Aaron Schneider began his career in film as a cinematographer on Kiss the Girls (1997). At the 76th Academy Awards, after a move to directing, he won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for his film Two Soldiers. Aaron’s latest feature, Greyhound, starring Tom Hanks, premiered on Apple TV+ in July 2020.
I was a child of the ’80s, so a lot of my formative years were spent watching all the “adventure in your own backyard” movies that we got from Spielberg, Zemeckis, and other filmmakers. The first movie I remember ever seeing was Alien with my dad. It was my first R-rated movie and it scared the hell out of me.
The ’80s were the “fall in love with movies” period: everything from Back to the Future to E.T. and The Goonies, all that stuff that a young kid would have been drawn to back then. It when Spielberg was in the most Spielbergian phase of his career.
I was a Trekkie and I remember watching Star Trek II and seeing this company called Industrial Light & Magic scroll by in the credits. We didn’t have the Internet so you had to really do your research. I got a subscription to Cinefex magazine, which would go into all the behind-the-scenes of visual effects and I started falling in love with the craft and the magic of special effects, which is eventually what led me to transfer out of engineering school into film school at USC.
I graduated and my taste evolved over the years. So my top five films have a mixture of those movies that were meaningful very early on and then a few others I started adding on as I became more of an adult and learned more about filmmaking.
There isn’t really a common thread with these five. Ultimately, movies are a very personal and emotional thing for people. It’s the uniqueness and the beauty of each that makes them special.
It’s the movie that kid used to see on television. They’d air it once a year, either around Thanksgiving or Christmastime and that was always a big deal at family gatherings. It was one of those movies that brought family together. Back then, I loved it just for the spectacle and fantastical nature of the thing. I didn’t really have to understand what the movie was about. But of course, as I grew up and became a filmmaker, I started to see it as that classic rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.
It’s about the value of loyalty and friendship and compassion along your pathway of life. And the lesson that nine times out of 10, there’s a man behind the curtain who is no better at navigating the challenges of life than you are.
There are still no wizards in Oz. There never was and there never will be. In fact, oftentimes the person behind the curtain is more frightened and clueless than you are. I think that’s what you feel when you watch it as a child, but maybe you don’t quite understand it or appreciate it until you get a little bit older.
I was a cinematographer before I became a director and my hero and one of my mentors was a DP called Conrad Hall, who, as you may know, is famous for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all the way through American Beauty and Road to Perdition—all three of which he won Oscars for.
I was just starting out as a DP when Searching for Bobby Fischer hit the screen, and I was originally drawn to it by the photography. Conrad called it magical realism. And it’s the most cinematic portrayal of everyday human relationships ever put on film. There were no period costumes or magnificent locations to light up and shoot in all their grandeur, just everyday family life. Conrad and Steve Zaillian found a way to make the details of the family dynamic just cinematic and beautiful. And they found a way to make it just as visually exciting as a football movie.
Ultimately, it’s a father-son story. It’s about the importance of compassion and empathy. And I just thought it was so beautiful and so moving. Whenever I start a new movie, it’s one of those I always returned to.
I think it’s probably pretty common with filmmakers, but speaking for myself, you want to clean your palate every time you make a movie so that you make sure you’re starting from a fresh place, both creatively and philosophically. Searching for Bobby Fischer is my sherbet. It’s a way of touching base with something beautiful and simple and elegant to remind me of a film that inspired me a long time ago. It feels like returning home to your original inspiration.
I grew up Jewish, I studied the Holocaust in Sunday school, and I even wrote my high school thesis paper on the Holocaust. This film is the most important example we have of how we can mix the language of cinema with history and educate and inspire change in the world.
And the black-and-white cinematography by Janusz Kamiński … it’s so brutal. It’s so honest. And again, I was a working cinematographer at the time, so I was first drawn to it by the imagery and then taken in by the importance and the brilliance of the movie. In fact, I lost the Oscar pool that year because two of my favorite cinematographers were pitted against each other. Janusz was up for Schindler’s List and Conrad Hall was up for Searching for Bobby Fischer, and I was torn between my admiration for both of them. At the last minute, I ticked the box in the Oscar pool with my friends. I chose Searching for Bobby Fischer to win, and of course I lost because Janusz won. So Janusz won the Oscar and I lost the Oscar pool that year.
Back to the Future was the classic ’80s adventure in your own backyard. And it’s on my list because it’s everything that’s great about the movies. Not cinema. Not the art of cinema, not the study of cinema. But it’s everything that’s great about the movies, when you’ve got a box of popcorn in your lap. It’s the most perfect screenplay ever written, in terms of its architecture and its efficiency. It’s a master class in the architecture of screenwriting and it’s just one of those movies that makes us laugh, cry, and cheer, everything that makes life and movies special. That’s all there is to it.
I’ve got a friend of the same generation whose last job as an editor was cutting a Star Wars movie. Whenever there’s a rerelease of Back to the Future, we’re always there with popcorn and a big soda.
You get drawn into a movie by all kinds of different things. Maybe it’s someone saying it’s a great movie. Maybe you think you’re supposed to see it because everyone else likes it. For whatever reason you’re drawn to a movie in the first place, you start finding a way into it for yourself.
I saw The Godfather when I was at USC film school. Everyone was calling it a classic, but I’d never seen it before. I was this kid from the Midwest who didn’t know anything about critical studies and cinema, and I came out of the movie just blown away by the filmmaking. We all know it’s a classic narrative and on most people’s top five lists, but for me, I was moved by the craftsmanship. Once I became a filmmaker, I started to appreciate the obstacles. In parallel with all of this amazing work creatively come the hardships of making the movie itself.
As a young filmmaker coming out of college, I was inspired by the audacity of Coppola just saying, “This is what we’re doing, and this is how we’re doing it.” And with all the resistance they got, they created a classic by sticking to their vision—and it drove everyone crazy, including Coppola. Gordon Willis even drove Coppola crazy by sticking to a very strict cinematic language that he felt the film demanded. It’s a great example of young filmmakers sticking to a very fierce vision. So I’ve not only carried forward my admiration for the film and the craft, but also the fortitude that it took those guys to make that movie under those circumstances. That’s an inspiration in and of itself.