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Adam Holender ASC on shooting his debut feature, Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy

Veteran director of photography Adam Holender ASC (The Panic in Needle Park, Smoke) talks to Paul Dixon Barker about starting his career with short films in his native Poland, his love of New York City and shooting the little and large act of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in his debut and Oscar-winning feature Midnight Cowboy.

photo: Jerzy Dudek

Born in Poland in 1937, cinematographer Adam Holender has none of the cynicism one might associate with someone who has spent 36 years in the film industry. Having worked with some of the biggest names in the business from Al Pacino to Morgan Freeman, Holender’s steadfast passion for his art form is infectious, and I found myself routinely swept up in his enthusiasm during our recent chat.

Adam’s career path might have panned out very differently however, had he stuck to his original course.

“In my early 20s I studied architecture in my home city of Kraków, Poland. One summer I was offered a paid job photographing country-side architecture for the government. To cut a long story short, the lure of photography became too much and over the next year and a half I prepared myself for the difficult task of taking the entrance exam for the National Film School in Lódz.”

However tricky the college entrance exam would be, he chuckles when reminiscing over the difficulty in having to tell his parents about his change of course.

“My family didn’t consider film-making a reputable job! And when I told my father, who was a judge, that I was leaving architecture he simply said two words: ‘too bad.’ Five years later however I had achieved my Master’s and had been privileged to attend such as fantastic institute alongside some great colleagues such as Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Zanussi.”

Credited as an assistant on one of Polanski’s earliest works, short film Lampa (1959), Holender remains modest.

"I was merely an assistant camera operator on that particular film, but I had the opportunity to work on dozens of cool shorts as student projects and benefited enormously from the experience. Although some films I did were better than others! During the beginning of my career in the USA I worked on a short film, Shut Up…I’m Crying (1970) with Robert Siegler. It was a nice experience and was glad to be involved.”

Lampa (1959)

He also says that regardless of the size of the production, there will always be a common element running through it.

“Whether a short film, feature film, small or large budget, it can be broken into two different types: spirited work and un-spirited work. I consider un-spirited work ‘doing it by the numbers’; while it may look professional it might lack spirit. I think we should all strive to make spirited films no matter the length.”

It’s difficult to disagree, especially with a man who has carved out a hugely successful career by following his instincts. He's also quick to add that drive is more important that training, “whether you attend a big school like USC in the USA or a small school like the one I went to, if people have something to offer and want to do things, they always find a way.”

With such a determined attitude it’s clear to see how a man who came from “grey Poland” to the USA in 1966, made his feature debut on a film which went on to win three Academy Awards. He speaks fondly on his "unexpected big break," Midnight Cowboy (1969), and of the incredible crew he got to work with.

"Midnight Cowboy had a terrific script adapted from the James Leo Herlihy’s novel, a fantastic director, John Schlesinger and a wonderful writer, Waldo Salt, who participated in the whole production from the beginning to the end. In most cases writers sell their scripts to the studio and that’s where their participation ends. In the case of Waldo Salt, he was an integral part of the production and the film benefited enormously from having him there. On a creative level everyone was on the same page and this drove the project enormously.”

He speaks with gusto about his creative connection with John Schlesinger, their shared interest in the school of Neo-Realism, and how a mutual experience entering the U.S as foreigners influenced Midnight Cowboy.

“Both Schlesinger and I came from the Neo-Realistic school of thought about film and I admired Italian cinema of the 1950s and 60, and later the British cinema of the 60s and 70s. When we sat down with the script Schlesinger and I connected on a creative level and we were both coming to New York as foreigners, Schlesinger from London and I from Poland. As a result we had a curiosity for the city and came at it with fresh eyes; what Joe Buck sees at the start of Midnight Cowboy and how he sees it is pretty much how we saw the city as outsiders. We translated our own experiences onto the screen.”

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

With almost a foot of height difference between Midnight Cowboy’s two leads: Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, Holender talks about some of the tricks he used when shooting.

“You can use it to your advantage as a cinematographer when lining up shots looking through the lens. For example, when filming one of Joe Buck’s first walks on the streets of New York I noticed that Fifth Avenue had a certain dip in the middle, so we selected a very long lens and put Jon Voight amidst a crowd of street-walkers. Due to Jon’s height (6’2”) and his cowboy hat, combined with the rise on the part of Fifth Avenue where I placed the camera, he stood out from the crowd. Clearly the same shot would not have worked with Dustin Hoffman! Regarding tighter shots, you can always ask your grips to lift your shorter actor up!”

With so many of his films using New York as a focus, it is clear that Holender’s personal passion for the city has not only influenced his choice of project, but is still as strong as ever after some fifty years of living there.

“I arrived in New York in 1966. It was colourful, full of life and full of this…‘spirit’. I fell in love with New York then, and I still live here now. The infatuation of the city has driven my work and continues to drive me every day. I have done projects in Los Angeles, and even had an apartment there, but New York has always drawn me back. It’s an interesting place for me to work. There was one film I worked on, Street Smart with Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman, which was specifically a New York film, this was actually filmed in Canada! With only a few pick-up shots filmed in the city. We all knew New York so well that we could recreate the city effectively.”

Street Smart (1987)

With the film industry being so diverse and with the multitude of changes that have happened since Adam’s induction in the late 1960s, he offers his words of wisdom.

“I think ‘getting into the industry’ is a dangerous phrase, as it might imply someone getting into the industry for the sake of it – not getting in because they love film. My advice would be do what you feel passionate about and do it the way you conceived it, without external forces telling you what’s marketable, I think that’s a road to nowhere.”


Adam Holender is a member of The American Society of Cinematographers.

He has also screened The Panic In Needle Park and spoken about it at the New York Film Academy, to see that guest talk please click here.

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