“Cinematographers were treated with awe and respect because they were exposing a blank piece of plastic that nobody could really understand. The next day, suddenly, that blank plastic was a piece of magic.”
Roy Wagner, ASC, first came to the ASC Clubhouse in the early 1960s as a wide-eyed high-school student visiting from the Midwest. He could recognize ASC luminaries from their photographs in the pages of American Cinematographer. He remembers meeting Arthur Miller, Joseph Ruttenberg, James Wong Howe and Leon Shamroy. Eventually, he formed close relationships with Burnett Guffey, Harry Stradling Sr. and Frank Phillips, among others. In fact, Phillips became the godfather to Roy’s son.
Roy remembers wondering at first if he had the right place, because the Clubhouse looked like a residence. After speaking with a receptionist through an intercom, he gained entry. A very gruff voice with a tough-sounding New York accent asked, “May I help you?”
“I turned,” Roy recalls, “and there was Arthur Miller. I felt like I’d just seen the most famous person in the world. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re Arthur Miller.’ He proceeded to take me around the Clubhouse and show me everything. He spent an enormous amount of time with me. He introduced me to Walter Strenge and Arthur Arling, who were playing cards, and to Charles Clarke and Hal Mohr, who was the most frightening man I’ve ever met due to his height and his booming voice.
“I spoke with Arthur for more than an hour,” says Roy. “I was feeling a bit uncomfortable, like I was getting in the way, but he treated me as if I were someone important. He was completely focused, and even made other visitors wait. In some ways, he was the best person I could have met when I walked into the Clubhouse.”
Later, after moving to L.A., Roy worked as a “free loader” for Stradling on Hello, Dolly! and other projects. They developed a father-son type of relationship, and Harry helped Roy make connections with other ASC members, who often invited him to their sets.
“They allowed me to come into their sphere, as though they were royalty,” says Roy. “There was never any of the direct communication we have today with young filmmakers, through Facebook and the like. On the set, there was an invisible ring around the camera, and you were only allowed inside if you were given permission. Today, it’s different; people walk in front of the camera, and they walk right up to the cinematographer and talk to him. “But the truth is, those guys really instilled a sort of fear in you,” Roy continues. “They were all-powerful. If you trespassed on their territory, you were done. I saw Shamroy fire any number of people — not just camera assistants, but people in other departments — who walked between him and the scenes. Ultimately, that fear opened into a sense of respect for the cinematographer and for the position. You might find that on some sets today, but it’s rare.
“Some people would say, ‘That was a terrible time, and those guys were jerks,’ but there’s another way to look at that: the position of cinematographer has degenerated to a great extent because everything has been allowed to become much more casual. The strength and glamour of the ASC, the Clubhouse and American Cinematographer were there because they presented themselves as the Wizards of Oz, and you never got behind that curtain. Cinematographers were treated with awe and respect because they were exposing a blank piece of plastic that nobody could really understand. The next day, suddenly, that blank plastic was a piece of magic. To the eye, the set did not look like it did on film. Even the studio heads looked at what a cinematographer did as magic, and that’s why the cinematographer had so much power.
“The top cinematographers, like Shamroy, had the backing of the studio execs and really ran their sets,” says Roy. “The director was told, ‘Just do what Mr. Shamroy says, and everything will be fine.’ We’ve lost that prestige, and I think we’ve allowed it to disappear. The way you present yourself is how people perceive you.”