On the Move
Gotham Awards Tribute recipient Ellen Kuras takes us into the fast-paced life of an in-demand DP.
Ellen Kuras operates like a perpetual-motion machine. One moment she’s photographing Michel Gondry’s latest feature. The next, shooting The Rolling Stones for Martin Scorsese. There are meetings with Lou Reed about an upcoming concert project. Also, a long-gestating documentary she’s been directing at every opportunity. And in between all of that, she found time to replace her old car that just died and pick up her new tailless cat from the vet.
There are, of course, rewards to such endeavors. Like being the recipient of a 2006 Gotham Awards Tribute — recognition of a career that includes lensing such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, He Got Game and Swoon, her first feature, and winner of Sundance’s cinematography prize in 1992.
In preparation for The Gothams, Ellen chiseled a moment from her schedule to talk about her tribute, as well as a few high-profile shows she recently worked on.
“I’m thrilled,” she commented. “The Gothams is always my favorite party to go to because it’s a gathering of New Yorkers. It’s when we all see each other. During the year everybody’s off working and doing their own thing making films. It’s when I get to see so many of the New York filmmakers. We’ve grown up together. It’s a great, great opportunity for everybody to get together, and for that I love it.
“For me to be honored by them…it’s huge! I’m not one of the actresses, I’m not one of the actors. I think it’s a great step in the right direction for them to be looking at people who are behind the camera. So often, the awards and honors, so to speak, go to the actors, which is legitimate — but at the same time, with all due respect to them, they’re not the only ones who are making the films. So it’s great that The Gothams recognize that film is a true collaboration.”
Kuras recently completed production on Be Kind Rewind, her third collaboration with Michel Gondry, and she offered a genuinely enthusiastic take on the experience: “Be Kind Rewind I think is going to be a really special movie. It’s different than Eternal Sunshine in many ways. I think that Be Kind is a film with incredible heart and also a really interesting complexity to it. It’s really a comment about filmmaking — how we watch films and what we expect from films. And it’s about personal relationships in a neighborhood and how they change, how they’re symbiotic in a way.”
Continuing with Gondry’s trademark homemade aesthetic sensibility, “We shot a good portion of Be Kind Rewind on VHS with a VHS camera. It’s part of this old tiny movie that [Jack Black and Mos Def] create. He came up with this idea that the characters would put this old radiator fan in front of the camera and mount it — make this little rig out of junkyard parts and put the frame with strings and wires hanging off the front to make it feel like there were scratches. It’s part of Michel’s genius that comes out in that touch of using the VHS camera. So VHS is not dead.”
After wrapping Be Kind Rewind, Ellen literally had an hour and a half to get from Passaic, New Jersey, to The Beacon Theater, in Manhattan for her follow-up gig where she joined Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki and Andrew Lesnie, among notable others, as an all-star DP team shooting Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary. Did she down a venti cup of Breakfast Blend? On the contrary: “Actually, I had a margarita.”
“What a fantastic time for all of us DP’s! Not only a fantastic time, but it was amazing working for Bob Richardson and with Marty Scorsese talking to us on the headsets, being near The Stones and being able to film them, see their performance, hear their performance. But the greatest excitement I think for all of us was the fact that there were so many DP’s who worked together. And once we got together we spent the whole time together. There were times where I didn’t get home till 4 in the morning. We were having dinners together, watching playbacks together. We were having such a wonderful time just being with each other.”
Expect a brief lull in Ellen Kuras’ shooting schedule on November 29th when the IFP hands out the 2006 Gotham Awards.