Almost a decade ago, fresh off the success of the indie film Monster, Steven Bernstein, ASC, had a heart-to-heart conversation with producer Clark Peterson. Steven recalls, “Clark said, ‘Steve, it’s kind of crazy. You’ve been helping all these first-time directors for so long, you’ve written a book about filmmaking, and you’ve been writing plays for a long while. Isn’t it logical that you direct a feature film yourself?’”
With Peterson’s encouragement, Steven, who had also directed commercials, music videos and second unit, went in search of a subject. He found the story of Annie Parker, a woman who had survived three bouts with cancer, and Mary-Claire King, the geneticist who discovered the BRCA gene mutation that links scores of breast-cancer victims. The discovery is now considered one of the most important in 20th-century medicine.
Steven wrote the script with his son and spent the next five years raising money. The project eventually began to attract big-name talent, including Helen Hunt (who plays King), Samantha Morton (who plays Parker), Aaron Paul, Bradley Whitford, Corey Stoll and Rashida Jones.
Fast forward to last week, when Decoding Annie Parker was released to glowing reviews by the New York Times, the Village Voice and the Los Angeles Times, among others.
I asked Steven, who is heading to Montreal this week to begin directing his next feature, about the transition to directing. “My natural inclination was to think about the visuals, but I realized it was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually impossible to both direct and shoot,” he says. “I mean, I know there are those who have done both. But for me, at least, with these actors and the complexity of emotion that had to be portrayed, I felt it would be impossible to do anything but what a director does, which is really oversee the work of many other artists. So, I had to step back and delegate.”
Steven adds that he had worked with cinematographers-turned-directors before, including Ernest Dickerson, ASC, and he applied lessons learned on those projects to his collaboration with Decoding Annie Parker cinematographer Ted Hayash, his longtime gaffer who moved up the ranks. “I inspired Ted, I hope, and gave some broad strokes, but on the day of the shoot, even if I had an opinion about where the lights should be or how it should look, I would step back in deference to another artist,” Steven says. “Ultimately, the greater good is served if I let my fellow artists realize their own vision rather than try to impose my will on them. That was very important.”
He likens some aspects of the transition to a 12-step program. “I felt like going back to every director I ever gave a hard time to and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I had no idea how hard directing is.’ As cinematographers, we care very much about our craft and about the visceral level of the filmmaking, and we want it to work visually. We will sometimes try to explain to directors and producers they really should give us more lights, more equipment and more time. But when you see things from the other side, you realize that a director has so many responsibilities and has to answer to so many different requirements in the making of the movie that the demands of the cinematographer aren’t always paramount. It was a very interesting lesson.”
Immediately after Decoding Annie Parker, Steven took one more cinematography assignment, on the TV series Magic City, which his friend Gabriel Beristain, ASC, BSC, asked him to come aboard. The result was an ASC Award nomination. “With a great circle of good fortune, I was hired to shoot a few episodes of Magic City, and they also needed someone to direct a few scenes and some second-unit material, so I was sort of a hybrid,” says Steven. “I was doing both jobs for a while, and it was great.
“After directing a feature, I felt I was a better cinematographer because I had a much better understanding of the needs of the director. I also feel I’m a better director because I was a cinematographer. I felt very much at peace while shooting. I felt that I had done everything I wanted to do in my career; there was nothing to prove. So, I was very, very relaxed.”
Steven’s next directorial effort, the feature Dominion, only took six months to pull together, probably due in part to the success of Decoding Annie Parker. The new film is about the last days of Dylan Thomas and the White Horse Tavern. It stars John Malkovich and Rhys Ifans. Sets have been built, and rehearsals have begun.