Through the looking glass

Meet local filmmaker Mark Herzig

Mark Herzig (crouched, lower right) on the set of North Beach: Lights, camera, slack!

Mark Herzig (crouched, lower right) on the set of North Beach: Lights, camera, slack!

North Beach and Scherzo will screen Friday only, May 18, at 8 p.m. as a fund-raiser for the Sacramento Film Arts Festival. Herzig and Peterson will attend. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7.50 general admission, and $5 senior and students with I.D. The closest parking is the public garage at 10th and L streets.

It’s a sultry Wednesday about suppertime. Mark Herzig sits across from me at a shaded picnic table in a Fair Oaks park, sipping tan libation from a Java City paper cup. The 50-year-old filmmaker and musician is clothed in dark shorts, sneakers and a white T-shirt with a “Cotton Comes to Harlem” movie poster reproduced on its front. He’s bald with prominent salt and pepper eyebrows, stands 5 feet 5 inches if you go by his driver’s license and exudes an enthusiasm for the arts that is immediately contagious.

Earlier in the day Herzig played a gig with the Bombardiers at Caesar Chavez Plaza. It is his latest entry in a musical profile that includes stints with the Charlie Peacock Group, Surf Dukes and 1970s disco inferno Galaxy. Right now he’s ready to talk film. Actually, he’s been ready to talk film since sending me a tape last year of his short film, Scherzo (currently posted at This locally produced, seven-and-a-half-minute exploration of the interconnectedness of urban strangers has played 35 film festivals worldwide. On Friday, May 18, it plays the Crest Theatre along with North Beach, a modern hipster romance comedy in which a “chronically inactive” slacker (writer and co-producer Casey Peterson) in the infamous San Francisco neighborhood spends one night with a New Orleans stripper and the next day trudging through a pool party, cafés, bars and a band gig in spin-control mode before crashing his girlfriend’s (Jennifer Milmore) retaliatory date with a yuppie “suit.” Herzig is the film’s cinematographer.

A friend who was first offered the job recommended Herzig for the shoot. Mark used a vintage CP-16, a mid-1970s 16mm camera used primarily for newsreels. Production was wedged between his two-year teaching job at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. All but three or four of the shots in the film are his.

The shoot was meticulously mapped and scheduled (three-and-a-half weeks of mostly 10-hour days), but Herzig was given room to collaborate by directors Joe Mortenson and Richard Speight Jr. “It wasn’t like I was just like a talking monkey,” says Mark. “They not only gave me the dignity of my labor, they actually wanted me to bring something to the party, which is a big compliment.”

“Part of what I wanted to do,” he says, “was to show off what a good cinematographer I was—without damaging the story. I think some of the compositions are where I got my licks in—how we composed shots rather than any astonishing lighting. If people are paying attention to the lighting, I am not doing my job.”

A Sacramento resident since the early 1960s, Herzig worked for eight to 10 years as focus puller (one who adjusts focus for the cameraman) and commuted to San Francisco. He learned the mechanics of the camera, gained marketable skills, and then switched to director and cinematographer. His resumé includes more than 500 TV commercials and music videos (30 to 40 percent of his projects are now shot on digital video). North Beach is his third feature. His latest, nearly finished short, EtCetera, chronicles 24 hours in the life of a “functional” drug addict.

“The films I make, I want to make here,” says Herzig, “but I would also like to see one of the theaters here devote a screen to repertory theatre similar to the Lumiere or Roxy in San Francisco, or like the Showcase or J Street Cinema used to do here. Repertory cinema is very important because without knowing what the so-called great films look like, you have no way of gauging really how you feel about or judge films that came out last week.

“If repertory films are available, then Sacramento filmmakers are going to be that much more literate, be encouraged to make more ambitious films, and attract the attention of the larger world to Sacramento. Difficult? Maybe. Impossible? No. Absolutely not.