On the UL Lafayette campus, inside the Edith Garland Dupré Library, beneath the fluorescent lights, down the carpeted hall, past the endless stacks of books, in one of several small wooden 6-by-6-foot cubicles, Tom Krueger spends his days in front of an Apple PowerBook, writing the script for a movie — the tale of a Lafayette oil executive who pursues his dream while his mother is dying of cancer. Much like his fictional oil tycoon, the accomplished director of photography finds himself at a crossroads in his own life, and both men have staked out Lafayette as the place to finally pursue their own ambitions.
Raised in Berkeley, Calif., Krueger left home at the age of 16 and was taken in by Lowell Bergman, The New York Times and PBS Frontline correspondent whose exposé on the tobacco industry was temporarily censored by CBS’ 60 Minutes while he was a producer at the network. (The backstory was later retold in the 1999 film The Insider, where Al Pacino portrayed Bergman.) At the age of 19, after scraping up $2,000 to join the union and a phone call from Bergman, Krueger landed a job as a camera assistant.
Krueger has since gone on to direct commercials for Acura, MasterCard, Northwest Airlines, Chevrolet, Jeep, Volkswagen, Tylenol, Nissan, American Express and the U.S. Army. He’s shot music videos for U2’s “Original of the Species,” Bob Dylan’s “Cross the Green Mountain,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Lonesome Day” and R.E.M.’s “Leaving New York.” In 2000, he won the Sundance Film Festival’s Cinematography Award for the feature film Committed. And Krueger was the director of photography for the ground-breaking U23D movie, which The New York Times recently wrote “deserves to be called a work of art.”
Through the years, Krueger also cultivated a taste for roots music and dancing and would get his annual fix at Jay Ungar and Molly Mason’s Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in New York. An impromptu front porch jam at his own house outside Woodstock, New York with the Red Stick Ramblers led him to direct the group’s video for “Made in the Shade” and to take up residence in Lafayette.
During a break from writing, The Independent sat down with Krueger in Girard Park and talked with him about his journey to Lafayette and his own tale of how “all roads lead to here.”
Were you interested in film when you were growing up?
Yes. From the time I was probably 15 to 18, we would spend just about every weekend recreating the movie Road Warrior. It was called Toad Warrior. And we didn’t have really much of a script, but we sure did love to film rumbles and fights and car chases. We would literally crash cars. No permits, no nothing. We’d have fight scenes where people were hanging off of roofs of moving cars, and we were all punks. I had black and white hair, and we are all crazy skaters, punks. And we would just do the craziest stuff every weekend and always have the police chasing us constantly. That’s what really got me going. But Lowell Bergman was the ticket to the real industry. He was the way out of there and out of Super 8 home movies and into the industry.
What’s the role of a director of photography?
I’m just another tool in the palette of a director. My job is to interpret their vision from a photographic standpoint, from the mood and the pacing of the project to the visual associations I can help create with character and situation. I can do that with lighting, and I can do it with movement and composition. Those are my tools — color, light, composition and movement. And within that, there’s so many choices I can make which will reinforce characters. When I do a movie, each one of the characters has their own colors. Each one of the locations has its own colors, depending on which character that location is for or what the type of situation is — is it cold, is it warm, is it lonely? If the people are dwarfed by their environment, then I would give them a lot of head room. If they’re feeling claustrophobic, I would pack the frame with stuff that just almost makes them feel like they have to bend over, that they’re in a box. There are a lot of things that people don’t understand, but when they’re sitting there watching a movie they’re going to feel it.
You’ve been involved with music videos for Bob Dylan and R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen. How much control did you have over how those were shot?
I directed and shot the Bob Dylan video, so I had complete control on that one. On the R.E.M. and the Springsteen videos, I was the director of photography, which on a music video means you’re in a very collaborative relationship with the director, but they’re the ones who essentially put the story together and decide what ingredients to put in front of the lens. It’s the director of photography’s job to film it in a cool and interesting way.
The Springsteen piece was an especially powerful experience. We shot it not long after 9/11 in Asbury Park, N.J., which isn’t far from Manhattan, and the whole song is about the survivors’ families and loved ones. So that’s what we were trying to capture, and it was very emotional for us all, even Springsteen. I shot for about two weeks on that video; I think we shot more footage than I have ever shot for any other project. We shot something like 400 minutes of footage for every one minute of the song. So we’re talking 18 hours of footage for a three-minute video.
The Dylan video was very fun because I had actually just come off the Springsteen video, and the record company called me to go shoot some footage of Dylan that they could cut into the film footage from the movie Gods and Generals. Well, that was fine, but I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity to do something cool with Bob Dylan, for crying out loud. I knew that he’s a huge Civil War buff, and we were going to be in Richmond, Va., and there was a very large contingent of Civil War re-enactors. I wrote a treatment for the song, and he went crazy for the idea. So I ended up building that whole encampment in the garbage dump of an old Civil War cemetery. Those re-enactors are so hardcore too — if they aren’t as miserable as the actual Civil War soldiers, then they just aren’t happy. So they got there at 5 in the morning and built that whole camp by hand and worked their asses off just for the love of it. They made me want to do a Civil War movie just to work with them some more.
Are the same principles at play for commercial work as well as music videos?
The role of the cinematographer is very often like playing a game of chess because you have to know much more than anybody else on the set. You have to know what’s coming next and the way in which the coverage of the scene is going to work, especially with the lighting. You may find yourself, lighting yourself into a corner and then you do the master and then you do the close up closer and that person turns around and — boom — suddenly you have no choice but to shoot them in the most unfortunate ugly background with full frontal light, and it’s just going to be terrible. So you really have to plot it out in a way, and that’s where experience comes into it.
If it’s purely visual, like car spots or things like that, then I don’t have to interpret somebody else’s idea. However, when you’re working with a great director, they bring something. They’re a great sounding board. When you’re working with a director whose ideas you don’t agree with, which happens a lot, then your job is more about diplomacy and how to get them to see it your way. It’s why I’m not doing it so much anymore. I’m just tired of the amount of time I have to spend being diplomatic. It just seems like a waste of energy, and I would much rather just be realizing my own visions at this point.
I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. I’m much more interested in character and drama and situation then I am in composition and lighting and movement.
What is your own vision at this point?
I want to make movies. I want to direct movies. That’s my vision.
I’m very excited about a script right now. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and in fact I feel like I’m channelling these ideas more than I am creating them. I feel like I have my finger so much on the pulse of what I’m working on that I just feel like I’m reaching into the ether and grabbing something, rather than creating it. It’s an incredible feeling. It feels bigger than me.
What can you tell me about the script?
Well, it takes place in Lafayette, and it’s about a family whose patriarch is going through a mid-life crisis. He’s an oil executive who lives in River Ranch with his family, and he’s just totally reinventing himself, following his bliss finally, but that’s wreaking havoc in his family. And his mother is dying of cancer and is under hospice care at the house. So it’s a real journey through life, and he’s got kids and the kids are both suffering from the same dilemmas that kids often find themselves suffering through.
But why Lafayette?
I’m just here, and it’s fertile. But now we’re segueing into another question, which is that I came to Lafayette because of the quality of life. The irony is that I was in New York and for years I had been pursuing filmmaking and then over the last couple of years, I began to find music and dance and roots music and a sense of community that was 10 times more interesting and fun and joyful to be around than my film festivals and the incredibly competitive L.A. and New York film world. If you asked me if I’d rather be up at the Dewey Balfa camp or the Ashokan camp or the Cannes Film Festival, I would take camp. It wouldn’t even cross my mind where I’d rather be.
So last summer I thought, I want to dedicate a year of my life to getting better as a musician so I can live the rest of my life as a better musician. So I traded in my car for a minivan, sublet my apartment in Brooklyn and hit the road. I kind of weaved my way through Ohio and down on through Tennessee and all the way down here, because all roads led to here. I knew so many people that lived here, and everybody’s like, “Lafayette! You’ve got to go to Lafayette. It’s where it’s all happening.” So I came down here, and I did the Red Stick Ramblers’ video, almost right when I first got here in October and into November. And I just realized that this community was so generous, so welcoming and so excited to have somebody different. They’re very nurturing and welcoming, and there are a lot of incredibly talented and passionate people — not necessarily in the film world, though they’re coming — but musically, and that inspires me.
So I did the video, and it was such a wonderful collaboration with the community, and I worked with this woman Johanna Divine. She produced it, and I just thought, there’s something here that I never had in New York, which is a supportive and nurturing community, and I’m just inspired in a way that I haven’t been.
Was there a moment that compelled you to move down here or was it just a series of things where you found yourself asking, “What am I doing?”
Three years ago I was practically having a nervous breakdown, and it was totally my own fault. It was because I was focusing on negative energy and the things I didn’t like. Then I just said, “Tom, you’re doing this to yourself,” and I just began to banish bad thoughts out of mind, and I began to focus on and pursue the things that gave me joy, like camp and the community. I would just have moments of elation that I never had for years, these moments in camp where I would practically cry with joy. So I thought I want more of that in my life. The joy is a really wonderful place from which to live. In New York, people are in a grind. They’re in a very myopic state of mind most of the time, and they don’t experience enough joy — at least I didn’t when I was there, and I didn’t know too many people that did. So I wanted to come to where I was feeling joy. So really it’s a pursuit of that feeling of joy and elation.
How did the idea for the Red Stick Ramblers’ video come about?
They were playing there [at Ashokan] about two years ago maybe, and they came over to my house, and I met them on my front porch just at a jam. That was new to me, and of course they were just tearing it up, and I had probably had a few more [drinks] than I should have. I play harmonica pretty well; that’s one thing that I can keep up on. Most people’s eyes roll when they see a harmonica come out, but I can definitely keep up, and I have somewhat of a sense of etiquette, not to just sit there and wail the whole time like most harmonica players do. So I got to playing with them, and I went to Ashokan and there they were, and we became great friends.
And so I make videos, and I don’t think they quite understood that. They may have seen some of my work and they were like, “Yeah, I guess he does make videos, and we’ll trust him. Why not?” In fact, Eric Frey said to me at the end of the shooting day, “So this is what you do? I thought you were just Tom always at the jams and just hanging out, but you actually do this.” It was actually a great feeling because it was a chance for me to jam and to do what I do best. Those guys are incredible at what they do and this is what I do well, or at least what I like to think I do well. So it was my chance to jam.
In approaching any project, and particularly the “Made in the Shade” video, my approach is to make my weakness my strength. One of the main weaknesses I had was this vision I had of doing this dance video with all of this acrobatic, over-the-top dancing. But the location is this place called the Whirlybird, and it’s an old train depot in Opelousas, and the ceilings were just incredibly low. So I was really frustrated with it. How was I going to get all of these acrobatic dancers to do all of their stuff in this low-ceiling place?
Then I was talking with Dirk Powell at the Black Pot Festival and I was telling him this. The next thing you know, we were like, “Let’s tear the roof off of the thing!” We were pretty lit up. Then we went to Jim Phillips who owns the place and we were like, “Jim, we’re going to tear the roof off of that place!” And he was pretty lit up too, so he was like “OK!” But then I sat down, and I figured out how we could actually do it. So now that’s sort of the main premise of the video, literally raising the roof.
How did the U23D film come about?
I made a video for them, and then ironically the director of the film [Catherine Owens] came out to my house I had built up in the Woodstock area. Before you knew it, we were talking about what she did, and she did all the background visuals for the tour and the band. She knew I had worked with a director named Mark Pellington, who the band had worked with and she had the opportunity to direct one of the band’s videos, so she called me. The band really liked it, and the next thing you know they’re asking me to shoot this 3-D concert movie.
What was different?
Honestly, composition was something we thought about a lot, and then the format. This was an IMAX project, not a TV project. In IMAX, when someone’s standing in a full shot, their head is still 6 feet tall, and there’s a lot of other things to consider. And 3-D works best when it really emphasizes the three-dimensional lighting. So I would emphasis depth as much as I possibly could, both in composition and in light.
How many concerts did y’all shoot?
It was a month-long project, and we shot eight concerts. We watched two concerts in a small town in Mexico. It was very strange. It was just north of Mexico City. They probably had only 40,000 people there, which for them is dingy. It was their chance to warm up because they were just starting up again. Then they hit Mexico City, but we only shot with two cameras for two nights, then we went to Brazil to shoot with two cameras again for two nights. Then we went to Chile and shot one camera one night, and then we went to Buenos Aires and shot eight cameras for two nights. And one night we shot about five cameras with no audience, and we shot as much as we could of close-ups. The band always hit their marks. They pretty much know where they’re going, and of course they never really lose sync with their background visuals and even the lighting programs and everything because they’re all designed to work with the songs. They’re very tight, and they’re very professional about what they do and how they do it.
Then we shot two more shows in Australia six months later with just two cameras, but they didn’t end up using any of it. We thought we needed more crowd stuff, but the crowd was on Thorazine compared to the Argentineans who were just going bananas. They were just on fire the whole time.
The cameras were a challenge. They’re actually two cameras side by side. The technology was so new that they were really like Frankenstein rigs, some of them. It’s a butchering of technology. The other director of photography was Peter Anderson, the inventor of the technology, and he was always in calculus mode. He was into the heavy technology and making sure these things worked. I don’t think either one of us could have done this show without the other. I don’t think he had time to do any of the actual camera plotting and the diplomacy of the plotting. That’s how I came into it, how to get the cameras where we needed them. I was calling the operators and really working with them. He was choreographing the 3-D, and I was choreographing the look and interfacing with all of the lighting designers and all that stuff.
So you didn’t have a lot of time to hang out and drink with the band?
Well, actually I did. I was very lucky. I got to stay in their hotels and fly on their plane. It was awesome.
What are those guys like?
They’re amazing. Absolutely amazing.
No super-egos involved?
No, not at all. You can tell that they’ve got their hands in a lot of pies, and they’re doing everything from major real estate deals to solving world hunger. They’re incredibly generous with the people that work with them. For the most part, the family they’ve created has a strong sense of loyalty.
They’re rock gods. They’re not trying to prove anything anymore. But the secret that they have learned that most other people don’t get is that with being generous, the more you give, the more you get. Bono would say some of the nicest things to me about my work, and all of them would. It would just fill me with such satisfaction and joy. Whereas I could work with other people who might not even talk to me.
What’s your role with UL Lafayette now?
On the [Ramblers] video, I called the university and said I’m doing a video for a local band, and I know you have a film department here and maybe there are some students and some gear and maybe I can provide some classes or something in exchange for your help — because we had no money. They thought about it and then they offered help and assistance. They offered me an artist-in-residence position which is beneficial for both of us. I have access to student facilities, and I’m getting more work done here in the library then I can possibly get done at home, and I’m teaching some workshops and visiting classes.
Where did the idea for your story for your script come from? Is there a nugget of truth to it?
It’s more about what fascinates me. It’s evolved. It started off as a movie about psychics. That was the nugget of the idea. Then I realized that it was much more interesting to me for people following their bliss and self-realization.
And this is a very rich culture. It’s American, and it’s not L.A. or New York. It’s America, and it’s unique, with this rich Cajun culture. There’s a movie that came out recently which I won’t name, but it was a big movie about down here, and everyone of my friends said, “Oh there’s another movie about a bunch of Cajun hillbillies living in the swamps. Why can’t they do something that’s really about people living here? And why does it always have to be a cliché about the swamps?” The reason that happens is because those people don’t know the culture. All they know is swamps and Spanish moss and cypress trees.
So is your film a drama or a comedy?
Drama-dy. It’s like comedy in the way that Terms of Endearment was funny. One person trying to realize his dream while his mother is dying of cancer is really hard, and that’s essentially the gist of it.
What’s your timeline for the film?
I hope to have a first draft by the end of March and spend April tweaking and going out at the end of April to producers. Hopefully, we’ll be shooting here next fall. I’m looking forward to getting production running.
Did the tax incentives the state’s offering for film productions have any appeal for you?
Yeah, it did. This is now probably going to be a multi-million dollar project. I don’t think I’m going to have much problem convincing big producers to want to work here and to take advantage of the incentives. And I don’t see this as being a big studio picture in that we’re going to be spending a lot of time on stages. We’re going to be on location and the only challenge here is crew — like technicians and sound people and lighting people and grips and gear. Does it all have to come out of Baton Rouge or Shreveport or Houston? And do we have to put everybody up and where? Those are the kind of production questions producers will be concerned with. But you know, as far as I’m concerned, the generosity of the local community will offset other costs that they would incur if they were in a more film-centric community.
We hear a lot these days that Hollywood’s coming to town. The film industry’s taking off in Shreveport and to some degree in Baton Rouge. Are you that Hollywood guy?
I am not the type of Hollywood guy that I think has been coming to town so far. This is not a film I’m trying to churn out for foreign TV markets. I feel that the film that I’m going to make is a film I want to watch and that my friends will want to watch. It’s going to be universal in its themes but very specific to everything people are dealing with here and elsewhere. So the truth is my film could take place in other places just as easily, but I am very interested and passionate about the local culture. So I’m looking forward to using that to give depth to the story. It’s going to be a real story.
I’m much more interested in exploring the human condition and what it means to be human. As bold as this may sound, I would like to make films that help people navigate their own way through life. I think that’s what life and our culture are missing now. We don’t have modern mythology. We don’t have rites of passage. We don’t know what to look for to help us find our way. I think that capitalism and commercialism have corrupted our mythologies, and the myths that they are creating now are the illusions that we’re inadequate unless we have something. So we spend our whole lives trying to live up to some ideal that they’re selling us, and sometimes people never realize that. I would love to try to create stories that will help navigate beyond that and to open our eyes and realize that life is not just about getting the next hippest thing.
And that’s why I think this community is so interesting. They’re pursuing their roots music and their culture which has not yet been corrupted by commercialism. Maybe some day they’re going to go, “Hey, it’s hip to be Cajun and into roots music and doing the Eunice two-step,” and they’re going to run with it, and they’re going to make every one else in the world feel inadequate. Then it’s going to get corrupted.
It’s almost like the double-edged sword of the Grammys. Does it mean that now the Lost Bayou Ramblers are going to be more competitive with the Pine Leaf Boys? Are people now more competitive than they are nurturing? Sure, people are a little bit competitive, that’s kind of natural. But I hope that people still remain nurturing and supportive of each other instead of losing touch with that and becoming more competitive.
Why are the Grammys a double-edged sword?
The good part of the Grammys is that it brings more national awareness and pride and money. People can make a little more money and get people interested and they can charge more and get bigger tour dates and go more places and people will become aware and that’s great. The other side is that it becomes competitive — Terrance Simien is better than the Pine Leaf Boys or the Lost Bayou Ramblers? Then people might say, “What did Terrance do that made him win that didn’t get us to win?” He got a lot of notoriety and he’ll probably get a lot of increased sales because of it, so are they going to be like, “Hmmm, maybe we need be a little more …” That’s how pop music is created. The last thing that anybody would hope is that this becomes pop and people begin to try to emulate what sells.
What compels you? When you get up in the morning, what’s at work?
Contributing and realizing my own trajectory. I do believe that we have been given certain opportunities and skills to do something, whether it’s to play music or make movies. I feel like I’ve spent all of my life up to now honing my craft, and I want to realize that. Like I said before, I feel like I’ve got my finger on the pulse of something that’s much bigger than me. I just happen to be in the right place in the right time with my antennas up. I’ve already gone too far down this road, the door’s open, the train is leaving, and I’m on it and I can’t stop it now.
The real reason I’m here is that I feel like I’m surrounded by other incredibly talented people, from Dirk Powell to Joel Savoy and all the Ramblers and Chas Justus and all these people that are incredibly talented. They just inspire me, and I want to be a part of that stew of art that I think that’s coming out of here. I think there’s a Renaissance that’s taking place in this community, and I just want to be a part of it in my own unique way.
But I get worried about Hollywood coming to Lafayette. I know what the mandate of those projects are. I’ve worked on countless horror movies. They’re trying to make a product for as cheap as they can, and they’re going to sell it out in the international markets for as much as they can, which is totally understandable. But in the process they might use the name Hollywood and the fact it’s a movie to ingratiate themselves with people, but then the people are going to end up feeling burned and abused. I don’t want to bring any trouble for these companies and make it sound like people are going to get burned, but I’ve just seen it before. If you look at L.A. or New York or any of these other places, they can’t get what they need in those places because everybody looks at them like, “There’s no way I’m going to let you on my property with 80 people and tear the place apart and leave without fixing anything,” which is what tends to happen on low-budget films. So I worry about that. I want to be able to make a film so that when people do give and become a part of it, they can say, “I worked on this movie and look at it. It’s critically acclaimed and may really go somewhere, and it’s dealing with subjects I’m proud to be a part of, not movies about zombies eating alligators in the swamps.” Whatever. I don’t know. I might be really fooling myself. Maybe people would actually rather see an alligator/zombie movie.