Peer Review: Tom Krueger
Table of Content director/cinematographer Tom Krueger talks us through some of the influences on his varied career, from working with artists like Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, U2, REM, and David Bowie, to how having a director for a sister can have a profound impact.
Who are three contemporaries that you admire, and why?
I’m a huge fan of Alejandro Iñárritu, and the incredibly beautiful, poignant, and often very-subtle way he captures the essence of the human experience, with films like Birdman and Babel, and his commercials for Nike Proctor and Gamble’s Olympic campaign. Seemingly everything he does just cuts right to the heart of what it means to be alive, and his camera is always in the right place at the right time – effortlessly naturalistic.
Another director I love is Swedish-born Ruben Östlund, who directed the features Force Majeure and The Square, two brilliant films with complex, three-dimensional characters who must navigate not only the mundane day-to-day human experience, but also the incredibly compelling real-life dilemmas they face. His work never fails to move me to the core.
Every director is making countless choices every minute of every day
Spike Jonze is another filmmaker who has excelled in both commercial and feature realms with Her and Adaptation. His stylistic choices are superb and the performances he gets from actors are always spot-on.
Above: Work from Alejandro Iñárritu, Ruben Östlund, and Spike Jonze.
Every director is making countless choices every minute of every day – from what the characters are wearing, where they live, and how they talk, to choices around lenses, lighting, and how the camera moves. So many decisions and choices, all day every day. So, when a director fully understands what they’re trying to say, from the overarching themes, right down to what any given scene or beat is about, that’s when the whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not always going to be a visually arresting shot, unless that’s what is called for, but with a great director, it will always be the most compelling, most appropriate choice that carries the viewer into a much deeper understanding of life, especially their own life.
In other words, once you know the material well, inside and out, then you can listen to your gut.
Your breadth of work is pretty wide - what do you like most about the work that you do?
I feel very fortunate that I am both a director and a cinematographer. Each of these roles is a major aspect of the filmmaking process. Taking on both roles can be a lot, but over the years, cinematography has become more second nature for me, leaving me with more brain RAM to focus on the direction.
Preparation is everything.
I just love all the choices that both the director and the cinematographer must make. From how to cover a scene, to all the minutiae that makes characters more three-dimensional. There’s so much to consider, so many options available. You really do have to know what you're trying to say, or you will quickly become lost. Preparation is everything.
Above: U2's 360° Tour visuals, created by Krueger.
What was your journey to becoming a director, particularly one specializing in music projects?
As a fourth grader, I remember seeing the home movies of my best friend. His father made little fairytale shorts where my friend and his sister would magically appear and disappear on screen. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and my fascination with the power of film just grew from there. At age 16, I moved into another friend's house whose father was Lowell Bergman, the investigative journalist portrayed by Al Pacino in The Insider. Lowell soon became my mentor, and by 19, I was trained as a film loader and joined the IA as a camera assistant. This allowed me to work with Lowell for 60 Minutes. By age 20, I had moved to NYC and just threw myself into the fast-moving water of New York indie filmmaking.
By 25, I had bought an Arri 16mm camera and began shooting music videos – hundreds of them – for artists such as Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, U2, REM, David Bowie, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, and many others.
All directors need to have a deep and thorough understanding of the craft, not only the technical aspects of filmmaking; but also, more importantly, the story that they’re trying to tell.
That deep immersion in shooting and directing music videos led me to some pretty interesting jobs down the road. I was lucky enough to shoot U2 in 3D IMAX for their Vertigo tour, and they were happy enough with that to hire me to design the video aspect of their 360° Tour a few years later. That led to One Direction in 3D. I am also a musician in my spare time, primarily playing the fiddle anywhere and everywhere I can, so music is just in my blood.
What’s not to love?!
What is one thing all directors need?
I think all directors need to have a deep and thorough understanding of the craft, not only the technical aspects of filmmaking; but also, more importantly, the story that they’re trying to tell. What are they trying to say? I can’t stress enough the need for serious preparation. The more prep, the easier it will be when faced with the millions of choices and decisions one has to make all day long.
Another important aspect of directing, and often underappreciated, is how best to communicate with actors. They’re going to have many questions about their role and their character, and what you say to them can really make or break a performance.
Using verbs rather than adjectives is a good example: instead of saying “be happy” or “be excited,” which is basically asking them to indicate an emotion, using verbs like “make your friend cry,” or “get them to pick up that phone” puts their attention on the other actors, rather than themselves, and gives them a clear, external goal to accomplish.
Above: Stanley Kubrick, on set on The Shining.
Who was the greatest director of all time? Why?
There have been so many incredible directors, many of whom have revolutionized the craft, but I might have to say that Stanley Kubrick is at, or near the top, of that list. The breadth of his understanding of all the various aspects of filmmaking was unrivalled. And if he wasn’t one of the greatest directors of all time, he would most certainly be one of the greatest cinematographers. He literally invented the super speed lens with Zeiss, as well as the Steadicam with Garrett Brown.
Did you have a mentor? Who was it?
I’ve had many great mentors throughout my life and career. I guess growing up without the presence of a father forced me to search out fathers/mentors wherever I went. One of the first was Lowell Bergman, who I mentioned earlier. He opened the first doors into the industry for me as a teenager, and I never looked back.
The breadth of [Stanley Kubrick's] understanding of all the various aspects of filmmaking was unrivalled.
As I worked my way through the ranks of the camera department, I had the good fortune to assist some great cinematographers, like Oscar-winning Darius Wolksi, or the great documentary DP Don Lenzer. These mentors, and many others, have shown me how to better understand the world around us, what to look for, and how best to capture its many subtleties with a camera.
Above: Trailers for Manny and Lo and Committed, feature films from Krueger's sister, Lisa.
I’ve also been lucky enough to shoot for great directors like Jim Jarmusch, Mark Pellington, and Errol Morris, each of whom have their own unique vision and are constantly pushing the boundaries of the craft.
My sister, writer/director Lisa Krueger, has likely had the most profound impact on my life.
But I have to say that my very own sister, writer/director Lisa Krueger, has likely had the most profound impact on my life. I’ve shot several films for her, Manny and Lo (Scarlett Johansson) and Committed (Heather Graham, Casey Affleck), and written several others with her. How lucky am I to have a big sister who’s a great filmmaker in her own right??!! She not only taught me so much about the craft of filmmaking, but also had a huge hand in shaping the person I’ve become.
What’s changing in the industry that all directors need to keep up with?
As directors, keeping up with the latest tools and techniques is invaluable. While a good story will always be a good story, the language we use to capture that story is what it’s all about. Audiences carry with them the associations they make as they watch the latest movies and television, and as filmmakers, we need to be aware of this constantly evolving language, so we can better connect with viewers and tell the stories we are hoping to tell.