AFI Member Spotlight: Melinda Sue Gordon
“My job on a film set is to tell a story in a single image. It’s a moment from the script, a character study or perhaps the choreography of the cast and crew outside the frame lines. The motion picture can be viewed over and over but what happens behind the lens will be caught only once.” –Melinda Sue Gordon
Melinda Sue Gordon – both an AFI member and an AFI Conservatory alum – decided to apply to the Conservatory after being inspired by David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, which was a midnight movie staple at the theater she worked at growing up. Gordon has an impressive track record as a still photographer, working on projects as varied as FIELD OF DREAMS, THE TRUMAN SHOW, ZOOLANDER and THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
A frequent collaborator of the Coen Brothers, she has worked on six features with them, and worked on a trifecta of films with Christopher Nolan, including INTERSTELLAR, DUNKIRK and, most recently, the highly anticipated TENET. Gordon is one of the founding members of The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers and is also a member of The International Cinematographer’s Guild IATSE Local 600 and the American Society of Media Photographers.
AFI spoke with her about experience studying cinematography at the AFI Conservatory and her career working as a still photographer in Hollywood.
AFI: For those who may not know, can you explain what a still photographer does?
Melinda Sue: The shorthand description of what a production still photographer does is to create images that are used for publicity, marketing and advertising as well as on camera props and set dressing. We are interpreting an art form that unfolds over time into single images that convey the spirit of the characters and the story being told. We also document the process and creative community involved.
AFI: How did you first get your start?
Melinda Sue: I studied Sociology in college with the idea of pursuing documentary film. I worked nights at a repertory movie theater and after graduation spent days working at a custom black and white photo lab. Between the two jobs, I saw a wide range of films and learned the mechanics of still photography while earning the money to attend the American Film Institute as a Cinematography Fellow. At AFI, I was the director of photography on four projects and shot stills on many more.
Top: Melinda Sue Gordon (AFI Class of 1980) with fellow classmate Toyomichi Kurita (AFI Class of 1980) on the set of “Miss Lonelyhearts” and Eric Roberts in the title role. The director was Michael Dinner (AFI Class of 1979) and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia (AFI Class of 1979)
Bottom: On the set of “Return of the Country ” directed by Bob Hicks (AFI Class of 1979). Second from left is Scott Kaye (AFI Class of 1979) , operating is cinematographer Jack Wallner (AFI Class of 1979) and Melinda Sue, pulling focus and shooting stills.
After AFI, I did a considerable amount of cinematography work on documentaries, music videos, corporate and industrial productions and one feature (THE DESTINY OF MARTY FINE).
At a certain point the quality of the projects I was being offered as a still photographer outpaced those as a cinematographer, and I found myself shooting still images full time. From my experience, it is the one position in the camera department that is the least affected by gender bias.
AFI: As a still photographer you’ve worked with Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, the Coen Brothers and Christopher Nolan. What makes for a good working relationship between a still photographer and a director so you can get the best possible photos on set?
Melinda Sue: I do my homework, familiarize myself with the previous work of the director, study the script and pay attention to how it is being realized. I try to be unobtrusive on set, preferring to be in the background. On projects where still photographs play a role in the story, such as in Phil Alden Robinson’s FIELD OF DREAMS, Peter Weir ‘s THE TRUMAN SHOW, Diane Keaton’s UNSTRUNG HEROS or John Schlesinger ‘s PACIFIC HEIGHTS, we may work directly together while creating those images.
AFI: What was your experience like working on the upcoming films TENET and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW?
Melinda Sue: Those two projects, while both thrillers of a sort, are polar opposites. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW takes place mostly in one house, which was shot on stage. Each frame was meticulously crafted by director Joe Wright, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, production designer Kevin Thompson and costume designer Albert Wolsky. Much of the drama was internalized by the agoraphobic main character played by the amazing Amy Adams.
Chris Nolan’s TENET on the other hand was shot in seven different countries, and much of the action is accentuated by Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dynamic camerawork. It is not filmmaking for the faint of heart.
AFI: What filmmakers or artists have inspired you or your work?
Melinda Sue: Early on, I was exposed to a number of avant-garde filmmakers, including Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Steven Arnold. They inspired me to run around with a camera myself which is what has somehow led to where I am today.
AFI: If you could have lunch with one filmmaker or artist alive or dead, who would it be?
Melinda Sue: Robert Altman. His enthusiasm for the process of making a film was so genuine. You couldn’t but help be affected. I loved hearing him call out, “Let’s boogie!” after the slate.
AFI: What advice do you have for AFI members who are interested in becoming photographers or cinematographers?
Melinda Sue: Concentrate on what you are passionate about. I’ve had all kinds of jobs that weren’t exactly what I was aiming to do, but I always found something in them to get me closer to the kinds of projects I wanted to work on – one step at a time.
Melinda Sue Gordon profile photo by Suzanne Hanover