Giuseppe Rotunno: “It’s Like Being a Painter”

Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Rotunno

In 1966, two years before he began his famed collaboration with Federico Fellini, Giuseppe Rotunno became the first non-American to be invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers. Thirty-three years later, when the ASC honored Rotunno with its International Award, Ron Magid interviewed him for a lively profile that ran in the March 1999 issue of American Cinematographer. Rotunno passed away on Sunday at the age of ninety-seven, and the magazine is currently planning to “honor his memory both online and in print.” For now, we have Magid’s anecdote-rich conversation with the humble man who worked with some of the giants of European and American cinema.

Born and raised in Rome, Giuseppe “Peppino” Rotunno was seventeen when his father died, forcing him to find work. He landed a job in the photography lab that the renowned Bragaglia brothers—Futurist photographer Anton Giulio, actor Arturo, and director Carlo Ludovico—were running at Cinecittà Studios. It was Arturo who sensed the talent in Peppino and lent him a Leica. A weekend hobby led to jobs as a stills photographer, and eventually, as an assistant to camera operators. By the early 1940s, he was working as a director of photography on short documentaries.

Rotunno’s first big break came on the set of Roberto Rossellini’s The Man with the Cross, shot in 1942 and released the following year. With one red and one green gel, the wily camera operator solved a problem Rossellini was having with a battle sequence. “After that, Rossellini started to talk to me, and began giving me a little more importance at work,” Rotunno recalled. But just months later, with the Second World War raging, he was drafted and sent to Greece to man cameras alongside war reporters. Captured by the Germans and then freed by the Americans, Rotunno returned to a decimated country. Jobs were few and far between.

It wasn’t until 1949 that he landed a job as an assistant to Leon Shamroy, who was shooting Henry King’s Prince of Foxes. “That set, for me, was really a university,” said Rotunno. He struck up a friendship with one of the film’s stars, Orson Welles, and a few years later, they began working together on a story about a small town in postwar Italy being taken over by a Hollywood production. But Operation Cinderella never really got off the ground.

Rotunno’s work as a camera operator on Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) and Terminal Station (1953) led to his becoming an assistant to cinematographer G. R. Aldo, who was shooting Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) when he was killed in a car wreck. Visconti replaced Aldo with Robert Krasker, but the Italian director and English DOP failed to hit it off, and Visconti asked Rotunno to take over. “In certain ways, Visconti was my father in my job,” Rotunno told Magid. “I had that relationship for work, for life, forever.”

When Stanley Kramer saw Visconti and Rotunno’s second collaboration, Le notti bianche (1957), he hired Rotunno to shoot On the Beach (1959). By this point, Rotunno was becoming known for his expertise in lighting female icons such as Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida. Working with Marlene Dietrich on Sam Taylor’s The Montecarlo Story (1956) posed a challenge. “When she could not feel the warmth of the light on her face, she believed that she wasn’t getting enough light,” said Rotunno. “To gain her confidence, I did some tests alone with her before we started shooting. I tried for a simple crosslight on her face, because she needed it then. When I showed her the tests, she was very happy, and she made big publicity for me; she said, ‘He is a genius!’ Then everybody looked for the genius.”

After Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and the 1962 omnibus film Boccaccio ’70, Visconti and Rotunno turned to The Leopard (1963), whose elaborate banquet sequence involved the lighting, and between takes, the snuffing out of a thousand candles. In 1967, Rotunno shot Visconti’s Camus adaptation The Stranger and all five segments of The Witches—Visconti’s, De Sica’s, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s, Mauro Bolognini’s, and Franco Rossi’s.

Rotunno first worked with Fellini on yet another omnibus film, Spirits of the Dead (1968), before they made the first of seven full features together, Fellini Satyricon (1969), which Rotunno called “a subterranean dream.” They made a film about Rotunno’s hometown, Roma (1972), and another about Fellini’s, Rimini, with Amarcord (1973). Casanova (1976) was “the most difficult film that I made with Fellini,” said Rotunno, “really heavy to do, and frankly, it is my favorite.”

Rotunno shot nearly eighty features before his last one, Anna Maria Tatò’s Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, in 1997. He worked with Lina Wertmüller on three films, and shot another three with Mike Nichols. His filmography includes films by Robert Altman (Popeye), Alan J. Pakula (Rollover), Richard Fleischer (Red Sonya), Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Sydney Pollack (Sabrina), and Dario Argento (The Stendhal Syndrome).

Outside of Italy, Rotunno’s crowning achievement is surely his work on Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), which scored him his only Oscar nomination. Revisiting the film in 2007 for American Cinematographer, Jim Hemphill noted that Rotunno “alternates between high stylization and gritty reality: the fantasy sequences are as elaborate as anything from MGM’s heyday, but the opening ‘On Broadway’ number plays like a documentary on the process of casting a stage musical.” Rotunno once told Lee Kline, our technical director, that working with Fosse was “the dream of my life.” It was “like working with five directors at once, but without the problems of working with so many.” Rotunno always found it “difficult to explain my work,” he told Magid, “but it’s like being a painter. I think painters feel something inside through the paints and the brush as they put their ideas on a canvas. That is also what I do.”

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