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An Interview with Salvatore Totino

Salvatore Totino is an acclaimed cinematographer. Having begun his career shooting commercials and music videos for artists including, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty, Soundgarden, Radiohead and Tina Turner, Salvatore has gone on to work on films such as, Everest, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Bird Box, Frost/Nixon, Inferno, Concussion, Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, Any Given Sunday, and the upcoming Space Jam: A New Legacy and The Tax Collector. I spoke with Salvatore about his first experience in the industry, frequently collaborating with Ron Howard, and preparing for Everest.

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

When I was a kid I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to a vocational high school for electrical trade and because of my learning disabilities and dyslexia, school was always tough. I was good at math. Went to college for a little while for engineering, it was very boring and I wasn’t interested. I kind of fell into the film industry. I was always enthralled by photography, really interested. My parents immigrated to America and I knew either I went to college or learned a trade. You didn’t make a living as a photographer or an artist, it just wasn’t that way. I kind of found myself in the film industry and it blossomed from there. I was really lucky, I hadn’t to be in the right place at the right time. First day on set I was like I want to be a cinematographer. Then I worked my way up, I started as a PA, a Runner in 1985 and worked my way to the camera department where somebody took me under their wing and trained me and I moved up. I take that philosophy a lot with myself now. I pass this to people. I think it’s really important to prep this for the future.

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

At the beginning it was Conrad Hall, Cronenweth, Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro, All those guys back in the ‘80s that were just incredible. Then came along Bob Richardson. That’s kind of my influence in the very beginning.

The first feature film you shot was Any Given Sunday.

My first feature film. It was insane, absolutely crazy. Oliver Stone is a brilliant man, but he’s very maniacal. I’d love the opportunity to work with him again. Maybe someday get a project. It’s a little difficult for everybody. The world’s changing a lot. Cinema is changing. A lot of the old guard is not being considered anymore. Oliver is always difficult to begin with, but it’s hard for someone like Oliver to get a project off the ground.

You often collaborate with Ron Howard. How did this collaboration come about, and what's the process like working with him?

The process is incredible. Ron is somebody who is just so dedicated and focused on work and he’s a really nice person, great personality. When you sign onto a project everyday you’re working 100%. All the way into shooting and filming it just never stops. It’s a really good collaborative environment to be in. Ron’s always very open to ideas and suggestions, but he doesn’t always take them, which is really good because he thinks about what is right and appropriate for the project at that time. It’s a very honest relationship and that means a lot to me. It’s a great work environment for me. You don’t always get that with other directors, but with Ron it’s very honest. It’s funny because Ron will ask me a question and he’s like you know I got to be prepared for answers and, quoting him, he goes, ‘I got to be prepared if I really want your answers because I know you’re going to be honest’. If he asks me a question: ‘Do you like this?’ And if I don’t, I’m like nah. So we have that sort of honest relationship. He’s like I got to be prepared for your answer, so when I ask you a question if I don’t want your honest answer I’m not going to ask you the question. It’s kind of cool.

There’s a very powerful scene in Cinderella Man, the Braddock vs Baer fight. Can you tell me more about how this scene was shot?

I’m very big on putting the camera in the middle of action. I think it’s really important so the viewer feels that. I was in the ring with a camera all the time, the whole film, every fight. Each fight we’d sort of approach a little bit differently. Each moment in the fight, depending on what was happening for Jim Braddock psychologically, I went to either a different camera with different lenses maybe. Film stock I kept the same. Different techniques, we tried to bring the psychology of Jim Braddock into the fight at that moment. I think we achieved that well on that film.

You also shot Spider-Man: Homecoming. How much collaboration, if any, was there with other Marvel DPs to maintain a consistent look to the universe?

There’s no other dialogue with other cinematographers. They kind of really tweak it in the DI, so that’s why all the films kind of look the same. You never see anything that’s really an outlier in the marvel universe. It works for their brand and they feel it’s important that way. You come in there with your ideas and you light to how you want it and then in post they manipulate it a little bit color wise. There’s no collaboration with other cinematographers. That would be a great approach if Marvel sat down and got a load of DPs together and have them talk about approach. Maybe see where they could bring the future of Marvel, whether they want to bring it in another direction or keep it the same. There’s nothing like that, that’s actually a good idea. It’s not the best experience to be honest with you. It’s a difficult environment for me to work in coming from Ron Howard and going into that kind of environment where there’s a lot of people and a lot of opinions. The script is constantly changing so it’s hard to really plan for it.

Which camera did you use to shoot the film, and do you have a preferred camera/kit?

Alexa XTs on that, normal simple 35mm at the time. It depends really on the project and what you’re doing. I do like the LF right now. I think that’s really interesting, so larger format. I want to work more on that and they are thinking of making the camera smaller and more agile so you can still work quickly.

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

I’ve done a lot of different sort of shoots. Very early on in my career I did a motion troll camera with a snorkel lens on a Soundgarden video called Spoonman. Back in 1994, so it was fairly new computer technology at the time. Working and figuring out that technology at the time was very challenging. I would love to do a music video now, but like we did in the past with the freedom that we had. Record labels now have a lot of say now in the videos, but in the past the director would write a treatment and work with the band. You’d just shoot it. It was a true art form in a sense. I’d love to do it.

I’ve done other things like that. A film called The Tax Collector we used robotic arms, so 25 years later the technology’s changed. Now it’s robotic arms that move really quickly. It enables you to come up with different ideas and different shots which is nice because you see the technology and you think how can I apply that? This was really simple, but it was really challenging. Same with Frost/Nixon. We shot a live, drunken phone call between Frank Langella and Michael Sheen on two different sets, two different studios, with two cameras on each set. We shot the phone call live and that was hard to orchestrate, to keep an eye on all four cameras. And I was operating a camera and the film was in digital. So the technology needed to work out. The sound for the live call needed to be perfect. Peter J. Devlin was the sound mixer, who’s incredible. That was a really interesting challenge and it wasn’t anything that was technologically crazy to do. It wasn’t as if I was using a motion control arm. I’d done things where we’d taken a motion control arm and connected it to a spider cam and did a 160 feet move with something like that. That’s also really interesting and they are fun to work with. Frost/Nixon was very organic and it needed to be just right. There was no technology to rely on to fix it afterwards. In a way it was a little bit more nerve-wracking. You’re doing a robotic move and one part of the movie you just can’t get quite right and the visual effects supervisor is like don’t worry about it, ‘I have room to move that around later.’ To smooth that out and make it perfect. They’re interesting to do, but you have a little bit of a safety net. When you do something live on camera you just got to get it just right. You’re shooting film and you’re doing a dolly move. I remember doing this dodge commercial. We were sort of dollying into a person’s face and zooming into their eyes at the same time. Getting that right and getting a focus puller to be just perfect and on film there was none of this light ranger or any of this focus assist that would help you get it perfect. It’s just like oh shit, let’s do it again, let’s do it again. When the focus puller gets it right and the dolly puller had a bump in it, those are very challenging, but I think for me that’s the biggest challenge, trying to get it without any technology to try and fix it after.

How did you approach shooting Everest? What research was involved?

I’ve shot in the wild before in elements. Mountains, I’ve shot in snow. Yeah I try to pull out a lot of things that influence me. You go and scout a location and you think okay we’ve got to have cameras here and there, we need to make sure crew are on harnesses. Make sure safety protocols are in place, make sure everybody’s safe. How we are going to keep the equipment. Digital cameras are fine in the cold weather, but the lenses all needed to be re-greased with a different type of grease for the cold temperature. Things like that which you’ve read about or heard about in the past and now you’re in that situation. Okay make sure I do that. It was interesting, I’m friends with Chivo, our kids go to school together too and we were at an event and he says,’ Hey, I want to pick your brain about working in cold weather. I’m about to go off and do a film.’ He was about to go off and do The Revenant. ‘What’s the biggest thing you’d recommend?’ I was like change your socks a couple of times a day. That’s a big deal because your feet get wet. I was wearing mountain climbing boots, so when I was up the side of a mountain I could kick in and get some good footing, as opposed to warmer boots that you’d slip in. Your feet get wet and then they get cold. You start to get nerve damage. So what you try to do is you try to change it out during the day when you can.

He looked at me and he was like, ‘Are you serious?’

was like, ‘Yeah I’m fucking serious.’

That’s a big thing. It’s always the logistics. How are you going to get the equipment up on the mountain? How are you going to move it? What’s the plan? What’s the emergency evacuation plan? Which happened to us while we were filming. A snowstorm started happening and it was getting heavy. We were up on the side of this mountain. We actually cut down a shelf in order to be able to put some dolly track down and the hill kind of went up. One point, I think it was like 11.30 or something. The AD comes to me and he says mountain safety says we’ve got to get off, there’s an avalanche warning. Everybody now. So everybody just grabbed stuff and we all went down. I remember getting a case on my shoulder and was literally sitting on my butt and sliding all the way down, but with the case. Get to the bottom and the director was like there’s not going to be an avalanche. He’s a big macho Icelandic guy. We clear out. Production was like no way we’re shooting, the actors were like no way. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we’d made a move by that point, there was an avalanche. The whole set got totally covered. People would have gotten killed.

I remember scouting, we were scouting on a glacier on the Italian/Austrian border. It was in Italy though. We’d hike up there and they were like you have to be tethered together and wear a harness. Sure enough we were walking and next thing I know I’m on the floor. The rope catches me, the backpack catches me. There was a crevasse and I fell in. So because we were tethered I didn’t fall down and when I looked down it was like 40 foot deep. So when they tell you you’ve got to wear a harness, we’re going to be tethered together you really take it seriously and listen. You don’t want to die!

Prepping a film like that it’s like how you approach and deal with the elements and yourself in those elements. It’s one thing I need to know what to do with the equipment and the grease and the lenses and all that and the logistics of moving, but how I’m going to take care of myself in this cold weather. I always had a backpack with me and people in production were like why do you have this backpack on all the time? Well I had extra clothes in it, extra socks in it. It can be -5 degrees, I’ll change my socks. It’s fucking cold for a second, but it’ll get you through the rest of the day.

We shot the film in Nepal, in Italy and we shot on a stage in London. We built some of the sets, the ice falls, the Hillary Step where Rob Hall dies, camp fort at night and the summit. It was all built on stage. The 007 stage in Pinewood. It’s really a puzzle and what you need to put that puzzle together. Visual effects has really helped the puzzle-piecing placement tremendously. 30 years ago, or 20 years ago you couldn’t do a film like that. The technology wasn’t there to do it unless you went out into the wild and did it.

You were DOP on the upcoming sequel to Space Jam. Can you tell me more about this?

I took over on that project. It’s due to be released next year, 2021. There might be some additional photography which was meant to be this summer during LeBron’s break from basketball, but the whole basketball season got pushed so don’t know what the plan is. Nobody does right now. Can you imagine? It’s a $200 million budget. So they have a lot of writing on completing the film and making it successful.

I was on a project which we shut down, I was in prep on a project called Whitehouse Plumbers, about Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt and the Watergate break-ins. It was a five part limited series for HBO. I was excited about that. They say we might start up at the end of October, but we’ll see. I’m hoping in-between, there’s a little project. We’ve got an incredible writer who’s going to direct. It’s a small film. It takes place in two rooms, in 1950s Chicago. It’s really well written. It’s a beautiful passion piece to do. It will be really difficult to pull off. It takes place over two nights, in two rooms. This might happen in August, on stage in Iceland, I’m hoping. We’ll see. 24 days of filming. I do have a film that’s being released in August, called The Tax Collector. The David Ayer film. That was a small budget film. It’s about the Mexican mafia in Los Angeles.

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