Tim Suhrstedt, born and bred in Catonsville, has the rare distinction of having shot two prominent pictures opening nationally the same day. "All About Steve" and "Extract" are farces, reflecting Suhrstedt's status as one of the go-to guys in movie comedy. But when he attended Catonsville High, he never thought he'd become a top Los Angeles-based cameraman, let alone one with an industrywide reputation for making comedy work visually.
It was only when he crafted a Super 8 mm short for a cinema appreciation course at Lehigh University that Suhrstedt developed a case of the film bug. He went to work at Maryland Public Television when it still had a unit that shot on 16 mm film. By the time he enrolled in the American Film Institute, he'd set his heart on becoming a feature director of photography. In the 1970s, before Hollywood guilds opened their ranks to up-and-comers and independents, Suhrstedt rose swiftly in the world of nonunion filmmaking. In the 1980s, he became a full-fledged cinematographer.
Suhrstedt's first break in that job brought him back to Baltimore to shoot the original "House on Sorority Row." (The remake, "Sorority Row," opens next week.) Since then he has racked up diverse credits - he won an Emmy for the TV series "Chicago Hope." But the intersection of "All About Steve" and "Extract" proves that Suhrstedt has become one of Hollywood's top comedy guys. His reputation partly rests on a big hit he shot several years ago: a little family movie called "Little Miss Sunshine."
Steve Martin might have proclaimed that "Comedy is Not Pretty," but, over the phone from Los Angeles, Suhrstedt proudly says that with "Little Miss Sunshine," he and the co-directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, proved that comic images could be handsome and expressive.
"There are a lot of comedies that employ a kind of anti-style," says Suhrstedt. "The directors don't want them to look good. But I would ask, did you see 'Tootsie'? Did you see 'Annie Hall'? Moviemakers like Dayton and Faris, and Mike Judge [who made 'Extract'], want you to make their movie look good, to bring out what's great about the cast and the efforts of the crew, to complement the story and create a look that's proper for each scene."
Suhrstedt doesn't mind having been typecast to a degree.
"I think it's simply that if you do something that is successful, people will send you more things like that." (From his flair with roadside and SoCal locations, I'd say he would be great for updates of James M. Cain.) But Suhrstedt says he's "proud of what I do" and enjoys "being around people who both like to joke around and are serious about their work."
Suhrstedt says he had splendid experiences working on "All About Steve" and "Extract." But when he talks, without a shred of blame, regret or bitterness, about the push to give "All About Steve" a more "mainstream, big-studio look," you feel he's nailed exactly what's wrong with the movie. It's an attempt to build a road movie around a self-consciously unconventional heroine, Sandra Bullock's word-obsessed crossword constructor Mary Horowitz, in the most conventional way - with splashy set pieces and a mistaken romance so illogical that it doesn't even play as parody.
Suhrstedt's heart is clearly with Judge's uproarious, authentic "Extract," a movie by a man exploring subjects close to him (factory life and the perils of self-made businessmen). Judge is also a writer-director able to invent on his feet and accept the contributions of actors like Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck - and behind-the-scenes collaborators such as Suhrstedt. Just as Affleck embellished his stoned bartender character's dialogue (he introduces himself as "entrepreneur, spiritualist and healer" - and Suhrstedt thinks Affleck added "healer" to the list), the cinematographer seized on a notion in Judge's script and shot a scene of ridiculous seduction as a burlesque of soft-core porn, complete with some of the most tasteless and rickety zoom-lens shots ever committed to film.
It's the kind of creativity possible only with a moviemaker who appreciates the aesthetic potential of comedy. Suhrstedt's main complaint is that he still must fight the condescending attitudes toward comedy that affect not just the annual voting at the Academy Awards but also the everyday practices of producers, directors and studios. After speaking with him, you take away specific visual comedy do's and don'ts.
* Don't light your movie comedy like a sitcom. "Somewhere along the line, people started to think that the brighter a movie is lit, the funnier everything will be. But when you can see everything on a set, it often isn't very funny."