Remembering Vilmos Zsigmond, Master of Light and Dark

Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose

When I was fourteen years old, my dad took me to see what I think were my first R-rated movies—All That Jazz and The Rose. I remember being a little bit shocked and a little bit confused by both films, but mostly I remember being excited by the idea that movies could stay with you for a very long time. I thought about both of those movies for years to come and credit 1979 as the year that made me a movie person. As I saw more and more films, I remained certain that All That Jazz was pretty special, but I wasn’t sure how The Rose would age for me. I feared I might only be holding it in such high regard because it was R-rated and had lots of music in it.

Many years later, long into my tenure at Criterion, The Rose landed on our roster. I got an original answer print (a print that is approved for color by the director and cinematographer) to screen and arranged to have the film projected in a cinema, nervously hoping it would hold up. Well, it didn’t just hold up. It revealed something that I hadn’t expected. It was gorgeous to look at. The camerawork displayed a fearlessness about shooting directly into lights, and the movie’s general darkness was gritty but beautiful. It was incredibly well shot, something I clearly didn’t remember from my viewing as a fourteen-year-old.

Bette Midler Oscar Intro

Before we began the new film transfer, director Mark Rydell asked me to get in touch with the director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, about having him supervise the color for a new remaster. I was really excited to finally get a chance to work with Vilmos. The list of great films that he had shot was seemingly endless, and his work was among my favorite by any cinematographer. This wasn’t the first film that Vilmos had shot to be included in the Criterion Collection—it was in fact the third, after Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. But both of those directors had gone on at great length about how Vilmos liked his transfers really dark—too dark—and they had chosen to keep control over the remastering of the films.

I called Vilmos at his home in San Francisco and asked him about helping us out with The Rose. He was happy to do it. He asked if we could work on it in New York, because he was coming into town anyway and had the time. We scanned the negative and did the work in a 4K theater on a big projector. As the colorist and I pregraded the scans, I kept saying, “Let’s go darker. I hear Vilmos likes everything really dark.” We used the answer print as a first reference for colors and had the picture ready for him when he came in. After watching a few minutes of the film, he turned to us and asked, “Why is it so dark?” So much for reputations! We lightened the picture up and adjusted the colors, and it looked fantastic. Meanwhile, Vilmos told me about all the “friends” he had asked to help shoot the concert footage—meaning László Kovács, Owen Roizman, Conrad Hall, and Haskell Wexler, among others (not a bad group of friends…). I asked him how that had happened. “I needed people who weren’t afraid of concert lights,” he said.

We got to the final scene of the film, where Bette Midler is shooting up in a phone booth. It’s an amazingly shot sequence, with the lights from a football field in the background and a seamless tilt down to the booth as the field’s lights shut off. I asked Vilmos how he did that, and he said, simply: “That’s what I saw when I looked through the camera. It made sense.” There’s no “fix it in post” with Vilmos. He knew how to expose film and get what he wanted.

When we were done for the day, I told Vilmos that I wanted to work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller with him. He was very enthusiastic about it and said that he had never been able to do a remaster of this film. He told me what kind of look that film needed and said he was sure that taking a 4K scan from the negative and having the right colorist would really treat this film well. He wasn’t intimidated by new color-grading technology. He embraced it. A few months went by and I had the negative scanned. I kept calling Vilmos to book some time for him to come in and work on the grading with me, but he wasn’t answering my calls. I soon learned that Vilmos had been sick but was doing better—and that he had gotten my messages and was really excited about working together.

Last week I heard the news about his death. I felt tremendously sad, but also extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with such a great artist and technician. One memory came to me immediately. After we finished working on The Rose, Vilmos asked me to help him get a cab to go meet his wife in Tribeca. I thanked him again, shook his hand, and said goodbye. He then got into the front seat of a cab and went off. If you’ve ever gotten a taxi in New York City, you’ll know that people don’t typically get into the front seat. Vilmos just did what came naturally.

For more about Zsigmond’s work on The Rose, read the followingreflectionposted by cinematographer John Bailey to his blog, John’s Bailiwick, in conjunction with our release of the film last May.

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