Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Frank Barrera. In this interview he talks about the magic of moviegoing experience, the intersection of art, technology and business in bringing stories to our screens, the transition of the industry from film to digital, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Frank dives into his work on the upcoming “Together Together”.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.
Frank: I grew up in a suburb of New York City in the late 1970s, and I’ve spent most of my adolescent years in the ’80s in a movie theater. A ticket was about $2, and I’d go to see movies with my friends. There was and still is nothing like being in the theater, watching a film with a group of people. There’s nothing like that communal experience, and I grew up with that magic.
Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that this was the beginning of my film education. I didn’t know anybody in the film business. I don’t even think I knew anyone who knew anyone in the film business. It never even occurred to me that it was a job. Every once in a while I’d hear about a director, or maybe read something. This is before the Internet, and it was hard to come by information unless you happened to read a story in the newspaper about a particular popular filmmaker.
One day I had this experience that demonstrated to me the magic of this filmmaking process, and how powerful it can be. It was happenstance when I was a senior in high school. A teacher had given me a book that they thought I’d be interested in. It was called “Swimming to Cambodia” written by the actor Spalding Gray. He’s a comedic actor, and he wrote about his experiences acting in a movie called “The Killing Fields” by Roland Joffé which came out in 1984. Spalding Gray had a small part, playing the assistant to the ambassador to the United States.
The movie takes place in Cambodia in the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge was coming to take over and all the Western diplomats were getting evacuated. There’s this particular scene, and Spalding Gray spends not even two pages on it. The scene has this limousine with a broken air conditioner, and the actor who’s playing the ambassador to the United States is a method actor. Spalding Gray sort of makes fun of him, and he winds up getting a conversation with the driver because they have to sit in the limo for hours before they actually film. He describes the evacuation scene, and it gives a lot of details about the artifice of it all, and all the smoke and mirrors.
I had read the book a couple of times before I finally saw the movie. That happened about a year out of high school when I finally saw it. So that scene comes up in the film, and I was blown away by how powerful it was – even though I read about all those behind-the-scenes details about it and how it was made. But to see that scene, a combination of the cinematography, the music, the editing, the special effects… The Khmer Rouge are attacking this area, so there’s smoke and sound effects of bombs in the background and far distance. Even though I knew how artificial it was, I still was moved by this scene – and all of a sudden it was like a switch went off in my head. It was at that moment that I decided that this is something I want to do.
I had no idea what I was thinking [laughs]. I had no idea what the next step would be. But that’s what started me on my path to getting to film school, and continuing my amateur film education with a professional film education. And I’ve never looked back. There’s nothing else I know how to do. This is it. This is my whole life. It happened in a moment.
Kirill: Jumping to the present day, now that you know about all the details behind that smoke and mirrors, does it diminish in any way your enjoyment from watching a movie?
Frank: If the film is successfully telling a compelling story, then the answer is no. Going back to my childhood, going to the movies is sort of a practice. You go in there, you sit down and the lights go down, and it’s almost like a social experiment. You keep on doing it and you become “addicted” to this activity. Our brains get accustomed to all types of activities, be it exercise, studying, reading about politics, gardening, beekeeping, etc. Whatever people decide to do with their lives, if there’s a positive feedback to it, you get accustomed to it.
If a film is working, it’s easy for me to slip into that viewer mode and not think about how the film was made. If it’s a really wonderful film, I will always try to see it again, and that second viewing is when I will allow myself to look at it more critically from a technical perspective, to wonder how they did a particular scene, how they did the lighting, or how they moved the camera.
If the film is not successful in a viewing, that’s when I start to think about why it’s not successful. It may well be a combination of things. A great film is a collaborative effort, but so is a bad film. There’s a lot of reasons why a film doesn’t work, and if it’s not working, that’s when I’ll get pulled out of it.
Kirill: How was your transition from the world of working with film as a medium to working with predominantly digital in the last 10 years or so?
Frank: I did study cinematography in film school, and I graduated in 1995. Back then in New York City there was quite a bit of independent film going on, and most of it was shot on a Super 16 and Super 35 mm film. I started out as a grip and an electrician, and slowly started getting work as a gaffer working on some of these films. I was trained to light film and that’s how I came up.
Once I started transitioning to operating camera and then becoming a DP [director of photography] myself, that’s when that quick transition to video happened. As I started becoming a DP, and I think we all did it at that time in the early 2000s, we held on to the protocols of shooting on film. That old lights-camera-action had a reason to exist. Back in the old days the lights had to be turned on, and then the camera had to start rolling, so you always said “Lights, camera, action” – but obviously not today. The camera never stops rolling and these LED lights are on all the time.
It was a nice transition for me. I hadn’t established myself as a cinematographer on film, but I had learned the fundamentals of lighting with film – and I’ve always kept that. To this day we still talk about the various aspects of how you light film and try to apply that to digital.
I feel like I had a natural progression from one to the other, and I’m happy I had that. I feel fortunate in the timing of it for me.
Kirill: When somebody asks you what you do for a living, is it difficult to talk about what goes into being a cinematographer?
Frank: It is difficult to truly convey what the cinematographer’s role is. I can say that I work with the director and the producer to realize their vision of the film. But I don’t know if somebody who’s never been on a set can really understand that. And I say that because I didn’t understand any of this until I started working and understanding what a grip does, what an electrician does, how sound is recorded, what a production designer, etc. I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and it’s only been in the last couple of years where I feel like I’ve started to truly understand what an editor does. That sounds crazy [laughs] but I’ve never spent any time in post-production.
It’s difficult to truly express to somebody what all the parts are. I think that it’s almost impossible to explain to somebody what a producer is, for example. It all seems so mysterious…
Kirill: And they usually dominate the opening titles.
Frank: Well, it’s their film. I come from the school of thought that sees feature films as a producer’s medium. I’ve had debates with colleagues over this. Some people say it’s a director’s medium, and I say it’s a director’s medium when you see that the director is also a producer. But if the director is only a director and they have other people producing, it is the producer’s film. It’s their responsibility to make sure this whole thing is going to happen. That’s why they’re up there in the credits. When they give out the award for best film, it really should be – and often is – the producers who are accepting the award. It is a producer’s medium.
Kirill: How has this year treated you in your professional field with so many domino effect changes due to the global pandemic?
Frank: The pandemic has affected the film business like it’s affected many other industries. It put brakes to everything. It’s been pretty disastrous and terrible. There was no work for many months.
Obviously, you don’t want to have actors wearing masks, although some movies and TV shows are embracing the pandemic and are photographing actors with masks. But by and large, one of the great things about film is that you want to be taken away. You want to be transported to another place. Very few people right now want to explore the pandemic in terms of storytelling. I remember reading about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917, and very little art came out of that period – very little literature, very little film, very little painting. It seems that for with such a horrible pandemic, everyone just wants to forget about it. It will be interesting to see in the next year or two if there will in fact be a surge of films and/or TV shows that explore the pandemic.
We weren’t working for a long time, and then we started finally slowly getting back to work. It feels a little bit like a hospital clinic, with all the PPE, the protocols and testing. So much testing. It’s been incredibly disruptive.
But as a side note, I will say that when things like this happen, if you’re able to, hopefully there’s some positive aspect to it. On a personal level, I’ve been able to go back and review the old films that I loved so much when I was growing up. There are also films that you talk about over the years of your career, films that people consider influential. But another year goes by, those films get older and older, and they get further and further away. So I did take some of the last year to go back and look at some of those films. It was interesting. Some of the films held up, and some of them did not. It’s been an interesting educational and creative process to use this time to go back and revisit these films that, in my memory, were so important to me. And as we all know, memories are terrible. So it’s been an interesting experience to check in on some of my memories of these films that I grew up with.
Kirill: Getting closer to “Together Together”, how do you choose which stories to work on? How do you approach finding your collaborators in general, and for this production in particular?
Frank: I try to focus on dramatic pieces that are small in scale and primarily deal with interpersonal relationships. To go back to my early years, these are the types of films that I loved when I was growing up. Then, the more I got educated about film, the more I was drawn to the films of Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes. These small scale films are about people and their relationships, and that excites me.
It doesn’t sound very exciting when I say it out loud, because there aren’t dragons and rockets and spaceships and zombies [laughs] – which are all very exciting. But those types of stories don’t really interest me that much, although I do enjoy watching some of them. I love “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fun to watch, wonderful filmmaking, and it’s very entertaining. But personally as a filmmaker, I’m drawn to these small films.
So that’s the first thing I look for when I read a script. When I read the script for “Together Together”, it moved me deeply. It was one of those cliche moments where I knew I needed to make this movie.I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to be a part of this film.
The producer Anthony Brandonisio was familiar with some of my work with a filmmaker by the name of Patrick Wang – and again, these are these small dramas that deal with interpersonal relationships. So he arranged for me to meet the director-writer of the film Nikole Beckwith. We met and we really hit it off. We had a lot of common ground in terms of the types of stories that we enjoy.
When I meet a director for the first time, I sometimes wish I could record the conversation. Because it’s all in my memory, and that is getting further away. Memory seems to be a motif in this conversation. I look back and try to think about what was that conversation I had with Nikole – and I really can’t tell you, because I don’t really remember it. All I remember is that we just clicked. The things she was saying about how she wanted to make the movie, and the things that I was saying to her about what I loved about the script – these two things really connected.
The filmmaking process can result in magic, and there’s all these magical moments that happen in the process of making it. A producer meeting the director can turn into from a chance meeting into something magical. Then the director and the cinematographer meet. Then the actors get involved. It’s a minor miracle that any movie ever gets made. It seems like so many events must occur in order for something to get together. So I’ll keep myself open to this. I keep myself open to meeting the type of people who want to make these types of films.
And to be honest, these movies aren’t made so much anymore. The studios primarily are interested in making these giant 200-million dollar movies. Or conversely, they’ll open up a small company and make a few horror films for a couple hundred thousand dollars each. But the five to fifteen million dollar drama is not a very popular type of film in terms of the studios. Now why that is? That’s a subject for a whole other conversation.
Kirill: How much time did you have for prep vs the shooting?
Frank: It was about 50-50. Official prep for me was about 4 weeks, which is not a lot of time, and then the production itself was also about 4 weeks. We shot rather quickly.
Usually it is 60% prep and 40% shoot. The prep is a critical time where you don’t have the pressures of the shooting schedule, or the pressures of having the whole crew and cast and location when every day costs a certain amount of money. There’s a certain amount of pressure when you’re in production. I like looking at pre-production as a blank canvas. You get to work with the director and the producer, and you dream about the perfect version of this film. It’s a great part of the process, because you get to dream about what you would love to do, but you also have to be practical and fit your dream into some sort of structure so that you can actually make the film happen.
I can’t stress how important and fun the prep process is.
Kirill: What would you say was the main challenge of bringing this particular story to life?
Frank: One of the challenges was location. The movie takes place in San Francisco, but we shot it in Los Angeles. We shot our main characters for a couple of days in somewhat iconic San Francisco areas, but almost the entire film was shot in interiors here in LA. That was an interesting challenge to keep to that concept of having San Francisco “look” through the window, presenting that through lighting, production design, the architecture of the locations.
Another aspect of it is that the film primarily has these two people talking to each other. There’s not a lot of action, but we had these two wonderful actors, Ed Helms and Patti Harrison. They both are terrific, they had a great chemistry as well, and the script is great. This is exactly the kind of film that excites me – being in the room and capturing this type of story – but still it is a visual medium. So if you put visual excitement on a spectrum where on one end you might have something like “Lord of the Rings”, and on the other end you have a quiet slow-moving film, it would be closer to that other end.
It was a bit of a challenge to find ways that we could support the story with subtle changes in lighting or in the camera position. That was something that Nikole and I talked a lot about during prep. I think we were successful. It’s important to create emotional access to these actors, and to try to capture that. There’s many different modes of thinking that I have depending upon the project, and there’s one that might sound odd.
One of the modes I operate under is that you’re a documentarian. This is not fiction. It’s real life, and you’re documenting it somehow. That for me feels like a very natural approach. I’m attracted to natural light, I’m attracted to stories that have minimal camera movement, I love camera movement that’s 100% motivated. So we try to – with the lighting and the camera position along with the production design – create an environment that allows the actors and the director to create something authentic. And if you can do that, you don’t need to have a lot of gun fires, explosions and space aliens.
It’s not easy. I always go back to John Cassavetes. His films were technically simple and straightforward, but he was able to capture some authentic, emotional moments within the narrative, and that was our focus with “Together Together” as well.
Kirill: And on the other hand, if it looks “too” authentic, so to speak, do you work that it doesn’t look as appealing to the viewer? Do you want to sometimes elevate how it looks like?
Frank: That is true. With “Together Together”, one of the things that Nikole and I talked about was that we wanted the film to feel soft, warm and inviting, not unlike a romantic comedy in certain ways. This film is about the relationship between these two people, where the cliche of their situation would have them get married at the end of the film. They’d become romantically involved, but that’s not what happens in our film. The script subverts the idea of the romantic comedy, so visually, we wanted to lean into the romantic comedy.
Elevate is the right word. We wanted to elevate the moments and make it feel aspirational and beautiful, and allow the viewer to look around. If we had a wide shot, we wanted the viewer to enjoy the production design.
This type of film is not for everybody, there’s no question about it. Maybe the studios are making financially sound decisions when they decide not to make the 5-to-15 million dollar dramatic piece, because maybe they don’t think enough people enjoy these. But of course, there are a lot of people who enjoy these types of films – but they’re not for everybody.
It is an interesting question that you pose about being concerned about the viewer. When I’m working on something like this, I’m working at a different register. I don’t want to get in the way of the story. In general, cinematography shouldn’t get in the way of the story. There’s that old saying that says that if people come out of the theater and they’re talking about the cinematography, then something is wrong. People should come out of the theater and be talking about the story. They should be talking about how it moved them or how it made them think.
I am always concerned about the viewer, but ultimately I want to be satisfied. When we’re on set, I’m always thinking about the viewer. We talk about the viewer all the time. But when we’re setting up a shot, and I look at the set through the lens or on the monitor, I personally need to be satisfied visually. It might be the simplest setup, but there has to be something that is visually interesting to me within the context of the script, those words on the page. It’s a bit of a push and pull for me. I think about the viewer, but ultimately I have to be personally satisfied. And of course we’re talking about films and not TV shows, because TV can be a completely different beast altogether.
Kirill: You’ve read the script, you know every scene, and you probably do multiple takes on most of those scenes. How do you keep a fresh perspective on those scenes? How do you put yourself in my shoes as a viewer that will be watching that movie for the first time when it’s out?
Frank: When it’s a great project with a great script, like “Together Together”, I feel so honored to be able to watch all of those takes, to watch the director and the actors work together, and to observe every nuance. Let’s say we do 12 takes of a scene or of a shot within a scene. There’s a few things in the world I enjoy more than that process. I’ve done my job. Everyone has done their job – production design, makeup, hair, wardrobe, lighting, the camera is set up. Everything is ready to go, and now it’s the moment where the actors and the director get to do their part.
There’s an exciting thing about it. It can be that the director and I have had conversations about the scene beforehand, and I know where the director wants to go. Im observing that in the first few takes, and the actors aren’t doing what the director wants. This to me is terribly exciting, but also frightening. It’s all on the line now. It’s almost like live theater. Again, it goes back to this documentary aspect. I feel like a documentarian, almost like wildlife photography [laughs].
And it’s terrific, especially when we’re talking about actors like well if we’re talking about actors like Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in “Together Together”. Patti has only been acting for a few years, and she’s great. And Ed Helms has been acting for many years and he’s incredibly gifted and talented. I feel honored to be on set when I’m watching actors perform. We do a take, and then the director comes in and they have a conversation, they get notes, and then we go again.
It’s like watching a concert pianist playing the same piece. I listen to all types of music, country, hip-hop, hard rock and classical. And one of the great pieces of music ever written is Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. Something I have done over the years is I have acquired different versions of the same piece of music, and it is endlessly fascinating to me to listen to the different interpretations of this one of the same piece, especially this piece that’s 400 years old. This is the analogy where you’re on set, you have a wonderful script, a wonderful talent, actors, director, the production design, and everything is at such a high level of skill on set. So being able to watch multiple takes of a great actor working on a great scene is to me like listening to different versions of a great piece of music.
I love it. Sometimes it can be disappointing when I see the final product, because I know that there were all these other opportunities, all these different variations that were possible. But again, that’s where the editor comes in, and that’s an incredibly difficult position to be in – to have all of these wonderful takes and having the skill to choose between the different versions. The skill of the editor is to be able to mix this music of the multiple takes together.
Music is central to my life, and so I often think of filmmaking in musical terms. I feel like a lot of the things we do are akin to creating notes, and the editor’s job is to mix it – to continue the music metaphor. They have to mix the sound of the performances somehow, and it’s a truly daunting task.
On a movie I worked earlier we did 25 takes of a close-up, and it was the most fascinating experience for me.
Kirill: You mentioned that while you’re thinking about the viewer, you also want to be satisfied with it as an artist. Is it difficult to let go, to release this story and have critics and viewers see it through their own lens, and maybe even misinterpret what you wanted to say?
Frank: I separate myself from it. When we make a film, I take the making of the film personally. And once the film is completed, I take the film itself personally as well. I fell like it’s a part of me. It’s a part of who I am. One way of looking at it is that these are documents of our work, and they will live on. Someday we’ll all be gone, but the film will keep on going.
I’m interested in how people react. I’m definitely curious, but I don’t find it difficult to hear a negative review of a film. And if we’re talking about a film that I honestly loved making, even if nobody else enjoys it, all that matters to me is how I felt making it. Now again, I’m just the cinematographer. It is the producers’ movie and then there’s the director. If you ask a director or a producer this question, you might get a different answer. I have producer and director friends of mine who refuse to read reviews. They don’t want to know what people think about the work because it’s too painful for them to hear negative response.
Kirill: Probably if you try to please everybody, it’s going to be a difficult way of telling a story.
Frank: And when you try to do that, you wind up with certain films that aren’t necessarily very good, but they get popular because they are in a comedy genre that has a lot of physical or biological humor. There are certain films that are specifically targeting certain demographics, and they cater to their audience – and I don’t have any problem with that. I just don’t want to be involved in that type of filmmaking.
There’s a place for all kinds of films. There’s a place for science fiction. There’s a place for the zombie movie. There’s a place for the drama. There’s a place for the different types of comedy. There’s a place for musicals. There’s a place for all these different types of films, and not everybody has to like all of them. But there are certain types of films that almost try to find that algorithm, to follow the phenomenon of viral videos to become popular. The intention might not necessarily be to tell a great story, but rather on becoming popular.
It’s almost like certain types of pop music where you might as well have a computer program creating it. There are great strides being made in computer generated pop music recently, so we might be moving towards something where you’re going to have AI writing scripts, and human actors being replaced by 3D animated characters. It only stands to reason that someday we’re going to see AI-based programs that are not only creating the script, but also creating the visuals. They’ll spit out some thing where the only intention is for it to become popular. And it’s probably going to work. There’s probably always going to be an audience for that type of filmmaking.
Kirill: When I talk with my kids about it, I compare it to eating different kinds of food. It’s fine to eat junk or fast food every once in a while, much as it’s fine to watch some racing action blockbuster occasionally. But if you only watch those types of movies, it’s the same as only eating chicken nuggets. You close yourself off to the incredible diversity of cuisines – and storytelling.
Frank: It’s a great analogy, and I’m going to steal it [laughs]. To take it one step further, if all you eat is chicken nuggets, you become sick. There’s a cost to only eating fast food. It’s incredibly unhealthy. Now the question is, does this analogy hold up if you only watch fast food versions of movies and TV shows? Is it possible that something unhealthy can happen to the person?
Kirill: Maybe not the same level of unhealthy as fast food literally destroying your body from within. But it does remind me of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote about different minds discussing people, events and ideas. Certainly there’s a lot of popular culture that revolves around gossip on people.
Frank: Different people have different capacity to process stories, and those fast food stories are not helping to expand that capacity. It’s hard to go from that to watching a film by Fellini, Bergman, or Eisenstein. It’s difficult to understand these films.
Kirill: “Marriage Story” is my recent favorite. It’s not necessarily too complex, but the story hits much harder for parents, especially those with smaller kids. If you’re young, don’t have kids and are not married, it might be a bit “theoretical” for you until you are in a place where you can really understand the complexity and the depth of the situation. And sometimes I watch a movie, and I have no idea what just happened. I go on the Internet, I read a few “explanations” and I still don’t get it.
Frank: Well, we all have that experience [laughs], but at least you’re trying. You’re right about your life experience, but it’s also about the intention. You are trying to watch that. You’re sitting down and watching a particular type of film that is maybe complicated, whereas there are some people who would never even bother doing that.
Getting back to the film business, it’s important to remember that it’s a business. The business part of it is critical. Without the business part of it, we’d have none of this. What the studios are trying to do is maximize their profits. If you look at the history of studios in the United States, they’ve always had the big movies, the big extravaganzas and big spectacles. They knew that they would get a lot of people and sell a lot of tickets. So they had that part of their operation, but they also had another part of the operation where they knew that they weren’t going to make a lot of money.
Those were the films that were more important to them. They were more personal films, smaller films. But for decades, it was always important to the studios that they had both of those types of things going on. However, in the last 20 years what we’ve seen is they’ve been giving up on the personal, important stuff, and they’ve only been focusing on the giant spectacles. This is getting off the topic, but this is probably an example of the problem of capitalism that puts profits before everything. It’s been coming in the United States for quite some time, and now we’re seeing some terrible manifestations of this economic approach.
The relationship between capitalism and culture has always been a tenuous one at best in the United States. Virtually no culture is supported by the government like it is in so many other countries – because there’s no money in it. The capitalists will tell you that if culture is important enough, people will create it – but that’s not their problem.
I do think we’re seeing an interesting shift in real time in what the studios are doing with these giant movies.
Kirill: You fondly remember the theatrical experience and you still enjoy it. If you look at what has been happening in the last few years, and certainly accelerated in the last year because of the pandemic, there’s a lot of productions that go to streaming networks. And then you have Sundance festival that was part online and part in drive-in theaters, against because of the virus. Do you see a possibility that in 5-10 there are no more festivals or movie theaters, and everything is streaming to the screen in your home or pocket?
Frank: I don’t think it’ll ever go away completely. Obviously the theatrical experience is under attack, no question about it. There is a movement towards the in-home viewing experience.
But let’s take a look at world of theater. Going to see a stage play has been suppressed. Not many people go to the theaters anymore, the economic model of stage plays has been radically changed in the last 20-30 years, but the stage play still exists. Theater still exists.
Eventually, we will see a time where a small percentage of movies will be shown in a theater, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away. The positive emotional impact that exists when you watch a film in a theater with a group of people is undeniable. It is unlike anything else. So it will always exist. There’ll always be people who will want to see that, and our kids will too. I took my wife and kids to see “Jojo Rabbit” before the pandemic on the second weekend that it was out. It was a packed theater, there were other families with older kids as well, and it was truly a transformative experience. It was a terrific, unique and surprising film, and to witness that – not just with my family, but to be in the room and look around and realize that there’s other people also feeling the same way – was such a powerful experience to have.
You can’t have that in your living room. I’m not even talking about whether or not you have a giant screen. It’s about being in the room with a group of people, and of course we’re talking about a room full of strangers. My kids love watching movies at the house in our living room, on their iPads or their computer screen. They’ll watch movies, they’ll watch TV shows, but they recognize that being in the theater is different. At the very least, it’s just a lot of fun, and it’s hard to recreate that.
So I think it’ll be around. It’s not going to go away. There’ll always be some sort of a baseline.
Kirill: Do you ever find yourself thinking about one of the movies that you’ve worked on maybe 10-15 years ago and wishing that you could go back and tell it differently?
Frank: It almost feels like asking if you could go back to when you were young, and to know then what you know now. I would have to answer it the same way, which is… I don’t think so.
As I was saying before, one of my primary mindsets when I’m making a film is that it’s a document, and the document is final. Yes, mistakes were made, there’s no question. I could go back and think about some of the mistakes I made, or some of the things that a different technique could have improved, be it technical or creative. But I honor the document, so I would never want to go back and change anything.
I definitely want to learn. Making a film is so difficult, and it is its own entity with the mistakes and the successes, with all the right decisions and some of the wrong decisions, and all the warts. I always honor that film. That entity is something that I don’t want to change. There’s this science fiction question of what would you do if you could go back in time. But of course, all of those stories tell us that if you go back and change something, you can really mess up with the space-time continuum [laughs]. So I wouldn’t want to change anything, but I definitely want to learn. And I have learned from my mistakes.
Kirill: If you win the lottery tomorrow and you didn’t need to worry about money for the rest of your life, would you still want to be in this creative field?
Frank: If I was to win the lottery tomorrow, I’d probably start producing the types of films that I love making and continue in that vein. I wouldn’t want to change anything.
I have done some traveling, but I’ve been very fortunate up until this point that over the last 10 years I have worked in Los Angeles most of the time. Monday through Friday are long days and during the week I don’t see my family when i’m working, but the weekends are a real thing. And then there’s also periods where we’re not working in between projects, and I cherish that time as well. I feel fortunate in my career that I have spent enough time with my as they’ve been growing up. Now that they’re getting older and are in high school, my near future will probably involve more travel, which I look forward to.
I wouldn’t want to change anything. I would double down and start producing. I would find the filmmaker friends that I have that have beautiful scripts. They can’t raise any money for their wonderful little movies, and I would help them make their movies, and continue along this path that I’ve been so lucky to find myself on.
Kirill: You might have described the fastest known way to lose money in this town.
Frank: That’s right [laughs]. I guess I should have asked how much did I win. I’ve made a number of movies that cost about 3-4 million dollars, and if I had 50 million dollars, I’d be able to make quite a few of those – and only some of them would have to make some money. Or I could make 10 of those and still have money left over. It would take a long time to make 10 of those films, so it’s an interesting thought experiment.
The problem is I have to start playing the lottery.
Kirill: And that’s probably one of the most certain ways to lose money.
Frank: That’s correct. My wonderful, supportive wife is a nurse midwife. So we like to say that as long as people keep on having babies and going to the movies, we’ll never be rich, but we’ll never be poor.
My number one piece of advice for people starting out in the business is to make sure you find a life partner who has a steady job, because it’s very difficult to make a living in this business, and you’re never sure what’s going to happen.
I remember reading an interview with an older cinematographer in the “American Cinematographer” magazine about 20 years ago, and he said something that I’ve always kept in mind, and I’ve tried to share it with younger people coming up who are asking for advice. He said that the way to approach cinematography as a career is that you should think of yourself as a fine artist or a painter. Just like a painter, you’ll spend most of your career doing some horrible commercial work that you don’t love, and during that period it will be difficult for you to find a voice. And then finally, towards the end of your career, you’ll find that voice and if you’re lucky, you’ll create some work that will last when you’re gone. And if you’re even luckier, when you’re gone, somebody will care.
That’s how I operate. I look at the films that I have been fortunate to be a part of as my legacy, for what it’s worth. Usually we think of legacies for politicians or philanthropists, but it’s my cultural legacy. It gives me some solace to think that my children and my grandchildren and people down the line… there’ll be something left and they can say that one of our ancestors helped create and tell this story. I’m not looking for any glamour, that’s for sure. I just love being a part of the process of telling these stories. It’s a bit of an addiction almost.
It is hard work. Sometimes you’re tired and frustrated, but at the end of the day you have this film that you can look back at, and hopefully look forward and have the opportunity again to make another film.
And here I’d like to thank Frank Barrera for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Leni Weisberg for making this interview happen. “Together Together” will be released in Spring 2021. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.