When the Military Doesn't Pan Out, Become a Cinematographer
“I found myself in this old Hollywood house talking cinema during my first year in LA and I’m like, ‘I’m on the right track.''
For Tari Segal, a DP who has worked under Alexander Payne and as a camera operator for the entire run of Chicago Justice, filmmaking was Plan B. Plan A? The military.
“I just loved the lifestyle. It was hard work and a lot of loyalty. A lot of watching out for each other. I think that, in another life, that would’ve been me. I really loved rifle training and competition."
It’s not like Tari was pressured out of pursuing a creative career. Her family on her dad’s side owns the oldest jazz club in Chicago, The Jazz Showcase. Tari spent her childhood around creative energy and jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie. Her parents were extremely supportive of a creative lifestyle. Tari, however, wasn’t so keen on it at first.
“I was like, ‘Artists don’t make any money.’”
Tari was heavily invested in her high school’s ROTC program. She wanted to go into espionage for the Navy. Moving up in the ranks, she eventually became in charge of over 200 cadets. Had she stayed the course, she would have graduated high school and gone to a military academy to eventually become an officer. As graduation crept closer, her feelings began to change.
“I was getting into it with my commanding officer, who was a retired Navy guy. This whole thing came and hit me of how childish egoism can end up being in charge of your life. You have all of these ideas for the military of being rewarded for your hard work and doing something noble, but then you realize it can also be no different from a cheerleading squad. It was the drama. It didn’t matter how talented you were or how good you were.”
Tari’s no-nonsense work ethic was, and still is, central to her sense of character. Hard work is a valuable thing. Diluting it with unnecessary politics or drama is a sacrilege so, when the military stopped reflecting the kind of meritocracy she desired, she moved on. Luckily, her passions didn’t end at ROTC. Tari loved movies. After taking a summer course on film at Columbia College, where she built friendships she still has today, she was hooked. Tari decided to pursue filmmaking.
Her parents were relieved.
“I think I had the only parents in film school that were like, ‘Yes, go to film school!’”
She enrolled in Columbia College’s Cinema Art & Science program.
“Columbia was really good at being about independent filmmaking first and foremost. I had these really great instructors who I’m still really close to. One is this guy named Robert Buchar, who’s probably the reason I’m here today… With him, if we shot anything there had to be a reason for it. He introduced me to French New Wave and I was hooked.”
French New Wave still inspires Tari today, and she consistently brings up its principles with the directors she shoots for. French New Wave taught Tari to visually approach her work by following the story first and foremost. It’s the kind of ego-less commitment that makes sense for someone with a military appreciation of roles within a bigger system. Buchar helped Tari land an internship in LA with cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael who was, at the time, shooting the movie Sideways.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Tari, this is unfortunate for you as an intern because this is the best film crew you will ever be a part of. You will never have an experience as good as this. Everyone was friends. The director, Alexander Payne, is just so infectiously creative.”
Tari and Phedon have a mutual love of French New Wave. While interning, Papamichael invited Tari to Thanksgiving dinner. Tari didn’t realize that Phedon, a nephew of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, was inviting her to Rowlands’ home for the holiday.
“I found myself in this old Hollywood house talking cinema during my first year in LA and I’m like, ‘I’m on the right track'… After that, Phedon became my mentor.”
Tari was interested in shooting anything she could, using Phedon for support when needed. After cutting her teeth on a variety of music videos and short films, Papamichael introduced her to a friend, Nick, who needed a DP. They hit it off right away as collaborators. Eventually, Tari found herself shooting a film that Phedon was directing, called Lost Angeles.
After Lost Angeles, Papamichael invited Tari to work as a camera operator on Alexander Payne’s next film, Nebraska. Tari would have the same enriching experience as she got on Sideways, but now she was a big part of the crew, even getting some freedom on the second unit.
“Before, I was just watching because I was an intern. Now I was part of the team, which was pretty cool.”
Watching Payne and Papamichael, longtime collaborators, on set was a next-level film education in a number of ways.
“They speak the same language… It was very intimidating because they knew exactly what they wanted, but didn’t quite communicate it to me.”
Since Papamichael was used to operating his own camera, he would do the primary camera setup himself, explain what he wanted, and let Tari operate. It was a different shooting environment for Tari, but one that allowed her to watch a great artist work firsthand. Nebraska, a black-and-white film, also taught Tari a lot about studio politics.
“The studio didn’t want it to be captured in black and white. What they settled on was shooting it digitally, in color, but releasing the film in black-and-white. Phedon had a colorist there and they made sure all of the dailies were in b&w and no one saw the color.”
Finding the right greys meant using paints and color choices that didn’t always look good in color, but provided the right contrast in black and white. In other words, the color versions of a lot of Nebraska’s footage was unusable. Payne and Papamichael listened to the studio’s requests but, at the same time, were still protecting their vision.
“It’s funny that the studios felt comfortable as long as there was a color version. But it’s like, ‘Okay but you can’t release that.’ They don’t really know that, but the artist knows that, and that way you get to control your image. It was a great lesson in politics.”
Politics don’t come as naturally to Tari as work ethic, but experience in the film industry has allowed her to sharpen her tact.
“I was really fiery… Ready for a fight, we’re talking about art here. You learn how to talk to people to get the things you want. That’s politics.”
For Tari, getting the things she wants has sometimes meant overcoming age and gender biases that aren’t uncommon in the film industry. She doesn’t talk about these issues with big, sweeping, generalizations, but instead treats them like any other on-set challenge. Sexism and age biases get in the way of the art, so Tari has learned to deal with them.
“The fact that I appear really young and that I’m a woman, sometimes you encounter people who think they can talk down to you and put up these walls and do whatever they want to do… You learn how to handle that a lot better.”
Tari attributes part of her resilience to adversity to her background. Her mother is Japanese American and her dad is half Jewish and half black. Growing up in a jazz environment, where art transcended all labels, helped Tari to keep her head above the fray.
“I never really felt like a minority because Chicago’s full of them. That strength that my grandparents had, and that my mom had with the Japanese thing, really resonates with me. Just having the spirit to go and do it and deal with the hard work and not complain about it. That’s important to me."
As Tari’s projects have gotten bigger, she’s found it necessary to question certain risks. On lower budgets, risk aversion only goes as far as the budget allows. On big projects, poor decisions have greater financial consequences, and it’s a DP’s job to assess what can and can’t be done. With that, comes more opportunities for confrontation.
“There’s two things I take with me from that military background. One is the chain of command. I think that’s how you gain a lot of respect, by talking to the person directly. The other thing is, you can’t be a good leader if you haven’t been a good follower.”
Tari has spent a lot of time as a gaffer and a grip, which she feels is essential to leading a crew.
“Having been a follower, you know a crew’s limits. I wouldn’t ask anything of people that I wouldn’t ask of myself. That gives you people you can trust on your crew. Since the crew is the reason why everything comes together, I think those relationships are important.”
After Phedon Papamichael, Tari found a second mentor in DP Lisa Wiegand while shooting Chicago Justice and American Crime. Wiegand (who was recently featured in American Cinematographer) has introduced Tari to the world of television production, which has more of a rigid, military-esque, hierarchy than anything Tari has worked on yet. While she’s comfortable in television, Tari’s passion still lies in features.
“She’s [Wiegand] like, ‘TV is where the money is.’ But I’m like, ‘I know but I want to shoot features.’”
Had Chicago Justice not just gotten cancelled, Tari would have been in line to become the show’s next DP for a few episodes. Coming back to LA and getting to pursue features again, however, feels like a blessing to Tari at this point. She’s currently prepping for more work in the Fall and renting her gear on the side. This might be different than the military life she first wanted but, to Tari, there are plenty of similarities.
“I just wish people wore uniforms more, but that’s just me. They’re cool.”