Vilma Gregoropoulos: The Eye Behind the Lens
by Rebecca Richards

Cinematographer Vilma Gregoropoulos’s love of film started as a young girl. Curled up on the couch with one of her father’s books on the Golden Age of Hollywood, she would sit for hours, fascinated by the movie stills printed on each page. She distinctly remembers the chapter on director D.W. Griffith and being impressed as she read about his cinematographer and all-around assistant, Billy Bitzer. As Vilma recalls, "It said something about Billy Bitzer being the ‘genius behind the genius’. He was the person who knew how to do things that nobody else knew how to do. I remember thinking, I’d like to be like that."

It wasn’t until she was a student at Emerson College that Vilma realized how strong her interest in film actually was. "It’s funny," she says, "I was very involved in theater in high school, which, when I look back on it now, was probably a misplaced interest in wanting to tell stories through movies. Theater was one of the only dramatic arts available to me as a kid, so I pursued it." Emerson was a great match for Vilma’s interests and she thrived there. But her first foray into cinematography was almost by default. A friend who was a film major was having trouble coming up with an idea for a project and asked for Vilma’s help. Vilma was immediately intrigued and inspired. She not only came up with any number of ideas for her friend’s film, she also shot it. It was a wild, surrealistic film that garnered lots of attention from the faculty and other students at Emerson. As a result of that first effort, Vilma soon found herself in demand at the school to shoot all the other student films. Through that early experience, Vilma discovered that she really enjoyed operating the camera and directing the photography on a film.

  Director of Photography Vilma Gregoropoulos holding the "V-Cam", an image stabilization device that was designed and built by Vilma and her aunt, Vilma J. Carocari, for Jane Gillooly’s B&W film, DRAGONFLIES, THE BABY CRIES" (and it works, too!)

Soon after graduating in 1983, Vilma was hired to work on her first professional shoot. It was a feature film from India doing some location work in Newport and Vilma worked as a camera assistant. "It was a wonderful opportunity," she recalls. "I got to pull focus and load the cameras. By the end of the shoot, I knew how to fully operate two different 35mm cameras. It was great on the job training."

Vilma was definitely a pioneer as a woman working in cinematography in Boston in the early and mid-1980s. "Boston’s film community was pretty small back then," recalls Vilma. "There were only a handful of people working at all on a regular basis. And very few of them were women." Unsure of where or when her next paying job would come from once the Indian feature had wrapped, Vilma literally went through the Yellow Pages one day and sent her resume to every film related listing she could find. It took about six months, but she was eventually hired as a production assistant for a company that quickly elevated her to the camera department once they realized how much more knowledgeable she was than her male counterpart that they had recently hired.

Vilma’s early work experiences in Boston’s then still-young film community lead her to take a more aggressive role in helping to unionize her fellow crew members. "Boston was pretty bad in those days," she says. "We’d work for literally eighteen hours straight with no real breaks and then wouldn’t get paid for three, four, sometimes even five months." By 1989, Vilma was elected President of the New England chapter of N.A.B.E.T. She had become an in-demand cinematographer and was working on a regular basis. But in 1991, Vilma left Boston and headed out West. Asked what prompted such a move, Vilma laughs and says, "I was getting lost in this pleasant technical world. I was making good money, and I loved Boston and the New England way of life, but I didn’t want it to be the only life I knew."

Vilma wasn’t exactly sure where she’d end up as she packed up her things. She had heard that Sante Fe had a busy film community that regularly used women shooters, so she headed for New Mexico. She ended up in Gallup, NM. A "tiny, border town," as Vilma describes it. She started working almost as soon as she had unpacked. "There was a nice market for work there ... lots of really skilled technicians. And the people I worked with were really great. A number of them had ended up in New Mexico deliberately after having left very stressful lives in New York and LA and were now quite laid back. I really enjoyed my time there."

Vilma continued on her Western pilgrimage until she landed in LA–not surprising since it still represents the mecca of filmmaking for so many individuals working in the industry. But Vilma’s feelings about her time there are mixed. "On one hand, filmmakers are treated remarkably well out there. Folks know you just might be the next Steven Spielberg. But on the other hand, there’s almost no escaping from a Hollywood kind of mentality. It’s both a beautiful place and a scary place" is how she describes it. By now, Vilma was also the parent of a baby daughter, so when her father suddenly got ill and she had to leave LA to come back East, she decided to stay on in Connecticut. "I’m glad I did it," she says. "I think what people are doing in Boston is more interesting and exciting than what’s going on in LA. Out there movie making is considered show business. Boston’s a better place to be if you want to be the person creating cinematic art."

Recently, in addition to her director of photography work, Vilma has taken on several new roles: those of co-writer and producer, of Zack Stratis’s celebrated feature, COULD BE WORSE! The film, which was screened at Sundance, was shot entirely on digital video. The success of the film has put Vilma in the forefront of local producers working in this new filmmaking technology. When asked about the future of cinema and the role of digital video in the filmmaking process, Vilma’s strong feelings on the subject are made clear:

"I love film ... I love to see the light projected through the image projector. There’s something magical about it. There’s certainly a place for video in movie making, but it’s not quite the same thing as working in film. COULD BE WORSE! was a well-made film and digital video was the perfect format for that film. The essence of that story could not have been told on film. Part of what made the film so humane was the interaction between Zack and his mother and the other members of his family. I don’t think we would have captured the bickering and the humor going on if I had had to stop shooting to reload the camera. It would have been simply too disruptive."

What Vilma would really like to see happen is to have somebody make use of the qualities inherent in video and really use them. "That’s what art is about," she says, "exploiting the medium. Pushing it for all it’s worth. As a cinematographer I will use the format again, but instead of people saying ‘What can I do with this technology?,’ I wish they would ask, ‘What am I trying to say?’"

Vilma’s latest project, director Jane Gillooly’s semi-silent film, DRAGONFLIES, THE BABY CRIES has brought her back full-circle to her early childhood cinematic influences and personal love for silent film. "For me, silent film represents the pure essence of cinematic storytelling. It’s not about dialogue, it’s about the images one sees on the screen ... the flickering of light and shadow." And, in a first for Vilma, one of her daughters has an on-camera role in the film.

While women have made strides throughout the film industry in the last few decades, the field of cinematography still remains largely male-dominated. How does Vilma manage being the mother of two young children in such an environment? She’s philosophical in her response. "I feel like things happen for a reason. I didn’t follow the same path as everyone else when I started and I’m not following it now. I might take projects or I might not take projects because I’m a mom. I worked when I was nine months pregnant, but I’m not so blindly pursuing a career that I would have given up having a family for. I’m happy. I’m in a good place right now. I don’t feel quite so desperate to pull that brass ring anymore."