Lens­man has quite a range

Owen Roiz­man shot ‘Net­work,’ ‘The Ex­or­cist’ but skipped ‘Jaws’ (sea­sick­ness)

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Josh Rot­ten­berg josh.rot­ten­berg @la­times.com

Hon­orary Os­car re­cip­i­ent Owen Roiz­man has worked in many gen­res.

Over the course of his ca­reer, cin­e­matog­ra­pher Owen Roiz­man’s work on such clas­sic films as “The French Con­nec­tion,” “The Ex­or­cist,” “Net­work” and “Toot­sie” earned him five Academy Award nom­i­na­tions. But Roiz­man never ac­tu­ally got to take home one of those gold stat­uettes — un­til now.

On Satur­day, Roiz­man, 81, will be one of four film artists hon­ored by the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences with an hon­orary Os­car at this year’s Gov­er­nors Awards.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, the Brook­lyn-born Roiz­man, who has been re­tired from the movie busi­ness since the 1990s, spoke with The Times by phone from his home in Los Angeles about his 25year ca­reer in movies, how the craft of cin­e­matog­ra­phy has changed, and why he turned down “Jaws.”

What went through your head when you learned you’d be re­ceiv­ing a Gov­er­nors Award?

It was a com­plete sur­prise. I fig­ured my days had gone and that was it — I wasn’t go­ing to be hon­ored by any­body any­more. I know how tough it is to get that award be­cause I’d been a gov­er­nor [on the film academy’s board] for nine years and I was in­volved with many of the ses­sions where we se­lected peo­ple and voted on them. So it was es­pe­cially re­ward­ing.

Early in your ca­reer, you were re­ally shot out of a can­non, earn­ing the first of your five Os­car nom­i­na­tions in 1972 for only your sec­ond film, “The French Con­nec­tion.” How did that change things for you?

Im­me­di­ately af­ter “The French Con­nec­tion,” I got la­beled as a gritty New York street pho­tog­ra­pher, which I thought was very funny be­cause I had never shot any­thing like the “The French Con­nec­tion” be­fore that. I got a kick out of that.

My pri­mary goal was al­ways just to serve the story and to tell the story vis­ually the best way I knew how. The thing I’m prob­a­bly the most proud of in my ca­reer is the fact that my five nom­i­na­tions were all for dif­fer­ent gen­res.

But I grav­i­tated to­ward re­ally lik­ing the look of re­al­ism and nat­u­ral­ism. I had that in my mind fore­most in ev­ery film I ever did, that I wanted it to look real some­how. Even on “The Ex­or­cist,” when [direc­tor] Billy [Fried­kin] and I talked about it, we thought that the more real it looked, the bet­ter the story would come across.

Through­out the ’70s, you worked on so many great films — not only “The French Con­nec­tion” and “The Ex­or­cist” but “Play It Again, Sam,” “The Heart­break Kid,” “Three Days of the Con­dor,” “Net­work.” We look back on that pe­riod as a golden age in movies. Did it feel that way to you ?

You know, the hon­est an­swer is I had no idea. Each movie that came along was a gift that I was for­tu­nate enough to get that piece of ma­te­rial to work on. I was a bit fussy about what I was go­ing to do most of the time, be­cause I al­ways had com­mer­cials to fall back on — that was where I started my ca­reer. That al­lowed me to be choosier about what I was se­lect­ing to shoot.

Did you ever turn down any­thing that you later wished you hadn’t?

The truth­ful an­swer to that is I don’t feel like I turned down any­thing that I re­gret­ted turn­ing down. I turned down some great films but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

Steven Spiel­berg called and asked me to do “Jaws.” We spoke for maybe three hours on the phone, and I re­ally liked him — and I still to this day love the guy. But what he didn’t know is that I was think­ing to my­self the whole time, as he was de­scrib­ing the story to me, “Je­sus, a shark ter­ror­iz­ing a town on Long Is­land — that means go­ing on a boat a lot.” I get sea­sick. So that didn’t sound too invit­ing to me. So I turned it down re­ally for that rea­son.

The tech­nol­ogy of both the way movies are shot and the way we watch them has changed so much since you started work­ing in Hol­ly­wood in the early ’70s. Do you worry that to­day’s au­di­ences are los­ing the ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing movies on the big screen?

That part of it both­ers me. For some­one to watch a movie on their iPad or their phone or what­ever, I feel they’re miss­ing out. Then again, some of the TVs that you have at home now for not that much money have amaz­ing pic­tures.

As far as the process of moviemak­ing, it’s re­ally the same. It’s just that the tools are so dif­fer­ent now.

I re­mem­ber when my buddy [cin­e­matog­ra­pher] Roger Deakins shot his first dig­i­tal film. He had been re­sist­ing it for­ever be­cause he was just a film nut. I asked him, “How did you like it?” And he just looked at me and said, “No more sleep­less nights.” Be­cause you can see your work right away. You don’t have to send it to the lab to be de­vel­oped and printed.

Be­ing nom­i­nated five times for an Os­car and never ac­tu­ally win­ning one be­fore now, did you ever feel like you got numb to it?

You never get numb to it. It’s al­ways ex­cit­ing. The first time I was nom­i­nated, for “The French Con­nec­tion,” I had never an­tic­i­pated get­ting nom­i­nated for any­thing in my life. It was thrilling just to get the nom­i­na­tion. Then, when it came along each time, it sur­prised me.

I used to joke to my wife, “Well, I guess I fooled them.” And when I was nom­i­nated the last time, for “Wy­att Earp,” my wife said, “Guess what? You fooled them again.”

Edi­tor’s note: The Times will pro­file each of this year’s four hon­orary Os­car win­ners — Charles Bur­nett, Owen Roiz­man, Don­ald Suther­land and Agnès Varda — lead­ing up to the Gov­er­nors Awards Nov. 11.

Al Seib Los Angeles Times

CIN­E­MATOG­RA­PHER Owen Roiz­man, nom­i­nated five times, will be given an hon­orary Os­car stat­uette at the Gov­er­nors Awards.

20th Cen­tury Fox

“THE FRENCH CON­NEC­TION” with Gene Hack­man led to one of Roiz­man’s nom­i­na­tions.

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