James Chressanthis is one of the Directors of Photography on The NBC drama Gone currently being produced in Pittsburgh.
Chressanthis began his film career shooting break-through and first music videos for such artists as NWA, Dr. Dre, John Wesley Harding, Hammer, and Bobby McFerrin as well as James Brown and a Grammy nominated clip “Smells Like Nirvana” for “Weird Al” Yankovic.
I wanted to get behind the scenes and understand his style of cinematography when it comes to entertainment film making and see his imagery through the eye of the beholder, as James makes everything captivating for the audience.
As the DP (Director of Photography) for NBC’s Gone, did you have to interview for the position or did the network just contact you and offer you the job?
It’s a combination of both. Producer Kim Moses who I worked with on Ghost Whisperer and some other projects called me in the Fall of 2016 and said, “Would I be interested in shooting a new project, a new business model with NBC. And I said: Yes, of course.” And so, she put me forward and I had to be approved by the NBC International folks.
How do you become a member of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers)? Did you have to go to college for this or can you succeed through experience?
You don’t have to go to college for anything in the movie business, though I recommend it very highly. You need to know aesthetics: fine art, painting, sculpture, photography, literature, music and not only from European culture but you need to know about art from all world cultures.
The ASC is by invitation only. I was asked to join after my first Emmy nomination for the ABC miniseries ‘Life with Judy Garland’.
Regarding your film, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, what inspired you to tell the story of these particular cinematographers from Hungary and not your own struggle of what you face working behind the camera?
Well, they had a very unique journey. Here is the story of that movie: two film students record the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Hungarian freedom fighters against Soviet tanks. The revolution is lost, and remember they are doing this at the risk of their own lives. They would have been shot on sight, had they been caught with a camera filming. When the revolution was lost they smuggled the film out of the country and once they were out in Austria, they were without friends, family, or country and had to decide what they would do with their lives. Laszlo and Vilmos said “Well we are cinematographers so we should go to Hollywood.” So, these young guys who had a lot of talent, but not a lot of experience journeyed to Hollywood, then changed world cinema, and remained loyal friends for over fifty years.
Their credits include: Easy Rider, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Paper Moon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Ghostbusters and over one hundred feature films between them.
My film is a double biography and not just a Hollywood movie story, but an amazing journey. In 1985 I was a student of Laszlo Kovacs at the AFI and a year later I was an AFI Cinematography intern to Vilmos Zsigmond on ‘The Witches of Eastwick‘. Laszlo visited one day and I saw them together and I realized they had a great story. It took twenty years to finally film it. I was just a kid at the time, I had my own career to start and a family to raise. I have had a very successful career so finally at an event in December 2006 I saw that Laszlo was ill. A journalist who knew I was thinking about this project turned to me and said you’re going to make that movie, aren’t you?
So we starting filming in February 2007 for nearly a year off and on and in May 2008 the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, appeared in over thirty film festivals around the world and earned my third Emmy nomination for the PBS version. These are two remarkable human beings, so it is a human story, it’s a Cold War story, it’s an immigrant story, it’s a story of brotherhood and love. It’s a story of cinema and changing cinema. And also standing up for your own beliefs and going after your own dreams.
On the set of Gone, you invited students from the AI (Art Institute of Pittsburgh) to visit the set and experience what it’s like to produce a TV show, what motivated your act of kindness?
Well, first off, back to ‘Laszlo & Vilmos’ when I was an intern with Vilmos Zsigmond on ‘The Witches of Eastwick‘. I didn’t have any money, I was an unpaid intern and learning so much, of course, then later they hired me and I shot little pieces of that movie, inserts minor things but big things to me being a kid at the time. And Vilmos told me, “Don’t worry I know you are having trouble with money, you’re at the beginning of things, and it seems difficult, but just remember you are going to be successful. And when you do I want you to promise me something: Help the next person.”
So that is what we should all do: pass it forward, it’s how we should live, it’s not all about a crawl through the mud & grasping for monetary reward. The biggest reward is doing well and helping others. The reason I came into contact with the students is that Darren Miller, my 1st assistant on B Camera was at Kennywood amusement park and bumped into them and they all started talking, and he came back and told me he met these very interesting film students that are about to graduate. Can they come and visit us on set? I said sure of course!
And they spent a full day on set while we filmed an episode of Gone.
My cinematography and photography have been a significant part of my life and have followed both similar and divergent paths. I always look where the ancient and traditional intersect with the archetypal and modern.
For more about James Chressanthis, make sure you connect with him on his blog and website.