Cameraman to go to Brazil.’ The director was meeting people with more experience, but he liked what I had done just shooting on my own. The documentary didn’t do very well, but it looked great — you can’t really go wrong in Brazil when you’re shooting at dawn and dusk! I was very happy with the way it looked, and from there I started getting more work.”
Documentary projects that took him to Egypt, India and Iceland followed, and then more music videos. Fictional filmmaking beckoned. It was the early 1990s.
“Looking back, I realize my timing was lucky,” he says. “I arrived back in New York at a time when independent companies were making very interesting films. There were incredibly sharp and smart scripts being produced for a million dollars. I did films like Dreamcatcher and Jump Trick.
“The first really big thing I did was Sex and the City for HBO,” he continues. “There were big lighting setups and lots of soft light. It was fun, and a great learning curve. Today, I still try to keep things as simple as possible, even when I’m doing a big studio film. I try not to get sort of distracted by all the new tools and the toys. I do catch myself wondering if things are more complicated than necessary. I realize that if we can be in this room at certain time of day, we’re never going to beat how that natural light looks.
“Obviously, only the Terrence Malicks of the world always have that luxury,” he says. “What I do enjoy about studio lighting is the control. But I like to mix it up. I still have that excitement. I never want to get blasé about anything. I will always feel lucky that I get to do what I love for a living — and get paid for it, too!”
Regarding his musical background, Terry says, “I think a lot of cinematographers might be failed musicians. Quite often, my initial meeting with a director ends up being a discussion about music, and if we get each other, music plays an important role in that. There’s a deep-seated thing with music; it’s always going to be an inspiration, and when you meet people that feel the same way, you really hit it off.”