Great Neck cinematographer speaks on journey from North High to the big screen

Cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah returned to Great Neck in early November to view his most recent documentary's appearance at the Gold Coast International Film Festival (Photo courtesy of Caroline Sorokoff)

Michael Pessah had a surreal experience this past week. Coming back to Great Neck, his hometown, he sat in the same theater where he had seen so many iconic movies, now watching “Scandalous,” a documentary he helped create.

“Being in that same atmosphere that I had known so well, but now seeing a movie that I had filmed, while surrounded by my father and his friends, that was so special to experience,” he said.

Pessah is an award-winning cinematographer, coming a long way from searching through microfilm of reviews of cinema classics in the basement of the Great Neck Library on Bayview Avenue.

“I still have some of the printouts from those microfilm machines,” he said. “I discovered Coppola, Kurosawa, Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini and many other greats in that basement.”

After graduating from Great Neck North High School, Pessah attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied humanities.  Not knowing what a career path in the film industry would lead to, Pessah focused on reading and watching as many interesting things as possible.

“On a summer break, a cousin of mine connected me with a job as a production assistant on a commercial in New York,” he explained. “There I saw the job of ‘cinematographer’ in action for the first time, and knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”

That  ‘aha’ moment for Pessah led to internships, which led to a job at Nickelodeon, then led into building his frame of work prior to studying cinematography at the American Film Institute.  There, he had a chance to meet Mark Landsman, the director of his Gold Coast Film Festival documentary, “Scandalous.”

“After studying at the AFI, I had the opportunity to work on a diverse range of projects,” Pessah said. “From an Oscar shortlisted documentary to the TV show ‘Insecure’ to a music video for the No. 1 recording artist Halsey.”

Pessah has also worked with the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, George Clooney, Tiffany Haddish, Peter Boyle, Danny Trejo, David Arquette and Rhea Perlman, to name a few.  Despite the star-studded list of colleagues he’s worked with, Pessah remains grateful to work with those who allow him to be himself.

“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been sought after by directors who have been looking for a collaborator that is always seeking inventive or ‘out of the box’ ways to tell stories,” he explained. “As the saying goes, ‘if you like what you do, you never work a day in your life.’”

Though many people would jump at the chance to work with George Clooney for even a day, Pessah said that there is a process that leads to achieving those aspirations.  He also provided advice to those wishing to follow in his footsteps.

“Cinematography is where art meets science meets organizational skills. And you have to excel in all three,” Pessah said. “If you do, then go to the museum and see interesting films at places like the Gold Coast Arts Center. Practice taking still photos with a fixed lens camera, not just your telephone.  Work on thoughtful compositions, and create your own images mindfully.”

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Robert Pelaez

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