Stephen S. Campanelli has spent the past three decades carving out an amazing career as a cameraman on some of Hollywood’s biggest films. Most notably, he has served as along-time camera operator for film icon and legendary director, Clint Eastwood, which is certainly an amazing place to cut your teeth. In 2015, Campanelli has made the transition to the director’s chair for his feature film debut. The result is “Momentum” — a fun, fast-moving action-thriller starring Olga Kurylenko and James Purefoy. The story focuses on Alex (Olga Kurylenko), an infiltration expert with a secret past. She accidentally reveals her identity during what should have been a routine heist, quickly finding herself mixed up in a government conspiracy and entangled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a master assassin (James Purefoy) and his team of killers. Armed with her own set of lethal skills, Alex looks to exact revenge for her murdered friends while uncovering the truth. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Stephen S. Campanelli to discuss his career, the challenges of bringing his directorial debut from script to screen and what the future might hold for him in the director’s chair.
You are a seasoned veteran of the film industry and have a ton of great credits to your name. How did you get started on your journey?
No one in my family is in the film business. I don’t know why but one day I just picked up my parents Super 8 camera and started making some home movies. I borrowed some ketchup from my mom’s fridge to make blood and did recreations of “The Godfather” and film’s like that, editing in camera, with all of my friends. I never really thought about making it a career, it was just for fun. Somehow, I kept getting drawn to it and kept filming little movies. When I went to University, I took a film course and I instantly fell in love with it and said, “This is what I want to do!” I did a three-year program and fell in love with the art form. I worked my way up from the bottom. I always knew I wanted to do camera and I made my mark. I did a lot of steadicam and there was hardly any of it back then. I learned that craft and it was a very sought after machine on many TV shows and features. I just kept working really hard to get to where I am today.
Who were some of the big influences that impacted you as a filmmaker?
Ironically, Clint Eastwood was my idol when I was growing up. I wanted to meet him one day because I loved his movies and his style of storytelling, which is very simple. I said, “One day I am going to meet him.” I wanted to make that happen but I am from Canada and it was a pretty lofty goal. One thing led to another and then another and I ended up working with his cinematographer. I ended up impressing him so much that he recommended me to Clint and I ended up doing “The Bridges of Madison County” as my first movie with him. That was a dream come true! Not only did I get to meet my idol but I got to work with him. Twenty-one years later, we are still working together! I would have to say he is my biggest influence overall. Francis Ford Coppola is another great storyteller and I loved his style, along with Scorsese and Spielberg. Great storytellers is what I am all about. I love a great story and to me that is what a director should be doing, telling a story visually. I always say, “The audience will never read the script, so it’s my job as a director to take those words on the page and put them on the screen so they can see what we all saw when we read the script.”
That brings us to your latest project, your directorial debut, “Momentum.” What brought you to this project?
It came to me through a friend, my composer. He had worked with the producer before and they were looking for a new director for the project. He recommended me and said, “He is primed to direct. That is all he wants to do now.” Luckily, the script came to me. It needed a bit of work but I gave the producer my notes on how I wanted to change it and make it better. He agreed with all of them and told me I had the job. That is how it came to me. I don’t know if I wouldn’t have chosen “Momentum” as my first movie because it was a huge undertaking and doing a huge action movie as your first film as a director is a tough one! I felt very well prepared for it after being a cameraman for 25 years. I knew where to put the camera, how to deal with actors and how to deal with the crew, so it was a seamless transition. I felt very confident, I knew what I wanted and I had my cinematographer, Glen MacPherson, by my side to help me along. Like I said, it wouldn’t have been my normal first choice but I am glad it was! It was a great thrill ride and I really enjoyed it!
Did you have any particular goals or aspirations for the film? Anything you wanted to tackle from a directorial standpoint?
Yeah. It’s funny because working with Clint all these years, it has become obvious that he is a great storyteller but, as I said, he doesn’t let the camera go to crazy to take you out of the movie. With “Momentum,” because it is an action film, I thought I wanted to make the camera and the storytelling very visual to help move along what was on the page. Those are the things I really tried. I always had written on my script and my mandate to the camera crew was to always shoot through shifts. That was written on my script and was a constant reminder to the old films of Hitchcock that have some foreground, middleground and background, so I always had elements in front of the lens to really have the camera travel through and it gives the film a great sense of depth. That was the one thing I don’t get to do much of on Clint’s films but I wanted to make it my style for my own film. I think we achieved that very well and I am very proud of the look of the film and what the camera guys did!
What adjustments did you have to make with the script when you started shooting?
Yeah, I think filmmaking is a constant process of change. If you aren’t open to change, you are screwed! I am a very collaborative cameraman and director. If anyone could help me make the film better, I am all for it! I told everyone that on the first day of shooting. I said, “If you guys have any good ideas to make the shot better or the movie better, let me know. We will all take the credit together!” We did that! I worked well with James [Purefoy] and Olga [Kurylenko]. We rewrote some of their dialogue the night before shooting to have it make more sense or more of what their character would say, especially James. The scene towards the end of the film, the leg in the vice scene, James and I worked on that for a couple of weeks before we shot it to get the tone just right and have the words be very meaningful. So yeah, right up until the moment we shot a scene, I was always looking at the script and saying, “OK. Is this the best we can do? If it is, let’s shoot it! If it isn’t, let’s question it and find out why.” I am constantly trying to improve to the point of no return, I guess! [laughs]
The cast of the film is terrific. What can you tell us about the process of finding the right mix of actors to bring the characters to life?
That is a good question because I think on some movies casting can be a major hassle. I was very fortunate to have worked with Olga on a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” where I worked as a camera operator. She is so beautiful and so nice. She is really the sweetest person and very talented. I had thought to myself, “One day if I direct, I want to see if I can get her in the movie.” So, I stayed in touch with her and, luckily enough, when this movie came along she read the script and she liked it. It is a female lead, which I think is something lacking in the market right now, so she was totally attracted to it. With James Purefoy, we had never met, but I saw him on “The Following” and thought, “Oh my God! This is the perfect bad guy!” Luckily, through CAA, we got a hold of him. We had a lovely phone conversation. It was very sweet because he said, “I really like the script. We can make it better of course, but after talking to you I am even more excited about working on this movie.” That was a huge compliment. I am a huge fan of his work. I met him for the first time in South Africa and it was a real treat to see him. Morgan Freeman is someone who I have worked with a bunch of times. He has always been very supportive of my career. He said, “When you do your first movie, let me know if I can help you out at all.” That is how I got him for the movie! It all came together quite nicely!
Obviously, you have years of experience under your belt but you undoubtedly learn something with every project. What was biggest lesson you learned from directing your first feature?
The biggest hurdle or challenge for me was that we filmed it in Capetown, South Africa and I didn’t have any of my support crew with me, except for my cinematographer. It was all local South African crews and I didn’t know anybody. I felt I was very alone. Normally, I would have my own production designer, first assistant director, sound guys and a bunch of other key people to surround me. That is the thing with Clint, he has kept the same people around for 21 years and we are a tight family. That allows everything to operate very smoothly. That wasn’t the case for this film. The crew was fantastic but we had to get to know each other and try to fit everything into a very tight, 36 day schedule. It was a bumpy ride because we didn’t have the trust among each other and there were a lot of people who had never worked together before. It became a big challenge to try and get the amount of work done we needed everyday. In addition, we couldn’t work more than 12 hours a day. That was the toughest thing for me, feeling very alone and not being surrounded by the people I would normally go to direct a movie. In the end, like I said, the crew and cast came through with flying colors and we managed to make a great film.
Was there a film you worked on in the past that had a big impact on you and your craft?
To be very honest, every time I have worked with Clint, it has been very inspiring because I see the way he works with the crew, the cast and the way he tells a story so simply. I have wanted to direct for 10 to 15 years but I was enjoying working with Clint so much. I think the catalyst that made me want to direct was a film I worked on as a camera operator called “The Maze Runner.” The director was Wes Ball, a great guy, but very young and didn’t have a lot of set experience. He came up to me and said, “I really need your help in this movie. I have seen your resume.” I basically collaborated with him and the cinematographer and it was a big success. That is the point where I knew I really wanted to stop as a camera operator and I wanted to direct and be responsible for my own final product. I just came back for one more Clint Eastwood movie. We just finished the Sully Sullenberger story, the guy who landed the plane in the Hudson River, but I am going to go right back to directing again. I am very happy to have worked on that project. I will always work with Clint but I am not trying to do any jobs but my own at this point!
What can we expect from you next? Is there a clear trajectory at this point?
Yeah. I directed a second film called “Rio Heat.” We shot it in Rio De Janeiro, hence the title. It is a buddy cop movie, something kind of like “Moonlighting,” where there are two partners who should never be together. Harvey Keitel plays, for lack of a better comparison, a “Charlie’s Angels” type of character who keeps giving them their assignments and watches the chaos unfold. It is more of a light-hearted action comedy. It is a lot of fun. They are in the process of selling it right now, so I don’t know where it is going to end up but it should be out next year sometime!
You can definitely serve as a great inspiration to young filmmakers. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
The first thing I think of is don’t be afraid to work hard, sacrifice and stay dedicated. It is a really tough grind to get to the top but when you get there it is worth it! Another thing I tell people is to dream big. I didn’t dream big enough. I wanted to meet Clint Eastwood as a kid, just as a fan and get an autograph or a picture. I never thought I would be working with him 21 years later! I always tell people, “If you are going to dream, dream bigger” because one day you will actually achieve it. That is my thing — work hard, be dedicated, be personable because if people like you they want to be around you and work with you and if you do your job well it is more of a bonus. Those are my words of advice!
Awesome! Thanks so much for your time today. The film is terrific and I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you in the future! I really thought “Momentum” was a homerun!
Thank you, Jason! We left it open for a sequel, so if enough people want to see it, we’ll make it! [laughs]
We will be spreading the word!
I really appreciate it! Thank you!
Starz Digital released the film theatircally in October and Anchor Bay Entertainment is releasing the film on Blu-ray and DVD on December 1st.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.