ASC Close-Up: Steven Bernstein

Get to know the cinematographer whose credits include Like Water for Chocolate, Monster and Magic City.
ASC Staff

American Cinematographer: When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Steven Bernstein, ASC: Lawrence of Arabia.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Chris Doyle [HKSC], for the use of available light, and Vittorio Storaro [ASC, AIC], for creating light. Both of them for movement and composition.

What sparked your interest in photography?
Seeing films on the big screen. Swept up in the visceral experience, my ordinary physical world seemed banal. I wanted to live there, not here. 

Where did you train and/or study?
Best training came in the early days of music videos in London. There were no mistakes, only motifs. We could try anything, and I did — experimenting with camera filters, the shutter, processing and lighting. I learned the most when it didn’t work. 

Steven Bernstein, ASC

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Bob Kolker — the writer and lecturer — taught me to see everything in film as a meta-language, including lighting and composition. Once one understands that everything we do is a process of encoding ideas, then everything can be understood and used or deconstructed. 

What are some of your key artistic influences?
The Pre-Raphaelites, for their sensual use of color; Peter Wollen, for writing Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and showing me a new way to understand film; Tom Stoppard, for showing me that richness of expression, whatever its form, transmogrifies an audience.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I lied. 

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
A simple handheld sequence of Charlize Theron smoking a cigarette in Monster. Her entire performance was sublime, but it was at that quiet moment that I realized it had reached another level, when actress and character had completely merged. It was a simple backlight, but somehow it all became magical.

Charlize Theron in Monster, photographed by Steven Bernstein and directed by Patty Jenkins.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

Yes, a couple, but greeted them with great enthusiasm when viewing dailies with the team, so as to convince them it was planned. I recommend this technique. 

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Question every orthodoxy, over-prepare, take risks. 

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Book: Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton. Films: La La Land, Paterson, The Great Beauty.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I like films. Have tried most. Each has a different set of challenges. All are fun. 

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would be a writer and director. And I am. 

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Francis Kenny, Ernest Dickerson and Robert M. Stevens.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
The ASC is such an esteemed and important body, that you raise your game when you become a member. It is just something that happens. You come to understand the creative continuum of which you have become a part.   

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