Text: Pieris Panayi
As a cinematographer, he has worked on Hollywood blockbusters with some of the best actors of our time: Meryl Streep and Kenneth Branagh, among others.
Despite these accolades, he remains an extremely down-to-earth, multi-talented guy.
Kenneth Branagh called you, “the number one cinematographer in the world.” How does that feel?
As far as directors go, I’ve worked with him the most. I respect and love him very much. He’s a good friend with whom I share the same vision for cinema. I feel joy and pride when I hear such words…
How did you end up doing this? I mean, how does a person find their way in life?
One must follow something they truly enjoy, dedicate themselves to it, and work with passion. In my case this worked. In order to move forward, I had to study; to become good at what I do, I had to try. I was a good student in art and mathematics, but I eventually decided to study painting.
I read that your teacher in Cyprus was Nikos Kouroussis: one of the most important figures of contemporary Cypriot art.
Apart from being a great artist, Nikos is a great teacher. His love for art is infectious, and he absolutely believes that we are all artistic. I’ve never met such a genuine person. Anyone can learn from Nikos because he doesn’t have limits. Fortunately, my parents were supportive of my decision, so I ended up in Saint Martins. There, I tried cinema for the first time and changed course. I had no idea about cinema…
Why did you choose cinematography as opposed to directing, which is a more prominent profession?
You need to know what you want to do and what you’re good at. You need to know what your skills and talents are. I chose the field of cinema because I love the visual arts, painting and photography – more so than literature or theatre. A director has to get into the psyche of his actor, and I wasn’t interested in that. Fortunately, I realised early on that cinema can’t exist without cinematography; I say this with all due respect to directors. I can take a camera and make a movie, whereas directing actors doesn’t necessarily make a film. This was something I learned from my studies and from the guidance I received. Nevertheless, cinema is a collective artform. There might be 350 people in a movie studio and everyone has a role to play.
You’ve worked with the best from an early age: Jude Law, Meryl Streep, Peter O’Toole, Cate Blanchett, and Christian Bale, among others. As a professional, what did you gain through working with them?
When working with such talented actors, you learn to refine your craft because you have to be as good as they are. If you don’t challenge yourself to succeed at such a very high level, how will you ever improve yourself?
Of all the professionals you’ve worked with, who has made the biggest impression on you?
Of all of them, Kenneth Brannagh is the best. He’s not only a great director, but also a great actor. He’s always the most prepared and most well-read person in the room, and he always delivers with emotion from the first take.
How do you prepare yourself for a movie?
Cinema is the art of illusion. One must discern the film’s artistic intent, then execute it. My responsibilities encompass what a movie looks like visually: what you see and how you see it. Then I converse with the director, the set designer, and the producer. Everyone has to be on the same wavelength. When it is found, we cover all the technical details and their planned execution – cameras, lenses, etc. The viewer doesn’t see this process, only the final product.
Which of these two would you say is more important: talent, or diligence?
Both – one doesn’t exist without the other.
What is the definition of talent?
It is courage – the willingness to try, to ask, and to learn. It’s also very important to know who you are and what you can do; this knowledge is vital. In art, I believe that courage and honesty are what ultimately set us apart.
Speaking of talent, I can’t help but ask about that legendary meeting with Harold Pinter?
It was a great experience, and one I won’t soon forget. I was the cinematographer on ‘Sleuth’, which we filmed shortly after he won the Nobel Prize of Literature. Kenneth Branagh and his assistant, Michael Caine and Jude Law (in starring roles) and I rehearsed a great deal before presenting it to him. I remember him arriving in his cart, then taking him to where we thought the cameras should be placed, and discussing what it might look like. We waited…, unsure if we’d done a good job. Then, I remember he said, “This is bloody brilliant!”
Are there other cinematographers or directors who’ve had a major influence on you?
Too many... However, Conrad Hall was the most influential. I met him shortly after I finished my studies. We worked together on the set of a film.
How did this relationship affect your artistic process?
The great thing about Conrad was that he always began work on a film as if it were his first time – without thought to his accomplishments or technical knowledge. He would read the script; then, it was as if he had a white canvas in front of him. This is why he won 3 Oscars.
Do you remember the first time you met face to face?
We met before doing ‘American Beauty’. A friend of his was a graduate professor and arranged for us to meet at ‘Clafoutis’, in Los Angeles. Conrad also hails from an island (Tahiti) and we wound up talking about fishing, the sea, and island life – basically, anything other than cinema.
After cinema, the sea is your other big love, right?
Given the opportunity, I can spend endless hours there… I have loved the sea since I was little, and fortunately, Cyprus has fantastic beaches.
What is Cyprus for you?
It’s my home… The world of cinema can feel nomadic. Everyone wants their place to call home. For me, Cyprus is my homeland: my friends, my childhood, the sea, our food – these are my references. I long for them, and I always feel a sense of relief when I return…
Does the constant travel and relocation to different places affect you? Have they played a role in shaping your character?
Inevitably, there are many influences that can have an effect on you. At the same time, they help you to appreciate what you already have, and to be grateful and patient. Things always change…
Are you happy with what you’ve accomplished in life?
When I was a student, I attended a lecture in London by the Dalai Lama. He said something profound; “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” If you follow this, you will always be grateful. Yes, I’m thankful for everything.
“For me, Cyprus is my homeland: my friends, my childhood, the sea,