Listening to cinematographer Tom Hurwitz discuss filmmaking is like taking a condensed master class. As a working filmmaker, an instructor, and somebody who has worked closely with camera companies as the technologies of the past 25 years have evolved, he has a unique perspective on almost every aspect of the business.
And while he is comfortable and expansive while talking about many subjects—the early days of digital cinematography, adoptions of different equipment, and even his own beginnings working behind the camera—he seems most passionate when talking about working on the documentaries that have defined his working life for the past 40 years or so.
Hurwitz’s latest project, “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper,” directed by Liz Garbus, is an intimate portrait of Vanderbilt and Cooper’s family and the long and winding journey which has shaped their legacy. Vanderbilt, one of the world’s most foremost icons in the world of fashion and popular culture, has led a most interesting life, filled with love and loss and creation. Cooper, a seemingly unflappable presence when reporting the news, has sometimes squirmed when the camera looks for a little introspection and searching of the soul.
As a cinematographer, Hurwitz has worked diligently on not being pigeonholed. His resume includes films about the Big Recession (“The Queen of Versailles”), major icons (“Valentino: The Last Emperor”), and the legacy of Guantanamo Bay (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”). And that’s just scratching the surface. Suffice it to say, if there’s a subject that’s been made into a documentary, chances are Hurwitz has looked through a lens at it. And in the end, he’s looking for that connection; he’s looking for stories, but mostly for the people that drive those stories. Because that’s how we connect with each other. As he says, “To me the most interesting documentaries are the ones where big voices of history are seen through the lens of really strong characters.”
Hurwitz was at Sundance this week as part of a panel celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Canon EOS 5D, one of the cameras that led the digital revolution and changed handheld filmmaking forever. He has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to different cameras and their applications, saying, “I bought one of the first (Canon) C300s in the country.” Hurwitz’s relationship with Canon has continued; he shot “Nothing Left Unsaid” on the Canon C300 as well.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with him at Sundance, just before he went on stage. Even though he was crunched for time, the unflappable Hurwitz chatted about the first time he held a camera, what he looks for when he’s deciding to work on a project, and why a film like “Nothing Left Unsaid” matters even if there are “bigger” subjects out there.
Film Slate Magazine: At this point in your career, what does it take for you to look at a project and say, ‘This is what I want to do’? Because you’ve done so many documentaries and so many different things, what has to grab you now about a project?
Tom Hurwitz: That’s an interesting question from several different points of view. The first one is: this is the third documentary I’ve done about very privileged people in one way or another. I did ‘The Last Emperor’ about the designer Valentino and his lifetime partner, which had a pretty good run; I did ‘Queen of Versailles’ which also did quite a big run; and I did this one. I always think that a good documentary talks about the world at the same time as it talks about the subject matter. Somehow you need the macrocosm and the microcosm at the same time. And certainly ‘Queen of Versailles’ did that very obviously by talking about these wealthy people at the time of the crash.
‘Nothing Left Unsaid’ has a similar kind of resonance in that yes, it’s talking about a kind of royalty in some sense, but also their problems are the same problems that we all have, and who have dealt with life in ways that are very fascinating. When I met Gloria Vanderbilt, I was in love with her as a subject in 15 minutes. She’s just an amazing character. And she has come through a really difficult life with a huge amount of wisdom and grace. Plus she’s a hugely creative person. So a film that was about the creation of beauty, that’s a wonderful thing to channel that.
FSM: Is there a way that with people of power and affluence, do you say, ‘This needs to be shot lushly,’ or ‘This needs to be shot this way,’ because that’s sort of their persona. If you look at Gloria Vanderbilt, that is her persona. Does that affect the way that you shoot subjects?
TH: Very much so. Gloria is a visual artist. Gloria is a painter and a sculptor. She’s a person with a tremendous sense of personal style in her environment and what she wears. But also in her home where we spent a lot of time. So invoking that, photographing that in the way that expressed that beauty was leading to the choices that I made photographically.
FSM: Do you like, say more intimate shoots, or larger subjects? Do you have a preference, or if the story grabs you and the people grab you, you’ll adapt to whatever the story needs?
TH: I think a story without characters is deficient. It’s all about telling stories. When it’s didactic it kind of loses its power. I have very strong feelings about big subjects. I think the most powerful films that talk about those big subjects do it through the characters in the film.
FSM: If you go into a project with a director that you haven’t worked with before, do they feel they know what they’re getting, or do you surprise them and say, ‘Let’s try this’ or ‘Let’s attack it this way.’ Or do they think they know they’re getting the Tom Hurwitz brand?
TH: I have resisted all my life developing a very limited and characteristic style. I’m about visually telling stories. That’s what I’m about; I’m about using every tool I can, visually, to tell a story in the strongest way possible. And style is part of that. So you’ll see the style of the photography in ‘Nothing Left Unsaid’ is very different from the style of the next film that I’m going to have come out, which is called ‘Cradle of Champions,’ which is about amateur boxing in New York—the Golden Gloves tournament. The characters are street kids and boxing coaches and it’s a very different world and the style is very different. The style has to connect to the story. That way, I have managed to be working for nearly 40 years and I haven’t had to worry about being out of date.
FSM: Some cinematographers get pigeonholed and do a certain style over and over again or something that’s very identifiable.
TH: I think that what’s identifiable about my work is getting it—getting the decisive moment that tells the story; and a sense of light and composition that has a certain kind of grace about it. I think that answers what I’m most proud of in my work and what I’ve worked at in a lifetime, and I still keep working at it. It’s still ephemeral and it almost gets away, on the edge of getting it with every project.
But getting back to working with a director, I love to collaborate and listen very, very carefully to the ideas of the director and the way that he or she is approaching the project. I don’t have any standards in the directors that I work with. Sometimes I work with very, very experienced filmmakers and sometimes I work with first time directors. And I’ve had wonderful results with both sets of people. I listen very intently and I interface with them very fully. Because after all the film is in their head. I use my eyes and my eye to try to realize that for them. And that’s really the joy of my work. When it’s not my film. Once every five or six years I make a film of my own. Usually I’ll do it in collaboration with a co-director and in that case it’s me making all the decisions.
FSM: For you, was there ever one moment where you said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ or was it just kind of gradual? How much influence was there being in a filmmaking family? What steered you to think that you wanted to spend your career doing this?
TH: That’s a really interesting question. My dad, as you may know, was a very important early documentary director. Leo Hurwitz. He had been blacklisted most of my young childhood and what that meant was there were no shoots to go on. He was cutting other people’s films and doctoring them and trying to make a living without his name being on a television or a Hollywood credit. And suddenly when I was about nine he and another guy started making a documentary. And they were shooting it and I went out with them. They were both shooting it together because his co-filmmaker was a wonderful photographer by the name of Charlie Pratt. And one day during shooting I asked to hold the Arriflex. And I held the Arriflex and looked at it.
I looked through it and it had an 85 filter on it and everything looked kind of brown. I looked through it and I saw the image in it and it was magical. This kind of magic moment happened for me. And I pointed it up at the sky and I pointed it at the tree and seeing through that camera was just…the idea that I could put the world into that camera was a revelation.
And then I pointed it down to look at my feet. And the lens hadn’t been seated correctly in the camera. And slowly I saw it becoming a littler circle and more out of focus. And then all of a sudden everything went white and the lens fell on my toe (laughing). Both my father and Charlie were very nice about it even though the lens had to go back to the shop and had to get the aperture fixed. I never forgot it. And that’s really when I knew what I wanted to do.
FSM: Any final thoughts about the film?
TH: I’m very, very proud of it. I think it’s a really moving film. Even though you may think you should be more interested in refugees in Syria—and in many ways you should be very interested in those people—that the struggles and the dramatic plot of these two people’s lives has been really extraordinary. And the effect on the audience is really profound. So I urge people to see it.