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What It Takes - Steven Spielberg

What It Takes - Steven Spielberg
What It Takes - Steven Spielberg
What It Takes - Steven Spielberg
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00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement.

00:00:08 I'm Alice Winkler.

00:00:10 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:16 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:22 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:27 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:34 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:42 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:47 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:01:00 ALICE WINKLER: Most episodes of What It Takes tell the tale of a single, remarkable person, as you know if you’re a regular. But in this episode you’re getting a twofer, because the two men you’re going to hear from today, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, have worked together over the past 25 years to bring us some of the most memorable movies ever made: Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, the list keeps going.

00:01:37 STEVEN SPIELBERG: I dream for a living. This is what I’ve done all my life. This is what I wanted to do with my life.

00:01:43 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Yeah, it became an addiction for me, creating images, you know, the sound of the projector. Of course, that doesn’t happen anymore because we don’t have 35-millimeter projectors, but that sound, you know. When I hear the sound of the projector, I’m getting ready to get high because that is — it’s just about to deliver that emotional adrenaline rush, you know — the images, my images, projected on the big screen.


00:02:10 ALICE WINKLER: Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have made 15 movies together, and they have a few more in the pipeline already. If you’re a fan of their films, take a moment to tweet about this episode. Our hashtag is #WhatItTakesNow. The latest Spielberg/Kaminski production is called BFG. That stands for Big Friendly Giant — it’s based on a wonderful children’s book by Roald Dahl.

00:02:42 SOPHIE: And that is where our story begins.


00:02:49 ALICE WINKLER: Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski’s personal stories are quite different, as I guess all personal stories are, but when I pulled recordings of both men from the vault at the Academy of Achievement, I found it so interesting to listen to them back-to-back. Spielberg was born to a middle class family in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1940s. Kaminski was born in a tiny town called Ziębice in Communist Poland in the 1950s. At 22, he left, alone, to an imaginary America he’d seen on the big screen. Within ten years, in the real America, he’d learned English and filmmaking and was collaborating with Steven Spielberg on a powerful film about the Holocaust, a film that would win them each an Academy Award.

00:03:41 Given the body of work they’ve made together, starting with Schindler’s List, it seems that Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, born a world apart, were destined to come together to tell stories. So first to Spielberg, who told the story of how he became a filmmaker to students at an Academy of Achievement gathering in 2006. Then we’ll take a little intermission, when you can refill your virtual popcorn bowl, and we’ll return with Janusz Kaminski. So here’s Steven Spielberg’s talk, pretty much in its entirety.

00:04:17 STEVEN SPIELBERG: Everything I’m about to tell you happened completely by accident. And I think it all started out when I was maybe six or seven years old, and my father came over to me and said, "I'm going to take you to see the greatest show on Earth." And when you promise a six-, seven-, eight-year-old young boy that you're about to see the greatest show on Earth, I couldn't have been more excited.

00:04:45 My father explained there were going to be lion tamers and circus acts. There were going to be clowns and trapeze artists, and I was absolutely delighted, and I looked forward to this for a week. On the weekend, we got in the car. We drove to Philadelphia — we lived in New Jersey, in Haddon Township, New Jersey. We drove into Philadelphia, and it was very, very cold. It was wintertime, around the holiday season, and we stood in a very long line, I remember, against a solid, red brick wall for what seemed like hours.

00:05:18 I think we actually stood in line for about two-and-a-half hours. The line just inched forward. I didn’t quite understand. I was waiting to see the tent, and there was not a tent. There was a brick wall. We walked into some rather large doors, and we walked into a very — kind of a dimly lit room. I remember the room had a lot of pink and purple lights, and the ceiling looked like a church. It was a lot of Rococo carvings.

00:05:46 There wasn’t any kind of iconic, you know, symbology in the room, but it felt like a place of worship, a little bit like our synagogue, actually, and I still didn’t quite understand about the greatest show on Earth. And I sat down in some seats, and they were all facing forward, not bleachers but seats. There was a large red curtain — I'll never forget this, and the curtain opened. The lights went down, and a dimly lit image came on the screen, and it was flickering, and it was kind of grainy because we were sitting way in front.

00:06:27 And suddenly I realized that my father had lied to me, and had betrayed me, and had taken me to a circus that wasn’t a circus. It was a movie about a circus, and I had never seen a movie before. That was the first movie I ever saw, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. I had never seen a motion picture before.

00:06:51 I had seen a lot of television because my dad was an electrical engineer, and in his spare time, when he wasn’t working for RCA, he was repairing the early television sets of the early '50s. So I knew television, but I didn’t know movies. That was my first movie experience, and I think the feeling of disappointment and regret and betrayal lasted only about ten minutes, and then I became just one more victim of this tremendous drug called cinema, and I was no longer in a theater. I was no longer in a seat.

00:07:23 I wasn’t aware of the surroundings. It was no longer a church. It was a place of equal devotion and worship, however. I became part of an experience, and I became part of the lives of a lot of people that I never would meet, and I would only get to know in this one story, but that became my life. Now in the center of this movie, if any of you remember the Cecil B. DeMille film The Greatest Show on Earth, there’s a tremendous train wreck, where a train speeding along the tracks is encountered by a car, and the train hits the car.

00:07:59 The car flips over the top of the engine, and the train goes off the tracks, and it's a tremendous disaster, where all the cars pile up. It was a special effect sequence. Later, I learned it was a miniature train, but it was as real as I’ve ever seen anything in my life. It was the greatest disaster I ever beheld, and for me it began my interest not in making movies but in asking my dad to get me a Lionel electric train.

00:08:29 So I went from wanting to become part of this incredible experience to wanting to own my first electric train, and that holiday season my dad got me my first Lionel engine and a little coal car and a caboose and a few passenger cars. And the next year, I asked for the same thing. I said, "I’d like another engine," so I had two trains. And as I got older, I began to collect every year, more and more cars and people and semaphores and crossing signals. I became a complete electric train nut.

00:09:01 And I had a rather large layout in our — and by this time, by the way, we had moved from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona, which, by the way, when you’re about 12 years old, there is nothing to do in Phoenix, Arizona, nothing at all. So I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was really interested in seeing what it would look like if I could recreate that memory, now several years older, of The Greatest Show on Earth, and could I recreate the train wreck? And I actually took my two trains, and I just rammed them into each other, and they broke.

00:09:32 And I told my dad the train had broken, and he said, "How did it happen?" I said, "I rammed them into each other," and my dad had them repaired. And the next week I crashed my trains into each other again, and the other train broke, and my dad said, "Look, you know, you — I’m going to take the train set away if you crash these things into each other one more time. You’re not going to have trains anymore." But there was something about whatever the primal sense of wanting to destroy something because of that movie — whatever got into me, I needed to see those trains crash into each other.

00:10:04 And so, I also didn’t want to lose my train set. My dad had, sitting around the house — which I always had taken for granted — this little eight millimeter Kodak film movie camera with a turret that had three lenses, kind of wide, medium, and close-up lenses. I never really bothered with the camera, but I thought, "Well, I know what I can do. What if I film the trains crashing into each other? I can just watch the film over and over and over again."

00:10:33 And that’s how I made my first movie.

00:10:36 I shot one train, just all in the camera. I didn’t have an editing machine. I just put the camera low to the track, the way we, as children, like to put our eyes close to the toys we’re playing with so the scale seems to be, you know — the scale seems to be realistic. And I just filmed one train going left to right. I filmed the other train, cut the camera, turned it around, the other train coming right to left. And intuitively I figured out that if I put my camera in the middle and they met in the middle, I’d have my train wreck. Well, that’s exactly what I did.

00:11:05 Luckily the trains didn’t break, but I looked at that film over and over and over again, and then I thought, "I wonder what else I could do with this camera?" And that’s how it began, and that’s how I became a director. And the first time I sensed that an audience was kind of agreeing with my choice of profession was when I was a Boy Scout and I went out for the Photography merit badge, and I wanted to — and the requirement in the merit badge simply said you have to tell a picture with still photographs.

00:11:38 Our still camera broke. I went to the Scoutmaster. I said, "Can I tell a story with our home movie camera?" He said, "Yes" — to fulfill the requirements for the merit badge — and I made a little Western called Gunsmog.

00:11:52 I’m really dating myself because, of course, James Arness and Gunsmoke was all the rage on television in those days. And I made this little Western with my sisters and my friends, and my next-door neighbors and some of the Boy Scouts. And we just — everybody had cowboy suits because we lived in Arizona, my goodness, you know.

00:12:09 And so we all brought our cowboy suits out, and I made this little Western movie and showed it to the Boy Scout troop on a Friday night when we had a meeting, and they went ballistic. They were screaming and clapping and laughing both with and at the movie. I didn’t care. It was a response, and the response set me on fire. It absolutely set me on fire, and I never wanted to live without some kind of affirmation, some kind of collective feedback.

00:12:37 And maybe that’s why my early movies were all about you. My early movies were all soliciting you, making you my partners, thinking about you behind the camera, thinking about what would turn you on, what would get you excited, what would make you laugh, what would make you scream. How could I create suspense out of whole cloth when that darn shark never worked?


00:12:59 STEVEN SPIELBERG: And you were my partners. My audience, you know — I collaborated with you, and you collaborated with me, and I think in the beginning of my career, I had this wonderful experience, and the thing I really want to emphasize is, I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a choice.

00:13:17 When you have a dream — and the dream isn’t something you dream and then it happens, the dream is something you never knew was going to come into your life — dreams always come from behind you, not right between your eyes. It sneaks up on you. But when you have a dream, it doesn’t often come at you, screaming in your face, "This is who you are! This is what you must be for the rest of your life." Sometimes a dream almost whispers, and I’ve always said to my kids: "The hardest thing to listen to, your instincts, your human personal intuition, always whispers. It never shouts. Very hard to hear. So you have to, every day of your lives, be ready to hear what whispers in your ear. It very rarely shouts."

00:14:05 ALICE WINKLER: Cue the music.


00:14:24 ALICE WINKLER: So that is how Steven Spielberg came to make movies and listen to what intuition had to tell him, and one thing his intuition told him in 1991 was that a guy named Janusz Kaminski was someone he needed to meet. Kaminski was a Polish émigré, a young cinematographer with just a few years’ experience. Spielberg was already a giant. He’d made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun.

00:14:59 He didn’t know anything about Janusz Kaminski. He had no reason to. But one day he was watching a TV movie called Wildflower, directed by Diane Keaton, and he really liked the way it looked, so Steven Spielberg followed the voice whispering in his ear.

00:15:16 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What do you think he saw?

00:15:18 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: He saw great composition and great lighting and great storytelling through camera.

00:15:22 ALICE WINKLER: That is Janusz Kaminski talking to journalist Gail Eichenthal for the Academy of Achievement.

00:15:29 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: But also I think he really liked that it was a television movie, and television during that time was not good-looking, you know. Now television is amazing. I mean television is such a powerful medium, so in early — during that time, visuals were not a part of television language. So I was able to create a very interesting language on a very short schedule. Steven Spielberg watched the picture on television. He fell in love with the movie. We had a meeting.

00:15:55 He wanted to meet me in person to see who am I and so forth, and he asked me to do a movie for his company. It was a television movie. It was a pilot called Class of 1861. It dealt with West Point cadets on the brink of the Civil War, where the friends ended up fighting and killing each other during the Civil War. And I did that pilot, and I sort of learned during the production this was my testing ground, you know. And after the pilot, he offered me a job, which was basically Schindler’s List. And from thereon, I was pretty much set through the rest of my life.

00:16:27 ALICE WINKLER: So that is how cinematographer Janusz Kaminski began his remarkable 25-year collaboration with Steven Spielberg, with an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, ten years after arriving in the United States, speaking no English. In a few minutes, you’ll hear Kaminski talk much more specifically about the look and feel he created for Schindler’s List and some of the other movies he’s made with Spielberg. But let’s not lose track of the plot, and by that I mean Janusz Kaminski’s story, going back to the beginning, back to his childhood in Poland.

00:17:04 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: You know, Poland was very interesting because it was under the Communist regime. There was a tremendous emphasis on culture. There was a tremendous emphasis on art. We really did not have many things to buy, so subsequently there was no focus on material goods, you know. We were pretty much emphasized to be as smart as we could, participate in school events, go to the theater, see plays, participate in artistic events, and just have a life of a young man who eventually will grow up to be a successful individual.

00:17:44 Of course, all that ends when you have to compete for a job. That situation would completely get twisted because of the Communist regime.

00:17:55 ALICE WINKLER: Janusz Kaminski says Poland had its own pretty unique form of communism, and it really was a mixed bag.

00:18:03 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: There wasn’t much political freedom, but there was definitely artistic freedom. I always say, and trivialize it a bit, by saying that we had artistic freedom, but we didn’t have any food. If you went to East Germany, there was a tremendous amount of food, but there was no artistic freedom. There was no personal freedom. Poland was relatively liberal when it came to that. Of course, there were restrictions. You couldn't travel outside the Eastern Bloc, but you could travel, whereas the East Germans couldn’t travel.

00:18:29 So the Poles could travel to Czechoslovakia, to Yugoslavia, to East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, and all that stuff. So we were exposed to other cultures. Also we had tremendous access to Western European and American music, and also films. We were exposed to most current American films, and I had a good education. And right from the beginning, my values were set the right way. I was never poor. I just didn’t have money. There’s nothing worse than being poor, where poor means you are uneducated.

00:19:01 You are ignorant. Not having money, there’s nothing wrong with it. I would say it was pretty good to grow up in Communist Poland.

00:19:09 ALICE WINKLER: Kaminski’s family situation, on the other hand, was pretty bad. When he was six years old, his mother abandoned them, or as he likes to say, she bailed, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandmother.

00:19:22 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Yeah. I think my father was a little bit of a tyrant. Daddy had some anger issues, and I mean nobody really talks about the post-war generation. I mean there’s a little bit of a — you know, in America, after the Vietnam War, we made some movies that would deal with that anger, that rage, you know. But the whole of Europe was full of anger. You’re going through a period of six years of total chaos, total, you know, moral decay. In fact, morality did not exist, you know.

00:19:51 So he grew up in Poland during the war. He was nine when the war started, and he was 15 when the war ended, and you know, the country was completely destroyed by the war. There’s no intelligentsia. There’s no morality. So you know, it was stuff, you know. He was separated from his mother, never knew his father. So there was this tremendous rage, anger that he didn’t really know how to deal with and probably was really, really tough on my mother.

00:20:21 He probably beat the hell out of her, you know. I mean that’s that generation, you know. He beat the hell out of me, so why wouldn’t he beat her up? You know, that’s an unfortunate period of our human development, where it was okay to express your rage towards your dependent. Towards your wife, towards your child, but I’m sure he was very violent with his wife, and she was a young woman, and she probably couldn’t take it and bailed out when I was six years old.

00:20:47 ALICE WINKLER: And then he lost his father and his grandmother just two years apart.

00:20:52 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: My grandmother, who raised me, I was 14 when she died, and I was about 16 when he died. So I’ve been on my own since I was 16. Now, talking about my father’s rage, it was one thing, but he was also a wonderful man. He was well-educated. He loved culture. He read books, you know. He was a lovely man. He, I think, exposed me to so many things in life that automatically shaped me and shaped who I am. You know, the culture, the music, the arts, you know. That was his contribution to my life, you know. Interest in images, you know. Interest in landscape, you know. That came from him.

00:21:29 I remember very often we would drive in the car and he would say, "Look around," you know, and I would not look around. Whack! Got slapped in the face. Now I’m looking around. Now I’m paying attention. So somehow Dad was beating me to pay attention to what’s around me. It’s not as brutal and dramatic as it sounds, but it was pretty bad occasionally. Yeah. Yeah.

00:21:49 ALICE WINKLER: It’s pretty unsettling to hear that that's how one of the world’s greatest cinematographers learned to see, but there it is. When he accepted his first Oscar, for Schindler’s, Janusz Kaminski dedicated it to his dad and kissed the statue. He can sound a little flip talking about his family situation in this interview, but he did reveal that while his art benefitted, his personal life paid a price, and continues to, to this day.


00:22:19 ALICE WINKLER: Going to the movies while he was growing up offered Kaminski an escape and another view of the world.

00:22:25 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Well, since we couldn’t really travel outside the Communist bloc and since we were able to see American movies, we were always — I mean the whole Eastern Bloc was infatuated by American culture. I mean they were liberators. They were, you know, innovators. It’s the, you know, the '70s, the hippie time, when the new ideas are so — such a — it's the '70s. It’s the new cultural and ideological awakenings.

00:22:53 So that trend, that ideology managed to go across all the borders, and we heard it. We knew about it. We’ve seen the movies, so we were all fascinated by America. And we really wanted a pair of jeans. We really wanted to buy a pair of jeans, you know, and drink Coca-Cola. For me, jeans and ketchup were the main things. I love ketchup, and I wanted to have enough ketchup, enough pairs of jeans, and I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world, you know.

00:23:21 And all that desire was really brought to me through movies, you know. Through movies made in the '70s, the best period in history of American cinema, the movies of the '70s, which is basically a re-evaluation of current — for that time, the current sociopolitical system, where things were questioned, where things were not taken for granted, where youth stood up and said, "We don’t want this. We don’t believe it." And that ideology was very transcendent across the world.

00:23:55 So movies of the '70s, American movies of the '70s were very influential because the movies permitted me to live American life to some degree. For about two hours I was able to be American by watching the movies. And you have to understand that all those movies were embraced by the censorship, Polish censorship, because they were portraying life of America as a country of decadence, drugs, violence, weapons, you know, crime, you know. And they were telling the citizens, "Watch those movies. See how decadent and how horrible the life is in America. There are junkies. They do drugs. They drink. They kill each other."

00:24:32 But for us, you know, we saw different things. We saw the rebellion. We saw the freedom. We saw the questioning of authorities. We saw personal freedom in terms of being able to express yourself.

00:24:45 ALICE WINKLER: Janusz Kaminski says he was so fascinated with America, he used to write “Johnny” Kaminski in his school notebooks. By the time he was a teenager, he realized that he wanted to be part of the storytellers’ world — that’s what he called it — so he joined an amateur filmmaking club and managed, with his friends, to get permission to travel to Greece to make a documentary. Only he had something else in mind: emigrating.

00:25:13 It was the summer of 1980 and pro-democracy protests were beginning in Poland. By the end of the summer, the Solidarity movement would launch, and soon after, the government would crack down with martial law. So with that all brewing in the background, Janusz Kaminski slipped away from his film crew in Greece and hitchhiked into Austria. His goal was America, though, and after a year, he was granted political asylum.

00:25:40 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Of course, most of the Poles that would emigrate to America, they were emigrating for economical reasons. I didn’t emigrate for economical reasons simply because I was too young. I emigrated for the sense of adventure, for the sense of desire to experience a life of my movie heroes, you know. I wanted to be Easy Rider. I wanted to be Taxi Driver, in a sense. I wanted to be the rebel.

00:26:06 I wanted to walk through the streets of New York and look at the big buildings and be able to go into a coffee shop and have a coffee and look at people, you know. That kind of a desire was very much a driving force in my need to leave Poland.

00:26:23 ALICE WINKLER: But what he found when he landed in the United States didn't quite square.

00:26:27 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Well, it was not that — definitely it was not the America of the movies. I’ll tell you that much, you know. Nineteen eighty-one, I think, the beginning of the working-out culture just started, so men started looking really buffed up, you know. And, you know, certainly the '70s were over. There was no “free love.” The ideology had changed immensely. It started to be more and more self-absorbed ideology, more and more ideology of commercialism.

00:27:05 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Jane Fonda workout videos.

00:27:06 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Jane Fonda workout videos. But it definitely was disappointing to some degree because it was not what I expected. You know, I landed in Chicago, somewhere in the Polish neighborhood, which is about 30 minutes' drive on the train from downtown, and that’s not America to me. That was just some kind of a — you know, you didn’t see that in the movies. And finally, after two weeks, I managed to get away from the Polish neighborhood and went to downtown. I went to the North Side, and I realized this is really where I want to be.

00:27:36 ALICE WINKLER: He didn’t want to become the “clichéd immigrant,” in his words, with a job in a factory, a secondhand car, and a color TV. He was already drawn to Hollywood, and he knew it was a place that had always welcomed Europeans: Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, and plenty of French, German, and British directors. So he spent a year studying English full-time, working at night as a stock boy at Sears & Roebuck on the South Side of Chicago, until he was fluent enough to get into Columbia College to study film.

00:28:09 As soon as he graduated, he headed west. He studied some more at the American Film Institute in L.A. and pretty soon was getting jobs as a cameraman and a lighting director. Did you ever see The Terror Within II? Hopefully not.

00:28:25 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: The Terror Within II was pretty much of a low-budget exploitation movie with a guy in a rubber suit running around and pretending to be an alien, and was made for about $600,000 for Roger Corman Studios. Roger Corman was a king of B movies. He was one of the very few filmmakers that allowed young filmmakers to begin their professional lives, you know. And you can name a filmmaker, and they started there, with Scorsese, with Al Pacino, with Robert De Niro, with James Cameron, many cinematographers, many actors.

00:28:56 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Jack Nicholson.

00:28:56 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Jack Nicholson, you know. He would get them at the beginning, or he would get them at the end. So we had a chance to work with young filmmakers who were in the process of succeeding or with the older generation of actors who were on the downslide, you know.

00:29:11 ELABA: He's dead!

00:29:12 DAVID PENNINGTON: I should kill you. Where's Ariel?

00:29:16 ELABA: There is nothing you can do. It is too late.

00:29:22 DAVID PENNINGTON: Then die.

00:29:23 ALICE WINKLER: In a year-and-a-half, he says, he made about 15 movies with Roger Corman, each one shot in just 18 days. And then, using a personal connection to get a meeting — it is Hollywood after all — he got the job on that TV movie directed by Diane Keaton, the one that caught Steven Spielberg’s eye. So within a remarkably short period of time, Janusz Kaminski went from The Terror Within II to Schindler’s List.


00:29:51 ALICE WINKLER: But when he first got the call from Spielberg, he wasn’t particularly excited or intimidated. To him, Spielberg was the guy who had made Jaws.

00:30:00 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Frankly, I liked Steven’s films, but he was not one of my idols. I mean we all — in film schools, we all wanted to put Steven down, you know. I mean he was not making important stories in the students’ minds. He was making entertainment. So we liked the Truffauts. We liked Buñuel. We liked Tarkovsky. We liked Scorsese. We liked all the other directors who are not really successful in terms of the commercial success, but critically they were the filmmakers that we admired.

00:30:33 Steven represented to young students at that point — he represented the marriage between commerce and arts. And it’s very interesting because my friend and I, we had a conversation about this, and he said, "Well, you said you don’t like Steven’s movies." I said, "No, I really don’t." "Well, did you like E.T.?" I said, "Yeah, very much so." "Did you like Jaws?” I said, "Yeah, very much so." "Did you like Empire of the Sun"? "Yes, very much so." "What are you talking about? You love Steven’s movies.”

00:30:58 And he was right. It was a snobbish thing to — it was not cool to like Steven’s movies. You had to be a snob and say, "Spielberg, he makes commercial movies," but in reality it’s that, I really liked his movies, but I was just not aware of it. And after I met the guy, I was very much impressed by him, but I think I looked at the meeting as a meeting of two filmmakers.

00:31:25 I wasn’t aware of the significance of that picture. I wasn’t aware of who Steven really was within the Hollywood community. Now I’m much more aware. Now I know what it meant. Now I would be very nervous about meeting him, but at that point I just saw a colleague who wanted to make a movie with me. I was perhaps a bit arrogant or stupid.

00:31:46 ALICE WINKLER: Schindler’s List had a very particular look to it, if you can remember, an almost documentary quality, shot in black and white with just a few fleeting and profound moments of color.

00:31:58 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Well, Steven was the one that really decided to make the movie in black and white, so automatically right there, you’re looking at black and white as a medium which is a little bit more associated with documentary filmmaking. And on the top of it, all of our historical records of that particular period come from black and white photography and documentary footage.

00:32:20 But it’s not really a documentary. There is a very strong story line that makes the movie successful. It's really a story about a man who was greedy, and he discovered humanity. He discovered what it means to be human.

00:32:35 ITZHAK STERN: It is Hebrew from the Talmud. It says, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire."

00:32:42 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: And yes, there are parts of the movie that we consciously wanted to make the viewers feel like they’re experiencing something that’s real. Steven’s work was always very slick, very high-production value, with beautiful crane shots — just beautiful camera moves. And this story allowed for much more raw, and kind of a primal, camerawork, you know, simply because it’s a story of us over the story of the Holocaust, you know. And you want to create that kind of a sense of urgency and sense of participation in the whole event, and the handheld camera definitely adds to that, you know.

00:33:23 You just feel the tension when you hold the camera in your hands, you know. So that was the introduction of handheld camera into Steven’s work, and you know, subsequently, we’ve done many movies with the camera being handheld. And our work became slightly more — less slick, I guess, you know. More — yeah, less slick.


00:33:55 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: I think one of the most important elements of being a cinematographer is to be aware of the life around you, simply because part of the cinematographer is to have the ability to create — recreate — the world around us, and you really have to be relatively well-educated. You really have to have a solid knowledge, not just of the present time, but of the past and what the world may look like in the future.

00:34:22 You have to be very in touch with the world around you because we operate in the world full of light and shadows, and you have to understand what the light does. You have to understand how people behave without really speaking because that’s part of our language. The non-verbal language is the language of the cinematographer. The words and the way people deliver them, those are the job of the director. Our job is to tell the story the way the actors move through a set, the light that follows them, or devoid of light.

00:34:56 That’s the part of our job, you know. And another part is to recreate reality. What is the room going to look like when it’s raining outside? What is the room going to look like when it’s overcast? What does the sun do to the room? What does the sun — hot sunlight — do to the character? Is the character trying to hide from the sun? So those are the elements that we work with. What happens if the face is only half-lit and the other face is dark?

00:35:23 Using the example of Schindler’s List, the Amon Goeth character, the Nazi guy, he was so evil, he was so bad that I didn’t really have to light him with shadows. You know, actually his character was very clear. We knew 100% what he was about, so the light was always very, very flat, very bright. He was always — looked almost angelic.

00:35:44 With Liam, for example, he was the guy full of ambiguity. He was struggling with the whole idea, "Do I want to make money, or do I want to be a good guy?" You know. So that’s why he’s frequently in the shadows. He’s got a half-light, where one side is brightly lit and the other side is kind of dark, you know. Liam was the one that was the ambiguous character, so you don’t have to really — you have to enhance that ambiguity through lighting.


00:36:15 GAIL EICHENTHAL: I want to ask you about some other scenes that are embedded in our heart and our mind. In Saving Private Ryan, of course, we almost immediately go back to the storming of the beach at Normandy, which has been called one of the greatest depictions of war ever, and I attended a screening with veterans of the Second World War. I was a news reporter at the time, and my job was to talk to them on their way out.

00:36:50 And it was an unforgettable experience because they said they felt like they were back there. Tell us how you achieved that sense of almost the audience being in the battle.

00:37:05 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: See, that's earlier, I spoke about the power of the camera, the power of creating images, the power of creating stories, you know. It had to feel real to me. I have to be emotionally moved when I’m making the movie to know that I’m doing something right. And the power of dreams — I dream things, you know. Before the movie starts, I have dreams, very vivid dreams, so a lot of that stuff comes to me in my dream, you know. And the particular color or lack of color and composition — I dream that.

00:37:34 It’s not a continuous and lengthy process. It may happen two weeks before actually I start making the movie. Steven would ask me often, "So what’s this movie going to look like?" I say, "I have no idea." It was too far, you know. I will know on the first day of principal photography what the movie’s going to look like. You have ideas. I have a whole bunch of ideas in me, and you definitely have — by then I’ve definitely made very extensive tests, photographic tests and equipment tests and visual tests, but I’m not sure what this movie’s going to look like.

00:38:06 So with Saving Private Ryan, you can analyze the combat newsreel, but you know, it’s irrelevant because no combat cameraman wanted to die, so everything was from a distance, you know. Everything was with long lenses. People were hiding. The cameramen were hiding behind objects because they didn’t want to get shot, you know. And that was the typical approach toward Second World War movies, you know. If you look at the newsreel photography, you try to emulate that.

00:38:38 But we were not making a documentary. We were making a movie, so nobody was shooting at us, nobody was killing us. So I wanted to be right there with the soldiers, and granted, Steven wanted to be there as well. He wanted to be with the troops as they’re landing at Normandy. So we decided to, again, use the handheld camera, follow the soldiers. The cameraman had to run with the troops, you know. Occasionally he would fall down, occasionally he would get some sand in the lens, occasionally he would get some fake blood on the lens.

00:39:07 It created this sense of immediacy. It’s a very simple statement, but there’s so much more to it that I’ve done, you know. The type of lenses, the type of manipulations I’ve done with the shutter degree, with the camera speed, you know, where the camera had to be, the lighting, the color. You know, it’s massive, but you know, it takes two to tango. Steven wanted to be there with the actors. He felt that the camera needed to be there.

00:39:33 I did very extensive tests, and perhaps he was interested in using some of the ideas from the tests, particularly, you know, the immediacy of photography into his movie, and he was. So it takes — you know, it takes a brave director and a brave cinematographer to create images that evoke emotions, you know.

00:39:59 ALICE WINKLER: The gizmos Janusz Kaminski employs in his art are of course invisible to the audience. You feel their power without understanding how. Sadly, I don’t have a gizmo to show you a film excerpt in an audio podcast, but luckily Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg have created so many searing images, you may be able to recall one, or go back and watch at least the opening scene of Private Ryan.

00:40:25 Watch how the action slows down and speeds up, is jerky or smooth. Watch the bullet tracers move through the water as you drown, along with the soldiers, pulled down in the water by their backpacks.

00:40:39 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: There are very dramatic tricks that I’ve used in that movie, where the audience perceives the movie as a real experience. By manipulating the shutter degree, by manipulating the camera speed, by playing with the color, by going from slow motion to regular speed. When there's an explosion, when you go with 180-degree shutter, things just fall really fast. With 45-degree shutter, they stay a little bit longer, so you start seeing the sharpness of the little particles of dirt and debris flying through the air.

00:41:15 And that gives you some kind of a hyper-reality sense, just like you would experience if you’re going to the battlefield and the bullets are flying and the things are exploding. So that’s one technique. You play with the color. You pull the color out. You don’t want to have full Technicolor images when you’re dealing with Omaha Beach. You want to pull the color back so it feels more desaturated, more brutal, more violent, you know.

00:41:43 ALICE WINKLER: So for Kaminski, the visual approach always starts from the story, from the characters, from the script, always. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but he has made films with other directors, really great directors: Julian Schnabel, Cameron Crowe, Judd Apatow. Janusz Kaminski is in the fortunate position of being able to cherry-pick the projects he works on.

00:42:06 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: I read the script, and if I emotionally connect with the script, that’s the job I want to do. And with Jerry Maguire, for me, it was a very, very, very different adventure because I’m working with a director that I’ve never worked with, with a director whose work I really admire, with a director that I really didn’t think visually he was sophisticated, but with a director whose writing I respected and I liked. And the script of Jerry Maguire was so well written that I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to work with Cameron.

00:42:35 JERRY MAGUIRE: I’ll tell you why you don’t have your ten million dollars yet, because right now you are a paycheck player. You play with your head and not your heart. In your personal life, heart, but when you get on the field, it’s all about what you didn’t get, who’s to blame, who underthrew the pass, who’s got the contracts you don’t, who’s not giving you your love. And you know what?

00:42:57 That is not what inspires people. That is not what inspires people. Just shut up. Play the game. Play it from your heart, and you know what? I will show you the quan, and that's the truth, man. That's the truth. Can you handle it? It's just a question between friends. You know?

00:43:16 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: And when I read the script, I realized that there’s a tremendous challenge to make a story that feels emotional but yet the setting is contemporary — contemporary Los Angeles — which is very not interesting visually. It’s a dreadful city, Los Angeles. It has no very — it has no aesthetics. It’s just an ugly city. So to me, to make a movie in Los Angeles, a contemporary movie in Los Angeles, and have a chance to romanticize the ugliness — and I think that's the direct descendence of living in Poland, you know.

00:43:50 And living in a very dreadful, ugly environment — bleak, bleak reality — and being attracted to the bleakness of Eastern Europe, being attracted to ugliness. And I was able to romanticize Los Angeles the way I would romanticize Poland if I would make a movie there. And I think that’s the unique point of view that I brought in to American cinema simply by being raised in a country of totally different political ideology and also different aesthetics, you know.

00:44:17 I see beauty in ugliness. Where someone else would just completely point the camera in the other direction, I find that very attractive, you know.

00:44:26 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You've said that, you know, at the same time, you — as a cinematographer, you have to resist the desire to produce beautiful shots because cinema has to be like life.

00:44:37 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Right.

00:44:37 GAIL EICHENTHAL: And it’s not always beautiful, for sure.

00:44:40 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Well, certainly, you know, I do believe this to be true, and often I try to live by what I said, and often I cannot resist the temptation to make it beautiful, you know. Cannot resist it. So there’s nothing wrong with creating beautiful images. I think, you know, beauty for itself is probably wrong, but if you have a story that allows you to create beautiful images, why not? Why not do that, you know?

00:45:05 But I just don’t want to be just beautiful, you know. It's always — there’s a little bit of anger in those beautiful images, you know. So maybe the bright light is not just perfect bright, but maybe the bright light is just maybe a little bit too bright. Maybe the face is burning by the sun just a little bit too much, you know. Maybe the shadows are a little bit too dark, you know.

00:45:26 GAIL EICHENTHAL: The technology of film has been revolutionized in recent years from film to digital. What do you lose? What do you gain? Where do you stand?

00:45:38 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Yeah. You lose everything. You gain nothing. We lost so much. We lost language. You gain nothing. Zero.

00:45:46 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Efficiency?

00:45:49 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: Nothing — maybe a few hundred thousand dollars’ savings in print. So is it greed? Because certainly it’s not pushing the art into another level, and certainly it’s not creating new brilliant filmmakers who now can get a camera and make a movie. In fact, working with the 35- or 16-millimeter film emulsion created better filmmakers because you actually had to restrain yourself. You had to raise money because it cost money.

00:46:17 You had to buy film. You had to process the film, you know. Digital cameras, they can do it, you know — people made it with an iPhone, and some of them succeeded. I saw this movie Tangerine, made with an iPhone. A great movie, you know. So you’re gaining that. Correct. You’re gaining, you know — because a movie like Tangerine would never be made, you know. But on the grand scale, you’re definitely robbing filmmakers of the ability to tell the story the right way, but it’s done, you know. So it’s pointless to talk about it.

00:46:49 ALICE WINKLER: Interviewer Gail Eichenthal took direction from Janusz Kaminski and dropped that line of questioning, but she had one more thing she wanted to ask before their interview was over. Did Kaminski wish he’d become a director rather than a cinematographer? He has, actually, directed a couple of films. In fact, he’s got a horror movie called The Postcard Killings scheduled for release in 2017, but Kaminski told her, when it comes right down to it, he’s made the life here in America he dreamed of as a young man.

00:47:22 JANUSZ KAMINSKI: And I like my life as a cinematographer. It’s very rewarding artistically and professionally. I can tell the stories that I want to tell. I have a chance to pick my projects. I’m working with one of the greatest directors in the world, whose work I tremendously admire, and each picture is a different experience. And we rediscover our love of movies by making each new film, and we re-learn the whole idea of —

00:47:50 See, every time I make a movie, it’s like being infantile, like being a child who discovers a new thing, you know. We discovered a new way of telling the story. We discovered a new way of making the movie, and that’s a very rewarding practice.

00:48:04 ALICE WINKLER: Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. His latest film with Steven Spielberg, their 15th together, comes out in July. It’s called BFG. The interview segments you heard in this podcast were recorded in 2008 and 2016. You can see more about both Spielberg and Kaminski at the Academy of Achievement’s website, I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes.

00:48:34 ALICE WINKLER: Thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for providing the funding that makes What It Takes possible. See you in two weeks.



What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.