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A Tribute to Cinematographer László Kovács (ASC), 1933-2007

RIP Mr. Laszlo Kovacs (1933-2007)
by Jason Whyte

László Kovacs, one of the most well-regarded and important directors of photography in the film industry, died on Saturday in his sleep. The Hungarian-born cinematographer was 74 years of age at his passing and leaves behind a thrilling body of work that few of his peers could have acheived. He has worked with many professionals over the past 40 years in American film, from shooting Grindhouse-like pictures with Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson to a long and fruitful career photographing pictures for the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Howard Zieff, Hal Ashby, Richard Donner, Ivan Reitman and Cameron Crowe, among many others. László and fellow cinematographer/friend Vilmos Zsigmond will be profiled in an upcoming documentary entitled “László & Vilmos: The Story of Two Refugees Who Changed the Look of American Cinema”. I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with László a few years ago, so his passing is a personal one to me.

László’s last feature film credit was the Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant comedy “Two Weeks Notice”, which was one of the very first features filmed in New York City after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, 2001. At first you would think only about the cute comedy pairing of Bullock and Grant, but what really struck me was how well Kovacs brought the beautiful cityscapes of New York to vivid life. Much of Manhattan and the surrounding area were stunningly photographed, and it was one of the best looking films on New York I’ve seen in quite some time.

László never won an Oscar, nor was he ever nominated for one, but he was a long-time member in the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers, where he also served on the Board of Governors) and was awarded by the society in 2002 with a lifetime achievement award. He also carries a strong history with fellow lenser Zsigmond, as the two of them fled Hungary as political refugees in 1956. Just prior to that, as teenagers, the two filmed a documentary about the revolt against the communist regime of Hungary. László’s childhood was also a shielded one, as he was also a victim of the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Once over in America, László and Vilmos learned their craft, found education and began to seek out out work. László’s breakthrough came in 1969 with the release of “Easy Rider”. Dennis Hopper’s indie was a huge hit and the film was one of the first of the American New Wave, and Lazslo rode that wave for over 30 years after shooting films, providing additional photography and even directing a few of his own documentaries. Throughout the rest of his career, no matter what film project he took on, and regardless of how good or bad the end product turned out, László Kovacs took much pride in his work and his contribution showed on screen every time.

And for one long and unforgettable weekend at the 2005 Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with László Kovacs. What resulted was nothing short of amazing and life-changing experience.

You don’t always get the opportunity to meet the people that inspire you the most. When they do come, you’re either too shy or jump right on the bandwagon. When it was announced that Mr. Kovacs was attending our little film festival in 2005, I had to meet him, although I was extremely nervous to do so. This was the man responsible for the images in “Five Easy Pieces”, “Ghostbusters”, “Easy Rider” and “Paper Moon”, among many others, and his addictive images and working in nearly every motion picture format was a huge influence.

When I first walked up to László at the festival’s opening gala party at the Laurel Point Inn two years ago, I played it cool. I said that I admired his work from “Five Easy Pieces” and “Paper Moon” and joked that one day I could hire him to work on my feature film. He laughed but then did a curious thing: he began to talk about what he loved so much about working on “Five Easy Pieces” and “Paper Moon”. While the atmosphere was loud and not every word was heard, László was generous to everyone around him and was always an entertaining storyteller.

Mr. Kovacs was no stranger to Victoria either, having visited and worked here and on the mainland many times. One of his most famous films is “Five Easy Pieces”, where the famous last shot – of Jack Nicholson leaving his wife and getting on a trucker headed north on the Trans Canada Highway – was an inspiration for a short that I wrote two years ago where the final scene was framed in the exact same way. I told Mr. Kovacs about this short that should I ever have made that short, I would have loved to frame and light the sequence in the exact same way. He gave me his blessing, and we also agreed to sit down for an interview during the first weekend of the festival.

I had prepared a few questions for both Bill Butler (himself an Oscar-nominated cinematographer responsible for “Jaws”, “Grease” and “Frailty”, among many others) and László for the interview. Immediately before, I had run into Mr. Butler outside of the Laurel Point Inn and we agreed to do an interview right on the spot. As we entered the same ballroom where we had partied the night before, László comes walking down the corridor. He sees Bill, smiles and says hello, then sees me and says that he remembered me from the party. László asked if we wanted to talk some more, to which I respond that Bill and I were just going to do an interview, but we would talk directly after. László then sat at a nearby couch and waited while Bill and I gabbed about film for about twenty minutes.

When Bill and I were done speaking, I moved over to László, who was silently enjoying the coastal view of Victoria. We sat on this double-wide, arm-rest free couch to begin the interview. He first signed my DVD’s of “Five Easy Pieces” and “Say Anything” and jumped right into storytelling after I asked him how he got his start as a director of photography. And like the previous night, he did pretty much all of the talking. I asked questions here and there, mostly talking points from my small notebook, but those mostly became afterthoughts as he talked about his life and his work.

The tape ran out. I didn’t even notice. Much of what is in the interview posted on this site was from about the first half hour, plus a few notes here and there. We just sat and talked about movies for over an hour and a half; right up until the point he was to attend a forum at the festival. He talked about his early days with Richard Rush as he was shooting his biker pictures, moved along to the 70’s when he worked with Bodganovich and even his later pictures. He even got into great detail about “Ghostbusters” and how it was a challenge for him to work with complex visual effects (and while we didn’t talk about it, he probably had his hands full a decade later shooting Michael Keaton four times in “Multiplicity”). We talked about photography in general, filming in Western Canada, actors and went on at length about the depressing state of film exhibition today. One of my biggest regrets is not flipping over the tape to get more of our conversation, but that’s okay.

I still consider that meeting to be one of the greatest days of my life. It was an opportunity that presented itself and I took it without thinking. Here I was, in the company of one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, and I had private, uninterrupted time to speak with one of my idols. I admired how open and candid László was with me. He didn’t have to. He could have been reserved and fired stock answers to simple questions, but I think at this point in his life he was looking back on the stories he created and wanted to share them with a new generation. László was always open with anyone he encountered, and I have that same wish for anyone who wants to get into the film industry to be able to have a personal encounter akin to this. I will never forget László, and I will talk about my story of meeting and spending time with him for as long as I’m walking the earth.

Over the years I have met a lot of people involved in the film industry by way of film festivals, interviewing over the phone, press junkets and attending the occasional film shoot in and around my home town. Not all of them have been kind, and not all of them have been that interesting, either. And rarely does a simple request for an interview turn into something surprisingly unforgettable and timeless. The time I spent with László Kovacs was a thing of luck, a moment of triumph. I think back on that day that I was sitting with László talking about movies, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. His work and contribution to the film industry will be one that will never be forgotten by his peers and his fans.

László Kovacs (1933-2007); leaves behind his wife Audrey, daughters Julianna and Nadia, along with granddaughter Mia.

His feature films as Director of Photography:

Two Weeks Notice (2002)
Miss Congeniality (2000)
Return to Me (2000)
Jack Frost (1997)
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Multiplicity (1996)
Copycat (1995)
Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995)
The Scout (1994)
The Next Karate Kid (1994)
Ruby Cairo (1993)
Radio Flyer (1992)
Shattered (1991)
Say Anything (1989)
Little Nikita (1988)
Predator: The Concert (1987)
Legal Eagles (1986)
Mask (1985)
Ghost Busters (1984)
Crackers (1984)
The Toy (1982)
Frances (1982)
The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)
Inside Moves (1980)
Heart Beat (1980)
The Runner Stumbles (1979)
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979)
Paradise Alley (1978)
F.I.S.T (1978)
New York, New York (1977)
Nickelodeon (1976)
Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)
Baby Blue Marine (1976)
Shampoo (1975)
At Long Last Love (1975)
Freebie and the Bean (1974)
For Pete’s Sake (1974)
Huckleberry Finn (1974)
Paper Moon (1973)
Slither (1973)
A Reflection of Fear (1973)
Steelyard Blues (1973)
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
What’s Up, Doc? (1972)
Pocket Money (1972)
The Last Movie (1971)
The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971)
Alex in Wonderland (1970)
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Getting Straight (1970)
The Rebel Rousers (1970)
Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970)
Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1968)
That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
Easy Rider (1969)
The Savage Seven (1968)
Targets (1968)
Psych-Out (1968)
Hells Angels on Wheels (1967)
A Man Called Dagger (1967)
A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine (1966)
Kiss Me Quick! (1964)
& The Incrediby Strange Creature or: Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie (1964)

(László Kovacs also provided additional photography work for Wayne’s World 2, Sliver, Blow Out, The Rose, The Last Waltz and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

By Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 07/24/07 15:48:45
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