Thursday, June 16, 2011

Michael Chapman morning discussion hosted by Peter von Bagh

The School (Kitisenrannan koulu), Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival, 16 June 2011.

Q: THE FIRST FILM YOU SAW? The Plow That Broke the Plains, The Wizard of Oz. Wednesday or Saturday afternoon, a bus took us to movies, and that's how I saw a movie every week, an Abbott and Costello movie or a Western. Cinema was the church of the 20th century. My family lived outside Boston, Massachusetts. My father was a teacher, a bit like Mr. Chips, and my mother, a librarian.

Q: WAS THERE A SPECIAL FILM THAT WAS A TURNING-POINT IN YOUR LIFE? Not really. In the childhood, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, later, Jean-Luc Godard. - Dying is easy, comedy is difficult. - Genre movies I'm fond of, they are today's folk tales, fairy tales, they may get deeper into the unconscious than art films. Taxi Driver is a werewolf movie, an urban folk tale. - WWII newsreels had powerful images with profound effects.

Q: THE LIGHT, NATURE. The light on the coast of Maine is like that in Scandinavia.

Q: AFTER COLLEGE? I studied at Columbia University (New York) and hanged out in the fringes of the art world. I had an amorphous idea about being a Bohemian artist. I found work as a freight brakeman, paid rather well, and it was even chic among the Bohemia. I got drafted, and after the military service I stumbled into movie business. I fell in love, and the father of my wife got me into the movie business. I started from the lowest of the low.

Q: THE BEST WAY TO START? That is the way to do it, the medieval guild system. I had to earn a living to support my family. I had to pay attention and learn.

Q: WHAT GOES WRONG IN THE FILM SCHOOLS? Film is a business, and that leads to the art, not the other way round. But ironically now I'm a teacher at a film school. Before studing film-making you should learn about history, culture, literature, life. It's wrong that only film informs film.

Q: IN THE 1930S, 1940S, FILM-MAKERS HAD A BROADER BACKGROUND OF CULTURE. - In the 19th century, opera was a vast business. Thousands of operas were written, it was a huge popular business. But opera became obsolete, and today only some dozens of operas are in the basic repertory. Film is a popular art like opera was, with a vulgar, popular aspect.

Q: YOUR FIRST FILM PROJECTS? I made any film that came along. I was very lucky in becoming Gordon Willis's assistant. We did anything, but we got to do Klute, The Godfather, and Bad Company.

Q: BORIS KAUFMAN? Boris Kaufman was a big cameraman of New York (On the Waterfront). I was his assistant, not on the big films but in the commercials he was reduced to do. He was a terrible operator, he couldn't operate the wheels. He was an old, sophisticated, sweet man.

Q: THE NEW YORK FEEL OF BORIS KAUFMAN? He allowed New York to be New York - large, vibrant, overwhelming. His lighting is wonderful. There is a richness of light and shadow.

Q: DID HE HAVE A WAY TO REFLECT THE ACTOR, A SYMPATHY WITH BRANDO, LIKE YOU HAD WITH DE NIRO? I don't think so. Perhaps symbiosis, not sympathy. Let's not sentimentalize. Cameramen should not think like that, they should not be aware of such things. The word art should be barred from the set.

Q: GORDON WILLIS? Gordy transformed the way lighting should be. In a room, light coming from above, you should leave it like that. The Godfather: that's the way real lighting looks like. Then it was new and realistic. Gordy is the real thing. The Godfather is as good as lighting gets.

Q: A GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN CINEMA. "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" in the 1970s: directors had more freedom, it was the last golden age, and it invigorated cinema. I was at the right place at the right time.

Q: WHAT IS AN OPERATOR? He looks through the camera, moves the camera, and frames the action. I agreed with Gordy on the outset about the balance of the frame. The operator's is the best job, it's utterly satisfying. You have immediate gratification, and there is an athletic quality. I'm as proud of my accomplishments as an operator as I'm of the movies I shot. You need to be relatively young to have the reflexes.

Q: JAWS. In my early DP jobs I operated whenever possible, nominally hiring an operator and telling him to stay away and have a beer. Taxi Driver I couldn't operate. The Last Detail I operated; there was no lighting. For Jaws I was recommended by Phil Kaufman to Bill Butler. I needed work. - But probably it is a good thing to have someone else operate.

Q: THE LAST DETAIL. The script had been around for quite a while. Jack Nicholson was involved in getting it made. Hal Ashby gave Nicholson much freedom. There was a sense of freedom and exuberance, yet it is a sad movie, curiously anti-war. It was realized with primitive lighting. There is the basic contrast of exuberance and containment, it is both sad and funny. Ashby deserves a lot of credit. There was nothing fancy, he was just showing what's happening. - It is Nicholson's best film. Robert Towne wrote for Jack, and he exploded.

Q: IT IS ALMOST A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT NICHOLSON? I guess it was. I didn't really know him then, I was just letting Jack be Jack, and he sure was. I was terrified. It was my first movie as a DP, and I felt a fraud. I let the light be the light, let the camera record what's in front of it. - The locations are real, the places are real. The opening scenes were shot on an actual Canadian base.

Q: MARTIN SCORSESE AND TAXI DRIVER. I shot White Dawn for Philip Kaufman. He had a quality of humanity, a lack of irony, and a kindness. He was among the finest in the 1970s, an underrated director. - Taxi Driver was a union movie, yet made on a very low budget. We got along pretty well with Marty, we were drunk on Godard, and we both talk very fast. - The usual way to shoot night scenes in New York is to hire a tow truck, install a generator, and shoot like on a lit set. - We did not have the time and the money to do that. Turned out to be the right thing. - Let New York light itself, show the spectacle of New York. It was a ghastly place at the time. - In Jaws, the mechanical shark didn't work, and that's why we didn't show the shark until very late. That, too, turned out to be the right thing. - Let the mechanics dictate the aesthetics. - I used wide angle lenses to show the amazing, bloody awful New York. Marty had an amazing eye for set-up. We tried to put the character in the real world.

Q: THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS TO SHOOT IN TAXI DRIVER? The night drives in a taxi. We were squeezed in a real taxi. Those endless driving shots, with Marty and me and the operator and the focus puller in the car, with De Niro driving. We were exhausted after those long, gruelling nights. But after the long, gruelling summer we knew we were onto something.

Q: THE ORIGINS OF TAXI DRIVER? Someplace Marty said that "Taxi Driver, that's Paul's movie". It was an extraordinary script. A folk tale, a werewolf movie. A genre movie. Even his hair changes. Taxi Driver is the movie I'm proudest of.

Q: THE BERNARD HERRMANN SCORE? First I thought it wasn't right, as did Paul Schrader, but later I realized how great it was.

Q: DIGITAL RESTORATION. I'm happy with it. The Eastmancolor negative was a scandal. I have no experience in digital film-making. Others did the technical work. I'd be glad to do The Last Detail in the same way.

Q: THE FILM FEEL. You can't change technology. In a certain sense, film disappears. Grain disappears. I love grain. They try to put it back onto digital. But it is better to get on board than be left behind.

Q: THE LAST WALTZ. It was wonderful, a goodbye to a whole era on the road and an aspect of rock and roll. I had a horrible time in the actual concert. The whole place had been lit by a local crew, completely bugged up. I didn't sleep in 2-3 days trying to change all that. We shot with 10 cameras and had too many cues. I happened to get Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs as operators. It was a nightmare. I was exhausted, but it turned out well. The Band were intellectual leaders of rock and roll. There was a feeling of sadness of moving to middle age. Q: IT WAS A REUNION OF THE FINEST CAMERAMEN OF THE ERA. There were storyboards for the cameras.

Q: RAGING BULL. Raging Bull is a veristic opera, like Cavalleria rusticana. The fights are the big arias, elaborately staged. That's Jake's theatre.

Q: DID YOU KNOW THE FAMOUS BOXING FILMS. We did, and that's where we got the black-and-whiteness. Boxing was a b&w sport, like in Life, and Look. Boxing was far more important then. It was a big deal. On television they had Friday night fight. I knew nothing about b&w. Q: THE BOXING MATCHES ARE DIFFERENT FROM THE REST OF THE MOVIE. That's Marty, not me. In the ring, it is entirely Marty, the very elaborate coverage.

Q:  THERE IS A NEARNESS TO THE CAMERA, BUT TODAY DIRECTORS DIRECT VIA MONITORS. That business of watching through a monitor... if I were an actor, I'd be furious. All directors are isolated now. We were all there then. I don't even think there was a monitor.

Q: THE EDITING TOOK PLACE IN AN ARTISANAL WAY ON THE EDITING TABLE. I think there is a quality in touching the film. It affects the cutting. Ask Thelma. - There is an intensity about everything about Raging Bull. Why, I don't know. Screening the first cut I was disappointed, it didn't add up. Ten years ago, I saw it again and realized I'd been utterly mistaken. It is a horribly sad movie, hideously so, about how everything you do accumulates. Paul had a similar reaction.

Q: MICHAEL JACKSON'S BAD. Poor Marty. [Michael Chapman burst into a very, very long laugh.]

Q: IS MUSIC AN INSPIRATION FOR YOU? Marty can get started first when he knows the music. - The home movies in Raging Bull were inspired by Jake La Motta's actual home movies. They are the only footage in colour in the movie. Me and Marty could not make them dumb enough, so we asked the teamsters to do them.

Q: YOU HAVE COMMENTED SOMEWHERE ABOUT THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE INSTINCT IN ACTING AND CAMERAWORK. There are several ways in which you can see a similarity. You go with what you have, you have to trust yourself. Trust your gut and do it. Actors are brave, they may even be stupid. But once you hit that switch, there you go. It is an instinctual act, a gut act. But in digital, can you be quite as committed?

Q: DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE OLD CAMERAMAN? James Wong Howe. It was more of a formula back then. Boris Kaufman was not necessarily Hollywood, he was a New York guy. It was an industry, studios had a staff. It must have been wonderful to work in the great church of the 20th century. Q: IT IS A HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY. It is a big industry, and the camera is a machine to capture time. But James Wong Howe had an individual touch.

Q: WHICH FILM WOULD YOU TAKE TO THE DESERT ISLAND? Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Rio Bravo, and À bout de souffle.

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