Life Inside the Frame

Richard Rutkowski

His Gramercy Park apartment comes complete with a northern exposure to the Empire State Building, but it’s not a view Richard Rutkowski enjoys often.
    Whether in Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Paris, Scotland, Japan, or even the house he inherited from his father in Water Mill, he has racked up a lion’s share of frequent-flier miles. As a director and cinematographer, husband, and father, the East Hampton native has had a vagabond existence for the past several years.
    His recent directorial project “The Space in Back of You” will be screened on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Jerome Robbins Theater  at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. The film documents the creative life of Suzushi Hanayagi, who collaborated with Robert Wilson for more than two decades. The Japanese dancer and choreographer adapted and synthesized traditional dance from her country with modern performance art to bring new vision to the forms.
    The film traces their relationship, as well as her individual development, through her performances and the recollections of her colleagues. When Mr. Wilson discovered his friend suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, he traveled to Japan to see her in the facility that cares for her. While recreating her past through archival footage, Mr. Rutkowski also follows Mr. Wilson’s journey and his efforts afterward in putting together a tribute to her at a performance at the Guggenheim Museum in the city. The film had its Japanese premiere in September and was shown in Paris last winter.
    Mr. Rutkowski met Mr. Wilson at Harvard College in 1985 as a freshman when he was cast as an extra in the theater director and designer’s production of  “CIVIL warS.”
    “He cast 25 or 30 extras to do tasks and form tableaus. We moved furniture in and out of scenes,” Mr. Rutkowski recalled at his apartment recently. “At rehearsal one evening he asked if anyone knew how to do an architectural model. I had taken an architecture course and knew how to draft and cut the foam core, so I raised my hand.”
    The next night, Mr. Rutkowski went to where Mr. Wilson was staying in Boston. “We did about everything possible except make a model. He wanted to talk about how the show was going and future work. He wanted to listen to opera. There was a slide talk he needed to deliver and he needed someone to organize the slides.”
    It was obvious that the director required “somebody to stay up very late at night with him while he consumed vodka, and stay clear and present, take notes, and be ready for the next day.” He also needed someone to keep track of all of the projects he worked on simultaneously. Mr. Rutkowski became that person, at least in the summers and on holiday breaks from school. He even made the model, which was for an installation at a dance club in Manhattan, the Palladium, though it was never built.
    Eventually, he helped Mr. Wilson find the location that became the Watermill Center. “It was a good working relationship. It led to a lot of things.” Although Mr. Wilson’s ties and contacts were in the theater and Mr. Rutkowski ended up in film, he stayed in touch with Mr. Wilson and even made a film at the center, “Sunshine Superman,” about Christopher Knowles, an artist who was the librettist for “Einstein on the Beach.”
    Similarly, Mr. Rutkowski eschewed visual arts and more creative pursuits, which were the purview of his father, Casimir Rutkowski, a landscape painter, who could often be seen outdoors capturing the familiar scenes of the South Fork. “My father came to the area a little late compared to the famous painters of the Fairfield Porter or de Kooning generation. He got to know some of them and was drawn into the social circle of Paul Georges.”
    As a child during the 1970s, he found that living in East Hampton and its environs offered the opportunity “to see living legends by accident: Lauren Bacall getting ice cream, Paul McCartney at Gristede’s, or Paul Simon out front of Stephen Talkhouse. So you did not have to imagine having a connection to the arts, it was right there on the sidewalk.” 
    Still, “I wanted to do things that skewed more technical, like being an architect or an engineer. Then in college I made a short film during my sophomore year and I really took to it.” The decision to become a cinematographer initially came from necessity — he needed the work — but also appealed to his techie side. “I had what I felt was a natural penchant for making an image and operating the gear that made that image.”
    Mr. Rutkowski’s credits as a cinematographer and camera operator include work on Neil Burger’s “Interview With the Assassin” and “Limitless,” Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful,” Joel Schumacher’s “The Number 23,” Wes Craven’s “My Soul to Take,” Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” Larry Clark’s “Kids,” and David O. Russell’s “Flirting with Disaster.”
    For Mr. Aronofsky, who is known as a demanding director, he spent days in a tent shooting drug paraphernalia and powder going through straws over and over again, until he got the images that were finally used in the movie. While the camerawork on a film is terribly important, he said, “It’s not everything. What is important is point of view.”
    If the cinematographer, director, producer, writer, and production designer “can look at the material for what it is, source out the clearest and most interesting way to tell that story, and stick to that point of view and not back away from it when times are tough, then you will make something memorable and even something beautiful.”
    Recently, he has crossed over into television production and is the cinematographer for “Boss,” a show set in Chicago starring Kelsey Grammer, for the Starz Network. It was both a practical and aesthetic choice. “Independent film has backed up a bit in the past few years. It was hard to get scripts on good or even mediocre films. At the same time, television was having a massive renaissance fueled by ‘The Sopranos.’ Nontraditional networks like AMC were making shows that looked and felt like films. It was a new way to work and you could get away with mature, adult themes if you packaged it in the right context that was likely to bring the viewer back every week.”
    He is currently looking at new projects in New York City and Los Angeles, where his wife, Betsy, who teaches art and photography, and his eight-year-old stepdaughter, Daisy, are based.
    Mr. Rutkowski was exposed to theater and television production early on in East Hampton. In middle school he was chosen to be a Toy Soldier in a version of “The Nutcracker” at Guild Hall staged by Gwen Verdon with her dance troupe. She taught him how to waltz for a scene at the start of the show. Then in high school, “I hosted the local cable-access show ‘Town Hall Report,’ a simple and fun production emanating right from East Hampton High School under the guidance of a wonderful teacher there, Sal Tocci.”
    Although he was not at first interested in movies, “In about 1980 they shot the film ‘Deathtrap,’ directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, right off of Main Street. From a teacher at the high school I learned that a local guy named Bran Ferren, son of the artists John and Rae Ferren, was the effects technician responsible for the awesome lighting effects sparking from atop a crane in the chilly East Hampton night.”
    He later learned that “Bran was an indifferent and nearly failing student until his English teacher let him write his essay on the then-new technology of lasers. I liked that story then and still do.”