Interviews

INTERVIEW: ADAM HOLENDAR, ASC

By • May 27th, 2009 •

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The sun pierces through the wood blinds on a genteel man in a serene New York City residence that reflects his artistic nature. The in-wall bookcase houses many volumes. A David Hockney is framed alongside. His penchant for sculpture and imagery from various cultures around the globe display prominently.

“I was born in Poland and grew up in a Siberian Camp where I was taken a couple of months before the outbreak of the Second World War. I returned to Poland in 1947.” This statement is spoken matter-of-factly without the slightest hint of resentment, bitterness, or sorrow. “Probably in the long run it saved my life. My father was a judge who was part of the capitalist system in Poland. The Soviet Union, as you know, became militantly communist. In the summer of 1939, when I was not quite three years old, my father moved us to my grandmother’s house in the eastern part of the country knowing that things were brewing on the western border with Germany. What my father didn’t know was that a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Stalin and Hitler made a pact of friendship. Stalin wanted the eastern part of Poland. He bombed it and my father was arrested along with my mother and myself and we were sent to a Siberian war camp. And that is where I grew up.”

He shrugs off the imprisonment with a laugh and says of Siberia, “It was pretty.”

This life-altering event of such magnitude is not a scene from a current production or one of a slew of WWII based screenplays that abound in Hollywood. Cinematographer Adam Holender recounts his formative years from his Upper East Side apartment. He has shot numerous films such as the Academy Award winning MIDNIGHT COWBOY, THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, FRESH, EIGHT HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG, SMOKE, and A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES.

After finishing High School, Holender began architectural studies in his hometown of Krakow. The interest in photography began with a summer job in which he would assess the buildings’ architecture, mostly churches, and would decide which structures needed to be restored on the government’s behalf.

“We had to draw the plans, measure the foundations and the roofs, and also photograph the buildings. I realized that I got interested in photography more than I got interested in architecture.”

While a student, he applied to the film academy in Lodz and, once accepted, took a leave of absence never to return and spent the next five years studying film.

Were your parents supportive of your artistic pursuits?

“Not really. My father liked the fact that I was studying architecture and engineering. That was a profession that he could relate to. When I applied to film school, I did it in secret. I didn’t tell my parents. When I got a notice of acceptance there was a moment that I had to tell them. So, I sat at dinner and I told them what had happened. My father looked at me and quietly said, ‘Well, that’s too bad’ and left it at that.

It was a small intimate film school. Most of the professors were top-notch functioning professionals working in the industry. As a result of it, when you are finished with this school you pretty much had the choice of which group of filmmakers you wanted to join and the jobs were readily available. The most rewarding five years in my life.”

While studying film, were there forbidden topics? Censorship.

“No, we had a lot of freedom. That freedom came with knowledge that you shouldn’t cross certain political boundaries. None of us were embarking on political films, and even if you did a political film, not a lot of people would see it, so one would miss the point of doing it.

When I started working in the industry, the film industry was organized from the top down with a very serious consideration to political ramifications of any film. The screenplay had to be approved by special committee. It inevitably went to the Communist Party for review. Before any film was released it had to be approved by the government so it had to be socially responsible. Very often, changes were required to be made.

As an example, a film that the American audience would have seen by Roman Polanski, that established him as a director, is KNIFE IN THE WATER. (NÓZ W WODZIE 1962)

The film is a love triangle that takes place on a sailboat over the weekend.

A middle-aged journalist, with a much younger, beautiful wife, picks up a hitchhiker.

He is a young, rebellious, Jimmy Dean type. They end up inviting him aboard the sailboat. Well, the car the fellow drove is a Mercedes. When the film was shown after it was edited to the brass of the Communist Party, they asked that all the reference to Mercedes be removed from the film because that was part of the capitalist decadence that they didn’t want to portray as part of Polish life. The interiors remained intact but all the exteriors were re-shot with a Peugeot, a French car.”

As an only child, he tended to his aging father. After his father’s death, he decided to see the world and left Poland in 1966.

Upon departing Poland, he had no idea where in the world he should settle.

Be it Canada, the United States, France, or England, he just knew that he would not be returning to Poland for quite a while. He arrived in Canada by boat and took a Greyhound for New York.

“I liked what I saw. It was an extraordinary contrast coming from grey, oppressed Eastern Europe, the other side of the iron curtain, to New York in the middle of the 1960’s where the Cultural Revolution was breaking doors and where life was exciting, colorful and a lot of fun.”

Immediately he fell in love despite the hardships. Lack of family, money, and only speaking rudimentary English did not send the determined Holender packing. At first, lodgings were found at the Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street for $6 or $7 per night. Soon a very clean studio apartment, a fifth floor walk up on Columbus and 71st was secured at $75 per month.

With an unrelenting determination and the skills of a cinematographer, Adam Holender’s first job was found at a documentary film company. As the story is so often told, any previous skills were ignored for the pertinent talents at hand: driving the company station wagon and loading it. After several weeks of taxiing around tripods and film stock, the moment of truth arrived. A client insisted upon additional shots while the cinematographer was not around. Holender was approached by the producers to compose and properly expose the shots. And the rest is cinema history. After several months, many film companies came calling with a need for his skills.

Your first big film was MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

“It was a terrific break. Of course, I wasn’t aware that it was going to be a successful film. It took quite a bit of time to get my feet into professional feature productions. I did features in Poland, but all I did here was documentaries and television commercials. But it was quite an adjustment to work with a large crew. They were not used to working with a foreigner who spoke little English. I was used to using certain equipment that they were not used to using.”

How did you come into contact with Director John Schlesinger?

“Apparently, they were looking for someone in New York and somebody they knew recommended me and called Roman Polanski to verify my credentials. Afterwards, I was asked to come in to shoot a screen test on a small stage in downtown New York. They were considering two actors for Joe Buck. Dustin Hoffman was set as Ratso Rizzo. On two different days they shot exactly the same scene, with Dustin Hoffman playing with John Voight, and this other actor on the next day. I came in and took over and shot the scene with Dustin Hoffman and John Voight.”

What was your experience with John Schlesinger on MIDNIGHT COWBOY?

“It was one of the more rewarding experiences. John came from England with a documentary background at the BBC. What got me into film was the Italian School of neo-realism, and then the British school that followed that John Schlesinger was part of. So we did have similar ways of looking at things.

John made it our business to learn the subject matter from the ground up. We went on extensive scouting trips to Texas, Florida and New York. Throughout that process Waldo Salt, the screenwriter, was ever present. I didn’t realize at the time how unusually good that relationship between the screenwriter and the director was.

I was invited for a month to the Sundance Summer Lab; Waldo and I shared a bungalow.

On a walk in the Utah mountains, I asked, ‘How did it happen, how did you develop such a wonderful working relationship with John Schlesinger?’ During the shooting of MIDNIGHT COWBOY, if John was staging something with actors on the set and if something didn’t work quite to his liking, he would always break to consult with Waldo. Sometimes he’d break for a couple hours and Waldo would rewrite the scene or adjust it, it was always better.

Waldo told me that it didn’t start that way. Waldo was writing the script as John was working on another film in London and they were sending each other pages. This went on for eight months. Finally they got together. The first time Schlesinger asked him to meet with him alone, he looked at Waldo and told him, ‘We got this far; now we can forget this crap and go to work.’

Waldo was taken aback and didn’t know how to respond. He thought he delivered brilliant pages. He looked at Schlesinger, who had a twinkle in his eye, and he realized that this could be a partnership beyond niceties. And from that point on they had a relationship that gelled. But for a moment it was confrontational.”

Were there any problems shooting a big American production?

“The cameras were a problem. The crew came from a different era and different continent than I did. I wanted to use a reflex camera. They were used to big old-fashioned Mitchell cameras with a rack over system. It took me a bit of convincing to the camera operator and focus puller that we should have a reflex camera, which I find much more intimate and a personal camera to use. In the beginning we compromised; we had both. When I wanted to do certain long lens stuff, we would use a reflex camera. I think there was only one of them in New York those days, a soundproof 35mm reflex camera.

Anyway, it was a period of adjustment. The same was true for the lighting equipment.

I was used to soft lights, everybody here used very hard very powerful arc lights.

I had to convince the technicians to get soft lights or to soften the other lights.

At times there were moments of friction. In general, they were extremely gracious about accepting someone that was 29 yrs old. They were all older. Basically allowing me to tell them what to do. No wonder at times they didn’t like me.”

Was shooting done much on-location?

“Lots of location shooting and much was done on a stage designed by Robert Lloyd in the middle of Harlem on 126th Street.

During the location scout, we went to see Andy Warhol’s Factory. It was a fun place with a lot of character but it was very difficult, logistically, to make it work. Robert Lloyd reproduced the entire Factory on the stage. Warhol was generous enough to lend us some of his artwork and supplied a lot of the cast of the Factory. So basically, the whole Factory moved from Downtown Manhattan to way Uptown Manhattan. For me, it represented a challenge to match the look of locations on the stage. I didn’t want an audience to know that we were suddenly in the comfort of a studio.
So was the case of the apartment where the two boys move into a condemned building downtown. The interior was done on a stage. When they walk into the building and up the staircase, it’s all location. From the moment that they bust through the door it’s all studio. It’s a grim location and I didn’t want the studio look.”

The Florida scenes are all gold toned. How was that achieved?

“The gold tones were achieved by overexposing the film. Basically, in those days, we used what is called high key photography and by working with the lab. A wonderful technician in New York, somebody with whom I worked for the rest of his life – he passed away several years ago – was Otto Paoloni, the head tech at Deluxe Labs here in New York. He was a wonderful man who taught me a lot and saved my ass in more than one case.”

Roger Ebert tore apart John Schlesinger for his use of gels and for the daydream sequences such as the Florida scenes. He basically felt that it wasn’t a whole-hearted attempt to get into the characters’ plight. Where did those ideas come from?

“I don’t think those things came conceptually; rather they came from the life experience. In some instances we used B&W film, and in some instances we used 16mm film. It didn’t detract from the content and I think that was the most important.

When I arrived by Greyhound from Canada to New York and the bus went through the Lincoln tunnel entering on the New Jersey side, just before you enter the Lincoln tunnel, you suddenly have a moment when the skyline of Manhattan pops up on the left hand side of the bus. That’s how I saw Manhattan for the first time. I showed it to John and he said, ‘of course.’ And we ended up using that as Joe Buck’s arrival and the way he sees New York for the first time.

Everything became not conceptual but from life experience and initially of what we saw.

We both (John Schlesinger) like to walk. So we were walking the streets of Manhattan, downtown, took subway rides.”

In the late 60’s, lighting night scenes was drastically different from the film stocks, sensors, and lighting available today. What was lighting that film like?

“We actually didn’t do all that much night lighting. In a few instances we had to. But, in order to get the look of 42nd Street for exterior scenes, we tried to find a way to use as much natural light as possible. With the help of technicians at camera rental stores, and a fellow by the name of Dick DiBona*, who ran the store, we came up with very fast lenses not available in wide distribution. Some were only available through military accounts.

Very difficult lenses to work with in terms of following focus and they had to be adapted to our cameras. But it was a great help. And again, the head of the lab, Otto, found a way to push the film. Films were much slower than what we have today so we pushed them. Through a combination of unusually fast lenses for those years, and film developing techniques, we managed to use a lot of available light.”

*Dick DiBona was instrumental in the film world by running General Camera in New York. Later the company merged with Panavision.

While shooting the film, did you find any similarities between you and Joe Buck? You both came to New York to follow a dream. Albeit, very different dreams.

“It never crossed my mind.” (laughs)

New York in the 60’s is such a different New York than today.

“It is indeed. As you know, things change. A couple years later I shot a film around the corner where I told you I found my first apartment on Broadway and 72nd Street. That was THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK. Look at it today, young people leave in three-piece suits, Wall Street Journal under their arm, and coffee in their hands. Things change, in many cases for the better.”

Of MIDNIGHT COWBOY and THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, which was more rewarding?

“They were both rewarding. I wouldn’t place one above the other.

First of all, MIDNIGHT COWBOY became a very successful film and THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK only moderately so. Not too many people have seen it. In terms of my own personal involvement, I think both gave me a lot of pleasure.”

What were the vast improvements in filmmaking that has made your job easier?

“You know, let me preface before I answer your question. I don’t believe technology is a determining factor in a creative approach to filmmaking. If you know what you are after and you know how to get it, it doesn’t matter what gadgetry you have available. If you try to adapt to what is available in terms of newest gadgetry and newest technology to your film, I think you are doing it ass backwards.

I have a great deal of respect for the screenplay, and I think it behooves us to find the best way to get what is written on the page and to find a way to show it on the screen. And if the technology to make that transition is forty years old or six months old makes no difference to me. I have no love of gadgetry.

Currently, I am in talks for a summer shoot. We are talking about shooting it in digital format, meaning no more film. I am embracing it the same way that I embraced new emulsions in the 1960’s and ’70s or new lenses that came from Panavison in the 80’s and 90’s. It makes no difference as long as it serves the purpose. I think technology is wonderful if useful. If that technology takes over the purpose, that technology does not work for me.”

When approached to work on a film, what do you take into consideration?

“I start with the screenplay, that’s number one. Two is the director. Somebody that I can have a dialogue with and who is similar in seeing things. I don’t consider myself a technician. I would like every image to serve the purpose. The purpose is to serve the interest of the director, of the screenplay that he is doing.”

What can the director do that best serves you?

“To be open and honest from the very beginning, long before one starts shooting.

It requires synchronization of efforts for it to go in the same direction. Common purpose basically.”

When did you first join the American Society of Cinematographers?

“About 15-20 years ago. It is a great organization. I like the spirit of colleagues, the exchange of ideas and of helping each other. It was wonderful when I was traveling on various projects in different parts of the world, either Europe or Los Angeles, and was able to pick up the phone and call a colleague of mine who had gone that route before me, and inevitably they were extremely generous and helpful. That’s something I appreciate tremendously.

I know it’s hard to make generalizations and my view is overly optimistic because I like what I do and I like cinematography, but I think cinematographers are extremely supportive of each other and are helpful and generous much more so than other professions in the film business. From my point of view, there is relatively little jealousy and a lot of comradeship.”

Have actors given you a difficult time?

“Actors are actors, you know? They have their moments, their egos, and their anger. Yes you have to assess them properly. But, once you establish a relationship and they trust you, and again you have a commonality of purpose, then it’s like any other working relationship. Making a film in terms of human relationships is like joining forces with ten other men on a sailboat to cross the Atlantic or Pacific. You are in tight quarters, sometimes there are difficult winds or waves and you have to chip in to help each other. Well in film, you are stuck with each other 12 or 14 hours a day, sometimes it is hot, sometimes it is cold, sometimes it rains. There are all types of adversities and human spirit gets you through it. If somebody is difficult, you have to deal with it. It cannot be helped.”

As you were first starting out, who did you look up to?

“Too many names to mention. I loved what the French and Italian cinema did in the 40’s and 50’s, beginning with new wave in France, it was an eye opener to me. I loved what British cinema did in the 60’s and 70’s. I love the icons of American cinema, especially somebody I studied in film school – Gregg Toland, Orson Welles’ cinematographer on CITIZEN KANE and many others. He is just fantastic.

I love Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. He worked in the B&W days of photography and worked with Buñuel a lot during the time when Buñuel was exiled in Mexico. Figueroa was a very shy and unassuming man; images of B&W photography were often taken in rural Mexico with a low camera angle against dark Mexican skies. So, somebody asked him what was the single tool that helped him achieve those images and he said a shovel. He would dig holes in the desert, and put the camera low. I loved the simplicity of it. A shovel helped him.”

What are some disasters on the set that come to mind?

“Disastrous in a serious sense was a moment during an exterior night shoot in Connecticut. I asked for a large light to be place atop a crane and it focused on the porch of a house from a distance of 200 yards. I watched as the arm of the crane went up with the electrician on top of a very large unit trying to adjust it. I was giving instructions to my gaffer who was standing next to me and through the radio he was giving instructions. The very moment that I looked at this tech alone on this crane about 130 feet above the ground, the pin holding his light broke. This man with a burning light was trying desperately to hold on. One of the other techs, I’ll never forget the moment, with extraordinary agility climbed up on the arm of the crane and saved the man.

On the funny side, we were filming in Northern France. Night exterior again. I wanted a little shine on the asphalt. Very often, we wet the street. So, I asked for a wet down. No big deal. We lit it, rehearsed it, and the assistant director decided that the best way to go about it was to break for the meal, and during the meal, around midnight, do the wet down. Then we would come back and shoot it. It makes sense. What nobody anticipated was a gust of very cold wind that came from the British Channel from the Atlantic. After they wet it, it all froze so it became one sheet of ice. Through half of the town, nobody could walk, nobody could drive.”

You also shot A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES.

“It was the second film from a very young and very talented writer director, Boaz Yakin.

The first one was called FRESH. I was in LA; the agent sent me a screenplay for FRESH. The film dealt with the subculture of a black family involved in half black, half Spanish drug business. The protagonist was, as it was written, a 12-year-old black boy being raised by his grandmother. When I read this screenplay and liked it, I set up a meeting with the director. I was 100% sure that I was going to meet a black filmmaker. I went back and read the screenplay’s dialogue and asked friends what such and such a phrase meant, not knowing black slang. So, when I arrived at the meeting in the studio, the door opens and this young, white fellow, in his twenties, I think, came out. I said I was here to meet such and such and he said, ‘yes I know.’ So, I asked, ‘Well, where do I meet him?’ He said, ‘Well, I am that person.’ It was hard to reconcile the difference. He is a very talented fellow who has a wonderful ability to dig into any subculture. In that case, it was black and Hispanic, and the next screenplay he sent me was about the Hasidic Jewish culture of Boro Park in New York. Those two films were my experiences with him. I am sorry that I haven’t seen anything he has done lately. I hope he resurfaces.”

When did you return to Poland?

“After the change of government, after communism fell, I was invited for the first time after 28 or 29 years. I was invited to attend a cinematography festival. I asked my American wife to join me to show her my childhood digs. It was quite a dramatic experience. Subsequent trips to Poland became normal, seeing friends and having fun and pleasure, but the first one was dramatic.”

Looking back on your life, would you still have chosen a film career?

“Like any profession, if you like what you do, you are a lucky human being. This profession has given me a continuous flow of rewarding experiences. Looking back, I would not have changed it for anything.”

What is your view of film school today? Some schools only offer courses in digital filmmaking and do not recognize film.

“Film school should teach every aspect of practical imaging. Whether its B&W, if it’s photo chemical, if it’s digital, it doesn’t matter. I think they should learn it all.

You can always rely on some experience that you had in the past. One should stay away from this narrow pigeonhole approach to anything. I only do digital. I only do 16mm. Do it all! As long as it serves the purpose, feel free to experiment with it. Interchange it, keep your skills and mind open to anything that comes along.”

Have you taught?

“One of the first jobs I had was teaching cinematography at The School of Visual Arts.

I was introduced by the fellow who ran the film department in 1967 or 1968, by the name of Everett Aisen. He still teaches screenwriting there. From the perspective of time, I feel sorry for the students that I taught because they must have not understood 90% of what I was talking about. Not that I didn’t know what I was talking about, but my English was so poor, everybody was kind enough to put up with me. I was in a restaurant not too long ago, a couple walked in and my wife was friendly with this fellow’s wife. The fellow is a New York real estate mogul. They came to the table, we spoke for a few minutes, and he said to me, ‘you don’t remember me but I was a student of yours at SVA.'”

As we wraped up the session, I asked to take a few snapshots to accompany the interview.

Mr. Holender accepted and we discussed the images that are framed. These are his photographs. Some were taken in Italy, others Guatemala. A few have been taken in New York. I am asked to look out the window. “Do you see anything interesting?” I scope the building across the street in search of something. I look for anything out of the norm. Maybe a shadow. Is this a trick question? Perhaps, it is to test my skills as a photographer and to judge just how discerning an eye I have. “Nothing remarkable,” he states standing at the window pointing to the building across the way.

He continues to explain that many mornings he would go about his business and happen to see his neighbor open the curtains. Alas, that man is gone now. He lives elsewhere. Bernie Madoff moved further up the Hudson.

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