Janusz Kaminski interview: ‘West Side Story’ cinematographer
Since 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” director Steven Spielberg has not made a single movie without Janusz Kaminski as his cinematographer. Their relationship – which spans 20 movies including this year’s “The Fabelmans” and last year’s acclaimed “West Side Story” – is one of the most storied in film history and has generated numerous accolades for each, including multiple Oscar wins (Kaminski and Spielberg each won Academy Awards in their respective categories for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”).
“Well, clearly, the relationship is working – 20 films over 29 years together. That’s that’s a long track record,” Kaminski tells Gold Derby in a new interview. “You know, it’s so invigorating to work with him because there are certain similarities from movie to movie, but then he reinvents that the way he tells the stories. The stories he’s also interested in are always different… so it’s a great relationship based on respect and encouragement.”
For “West Side Story,” which has both Kaminski and Spielberg back in the thick of awards season, the duo didn’t have to stray very far from the script, adapted by frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner. “The script was clearly set in the same scenario, same time frame, same costumes, same music, same lyrics, you know, so we said, we were making a movie based on a Broadway musical,” Kaminski says. “So the conversation was very minimal, as far as the style, because we both know what that style should be: glamorous, a little bit of a fantasy, enticing, very, very, very entertaining, right?”
But a key, Kaminski adds, was making sure the film’s stunning choreography on such iconic numbers like “America” and “Cool,” was placed front and center in the frame.
“We watched the guys rehearsing the dances, and it was very clear that the physicality and that the beauty of the dance was so beautiful, so amazing that we needed to be there with them with the camera,” he says. “And since they are dancers, and they’re very precise, we could place our camera based on their movement, on the places where they land, knowing that there will be no mistakes. They are professional dancers, they’re more in tune with their bodies and positions than the stuntman.”
Once Kaminski knew that option was available, he and Spielberg ran with it. “Of course, you don’t want to be too tight, because then you’re losing the beauty of the dance,” he says. “So we’ll always try to stay in wider shots. And see the beauty of the dance. See the choreography. See the costumes. See the story as it opens up, as they travel to the city.”
Based on the famed musical, which itself was inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” focuses on a pair of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the San Juan Hill neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – Maria (played by newcomer Rachel Zegler) and Tony (played by Ansel Elgort). Kaminski says when it came to lighting his young leads, he went with a less is more approach and let their faces do a lot of the work – even when they’re supposed to be anguished.
“They very attractive people, right? So, my objective was not to mess it up,” he says of the film’s lighting. “They needed to look great and beautiful and romantic and, you know, gorgeous, right? My approach towards most of the actors in every movie that I make is to make the actors look as good as possible even when they’re supposed to look bad. The bad is supposed to come from their acting and makeup, the bad should not come from lighting. … I’m really against making people look horrible because they’re supposed to feel horrible in the script. That’s what actors do – the emotions of the performance they can make in the scene.”
“West Side Story” is out in theaters now.