Ellen Kuras

Ellen Kuras: “I’ve always worked in my mind’s eye”

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Short Profile

Name: Ellen Kuras
DOB: 10 July 1959
Place of birth: Cedar Grove, New Jersey, United States
Occupation: Cinematographer, film director

Ms. Kuras, what essential thing goes into the creation of a film’s visual story that we as viewers might not necessarily think about?

Really good writers will be very good about pointing us or leading us down the path to the meaning that they want to create with every scene. And so, the challenge for cinematographers is how do you create the visual picture to be able to tell that story. I’ve always been very opinionated about blocking, for example, which is essentially how the actors move around in the set. That’s something you probably wouldn’t think about. How does this character walk into the room? What’s the point of view of the camera? Is the camera over his shoulder, or is it on the other side of the room, watching him? I tend to be very empathic about the way that I shoot, and that inquiry really influenced how I shot Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance.

How so?

Eternal Sunshine was very much about where the camera can go so that you can feel that emotional part of the film. When Michel Gondry and I were talking about the ways that we would shoot it, I said to him, “We have to consider the emotional component of the story: where are the characters emotionally and how can we capture that?” So the film has a lot of in-camera kind of illusions.

“That mistake influenced everything I did. You can’t be afraid of the mistakes you make! Learn from them and then use them.”

There are so many scenes from Eternal Sunshine that really stick with the viewer, like when Joel and Clementine are in the crumbling house on the beach at night…

Michel is fascinating in how his mind works, and how he plays around with concepts of time and space and illusion! Part of Michel’s approach to Eternal Sunshine was a reaction to Human Nature, the film he’d done before, where everything was very artificial: artificial sets, artificial lighting. I think it frustrated him, and he really wanted Eternal Sunshine to be very organic — no film lighting, nothing that had to do with the artifice of cinema. So I was initially hesitant, and I told my agent, “I don’t know about this… If he doesn’t care about the way it looks and only cares about the ideas in it, it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t want this film to look like a glorified VHS video.” (Laughs) But Michel and I actually had this great symbiosis and we worked really well together.

You and Gondry each have very distinctive styles, and both manage to come through in that film.

You know, there was one technical mistake that I made very early on in my career and it’s really changed everything about the way I shoot, including Eternal Sunshine. I was doing my first union picture in 1998, called Just the Ticket, and we were shooting in a tenement hallway in New York City. I had the electrician switch off the fluorescent lights because when you’re shooting on film, they could turn out green. I didn’t notice it at the time that one was not switched off so when I realized, “Oh my God, it’s all green!”(Laughs) There was nothing we could do about it! It kept me up at night! The next film I did, The Mod Squad, which was my first studio picture in Los Angeles, I thought, you know what? Screw it! I’m going to use green wherever I can. I am going to embrace it! And that mistake influenced everything I did. You can’t be afraid of the mistakes you make! Learn from them and then use them.

Rodrigo Prieto says there must be complicity between the director and the cinematographer in order for a film to be successful. Has that distinctive style ever been at odds with a director’s?

The directors that I’ve worked with, from Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch to Sam Mendes, have been very collaborative and they allowed me to bring my vision forward. I actually form a vision of the film while I’m reading the script for the first time, and I’ll often write a lot of notes on the margins of the script. Then I listen to what the director has to say about their vision, and try to bring my vision into it so that it works hand in hand; it becomes the combination of two visions altogether. Part of why that works is because I don’t bring my ego into it. For me, it’s really about the ideas. I’ve always brought a director’s eye to what I was doing; I was always asking questions about what do we want to say, what does this mean, how can we further enhance what we want to say in the story. I’ve always worked in my mind’s eye.

How did it feel transitioning to being the director, the one who dictates the core vision, in 2008 for the Academy Award nominated documentary The Betrayal?

Well, in the past 10 years, stepping into directing full time has really taken me to a different place creatively, or actually I would say, deeper into my creative inquiry. In a way I have become much more the filmmaker because I am in charge of everything, because I get to set to tone and I get to set the vision. It’s become a place of strength for me in many ways. The more that I do it, I get to know myself better, I get to know where my strengths are, I get to know where I need to work on certain things.

You once said you weren’t very interested in directing for television, but you have recently been involved in several series. Did the change of heart simply come from finding your voice in that way?

Yeah, I’ve always been very picky about the kind of projects that I’ve done and the kind of scripts that I’ve chosen to work on! But I think in television, the writing has changed. The limited series world, for instance, is a place that I really like and I feel very comfortable in, because you can take a topic and be able to explore it much more thoroughly that you would be able to do in a film.

“It’s much harder to make a film now than it ever has been.”

In what ways?

Well, take a series such as Chernobyl, which I loved watching, it was really impeccably done. You’re able to spend time with the characters, to live through that experience in so many ways. And in a way, the effect is long lasting. And not that films don’t operate that way but it’s almost like a much longer form film. And so when it comes to my work as a relatively new director, it’s given me a lot of opportunity, which may have been harder to be able to get when doing film. Television has given us a new way of exploring ideas and the political landscape in a way that was harder to do in film — because it was harder to get those kind of films made! In fact, it’s much harder to make a film now than it ever has been. But I am still hugely involved in cinema and cinematic form, and I still occasionally shoot.

It seems like every new Martin Scorsese documentary also carries your name.

Yes, I still work with Spike Lee and of course, with Martin Scorsese. Marty and I, whenever we have time, we’ve been doing a series with Fran Lebowitz, which is a continuation of a film that we did years ago, Public Speaking. And then I also shot American Utopia with Spike Lee, which is David Byrne’s Broadway show, that was just incredible! Film has brought me life, and a way for me to work both with my hands and my head. And I really enjoy being able to create images and sounds that move people, that make people think, that make people remember, that change people’s lives. If that’s all I’ve done during this brief tenure on earth... I’m happy for that! When we know a film has affected us, it’s hit that universal core of how we all connect.