Sandi Sissel is an acclaimed cinematographer, director and producer. Sandi’s credits include documentaries such as, Chicken Ranch, Before Stonewall, The Endurance and feature films including, Platoon, The People Under the Stairs, Hello Bombay!, Mr and Mrs. Smith, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Blow, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. I spoke with Sandi about shooting Before Stonewall, her work on Platoon, and her approach to filming The People Under the Stairs.
Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?
My father was a still photographer and eventually a newspaper editor. I spent countless hours with him in his darkroom, so from a very early age I was fascinated by taking pictures. When I began university in 1966 we were in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement. My goal was to carve out a path for myself working in documentaries.
After graduate film school I moved to NYC and in 1974 became part of a class action law suit that resulted in my being offered a job shooting network news for NBC television. I covered events all over the globe for a few years. Following this stint at the network I began to freelance as a cinematographer on documentaries and narrative films.
Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?
I had the good fortune of operating on films for two of my favorite DP’s Haskell Wexler, ASC and Robby Muller, ASC. I learned an enormous amount from each of these men. Paris, Texas, shot by Robby, remains one of the films I most admire.
You shot the 1984 documentary, Before Stonewall. Could you tell me more about this experience?
One of the most wonderful parts of collaborating on documentaries is the opportunity to witness history through the stories of those who lived it. Greta Schiller directed Before Stonewall and over the course of the production I met some very influential gay activists. Greta worked alongside Quentin Crisp who became an inspiration to me. We interviewed so many intellectuals on this film but I shall never forget spending the day with James Baldwin. Maya Angelou was also inspirational.
You’ve also worked on films such as Platoon. How did this opportunity come about?
I was introduced to Bob Richardson by my friend and fellow cinematographer Tom Sigel. Oliver and Bob had just finished shooting Salvador and were prepping Platoon in the Philippines. They were interested in working with someone who not only had narrative experience but also a cinema verite background. Bob knew I had spent two months working on an anti-Ferdinand Marcos documentary in Manila called The Global Assembly Line. I arrived for an interview with Oliver dressed in jeans and cowboy boots and before I knew it he asked me to go jogging with him as we chatted. I guess he felt I could handle what was coming.
You were cinematographer on The People Under the Stairs. What was your approach to shooting the film, and were there any other horror films that influenced your style?
Wes Craven asked me to shoot The People Under the Stairs knowing full well that I was a novice with horror. He had been very impressed with the way I moved the camera and was comfortable working at very low light levels. We worked very closely together in pre-production but in fact never really focused on other horror films. Instead we focused on action genre and were aided by the production designer Bryan Jones and his malleable set. My camera operator George Billinger and I found all new ways to move the camera through tight spaces.
There are many great moments in the film, but the ‘kiss your ass goodbye’ scene particularly stood out for me. Could you tell me more about how this scene was shot?
We shot this scene right near the end of the stage production. Most of the house set had been shot already and we were concentrating on the basement sequences. This was a very small space and Wes wanted to do most of the work hand-held. When hand holding I worked very closely with my dolly grip Jamie Young who would guide me through each shot. Peter Chesney’s visual effects were critical to the scene and at one moment before the explosion begins I free fell backwards with the camera to give added movement. The exterior explosion scene was in large part shot on location by 2nd unit DP Tony Cutrono.
Can you think of a shot throughout your career that was particularly challenging to complete?
Off the top of my head I feel that the opening shot of Master and Commander took us all by surprise. Peter Weir wanted to witness a single ship's man climbing the mast at night as the camera circled 360 degrees around the vessel revealing the name of the ship. We were filming in the infinity tank at Fox studios in Mexico and all moonlight was lit using enormous construction cranes. In addition to the ambient moonlight we had a single directional 20k mounted high above to create one single shadow of the sailor on the sail as we came around the hull. The camera was mounted on a technocrane that was fixed on a large shooting barge. The shot was designed to be slow and steady revealing itself in one long continuous take for four minutes. We did 36 takes before we accomplished our mission. Camera operator George Billinger and Key Grip Tony Marra never gave up and Peter was delighted.