CINEMATOGRAPHERS GIVE US SIGHT. Without them, the film would be a blind soundtrack. What kind of eyes must one have to mentally envision what a director can only describe with words, and then create that vision for movie-goers in a way that draws them into the narrative and immerses them in the story’s emotions?
In this case, they are the clear blue eyes of a little boy who still smiles from within, world-class cinematographer and Sandpoint resident Erik Daarstad.
His academy-award winning career in documentary films has enriched the world, given him a life immersed in an art form chosen in his teens, and imparted youthfulness to his mind and heart that only passion faithfully pursued can sustain. He is world-renowned, yet is the quietest man at any table. He is a listener, an observer, sparing with words, and yet a flawlessly eloquent translator and expresser of themes, stories, chronicles, facts, passions and directorial visions.
Arriving at the interview, he sits down, crosses his legs and wordlessly removes an imposingly-thick book from the plastic bag protecting it from the rain. “This is the book,” he says simply. And he hands me his life’s work – 586 pages. Over 300 photographs. And he says nothing else until the questions begin, to which he responds with an exact memory, fond reminiscences and a serene sense of joy.
Is there any better way to fall in love with movies than to go see them when one is young? Daarstad went three or four times every week to the one and only movie theater in his hometown on the southwest coast of Norway. An early interest in becoming a pilot faded in light of his interest in films. And then one pivotal day while visiting the capital of Oslo, as he recalls it, “I ran across a crew making a movie.” A freeze-frame of that moment would show a young man standing very still and watching an intensely-connected team of film-makers working together. “That made up my mind on what I would try to do,” he says simply. Only one so young could have decided so suddenly and fearlessly. One small question remained. “Coming from a small country, the question was, how do I go about it?”
The answer manifested when he happened to listen to a radio program featuring another Norwegian who had attended a film school in Los Angeles, and he decided he would do the same. “So I applied and they accepted me and that was it,” he concludes, as though it were unremarkable. Even the golden glow of an Oscar has never warmed the seeds of ego into bloom within Daarstad; he is a humble man.
Although his original aim was to do narrative type films, a USC professor introduced his students to an intriguing assortment of documentaries. And according to Daarstad, “I thought it would be a very interesting way of making a living. It was the magic of the process, and the fact that it was an opportunity to work with a team of people and tell stories of various kinds. Then it just sort of happened that when I finished college and a few years in the army and started working, those were the opportunities that first presented themselves to me, and I found I really enjoyed documentaries.”
Again glossing over the giftedness necessary for the result, he said, “The more you work, the more you gain a reputation and that just kept on going. Documentaries became my life’s work. And I don’t regret that because it’s been a fascinating life. With documentaries,” he elaborates, “you get to be in situations you wouldn’t normally be in and meet people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet and travel to places you otherwise wouldn’t travel to.”
The relationships made possible in the creative process remained a strong reason for his love of the profession “You work with a fairly small, compact group of five to six people on the crew,” he explains. “You become like a family, in a way. And you work a lot with the same people from project to project, and you establish a rapport and form relationships. And the same thing happens with the people you’re doing the documentary on. They become like a family, and in the end when you finish, you may part and never see each other again but for that moment in time, it’s special.”
Although technically retired, Daarstad is still working. His expertise was recently called into play by Sandpoint Film Festival’s Janice Jarzabek, whose success with the event resulted in over 400 entries! Daarstad assisted with the screening process. “Most of my contemporaries have retired or gone to that great soundstage in the sky,” he gently jokes, “but producer-director Terry Sanders and I just finished a project that has been entered in several film festivals.”
One of Daarstad’s documentaries, entitled, “Men Who Made the Movies” featured an interview with the iconic Frank Capra, who recalled the thrill he felt the first time he looked through the viewfinder. Capra said, “It’s kind of like a magic square and you see magic in that square.” Daarstad knew exactly what he meant. He still does. Finding the magic has been Daarstad’s life. It still is.
“Through the Lens of History: The Life Journey of a Cinematographer,” is available at Vanderford Books and the Corner Book Store, and online at KeokeeBooks.com. Take your copy to the Tango restaurant almost any morning to have it signed by the author.