To me, one of the most special parts of covering the Oscar race is the opportunity it provides to meet, speak with, and sometimes even befriend extraordinary people from across the film industry. Over the years, some of these people have been household names; others, however, are “unsung heroes” whose names wouldn’t ring a bell for the vast majority of moviegoers but whose work certainly would. I’m talking about people like Kevin O’Connell, a sound mixer and a great guy who has been nominated for an Oscar 20 times — for films like “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “Top Gun” (1986), “A Few Good Men” (1992), “Twister” (1996), “Armageddon” (1998), “Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Spider-Man” (2002), “Transformers” (2007) — without ever taking home a statue.
I have decided to devote two posts each year to celebrating folks like this — one from “behind-the-scenes” and one from “on-screen” — who I strongly feel deserve more attention than they have received over the course of the awards season. So, without further ado, my first annual “Unsung Hero, Behind-the-Scenes” is…
Eric Steelberg, a 32-year-old cinematographer who lensed two of the year’s finest and most visually-beautiful films, “500 Days of Summer” (Fox Searchlight, 7/17, trailer) and “Up in the Air” (Paramount, 12/4, trailer), both of which (a) are insant-classics; (b) made my year-end top 10 list; (c) are nominated for best picture at tomorrow’s Golden Globes; and (d) are in serious contention for best picture nominations from the Academy, which will be announced next month.
I first heard of Eric two years ago at the end of an awards season in which I had championed the Oscar-prospects of Jason Reitman‘s film “Juno” (2007) before it became popular to do so (from the night of its unveiling in Toronto) and after it was smart to do so (post-Oscar nominations through Oscar night) — I loved the film that much. One day, I logged into my email account and found a message from Eric, whom I had never met, in which he wrote that he was the film’s cinematographer and just wanted to thank me for the kind words that I’d written about the film, which had meant a lot to him as someone who had invested a great deal of time, energy, and heart into it. I was very touched that he’d taken the time to read my work, let alone write me, and I emailed him back to say so. I figured that would be the last we’d hear from each other, and for two years it was.
Then, at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, “Up in the Air” premiered and was feted with a dinner party at which I was seated across from its star Anna Kendrick and next to its editor Dana Glauberman. Over the course of the evening, I spoke with both women about all sorts of subjects, including how impressed I was with the fact that Reitman has built a modern-day stock company, of sorts — a group of people who have worked with him on two or even all three of his films, “Thank You for Smoking” (2005), “Juno” (2007), and “Up in the Air” (2009). As we reeled off the names of the on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent who fit that bill, and came upon Eric’s, it occurred to me that he might also be amongst those at the dinner. Dana told me that he was, called him over, and introduced us. What followed was a fascinating conversation about the making of the films on which Eric has worked and about the art of cinematography; many others have followed — in-person, via email, and through Twitter (he’s @EricSteelberg; I’m @ScottFeinberg).
I appreciated Eric’s talent as a cinematographer long before I ever met him, like most film buffs who have watched “Quinceanera” (2006), “Juno” (2007), “500 Days of Summer” (2009), or “Up in the Air” (2009), but through these exchanges I have come to also appreciate his knowledge, humility, and curiosity about the art/profession of cinematography, as well as his kindness and decency as a man. They say that a person’s eyes offer a portal into their soul. Eric didn’t suggest the stories at the center of the films he has shot, but his eyes are largely responsible for the way in which those stories are told, and considering their visual beauty it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to find that Eric’s a really good guy, too.
What follows is an extended on-the-record interview that I convinced Eric to grant me in which we cover all of the above. It provides not only some background about Eric’s life and experiences, but also an education — as valuable as any film class, I feel, and I’ve taken many — about the job of a cinematographer.
Some topics that we address…
- Eric’s first trip to the movies was to see “Star Wars” (1977) when he was still an infant. He first noticed the visual artistry of film while watching Carroll Ballard‘s “The Black Stallion” (1979) on VHS and Steven Spielberg‘s “Empire of the Sun” (1987) in a theater.
- (more bullet points to come)
Check back soon to read about my pick for 2009′s “Unsung Hero, On-Screen.” Any guesses?
Photo: Eric Steelberg on the set of “Up in the Air.” Credit: Paramount.