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Remembering Oscar-Winning 'Close Encounters' Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond


This is FRESH AIR. The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond died Friday at age 85. He won an Academy Award for cinematography for "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind." He also shot "The Deer Hunter," "Deliverance," "The Long Goodbye," "Heaven's Gate," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Melinda and Melinda." Zsigmond and his friend and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs left their native Hungary in 1956, after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Rebellion. The two young filmmakers risked their lives smuggling out footage of the revolution that briefly overthrew Soviet rule. Here's an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Vilmos Zsigmond in 1990.


GROSS: Let's go back to your film "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" from 1971. This is a film Robert Altman directed. There's a lot of browns in the movie. I think of the movie as being kind of brown and gray.

VILMOS ZSIGMOND: Well, actually what it is - actually, we had two different tones in that movie. We had the cold blue tones when it's raining outside and it's very dark, early morning. And even in a winter day, you know, when the sun is behind the clouds it has a sort of bluish look. So we had a lot of that in "McCabe." But when we went inside, in those days they had kerosene lanterns and candles, so obviously we warmed up the interiors. So the mixture of this blue and orange or sepia tones gave you the look of "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." If you look at back my old movies - "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Heaven's Gate" and "Cinderella Liberty" - I always like to use warm tones in movies. This is basically, I think, because I admire Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and those paintings today have this kind of a look.

GROSS: One of the films that you shot - and this is the film that you won the Academy Award for, "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" - had a lot of special effects in it, you know, mostly of the spaceships. And the spaceships were made up of lights, and it was visually stunning on screen. And in the family scenes, the colors are usually primary colors. There's a lot of reds and blues, the way I remember it. And in the otherworldly scenes, the colors change. Can you talk a little bit about what you did to get the different moods for, like, the family suburban scenes and the extraterrestrial scenes?

ZSIGMOND: The home scenes, we were very realistic about lighting. We didn't use any blues or warm tones or anything. It was right in the middle, just to show real life. And I think the fantasy sequence basically also looks real, but it had the sort of science-fiction reality. We set out to do something that, if it would happen, this is the way it will look. So the concept of the spaceship being brightly lit, that was a concept from the very beginning. And in fact, you know, when they open the door of the spaceship, there's so much light coming out that it blinded the eyes. And we wanted to create that effect, you know, when we actually shot the reverses of the people looking into the ship. I mean, you could see a tremendous amount of light, which I did by over-exposing the film three or four stops. It was so overexposed that at one point, Steven got frightened because we got some bad dailies which came back, actually, without showing any details of the people at all. And, you know, Steven said at that moment, Vilmos, you ruined me. And of course, he was referring to that if we have to reshoot that scene, you know, it would cost $100,000. And I said, Steven, don't worry about it. It's going to print back to almost normal. And what we did, we did the reprint, and we found out that, yes, there were a lot of details there. It was bright, but it was right.

GROSS: When you told him not to worry, were you panicking yourself?

ZSIGMOND: No, not at all.

GROSS: You really believed it was going to work?

ZSIGMOND: Well, I made my test. I knew what I was unless the laboratory did something to it, which I cannot control sometimes. I knew that I was in the ballpark.

GROSS: When you got started as a cinematographer in American movies, you started making a lot of horror films and exploitation movies - films like "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies" and "Vampire Men Of The Lost Planet," "The Sadist," "Mondo Mod." Were those movies a good way to break in?

ZSIGMOND: Well, it was not really a good way to break in, but it was good for me because I practiced my profession. All I did, actually, that - since I came to a different country where the moviemaking style was totally different than in Hungary, I learned the basics in Hungary, but I never really learned to develop my own style. And these low-budget movies were great for me and Laszlo. We usually worked together on those movies that we developed a lighting style, which was basically being very simple, only light what was important and be realistic. And that was already a good step in those days because Hollywood still was involved with an old style of moviemaking. They were still doing a lot of backlights, glamour lights and unrealistic lighting. You know, and we hated that look. We were actually brought up in Hungary in realism. And we watched all the Italian movies, all the neo-realistic movies like "Bicycle Thief" and "Rome, Open City." And luckily, there were some commercial companies in those days who were tired with the old style, and they were looking for something new - something more real.

GROSS: Is there a scene in all of your movies that you're proudest of?

ZSIGMOND: I would say that from a certain point - you know, from the point that I started to use my old name, which is Vilmos, I think if I had that name on the movie, I am proud of that. And my early movies - those horror films and pornographic films and things like that - I had a different name. I used William. So whenever you see the name William, stay away from it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Why did you change your name for those movies? Was it to hide your real identity or to just try to Americanize?

ZSIGMOND: Well, they tried to Americanize me from the very beginning. You know, when you are new in this country and you have a hard time to speak English, and everybody told me that you have to change at least your first name so it will be more recognizable. And then when I did Peter Fonda's movie, "The Hired Hand," Peter said, you don't look William to me, I bet that was not your real name in Hungary. So he asked me what my name was, and I said it was Vilmos. He said, what a beautiful name. I will put this on the title of this movie, he said.

GROSS: And then you kept your name after that.

ZSIGMOND: I kept my name after that.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your movies and your life. Thank you.

ZSIGMOND: Thank you.

GROSS: Vilmos Zsigmond, recorded 1990. He died Friday at the age of 85. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


ROONEY MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Oh, your perfume

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Yes.

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) It's nice.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird)Thank you.

GROSS: We talk about the new film "Carol," the story of a love affair between two women in the 1950s. It's based on a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith. My guests will be Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screen adaptation, and knew Highsmith, and Todd Haynes, who directed "Carol." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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