By the time Robert Yeoman '73 finished his freshman year at Duke, he was sure of two things: being a premed student wasn't for him, and his walk-on status with the men's freshman basketball team would end his brief athletic career. So he switched gears, eventually settling on a psychology major while immersing himself in Freewater Productions, the student-run film and video organization.
"I remember watching Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange while at Duke and being so mesmerized by the images on the screen," says Yeoman. "It was also a really exciting time in American cinema, with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen." Duke didn't have a film program at the time, so he decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
At first, Yeoman says he thought about becoming a director, but so many of his film-school peers asked him to serve as their cinematographer—the person behind the camera who works closely with the director to create the film's visual look and feel—that he soon found his niche. After some early years struggling to make ends meet, he landed his first feature film in 1985, working for William Friedkin on To Live and Die in L.A.
Since then, he's collaborated with an eclectic group of directors, including Wes Craven (Red Eye), Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker), Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), Joel and Ethan Coen (Burn After Reading), and Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, for which Yeoman received a prestigious Independent Spirit Award in 1990). But his most enduring partnership has been with director Wes Anderson, whom Yeoman met when the young director was just starting out.
"Wes was a big fan of Drugstore Cowboy, so when he got the money to do Bottle Rocket, he called me for an interview. We were drawn to the same things visually. We liked the same films. We knew what we did and didn't like." Bottle Rocket went on to become a cult classic and Anderson's—and Yeoman's—career was off and running. Since then, the two have collaborated on Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums,The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited.
Regardless of the project, Yeoman is involved from the early stages of production. Unlike writers or actors, who are often hired first and then do the prep work, Yeoman (and other cinematographers) meets with the director before he even signs on to talk about what each of them envisions for the look and feel of the film. "If it seems right, they may offer me the job, but then I have to decide whether I want to do it or not," he says. "Making a movie is a major commitment. I am about to embark on a three- to six-month project where I will be working long hours and spending all of my time with this person, so it's a big decision to make." Then, before shooting starts, Yeoman scouts locations, blocks out scenes, and takes stills of various shots that are in the script.
At the end of 2009, Yeoman wrapped up Get Him to the Greek, a comedy by Nick Stoller starring Russell Brand and Jonah Hill. He began 2010 shooting several commercials (he's done spots for Target, Mercedes Benz, American Express, and FedEx), serving as a juror at the Sundance Film Festival, and reading through movie scripts. "I tend to be choosy with what I do," he says. "Doing commercials gives me the luxury of not feeling financial pressure to accept any movie that comes along. I want to do something I really connect with."