Whether it’s documentaries, mockumentaries, feature films, or wildly popular television shows, you can probably find it somewhere on Alex Buono’s résumé. Although he’s primarily known as a cinematographer, he’s also a successful writer, director, producer, and workshop instructor. Oh, and he’s been nominated for an Academy Award.
We chatted with Alex about his recent mockumentary project, his never-ending game of coast-to-coast ping-pong, and the best advice he ever received (it was on the set of the greatest film of all time: Twister).
Here’s Alex Buono.
What’s the last tutorial you watched on YouTube?
Well, I’m working on a new IFC series right now, a comedy series called “Documentary Now.” It’s a series of mockumentaries, each of which stars Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. They’re all satires of classic documentaries, which has been super fun, but one of the challenges has been re-creating these really authentic archival looks. We re-created a 1920s Eskimo film with Fred Armisen as the Eskimo, based on Nanook of the North. There was a lot of still photography in that episode, and I really had to refine my skills at retouching photos. Basically taking photos on set and then making them look like they were 100 years old. I watched a lot of tutorials on how to do that better.
Do you enjoy learning things outside of your main craft? Or do they feel like a distraction?
I really enjoyed learning how to age photos. In the abstract, though, if I just happened to have some free time on the weekend, I would never think, Hey, maybe I’ll teach myself how to age photographs. It feels like a distraction when it’s not in the context of a project. But for this series, I’m really passionate about nailing this look, doing anything I can do to get closer to that look.
[Learning things outside of my main craft] feels like a distraction when it’s not in the context of a project.
How different is it working on a mockumentary versus a documentary?
Completely different. Having made a few documentaries, a few feature films, and worked on popular television, you can just feel that people treat documentaries like this niche hobby. Like, “Oh, that’s cool that you have time to make documentaries on the side of being a professional filmmaker.” But man, they don’t get it. Making a documentary is so much harder than any other kind of filmmaking. You can’t control anything. You get what they give you and then you try to write a story based on dialogue you didn’t even write. That reverse process is so hard.
Making a documentary is so much harder than any other kind of filmmaking.
How many hours a week do you work?
Well, Saturday Night Live is unique. Obviously, it’s made in New York, but I live in Los Angeles, so it’s a lot of back and forth. The way the process works is that they’re writing all week, and we won’t even have a script until Wednesday night. So I fly to New York on Wednesday night, then we prep on Thursday, then we shoot on Friday, then it’s broadcast Saturday. It’s a super fast turnaround. Basically you just work for that entire period of time. But the advantage is that I fly back to Los Angeles Saturday afternoon and I’m basically done working until the following Thursday. I’ve got Sunday through Wednesday to develop my own projects, work on other things, or just sleep. There’s a lot of sleep involved.
One thing I’ve been realizing about myself lately is that I’m not one of these people who’s good at having 10 different irons in the fire at all times. Some people are really good at that. They’re like, “Oh yeah, this morning I spent 4 hours working on my spec script, then I cut together this spot I’ve been working on…” I’m like, I can’t do that, man. I can do one thing at a time. I can get laser focused on one thing and not notice the hours going by.
Do you usually have a series of projects lined up, or are you surprised with what comes along?
It’s funny. Early on in my cinematography career, I didn’t understand how to get jobs. I got an agent and thought my agent was going to get me work, but when you’re just coming up, there’s not much they can do. They can represent you, but it’s up to you to meet other filmmakers, make personal connections, get jobs. It took me a long time to understand that. I thought I could just send out my reel and people would be like, “Oh, okay, here’s some work.” That whole it’s who you know thing is true. Not in a sleazy Hollywood way. It’s just that people appreciate relationships and they appreciate collaboration. Everyone prefers working with people they know and like. Nobody wants to constantly be working with strangers. So the only jobs I got for years were through personal connections.
Some people think that getting an agent is going to make a big difference for them. But it’s not going to make a big difference. I have a friend who shoots really big movies, like comic book hero movies, and he told me he’s still in the position where he feels like it’s up to him to make personal connections and get the work he wants. That’s just how it is. For a while I worked as a camera assistant with some really high-end cinematographers. One of them, Jack Green, who shot Twister, he told me once, “I just shot a Clint Eastwood movie, I’ve been nominated for an Oscar, and I still wake up feeling like, Oh my god, I’m never going to work again.” It’s like, it never ends.
The way you can control your career is by getting to know people, actively going to film festivals, watching films, engaging with the filmmaking community, sharing your work, helping people. When I was first starting out I worked for free all the time just to meet people. It’s absolutely better to be working on something for free than to be sitting around doing nothing waiting to get paid.
Are there changes you’ve made to your approach to your craft over the years?
Definitely. One of the changes has been realizing, “Hey guys, let’s spend less on lighting, and cameras, and fancy lenses until we know the art department has what they need.” I feel like I’m constantly saying to classes, “Nothing makes your work look better than good art direction.” Nothing. If you have a good-looking set, you can turn on a Chinese lantern and you’ll look like a genius. But if you have a terrible-looking set, you can have a million-dollar lighting package and it’s going to look like junk.
I always feel bad for the production designer because when a scene looks amazing everyone always goes, “Wow, who shot this?!” But really the cinematographer just set up a bounce light. Anybody can do that if the set looks perfect. We did a spot on SNL one time, this Wes Anderson–style horror film called Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. I got a lot of compliments on how nice the cinematography was. But you know what? I literally bounced one light. It was such a good-looking set. The color pallet was so perfect. The costumes were so perfect. And I had nothing to do with any of that. The only thing I did was get out of the way and say, “Please put money and energy into production design.”
For all the stuff that Saturday Night Live does so well, the most impressive thing to me is the hair and makeup department. Nobody thinks about it, but these people are doing hair and makeup effects in 2 minutes that would take a Hollywood crew 3 to 4 hours. That’s real craftsmanship.
You’ve had a lot of amazing mentors throughout your career. Is there a piece of advice that stands out?
I’ve gotten a lot of really great advice over the years. One piece of advice does come to mind, though, and this is kind of a button on everything we’ve been talking about. It was on my first job. I was a free camera PA on Twister, and I was trailing on the heels of the cinematographer, Don Burgess, like a little puppy. “How does this work, Don?” “How does that work, Don?” I’d just gotten out of film school, and I really thought I knew how to shoot and light. I had my light meter and was constantly asking him about exposure and f-stops. “What’s the f-stop inside the car versus outside the car?” “How dark is the shadow?” Finally Don looked at me and he’s like, “Alex. You’ve got to understand that being a cinematographer is about so much more than f/2.8. Look around.” So I look around and there are hundreds of people. There are helicopters taking off and landing. He’s like, “Being a cinematographer is about managing this whole process, keeping the continuity of the image, and being able to articulate yourself.”
That’s the biggest challenge of being a filmmaker — whether you’re a director or cinematographer or whatever: taking an abstract image that’s in your head and communicating it to a whole bunch of people. Getting everyone on the same page so everyone understands what they’re doing. Cinematography is all about communicating. And I don’t mean communicating on the grand scale of, “We’re communicating a movie to the world.” I mean literally communicating to 10 people exactly what you want.
You see, people get caught up in their own heads and everyone is standing around going, “What the hell does this guy want?” Or they’re always like, “Try it this way, okay, no try it that way.” You’re driving your crew crazy because they think that you don’t know what you want. A big part of my process is trying to know exactly what I want before I show up on set. Thinking of the best way to achieve it. Using diagrams. Storyboards. Shot lists. Then I meet with the crew and ask them what they think the right way to achieve it would be. Then we create a plan and execute. It’s the process of articulation. And for me, that’s been the best piece of advice.