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Tom Stern, ASC, talks about his work with Clint Eastwood

Friday 25 May 2007

Having worked for over 20 years as a gaffer to the greatest American cinematographers of the 1970s (Bruce Surtees, Owen Roiszman, Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall…), then 46-year-old Tom Stern Voir Tom Stern dans l’index started a new career as a cinematographer on Clint Eastwood Voir Clint Eastwood dans l’index ’s Blood Work. His faithful collaborator since 1981 Honkytonk Man, he has photographed all of the star’s films since 2002 and subsequently won several international awards.
Four years after Mystic River, Tom Stern Voir Tom Stern dans l’index returns to Cannes as foreman of the CST Voir La CST dans l’index jury.

You have quite an unusual background – a graduate from a prestigious university who then chooses to be a gaffer…

Upon graduating, I really had the desire to start working in very concrete terms. Out of 1,000 students, 900 would want to be directors, with the remaining 100 cinematographers, but I deliberately chose to go for the gaffer position because filmmaking is, first and foremost, a team effort! I then quickly realised that working near cinematographers would allow me to learn in very concrete terms how to construct an image, how to sculpt light.
In this regard, I actually find the distribution of work in French teams more logical. Leaving it up to the electrical department to manage all accessories (flags, mamas, frames…) helping in the construction of light is much simpler than to delegate this responsibility to the grips as they do in the States!

Is being an American gaffer possibly the best position to learn about the cinematographer’s job?

Certainly, yes, especially because of the very tight relationship that often binds director and cinematographer. The cinematographer is then naturally compelled to rely on a trusted person able to manage all the technical aspects of light, on someone who is literally able to think of the same things he does, to make the same choices, without even having to mention it sometimes. As a gaffer, I was lucky enough to work with several cinematographers who proved amazing both as artists and as human beings. When they retired, or passed away as was the case with Conrad Hall, I seriously contemplated quitting. It was only when given the opportunity by Clint that I suddenly realized I could start anew. His power helped overcoming union barriers, as they are very pwerful in the US and usually prevent gaffers from making the picture in studio features.
This reminds me of a Hollywood running joke about Malpaso, Eastwood’s production company: “It takes ten years to enter the circle and ten seconds to get out of it!” As far as I am concerned, you could say that everything’s fine, so far…

What is it like to shoot with Clint Eastwood
Voir Clint Eastwood dans l’index

?

His way of organising work departs from the Hollywood tradition. Clint relies on a small group of people whom he can trust, and everyone has a say onset. The hierarchy is quite flat, without any kind of protocole or age-old rules. Another distinctive characteristic is that of his star status and his unique ability as a team leader. He is one of a few filmmakers who can positively plan his projects nine months ahead. Since he doesn’t have any kind of greenlighting issue, he can prepare very carefully, book his staff, and eventually shoot inexpensive films that never fail to cash in. Take for instance Letters from Iwo Jima: who else could go and sell a troglodyte, Japanese-speaking film about Japanese soldiers to Warner! Naturally, he was able to do it because the people at the studio trust him and know that he’ll bring them a $20 million film he shot in 33 days…

Can you think of any other American filmmaker who might someday come close to what he represents in Hollywood right now?

To be quite honest, there are very few people in Hollywood who would remind me of Clint Eastwood
Voir Clint Eastwood dans l’index

’s trajectory and position. Maybe somehow Warren Beatty or Robert Redford
Voir Robert Redford dans l’index

might fit… But these are more cerebral personalities. And they do not seem to share the same joyful, communicative glow Clint might have on a set. His unaffectedness, his refusal of luxury – inherited from his growing up during the depression – and his genuineness tremendously contribute to the power of his films. Amongst the younger generation, maybe Georges Clooney might someday follow in his footsteps. Either way, I am constantly surprised by Clint’s liveliness, his enthusiasm. Although he is even older than I, I can see him carry on with his work for at least another ten or twenty years…

What is your feeling, as a chairman of the CST
Voir La CST dans l’index

jury, regarding this 60th edition of the Cannes Festival?

This CST
Voir La CST dans l’index

prize is fascinating. It stands as the exact converging point between technology and artistry. As the son of an aeronautical engineer, I have this kind of genetic predisposition to liking technology… Although the 1960s diverted me from this family heritage in favour of filmmaking, I remain convinced that science and technics matter to artistry. Indeed, it should be no surprise that Hollywood called the Oscars’ institution the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It is an honor as well as a great pleasure for me to be able to meet with others in Cannes to view films from all over the world and share our points of view regarding this universal langage of filmmaking.

You are also about to come and shoot here, in France…

As I married a Frenchwoman and spend some time every year in our hous in the Gers, I am very happy that Christophe Baratier (of Les Choristes fame) chose me for his second feature, Faubourg 36. This will be my first French film as a cinematographer, even though most of the shooting should happen on location in Prague, where Jean Rabasse is going to recreate a Parisian district from the 30s. To sum up the subject of the film in pure Hollywood fashion, I would say – or rather joke – that it’s kind of Popular Front meets Children of Paradise, centered around the figure of a young singer who arrives in Paris in 1936. This is a project that mixes elements of optimistic musical with a darker dramatic background, where the joy of getting paid vacations quickly gives way to the imminent tragedy of WWII…

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC and translated from French by Mathilde Bouhon)

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