BILL ROE, ASC, FINDS MAGIC IN "CASTLE"

Cinematographer Bill Roe, ASC, is a veteran of the studio system. He came up through the ranks the traditional way: first as a film loader, and rose up through the camera crew to where he is today, the director of photography on “Castle.” Recently, he has been directing episodes as well. He was 20 years old when he started working in the business, but spent many years during his youth on the set with his father, Jack Roe, who was a first AD. 

His playground was sets like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Cameraman Arthur Ibbetson once said to him, “You are going to be a great cameraman one day, kid.” That was the year he spent six months in Germany when his father was working on “Willy Wonka.” His father put him to work and had him clean the chocolate river. He was 15 years old, and, as he said, “I have a golden ticket.” He played sports in high school and college, and when he was finished, he toyed with the idea of being a grip. Instead, he wound up at The Burbank Studios, which became Warner Bros., where he worked for free for a year in the loading room. His first job as a loader that got him his union card was “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” shot by Owen Roizman, ASC. By age 30, he was a camera operator, working on big features. Once he started in television as a DP, he didn’t stop working. From shows such as “Brooklyn South,” to “The X-Files,” to “Las Vegas,” “Daybreak,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” a few episodes of “Mad Men,” to the pilots for “The Mentalist” and “Eastwick,” he finally landed on the show “Castle,” now shooting their fourth season. His family has upheld the tradition of working in the entertainment industry, his daughter Kelly is a producer’s assistant on “Castle” (“and she got the job on her own,” Bill added), and his son Mike is working towards becoming a grip. Panavision sat down with Bill to talk about his career and his work on “Castle.”

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?

BR: My first job was with Owen Roizman, ASC. My dad did a movie called “Paint Your Wagon” and the cameraman was Bill Fraker, ASC. The operator was David Walsh and the assistant was Bobby Byrne. I remember hanging out with them that year on the set, in 1968. My dad was the 1st AD. I was 15 years old.  I was aware of the Panavision camera.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on?

BR: I’ve used Panavision my whole career. The first show I used Panavision on was the first official show I shot as a DP, it was called “Detention: The Siege at Johnson High.” I have known Larry Hezzelwood and Phil Radin since I was 20 years old. Larry, Phil and Tracy used to cut cases for me when I was a camera assistant. I’ve known these guys for 35 years. I used to come in to Panavision when it was in Tarzana. I’ve always been a Panavision fan. In fact, when I interviewed to shoot “The X-Files,” the first five years they had been shooting with ARRI cameras in Vancouver. When I went in for the interview, it was this dark office with slatted windows, and big chairs and couches. I didn’t really talk. Michael Watkins did all the talking, because he was the director/producer. They asked me what kind of film I used and I said, “Kodak,” and they asked me what kind of cameras I used and I said, “Panavision.” I told Michael, “I hope I gave the right answers.” Michael got me the job. When the show came to LA, we switched to Panavision, because that was what I requested.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?

BR: It’s one of these things that I never said I wanted to be a cameraman. I always strived to be the best I could be at the time in whatever I was doing, whether it was film, loader, AC or operator. Things were going to unfold when they did, and I happened to work for really great cameramen who gave me the opportunity to move up. I never asked to move up, I was always asked by the cameramen if I wanted to move up. I never had the goal of becoming a DP, and now that I am directing, people have come up to me and asked me if I wanted to do it.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip, operator?

BR: My gaffer who has been with me since the beginning, even before “The X-Files” days, is Jono Kouzouyan, and he’s currently working with me on “Castle” (Daryn Okada, ASC, has been shooting the episodes when I am directing). Tony Sepian, my key grip, has been with me for about 6-7 years, my operator is Mark LaBonge, who has worked with me for about four years, and Dave Eggerstrom, my AC, for about four years. Dave is new to the show this year, but everyone is new on this series. For instance, my B-camera operator was the 1st AC on “Daybreak” and other shows, while some of the crew is still from “The X Files.”

Q: How long have you been working in television?

BR: I started working in television when I became a cinematographer, until then, my whole career was in features: as a 1st AC, 2nd AC, and operator, all I did was features. After my first job in television, I stayed there. I have done 3-4 features during television hiatus.

Q: Have you shot digital? If not, were you asked to shoot digital at any time and what were you arguments for shooting film?

BR: I shot one of the first shows in HD, “Robbery Homicide,” a TV show with 13 episodes that was directed and produced by Michael Mann. We used the F900. I also shot a show called “Faith of my Fathers,” which was HD and I was nominated for an Emmy for that. The decision to shoot digital was Michael Mann’s not mine. It was interesting to shoot HD, because it fit the series, so we planned for that. We did a lot of nights in downtown LA, and Michael was into that concept of using available light and pushing it. “Faith of my Fathers” was shot in New Orleans, and the director Peter Markle made a decision that he wanted to shoot digital. The producers made the decision that all their footage was going to be shot in HD, so the decision was made long before I came onboard. In the last few years, the decision about what format to shoot on is no longer in the hands of the DP; it’s mostly studio-driven. Luckily, on “Castle,” both executive producers are film-oriented, so they fight for it. Rob Bowman was executive producer, and I have worked with him on “The X-Files.” Andrew Marlowe is the creator, executive producer and he is a very film-oriented person.

Q: When shooting “Castle,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?

BR: The actress who plays Nathan’s mom, Susan Sullivan, she’s one of my biggest fans. She was in the series “Dharma & Greg,” so she has been around. It’s much easier to work with actors like her, because they know how the process works. They know everybody is on a schedule and they have to be ready. It’s the best cast I have ever worked with in my life, friendly and professional. We try to light everything from the windows, to create a very natural feel on “Castle.” Everything is a horizontal kind of look, for day looks, everything comes through the window, never on top, ever. It’s always a sidelight and the light is always coming from the reverse side of the camera. It looks better with a dark side facing the camera, so at least one side of the face is not lit. In the apartment, everything comes from a window source, or it’s coming from practicals. It’s never just an arbitrary light.

Q: Are there any particular episodes on “Castle” where you really pushed the envelope on lighting?

BR: The last show we did, the season finale on Season 3, we did some really cool stuff. I was shooting it. We were at an airport, both day and night, with helicopter scenes. We like to use a certain gel, pistachio, on a bebe light, it’s our signature color now.

Q: You have been directing episodes. Do you find you have your mind in both places while directing?

BR: Yes. But it makes my job easier because I know how we lit the set, so I know when I am directing how everything is set up. I think I made Daryn’s life very easy.

Q: What was the transition like from DP to director?

BR: Nathan has threatened from day one to ruin me, but he is a great supporter. Everyone else really likes when I direct. For me, the process of being the cameraman and knowing how everything is lit helps tremendously. It’s a really difficult show to direct when you are a first time director because there is a lot of dialogue, various stage scenes, and a lot of moving. As a DP, I have a huge advantage over others who come in and do not have that background.

Q: Did you want to be a director?

BR: It’s a really good thing right now and I like it because it breaks up the monotony of every day. But I like shooting. I’m in a really great spot right now: I get to direct, and I get to shoot. I try to make this a great working environment, so when new people come in, I tell them they have to fit into our group. They have to adapt to how we work and how we are. My theory is that you have to be a nice person and you have to love what you do. If not, we’ll find someone who wants to be there, and wants to work. We had this type of relationship on “The X-Files,” and we are all still really close friends. I’m still very close with creator/director Chris Carter.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?

BR: The 11:1 is my favorite lens. It does everything. It’s a great lens.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?

BR: It has to be “The X-Files,” it’s the best ever. There will never be another show on TV like it. Cinematically as well as everything else, it was something very special: the crew, the actors, the writing, how we approached it. It was very difficult to do, but it was worth every hour of working on it.

Q: What has been one of the most influential films that you have watched that inspired you to be a cinematographer?

BR: I’ve been lucky enough that I worked with a lot of different people: Michael Chapman, ASC, Owen Roizman, ASC, Adam Greenberg, ASC -- a lot of really good cameramen. So I guess some of it works out. It was amazing, you don’t think about it at the time, you don’t think about who you are working with, but you look back when you are in a situation and you remember when Michael Chapman did this or Owen Roizman did that.

Q: Any advice to today’s cinematographers?

BR: Keep shooting. Shoot as much film as you can.