Our Amazing & Creative Alumni: Eric Edwards '71

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Cameraman (aka director of photography, cinematographer)

By Nadine Fiedler

From the Summer 2011 Caller

The emotion of a film, the way a viewer is pulled in or made to feel a distance, has a lot to do with the way it looks. Imagine film noir in cheerful, gleaming light, or a feel-good movie done in dark, forbidding tones. The director of photography, working with the director’s vision, determines the look of a film. Eric Edwards ’71 is known for the skillful and creative way he interprets that vision, ranging from small indie films to big-budget studio features.
Eric loved photography and art while he was at Catlin Gabel. He and his good friend Gus Van Sant ’71—now a famed director—had the freedom to take over a room in the art department and produce screenprints together, including an eight-page centerfold for their yearbook. They did several short films together, including a 20-minute short for Winterim. Eric and Gus both went on to the Rhode Island School of Design, and after two years in photography Eric joined Gus in the film department. “My interest in film had something to do with my interest in cameras: I liked the mechanical as much as the aesthetic aspect,” says Eric. “And I remember Gus and me sitting in a cinema in Providence watching A Clockwork Orange and Mean Streets. In the early ’70s we watched lots of European films and cinema vérité and witnessed the greatest cinema you could look at. My attention to lighting and photography came from the Europeans.”
Eric returned to Portland and shot local indie films Property and Paydirt. A director named Eagle Pennell noticed his work at the 1982 Sundance Festival, and Eric shot two films for him that got a lot of press. Then Eric got an important break: he was invited four years in a row to the Sundance Institute June laboratory in Utah for intense workshops in filmmaking with actors and directors. “It was a heady experience for me, like summer camp with a dream team of seasoned people you’ve admired in film,” he says. “I got to witness the process thoroughly and deeply. After that, I was ready to move on with my career.”
Eric’s career did bloom after Sundance. Gus asked him to shoot My Own Private Idaho in 1991. “People hired me because of My Own Private Idaho,” says Eric. “It was a seminal film. I used natural light and timelapse photography, before a lot of other people used it, and extreme use of close-ups. My Own Private Idaho was Gus’s vision, but I responded to that. You’re only as good as your director and the people you’re with.”
Since that film Eric shot two more for Gus, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and To Die For. Many of the films he shot brought critical attention, and his reputation began to grow. Eric has since become accepted by Hollywood studios and in the past five years has shot enormous features such as The Break-Up and Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, in addition to the small films he continues to enjoy. “In indie films you get to be original, stylistically explore different attitudes, and fail on a smaller level. But all my work is really creative,” he says.
“I’m driven by the directors I work with, and somewhat by the technical challenges. Every director speaks a unique artistic language. They’ve all been amazing and interesting on every level. It’s all still fascinating to me.
“I’m relied on to make judgment calls all throughout the making of a film. Lighting is an aesthetic choice, but it’s also technical,” Eric says. “But art in itself is technical. Every artist works through some kind of technology. It’s all a gamble, even with the guy with a paintbrush.”

"Catlin Gabel had a definite influence on what I do now. We learned a lot, especially from art teachers Kim Hartzell and Susan Barr Sowles."

Top photo: Eric Edwards '71 on the set of The Change-Up, directed by David Dobkin. Photo: Bob Mahoney/Universal Pictures