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Submitted by Malcolm Pratt
Original at 6 Degrees
Interview with Mike Figgis, Jack Cardiff, Vadim Jean and Mike Fox
26th April 1999, Phoenix Cinema, Finchley, London
On Monday 26th April at the Phoenix Cinema - Finchley, 6degrees chaired a cinematography panel as part of the "Shorts and Firsts" festival. In conversation were Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs), Jack Cardiff (Powell & Pressburgers cinematographer), Vadim Jean (Leon the Pig Farmer) and Mike Fox (Jean's DOP on One More Kiss)
6Degrees to Mike Figgis - You may have been half joking, but you recently said that Miss Julie is your stab at DOGMA 95. Can you elaborate on that?
Mike Figgis - Well I find it interesting that DOGMA has sprung up in Scandinavia, but things don't spring up in isolation. In the same way that the punk movement didn't spring up just out of the dissatisfaction with the crap that the recording industry had become. I think DOGMA has sprung up, notably in Scandinavia, but also throughout the film-producing world because filmmakers, some filmmakers, are becoming more dissatisfied with the abuse of cinema language and its manipulation through big budget. We might as well say the "H" word - it's Hollywood! There are some brilliant filmmakers in Hollywood but the lure of the dosh has been a totally corrupting factor in the way films are made.
Now, filmmaking is basically open to anyone through video - it's cheap and there really isn't any reason why anyone in the world can't make a film. One of the things that really concerns me, and DOGMA is a really good example of this as well, is that the last 20 or 30 years of abuse of film language and cinematography, in conjunction with the horrific growth in the MTV school of editing, has totally corrupted the language of photography and that a lot of young filmmakers haven't a clue what a camera movement is! I would just like to make this my stand for the evening: That now is the time when there is this access and it is the time to talk about what a camera movement means. So I would ask the really simple question "If you own a tripod, why don't you use it sometimes"?
6Degrees to Vadim Jean and Mike Fox - Continuing the DOGMA theme, you have both been working just with available light on you latest film, which is very much part of the "Vow of Chastity". Can you tell us something about that?
Vadim Jean - I've never taken a vow of Chastity! (Laughs) Mike here has been doing it for years - shooting with available light. Shooting documentaries. How many years Mike?
Mike Fox - Oh, about 20 years.
Vadim Jean - So to most documentary filmmakers this is not a new thing at all. It's what God, or whatever's out there, has given us. The light that we live in is often very beautiful and if you can catch that on cellulite (laughs), sorry celluloid, then in many ways why do anything else except capture what there really is. It's people like Mike and Jack that are able to do that.
Interestingly I think the experience of the film that we have just made together has been that if you take away a lot of the things that are not to do with the filmmaking, but to do with the ego and showing how big a whatsit you've got, it actually frees you up.
Mike Fox - When I went into the film industry quite a long time ago, the thing that occurred to me was that there were two choices given that cinematography was what drove me personally. All my reference points were in cinema, cinema that people were going to see at that time. So, there were two choices for me. The first was that you could go into the camera department and wait for the deadman's shoes and if you were lucky, you might get somewhere by the time you were forty-five and might even get to touch the camera a little later than that. Or there was television.
As a matter of coincidence, in my view, all the things that were exciting in British film were actually happening in Television. It was the film industry that needed the talent. TV was were all the ideas where, that's where people took the kind of chances that anyone who went to see European films would expect as a matter of course. I was very interested! At the time British cinema was either high-gloss and financed from the States or it was "Confessions of a Carry On". Television, especially film documentary, was exciting and it taught me a lot of things.
I kind of realised the importance of being the kind of cameraman that listens because I was told by a sound recordist "Cameramen don't listen and you will never be any good unless you do." What he taught me was to back off from the idea that cinematography was a kind of high table - to realise it was, after all, a language. You learned to move the camera primarily in response to what is going on and secondly to pick up on the rhythm of the dialogue. Hence my ongoing interest in not using light, because in tandem with the practicality of not having two trucks out on the road, what you have to do is relax, let stuff wash over you and move the camera as a response. Make it look as good as you can in the process.
The exciting things about my experience last year, and it was my first feature, one it was shot on Panavision and two we were lucky, we had all the luck on our side. We had modern stocks, fast lenses, good weather and a wonderful cast and an intense story. Because we were a small group of people everybody was very involved, as one tends to be in documentary. Everyone knew where the script was going. It was the sum total of everything I wanted to do.
6Degrees to Jack Cardiff - Of course Jack you also learned your trade in documentary, producing the "World Windows" films.
Jack Cardiff - Well I feel such a very old man when I say this but I actually started in 1918 as a child actor. The extraordinary position of films today when you consider that Titanic cost something like $300m to make and I think that African Queen, that I photographed, cost in the region of $2m. In fact when I was an operator the average cost was around £50,000. I suppose films today have grown up and there is a tremendous enthusiasm, like it or not, for that kind of film.
I remember some years ago being at a rather posh party and someone said "What do you do"? I said "I'm in the film business." And he went "Ha ha ha ha ha" - Today it's not so funny!
Talking about available light though; I wrote something the other day that I further subscribe to here; "the art of the cameraman is to work without his work being noticed". Sometimes on special occasions cinematography can lead. Black Narcissus was made for cinematography - the reason the nuns failed in their attempts was because the place was so beautiful. The cinematography was a piece of cake! But in general the cameraman's work shouldn't be noticed. If you are in a room and the light comes through a window and bounces back from a wall, you examine it in detail and you realise that gives you your soft filler light. But in most cases if you are a big film star and you walk around the room you will look terrible. So that's why the cameraman has to be very clever and put lights bounced off walls to make stars look good wherever they are. It used to be in Hollywood that wherever the stars where they were in constant back light.
I must just tell you this story, excuse me breaking into a story like this but I think it's terrible funny. There was this big French star, can't remember her name, but she was going to do this scene in a water tank and the director thought he would do the right thing and have the water warmed. It took most of the day to get the water to the right temperature. She got in and she was furious - "Oh you zilly fool, when ze water is not 'ot my titties are not 'ard!" Sorry don't know why I told that story.
When I first started with Michael Powell, it was just made for a cameraman. He was such a wonderful director to be with, he was brave and very courageous. I would suggest all kinds of ideas and he would say "I love it, let's do it!" On A Matter of Life and Death we wanted to fade in on the beach in Devon, which was supposed to be heaven and Michael said "I hate these fades from black - I wish we could fade without this blackness!" I said "Michael, just look though the camera." And I walked round to the front of the camera went up to the lens and went "Huuuuuh" and breathed on the lens so that he couldn't see anything. Then the breath sort of faded and revealed the scene. I used to do all these tricks in-camera, but now anything that comes up it's always "Oh don't worry about that it's special effects, they'll do it afterwards!"
Questions are opened to the floor.
Floor to Jack Cardiff - Can I ask Mr Cardiff, out of his great works over many years does he have a personal favourite in terms of it being as close to what he had hoped for?
Jack Cardiff - First of all The Red Shoes because that was a happy collaboration with Michael Powell. There was a terrific co-operation and it was creative all the way through.
But really I would have to say Sons and Lovers because of the adversity on that film. The producer stayed in Hollywood, he never came to England so I never really had a producer and the London office of 20th Century Fox never came to the studio! It was his (the producers) intention to show Hollywood that the film could be made for a very low budget and so everything had to be cut down.
When I went to Hollywood to get the okay on the script there was this extraordinary scene because the producers there said "Jack, we've got to make some changes to the script." You see there was this scene where the girl says to the boy "You shall have me!" - this was Lawrence's dialogue. They said we couldn't say that! Well in the book, they make love eventually and it's a bit of a failure because she's rather frigid and worried. He says to her "you hated it didn't you, you hated it! You shut your eyes and clenched your fists and I felt like a criminal." The producers said "Well. You can't say that." So the new scene was Dean Stockwell looking out the window and the girl is lying down and she say "What's the matter?" and he replies "You would have hated it."
So that was my first big film as a director. I decided to go right back to the book. The interesting thing was that when I took it back to Hollywood to show it to the censors in this great theatre, the lights went up and they said "Well Mr Cardiff we see that you haven't listened to our advice about these cuts." And I said "No I didn't." They said "Well it's all done in such good taste we shan't touch a frame of it."
So really to come back to the question, that was my favourite film because it was such a triumph over adversity.
Floor to Jack Cardiff - I always thought it was rather ironic that your first film as director should be shot in black and white given your colour reputation.
Jack Cardiff - Yes, yes that's true. The fact was I just felt that it should be in black and white because it was all coalmines and grit.
Floor to Jack Cardiff - You photographed Marilyn Monroe. Can you tell us more about that?
Jack Cardiff - Well how many days have we got? Actually she was a lovely woman. Larry called her schizo and he was right in a way. When I first met her I thought my God this is a schoolgirl - just a young girl. She never swore, of course everybody swears in the film business, but she wasn't like that.
She was doing Bus Stop and she showed me this new white makeup that she wanted to wear and I told her it would make her teeth look dark. There was Marilyn, my wife and this other woman from 20th Century Fox and they all went off to the ladies room. The Fox woman said to Monroe that she thought the Italians were so dark and handsome and didn't she think that dark and handsome was so much more romantic. Marilyn replied "I don't really care as long as they think dark!"
Quite often she couldn't remember her lines and also she worried about her tummy as she was putting on weight at the time. She said "Jack, you've just got to warn me with a signal before a take if my tummy is showing." Well okay, my gaffer's name was Tom so I said "When I call Tom, that means tum you see and you should pull in your stomach." So, before a take I might call "Tom!" and poor Tom would come running "Yes?" "Oh, oh nothing." All the time. And then of course she had this line, something like "I'll see you next Wednesday" and it came out as "I'll see you and Tom next Wednesday!"
Somehow we would do all these takes where she would fluff or dry and in desperation Larry (Olivier) would say can we take 2 and 3 and 5, etc. But when we saw the rushes next day she was fabulous - she just had something about her!
Floor to Panel - Can you tell us something about the process that goes on between the director and the cinematographer? How do you go about getting exactly what you want?
Vadim Jean - Well I like to be a technical director, I like to know as much as I can about the process. Also I don't want to ask Mike (Fox) to do something that is absolutely impossible because then you get yourself into a hole. I think we work very well together.
I don't know if you know but there's a thing called video-assist where you can actually see what is being shot through the camera. A lot of directors end up with their heads buried in this thing, often behind a light shade and spend the whole shoot watching a small screen. On this last film I actually did away with video-assist and left Mike to it. Because I know lens sizes and roughly at what distance the size of the image will be it meant that I could actually watch the performances a lot more.
That's one example where the principle of using the light that is available kind of led our relationship. I would watch a take and, in my head, work out what I thought he might have missed. I would say to Mike "Do we do another one?" and he would say yes or no. So I would probably talk to the cameraman directly more than amyone else.
Floor to Vadim Jean - But presumably you plan ages before hand?
Vadim Jean - It varies. On this one we were very much putting actors in a space and then shooting it. A lot unrehersed. I would say something like "I want to shoot this scene here" but, because we were only using the light that was available, that would mean we would need to need to take into account the window. One scene we shot was in an attic, an attic with no light! Now that breaks all the rules. It had two skylights and you can see the way we had to use the space.
Jack Cardiff - That's another thing wrong today. I've seen on soaps today actors that are about three feet from a wall and they have a halo of light they are so well backlit. Where is that coming from? Through the wall?
6degrees to Mike Figgis - You chose to shoot your last three films on Super16. Why is that?
Mike Figgis - Life is short and one of the most boring things about filmmaking is that they take a long time to make. Unfortunately the really enjoyable bit is the shortest bit. The last film was a 3-week shoot, the one before that was a four-week shoot and Leaving Las Vegas was a four and a half-week shoot. They're shrinking. The experience gets better and better at the time but then you seem to get punished for the next year while you try and sell the damn thing.
One thing to be aware of is that film has become so conventional as, technically, it has got better and better - lenses have got sharper, a hundred times sharper than in Jack's day, and with film stocks the grain has got finer and finer. Cranes have got more fluid. Steadicams have got more fluid. It's really got up It's own jaksey, it's become a kind of lets go and prostrate ourselves on the altar of technical perfection.
It's interesting when you consider that photography liberated painting and at the point of the onset of the film camera you got the onset of impressionism, abstract impressionism. In other word paining was allowed to become a much more experimental art form - some would argue. What is interesting is that cinema hasn't had that liberation in a sense. The people who are nor artistic but control filmmaking are obsessed with perfection. In the 60s there was a big splurge of experimental techniques. What I did on the last film, not Miss Julie the one before, I shot on Ectochrome, which as an old newsreel film and you can do a process called 'cross-processing' where you turn it from a positive into a negative. During that process you have no control over the colour, whilst some people would argue that you could do that in post the whole point is that turns you into a control freak. I love the idea that you don't have any control.
Because of a three-week shoot you don't have the time for the lighting, you don't have the time for the usual indulgences of filmmaking - which is basically watching paint dry. Standing around drinking cups of coffee and gossiping - but actually very little work getting done and actors getting so nervous and frustrated because there's ten hours of hanging around in makeup followed by twenty minutes of what you are supposed to do well. It's like starting a racehorse when you've kept it waiting in the box.
My background is in performance. So I love my actors but I love my cinematographer too. I try to create an environment, which is exciting for both of them. I use two cameras all the time, shoot on Super16 and a magazine that will give you a twenty-minute take. So on Miss Julie, for example, we shot a 14-page sequence in one take. A lot of rehearsal, they knew their lines and having then used that as a template because you will never get the same intensity and dynamic between and an actor and a camera in a rehearsal. Forget it, it's a waste of time! Plus you're losing energy that way.
The other thing that I have noticed is that the cameraman, who is the boss of the image, does the master shot and gets it right, has good movement, good technique and then I go round the corner and you get a very interesting piece of light and the editor comes into your brain and says it would be a good idea to get a cutaway or a shot of his hands that might get me out of trouble. So I am constantly nicking those shots.
Going back to your original comment about DOGMA, there is something about it that is high energy. Look at the Oscars last year. Why Festen didn't win best cinematography, best actor, best director, best film! Compared to any other film that was in there and in was shot on a very small DV camera and yet it's a classically shot film and a classically edited film so that says something about the energy of the film. Most contemporary films lack energy. However you jerk it up in post-production, however exciting you make the score and however exciting the editing is - the audience, underneath it all, can detect it all and can tell when a film is basically artificial.
Jack Cardiff - Talking of long takes. Of course Hitchcock made Rope whereby he shot a whole reel in one take, but it was not that difficult in the way that he did it because the whole set was one room. Just like a television series I suppose, that sort of thing. The camera just tracked in and out and shot whole reels in one take.
He got very ambitious after that because, obviously, it had great financial advantages. He decided to make Under Capricorn, which was set in Australia in a huge mansion. I was the cameraman on it.
A lot of good lessons came out of Hitchcock. Like for instance he would only ever cast any actor if they didn't look like any other actor. The number of times I've been watching something with my wife or son and said "Isn't that so and so" and they say "no, that's the other actor dear."
We would rehearse for one reel every few days. One scene we started outside this mansion, which was a whole stage, on this huge electric crane. We had taken a year's supply of carpets from the cinema circuit and covered the whole stage so that we could track anywhere. We tracked in through the hall, which was circular with an enormous staircase, turned right into the kitchen, scene, scene - all over the place - back to the hall?
Mike Figgis to Jack Cardiff - You were operating?
Jack Cardiff - I was the cameraman, the lighting cameraman.
Then we would go into the drawingroom and go round into the hall, up the stairs and along the passage into where Ingrid Bergman was asleep in the bed. We tracked into her room and instead of tilting down to the bed, because the camera was so heavy the whole bed would tilt up towards us!
I had people hiding all over the set with lamps. They would pop up, shine a lamp and have to hide again. The fact was it was a most difficult job because I had to light something like 7 or 800 set-ups in one take! But the net result was very ordinary photography that had taken a super effort.
Mike Figgis - This is one of the things I was talking about. In one of the takes on Miss Julie we were trying to do that 14-minute take and it was a complete disaster. There were moments when the actor does something and you "Oh great camera movement." You swing around and there's the boom-man standing there!