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November 15, 2009

CU: Michael Fimognari

Truth or Dare

By Mel Cowan and Jimmy Kelly

Fimognari, center, on the set of Au Revoir Taipei, written and directed by USC alumnus Arvin Chen
Two-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Michael Fimognari ’02, has already made a name for himself as a versatile collaborator on a host of wildly different projects, shot all around the world. Joined by director Adam Salky, Fimognari recently screened one of his latest films, Dare, a charming and sexually frank story of three teenagers in their last semester of school, for students at USC.

Taking time from a busy shooting schedule and just prior to a trip to Taiwan to oversee color correction on a separate feature, Fimognari spoke with us by phone about Dare, and embracing the myriad challenges of working on independent productions.

You travel a great deal for the projects you work on – what’s it like to be on the road that much? The hardest part of being away from home is the time away from my wife. Last year I was on the road for 10 months. We make it work because I'll fly home or she'll visit me wherever I may be, but it's still tough. The good thing about being on the road is that often it helps expand the scope of a story and makes it more specific to the location. I prefer locations to stage work most of the time; all the history and texture that comes from real spaces makes a difference to the look and for many actors it helps their performances. I also love the experience of shooting in other countries; the different production structures are a challenge (in Taiwan, the script supervisor slates and the 1st AC uses the lightmeter) and even just eating different foods and learning other languages opens me up creatively in ways that don't happen when I'm in more familiar territory.

From left, Ashley Springer and Emmy Rossum in Dare
Talk about your experience in working on Dare
. Dare was a special experience all the way through. Adam is a very prepared director; he had a detailed look book for each of the three main characters where he broke them down into color plans (Alexa was pink, red and bright, Ben was blue and shadowed, and Johnny was black and white). We also storyboarded the entire film and followed them almost shot for shot. It was the ideal prep and it paid off because we had a short schedule (24 days) and a lot of locations. Since we were confident with our boards, we could have shots and locations prepped well ahead, and weren't completely reliant on seeing the cast rehearsal to dictate our rigging or even laying dolly track. In my opinion that's the key to being on set: living in the now so that you can make the good stuff excellent and change the stuff that isn't working. It's the intention that matters most, and it's a trap to get caught in the details.

What’s your preferred method for developing the visual aspect of a film? I prefer to go through the script line by line with the director at the beginning of the process, so I know I understand the director’s intentions and point of view. One of my favorite parts of the process is that time when it’s just the director and me, going through the script and talking about it. Sometimes that involves photographs, watching movie clips, going to the museum – whatever method the director uses to get inspired and connect to the story. It gets challenging when there’s not prep time allotted for that kind of work. Sometimes they’ll bring me in after the design has already been started or the locations have been chosen, and that’s tough. But I’ve usually been fortunate enough to be able to set up prep schedules where I do get that time upfront with the director. And on those occasions, the payoff has been amazing.

How do you balance the idea of your own visual style and aesthetic with the needs of the story?
I strongly believe that every story has its visuals and you have to find those, and part of that process is getting on the same page with the director, and asking questions about point of view and character. My job is to read the script, hear what the director wants, and make that happen. If my individual aesthetic is involved, it’s involved in leading me towards projects that I’ll thrive in and be able to support, so I usually don’t hit a wall where my sensibilities don’t suit the stories. Even though most of us aren’t in the position to turn down work, I do think it’s important to stick with stories that I respond to. I have that responsibility to the movie and myself.

Was cinematography always your goal? How did SCA help you get where you are now? SCA didn’t just teach me cinematography: I got a chance to learn everything. Sometimes, you’ll work with somebody who only knows how their department works, and then you’ll work with an SCA filmmaker and they’ll really get it and understand how the whole thing works. Also, there’s not a single feature I’ve done that doesn’t lead back to ‘SC in some way. Whether it’s a ‘SC director or a line producer I met while on a ‘SC short, every single one comes back here somehow. That’s pretty amazing.

You’ve worked in a number of different genres: sports, drama, horror, children’s films - do you have a favorite kind of film? I don’t really…I get most excited when I read a script that has an original point of view and is willing to take some chances. It’s not so much genre - it’s more about stories that want to go places, that aren’t predictable. That’s what gets me excited. I don’t respond to mimicking other movies or fitting into a box. I like to push buttons.