Scouting some locations for a film we were doing near Bodega Bay, my cinematographer turned to me and smiled as we walked away from this beautiful old boat, beached on the sand at the foot of the Northern California waterway. “This is going to be bloody brilliant”, he said. I just smiled back as I often did when he would have these outbursts without warning.
But that was just what Neil Lisk was.
On Wednesday, September 22, that brilliance joined the brilliance on the other side of “God’s Golden Shore” unexpectedly for all of us. But like all bright comets, a trail was left behind. And that trail was not only in his personal life with his family, including his wife Liz and their beautiful daughter Millie, as well as his friends, but in his unique profession as well; a Cinematographer.
As an actor, director and amateur photographer I shared his interests and passion with images, shadows and light. The puzzle of solving a particular sequence or orientation of the camera to tell a story in deeper ways than even the eye could see was part of our mutual joy of creating. Our short hand mode of communication about shooting developed quickly over three films, so much so that if there was a certain film or painting that I was trying to use as a blueprint for a given film or scene, he knew it. And if he didn’t, 24 hours later he did. He managed to balance out the need for expediency and yet maintain the level of perfection that we all strove for. And even in moments where I would see others’ goals of perfection wane, his never did.
The relationship between a director and cinematographer is one of the most constant and intense communication lived out on a set. For many years I used to feel the actor/director relationship was the most intimate but as I became more aware of the film making process I was participating in, I realized as strong as that relationship is, there was another more collaborative one.
As an actor I worked with Neil and my good friend, and his, Steven R. Monroe several times. From this actor’s vantage point I became aware of their process together and how from beginning to end it was a constant pulse of assembly and problem solving that involved not only the creative construction of the film but the mathematics of production efficiency. I noted this to myself so by the first time Neil and I stepped on set together as director and cinematographer on “God’s Ears” I knew we were going to be moving ahead together, shoulder to shoulder. I had very little money to offer him and very few days to get a respectable job done, but Neil grabbed the subject matter with both hands and dove in with me.
And though his ability as a technician and creative thinker are the easiest aspect of him to recall, it was his people skills that set him apart from many of the others in this very surprisingly non-people sensitive business, period. His receptiveness in connecting to the actors on and off set was better than most directors I have worked with. He made those feel comfortable in front of that large and threatening glass eyeball of the camera. My grandmother who at 86 years old had only to have faced the unobtrusive lens of a super 8mm camera when I was a child, was put at ease during the “God’s Ears” shoot, not by her grandson’s directorial skills, but rather the non threatening and jovial approach of his cameraman. His timing of when to make someone laugh and when to snap them to energetic attention was a gift. And one I appreciated more and more as we worked together.
I have appreciated the talents and knowledge of the cinematographer my whole life. As a director, I may know the look I want, I may know the mise-en scene I have staged in my head and I may understand that the only light I want filling the scene is the key coming in through the far window. But I’ll be damned if I know how to technically make it happen the way I see it. And somehow Neil heard what I said, even if he didn’t at times agree with it, and went out and made it happen.
While shooting under great constraints and duress in Wisconsin on our last movie together as director and cameraman, Fort McCoy, we were sitting alone on a hill overlooking a location we had found. We had just finished an extensive day together going over all the viable places to shoot effectively. The talent, writers and producers had still not arrived from Los Angeles and we were only a few days away from shooting. The pre-production over the last two weeks had almost been entirely just the two of us in a part of the world neither of us knew. The film was set during World War 2 and we were now surrounded by rolling hills of green and an unreal blue sky wrapping over our heads with only the chirp of crickets providing any sound.
Neil suddenly stood up and walked into this giant vast field of flowers and reeds before us. He bent down once he was a good 100 yards away and pulled up this unusual flower and brought it over to show me. “This is great, huh?”, he said.
I looked at him quizzically and asked, “did you see that all the way from here”?
He gave me that straight faced look that only he could and said, “you don’t have to see something to know it’s there”.
I feel that way about you now brother. I know you’re there. You always will be. As you have helped set the pace in my work and my life and for that I will be forever grateful.
All my love.