A personal note about Dan Kneece (RIP) from your OWC RADiO Host, Cirina Catania. “The world lost a wonderful person last week. Dan Kneece was loved by all of us in the entertainment industry. He worked tirelessly and with a great attitude. Ask Dan what is most important and he would say, “I work for the script and the director.” Words are hard to find right now, but I wanted to share this interview I did with him back in July of 2019. May you find the love in it and may it help you to savor every moment of your lives. Because every day counts, and the friends you leave behind will remember you for how you made them feel and in Dan’s case, also what they learned from you.” (Cirina Catania, August 25, 2021)
Cinematographer Dan Kneece worked with some of the world’s most iconic directors, including David Lynch, Wes Craven, Quentin Tarantino, and Joel Schumacher. But did you know that he was an award-winning musician, that he comes from a very small town in the American south, that he has worked on more than one movie simultaneously, traveling across the country to meet deadlines with no sleep, and that his favorite camera is… nope, no spoiler alerts.
Dan Kneece’s secrets were revealed in this interview with OWC RADiO Host, Cirina Catania. We hope you will enjoy these words from someone we all loved.
Here’s a link to Dan’s cinematographer reel followed by an interview with David Lynch about “Steadicam Dan,” and his move towards more DP work.
In This Episode
- 00:35 – Cirina introduces Dan Kneece, a longtime Steadicam operator and a cinematographer.
- 08:09 – Dan tells the story of how he was first interested in making movies with a Super 8 camera at 13 years old.
- 17:17 – Dan points out what he learned from the news business that was relevant to the film business.
- 24:08 – Dan shares the first experience using a Steadicam in the movie Chain Gang.
- 32:27 – Dan talks about movies where he worked with David Lynch and how David entrusted him with his skills and ideas.
- 40:53 – Dan explains some of his responsibilities in being a Steadicam operator based on his experiences with various directors and actors.
- 48:28 – Dan explains how important it is for the script to be on point and why it is the foundation of a film
- 57:35 – Cirina asks Dan if it’s hard to decline projects from his trusted networks. Dan explains his principle of hiring and working with people.
- 64:24 – What are some of Dan’s favorite lenses?
- 71:41 – Follow Dan Kneece on his social media accounts and visit his website at DanKneece.com to learn more about him.
This is Cirina Catania with OWC Radio. I am speaking today with Dan Kneece, who was a longtime Steadicam operator and now a cinematographer. We call them DPs in our business. And, Dan, I’m so happy to talk to you on the air because you’re just a rarity in this town. And welcome to the show.
Thank you very much for having me.
We have so much to talk about. Let’s just start almost at the beginning, and I like asking people what they liked to do when they were 5, 6, 7 years old. What were you like as a little boy, and what was life for you growing up?
I grew up in the small town of Black Hill, South Carolina. It had a population of about 2000 people and was surrounded by swamps and alligators, and it’s 10 miles from Barnwell, South Carolina, where James Brown was born. In 14 miles, another side of that is a little town called Allendale, where Jasper Johns grew up. I think what really happened in the area, people are saying this must have been something in the water. But I think really, what happens is so darn boring down there that if you have a creative urge, you got to figure out a way to get it out, or you’re going to go nuts.
You need time to be creative. And I think in a busy life in the cities, and we don’t often have time, I totally agree with you. I think some of my most wonderful memories are escaping when I was a little girl from my house and climbing into an apple tree to write poetry and just think about the meaning of life. So I think when you’re in a small town, that’s what happens, right? That’s great.
There’s not too much trouble you can get into because even if you go out in the woods and get lost, the dog knows the way home. So you just follow the dog out of the swamp, and you’re back in your little town. I grew up from a very young age, but when I was a baby, my mother would take me and put me in the playpen. But rather than turn on the television set, she’d put on classical music on the record player. And so I know all of the melodies, from all the classics of classical music. So that was kind of an interesting way and helped my brain develop musically early. And then that took me in a musical direction for a while. And then, in working as a camera operator or a Steadicam operator, the music helped define the beats of a scene. Movies are interesting; they have a beginning, a middle, an end, loud parts, soft parts, fast parts, slow parts, just like a piece of music. And so when people would have me shoot music videos, or do music scenes and movies or things like that, I was very attuned. I knew when the downbeat was, and I knew where the camera needed to be at a certain point. And it really helped me. It’s the kind of thing that you never thought you’d use in a million years. The other one was when I took typing in high school. I said, “I’m never going to use this,” and I spent hours on the computer every day. When I was in seventh grade, I won a medal for playing the oboe. And I would bounce around in the band from oboe to saxophone to some of the horns, to some of the drums. It was a very fluid and fascinating thing for me, and we had pianos in the house, and I can kind of poke on those.
As a kid, I was pretty lucky that I could pick up almost any instrument and get some sort of musical sound out of it. I still have some instruments and things, and I dabble in it still but I mean, I mainly concentrate on being a director of photography. But again, that sort of upbringing, when you’re young, that rewires your brain to think in different ways and then just the normal, regimented ways of thought. It connects different synapses in your brain because when you’re a youngster, like three, four, or five years old, two years old, one year old, your brain is a recorder, and it’s just sucking in everything it can get. And that’s why you don’t use too much profanity around little kids because they remember that. It’s every kind of input you can get. Your brain is programming itself. And then when you get to be our age now, you got a lot of stuff in there. So every once in a while, you forget something. I was talking to one of my friends, and I said, “It’s not as easy to learn as when you’re a little kid,” and he said, “Well, your brain is full. You filled your brain full of stuff.” A lot of times now, though, if you get into situations where you’re working really, really hard over and over many hours, your brain goes on sort of automatic, and you don’t even have to think a thought through. It comes automatically out of your head that you need to do this and this and this. And it becomes like an automated function in a way. But you have to be careful not to override it because you don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over and over. Because you want to keep creating things. And I tell people, a lot of times, if you have a creative mind, you have to keep it busy. Because like in between jobs, if you’re not working, your mind is still going to be creative. It’ll start creating negative things instead of positive things. You always have to keep it occupied and keep good things going through your head because you don’t want it to turn on you.
Yeah. So how long did you live in this small town before you left?
Until I was about 17 or 18 years old, and I went to the University of South Carolina. I come from a family of doctors for hundreds of years. My grandfather was a doctor, and my father was a doctor, my little brother is a doctor, my mother was a pharmacist. I didn’t want to be a doctor, and I was the one who had to go wash the blood off the front porch with a water hose when people came to the house after hours. And it wasn’t really the blood, and it was just my mind clicking away. And it still does. Every once in a while, I’ll start thinking about something creative, I’ll go to sleep, and in the middle of the night, I’ll pop open, and it will still be going. It’s like it’s doing its own thing. Your mind is a computer, and it’s a biological computer. It’s going to run programs. When you sleep, there are dreams, and doing this maintenance is setting itself up for the next day. And whether you have things that you have to do the next day, whether you have trauma that you have to wash out of there, whatever you got going on, your brain is going to deal with that in the way that it knows how to do. That’s why you need sleep because your brain needs time to do maintenance. It’s like defragmenting your hard drive in your sleep.
Yeah, I agree. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll just stop, and then when I wake up, the answers there. Creativity, I don’t know that we can control the muse. She’s there when we need her, when we don’t want her, she’s there when we do want her sometimes she’s there. Like she just comes at the craziest times. Were you into still photography at all when you were in high school? You were studying music?
No, I did a lot of still photography, we had these things called Polaroid cameras, which I don’t think people have anymore, but that was like fun. Take a picture with that, and then watch it appear before your eyes. And the first ones, when the picture would come out of the camera, you had to peel it apart. And then you had another little thing with a wiper on it, you had to wipe on the Polaroid image to fix it, or it wouldn’t stop developing. But then we had a lot of film cameras. When I was in college, I took hundreds of still pictures. But what really got me in the movie direction was when I was 13 years old, my mother bought a Super 8 camera, and I started filming everything. I learned immediately what worked and what didn’t with that camera because it didn’t have a reflex viewfinder. It had a parallax viewfinder. So I wasn’t actually looking through the taking lens. So the first few films when I got close-ups, they were not framed properly because you weren’t looking through the lens. And so I kind of figured that out and that was back when film was cheap, you could get a roll of Super 8 with processing included for $3. Which nowadays $3 back then was like $30 now, so it wasn’t that cheap. But it was still something that you could do and you got like two and a half minutes worth of film on a cartridge. So if you planned your things out right you could do pretty interesting things and you could do film or animations. Some of the first things I started doing, I became fascinated with animation. And I started doing a lot of animated things. And then it was chasing the animals around the house or the family or putting a little boat in the swimming pool and pretending I was in the middle of world war II or some kind of silly things you did when you were young. Especially in a small town, you’re trying to amuse yourself because otherwise you’re going to be really bored because there’s nothing going on.
Do you have those films? Do you still have them?
I think they may be in the house in South Carolina somewhere, some of that stuff. I probably should go try to save them before everything gets destroyed and transfer them over to another medium.
Also the film deteriorates after a while. I know I’ve worked on some retrospective kind of things for clients, and some of the older film is so fragile, you can’t even put it through the projector because it’s deteriorating. You need to save the films
I gotta save them. But what I used to do, too, was when I was in school, I’d get Super 8 cartridges and leave them on the dash of the car and throw them up into the seat, ride around all summer, and then take them out and shoot them. And they got really interesting because the radiation from the sun or the heat, or it would make you get like really giant-sized grains or big globs of stuff on the film when you develop it, and so it wouldn’t look like they wanted it to look. But I thought that was interesting.
Sometimes those mistakes are some of the best things, aren’t they?
Yeah, they are. I mean, you get happy accidents that happen. I would go out and shoot things. I remember one time we had an assignment to go out in a junkyard and shoot different things. And I shot this bolt that was sticking out of a piece of metal somewhere. And somehow didn’t set the camera right. It was like five stops underexposed on slide film, which is like the kiss of death. But then the guy had to develop, and it was really interesting looking, because it looked like this sort of dark monster coming out of the blackness. And that started to give me some ideas. And I tend to embrace those ideas and think outside differently than other people think when I do things sometimes because to meet in the ordinary is kind of boring, and I want to do something different. Sometimes mistakes are the best things. I like to call them happy accidents. It’s why it’s so important to keep an open mind while in the middle of a shoot.CLICK TO TWEET
Do people ever say to you, “You need to look at this person’s work and that person’s work and that person’s work before you start directing or producing or filming or being a DP?” What do you say to them when they tell you that?
I’d say, “Go away.”
I am so glad you said that. Because I really believe that creative people need to have confidence in their own muse, in their own creativity, you need to listen to that voice. And I think that’s why your work is so good. Because you have that combination of being able to listen to your own voice, but then working with other people and keeping them happy. It’s difficult to do, it’s really difficult to do it.
it’s very difficult. You have to balance a lot of personalities when you’re working on the set. And you have to do things in a way that you make every person on the set happy and still get done what you need to get done to satisfy the needs of the script. Because everything comes down to the script. I’ve read so many scripts and when I read a script, I watch the movie in my head as I read the script. I already know what the movie, at least in my mind, is formulating to be. And then when I finally meet with the director, after I read the script, I’m like, “Well I don’t know how you see this. But when I read the script, I saw this, and I saw these images here and this here, and this here, and this here.” And this is what the script told me it needed to be or the movie needed to be. And sometimes we’ll agree and sometimes we’ll disagree. But it’s a starting point for us to have the conversation about where we’re going to go with the film, and what the film is going to eventually become. And that’s incredibly important. Because what you have to realize is, when you start making a film, everybody has to be making the same movie, you can’t have somebody be making one movie over here and a movie over there. I mean, they all have to be coming together for a common purpose with a common vision, so that you accomplish what the director wants to see out of that script. Because essentially, it’s the director’s movie, and you’re there to help him or her bring that to fruition to the best of your ability. Creative people need to have confidence in their own talents. You need to listen to your own voice and create something that is authentically you.CLICK TO TWEET
So let’s go back in the late 70s. You’re working on your master’s in media arts, right? You’re at University of South Carolina. And then when did you start shooting news because see, I think news is a great training ground for several reasons. But when did you start working in news in Columbia?
When I was in graduate school at WIS–TV in Columbia, South Carolina. The NBC affiliate. And I was what they called a news trainee. In the morning, I go to my classes. In the afternoon, I was a graduate teaching assistant in charge of animation. And in the evening, about six o’clock, I would go to the news station, get my little van with a dish on top, and go with the reporters out until about midnight or one in the morning and come home and get back up about six and go back, get ready for class. And so it was a pretty full schedule. It was back when Iran had the hostages. So we went to a lot of hostage rallies, I got to shoot interviews with Count Basie and John Connelly who was in the car with JFK, John actually got shot as well sitting beside him. And so it was a pretty fascinating time for me. And that was back when you had a separate tape recorder, or what we call a porter pack, that used three-quarter-inch tape. We had two cameras if you pointed it at anything bright too long, it would burn the tube, so you had to be really careful with those. And so you’d carry each one of those things for about 40 pounds. Then you had two battery bricks, you had a sun gun and you had an Electro–Voice 635A mic. We all know a fairly long cable from the porter and you’re carrying all that around. It was as heavy as carrying a Steadicam. And we’d be running around carrying all this stuff and we would go into school board meetings or protests or whatever needed to be done. So if I had a microwave dish on top of the van they told us every time we turned it on we lost a kid because of the microwave transmitters. It wasn’t a very clean transmission back then.
It was dangerous. We’ll talk offline about 5G.
Oh my goodness. Yeah, I carried those battery bricks around. It actually took me many years to throw them away because there were so many memories with that equipment, right? What did you learn doing news that you think you carried into the next phase?
You got to get it the first time. You’d see really horrific things. I go out in the van whoever was with me before or whoever had the van previously the tube lights would burn out and I only have one light left. And you do with what you got. And in the news business, if you could see it, it was good, it didn’t have to be artistic. It just had to be documented. But it is some of the best training you can ever have for the film business because you learn that you can’t fool around and you don’t have time to get second chances you better get it right the first time. Or you may not get another chance and a lot of times that’s true in the film business too. There may only be one good take and you better get it. I did two TV movies with Anne Bancroft, she wasn’t a big woman, whenever she turned it on you just prayed you were in the right spot to catch it because it was going to come out of nowhere whether you’re ready or not. She was a very strong actress. Marcia Gay Harden is the same way; she emotes very strongly too. So. I’ve seen a lot of great performances through my lens. It’s like having the best seat in the house of a wonderful play in everyday life. There are times when you don’t get another chance in show business. There may be only one good take and you better get it whether you’re ready or not.CLICK TO TWEET
Do you feel like you look at life through your lens even when you’re not shooting? I know I do. When I’m not working, I always have a camera. Do you do that?
Well, I carry my iPhone around with me because I saw a quote from Annie Leibowitz one time and somebody asked her what’s the best camera available now for a beginning photographer and she said an iPhone. The best camera that you can have is the one you have with you the time you see the shot. So whether you have an iPhone or an SLR, or a Super Panavision 70 you can just see the images in your head, you capture that image and that’s the image that you have. I’ve been to Italy in France a few times over the last few years. And I’d send back pictures and people say, “These pictures are beautiful. What do you take them with?” and when I tell them it was an iPhone they can’t believe it. Sometimes people put like little teary faces and stuff and I’m like, you didn’t feel that way before I told you. If I never told them it was with an iPhone, they never would have realized what I took it with.
It’s not the size of the wrench, it’s the person behind it.
So, if in your mind’s eye, you see something, and whatever tool you have with you allows you to capture that and you’ve done well.
That’s awesome. You are doing what you’re supposed to do. Does it feel like that? Does it feel like life has brought you to where you want to be?
Well, I mean, I lived in that little small town, and I thought making movies was impossible. So I would try it. So I could fail and come home and get a real job like raising pigs but it worked. And I’m still here, and I’m living in Los Angeles and I’m doing what I want to do and I’m really pretty happy with that. I pinch myself every day because it’s like, I’m really getting to do this. This is amazing to me. It’s fascinating and amazing and I still love it and love to do it whenever I get the chance. I’ve heard several people say this quote, “but if you do what you love you never work a day in your life,” and that’s kind of the way I look at it. I just want to keep on doing it as long as I am allowed to do it. And I think they’ll put me in the coffin and I’ll be hanging out with one arm with a camera sticking out. That’ll be the hardest thing for the undertaker to get that last arm in the box.
You’ll be lying there going, “Wait a minute. I can’t shoot, it’s totally dark in here.”
Yeah. “Move the light a little bit this way!”
Yeah, “I need to crack through the coffin so I can shoot the crowd.” Oh my goodness. Talk to me about when you went into learning Steadicam because Garrett Brown is a wonderful person. What was it like studying under him?
Garrett is still one of my dearest friends to this day. And we met in December 17th 1982 in Miami and that’s where I went to the to the to the Steadicam class that Garrett and Toby Phillips, Randy Nolan taught me how to do Steadicam. And I was in there with my other two fellow students that really did well were a guy from Paris named Jacques Monge, and a guy from Florida named Robert Olin. And both of them, sadly, are passed away now. But they both did some amazing work. Jacques went back to Paris and became the Steadicam guy in Paris for many, many years. And Bob always lived in Florida, but he traveled all around and did a lot of major movies. And so it’s been a great run. Garrett is like, undeniably a genius. And not only with a Steadicam but he invented the SkyCam. You know, whenever you watch the Olympics, and you see the people dive off of the high dive, and the camera follows him down and goes into the water, that’s one of Garrett’s cameras. And then there’s one like when they run obstacles, and do races the cameras that fly along with the runners as they’re going along that’s one of Garrett’s cameras. And then the SkyCam where the camera comes from above on cables, that’s one of Garrett’s cameras. And the other thing that Garrett’s done that I’m not sure how many people know this, but he’s also the voice of Molson Golden, and all the beer commercials.
I did not know that. Oh, my goodness.
That’s Garrett Brown. He started out as a folk singer.
So do you guys ever play music together?
No, we haven’t. But he had an album out and I think you can find it if you dig around. I forgot the name of the group. But if you look for Garrett Brown, you should be able to find it. He lives now and has always lived in Philadelphia, he never left Philadelphia and still went around and did movies all over the world. So he’s a dear friend, a brilliant man, somebody you’re very happy to know and love.
So you were learning about the Steadicam. Do you remember the first thing you shot using the Steadicam?
I did. Well, I went through the school. And that was in 1982. I got a call from Owensby’s Studios in Shelby, North Carolina. And because of an equipment dealer, I knew that I bought a few cameras and stuff from, and had gotten a Steadicam from John Barry Group out in Australia. And they got it down to Myrtle Beach. And they were doing a movie called Chain Gang and it was in 3D. And they didn’t know how to work with Steadicam and didn’t know how to adjust it. And so my friend said, “I know this guy who just came out of the school. We should bring him down here.” So I went down there. And the Steadicam; they had a 51-pound arm that had been modified with super long screws and they had a little light Arriflex camera on it. But the arm has cranked up so high that the arm is standing straight up in there. And so it had way too much spring tension on it for the camera that was on the Steadicam. But at the time, the factory didn’t make adjustable arms. So I looked at it, and I saw it was a 51-pound arm, which is for the Arri 35BL which is much heavier. And I started taking the arm apart because I’ve always liked to take things apart. And my mother would come in and she’d give me a radio and I’d take the radio apart and put it back together and it would still work. I have a handful of parts left over, but it still works. So that’s how you learn, you know.
You’d have parts leftover and it still worked. I remember my parents walked in on me when I lived in France and I was on the hardwood floor and I had taken apart the telephone. And I had parts everywhere because back then the telephones were really interesting. They were horrified. Anyway, so you started taking this arm apart. Was the production horrified? Were they scared?
No, they were out doing other things. They didn’t even know I was doing it. But I was bound and determined to get to the base of what was going on. So I pulled the covers off the springs on the arm. And I noticed that the Australians put really long screws in the arm for the spring adjustments. And so I took those screws, and I dialed them down, and dialed them down, and dialed them down until I got the arm where it should rest for the particular camera that we had. And so I got that going. And then the other thing I had to do was I had to make a plate for the camera top because the 3D lens was so big and heavy that it made the Steadicam front heavy and I didn’t have enough adjustment to get it further back or actually maybe I just taped a battery on there. I taped an extra battery on the back of the Steadicam to balance them. Anyway, I got it balanced out to where it works like it should. And then all of a sudden I was like the guy. And I did about six movies with Earl Studio. And then after that Dino De Laurentiis opened a studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. And so I started hitting them up and I had put together a reel which is basically me chasing my little brother around the house in Columbia, South Carolina, around the yard and crawling over a fence and the camera just following me wherever you went. And I sent that reel up to Dino De Laurentiis. And they watched it and they started telling everybody about it. There was this movie called Blue Velvet and they called me, they said, “Do you want to do this movie called Blue Velvet?” And I said, “Sure.” And I was in one of the Owensby movies at the time.
And I had a travel day going between Shelby and Hilton Head Island where we were going to shoot and they were shooting Blue Velvet in Wilmington. And so I just swung through Wilmington on the travel day, spent the night there and I said, “Well, Who’s shooting this thing?” and I pull the call sheet out. And it was David Lynch. And I was like, “We’d all seen Dune in South Carolina,” and we said, “If there’s anybody we could work with in this business, it would be David Lynch, and he’d be the guy. And so I didn’t sleep at all at night and I stood in front of the mirror looking at myself and you can do this, you can do this. So then, we get there and it’s a big 35mm Vl camera with about a seven-pound anamorphic lens on it, and I get it all set up. I bought the Steadicam that we’d used on Chain Gang earlier and so I had enough arms to hold it all. But I only had two shots in the movie. One was Kyle McLaughlin waking up with the bug sprayer, up to the apartment. And then the other one was busting out of the doorway, and he ran back down the stairs talking about the key that he’s stolen so you can get back into Dorothy’s apartment later. And those are my two shots and Blue Velvet. Well, I go down there and shoot those. And then they call me to track me down in Hilton Head, and they said you got to come back. And I said, “What?” and they said, “We had some kind of lens problem. You got to come back. We got to shoot everything all over again.” I just have to be on the travel lane and I was going back up to Shelby for a night shoot. So I drove to Wilmington and reshot all those shots, through the stuff in the car, drove from one side of North Carolina to the other landed in Shelby and then did a whole night shoot and stayed up all night. So that was a long day.
No kidding. Oh my goodness.
But it led to an ongoing relationship with David Lynch to this day. And because we did Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks, then last time, and the Mulholland Drive, plus some music, video and commercial work. And so all of that just happened because of a travel day in a few shots. Actually the new Criterion in Blue Velvet disc that just came out, David found the underexposed footage in a warehouse in Seattle. How did it got up there? We don’t know. But it’s got those last shots in it. And then it’s also got a documentary of us making Blue Velvet which is really strange to see myself from 1985 with my little Steadicam. And then there’s an interview that we did several years ago. That is a series of interviews, it’s by Benedict Fancy, a filmmaker up in Wilmington, where we went back to the locations where we did Blue Velvet. And got on that stairwell and actually walked through and talked about how we did it, and this is where we did this and that, and it’s pretty fascinating. So if you get that Criterion disk, you can have all this. So that was kind of fun. The first movies in Shelby, we blew everything up. And we’d shoot somebody with a machine gun. We wouldn’t shoot them once we put 100 bullet hits on them in a slow motion for like five minutes, and blood would go everywhere.
Oh, come on blowing things up is so much fun.
Oh, yeah it is. We have a tractor trailer full of bombs.
Oh my goodness. So you went from blowing things up to the very introspective, psychological thriller kind of stuff that David Lynch was doing at the time. It’s kind of a little shift, wasn’t it?
Yes. It was fascinating. And David and I’ve gotten along really well for years because we just clicked. It got to the point where there was like at Wild at Heart, there’s a scene where Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern go dancing in an old Palomino nightclub, which used to be out in the valley. And we were filming there and it’s where Nicolas Cage and the punk comes up and tries to dance Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage. And he says, “You got a stupid-looking jacket.” Nicolas Cage says, “This is a snakeskin jacket, it assembles my individuality and personal freedom.” And then they have a little bit of a fight. And then Nicolas Cage and Laura danced. But it’s like that scene, the direction I got was to go out there and get it. And so I went and shot, and then I came back after I ran out of film and David said, “What did you get?” I said, “Well, I did this, and this, I got these parts of the scene.” “Okay, go out and get what you didn’t get before.”
And he just trusted me and I knew we developed a rapport where we sort of knew what he wanted and not just would do it. Well, I mean, it was basically I shot one side of the scene which would be Laura’s side with this speed metal band in the background, and then I turned around and did Nicholas’s side. And it would be like floating and doing water shots and moving around the camera, I’d constantly just move in from a close up to wide shot to other things. I mean, the whole thing is basically a couple of Steadicam shots with maybe a high angle and low angle from stationary cameras later on. But that was pretty much it and we really developed a rapport. And then let’s see, so we did that, and then we did Twin Peaks and that was on 90 and 91 and I was on every episode of that except for the pilot I think. And then we did Fire Walk With Me, we actually went up to Seattle and shot the whole film up there. And then after that it was Lost Highway.
I don’t know how to keep track of everything you have so many credits.
I have to look at IMDb to see what I’ve done because I can’t remember.
Yeah. Well, so what is David doing now? Are you guys still working on things together now?
I didn’t work on the new Twin Peaks, they had a whole new crew. But David has gotten the David Lynch foundation now, which is originally formed to help kids learn through meditation. And then it evolved into military veterans to help them overcome PTSD. And it’s kind of developing this massive worldwide organization. And so he’s pretty busy with that. And then the David Foundation is what he started out with was being a painter. And so he paints a lot as well. So he’s a pretty prolific individual. His paintings are massive and they’re very interesting. You can immediately look at one and tell it’s David’s painting as nobody else does paintings like David. So I love going to his shows when he has openings, because I always see interesting new things. Then he makes furniture and does other things, too. But I mean, in addition to being a master filmmaker.
So in the days when you were using the Steadicam, And you did that for many years. I think it was just recently that you sort of dialed that down a little bit, right? But you were there in the heyday. I mean, the Steadicam was still fairly new.
You could count everybody on two hands who was doing it when I started.
What was your style back then that gave you some notoriety? What caused people to notice your work looking back?
Well, I went to the school in Miami. And then I went back to South Carolina for five years by myself and developed my bad habits. But my style was always a little different than all other Steadicam operators. I mean, people notice it. Where some of them were more rock solid and dully-like, the camera always had a bit of a motion of float to it, it became a character. Which I mean, a lot of us when we would film things that the Steadicam could be either an observer or participant. And it can kind of float back and forth between those things. So my style was always a little more flowing. Although I could be precise, sometimes I wasn’t precise on purpose, or I would put the camera where it needed to be another way.
Would I be right in saying that in a lot of the scenes your camera was the POV of the character? Because it feels alive when I look at some of the clips you’ve put up of your work, it breathes.
Yeah, well the opening of Scream with Drew Barrymore where I shot that. It’s a fairly solid take but I did things like when I’m pushing on her when she would get the weird phone calls and things I just twist the camera just ever so slightly when the guy started threatening her when it started getting strange. And then we chased around the house and out the front door and there were a lot of different things that went on. Wes Craven went the next day, saw the dailies and said it was the best first days dailies he ever had on any movie. Wes is a lovely man. I did two movies with him; the Scream and then The People Under the Stairs. I was constantly working on different movies. So sometimes I do three movies in three different towns in a week. And so I do part of Scream and then I go and do another movie in another town, and another movie in another town. I’d wake up in a hotel room, I wouldn’t know where I was, and I would look out the window and I still wouldn’t know where I was. I just found in a phonebook what town I was in.
Well, you must have been exhausted. I don’t know how you did it all but you’re still doing it.
Yeah, it was really pretty crazy. There were a lot of times where I spent my life in super shuttles and on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And it was not unusual for me to lose five pounds a day carrying this weight around. Because sometimes for 18 hours a day, I carry a hundred pounds around. And not all of it be walking, some of you running going up and downstairs, jumping on and off of cranes, mounted to vehicles. The opening of the Last Highway is the title sequence of me hanging off the front of a camera car in low mode with an Arri 3 with a Panavision anamorphic about two inches off the road. We’re going 35 miles an hour and 24-degree weather and the cameras running six frames a second. So it’s the equivalent of 140 miles an hour. I had to hang out there for 16 minutes in the windshield, so we’d have the full roll of film to put the titles on because we needed the full four-minute roll, for the main title to the movie. And I had on two pairs of long johns, all my street clothes, a snowmobile suit, a ski mask, two pairs of gloves, and by the end of the run, I could only open one eye. I couldn’t feel my fingers and I’ve slobbered all over my face. But it was worth it because the camera looks very good. And David still tells the story about how cold it was and how long I hung out there.
You couldn’t come back in, you were frozen.
I was there. And I had to be very careful because if we hit a bump and I let the camera go down further than two inches above the pavement, it would hit the pavement, and then the whole camera would be sucked up onto the camera car and be destroyed. So it was quite an undertaking, you know?
No, you just do what you gotta do is what’s got to be done. It’s like an opening at Wild at Heart, I’m running up and down the stairs with Nicolas Cage. He has the fight with the black guy and beats into the floor and we’re all over those carpeted stairs down at the Elks Lodge downtown. And I think they call it a Park Plaza Hotel now, but it was the Elks Lodge when we shot journey videos there and I worked on another movie there called Rock Star where we shot upstairs and we carried technic cranes up the stairs. And then we did another thing for I think it was the LG, a 3D television and stuff where we did a bunch of stuff in there too. So it’s a popular location down around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. I did all those things for David then I did a couple of movies for Quentin Tarantino. I did two for Joel Schumacher and two for Wes Craven. And then there’s all kinds of other movies and television shows and stuff. It just all blends together in my mind people say, “Did you do that?” And I just found one on IMDb yesterday that I’d done and I forgot to put a credit on it. So I had to add a credit yesterday for one from 15 years ago because I’ve done so many, and I said, “Oh yeah, I worked on that one. I better stick my name on that one too.” But I mean, the whole open and dollies and stuff. Because I was a camera and Steadicam operator on that. And then I did the Steadicam on Grindhouse, the Death Proof segment Grindhouse with Quentin too.
Well, I saw you at NAB and you were leaving to go on a shoot. Were you going to Africa? Where were you going when I saw you at NAB in April?
In April I was going down to Tucson to scout a cowboy movie that I’m supposed to do in November.
Okay. All right.
Because I just came back from doing something else and then I’ve got a movie I’m supposed to shoot before November in a beach house Albert Einstein used to live in. And that’s going to be sort of like a big chill with a haunted twist in sort of thing. So that’ll be fun. It’s not a dull life you know.
It’s a wonderful life. How does Twenty-four seven sound like with you?
Well, it can be. It depends, like, the beginning of this year has been a little slow, but then things are starting to pick up now. And it’s probably gonna be like a rat race all the way to the end but a happy rat race, though. Little happy rats running.
It’s wonderful. So you made the switch from Steadicam to becoming a cinematographer DP. Do you like that? Tell me about that world for you.
I do like that. I’m actually happier doing that. We just had a premiere of our movie about Mary Pickford called Why Not Choose Love: A Mary Pickford Manifesto, at the Ace Hotel downtown in the United orders theater that Mary designed. And we showed our Mary Pickford movie, and it’s the 100th anniversary of United Artists this year, which Mary founded. So that show went really well. We had 800 people there. And it was fun for me because I got to make modern-day Arri Lexus look like 1909 film cameras. And so that was a bit of a challenge. And we had really great performers. Jennifer DiLia was the director. Sophie Kennedy Clark played Mary Pickford, Cary Elwes played D.W Griffith, Luke Arnold played Douglas Fairbanks, and we had Balthazar Getty who we already knew from Lost Highway. And it turned out to be a really interesting good little film that I got to pull out all the stops. It doesn’t look like any movie you’ve ever seen.
Can we see it? Is it out somewhere where we can see it?
We still got to do a few little things to it before they’re gonna release it, I think. And so what’s going on is we still got to-do titles, I want to do one final color pass and things like that. But then it should be out, I’m guessing in the next year or so.
You were talking about how it didn’t look like any other movie I’ve ever seen. Can you keep going there because all of a sudden I’m going, “Well, I want to see it,” and I interrupted you? My mouth moves too fast sometimes, I apologize. This is just so fascinating. So you were starting to tell us what was different about this film.
Well, the story is not unlike any other film you’ve ever seen. It all takes place in Mary Pickford’s head. And the premise of it, which is sort of the background material is Mary Pickford was offered Sunset Blvd. by Billy Wilder who wrote the script for her and she turned it down. But the part eventually went to Gloria Swanson. But our film takes place in her mind from the time she gets the script. And when she turns it down as she looks back through her life, from 1909 to about 1949. And it’s a very different film. It’s a very beautiful film, the performances are amazing, the directions were very good, everything really kind of works with it, but it’s not like your conventional movie. So I think it’s worth seeing not only because it’s a good film, but also because it’s very different from anything you’ve ever seen before.
That’s awesome. So do you like directing?
I directed a few little things. Earlier in my life, I didn’t think I had anything to say, but I’m thinking I’m finally getting to the point where it could have something to convey to other people. I worked with a lot of first-time directors and I got to help guide them sometimes. My job is to serve the script and the director. That’s a whole reason I’m there. I’m not there to take any glory for myself, I’m just there to help them make the movie that’s in their head and to serve the script. I lectured a lot of universities and taught at AFM and places like that, and at the University of South Carolina, where I went to school. My grandfather used to build houses on my mother’s side, and I always looked at the script, like the foundation of the house. If you got a bad foundation, your house is gonna fall down. but if you got a good foundation or a good script, and you’ve got something to build upon, to make that house and be a good sturdy house, it’ll last forever. But you have to be faithful to it and not try to do too many modifications because the script itself tells you everything that the movie needs to be. It’s right there on the pages, you just look at it, you read it, you know exactly what you need to be doing. And so if you follow that and are faithful to that, and you and the directors see eye to eye on what that should be, then you come out and you can make a very lovely film. If you and the director are not seeing eye to eye, buttin’ heads, it’s not going to be a very pleasant experience, and the film’s not gonna be very good.
No, you’re right. You’re right.
So it’s I mean that that being said, sometimes you get a bad script and the right director or the right actress can save it. We have a saying in school, “making chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.” And so you take what you’re given, and you do the absolute best you can with that, and you go forward.
How do you shoot that?
Well, a perfect example is they gave me the script for Scream, which when they gave me the script, it was called Scary Movie that was the original name of the movie. And I read the script, and I thought, “Oh, man, this is awful. This is not a very good script.” But other people disagreed. And in that group of actors they brought in and Wes Craven, it turned out to be an amazing film. It’s like one of the classic horror films of all time. For 10 years, whenever they talked about horror films, they showed the opening shot of Drew Barrymore and it was like, for ten years. I’m not kidding. Every time they talk about horror films there are those shots. And so the lesson to be learned from this is, you got to treat every movie you work on like an Oscar winner because you never know which one’s going to do it. And you never know which one is going to strike it with the audience and with people. And the people involved, what they’re going to do to make things actually a great film out of it. I mean, I’ve had directors tell me to do things back when I was operating for them, I wouldn’t understand, but I’d watch and I’d do it. And I do it with enthusiasm, of course, but then when I saw the film, I saw exactly why they wanted me to do that because they had something very specific in mind that I wasn’t really grasping at that moment in time.
Every time I read a script and think about it and watch the movie that I see, I always think, “Well, what would the director think about this?” Then we start the dialogue. When we did the Mary Pickford film, Jen DiLia and I started meeting eight months before we shot the movie. We met and we started talking, we met for lunch, and we talked and then we looked at pictures of Mary. And we’d go and discuss and discuss for months. And then we brought in the production designers and the costumers, and we sit down and say, “Well, if we did this, if we did this, if we did this, we can have this effect,” and, ‘How do we want this scene to sell?” and all these things. And it’s a luxury to be able to do that because then you can have time to really hone in on what you’re trying to do. Because some films you come in, like a week or two days before they want to roll cameras, and they’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna shoot” and I’m like, “Okay, we’re gonna shoot? Sure.”
You know it’s hard to be creative when you don’t have any time to let your mind wander. Your mind has to wander, you have to allow that.
Absolutely. So you need time for those ideas to gel in things. From the news days, I have been landing on my feet and shooting. And the films that I’ve shot that way, they still look good, they still work. All these things are important, though. It just becomes a different movie, if you do that approach to it and if you have time to really set it up. And Mary needed time for us to think it through and gel it. Because it’s a very different approach with the art direction, the costumes are amazing, the performances are amazing. We got some really incredible images that we wouldn’t have done if we just jumped into it and just said, “Okay, shoot it.” I think if you have a movie where you want a frantic feel to it., and having a short prep time on it, it may give you that. You won’t be able to think long-term results on it. But some movies don’t have that, some just shoot it. Be done with it, move on to the next one. So I tend to want to do interesting things, though. So having a little time to think it over is a bonus to me.
Dan, you’re an eternal optimist. I love the way you take any situation and try to turn it into something positive. I think that’s wonderful. What is the one thing you think the younger generation needs to hear from you that that you would want to say to them, there’s a lot of kids out there with iPhones with DSLRs. They can’t afford or even don’t want some of the larger cameras that we grew up with. What do you tell them about what’s important to take with them so that they can have their story come to life?
Don’t try to start at the top. Get into the camera department or whatever department you want to be with, work with people that are better than you are, and learn. Because if you start at the top, you’re robbing yourself of a foundation of really great knowledge that you can learn from others. I mean, I started out in South Carolina and we might do a job as a loader or an operator or a DP or whatever. But I’ve done all the jobs in the camera department. But the other thing is, I’ve worked under some amazing directors and amazing camera people. And I have a theory that I call; eyes open mouth shut. What that is, is if you see somebody doing something, watch them and try to figure out what they’re doing, rather than asking them what they’re doing. Because if you watch them and figure out what they’re doing, and say, “Oh, that’s why they’re doing that,” you’ll remember that forever. But if you ask them a question, and they say, Oh, I just do this, because of that,” you’ll forget it. And it’s not ingrained in your brain. And one of the things in this business is you want to take the knowledge that you learn in the things that you see to follow. So when you go and do another film, you won’t have the exact same situations, but you’ll be able to say, “Well, in this film, we did this and this work that way. If I modify that here, I should get a result similar to this.” And you can draw upon all that knowledge that you’ve saved up over the years.
And I just realized since the news days, I’ve been doing this for 40 years. And there’s a lot of knowledge in that. I mean, I worked with Alan Daviau, Alex Thomson, Ueli Steiger, all these wonderful cameramen. And Roy Wagner, Bob Primes just amazing, amazing amounts of knowledge, just to work with these people. And have them say well if you did it this way, it might be better. And this would be better. And this would help you. And if you do this way, you will run into trouble with this. And these are things that you fall away, rather than having to learn it all over again, and start at square one. It’s always good to listen to your elders and to learn from them because they’ve been through the wars. And that’s really always very important.
I’m sure there are times when you give a commitment, and then somebody that you care about very much calls you and you can’t do it. That’s really hard isn’t it?
Well, yeah. Spike Jonze and Michael Bay, and all these guys, when I was really busy, they were like, “Oh, can you come to do this?” and then they’d have their people call me and I’m like, “I can’t.” Which I can’t fit in there, I was so busy that I just couldn’t work at everybody I wanted to. In a way, it pains you, but I think you get the jobs you’re meant to have. And that other people are getting the jobs they’re supposed to have. And if you get a job where they really wanted somebody else, and they hired you, it is never a comfortable situation. My thoughts on that are you should hire who you want, don’t hire me because of whatever reason, go hire the people that you want to hire and use them. And then you’ll be happy, and I’ll be happy, and I’ll go work with other people that thought of me and rather than, like, just fill in a hole or void. Because I get along with everybody but it’s like, some people are determined not to get along with anybody.
There are a lot of interesting characters in our business. I want to take a slight detour, but I want to talk to you, I can’t talk to someone like you without bringing up the subject of light. Obviously, we have a story, and we’ll talk about technology in a minute, but light, isn’t it all about light?
Well, we’re as John Alton said in his book, we’re painting with light. Making a movie is very simple. If you put the camera in the right place with the right lens on it, you put the lights in the right place, you put the mark in the right place, you put the actor on the mark, and you roll the camera and you got a movie. But it’s taken me 40 years to figure out what the right place is. I watched so many student films and films by people that are trying to start out, a lot of times the cameras are in the wrong place. But I’ve had it pounded into my head, how to do an over, how to do a single, how to do a wide shot, and these are the stuff you learn with experience and by working with people that are better than you are. And I mean to this day, my hiring practices to find people that are better than I am is to let them do their jobs when they’re on my crew. I don’t try to be a micromanager. And because I’ve been through micromanagement I know what it feels like. And other people might have a better idea than you do. Definitely, one of the biggest mistakes, if you’re a leader is to think that you have all the ideas and nobody else has any. So that’s a really, really important thing to remember.
So when you’re working as a DP, you have to find camera and people that you really trust to, it’s the same thing.
I’ve had the same focus puller for 30 years.
Wow, that’s awesome.
He’s been my focus puller when they won the Oscar. And since I’ve been in Los Angeles has been my main focus puller to all my Steadicam work, except for some of the David Lynch stuff which Scott Ressler who’s now a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Arts. He teaches cinematography there. He was a focus puller for me many times and then on Mary Pickford, I had Steve on focus and Scott came in and operated some of the extra camera stuff. My main two camera operators were Dan Golden and Mitch Dubin. And Dan did all the Spider-Man and unknown movies and Mitch did tons of Spielberg movies. So it’s like, if I have talent like that around me, and my gaffers, Dwight Campbell, who gaffed always and far and away in the abyss, and you surround yourself with these talented people, and you let them do what they know how to do. That’s very important. I’ve gone into jobs and movies where I had to do everything because I had crews that were put upon me. And it’s not saying that they were bad, but it’s like, I’d have to, like, tell them everything, and watch them and things. But when you have a great group of people surrounding you, you just let them do their jobs. And then I make suggestions, and I’ll watch everything on monitors. I’ll be just adjusting filtration, I’ll be adjusting lenses, I’ll be saying stops and in focal links and camera positions and everything else. I’ll control that via radios and stuff through monitors. But a lot of times, you should let people do what they do.
And that’s why you’ve won so many awards, too, because people love what you do. And you’ve had an amazing career. How has technology challenged you because things have really changed since that first Super 8 camera that your mom had to now, where you could be shooting on just about any kind of camera, but the analog to digital was a huge jump and everything in between. You seem like the kind of person that adapts easily or was it hard for you?
I try to stay on top of all the latest stuff, or a lot of it. No, it’s coming through like an astronomical rate. So it’s almost overwhelming in a way. But you have to still learn a little bit about each one of these things and what might be the best way to do it. But again, it comes back to it’s not the size of the wrenches the person behind the wrench. You can make a great movie and as they told us when I went to the University of Southern California and studied cinema there as well. And when they told us they said you can make an absolutely great movie in Super 8 or a home movie and Super Panavision 70. It’s not the thing that you capture it with. It’s the story, it’s the script, it’s the actors. Now, there are a lot of people that would argue that fact. But then there’s a movie called The Celebration that was shot on a palm quarter and it got distributed. And David Lynch shot in an empire on a PD 150 because he could let Laura Dern act for an hour and he had a one-hour set and she didn’t have to cut her and you could just let her run. And he’d love to be able to do that.
This isn’t really an interview about gear but I would like to ask you about perhaps your favorite lenses or some of your favorite tools that given the chance you like to work with. Do you want to talk about that?
Yeah, the lenses and cameras and different tools that I like to work with. I mean my favorite camera now, and it has been for a while is the Arriflex Alexa, and I usually put either Zeiss super speeds on it, or in the case of Mary Pickford, we use Panavision Ultra speeds. Right now there’s a renaissance in glass coming out when the digital cameras first came out there weren’t that many lenses around. And so we’re having like a flood of new lenses from all different sources come in now, which is really great for us because we have a lot of different things to choose from. But I still like the older glass now, because some of the new stuff is just too friggin sharp. And when it is sharp, it’s razor-sharp in one plane and then they’re not very forgiving, they fall out really quick. And it’s not like the depth of field. It’s like razor sharpness and then not so sharp. Whereas the other lenses that the older lenses I use, they tend to they slowly roll into focus and they slowly roll out and they’re more forgiving. What happens with older lenses is they’re more forgiving focus-wise, they don’t have just one plane that’s super sharp and everything else has fallen off. They roll into an area of focus, and they roll back out. They never quite get as sharp as some of the new lenses, they’re a little bit softer. But on digital cameras, I find that that is more interesting to me because the digital sensors tend to get clinical sometimes and get very sterile. And so I want things to work with them to kind of take that digital edge of. Whereas film kind of did it on its own. And with a digital camera the sensors in one place; it doesn’t move, all the color pixels are on the same plane. And with film you had three layers, and the film was always moving in the gate, flopping around. So that took out a lot of a lot of eels with film because the lenses would shoot further into the motion for different wavelengths of light. And the film itself was moving back and forth in the gate, so that gave you a little extra leeway.
When digital first came out, for focus pullers, we always kind of looked at it like it was a widowmaker because it was really difficult until people got used to it to pull focus on digital cameras because the film is forgiving in a way. And so the cameras I like right now are the Arri Alexa and the little Canons. Pretty much those are the ones, like the C-200 is really a nice Canon camera. And I’m hearing really good things about the Sony Venice that seems to be nice. I just haven’t shot anything with it yet. The Panasonic VariCam LT, I liked a lot. There are a lot of different cameras out there. Now a lot of people can make a decent sensor now but it’s just the way that the lens combination in the color science behind that sensor really makes them whether they work well or not. And so that’s kind of tricky stuff. Again, if you need a way to capture that image, you need a way with the sensor and with the lenses. And then with digital cameras, a lot of times you don’t find yourself using color correcting filters but you find diffusions are kind of important. And then what kind of type of diffusion you use, and where you put it and other things like that. And then the other thing to remember is that once the cameras stop rolling, the director of photography’s job is only halfway done. The other half of the job we got to do is the color correction. So you go in and do a DI after the fact and that’s where you do the other half of your direct photography work or your DP work. Because you go in and you take all this footage you’ve captured and then you finally hone in the color and what you see and if there’s anything that’s been overexposed that you couldn’t handle on the set.
These things are all very important too. So in the theater in the DI’s suite, usually the best way to do it is you go into a place that has a big screen, like a 25-foot screen with a with a calibrated projector, usually a Barco or some other really high end $100,000 projector that has been calibrated to be color accurate. And you sit there with a colorist and you go through the movie shot by shot and you say okay, “This shot is a little too green, this shot is a little too red. This one we could sharpen it up a little bit if we needed to or not, there’s a big overexposure. What can we do with that?” Or “Can we crush the blacks here?” Whatever you want to do for the image that you’re trying to get. And then you finally do your output and then make your DCP for projection or your progress or how are you going to output the movie. But that’s the other half of your job. And a lot of times people don’t realize this and they try to walk you out of the color suite, which is really a disadvantage.
Oh, that would be tragic.
Well, it happens. The thing that we’ve tried to avoid right now as director of photographies that we’ve looked at is data gatherers and not artists. And it kind of started with sound in Pro Tools. People recording in Pro Tools, and then they have a certain engineer that would record the main session, and then they’d go to change it. And they said, “Well, we don’t need you anymore. We got your numbers.”
Well, yeah, and it is sad, but there’s certain ways that I shoot things, that I know that if I don’t get to go in there and color, they’re not gonna look good, because I’ll take the camera down in the basement where it barely hangs on there. And so if you try to print it up too much, it’s going to turn in noise and icky colors, and that kind of stuff. So there’s a lot of things about design, that the way that you want things to look and the way the script needs, again, you come back to the script, the script requires this photography and it needs to be in this way.
I think you’re talking about the creative process, and taking it from start to finish and working with the team, for anyone on the creative side to be shut out of the final process is really difficult.
Well, I mean, I just hope to keep making great films. I go to Europe or go to museums or travel the world and see different environments. And that, to me, is wonderful, because you’re always having constant input into your mind, as to what you could take, and how you can manipulate that into something that you can use on a film or just something to give you joy in life. That’s really one of the main things for me, and to just have constant curiosity and constant joy.
I think you’ll have it, I wish that for you. I hope that it continues well into the future. I can’t thank you enough for the time today. And I think that what you’re talking about is going to be very inspiring to both the young filmmakers starting out and the people who’ve been around for a long time. We need more people like you in the business, Dan. So thanks for your time and your generosity. And I hope that we get to talk again soon. I’d like to actually do another interview with you down the road, perhaps on camera about the technology and the cameras, and the lenses and sound and all of those aspects of the hardware side of what you do that might be fun. But in the meantime, thanks for sharing your big heart with us and I’d like to say this is Cirina Catania and I’m signing off from OWC Radio and thanking Dan Kneece. Do you want people to go to DanKneece.com? Where do you want them to go on the internet to learn more about you?
Well, they can go to DanKneece.com or they can go put my name into IMDb and that’ll have a lot of the different credits and things, I think there’s a way to reach me there. But you can certainly do it through my website or on Facebook as well.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Dan. And thanks everyone for listening and remember what I always tell you get up off that chair and go do something wonderful today. Have a great day.