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In Depth

People In Film | Harris Savides

Harris Savides | Fashion and the New School

After studying film at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Bronx-born cinematographer Harris Savides decided that he wanted to become a still photographer. He told Interview magazine, “That's what I fell in love with. I started in film school just because I didn't even know what to study. You had to take some photography classes in film school, and I fell in love with the immediacy of that because you could do this stuff and process it and see it right away, and you did it by yourself. Whereas with film, everybody talked about it, but nothing happened. And everybody was watching Kubrick movies. It was like we never could actually do that — we could just be in awe of the stuff.” With Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Josef Sudek and Josef Koudelka as his photography loves, Savides traveled to Europe, shooting fashion in Milan and Paris, and accumulating an impressive body of work that garnered him instant notice from directors working in advertising and the red-hot music video scene of the 1990s.

Harris Savides | The MTV Music Video Awards

Working with the decades’s top directors — including Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Sophie Muller, Bruce Weber, and Peter Care — Harris Savides became one of the most celebrated cinematographers working in music video. In 1994 alone, his work occupied three of the five slots on the MTV Music Video Awards. (He won that year for R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” and he would win again for Madonna’s “Rain” in 1995 and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in 1998.) Other music video highpoints include two for director Mark Romanek (Madonna’s “Bedtime Stories” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”) that were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. When asked to cite a favorite music video, he names “Closer” but also one of his firsts — “Goin’ out West,” directed by Jesse Dylan for a Tom Waits song. “One take,” he remarked to Moving Image Source. “It’s just this nice experiment.” Although Savides still does the occasional music video — he shot the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Desecration Smile” video for Gus Van Sant in 2007 — he’s been put off by the medium’s declining budgets and scaled back creative ambitions. “I'd like to do them again,” he said in the Moving Image Source interview. “It's just I think the whole business changed.”

Harris Savides | Breaking into Features

For a director of cinematography who has worked with some of best art film and commercial directors, Harris Savides got his feature break with a surprising gig: shooting a made-for-cable erotic drama, Lake Consequence, for Zalman King of Red Shoe Diaries fame. “God bless him, he gave a lot of young cinematographers a start in movies,” Savides remembers in the Moving Image Source interview. “They had asked me to do a movie maybe three months after starting to work all the time in commercials. And I was like, ‘Sure, I'll do a movie.’ I mean, I'd never been on a real set before, and I got to shoot a movie. But they wanted people who were doing stylized work, like beautiful beauty, you know, high-end music videos, slick stuff, to work for them because what they did was pretty much this very soft, soft porn.” Three years later, Savides shot Phil Joanou’s Heaven’s Prisoners, and then, in 1997, David Fincher’s The Game. A string of features followed, with Savides reuniting with Fincher in 2007 for the digitally-shot Zodiac.

Harris Savides | The films of Gus Van Sant

In a conversation with Madonna published in Interview magazine, Gus Van Sant remembers the first time he heard of Harris Savides. “I was making a commercial for Levi's several years ago, and the art director said that they had just worked with Harris Savides,” recalls Van Sant. “And they were sort of pushing him on me. They said, ‘Madonna doesn't work with anyone else.’ So I went, ‘Well, shit. If Madonna won't work with anyone else. . . .’” Van Sant hired Savides on his 2000 film, Finding Forrester, beginning a collaboration that has spanned six features. While Finding Forrester was a more traditional drama reminiscent of Van Sant’s earlier Good Will Hunting, their next film, Gerry, would be a pivotal work for both men. Set in the desert of the American West, the film followed two friends who become hopelessly lost while hiking. The movie used long takes, hypnotic Steadicam shots, and it broke completely with the visual language of commercial American cinema. Said Savides at Moving Image Source, “Gerry was, for me, a really important film. It was a milestone. After working through Gerry, I felt like I understood filmmaking for the first time. In working so simply, I gained a confidence that I never had before.” Van and Savides followed up Gerry with Elephant, a multi-perspective tale of a Columbine-like high school shooting, with Savides’ camera eerily floating through school hallways behind the heads of shooters and victims alike. Savides won cinematography awards from the New York Film Critics Circle for both films, and he also shot the final film, Last Days, in what has become known as Van Sant’s “death trilogy.”

Harris Savides | Milk and the San Francisco of the 1970s

The next film with Van Sant, Milk, would not be another experimental narrative influenced by the work of European directors like Béla Tarr and Chantal Akerman, but rather a biopic of slain San Francisco mayor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Sean Penn won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Milk, and critics were impressed with the film’s refusal to indulge in amber-hued visual nostalgia. Van Sant and Savides looked at ‘70s newsreel footage for inspiration, and even hired several actual shooters from the period to lens some material. “We told them to shoot as if they were capturing a political rally back in the day,” Savides told Cinematographer.com. That approached was abandoned after a few days of dailies. “'It looked like we were trying too hard — it was form over content,” Savides said. The final film mixes bits of stock footage – 16mm and video – with the 35mm for what Variety critic Todd McCarthy called a “naturalistic, lived-in look.” Commented Savides, “We were shooting a movie about the '70s, so the period itself set a tone, but this was the least 'designed' movie I've shot for Gus. On one hand, that was liberating; on the other, it really stressed me out.''

Harris Savides | Noah Baumbach's Greenberg

In 2010 Harris Savides shot two films that captured sides of Los Angeles rarely seen on screen. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg stars Ben Stiller as a guy trying to stabilize his life by housesitting his more successful brother’s house in the Hollywood Hills. The film takes place not within the world of movie star premieres and industry parties but within the neighborhoods of mid-lifers just trying to make it through their days. It was Savides’ second film with Baumbach (it followed Margo at the Wedding), and the cinematographer infused the tale with an unfussy pictorial naturalism. “We looked at Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, and Five Easy Pieces,” said Savides to Moving Image Source about his prep work on the film with Baumbach. “But I never want to ape a movie. I think it just informs us and suggests a certain vibe. You know, you can't work in a void. I certainly can't go into a project and just do what I want. So to mention those movies to me just sets the tone and the pace for the way the movie looks.” Wrote Variety’s Todd McCarthy, “Except for the opening shots, which seem specifically designed to spotlight Los Angeles at its smoggy worst, the metropolis is presented from ground level without editorializing and with a fine balance between the beauty and the blight, the ease and the hassle, the luxury and the basic, the stimulating and the banal…. Lenser Harris Savides' contributions to the film's success in capturing a lived-in L.A. feel cannot be underestimated.”

Harris Savides | Sofia Coppola and Somewhere

For his second L.A. picture of 2010, Savides worked for the first time with Sofia Coppola on her Venice Golden Lion-winning Somewhere. It’s the story of Johnny Marco, a B+/A- list movie star checked into the Chateau Marmont for an extended stay, and the few magical days he spends with his young daughter, dumped on his doorstep by Marco’s ex-wife in crisis. The film captures an eerie loneliness of privileged life by, as Savides did in Greenberg, allowing the sets to feel natural and uninflected by cinematographic trickery. Wrote Justin Chang in Variety, “Savides' camera prowls the balconies and bungalows of this popular Hollywood haunt with an appreciation for its beauty as well as its isolation.” Said Coppola of her collaboration with the d.p., “Harris and I like similar photography; he gets fashion references, because he’s worked in that world. He embraced the minimal and naturalistic style on this movie; we weren’t encumbered by a lot of set-up time and equipment, and we could be free in how we approached shooting it. I loved the way he shot it in natural light. I’m not one of those people who storyboard everything or plan everything before; I like to try things and then figure it out as we go, and Harris is open to working the same way.”

Harris Savides | The Cinematographer and the Image

Referencing the Belgian art film director Chantal Akerman one moment and discussing his work on Ridley Scott’s American Gangster the next, Harris Savides is a rare and sometimes contradictory talent within the American film industry. He’s worked in fashion and shot some of the most stylized music videos of all time, yet he’s often known for an uninflected kind of naturalism. He’s spoken of with reverence by both directors and cineastes, but unlike many marquee d.p.’s, he doesn’t have a signature style. Always, though, Savides is sensitive to the image. For a d.p., that would seem to be a given, but these days, too many cinematographers use too many tools to create images that may look good but register as patently unreal. You’ll never see Savides do this. “I feel like in Hollywood—or let's just call it in filmmaking—there's a tendency to, because you have equipment, use it,” he told Moving Image Source. “And that might not be what you need to do…. I mean, half of is knowing what to turn off, in terms of units.” And while Savides knows how to make actors look great, his most famous quote involves him saying that he lights rooms, not people. “I regret saying that,” he told Interview magazine. “Although it’s kind of a truth. I see a space, light it, and then have the actors live in that space or do whatever they need to do when they enter that space for the story.” Perhaps what makes Savides a great cinematographer is that he has discovered something that many other d.p.s spend their lifetime figuring out. “I know that making a movie is really not about cinematography,” he told Moving Image Source. “It is, but it's more about the story.”

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