It was amazingly intense,” remembers director of photography Lisa Rinzler of setting foot in Ho Chi Minh City for the first time. “Talk about a city with gusto; it’s just raging with humanity. It makes New York look rural in comparison.” A veteran cinematographer with credits as diverse as Nancy Savoca’s True Love, Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, Wim Wenders’s Lisbon Story, and the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, Rinzler met her most daunting production yet in Tony Bui’s Three Seasons—the first American film shot in Vietnam since the war—which tells four interconnected stories set in a metropolis filled with as many white lotus blossoms as ads for Coca-Cola. (Rinzler was deservedly praised for the results, garnering a Best Cinematography award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.) “It was such a densely woven fabric,” a still-awed Rinzler says. “I never felt like I was capturing all of it or enough of it. If we put 100 people in every frame, I felt it wouldn’t be too many.”
Rinzler’s only previous experience with Southeast Asia came in a brief location scout in Thailand for the Vietnam sequence of Dead Presidents. (They
ended up shooting in Florida.) So to get a keener sense of the verdant landscapes and blossoming red Phuong Vi trees of Vietnam, the NYU film alum looked at archival material, Bui’s Vietnam-shot short, Yellow Lotus, and other Vietnamese films. “I’m a big believer in research and prep time,” says Rinzler, “but there’s nothing like putting yourself on the soil.”
The 95-degree heat made the 17-hour workdays difficult, and most of the crew didn’t speak English. “The few times that I tried to speak Vietnamese the people got on their knees and begged me not to,” she says, laughing. Because good translators were scarce and most of the crew was Vietnamese, even tasks as simple as moving a light proved difficult. The resourceful American gaffer actually made up a chart of hand signals that helped facilitate shooting.
“We had to invent a lot of ways to make things work,” says Rinzler. When crane shots proved impossible, the steadicam operator walked down a ladder; when a light malfunctioned, the crew had to wait at least 10 days for another to pass through customs. And to accomplish the exquisite opening shots of a lake temple surrounded by women harvesting lotus flowers, Rinzler had to figure out how to set up lights that wouldn’t sink into the water (not to mention keeping the camera afloat on a canoe).
Most surprising, though, Rinzler never saw a single foot of film she had shot until she returned home. The crew feared that the censors—who closely monitored the shoot—would find “something they didn’t like” and shut the production down. So Rinzler blindly persevered, shipping the dailies to the U.S. and receiving detailed e-mails from the lab. “I completely relied on Du Art to be my eyes,” she says.
Rinzler is now shooting Pollock, Ed Harris’s directorial debut, in which he
also stars as the famous painter. “I would be very displeased with myself if I fell
into doing just one genre,” says the DP. “The excitement is to work on different projects and to figure out new approaches to each script.” Rinzler describes Pollock as having a “harder edge” than the “very lyrical and poetic” imagery of Three Seasons. “Much more so than words, or sentiment, Pollock was about energy,” she says. “When I look at photographs of him painting or the paintings themselves, they are about sheer energy.” Can the busy cinematographer relate? “I think everyone in New York grapples with sheer energy.”