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Rock-Star Cinematographer Ellen Kuras on Sundance, the Stones, and Her Directorial Debut

Photo: Getty Images

The cinematographer of epic films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and He Got Game is presenting her directorial debut at Sundance this week — Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), a project 23 years in the making. Ellen Kuras spent decades chronicling the lives of a family of Laotian refugees in Brooklyn, and the world is finally getting a glimpse of her long-gestating pet project. She talked to Vulture from her hotel room in Park City about directing for the first time, her burgeoning appreciation for classical music, and what it was like to shoot Martin Scorsese’s new Rolling Stones documentary, Shine a Light.

Most people know you for your work as a cinematographer. Is making films about rock stars as much of a nightmare as it sounds?
I really have loved the music films I’ve done. I find myself completely overwhelmed and honored that I shot the interview — THE interview — with Bob Dylan [in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home] and that Bob asked for me personally. I shot Neil Young, who is my all-time hero, and Lou Reed, who is also a hero. Being one of the operators on Shine a Light and being able to shoot the Rolling Stones is crazy. My friends joke that I’m in my “music phase.” Now, I’m going to move on to classical. I’ve been talking to some really talented composers, and I’d like to merge the music with the image like with the opera, and recall the work of Robert Wilson. That’s next on my list.

Do you get asked a lot what a cinematographer or a director of photography actually does?
I get asked more about how it feels to be a woman cinematographer, which I laugh about. I get that less and less because people don’t see me as much as a woman; they see me just as a cinematographer, which is a good thing.

So how’d did you come up with this idea for Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)?
This project has been a labor of love. I started making this film as a very young filmmaker-to-be, when I was given a grant to write this story about Laotians I had met in Rochester, New York. In the course of making that film, I ended up moving back down to New York. I wanted to learn to speak Lao so I could speak to the people directly, so a nurse put me in touch with Thavi, and the moment he walked through the door of my apartment, we had this instant. I realized during the course of my lessons with him that I was really more interested in what he had to say than what I was trying to say with this other family in Rochester. I knew I wanted to deal with the political aspects and fall out from the war, and what happens to the people we get to fight our wars for us and then betray and leave behind. This film shows what happens in Thavi’s family over the course of twenty years. The war never really ends.

Do you see yourself continuing on this track?
I’d say no, but if the right project came along, I might consider it. I really love what I do and find enormous gratification working with directors. I’m very involved with directors in terms of how they choose to tell a story. In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee gave me complete and total visual freedom. He said, ”I totally trust you.” That was fantastic.

And how’s your Lao these days?
Rusty. [Laughs.] I still know how to ask for the bathroom, but you know… —Sadia Latifi