Filmmaker has an eye for disaster

A huge wave hits New York in “The Day After Tomorrow” Keystone

Swiss cinematographer Ueli Steiger insists he has nothing against New Yorkers, but he has just destroyed their city for the third time.

This content was published on May 28, 2004 - 19:58

In an interview with swissinfo, Steiger talks about his latest blockbuster, “The Day After Tomorrow”, and how to make it in Hollywood.

The Day After Tomorrow - on which he is director of photography - is Steiger’s third project with German director Roland Emmerich, the man behind “Independence Day” and “Godzilla”.

His latest film tells the story of an environmental disaster of global proportions after weather patterns go haywire.

swissinfo: How did you end up in Hollywood?

Ueli Steiger: When I went to film school in London, I met the director, Michael Hoffman, and I ended up working with him six years later on his first movie in the United States. I was the weirdo Swiss cameraman working on this big project produced by Robert Redford.

I was hired to do second-unit work, filming landscapes and so forth. But then they fired the director of photography after one week’s shooting, and I stepped in until they could find someone else. I didn’t make any mistakes and I was cheap, so they kept me on. That was my first big break.

swissinfo: How did you link up with Roland Emmerich?

U.S.: I met Roland Emmerich when I was asked to fill in for a cameraman working on Independence Day. I worked with the main unit for about ten days, and then they kept me on for the second unit.

Roland then offered me Godzilla, which was another big break, and we’ve worked together ever since.

He’s a very good director; it’s brilliant to work with a director who’s very visual and very collaborative. We also grew up only about 100 miles away from each other and we are the same age.

swissinfo: You’ve now completed three blockbusters. Would you say they are becoming your trademark?

U.S.: I don’t think so, because I’ve done a lot of comedies as well, like “Bowfinger” and the second Austin Powers movie. I’ve also worked on art-house films, such as the last two directed by Dennis Hopper.

I would love not to be pigeonholed. On the other hand, it’s very gratifying to show up on the credits of a big movie, because they are great fun.

swissinfo: These blockbusters are dominated by special effects. How much influence do you have on these movies?

U.S.: The special effects do play a huge role, and some of the big visuals like the huge wave in The Day After Tomorrow are special-effect shots.

People usually think there are more digital effects in a movie than there really are. But most of the film is still done with real photography.

The visual look of the film is always created before the digital effects are added. So, as director of photography, you are very involved, including in post-production.

swissinfo: Given that The Day After Tomorrow is a blockbuster-type film, would you consider it a movie with a serious theme or just entertainment?

U.S.: This is a very special film. It is a summer blockbuster, but it’s very rare for this kind of movie to have a specific theme like climate change.

It keeps you on the edge of your seat. I’ve seen it seven times now, and I think it’s awesome because it grabs you. But it has a definite political message - and it makes it clear.

swissinfo: Roland Emmerich sets out to destroy New York for the third time in this movie. Weren’t you concerned the locals might not take this kindly?

U.S.: I don’t think Roland worried about that this time round. It’s just the city closest to the action, and the one that has the most impact for storytelling.

swissinfo: Are you considered to be a Swiss cinematographer working in Hollywood, or are you seen as part of the American film industry?

U.S.: I guess I’m still a Swiss working in Hollywood. There are a lot of foreigners in the industry, especially cinematographers. There’s a long history of non-American cinematographers in Hollywood.

swissinfo: Is that considered an advantage?

U.S.: In a weird way, it is. There are a lot of good American cinematographers, but somehow I was fortunate to get jobs in the beginning that I could handle and therefore build a good résumé.

swissinfo: Do you think other Swiss who want to work in Hollywood can succeed?

U.S.: It’s not a disadvantage being Swiss; you can absolutely make it in Hollywood.

There are a lot of young Swiss going to film school here. I’m always meeting wonderful fresh talent in Los Angeles.

It’s not easy getting a place in film school or landing a job in the industry and getting a work permit. But I see a lot of people who manage to do it, and that’s really encouraging.

swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper

Key facts

Ueli Steiger studied cinematography at the London International Film School.
His first American film was “Promised Land” in 1986, and he has been director of photography on more than 20 movies since 1984.
He has worked on three films with Roland Emmerich, “Independence Day”, “Godzilla” and “The Day After Tomorrow”.
His other credits include films such as “Bowfinger” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”.

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In brief

“The Day After Tomorrow” considers what the world would look like if the greenhouse effect and global warming continued, resulting in a worldwide catastrophe

As the film’s centrepiece, New York is overwhelmed by the start of a new Ice Age.

The film, directed and written by Roland Emmerich, stars Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ian Holm.

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