By Mark London Williams
Like the teenage protagonist of his most recently lensed film B-Happy, cinematographer Andres Garreton is used to treating life’s journey, and the reversals of the road, with a certain deep humor.
That humor was recently put to the test when he was getting ready to leave for Canada to shoot a feature, and found that the production rules had changed again; now the Canadians were insisting on one of their own DPs for the feature, The reason cited: job flight! That would be Canadian job flight; suddenly their jobs were going to “lower paying” markets.
So Garreton, with an international pedigree of his own, but in this border imbroglio viewed by the Canadians as “the Yankee,” found himself with some last-minute, rude-surprise “down time” on his hands. During which, between commercials and prep work for another feature, he was able to sit down with Below the Line to recount his globe-hopping journey.
The first giant step of which came when the elected Allende government in his native Chile was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup. “I got the hell out of there,” Garreton says of the Pinochet years. He emigrated when he was 19.
He had a scholarship to Notre Dame waiting, and it was there that a childhood love of photography blossomed into a filmmaking major, and the thesis film he shot and directed was nominated for a student Academy Award.
Post-college, Garreton headed to Seattle, “looking for a lifestyle,” while at the same moment destiny—to paraphrase the film Casablanca—took a hand, in the form of a broken-down car. Unable to leave Seattle for awhile, he found himself living in the great green north for the next 14 years. It was there he honed his craft with “a lot of industrials, which I found was a great education. ‘Work fast, make it look good.’”
In fact, things seemed to be looking so good that Garreton—who by now owned a film production company he ran with a couple of partners—was sought by Hollywood folk making their way up the I-5. As the ’80s unfurled, the studios were “looking for alternatives” to shooting in L.A. But Seattle couldn’t take advantage of its big break, according to Garreton, because, despite the thriving cottage industries in industrials and commercials, there wasn’t enough infrastructure.
So, in one of those plant-it-in-the-first-act, reveal-it-in-the-third ironies, Garreton watched as production “leapfrogged to Vancouver.” And the era of American production heading to Canada’s West began in earnest.
Garreton would later find himself stymied by that very leapfrogging when attempting to go Toronto, but there were other steps between his Seattle days and becoming a successful Hollywood cinematographer. Several cars and one marriage after arriving in the Seahawks’ hometown, Garreton headed to L.A., after turning down a more permanent staff job making industrial films and videos for a then-fledgling Washington-based company called Microsoft.
“I had almost no contacts here in L.A.,” he recalls. But he did have a reel. And work started to flow in, with his first high-profile break coming with British director Phillip Goodhew’s skewed, darkly comic feature Intimate Relations. That film opened doors for Garreton, one of which took him right back to Seattle, where he shot the sci-fi film Darkdrive. Other doors included HBO pilots, documentaries, more commercials, and the pilot for the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd., which was the first show not only with an all-Hispanic cast, but production team, as well.
But more than returning to Seattle to shoot a movie, a bigger, rounder “full circle” was waiting for Garreton in the form of Chilean director Gonzalo Justiniano. Garreton and Justiniano were boyhood pals and went to the same school in Chile. After the coup, Justiniano eventually found his way to France, where he started his film career. “We’ve been trying to work together for the last 15 years,” Garreton recounts.
And then, two years ago, the timing for such a reunion came with B-Happy, Justiniano’s original tale about a teenage girl in a small Chilean village who finds that the family life she thought she knew dissolves quickly around her, and she must fend for herself along life’s literal and metaphoric highway.
Featuring a stunning debut performance by young actress Manuela Martelli, the movie was a prize winner at the Berlin Film Festival and a hit at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Garreton calls his time shooting the movie “by far the most gratifying experience” he’s had as a cinematographer. That he was in his native homeland, and working with his childhood best pal, were two huge factors in that experience.
But so was the way the movie was made. “We’d sit around and play soccer and drink wine” Garreton says, “until the light changed.” Which is to say, Justiniano liked those late-afternoon hues, and—even with a total budget of only $300,000—could afford to wait for the light he wanted.
But it wasn’t all soccer and wine until magic hour rolled around. Though Garreton—who also has embraced high def among the burgeoning tools at his disposal—was shooting in Super 16mm, with a limited crew, he found ways to give back to his native community. “We didn’t have flags, or nets. Basic stuff.” And often, just the possession of a light meter—or lack of one—could determine an entire career trajectory.
“If you don’t have a meter, you’re just guessing,” Garreton observes. “The people (without one) will never get to become the DP.” So he held seminars for grips, and others to demystify the process. “What we do, there are no secrets,” he adds.
This “giving back” speaks to what Garreton calls the “soulness” of both a particular project, and the craft of filmmaking itself—a consideration of not only what a particular film says, but how it’s made—or rather, how the people making it are treated.
It may be a tall—even idealistic—order, but then, survivors of military dictatorships should be permitted any idealism they can still muster. And in Garreton’s case, it paid off in concrete terms: Chilean-based PWI Cinema, the production company behind B-Happy, has recently announced Justiniano as the director for El Caballo de Copas, a race-horse drama set in San Francisco. Garreton anticipates a late winter start.
Indeed, the DP notes that “the director has vowed to never shoot another film without me.” And given that Justiniano has projects in development at Warner Independent, HBO and Universal Focus, that could mean a lot of steady work—and a lot of magic hours—in the cinematographer’s future.
By Mark London Williams