American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 88

CLOSE-UP
Ueli Steiger, ASC

Which cinematographers, past or
present, do you most admire?
When I first saw the extraordinary naturalistic lighting of Sven Nykvist [ASC] in Bergman's Fanny and Alexander,
and of Miroslav Ondricek [ASC, ACK] in films like Silkwood and
Amadeus, I was hooked.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Early on, my father showed me the ropes in his homemade darkroom.
I started to develop and print my own pictures, and took his 8mm
Bolex to shoot little silent featurettes with my best high-school pal,
starring our classmates.
Where did you train and/or study?
Trying to get into movies but not knowing how, I enrolled at the
University of Zurich, studying linguistics, English literature and art
history. During a holiday break, I finally got a PA job on a real movie.
This changed everything, and gave me the courage to apply to film
school. I ended up at the London Film School with a grant from the
city of Zurich.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
The head of the school's camera department - Bill Oxley, a retired
camera operator - put the spark in me. What a great chance to learn
from an old pro! London Film School is also where I met Néstor
Almendros [ASC]. He gave me a great critique of my term project and
made me realize that I really wanted to become a cinematographer.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Visconti, and the bold grammar of Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro
[ASC, AIC].
How did you get your first break in the business?
After film school, I got a call from my friend and former classmate
Fiona Cunningham Reid to operate on a no-budget Oxford student
movie. I was probably the most experienced on set - and I knew I
knew nothing! But out of this little film, Privileged, a lot of careers
started. Michael Hoffman directed it and Rachel Portman did the
music. The cast: Hugh Grant, Imogen Stubbs, James Wilby. The first
AD became a producer, the PA a Hollywood executive, and the boom
swinger a prominent writer. Michael's next film, Promised Land, was
88

July 2018

produced by Robert Redford. As an
unknown Swiss cinematographer, I could
not shoot it - but I was hired as secondunit cinematographer. When the first-unit
director of photography was let go after the
first week of shooting, I was asked to jump
in until they could find somebody else. They
kept me on with Michael Chapman [ASC]
standing by - I'm sure because I was so
cheap! This got me my first credit as a cinematographer in the United States. And
then Dennis Hopper called; he chose me to
shoot The Hot Spot. Michael Hoffman was able to get me on his first
studio picture, Soapdish - and when Cameron Crowe hired me for
Singles, I had landed in Hollywood.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
It's always after another day where I couldn't stop the movement of
the sun, and it still all cuts together well.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Many. But I don't seem to remember them!
What is the best professional advice you've ever received?
From my production-designer friend and mentor Eugenio Zanetti: If
you want to make a point, make the point. Be clear. Make an image
that tells the story. Choose a color and use it.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Every Oscar season I am blown away by how well-shot most of the
movies are. How do they do it?
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to
try?
I love comedies, and I love big, entertaining tentpole movies - but
most of all, I love musicals. How great would it be to get involved in
one?
If you weren't a cinematographer, what might you be doing
instead?
I have no idea. Maybe be a mediocre director?
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
James Glennon, Sandi Sissel and Steven Poster.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It was a big step. All of a sudden, I realized I'd landed somewhere I
never thought I would be. I felt grown up! I am really proud to be part
of the club.
●

American Cinematographer

Photo by Anne Wilk.

When you were a child, what film
made the strongest impression on you?
First, I fell in love with Mary Poppins. That
started me off sneaking into every movie I
could. Soon these would include Italian
movies, too - Bertolucci, De Sica, and the
wonderfully opulent widescreen world of
Visconti.



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