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An Interview with Phil Parmet

Phil Parmet is an acclaimed cinematographer and producer. Phil began his career as a documentary cinematographer and worked on the Academy Award winning documentaries, Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream. He has worked extensively in the industry and has shot feature films such as, In the Soup, Lonesome Jim, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween, Animal Factory, The Burrowers, and Blue State, as well as segments on Four Rooms and Grindhouse. I spoke with Phil about his first experience working in the industry, cinematographers who have influenced his work, his collaborations with Rob Zombie, and his work on In the Soup.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I became interested in photography at a young age. My parents bought me a Kodak darkroom kit for Christmas. I set it up in a closet, screwed in the red safe-light, mixed the chemicals, and printed some images I had taken around our farm with a box camera that came with the kit.

I think from the very first moment I saw a photographic image magically appear on the paper I was beyond enthralled and probably was hooked at that moment for a life in photography. In high school I saved up and bought my first 35 mm. camera. To make pocket money I rented a single engine airplane at our local airport and I would fly around our county shooting photos of local farms and country houses from the air. This was long before there was Google Earth and to see a view of your house or farm from the air was a novelty. I would drive up to a farm and show the photos to the house owner or farmer. I think pretty much everybody I showed the photos to would buy one for five dollars.

Along the way I had a few generous mentors who encouraged me. First was the printer at the local photo store. Actually he was legally blind and was most at home in his darkroom. He had coke bottle glasses and his work was his passion. Then there was Bill Pearce a professional photographer and writer who taught me the history of photography practically through his vast collection of photo books and conversations about who he admired. His heroes were the great reportage photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gene Smith, and Dorothea Lange. Bill was also was an amazing technical wizard who wrote articles for photo magazines and taught me to respect technique as well as form and style.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

Many of my early influences were and to this day are still photographers. Beginning with Timothy O'Sullivan who photographed the battlefields, camps, towns, and people touched by the civil war. Then came Robert Capa the great photographer of WWII, and then probably the most important photographer of the late 20th Century, Henri Cartier-Bresson and his idea of the “decisive moment,” the selection of a particular moment in time when framed and captured is artistically descriptive and evocative of universal truths. Here is a list of cinematographers who influenced me along my way. I know it’s long, but I might as well give you some good cinema to watch if you are really interested in understanding the art and craft of cinematography. It is always updated, but perhaps I can distil it down to a few of my favs with some of their credits.

Greg Toland, Citizen Kane

Karl Freund: Metropolis

John Alton: The Big Combo

Raoul Coutard: Weekend, Contempt, Alphaville

Geseppe Rotunno: And The Ship Sails On, Amarcord, Rocco and his Brothers

Kazuo Miyagawa: Yojimbo

Asakazu Nakai: Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, Ran

Vittorio Storaro: The Conformist, Apocalypse Now

Pasqualino De Santis, A Special Day

Haskell Wexler: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Medium Cool, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

James Wong Howe: Body and Soul

Stanley Cortez: The Night of the Hunter

Vilmos Zsigmond: The Deer Hunter, McCabe & Mrs. Miller

John Alcott: The Shining, Barry Lyndon, Clockwork Orange, 2001

Gordon Willis: Manhattan, The Godfather Trilogy

Owen Roizmen: French Connection

Freddie Young: Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago

Michael Chapman: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull

Conrad Hall: Road to Perdition, American Beauty, Fat City

Roger Deakins: Jessie James, Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Robert Elswitt: There Will be Blood, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Bob Richardson: Nixon, Kill Bill, Casino, JFK, Born on the 4th of July

Darius Khondji: Seven, Delicatessen, City of Lost Children

Matthew Libatique: Tigerland, Black Swan,

Ed Lachman: Far from Heaven, The Limey

Dante Spinotti: LA Confidential, The Insider

Chris Doyle: In the Mood for Love, 2046, Chungking Express

Slawomir Idziak: Gattaca, The Double life of Veronique

Robby Muller: Paris, Texas

Sven Nykvist: The Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, etc

You’ve worked in many genres, including horror, western and drama. Which genre do you prefer working in, and why?

Westerns might be my favorite genre. I’ve done a couple and both were cross-genre. The Burrowers, a monster/horror/western, that uses the western form as a cautionary tale of environmental destruction with all the tropes of the traditional western, horses, six guns, cowboys and Indians, etc. The Devil’s Rejects is also a cross genre a violent horror/ western/road-movie. It doesn’t have horses, although it does have a few cows and a sheriff and his posse on the rejects trail. For sure the gun fights are great fun. The color palette and the fact that so much of it is in the great outdoors is so Western.

In a period costume drama like Westerns you are really free to be creative and uninhibited by references to any reality or logic except internal logic and the very loose conventions of the genre itself. You are spending a lot a time outside with wide vistas and infinite possibilities. You can really stylize your vision. I also like the challenge of trying to do something special in a genre that so many great filmmakers have tried their hand at. I love Clint Eastwood’s westerns High Plains Drifter, Outlaw Jose Wales, Hang em’ High and the masterful Unforgiven. I also loved the classics of John Ford, Howard Hawks and later Sam Peckinpah, as well as the revisionist westerns of Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa.

Can you talk about your collaboration with Rob Zombie, and how that came about?

The funny thing is that Rob is known for horror films and as a rock and roller, but he is also an astute student of cinema history and a first rate visual artist. I was introduced to him by the producer of a film that we had worked on together who happened to be producing Rob’s film. It was funny because when I read the script, not knowing anything about Rob’s history with horror, I saw it as a Western. When we met we were on the same page immediately. Also Rob wanted a rough hand-held reality based feel and I had an extensive background as a documentary cinematographer. I had worked on several docs that won Academy Awards including Harlan County USA, and American Dream and Rob knew me from that work. I also had the lighting chops of having done many dramatic theatrical films that he had also seen. It turned into a pretty great collaboration and I went on to do several more projects with Rob including, music videos, a music tour doc, Tarantino’s Grindhouse, and Halloween.

You worked as cinematographer on In the Soup. What were the biggest challenges you faced shooting this film?

I knew Alex Rockwell the director for years in NYC and had come close to shooting one of his films but the timing was wrong. I had just moved to LA with my family when I got a call from Alex telling me the DP who was shooting his new film had pulled out and could I come to NY and start filming in two days. He wasn’t sure he had the financing in place, but if I came and the film didn’t happen he would pay for my return fare. So I flew to NYC. The first challenge was walking into a production that was fully staffed with a union crew with literally no prep time. Two days later we were shooting in a five story NY walk up. We didn’t have the money for lifts for the lights so we built some scaffolding up the side of the building so we could put lights outside the windows. My found crew turned out to be just amazing and many are my friends to this day. Every day we had problems because we had so little money to shoot a 35 mm. feature in NY in a NY winter. Luckily, Alex and I had a great relationship over the years from shooting pool at Julians on 14th. St. and seeing films together at the Film Forum. The actors, Steve Buscemi, Stan Tucci, Jennifer Beals, and Seymour Cassel were beyond amazing and turned in great performances.

We had union problems, where the grip and electrics came on our sets with baseball bats and threatened us because they didn’t like the contract the production had signed. Amazingly the NY teamsters came to our rescue and protected us.

Alex always had wanted In the Soup to be a black & white film, however the new money that had come in after the shutdown required that we shoot with color film stock because they wanted to be able to sell the film if the audience didn’t go for the black and white. I explained to Alex that the new Kodak negative color stocks were in fact much better than the black & white stocks and we should be able to strike black & white prints from the color negative. Little did I know that it would take three months’ work with Du Art film labs in NY to be able to figure out a way to make that transition. It was a process that Roger Deakins also eventually used on The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Finally we were successful in getting a great black and white print and entered the film in Sundance. Sundance turned the film down, then at the last moment chose to take it when another film dropped out. After three screenings with standing ovations the film won the Grand Jury Prize.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that was particularly challenging to complete?

The challenge to the professional cinematographer is always to work within the constraints of the budget, time frame, and tools available to satisfy the needs of the writers, the directors, the actors, and the producers, and at the same time create great cinematography. Sometimes the challenge is to finish the day when you have an hour of daylight work to complete and the sun is setting in ten minutes. Sometimes the challenge is to comfort an actor who may be insecure about their looks or performance. Sometimes it will be to convince a director that there may be a simpler or time saving way to get what he needs. Sometimes it is convincing the producer the expense for a particular piece of exotic equipment will ultimately save him or her time and money.

As a DP you are the head of a department with sometime as many as fifty people working for you and sometimes you have only one or two, but your job is always to get the most out of your crew. If you keep an open mind you can always learn something new from your crew. If you are a leader and not a boss and inspire and motivate your crew you will get amazing help in solving the most complex production problems you run into.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve had, and would you give this piece of advice yourself to someone pursuing this line of work?

I would not say it is an easy road to make a living as an artist, any kind of artist. Being a cinematographer is a great job and it’s a privilege to be able to earn your way by doing something you love. I can guarantee you this, you are not going to fall into success. You’ll need a combination of skill, contacts, talent, knowledge, willingness to sacrifice, and yes luck; the right project, the right collaborator, at the right time. Because a lot of people want to do it, the competition is beyond fierce. As a cinematographer I’ve had an amazing life full of adventure and fulfilment, but also some pretty dark times. So I would say first of all you need to love cinema and be ready to work really hard and study to be successful. I don’t mean just work hard, you need to be single minded in your obsession to be the best, to learn all you can about the art and the craft of cinematography, but also the whole history of art and visual story telling. There is no wasted knowledge. You also need a strong ego and sense of humor and be able to take lots of criticism and rejection because you are putting your work out there, and you will be judged both fairly and unfairly. Finally to see your work up on a big screen to be seen by millions who were brought to laughter or tears or educated and enlightened is a privilege and an honor and one of the best rewards life has to offer.

Practically I would say to start, pick up a camera and make movies, shoot stills, go to museums and theaters and see films. All the films you can. There is so much online these days. Carry a notebook, jot down what you like, the way light hits a face, what happy mistakes you made, what moves you emotionally, investigate technique, look at film magazines, try to get on sets, ask questions, call up your favorite cinematographer and ask to interview him or her. Get an American Cinematographer’s Manual and memorize it. Look for an entry job, hang out at a rental house, work for free if necessary to get your foot in the door, then make yourself noticed by being the best, the hardest worker anybody has ever seen, the most diligent. It is a personal business and people will remember you if you make yourself memorable by standing out from the rest with your knowledge, enthusiasm, and work ethic. Film schools are ok, but look for the best, there are a lot of them out there but only a few are worth the money and time. NYU, USC, UCLA, American Film Institute are some of the best. They all have industry networks that are in some ways even more valuable to your career than what you will learn. Make movies that look amazing and brilliant and original and people will hire you to shoot their films. Good luck.

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