Peter Suschitzky - Technology makes job easier but doesn´t replace artistic abilitiesWritten by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
Top British cinematographer Peter Suschitzky works behind lenses for over a half of century. He collaborated with big bunch of directors but the biggest joy and success he gained alongside David Cronenberg with whom he made 11 movies. Very kind and pleasant gentleman came into Prague as a guest of FebioFest where he received main award Kristian for excellent achievement in film industry. It is nice, that while he still works with top technology and with big crews, he does care about human aspect in his business.
Suschitzky doesn´t sound too English, does your family come from Germany?
No, my father came from Jewish family in Vienna and my mum was from Brno in Czech Republic. They emigrated to England in 1938, when it became obvious, it would be too dangerous for them to stay in Austria.
What made you decide to become a cinematographer? Did you have any film idol you wanted to match?
I started to attend cinemas when I was 15 and watched many movies from Bergman and Fellini. I became quite obsessed by them.
How is it for you as cinematographer to shoot such different films as Mars Attacks, Star Wars or Cosmopolis?
It is great pleasure that my job brings me. I don´t want to be labeled as someone who makes only one kind of films. It is pretty easy to be boxed into certain category and I like shooting, comedies, Sci-fi, dramas, but not horror films.
You worked with Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise at a movie called Fallen Angels. What was it like for you to work with actors who never directed? Did they ask you for your opinion or advice or they were very self-focused and determined?
It was a TV work and I hoped that no one here watched it. I almost forgot that, not that it was a flop but it wasn´t the best thing I had worked on. I didn´t forget Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise since they were true professionals and they knew what they wanted. Hanks I think directed afterwards while Cruise didn´t.
You also worked on commercials. It is different job from making movies and do you like it from professional point of view?
I enjoy working on commercials but honestly prefer films to commercials. However working on commercials can last few hours or days not many months unlike films I don´t have to worry about big planning and stuff. They usually have big budget which enables me to play with new technical devices and sharpen my professional skill and also enables me to refuse something that is thrown my way. I can choose. I have it easier than director who has to please various groups of people from sponsors to customers.
Do you prefer shooting on locations or in studios?
I like both really. Studio doesn´t surprise me every day, it´s the same, decorations are set and light doesn´t change. But, you start from scratch and you have to build and create new world according to your imagination, which is great. Locations have their own magic, since they are different all the time and the light changes what is harder for me, but makes my job more interesting?
Have you ever considered to walk off the project if you couldn´t get on with stubborn director?
I always tried to avoid similar situations and that is why I think about people I am to work with. It happened couple of times that I refused the job sooner that film started when I realized there would be lots of mutual clashes and disagreements.
How did your collaboration with David Cronenberg start? You made 11 films with him, what is so special on him which others don´t have?
It was lucky chance really and I am still happy today that it happened to me. Once he was looking for new cinematographer and had few names on the list and luckily my name was among them. So we hit it off straight away. He chooses extraordinary stories that are not commercial and he doesn´t incline to shoot commercial movies. He of course is aware how much does the film cost and how
much should he earn to be able to shoot next movie but he doesn´t let it worry him. He always wants to make totally different film to the previous one, he doesn´t repeat himself. He is super intelligent man and has the biggest intellect of all directors I have worked with. For me it´s pure joy to work with him, he doesn´t waste time and exactly knows what he wants.
Would you rather work with Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick?
There is number of directors who already died with who I would have liked to have worked and Stanley is one of them. But I would love to work with Woody Allen.
Do you need any minimal amount of time to prepare for the film or if you get a call on Friday you could start on other side of the Earth on Tuesday?
That would probably means that someone was sacked and I have to replace him. That is not what I really like to be honest, to” inherit ” the crew. I like to pick up people myself. I don´t have my own crew I prefer working with local people that is why I need some time to get to know them. They have to be good professionally and must be fine people too. If one factor is missing, it won´t work. I don´t want to sound dogmatic but also getting a quick call could pose a big challenge for me and it could be interesting.
Do you admire any of your rival cinematographers or today a good cinematographer must be good IT and that ability and art inside him is not needed anymore?
I don´t understand technology, so I use my eyes. In optical thing I can rely on my assistant who puts camera together. I think that art and ability of person is still there since you can´t change completely the picture in computer. That idea, look and deepness of picture must be there, in front of the camera. You can enhance it but not completely change it. It would look false. Technology makes work easier but doesn´t replace your artistic abilities.
Which of your films you like the most and which one was the most difficult to make from cinematographer point of view?
I think I like the most Rocky Horrow Picture Show and Mars Attacks. Every new film is a professional challenge for me and I would think that Cosmopolitan was one of the hardest films I have ever worked on. Simple reason is that it takes place inside the car, where there is not much space to work and I hate filming inside the car so had that been different director I probably would have refused that.
Film Mars Attacks was star studded movie. Was it better for you to work with professionals who can have star mannerism or you would rather work with untried actors who would be too happy to oblige?
Most of the star actors are true professionals and they are fine to work with, obviously there can be some exceptions. I don´t like when actors try to solve out the problems e.g. about their caravan standard during the work, I prefer them to concentrate on job.
You filmed Star Wars, part V, The Empire Strikes Back. Why didn´t you shoot episode IV and VI, too?
When we made it, I didn´t know that it will be part V, since numbers have changed. Even if the collaboration lasts only one film, if someone betrays your trust, like in marriage, there is a crack and it´s hard to mend it. When George Lucas asked me to work with him on his next movie Howard Duck
I realized the main character will be some mechanical toy and I refused the job cos I prefer working with people. I guess that was the reason why I wasn´t asked to work on other Star War episodes.
You said you like versatility and don´t like making same kind of movie. Would you accept the offer to work on other episodes if offered big money?
I wouldn´ t want to be dogmatic again. It would depend on my situation I would be in. If I hadn´t filmed previous ten years I would need a job and I probably would have accepted that, depending who would direct it.
Original parts of Star Wars were digitalized. What do you think about digitalizing old films?
I have nothing against technical enhancing of the film as long as they don´t change the story or it ś visual side. I wish I was asked to take part in it since what I have seen later on shocked me, the contrast was big. When I see my old films on DVD or Blue-Ray, I sometimes don´t even recognize it. We are at will and mercy of some technician who changes it his own way.I think when they digitalized my film Naked Lunch, they went for lunch in LA after twenty minutes and when they returned they forgot to take off sunglasses , it was so much bleached.
What is the most important film for cinematographer and what would you advice any would-be cinematographer?
For me the most important thing is that I work on films they promise to be good ones. To any would-be cinematographers I would advise not give up on their hobbies and passions to which they can devote time to when they are not filming. They should enjoy their life when the don´t work.
This interview was realized at Febio Fest. Photo: Peter Suschitsky, britishcinematographer.co.uk, Febiofest, Star Wars, Mars Attack, Eva Csölleova