Before we get to the meat and potatoes of this interview, I would like to thank Chris Begley, Editor-in-Chief of Batman News, for allowing me the opportunity to conduct the following interview. When initially asked, I was a bit apprehensive about tackling this because I had never formally conducted an interview of this sort. The idea of speaking to, transcribing and delivering my very first interview with an Emmy-Nominated artist was a tough pill to swallow. But, thanks to the kindness and generosity of our guest, the conversation quickly turned into one of the most educational and enlightening conversations I have ever had while working in the entertainment industry.
Crescenzo Giacomo Notarile, a thirty year veteran of the entertainment industry, whose professional career began in the early 1980s as both a 1st and 2nd Assistant Camera on such films as Amityville II: The Possession and Fighting Back, who then went on to transition as Camera Operator on his first film, Once Upon a Time in America, has done it all. From movies to commercials to music videos and now television, Notarile has built quite the filmography. Today, his work can be seen bringing the comic book pages of Batman’s world to life on the FOX crime-drama, Gotham. The show, which originally debut in the fall of 2014, will be entering its third season when it returns on Monday, September 19. Crescenzo’s work has been featured in over a dozen episodes of this DC Comics live-action series and has now earned him an Emmy nomination for his exceptional achievement in cinematography.
Speaking with Notarile, we not only discussed Gotham, but also the craft of being a cinematographer, influences, inspiration and adapting a world so well established over a 75-year run.
Cinematography is a role that the general movie-going or television-viewing audience may not be entirely aware of and all of its working parts, including the terms “cinematographer” and “director of photography.” “That’s OK. That’s what we do. It’s smoke and mirrors and a very magical artform. You’re manipulating the unconscious, whether they’re realizing it or not. They’re being affected and that’s what we do in the cinema – reach out and grab the hearts and souls of the people. They’re not aware of what we do technically, nor should they be.”
When discussing the simple effect that masterfully executed cinematography can have, Notarile says, “It could be a very simple shot of somebody standing still, looking at something, and all of a sudden the camera pushes in, imperceptibly, and now you’re inside of the person’s skull and heart, and the audience starts to cry or tear, for whatever reason. It’s a beautiful moment.” On the variation of terms, “They’re synonymous. A director of photography is synonymous to cinematographer. It’s the same role. Different cultures or individuals may prefer one term over the other, but there is no difference in those terms. Broad stroke comment, a cinematographer sounds a little more technical, in terms of the arts and science, whereas a director of photography sounds like not only the arts and sciences of that role, but also the creative aspect of what a director of photography does; camera choice, placement of camera, lens choice, shape and color of light, absence of light, creating emotion and directing photography and the viewer’s heart.”
For all the aspiring directors of photography out there, listen up! Before you try to book your first short film, or before you hit the “record” button, you should consider mastering the art of photography first. “I feel very strong about that comment. That, to me, is number one on my list in terms of how I carry myself. I do a lot of seminars, teach a lot and that’s the first thing I say to any young cinematographer – you have to become a photographer first. The reason why I say that is you have to build your sensibilities on composition and what a photograph is about. To me, there’s a difference between a photograph and a picture. A professional will take photographs. Meaning, outside of these four lines of composition, your “frame,” must also evoke a narrative – not just inside that frame, but the imaginary narrative outside that same frame. Whereas a picture, in my opinion, you don’t. Everyone takes pictures, but you’re just looking at the picture within that box. You’re capturing that particular moment and that’s all you’re doing and thinking about, and that’s fine. But, what separates the “men from the boys,” per se, is you feel and imagine something more when you look at that composition. You feel a narrative or story outside of that frame. I always tell a young cinematographer to always carry a camera on their waist for as many hours of the day as they can. When you’re conscious of having a camera on your person, when you’re walking around, you’re looking a little differently. You’re looking at shapes, events, moments and you start placing your body in different positions to capture different geometries of that composition. That’s part of training your sensibilities.”
In terms of influence, Notarile says that influence comes from “everything in life.” From music to poetry and artwork, to simply sitting in a café and being a voyeur and analyzing people, their movements and reactions. “It becomes a part of your chemistry,” he says. “It influences how you work. You put all of that into a creative blender and that also becomes a part of your sensibilities.”
As the director of photography, you spend hours upon hours with the actors. You help place them, you figure out how you want to capture them, light them, maneuver the camera around them. When it comes to building relationships with the talent, Crescenzo says, “Because of my personality, being tactile, and because of my Italian heritage, loving – I don’t shy away from that when I’m on set. I take pride in this because I personally feel it’s my job to be close to the actors. Many people will argue with me on this point! I try to be as close to the actors as I possibly can because, 1) It’s my job when I am intimately lighting them, 2) I’m with them everyday and 3) If they feel comfortable when they’re around me, they’ll give me their best work by trusting me! A cinematographer should be an actors security blanket. I pride myself of having a very close relationship with all of my actors.”
In regards to the cast on Gotham, the Emmy-nominated DP says this cast are extraordinary actors. “They’re young, hip, they’re cool, they like to frolic and have fun in between their serious work of bring their characters to life. That’s a good thing. When you’re having fun with them, you feel that much closer and that’s important. You calculate 60-70 hours a week for 42 weeks a year, that’s a lot of time you’re with them – otherwise, it can be miserable. You want to be close with them. Inherently, they become really good friends.” With a cast that’s so diverse in age, from 15-year-old newcomer David Mazouz, to established veterans like Ben McKenzie, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Michael Chiklis, you’d imagine someone in Crescenzo’s position would have to learn to adjust and work with these various actors in different ways. “Each person is different. Each personality is different. To me that’s also an extraordinarily important part of being a cinematographer, to understand the personalities of each actor. I can’t stress that enough. Everyone has a different vibe and rhythm. You want to treat each actor the way they’d want to be and deserve to be treated. For instance, David (Mazouz), our young Batman and Ben Mckenzie, our lead actor – Obviously, the way I approach each of them is very different. I’m a little more at ease, a little more younger in my attitude and approach, in a fun way, with David. I don’t want him to feel like he’s talking to an old man. It’s important to make them feel like they’re an equal to you. With Ben, I would be a little different, a bit more “professional” as it were, in a way where he would feel I am respectful enough to what he’s doing and to give him his moment that he may need in privacy and in concentration. You have to keep your eyes on your principal actors at all times. Ben is very focused, concentrated, very professional. You have to be very perceptive as to when you want to have a conversation with an actor or not.”
On actors like Donal Logue and Michael Chiklis, “They’re really light-going people. When they come onto set, they want to talk to the crew. They’re frolicking with the crew, always telling stories. I think it’s their way of relieving the stress of the scene they’re about to embark on. So with that, you engage with them because that what they want and need. It’s their personal fuel.”
When it comes to Gotham, a show that inhabits the greater Batman universe, the DC Comics universe, Notarile speaks to the challenges of adapting such a vast world to television. “First of all, I got this project thanks to the Executive Producer, Danny Cannon, who brought me on board after we associated ourselves together on CSI. The sensibilities of Gotham, DC Comics and that comic-strip attitude, vibe, color, flavor and ingredients in that particular cinematic sauce was very different than what I was coming off of. So, I had to take a step back in my creative mind and start over again with a blank slate. It’s very difficult when you’ve got your mojo going for a particular set of years, to just shut that off, like a faucet, and step onto a new show. But, that is what we do as cinematographers – we adapt our craft from one story to the next – from one genre to the next.”
Notarile admits he was never a comic book reader, but took it upon himself to study the source material and soon discovered something striking about them. “The first thing I did was I got several [Batman] comic books, started flipping through them and the first thing I noticed was the strong and angular composition of the drawings. It was really wild, out of the box, exaggerated and I found myself smiling. I said, Wow! This is cool. This is different. This is audacious. This is thinking way outside of the box. I started to feel a little more comfortable because I realized there is no right or wrong in terms of approach. This particular show is very juicy because it let’s you think outside of the box. You can exaggerate and be indulgent at times. After all, it’s of a comic strip origin. What relieved me was the fact that this was pre-Batman and I don’t have that pressure, that luggage on my creative heart, of all the previous Batman films. I felt a bit more at ease and not having to take the weight and responsibility of the past projects and we, as a crew, are creating our own singular world. When you look at the cinematography and the production design, all the visuals, that in itself is a character – a principle character. It stands out, and I’m very proud of that.”
In terms of his Emmy nomination, Crescenzo hopes that his contribution to the show is a testament to his thirty years of work in the industry as a professional and his out-of-the-box thinking and approach as a creative artist. He states, “I have an expression for that – Keeping my ‘creative erection’ very strong.”
We had a good laugh.
When asked if there is ever a point where the lack of notice leaves a bitter taste of discouragement in his mouth, he says, “Absolutely, yes. Yes. And Yes. It is very discouraging at times. You can reach a place often in your career where you get to a point where you’re just getting beaten up so often, no accolades, no pat on the back and it can be very discouraging. You throw your hands up and realize it’s just the luck of the draw. Realizing there’s a lot of talented and extraordinary people out there, you have to filter that hierarchy of luck in your own personal way and you have to strive for what you do – one hundred percent of the time, every shot, every day. Nobody can take that vigor away from me.”
To close out, he touches on his work ethic, personality and what he coined as, the “platinum age of television.” “I’m not complacent or lazy. I give it one hundred and five percent every single shot. Everyone knows that. That’s my reputation. I’m always fighting as hard as I can per shot. It’s not so much because it’s my job, but rather my personality and the way I have always carried myself. And because of that I’m still here, and I will say it again, my ‘creative erection’ is still strong and I’m nominated for Gotham. We are in the strongest age of creative television right now in history. The content is enormous. The quality is extraordinary. To be nominated with the rest of my peers and colleagues, with their respective shows, makes me extremely proud because they’re all doing top notch, extraordinary work. For me to be a part of that, well, my chest is filled with pride.”
We wish Crescenzo nothing but the best of luck and we will be tuning in to the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Saturday, September 17 at 8pm ET/PT on FXX to see who takes home the Emmy for Achievement in Cinematography. Gotham returns to FOX on Monday, September 19.