Ice-cold killer Theo Noble has to be the worst person to ever set foot on the bridge over the Croton Dam. Luckily, he’s fictional—he crossed the bridge during a scene in the final episode of Fox’s The Following. Kevin Bacon’s FBI agent persona, Ryan Hardy, was putting his life on the line to capture the killer. And cinematographer and Ossining resident David Tuttman was setting the stage behind the scenes. As we speak in the breezy backyard of his historical home in Ossining, Tuttman recalls filming was “a wild couple of nights of cars going through obstacles, helicopters, gunplay, and stuntmen falling off the bridge.”
We’ve all seen the film crews move in, sometimes for days or even weeks, to shoot on Westchester streets, riverfronts, and buildings. It’s fun for many of us, too, including Tuttman’s wife, writer and editor Dana White (her work has appeared in the pages of this magazine). She tells me about the time they came home to find a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit production sign tacked to the light pole in front their house, and she sounds just as excited as those of us with more humdrum lives, who are less accustomed to the spectacle of show business.
The couple met in the 1980s when Tuttman visited a friend in grad school at the University of California, Irvine. White was there getting her MFA in poetry at the time, and afterward, in 1985, she relocated to New York to live with Tuttman. She got a job at a magazine; they moved to Brooklyn for a short time, and in 1991 they began looking for a house in Westchester. “We saw a piece in the New York Times, ‘If You’re Thinking of Living in: Ossining,’” says White, and her husband finishes the sentence: “And so we came up here, and the first day we were here we saw the house we bought. It was clearly meant to be.”
By the time he began working on The Following, Tuttman had years of experience working on shows such as Law & Order, Gossip Girl, Royal Pains, and Damages. He grew up in Manhattan and studied psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He also took a few filmmaking classes, and, when he graduated, he says he realized that filmmaking “was a synthesis, and people did indeed have to make these things. And why couldn’t I be one of those people?” Motion pictures can be thought of as an industrial art form, he says, with “jobs and slots to fill and labor—concerted, coordinated troops of labor—that has to be involved.”
He worked first in an editing house, and then he got a job as a production assistant for TV commercial director Tibor Hirsch, who he describes as “one of the first big vignette, story-telling commercial directors.” Tuttman’s wasn’t the most common route, he tells me, which had its pluses and minuses. Many people start out working in equipment houses, which rent everything needed for film productions, he explains. “It’s a traditional route to become versed in the cameras, become camera assistants, and take their union tests.” Instead, he “learned in the field, on the fly—it took a little longer in ways, but I think overall it paid off pretty nicely. I’ve always been very comfortable on set. I didn’t have that learning curve.”
A typical day now, he says, starts at 7 am with a rehearsal on the set. “I’ll do a walk-through of a location with the director first, just so we can see the lay of the land together, and he or she can tell me what they’re looking for in terms of the visual presentation.” Tuttman tries various positions to see where the camera should be, then lines up where he thinks the lights should go, making sure they’re positioned correctly relative to where the actors will stand. While the actors rehearse, he’ll confer with the director: “We’ll speak about the actual camera movements, positions, stuff like that.” Then he works with his technical crew and gives them camera assignments, which is followed by a powwow with his gaffer, or head electrical technician, on lighting. Then it’s on to filming. “A page or two of dialogue will take two or three hours to shoot, and then we go on to the next scene, rehearse that, and repeat until it’s time to go home.”
“There’s always a great shot to be made,” he says. “It’s my job as we rehearse to help them block and shape it so the cameras can capture it in the way our show likes to.” They’re often long days, he says, but, if all goes well, the work is enjoyable. “I’m very proud of the fact my crew tends to try to stay with me, and I try very hard to keep them from project to project.”
Fellow cinematographer Bill Klayer, who began as a gaffer on Law & Order when Tuttman was camera assistant and camera operator in the early 1990s, considers himself and Tuttman “brothers-in-arms.” Klayer says he’s observed a lot of good feelings among the people who work for Tuttman. “The people he believes in, he fights for them and is loyal to them, and they in turn are loyal to him,” he says. Film jobs “take up huge amounts of your life, but on good shows you develop camaraderie, friendships.” He describes Tuttman as a “truly caring guy with a big heart, and a very talented man.”
In addition to serving as a director of photography, Tuttman has directed shows, including an episode of The Following. “The [directing] job I’m proudest of is Damages,” he says. “That was the show that visually stretched me the most. The writers, the creators were just awesome people, and it was my first big break outside of Law & Order. I love directing.”
Tuttman and White’s sons, Eli and Jesse, who are 22 and 18 years old, respectively, are both involved in filmmaking. Eli is an aspiring performer who has done extra work. He had a featured extra role on a Damages episode directed by his father. Eli had no lines, Tuttman says, but he had the task of finding a bomb on a bus. Jesse is following in his father’s footsteps and has already worked as a production assistant.
Despite his long work hours, Tuttman has time for other interests when shows go on hiatus. He often bikes 15 or 20 miles a day on paths like the North County Trailway. Tuttman tells me about a Law & Order stand-in who heard Tuttman moved to Ossining and said, “Oh, you can start a garden now.” Tuttman says, “I started laughing, because I’d grown up in Manhattan. I was like, ‘Dude, I have a brown thumb. You’ve got to be kidding me!’ But he bought me a book called Square Foot Gardening, and that book is priceless. I started doing a little vegetable garden, and I started composting. I really took to it, and it brings me a lot of peace. There’s nothing better than eating vegetables from your own yard.” Except maybe getting to do work you really love.