Remembering Vilmos Zsigmond, 1930-2016, by James Ulmer

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Back in 2007, I attended the first Madrid International Film Festival as part of a Hollywood contingent that included the great Hungarian émigré cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and his wife, writer and director Susan Roether Zsigmond.  Among the many fond memories I have of Vilmos are a few talks we shared over tapas and sangria, and an especially memorable walk through the Prado Museum one summer morning.
 
As we ambled through the galleries of Caravaggios and Goyas, Vilmos would pause every so often in front of a painting, tilt his head, and proceed to offer a running commentary on the character and source of the light falling on David or Goliath, or the creep of a shadow on a soldier. I remember him pondering what kind of DP this or that painter might have made had he ever experienced a close encounter of the Hollywood kind, with his canvasses woven of film rather than hemp.  “I wonder what director could ever have worked with Goya!” he mused.
 
Here was a gentle, diminutive giant among a gallery of giants of frame and light, the man who “painted” such great late 20th century works as  “Deliverance,” “McCabe and Mrs Miller,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (for which he won his only Oscar), “The River” and his personal favorite (and mine), “The Deer Hunter.”  To me, he was every bit these masters’ equal, though his humility would have forbidden him to agree.
 
Toward the end of the festival Vilmos stole a few minutes before a screening to do a short video interview.  I asked him where he would like me to shoot it.  “Let’s go outside to the square,“ he said. “The light’s really terrific this morning.”
 
As we started walking, I turned on the camera and caught Vilmos doing a bit of directing – eagerly suggesting the best way to shoot his own interview, where I should place the camera, how to best to capture the light, etc.  Even for this humble effort he had a boyish delight with detail, a master sharing some fun in the sun. Years later, a large chunk of that interview has sadly fallen victim to the digital-era folly of accidental file deletion.  But at least our short walk-and-talk survived, along with a few choice thoughts on “The Dear Hunter.”
 
It’s one of my most cherished videos, though too brief a brushstroke to honor an artist whose talent and kindness illuminated so many works, and so many more lives

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About Author

James Ulmer

James Ulmer A contributing writer for The New York Times, James Ulmer's 20-year journalistic career has included penning two national columns for Premiere magazine, and writing and directing for the BBC in London. He was a senior analyst and executive producer at the internet company Creative Planet, and served for eight years as international editor and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, where he reported from over 50 festivals and markets worldwide. Ulmer is the author of James Ulmer's Hollywood Hot List -- The Complete Guide to Star Ranking from St. Martin's Press., and founded the Hollywood database company The Ulmer Scale (www.ulmerscale.com. He has been interviewed in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Time and Newsweek, and his commentaries have been featured on "Entertainment Tonight," "CBS This Morning," and the BBC, CBS, CNN, HBO, and E! networks. He has frequently been seen on the Reelz Channel as a commentator and on-camera presenter. A graduate of Harvard College and an Iowa native, Ulmer discovered his passion for Italy as a teenager living in Naples, where he often spent weekends haunting his favorite piazzas.

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