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Cinematographer Peter Simonite discusses his life behind the lens

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Harried mothers with young children, quiet folks with laptops and those taking the leisurely route to work pack the main floor of Mozart's Coffee Roasters on a glorious Friday morning highlighted by Chamber of Commerce weather.

Downstairs, alone in the shadows of a secluded deck, sits Peter Simonite. Dressed in a slim-fitting charcoal dress shirt and black pants, the strong-jawed 38-year-old cuts a sleek and hip figure, looking like an indie rocker backstage before a gig. The conjured image makes sense when Simonite, sipping an iced coffee just outside the reach of the sun's rays, explains that he played guitar in '90s-era Austin band the Adults.

It seems natural to find Simonite close to the action but not in the spotlight. He has spent the past 18 years working behind the camera on movies. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1994 with a degree in film, the San Antonio native packed his car and headed west. But his was no aimless road-trip or a follow-your-dreams-to-Hollywood fairy tale.

"I got in a hail-damaged Honda Civic and drove out to Alpine and slept in a sleeping bag in a Pizza Hut out there and worked as a loader on the TV movie 'The Good Old Boys,'" Simonite said. "And it was awesome. It was great. I was like, 'I can't believe I'm making money doing this.'"

Passion for the art of photography pervades the Simonite family. Peter's mother, artist Trish Simonite, teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio and fostered Peter's interest in photography at an early age, teaching him to take pictures and giving him art and photography books. Simonite's brother Nick works as a photographer in Austin.

"My mom taught me a lot about exposure and lenses and photography and how everything works. So by the time I graduated from school and went into camera departments, I was really interested in that and couldn't get enough," Simonite said.

When he walked on a set for the first time, Simonite says he was astounded by the complexity of the production. Once oriented, his confusion gave way to an insatiable desire to learn how the pieces fit together in what he describes as a circuslike environment.

Following his work in West Texas, Simonite consistently booked work on crews over the next two decades - his résumé serves as a sort of CliffsNotes for Texas-based productions. His 50-plus film credits include Robert Rodriguez's "The Faculty," Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," the Wilson brothers' "The Wendell Baker Story" and Terrence Malick's visually arresting "The Tree of Life," which opens June 3 in Austin. (Like so many who worked on Malick's latest, Simonite praised the enigmatic Austin director but was reticent about the production.)

Simonite says access to world-class filmmaking talent makes Austin an incredible training ground. Working on second units for skilled cinematographers and directors allowed Simonite to learn from their experiences and mimic their styles, but also gave him some independence in a less pressurized environment than that of a first unit.

"You have more time to wait for better light or arrange to be at the right place for better lighting," Simonite said. "You're also able to kind of be free from the creative team in a way, so that you get to make stuff up and if they like it, then that's great, and if not, they'll say you have to go do it again. And the other cool thing about it to me is always the idea of matching to what someone else is doing. Someone like me who's looking to always learn and get better at what I'm doing, I like the task of making what I'm shooting match to what someone else who I think is great is shooting."

After years on second units, Simonite recently had the chance to serve as lead cinematographer for the second time. Jason Archer, the head of animation on "A Scanner Darkly," introduced Simonite to the first-time filmmakers behind "Skateland," a teen drama set in the '80s that opened last week in Austin.

Simonite brought an exacting eye to the "Skateland" shoot and, inspired by his recent work with "The Tree of Life" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a firm understanding of what needed to be done to get the look of the film just right. His insistence on capturing the light perfectly led the filmmakers to dub Simonite "The Mad Genius of Light," but the cinematographer says the nascent filmmakers appreciated his perfectionist streak.

In a slight reversal of roles, after years learning from others, Simonite found himself in the position of teacher, gladly sharing with others some of the lessons imparted to him over the years.

"The people who I've been lucky enough to learn from and that I've been fortunate enough to have access to and who will teach me something \u2026 I don't claim to be at that level yet," Simonite said. "But if I'm ever able to help somebody, then it's a real pleasure, because I've definitely been really grateful to other people who've taken the time to teach me how to do something."

With "Skateland" out in theaters, Simonite returns to the second unit for Malick's next film and continues to sporadically shoot footage for a future documentary about the band Spoon, longtime friends with whom the filmmaker's band used to share concert bills.

Despite that ongoing project, Simonite says he has no interest in moving into the director's chair on a full-time basis.

"I feel like the photography of a movie is a whole thing unto itself," Simonite said. "I can disappear into the light. \u2026 It's a language of its own. And I really enjoy thinking about that craft. I just love that part of it. So I feel like anytime I get the opportunity to do that, I'm very lucky. I find my attention can be fully engaged by just that. It's enough to think about just by itself. I feel like that's how I can best support filmmaking."

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986