INTERVIEW WITH PETER SIMONITE – by Christine Thompson
Peter Simonite is a cinematographer originally from Austin, Texas. You can see his work in the film THE PERFECT GUY, which reached #1 at the North American box office. It stars Michael Ealy and is directed by David M. Rosenthal. Here’s the trailer:
My mother is a photographer and a Doctor of Fine Arts who teaches in San Antonio, so I was brought up in the arts. I went to film school at UT, and when I graduated I started working on film productions as an assistant in the camera department, I had the chance to work with some pretty incredible people over the years. One thing led to another and I started shooting my own projects - making music videos - and taking advantage of the knowledge that I was getting from different directors of photography. - PETER SIMONITE
WAS THE MUSIC VIDEO “POSTCARD FROM 1952” FOR EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY A MAJOR DEFINING MOMENT?
Some people have a single defining moment, but I feel like there was more a series of turning points for me, like working as a second unit cameraman for Emmanuel Lubezki and Terence Malick on “Tree of Life.” That was a big one. I made the Explosions in the Sky music video coming right off of “Tree of Life,” and I was really blown away by how well it was received. It made a lot of top ten lists, and people responded to it very emotionally. That was super exciting, since we were trying to reach people in a certain way, and it’s great that it worked. POSTCARD FROM 1952 MUSIC VIDEO
HOW DID THE PERFECT GUY OPPORTUNITY COME ABOUT?
About five years ago, I met a cameraman named Eduard Grau. He’s a young Spanish cinematographer who did some movies that I really admired. He shot “A Single Man,” and “Buried” and, more recently “Suffragette.” He’s a great filmmaker and a good friend. Eduard had made a movie with a guy named David Rosenthal, (who is the director of “The Perfect Guy”) called “A Single Shot.” I was a big fan of that film, so when I got a call from my agent to meet with David for “The Perfect Guy” I was pretty excited. I knew that he was a very visually-minded director, so for me it was a great opportunity. I met with David and we hit it off. We had a lot of common ground in terms of where we were coming from visually and how we thought that the story could work. We also had in common people that we liked working with.
EVERY MOVIE SET IS DIFFERENT, EVERY PROJECT IS ALSO DIFFERENT. BUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS STARTS TO TAKE ON A STAMP OF AN AUTEUR AND PEOPLE START TO RECOGNIZE A PERSON’S STYLE. WHAT SIGNIFIES YOUR STYLE?
One thing about my style is that I’m always looking for meaning, and a way to translate the the idea of the shot, or the character arc of the movie into a visual metaphor. Whether it’s something light and joyful like the “Explosions In The Sky” video, or something darker and more menacing, like “The Perfect Guy,” we’re looking for ways to translate the emotion of the story into visual cues. “The Perfect Guy” is a darker story. We had the opportunity to weave in visually dark and menacing elements with compositions that make one feel uneasy. For “Postcard From 1952″ we were looking for symmetry, natural beauty and more joyful color. I’d like to be remembered being able to interpret a director’s meaning into a unique visual style. I do think you are right, there are some filmmakers whose visual approach is so strong, that you can spot it and expect it to be the same every time. Maybe Wes Anderson has more storybook compositions, or Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki) uses more wide lenses. In terms of finding my own voice or having a real signature style, I think that will emerge over time. I’m more of a collaborator. I want the director to get what they want.
WHOSE STYLE WOULD YOU LIKE TO EMULATE?
There are a lot of people that I really look up to, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them. I try to work on projects with people that I admire. Obviously Terence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki, but there’s a million different mentors that have helped me develop my skills. I try and look at the people that are working today – Roger Deakins, Bradford Young. There are so many talented filmmakers out there. I’ve worked for Bob Yeoman, Dean Semler, and Bruno Delbonnel, whom I admire. Not to mention all the filmmakers from the past that aren’t with us anymore.
WHAT KIND OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ALL THE YOUNG FILMMAKERS COMING UP?
II’m glad you asked that. A lot of younger filmmakers have reached out to me. I always give the same encouragement, which is that filmmaking is really about expressing ideas. It’s easy for people to get hung up on the trappings of technology. If you could focus on your ideas, get your work out there and participate, there’s really no limit to what you can do, and how successful you can become. When I was at UT, Steven Soderbergh came and talked to our class. One of the things he said was “Directing is the best entry level job in the film business.” That’s one thing about the film business. There really isn’t any limitation or prerequirement. If you have a good idea, and you can express it well, then you will reach people.