As a cinematographer, Eric Edwards gets to indulge his love of lens and image

Last year was a good one for cinematographer Eric Edwards.

He shot Britney Spears' feature film debut, 'Crossroads,' flew to Toronto to do Clare Kilner's 'How to Deal' (scheduled for release in April) and then returned to Portland to work with longtime collaborator Gus Van Sant on 'Elephant.'

In between films, he shot 11 television commercials.

'I think Eric is unlike other cinematographers in that he never stops working,' Van Sant says. 'Like on 'Cowgirls' ('Even Cowgirls Get the Blues'), after he would finish a day of work, he would grab his camera and go shoot time-lapse shots late at night.'

Van Sant and Edwards began their film collaboration in high school. For both, it's been a wild ride to Hollywood.

Edwards' fascination with film was early and immediate. At 10, his parents gave him his first camera Ñ a Brownie Starflash. It pointed. It shot. 'I went crazy,' Edwards recalls.

In his last year at Catlin Gabel School, Edwards and fellow student Van Sant made a film for their required senior project. As all their future work would be, that first film, 'The Happy Organ,' was experimental. It tells the story of two friends who hitchhike to the Oregon Coast. One is killed by a car.

'I filmed her with a bunch of vegetables around her,' Edwards recalls. 'The wheels keep going. She is dead.'

Van Sant and Edwards were inseparable friends at Catlin. Van Sant was edgy and shy, Edwards gentle but intense.

'Our film teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up,' Edwards remembers. 'Gus said he wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star. I said, 'I want to be a cameraman, and I really want to apply myself.' '

From Catlin Gabel they both headed to the Rhode Island School of Design. Then they came back to Portland.

Edwards fell in love with the night. He sought odd combinations of light and haunted the Albina area to shoot old honky-tonks and ruined storefronts.

'I was really interested in how lights mix on film,' he says. 'Film doesn't like more than one kind of light.' Edwards was experimenting, looking for new ways to create emotion with darks and lights. 'If there was an unfamiliar process,' he says, 'that's where I wanted to go.'

He found an ideal subject in the odd demographic at the Rose Festival Fun Center. In his stills, neon tones fall over the faces of lost sailors and their bouffant-haired pursuers, obese country girls and thin men in high-waters. The collection, shot in the early '70s, secured Edwards a grant from the Metropolitan Arts Commission Ñ $833 per month for six months Ñ to shoot 36 cityscapes of Portland.

At 23, Edwards teamed with director Penny Allen to film 'Property.' The movie received favorable critical response at the first Sundance Film Festival. He then shot 'Paydirt,' again with Allen. The film was about early Oregon vintners growing marijuana while waiting for their grapes to mature. It premiered in April 1981 at the Bagdad.

For Van Sant's breakthrough film, 'Drugstore Cowboy' (released in 1989), Edwards shot a series of short films Ñ an airborne hat, rolling clouds and floating drug paraphernalia Ñ that were edited into the feature production.

'My friend Gary McRoberts over at Vinton's and I devised a time-lapse camera,' Edwards says. 'I just kept shooting these pieces, and Gus used them all in the film. That was the beginning of the time-lapse work.'

Follow-up projects with Van Sant included the acclaimed 'My Own Private Idaho' (1991) and 'To Die For' (1995). 'Even Cowgirls Get the Blues' (1994) garnered miserable reviews, but the photographic elements shine.

After 'To Die For,' Edwards had a string of film projects, including 'Copland,' 'Another Day in Paradise' and 'Clay Pigeons.'

He also shot videos for his music idols, including Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Lyle Lovett.

Hatching a collaborative vision

What does a cinematographer do? 'I wanted to be called 'lighting cameraman,' ' Edwards says. 'I light. I set the tone. This gives the greatest sense of control. But I couldn't call myself that in a union.'

As director of photography, Edwards makes decisions that help determine the tone and style of a film. 'I'm the one who, with the director, hatches a vision of the film,' he says. 'We decide which plate to serve the story on.

'We determine tone or mood, dark or light. It's about getting in sync with the director's mind and how he wants to tell a story. It's about making a decision about how the camera will or will not move.'

When filming, Edwards is always on the set before dawn. He watches rehearsals with the director and first assistant director. They discuss lighting. After one or two rehearsals, the actors leave for makeup and costumes.

For the next 45 minutes, Edwards sets up lights and cameras. Usually, he'll take four shots before noon and 15 after. He then drives to the lab to look at early 'rushes,' or prints, of the day's work. He works 15 hour days, seven days a week for eight to 10 weeks.

Edwards, 49, says he never tires. 'He's like the King Kong of guerrilla filmmaking,' says Alex Smith, the director of another movie Edwards shot, 'The Slaughter Rule.' 'My twin brother (Andrew) and I wrote and co-directed the film, and Eric was like our triplet. He came up with countless ideas on his own. His experience was equal to that of everyone on the set combined.

'I thought he should be nominated for an independent spirit award in cinematography. He shot impossibly long hours, and on his days off he'd go shoot stills of neon signs all over Montana.'

Edwards still regularly collaborates with Van Sant. 'In some ways,' Van Sant says, 'we're like a married couple who operate without too much direct communication because we have been through all the direct communication there is.'

Other directors now pursue Edwards. 'I wanted to work with him badly,' says 'How to Deal' director Clare Kilner. 'I loved the way he got deep rich blacks in one film and his lightness of touch in another. He works in an incredibly detailed way.

'In my films, I want to bring out the actors' inner beauty without blandifying it for the screen. Eric manages to do that.'

A 'tuna casserole' kind of place

The money in Hollywood is breathtaking, but Edwards' film choices don't hinge on budget concerns. He gets reality checks from his Portland friends who place art over income.

'I'm a small-town person,' Edwards says. 'There was a period when I needed to come back here to face reality. I needed to escape Hollywood. Everyone I met and made friends with was an industry relationship.

'The lack of being tethered to reality Ñ because this business is about dreams Ñ can be traumatizing.'

He and Van Sant both keep Portland homes.

'Portland is a comfort place, like tuna casserole,' Edwards says, 'but a lot more important.' Some of his favorite haunts here include Dan and Louis' Oyster Bar, the Steel Bridge ('the Eiffel Tower of Portland'), the rocking chair seats at Cinema 21, Powell's, the Vat & Tonsure and the Portland Cutlery Store, with its oversize, fully robotic Swiss army knife in the window.

He builds and rebuilds his own equipment, haunting hardware stores and aerospace parts outlets. Then he rents videos to scrutinize the work of other artists. 'It's not like being stuck in a small city and not having access to greatness,' Edwards says. 'I've done all I could to learn how films are made.'

Edwards has made 12 films, 40 music videos and 50 to 60 television commercials. 'He is the secret of success behind so many films,' says Portland poet Walt Curtis. 'Eric is deserving of really special recognition in this community, yet he's very quiet, never thumping his own drum.'

Edwards is off to a propitious start this year. 'Property,' the first film he shot with Penny Allen, will be rereleased at the Northwest Film Center and on DVD; 'The Slaughter Rule' will play at the Hollywood Theatre and on the Sundance Channel. 'How to Deal' screens in February.

A collection of Edwards' still photographs will be reprinted and displayed by the Regional Arts & Culture Council later this year.

Meanwhile, to keep busy, Edwards has constructed a personal archive in his Southeast Portland basement. For three years he's been documenting the thousands of still photographs he has shot throughout his life.

The collection is less memoir than map. Edwards doesn't shoot for recognition. He's shooting for the next challenge.

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