Zoran Veselic left us this summer, but anyone who ever worked with or met him will carry deep and wonderful memories forever forward.
by Pauline Rogers
“In 1983, when I landed in New York with two small suitcases, I looked up at the towering buildings and said to myself, ‘What have I done?’” Zoran Veselic recalled when being interviewed for his 2012 Society of Camera Operators (SOC) Lifetime Achievement Award. Veselic was at the top of his game in the Croatian filmmaking community – and all over Europe. He knew everyone – actors, directors, crews – and everyone liked to hear his endless stories. So why, still in his 30s and able to ride the crest for as long as he wanted, did he take such a risk?
Those who knew Veselic best say it had always been a dream of his to move to America. In fact, one of his first jobs in New York City was driving for a limousine company. It was natural – he loved to drive. One day he got a call to drive for David Letterman. Of course, the two began talking – Veselic was at ease with famous people – and he told Letterman he’d come to the States to get in the film business. Letterman liked him so much, he would always request him as his driver. He even tried to get Veselic into the Union as a camera operator on his show. Unfortunately, that didn’t work.
But what did was meeting Stefan Czapsky, ASC. Their first job together was Vampire’s Kiss. Ten movies later, they’d been through just about everything. Over his 40-plus years as a camera assistant, Veselic pulled focus on some of the most difficult shots one could ever imagine. His favorites? The long-distance run in Prefontaine, “on a 1200-millimeter lens, really close,” he recalled for the SOC. “It was difficult because you can’t run an actor to death – you have to be there,” he explained.
Another memory was working with Harrison Ford on The Fugitive. The two connected well, and Ford relayed his idea for a difficult chase sequence, asking the grips for a piece of sash cord. The actor would hold one end just out of frame and the other would be at the camera on the dolly. As Ford moved, it helped the two keep the same distance from each other – making it a bit easier for Veselic to focus. Although mortified that he was disturbing an actor, Ford insisted on helping Veselic – it was that kind of human touch that Zoran Veselic inspired.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, after hearing of Veselic’s passing from their mutual friend, Eric Steelberg, ASC, director Jason Reitman summed up how this self-effacing man with a passion for life (fast cars and tennis were just a few of his off-set interests) influenced movies we all love. “Zoran lived amongst an elite few. Desired by every cinematographer. Booked for years in advance. To hear him speak for the first time, you might think Zoran was related to Gru from Despicable Me. He seemed to almost delight in his own Croatian approach to English, though his vocabulary was equally dominated by curious eyebrows that raised if he thought you were screwing with him.”
In the EW interview, Reitman recalled a story late into the production of Up In The Air. “We had a small scene in which George Clooney had an apartment key duplicated for Vera Farmiga. We needed an actor to operate the key grinder. When I told George that we were casting Zoran, he lit up. ‘He’s perfect!’ When I wrapped Zoran’s close-up, the crew applauded. Zoran leaned past the camera and asked his 2ndAC, ‘How was the focus?’”
Operator Philippe Carr-Forster has equally sweet memories.“It was my first A-camera operating job,” he remembers. “I arrived at the pre-light and asked an immaculately dressed fellow pushing a shopping cart full of cases if he knew where I could find Zoran, who had been hired as my focus puller. I was a little taken aback when this well-dressed gentleman announced, ‘I am Zoran.’ At the time, he was still calibrating lenses in metric measurements. Out of necessity, this soon changed. What never changed was Zoran’s practice of being one of the first crew members to arrive in the morning; then, after reading TheNew York Times, he made sure his camera package was 100 percent ready for the day’s work – the consummate professional.”
Colin Anderson, SOC, first met Veselic in 2004 on Little Black Book. He immediately recognized a professionalism and ability that never wavered, even in the most difficult circumstances.
“In 2012 we found ourselves on the set of Argo,” Anderson recounts. “I tend to stretch a lot on films, and that comes from Zoran on Argo. He would give me lessons between setups and I can honestly say I could never lift my leg as high as he could! My last film with him was Silence in 2016. I now realize that was five precious months in Taiwan. Who better to have at your side in lashing rain, mountains, and mud than Zoran?”
For assistant Beka Venezia, who met Veselic as a PA on Men in Black 2, it was his precision, innovative nature, and extreme dedication that has influenced her throughout her career – moving from Veselic’s loader to his second. “He was so cute. (Can I say that?),” she recalls. “With his little granny glasses and his slight Croatian accent. Most of the gear he had given pet names, such as Clammy the clamshell monitor, Steely his steel tape measure. After a hard shot, he’d look over the granny glasses and whisper the funniest of things. Life on set with Zoran was silly and funny and felt like family, all the while upholding the highest of camera assisting standards. You knew you had to be on point with your job, and you wanted to because you were working for him and he was the best.”
“Family was important to him,” recalls Matthew Moriarty, SOC. “Back in the infancy of our relationship, we were in the marshes of Beaufort, South Carolina, getting our butts kicked on a really tough movie. I got a call my uncle had died, and I wanted to fly back for the funeral. I thought it would cost me that job since they’d have to fly someone else out to replace me. Three days later, to my utter astonishment, the production office called to book my return flight and get me back on the job, as Zoran had held my spot on the crew. That phone call was one of my greatest memories.
“When we were doing the first Spider-Man, I was Zoran’s 2nd AC,” Moriarty continues. “We had a day coming up with a lot of moving parts. So, I went to our producer, Ian Bryce, and asked for a one-hour pre-call. Ian’s a wonderful guy, but he pretty much laughed at me. I wandered back to Zoran, having completely failed. Unfazed, Zoran went to Ian. He came back all smiles. We got the pre-call! I found a moment to get back with Ian and asked, ‘Just for my own learning, can you tell me what was different about the way Zoran asked for the pre-call and the way I did it?’ His answer – ‘I don’t know how to say no to Zoran!’”
There isn’t a cinematographer in Hollywood who can’t recall a “Zoran” moment. As Michael Chapman, ASC, recalls: “He was almost supernaturally good at his job. We were shooting a scene from The Fugitive in the lobby of a large office building in Chicago. There was only the existing light, and the stop can’t have been more than 2.8. Harrison Ford was trying to escape from Tommy Lee Jones. Harrison was improvising, and the Steadicam operator was following along as best he could. Without any preparation, Zoran managed to keep it all in focus. I had been a focus puller and I can truly say that I don’t know how the hell he did it!”
After ten films with Veselic, Don Burgess, ASC, has many stories about his professionalism and understated personality. But it’s the Cast Away shoot (2000) that comes immediately to mind. “It was difficult because we were at sea so much of the time,” Burgess recalls. “We had a camera on a crane arm on a barge with Tom [Hanks] on the raft. Two floating objects – impossible for a focus puller – unless you have the feel like Zoran did. When Bob Zemeckis yelled, ‘Cut! Do we have it?’ we looked at Zoran and asked, ‘You good?’ We got that big smile, and a ‘Nailed it.’”
Burgess recounts another moment when Hanks’ character paddles the raft he’d made through the surf. “The waves were like bars of a jail keeping us away from the island,” Burgess relates. “The raft was attached to a skiff, so it could motor through the surf. The camera boat motor was dead and taking on water. I turned to Zoran and told him to meet me on the ‘high side,’ and he could jump into safety. He nodded. I walked away. Then I heard, ‘One more question. What’s the high side?’ He was always there to bring things into perspective, no matter how stressful.”
Rodrigo Prieto, AMC, ASC, met Zoran Veselic on a commercial in 2005. None of the focus pullers he knew were available – so he asked Production for a recommendation. Upon first meeting, Prieto knew he’d struck gold. No matter how he moved the camera, Veselic nailed it – the start of a deep personal and professional relationship. “One of Zoran’s favorite sayings was ‘icy calm!’ when things got difficult,” Prieto recalls. “And on one specific occasion, the icy-calm mantra was especially useful!”
It was during the shooting of Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, where Prieto and Veselic were inside an enclosure with a huge male lion, shooting over its shoulder onto the actors’ faces outside the fence. “The only thing separating us from the lion was a nearly invisible wire, which the lion thought was electrified, but, in fact, it wasn’t,” Prieto reveals. “We must have been six feet away from the lion – Zoran would know the exact distance, of course – and as I was looking through the camera’s eyepiece, I saw the lion turn and look in our direction with what appeared to me like a hungry expression! At least I had a big camera between the lion and myself. But Zoran must have looked like a nice meal. He remained ‘icy calm,’ and the lion got bored with us and looked away.”
Prieto says Veselic was truly in love with filmmaking. “He somehow connected to an actor’s performance and the camera movement at a deep level, where he could experience what they were feeling and adjust the focus accordingly,” the DP offers. “He seemed to be able to predict how they would move and the rhythm of their movement.”
Such deep connections extended to every cinematographer Veselic worked with, regardless of gender or age. In her tribute, Rachel Morrison, ASC (who met Veselic on Cake), admits that she first approached their relationship with a bit of ageism. “Who knew that five years and three movies later, I’d be the one trying to keep up with him!” she laughs.
The two called each other “Bubelah” but couldn’t remember when that started. The respect was unparalleled. “Zoran would curate his team to each DP and even the directors he worked with,” Morrison shares. “When I hired him on Black Panther, he asked me about Ryan [Coogler] and then set about choosing the best crew to support us both. He wasn’t just interested in the technical ability, it was almost as if he was setting people up on a date or selecting the right wine to pair with dinner.
“And Zoran would curate your lenses the same way,” Morrison continues. “When I shot with G-series anamorphic on Cake, he must have tried out three of each focal length before he had selected the perfect batch for me. Which, I’m sure, drove Panavision crazy.
“He would let me know when I handled a tricky political situation with poise and grace, often saying how proud he was of me. And he would also let me know how I could be better. He’d whisper in my ear, ‘Don’t you think that move could be smoother?’ or ‘C’mon Bubelah, you can do better than that.’ Sometimes he’d whisper to me, ‘He’s overacting. Should we tell the director he needs to tone it down?’”
Morrison, like so many others, says she loved hearing Veselic’s stories.
“I would grill him about working with [Tim] Burton on Edward Scissorhands or Marty [Scorsese] on The Wolf of Wall Street. We would gather in the truck with a drink and talk about older films. On more than one occasion he reminded me that he had been pulling focus as long as I’d been alive. But it was never patronizing. It was simply a testament to his experience and love of the craft.”
According to his recent 2ndAC, Craig Bauer, SOC, the one sentiment that emerges from everyone’s memory ties back to something that happened at the reception after Veselic’s funeral.
“Z loved telling stores, and he was great to listen to, particularly if you know his distinctive speaking voice,” Bauer recalls. “It’s a voice that everyone who ever met him loves to imitate. Even those who might have only worked with him for a week can’t help but slip into their impersonation of Zoran when retelling something he might have said.
“And those of us who have known him for years,” Bauer adds, “all have our own unique, well-rehearsed, and some quite uncanny impressions – that we’d do right in front of him, quoting him back to himself. It’s endearing, and he knew that. So we’re at this reception, standing around telling stories about Z and falling into our Z voices. I go to tell a story but pause because I’m about to use that voice, and I’m suddenly (and for the first time since I first met him) uncomfortable about doing it. Is it disrespectful? Is it disloyal to his memory to not do it? And, after a moment, I sort of work out that this voice, this version of Zoran everyone who has ever met him has, is, in addition to all our memories and experiences, a piece of him that we can all bring back into the world he left behind.”
Zoran Veselic died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer – on August 14th, 2018. But his unique voice will live on with everyone – his wife of 40 years, Vlasta, his two children Ana (now a director and editor) and Bruno (who works for the Peace Corps), and all the many actors, directors, producers, and crews who had the distinct pleasure of sharing a set.