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Film at 11:30: Living the dream

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jesuit High School graduate Alex Buono, director of photography on the Saturday Night Live film unit, demonstrates how to light a scene during an all-day seminar at the Embassy Suites Portland Airport.Alex Buono has been a filmmaker in a high-profile gig long enough to know when and when not to share an opinion about how a scene should unfold.

“Do not argue with a director on the set. It’s very unprofessional,” he said. “And I argue with directors all the time. You can argue with directors while you’re prepping. Then you say quietly, ‘Hey, maybe we should try this differently.’ Remember, you are not in charge. It’s his set.”

That was one of the less technically oriented slices of wisdom Buono, who’s served for 15 seasons as the Saturday Night Live film unit’s director of photography, proffered to an audience of about 150 on July 31 at the Embassy Suites Portland Airport. The Oscar-nominated cinematographer visited the area as part of his 31-city tour based on “The Art of Visual Storytelling.”

With assistance of a small crew, Buono presented a seven-hour daytime workshop on cinematography and a three-hour evening seminar focused on visual structure.

With an intense, rapid-fire delivery, the boyish-looking 39-year-old engaged the audience by drawing from his experience in capturing short films and parody commercials on Saturday Night Live as well as his work on the independently produced films “Green Street Hooligans” and “Bigger Stronger Faster,” a documentary about steroid use and societal pressure to succeed, and “Johnny Flynton,” for which Buono received an Academy Award nomination in 2003.

Buono, who grew up in Lake Oswego, where his parents, Barbara and David, still reside, also has lent his talents to ESPN’s award-winning comedy series “Mayne Street,” and the NBC drama series “Chicago Fire.”

Buono said he was persuaded by a cinematography mentor to spend his summer hiatus from SNL on his first-ever instructional tour.

Buono was keen to share experiences with fledgling filmmakers the way his mentors did with him.

“I started as a camera assistant and was mentored along by experienced cinematographers,” he said Monday on the phone from Seattle, the tour’s final stop. “I liked the idea of trying to do that for other people.”

The turnout and response on the tour pleasantly surprised Buono, in what amounted to his debut as an instructor.

“I didn’t know if anybody would show up, or if we’d walk into these cities and get five people to show up,” he said. “But we sold out almost every city, mostly on word of mouth. It was more fun than I was expecting.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Alex Buono demonstrates how to light a scene during the seminar, which attracted about 150 participants to the hotel's conference center for day and evening workshop sessions.

Living the dream

Although “fun” isn’t the operative word when it comes to the pressures of directing photography, camera work and lighting for short films and commercials on a venerable, fast-paced, sketch-comedy show, Buono recognizes he won the lottery in his chosen career field.

“I’d say it’s been a dream job,” he said, praising the talents and personalities of cast members Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, a Portland resident who co-stars on “Portlandia.” “For somebody who really hopes to make his own films — and as rewarding as those are, they’re not making me rich anytime soon — I have to have a job like everybody else. This is the greatest day job in the world.”

As goes the story behind many dream jobs, Buono landed his 30 Rockefeller Center-based gig in New York City by meeting the right person at the right time.

“I was shooting a low-budget independent feature film,” he recalled. “It never even got finished, it was so low budget. The producer happened to be a producer at SNL. She said, ‘Hey, you’re cool. Do you want to try to shoot a commercial?’ I made friends with her.”

The friendship paid dividends in 1999, when Buono was asked to join SNL’s production crew.

“I do the camera work and lighting for all the short films and fake commercials,” he said. “I don’t do anything for the live show.”

Teachable moments

Buono credited Father J.K. Adams, a Jesuit High School teacher, with introducing him to the power of film and its connection to mythology, using the “Star Wars” movies as a parable.

“He opened my eyes to all things filmmaking could be,” Buono said.

Adams said he was thrilled to hear of Alex’s success on SNL as well as with his documentary work.

“’Bigger Faster Stronger’ is a great contribution and an excellent example of artistry,” said Adams, who taught Buono’s Christian morality class during his senior year. “How could you not be proud of him?

“I’m glad I had something to offer that meant something to somebody,” Adams added, noting he hasn’t found a platform for his “Star Wars” parables in his more recent classes. “I use films a lot in other courses. The power of the narrative is huge. It helps forgo some of students’ defenses.”

Josh Leake, director of the Portland Film Festival, spent most of the day at Buono’s workshop. He said he was particularly impressed with Buono’s lighting and filming demonstration, for which he brought up audience volunteers to participate.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It reminds me as if I’m in ‘30 Rock’ or something, looking at the setup. It’s like being behind the scenes of everyone’s favorite TV show.”

The level of professionalism Buono delivers regarding cinematography is hard to come by around Portland, he noted.

“Not of this caliber. You usually have to fly to L.A. to get something this good.”

As grueling as his just-concluded 31-city jaunt was, Buono said it felt special to share his techniques, experiences and observations with a hometown crowd last week.

“I was looking forward to coming to Portland the whole tour. It felt pretty special. It was great to interact with the Portland film community,” he said.

If nothing else, Buono felt like the knowledge and inspiration he received from his home area had come full circle.

“I was so happy to bring something back,” he said. “If I can actually offer something from my own experience to the Portland film community, it makes me very happy.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jesuit High School graduate Alex Buono, director of  photography on the Saturday Night Live film unit, observes lighting on a scene during an all-day seminar at the Embassy Suites Portland Airport on Thursday, Aug. 1.

Documentary work balances SNL’s pressure-cooker environment

Alex Buono’s typical work week at Saturday Night Live involves getting with the director of the film or commercial, figuring out how to actually shoot the spots, turning the scripts into pictures, “and translating that into something people want to watch,” he said.

While one might assume the show’s prepared video segments might be created at a less frantic pace than the grueling, deadline-based ritual SNL’s writers and cast members endure each week, that assumption would be incorrect.

“We don’t get a script until Wednesday night,” Buono observed. “We prepare on Thursday. We have to shoot on Friday, and it goes to air on Saturday night. Every week is like a 24-hour film festival.”

Buono’s not complaining, however. Especially now that he gets to do his own projects from time to time. He was pleased when “Green Street Hooligans,” a short film he photographed and co-produced, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2005 South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. “Bigger Stronger Faster,” a theatrically distributed documentary that premiered in competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, took on today’s steroid-based athletics culture from the perspective of America’s “win at any cost” attitude.

“I got the whole experience on that one,” he said. “I’m really happy how that turned out. That might be my proudest achievement.”

Buono is now embarking on a documentary based on immigration issues that’s so new he hasn’t even seen the script.

“My partner and I found a pretty special story,” he said. “It’s another culturally relevant documentary, not unlike ‘Bigger Stronger Faster.’ I would love to be hitting the festival circuit in 2015.”




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