Q&A: Visiting Danish Cinematographer Eric Witzgall Talks about Film, Teaching and Romantic Comedies

This weekend the National Film Festival for Talented Youth is hosting a set of workshops for young filmmakers featuring classes in cinematography and production design. NFFTY has partnered with Station Next, a film program for high school students located in Copenhagen, Denmark, to bring skilled international film industry veterans to Seattle to teach the daylong workshops. Thanks to NFFTY Executive Director (and one of our top 50 culturemakers) Jesse Harris, I was able to catch up with visiting cinematographer Eric Witzgall to chat about his career, working with young people and his first trip to Seattle.

How long have you been involved in filmmaking? Is this an industry you’ve always wanted to be in?

 Not really. It happened quite coincidentally. I think I was 22 or 23 years old when I first got into the film industry. I was just helping out, running cables, and setting up lenses. And I slowly worked my way up and then in ‘97 I got accepted to the Danish film school which is a four-year program for cinematography and have been working ever since then.

So, what inspired you to want to go to school and pursue this?

[Pausing to think]… The life on set, and the collaboration. It is a creative position I have, but also it is not working alone. You work with other people, you get to interact with everyone…And lighting. Light. I’m really interested in light. I like light and shadows.

Do you enjoy teaching and working with young people?

Yes. When you are teaching you learn a lot about your own business because you have to put it into words suddenly. Things that you normally just do, suddenly you have to explain it to somebody and you have to put it into words they understand and it helps give yourself a great understanding of why you actually do it that way.

Do you think it’s important for young people to be involved in film?

Yes, because film is storytelling and storytelling is as old as humanity. The first things we did before we even developed a language was make cave drawings about killing mammoths, and that’s a story as well. So storytelling is really deep, deep in us. It’s really rooted in us as humans. And because it has this tradition I think it is very important to give it onwards, sort of make it bloom even more, and film is just one way of telling stories.

What kind of advice do you have for young filmmakers today?

Open your eyes, see the world and experience things because you can only tell stories when you experience things. A lot of young filmmakers, at least where I come from in Denmark, they get so hooked into the idea of the film industry that they sort of live their life within the industry, but that’s not where the stories are. The stories are outside the film industry. So I would advise them to get out in the world and see things, experience things.

Also, don’t get hooked up on gadgets; don’t get hooked up on the equipment. You don’t need the best equipment to make a good film. A good filmmaker can make a great film on an iPhone if he wants to.

Quick, who is your favorite director?

[Laughs] Well that’s very difficult. A person I really look up to is Stanley Kubrick because his whole life work is just amazing. Each and every film is a different genre, and each one is a masterpiece. But you really can’t compare anybody to him… so if we are talking normal people I quite like Christopher Nolan who just made Inception. I think he’s very good at storytelling; he’s very good as a director, very visionary in his plots and how he tells a story. In smaller films I like Jim Jarmusch. One of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films is Dead Man. It is a very simple and quiet film, but it is very funny. It goes through a lot of emotions.

What I don’t like is romantic comedies, I think they suck, pardon my language. They are just too flat and there is no depth in them.

So, do you like Seattle so far? What’s your favorite thing you’ve done so far?

That would probably be Pike Place Market because of the old shops and we had brunch at one of the original diners, so that was very nice. And the service you get everywhere. Everybody’s so service-minded, it seems like everyone is so nice here.