Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for Janusz Kaminski, who won the American Dream Lottery

OK, thanks to the A to Z Challenge I now realize that there are lots of Ks in the Roger Corman world. There is, for instance, Oscar-nominated actress Sally Kirkland, who likes being known for physical and emotional nakedness. (See, for instance, her starring role in the Concorde-New Horizons thriller, In the Heat of Passion.) You’ve also got hard-hitting director Katt Shea, canny finance guy Brad Krevoy, and makeup artist par excellence Kathleen Karridene, who’s now the wife of Don “The Dragon” Wilson. And let’s not forget Harvey Korman. Every so often, when I was the story editor at Concorde, someone would enthuse, “How wonderful to be working for Roger Corman! I’ve always found him so funny!” That’s when I knew he or she was thinking of the hilarious second-banana on the old Carol Burnett Show. In 1987, Harvey Korman actually starred in a Roger Corman film, playing a wacky dual role in Munchies.

But I’m going to bypass all these terrific people and write about Janusz Kaminski. Surely you’ve heard of him! Along with Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs) and Phedon Papamichael (Sideways), he’s one of the multisyllabically-named cinematographers who’ve learned their trade at Corman companies, then gone on to have major-league Hollywood careers. Janusz came to the U.S. from Poland at the age of twenty-two to study filmmaking at Chicago’s Columbia College. While doing graduate work at the American Film Institute, he was discovered by a Corman underling, and invited to work as a gaffer (or electrician) on several films. Finally he persuaded a skeptical Concorde production team to let him demonstrate his camera skills. One of his first cinematographer credits was on The Terror Within 2 (starring Andrew Stevens and a monster run amok an underground bunker). He also brought a moody visual sense to an erotic thriller, The Rain Killer.

Roger Corman was impressed. And so was someone even more powerful. Shortly after his Concorde experience, Janusz was named Director of Photography on Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Doubtless his fluency in Polish was helpful in landing him this plum assignment, but it was his camerawork that won him an Oscar. He picked up a second for his brilliant combat sequences in Saving Private Ryan, and many more nominations (for War Horse and Lincoln, among others) followed. Along the way he wed a movie star, Holly Hunter. (They split in 2001. Alas, the American Dream doesn’t always mean happily-ever-after.)

Janusz has told me that at Concorde “I learned how to work really fast, how to rely on my instincts.” He also discovered how to cover up a lack of substance with flashy camera tricks. He had little direct contact with Corman on the Concorde lot, but remembers how dolly tracks would have to be hidden before the boss arrived on the set. (Roger felt in that era that setting up tracks to guide the movement of the camera was overly time-consuming, and thus a waste of money.) Looking back, Kaminski assured me he’s “glad to be part of that tradition of young filmmakers coming in and working on twelve or sixteen-day movies, working twenty hours a day, getting fed nothing, being abused, being insulted by people who didn’t know any better.” I'd say he enjoyed the Corman world at its best. 


  1. What a talented man! I love that he sees his time in the Corman trenches as a positive. I didn't realize The Rain Killer was affiliated with Roger Corman! I saw it on VHS - and thought it was a decent thriller. It did look very nice though!

  2. Well, Janusz was positive about his Corman period, but hardly what you'd call enthusiastic. Read that quote again, and you'll hear his sardonic tone. Very Eastern European, I'd say.

  3. Here I am again, coming over from my la-la world of knowing nothing about what you and Craig are writing about but terribly addicted to your writings! I may be obtuse (most likely that IS the case) but I would seriously hope that you can get paid for this (or have been at one time), because your knowledge of all of this blows.. me.. away. You have your niche and you are fabulous at it!!

    I will be back!!

    Dana at Waiter, drink please!

  4. Always delighted to hear from you, Dana. Yes, of course I'm a professional writer, and one of my proudest achievements is my book, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. (Tasteful title, no?) It would be delightful to somehow "monetize" my blog, but I enjoy it too much to want to cheapen it with something tacky like ads. Of course a sugar daddy would be nice! But wait! I'm married!