He brought an otherworldly luster to Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and made southern Appalachia terrifying in John Boorman's "Deliverance." But Vilmos Zsigmond, 80, still seeks new frontiers. That's what excited him about shooting "Louis," a silent movie in (mostly) black and white about the young Louis Armstrong.
"How often will you be asked to shoot a silent movie in black and white in 2010?" he asked with a laugh last week, over the phone from Los Angeles.
In a way, it was a creative homecoming. The magic of black-and-white photography is what attracted him to camerawork. He was a boy in his native Hungary when the camera bug bit him. "I was in bed for three weeks or a month with some kidney problem when I was 17. I was so bored. But I had an uncle who gave me a book by the photographer Eugene Dulovits, and it was full of beautiful black-and-white pictures. It was called 'The Art of Light.' That's when I realized that good photography was all about the light and the shadows."
"Louis" paints a stylized portrait of 6-year-old Louis Armstrong as a budding artist. But a brilliant fable could be made about Zsigmond's own youth. Because his father was a soccer coach, Communist authorities considered his family bourgeois. The regime "was so insecure politically they wanted to get all the farmers' kids and workers' kids to go to university and keep people who came from a bourgeois background out of college." Eventually, he proved that he could be useful to the proletariat by starting a photography club in the factory where he worked. "I became a hero and a good guy. They sent me to film school. I knew something about photography, but I didn't really know what cinematography was. I soon realized cinematography would be my life."
He took inspiration from the movies of Italian "neorealists," especially Vittorio De Sica ("Bicycle Thieves") and particularly "Umberto D." "They were very real and they also had some social comment and something else, some vision." When he escaped Hungary after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and came to America, he did not see the same level of truth and poetry. "I saw glossy, very colorful, highly technical movies. But younger filmmakers like Robert Altman, John Boorman and Steven Spielberg became the new generation of film directors who wanted to have a different style, and they were learning that partly from Europe. My education in Hungary made it easy for me to combine styles." He ended up shooting beautiful, groundbreaking movies for all of them, including "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" for Altman and "Blow Out" for Brian De Palma.
"I like working with first-time directors," he said, referring to Spielberg at the time of "The Sugarland Express" and Dan Pritzker, director of "Louis" and "Bolden." Zsigmond got his last Oscar nomination for De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" (2006). His talent is something better than "youthful." It's timeless.