A Day in the Life of Filmmaker and Cinematographer Ellen Kuras

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POV correspondent Kris Wilton spent the day with cinematographer-turned-documentary-director Ellen Kuras at the Sundance Film Festial on Sunday, January 20.

Ellen Kuras is a legendary director of photography who has worked with an impressive array of directors, including Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Michel Gondry on some of the most stunning films of the last twenty years. She’s the unprecedented three-time winner of the Best Dramatic Cinematography award at Sundance — for Swoon (1992), Angela (1995), and Personal Velocity (2002) — and she’s back in Park City in a big way this year with some exciting new projects. She’s here to premiere her directorial debut, the feature-length documentary Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), which was co-produced by POV | American Documentary, and will air on POV in 2008/2009. She is also busy promoting one of the festival’s hottest tickets, Gondry’s latest effort, Be Kind Rewind, which stars Jack Black, Mos Def and Mia Farrow, for which she was the director of photography. (This is Ellen’s third collaboration with Gondry: she also shot his music documentary Block Party and the Academy Award-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

Ellen Kuras being interviewed

Ellen Kuras being interviewed at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

You might think a day in the life of this dynamic, award-winning cinematographer/director would be a non-stop whirlwind of parties and business meetings, but half of this day was actually spent shepherding family and crew members around Park City and worrying whether everyone was having fun. Over the course of the several hours I spent with Ellen, her colleagues and family described a person who is focused and driven, who can juggle multiple projects and get the impossible done, but who is above all, kind, generous and devoted to taking care of the people around her.

At the end of a panel hosted by Women in Film on Sunday afternoon, fellow speaker and actress Patricia Clarkson showed the audience that she was wearing an extra festival badge that Ellen had given her that said “Ellen Kuras.” “How cool would it be to be Ellen Kuras for a day?” Clarkson asked. The answer, I found out after spending some time with her, was “Very exhausting, but very cool!”
Here’s a rundown of a day with Ellen Kuras at Sundance.

7:30 – Ellen is sharing a house with her brother Jeffrey Kuras and sisters Carolyn Landolfo and Pam Kuras (who was the accountant for Nerakhoon) in Park City. As soon as she gets up, she makes coffee for everyone and spends some time chatting with her sisters. She makes sure that everyone knows the plan for the day before getting in her car to pick up Nerakhoon co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath.

10:00 – Ellen and Thavi are interviewed live by the Sundance Channel about Nerakhoon. Following the interview, she goes back to the house to mobilize the troops. Everyone gets into the car and Ellen plays chauffeur, dropping family and friends off on Main Street, the heart of the festival, before rushing onto her next stop.

12:00 – Ellen is a speaker on the Women and Film panel, organized by Women in Film Los Angeles. As soon as she arrives with her friend and collaborator Benny Mouthon (sound mixer for Nerakhoon), she’s swept up in a crowd of media people, publicists, organizers, and other Sundance luminaries. Flashbulbs go off as she patiently answers interview questions and poses for photographs.

Ellen’s co-panelists include actress Patricia Clarkson, directors Amy Redford, Marina Zenovich, Lauren Greenfield and Sharon Maguire, and writer/actress Pamela Cuming. They discuss topics that range from how technology is changing the art of filmmaking, how they balance family and career, their working practices, current and upcoming projects, the unparalleled support Sundance gives filmmakers, and, somewhat obliquely, the special challenges women filmmakers face.

Ellen Kuras with fellow panel members at the Women on Film Panel

Ellen Kuras (center) with fellow panel members (from left): Pam Cuming, Sharon Maguire, Lauren Greenfield and Marina Zenovic.

When Ellen is asked who her mentors are, she cites her father, who taught her to treat everyone with kindness and respect. And her final comments are no surprise to anyone who knows her: she talks about the need to change the way people work with one another on film sets and the importance of treating everyone kindly.

2:00 – Ellen leaves the panel to attend a POV brunch down the street. The brunch is full of familiar faces, including her siblings. Thavi, his wife Mouky, and their daughter Ahmeeta are also there and excited to see Ellen. There are also crew members from Nerakhoon, POV staff, and fellow filmmakers to greet. It’s a wonder that she manages to get anything to eat.
Ellen Kuras  with Nerakhoon co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath's wife, Mouky, and daughter, Ahmeeta

Ellen Kuras with Nerakhoon co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath‘s wife, Mouky, and daughter, Ahmeeta

2:50 – There’s no time to take a break and relax. Ellen’s on the move again, driving family members, friends and collaborators to the Eccles Theater for the premiere of Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. As the film’s director of photography, she makes an appearance onstage during the film’s introduction, but she slips out soon after to meet up with her agents Wayne Fitterman from United Talent Agency, and Missy Malkin from Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Ellen gives Wayne and Missy a ride back to Main Street before heading off to a meeting with her sales agent and publicist to strategize about the Nerakhoon premiere the next day.

After trying to keep up with Ellen for a few hours, I’m exhausted. We part ways, but she has much more planned for the rest of her day. After her meeting, she’ll head back to the Be Kind Rewind premiere for the post-screening Q&A. Then, she wants to go back to the house to spend some time with her family before heading out to see Gondry play live music with Be Kind Rewind‘s composer, Jean-Michel Bernard and Mos Def.

Ellen told me she hoped to get some (much-needed) rest after the performance: the next day would be the premiere of the film she’d been working on for 23 years, Nerakhoon (The Betrayal). For Ellen, Sundance was just getting started.

View more photos of a day with Ellen Kuras on Flickr.
Kris Wilton has written about arts and culture for such publications as Entertainment Weekly, ARTnews, and the Village Voice and is currently senior editor of artinfo.com.

POV Guest Blogger
POV Guest Blogger
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.