Life Through a Lens: Mauro Fiore's Work on Spider-Man: No Way HomeApr 28, 2022 05:08PM ● By Sean McCarthy
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
On Feb. 15, the 3D Academy Award-nominated blockbuster movie Avatar moved down one notch to become the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time in the United States. It’s a number that the film’s cinematographer, Omahan Mauro Fiore, doesn’t obsess over. Even if he did, Fiore could take comfort in the fact he was also cinematographer for the movie that overtook Avatar—Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Fiore’s friend Ben Drickey dubbed him “the two billion-dollar man” because those films each grossed more than a billion dollars globally. Sitting down and ordering a mini Denver omelette at an Omaha restaurant, Fiore said he didn’t think in terms of box office when selecting a project. His extensive resume has included big-budget action films and small, intimate dramas…and nearly everything in between.
Fiore emigrated to the United States when he was 7 years old with his parents from his birthplace of Marzi, in southern Italy. His uncle, Vincent Fiore, sponsored their emigration. He attended high school in Palatine, Illinois.
“It was very suburban,” Fiore said.
The high school was modern for early 1980s standards, complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a full photography studio, and a darkroom. That’s where his love for film began. Fiore took other art classes and dabbled in sculpture, but photography was the area that struck the deepest chord. He joined the school’s photography club.
“The whole ‘images appearing on paper’ was a real magical thing,” Fiore said.
After graduating high school, Fiore went to Harper College in Palatine. There, he played soccer and began taking art classes. After earning some credits in art and film, Fiore had a choice: go to Northwestern or Columbia College Chicago. He chose Columbia for two major reasons: his credits at Harper could transfer to Columbia, and his girlfriend was already a dance and theater major there.
While at Columbia, Fiore took lighting and cinematography classes. The majority of the films he studied were French and European. Fiore said American cinema wasn’t given a huge focus in film school in the late 1980s when he was a student. While studying, Fiore began connecting with Italian films, specifically from directors such as Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. While watching those films, Fiore said he felt like he had “just uncovered this incredible heritage of filmmaking.”
For leisure, Fiore played soccer with his friend Jeffrey Wisniewski, who was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. The two friends also formed an art-punk band called Anonymous Noise Production (ANP).
We would spend all summer just playing and creating original songs," Fiore said. "We only had two real performances."
After graduating in 1987, Fiore moved to Los Angeles following a call from fellow classmate and friend Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski had been living in Los Angeles for a few months and had secured work on a film by Roger Corman, widely known for his campy B-movies, some of which were later mercilessly mocked in Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. However, high-profile directors have praised Corman. He has been credited for jump-starting the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme.
In a phone interview from Hollywood, Kaminski said Corman needed a gaffer and a key grip for his movie. When the original gaffer quit, Kaminski took over that person’s job. Kaminski then asked Fiore to be a key grip. Fiore’s Hollywood career was born, and from 1987 through 1994, Kaminski and Fiore were roommates, along with Kaminski’s ex-girlfriend. The three shared a small studio apartment while their careers took off.
“The boundaries between work and personal life were nonexistent,” Kaminski said. “It was always about work, particularly making movies.”
Kaminski is now one of the most celebrated living cinematographers. He won the Academy Award for best cinematography for Schindler’s List in 1993 and for Saving Private Ryan in 1998—both directed by Steven Spielberg.
Kaminski and Fiore’s paths oftentimes intersected in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the late ’90s, Kaminski was finally given a chance to direct a major studio motion picture, 2000’s Lost Souls, which starred Winona Ryder as well as Omaha’s own John Beasley. Kaminski chose Fiore to be the film’s cinematographer. Kaminski said Fiore did a fantastic job as a cinematographer, but he had less kind words to say for the script writers.
“In the end, if you don’t have a strong story, great visuals will not improve the movie,” Kaminski said.
Avatar is recognized for ushering a new era of cinema. Before its release, it had been years since Hollywood had made a serious effort in embracing 3D. For nearly 20 years, 3D films were usually shown in museums and zoos (Wild Safari 3D, or director James Cameron’s own Ghosts of the Abyss, whose theme revisited Cameron’s then-biggest cinematic achievement: Titanic). Before that, some of the most notable Hollywood 3D movies were novelty sequels like Friday The 13th Part III and Jaws-3D. Cameron, however, aimed his Titanic-sized ambitions at nothing less than revolutionizing the moviegoing experience.
Fiore said before Avatar’s release, Cameron had a meeting with some of the owners of the largest theater chains—as well as big-scale directors like Robert Rodriguez, Stephen Spielberg, and Peter Jackson—to discuss how 3D could bring more people back into the theater.
“For Jim [Cameron], [filmmaking] is a business program,” Fiore said. “His technology…how [the movie] is going to be perceived—he has done quite a bit of research on what was jarring to the eye.”
To film a movie that takes place primarily in an alien forest, Cameron sought out Fiore, who had filmed a movie that took place in a jungle on Earth: 2003’s Tears of the Sun. That movie, starring Bruce Willis, was filmed in Hawaii. Cameron liked how Fiore shot the environments and brought him in for an interview. Fiore spent two hours interviewing with producer Jon Landau.
Up to that point, Fiore had been filming for two-dimensional environments. Now, his talents were being tested to film in another dimension. New cameras were developed just for the environment, and, because many actors’ roles required 3D, motion-capture technology, Fiore had to film extremely close to them. While the final product was a showcase of innovation, Fiore faced some limitations in how he could film.
“You are creating the perspective of 3D with just color and lights,” Fiore said. He also asked, “How do you create a frame in a two-dimensional plane that looks like three-dimension and fools the eye?”
To answer that question, Fiore worked on Avatar for more than a year. When he joined the project, Cameron had already worked on the motion-capture part of the film for nearly two years. After Fiore’s work was finished, Cameron put yet another year into refining the motion-capture. Fiore saw a rough cut of the film and he remembered being overwhelmed at the thought of the work that the film still needed. Those gaps made seeing the final product all the more special for Fiore.
“It was kind of mind-blowing. It’s still mind-blowing for me to see that,” Fiore said.
Avatar is one of those rare movies that can translate big box office into Academy gold. The movie was nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Director. While it lost both respective awards to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, it won three technical awards, including that for Best Cinematography. In his acceptance speech, in front of 42 million viewers in the United States alone, Fiore began speaking in Italian. Fiore said he still regrets being so caught up in the moment that he forgot to thank his wife, Christine.
Parts of Avatar were filmed in Hawaii, others in New Zealand. Some of Fiore’s favorite locations to film include Morocco, Tuscany, London, and Berlin. He preferred filming on location as opposed to a set because that’s where the surprises happen in filmmaking.
One such surprise came while filming the 1998 dramady Love From Ground Zero.
Fiore was the cinematographer for that film, which was partially shot in Nebraska. While filming, he struck up a friendship with Christine Vollmer, the movie’s costume designer. Fiore admitted with a chuckle to have been taken by Christine’s looks, but after the movie’s wrap party, the two agreed to keep in contact. They dated for about two years before marrying in 2000.
“It turned out to be a more important film for my life than just my career,” Fiore said.
Mauro and Christine continued to try making a life in Los Angeles while raising a family. Two children, Olivia and Tessa, were born in Los Angeles. They also have a son named Luca. Christine began traveling to Omaha to get help from her family when their work demands overlapped. There were times when Fiore had to travel frequently to Vancouver and Toronto to film.
“When I left, Christine was basically by herself,” Fiore said.
Christine and Mauro talked about getting a place in Omaha. They needed help raising their children. Despite having a support system in Omaha, Mauro said he was hesitant about moving.
“What am I going to move to Omaha for? What am I doing?” Fiore asked himself.
Omaha eventually won Fiore over, so much so that Fiore gave a shout-out to the city in his Academy Award acceptance speech. He said he retains a house in Los Angeles for when the demands of filming require him to be in Hollywood.
Fiore’s post-Avatar work is similar to an actor who chooses smaller, more intimate roles before going back into the world of big-budget action movies. He was cinematographer in 2013’s Runner Runner (starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake) and 2015’s Southpaw (Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker) before doing 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix.
As X-Men: Dark Phoenix was in theaters, plans were well underway to film a third Spider-Man movie with Tom Holland as the web slinger. Fiore was not planning on working on the film, as Seamus McGarvey was tapped as the initial cinematographer. Then, 2020 happened. Like those of everyone else on the planet, Fiore’s plans changed.
McGarvey had to step away from his filming duties in Spring 2021 as he revealed he contracted COVID-19. Fiore stepped in for McGarvey and finished filming the Marvel blockbuster.
A good portion of Spider-Man: No Way Home takes place in Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) Sanctum Sanctorum, specifically the undercroft, a dank, dungeon-like environment. It was the area where Doctor Strange locked up all of the foes from various dimensions that Spider-Man captured in the movie. While filming, the directing team stressed the importance of conveying the darkness of the area. It was one of the most challenging things to film in the movie, Fiore said.
“How do you light darkness?” Fiore asked rhetorically. “That’s the tough thing. How dark is dark? And darkness is really nothing if you don’t have light.”
Fiore and his team eventually settled on drilling holes into the set, which was primarily made of solid foam, to achieve some subtle levels of light on the walls. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, more than 90% of the exterior locations in the movie were filmed outside the film studio lot. For scenes that took place in New York City, they filmed the backgrounds in New York, and then matched the lighting conditions in Atlanta, where the film set was located.
Fiore’s next project is a much smaller endeavor from the blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home. Titled A Good Person, the movie centers on a woman who tries to rebuild her life after being involved in a deadly accident. Written and directed by Zach Braff (Garden State), the movie stars Morgan Freeman, Molly Shannon, and Florence Pugh.
The shift from filming a movie with a near-unlimited budget to a small, independent film can be jarring. With smaller movies, cast and crew are far more likely to work closely with the director when it comes to making creative decisions, Fiore said. As the film budget shrinks, good storytelling and simplicity becomes the focus of the picture.
“If I’m interested in the story, I do find a way to make it work,” Fiore said.
Fiore spent more than six months filming Spider-Man: No Way Home. He jokingly referred to any similar length of time getting reacquainted with his Omaha home as his “re-entry period.” When he’s not on location, Fiore gets up early and makes a latte. He then reads the news on his iPad before going to the gym.
Fiore gets back to his hometown of Marzi at least once a year, where he shares a house that he inherited from his parents. When asked where he goes in Omaha to eat when he gets homesick, Fiore said he preferred to cook at home.
“There’s no reason for me to go eat Italian because I know I can cook it better,” Fiore said.
Shopping for ingredients can be difficult. Fiore said there were some Italian delis in Chicago and Los Angeles, but there is such a need for a local Italian deli that he and Christine occasionally talked about opening one in Omaha. In the meantime, he said he settles for bringing back suitcases of cheese and salami after each visit to Marzi.
“Illegal salamis,” Fiore quipped.
Drickey shares Fiore’s love for cinematography. As founder of the Omaha-based multimedia and content creation company Torchwerks, Drickey was already aware of Fiore’s work when he found out that their children attended the same Montessori school. When asked about his favorite movie featuring Fiore as a cinematographer, he quickly said the gritty police drama Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Drickey admired the raw and claustrophobic mood of the film, and how Fiore’s camera work brought the viewer into Washington’s character. Drickey said as a viewer, he felt like he was living inside Denzel’s car for two hours. Being able to establish such a mood is a reason Fiore is so respected in his craft, Drickey said.
“In the business, we call them the ‘one-percenters,” Drickey said. “Less than one percent of people get to that level.”
Visit imdb.com and search for Mauro Fiore for more information.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.