Chris Menges

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10 May 2019
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Chris Menges (CM)


Interviewers: Paul Frith (PF) & Keith Johnston (KJ)

Date 10/05/2019

Total Length 01:26:43

Part One


PF: Well first off, thank you Chris for taking part in the interview today. I think we should begin where your interests in film and photography developed and perhaps your first experiences with colour photography. Perhaps as an amateur in your early life.

CM: Well I always had a Box-Brownie so I was a keen photographer even as… when very young but my first real experience and learning was when I left school and when I was about sixteen I got a job with an American filmmaker called Alan Forbes. Alan made documentary films. He was in London and he taught me about editing, and about camera operating, and about sound, and basically was a very committed filmmaker. And, God, I was lucky to work with somebody who was so inspirational and cared so much about his art and his craft and telling stories. So I was a lucky man, very lucky. I could have ended up working for a bully or somebody who didn’t care but my passion for the cinema as a kid, and his teaching, held me together and inspired me. So it was a lucky start.

PF: So, perhaps we could talk a little bit about your first experiences with colour photography and maybe the comparison to black-and-white filming.

CM: All the films that Alan made were in black-and-white. There was a 35mm film called No Governors about street entertainers in London and that followed Dennis Mitchell’s way of filmmaking which is Dennis would record a lot of pictures and then lay a lot of wild track voiceover on the film and that’s how we made the first film, which was 35mm, with Alan. It was, I think, for nearly half a year we went every night to a café to record wild tracks, having shot the film, to lay over the pictures. Then we had the idea to make a film in black-and-white on 16mm about Padre Borelli in Naples and Borelli had started an orphanage after the Second World War for kids who had lost their parents and we made that film. And then we made the second March to Aldermaston film about nuclear disarmament march in Britain. That was with Karel Reisz. And basically we made several documentaries in black-and-white on 35mm and 16mm and Alan used to get me to operate and it was a learning process but he was a great teacher.

PF: So going back slightly, did you ever have any experience with, sort of, amateur gauge colour stocks, like Kodachrome, or…

CM: No. I started off shooting black-and-white with a Box Brownie and Alan was the person who taught me how to work an Arriflex and Bolex. But they were all in black-and-white.

PF: OK, so when you were moving away from black-and-white filming what was that change like, moving into colour, in terms of your approach?

CM: I think the first experience… because I worked for World in Action doing current affairs, and that was all black-and-white, colour didn’t really become an issue ‘til mid-60s. My first experience with colour was actually quite difficult because we were using reversal colour stock and the latitude is really quite, was quite, limited which made shooting Cinéma vérité style in reversal quite difficult because you had to have a lot of consideration of contrast and lighting ratios. And that’s the… really Cinéma vérité is about catching the moment. It’s not about being perfectly… getting a perfect exposure. And probably that’s why the early Cinéma vérité films were all shot, if they were lit at all, were shot with bounced light to try and get an even exposure so the reversal film could deal with that problem. Of course it changed when they got negative.

PF: So you’ve mentioned before that there is a uniqueness and honesty in the natural light which is captured by documentary. Would you say that was as effective during the move to colour using those reversal stocks or was there something more difficult in trying to capture…

CM: In a funny way black-and-white is more obstinate than colour because black-and-white, you need to find tone and you have to have a good tone. If you don’t, you lose the image. And the colour stock will record a colour so you don’t have that tonal problem. So it’s different. But… I don’t know. Can you try the question again?

PF: So I guess in the early years of, perhaps, Eastmancolor and the reversal stocks obviously they improved throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Would you say you would have had a preference for black-and-white perhaps in those early days?

CM: I think, really, probably that’s the way I wouldn’t look at it. The way I would think is that really it’s about the writing and the story and what you’re trying to say. So if the story could come first I think you’ll find that the inspiration for good photography comes from within the writing. And it’s surprising how many directors you work for who haven’t the faintest idea really how to photograph a film but if you’re inspired by the writing and the ideas in the story, and possibly the acting, I think the solutions to technical problems become second nature. So, some films are enriched by being in colour like, say, I did film with Ken Loach called Black Jack which was in colour and it had its own problems because we had a very small budget but that film was definitely a more powerfully told story in colour. Another film like Looks and Smiles was shot in black-and-white and I think colour would have been in destruction. When we shot Kes the stipulation from the studio was that it was shot in colour and the way we dealt with that was we told, I told, Tony Garnett the producer that I wanted to pre-flash all the negative before we went into production. And Tony, being a sort of a creative producer and not a negative kind of producer, said “That’s fine” but of course he never realised the huge risk he was taking if the lab had messed up the pre-fogging, pre-flashing. So we pre-flashed the whole of the negative before we shot it which is actually almost unheard of. People pre-flashed the print but not the neg. But that enabled us to shoot a really tough story and help the colour not dominant the film because the colour could, can always, distract from the heart of the story. If you look at Roberto Rossellini’s films in the Italian New Wave, to me they could never have been in colour. They are powerful because of their black-and-white photography. But I think, as I said earlier, I think it’s the… the story has to, in a way, dictate how… whether it should be shot in colour or black-and-white and how you might light a scene and how you might aesthetically think about a scene.


PF: So, just to reiterate that point, they were the considerations. You would look at the story first perhaps and have… would you have a discussion with the director or the producer?

CM: I mean, the thing is, you choose a story because of the writing and then once you say “I’m into this” the… of course, you’re in a collaboration with the director, a producer, with the designer, with the costume designer, with everybody, with the writer, with the actors. And you’re trying to find a balance through all these different talents to make a great film. So yes, it would be obviously in collaboration. You can’t be an island on your own.

PF: Now, during this period you were talking about, I guess it’s around the time of Kes, there was a push to all-colour production by the end of the ‘60s. Almost all of British features were shot in colour. Do you… from your experience, was there, kind of, was there ever a push back from that. You know, mentioning Kes, you were, kind of, pre-flashing to ensure that the colour didn’t dominate the story. Do you think there was ever attempts to, kind of, create an image, an almost kind of… that had a black-and-white look but it was in colour? Did that…

CM: The film I did before Kes was, I was Brian Probyn’s operator on Poor Cow. And the thing about Poor Cow was that Ken obviously… before that he’d worked with Tony Imi on Cathy Come Home, which is in black-and-white, which is a marvellous film. Then he worked on Poor Cow with Brian Probyn and he was obviously very concerned, like Brian was, that the Eastmancolor negative would dominate the story, would kind of punch holes in the story in its brilliance, in its cleverness, in its variety of colour. And the way Brian tried to deal with that was… he still had the movie lights in the room on the set with the actors but just before takeover he would get talcum powder and he would scatter it in front of the lights to try and soften the light. Asides from it being carcinogenic, basically after three takes the whole set would be covered in white. It didn’t really work very well so when Ken asked me to do Kes, we decided to work to find a… to make a new way to approach the work. So we flashed all the neg, not the print. We made a new, kind of, decision between us, which was in collaboration completely, that we would keep all the movie lights off the set, they would not have any lights in the room, and that we would never break the circle of the acting. We would always be outside the circle of the performance so that, of course, in its very nature meant that we were on longer lenses. The stock was incredibly slow, it was 100ASA tungsten and… the stock was very slow at 100ASA so it was not an easy thing to achieve but that’s what we did.

PF: Talking about those techniques in those early years that you were using Eastmancolor, was there anything else? Did you use any other devices to try and, you know, we hear about people putting, in particularly, gauzes over the lens to…

CM: I kind of… I had Dior stockings and all those things but I actually felt in a way they were slightly fake and false and I was trying to make an image that was believable. So, I think that would be a false step. It would take the audience away from what you’re trying to capture which is the words, like the sound is as important as the image, what they’re saying matters. If you put a gauze in front somehow it’s a distraction.

PF: So you like to kind of keep as much of what is happening in front of the camera and transfer that to the negative? You like to keep as much of that real…

CM: Yeah and I think in the documentaries that I shot, one had learnt… I never carried lights. I shot… I always worked with natural light because the subtlety and the huge range of different colour temperatures and different… the blue, or the green, or the yellow, or the white, a huge range of colour that God would create by the sun bouncing off, say, green grass you got green, the sky is blue you see the tinges of blue. And I remember as an assistant working with DPs who would always go to a location and black everything out and I always thought, well they’re never going to be as clever as God. They can never create the amazing light. When Darius Khondji was shooting Evita for Alan Parker, I asked the operator Mike Roberts I said “How was it, Alan Parker working with Darius Khondji on Evita?” and he said “Well, Alan said, ‘Well let’s see what the frog does’”, and this is day one. And they’re shooting in a big kind of butchers, which had been converted into a set, and they all took their time setting up on day one and Mike set up the camera, Alan did his bit with the actors, and then suddenly Darius said “Ready” and they’d only been there half an hour. And they were all gobsmacked. And what Darius had done, which is what any sensible person would really do, he’d been there the day before, he’d checked the time of day, the length, how long the scene was, and he took a gamble. He knew that at seven-thirty the sun would be there and it would stay with him and he could match it until about one o’clock. So, at seven-thirty, he said “Turn over” and they were gobsmacked that he would take that risk. But that’s the way to go, taking risks.

PF: I was just about to say, was that… is that your kind of philosophy as well?

CM: Oh I would always do that. I would always try and work with a natural light.

PF: In what instance would you perhaps use artificial lighting and, perhaps, would you ever use colour filters at all to try and…

CM: When… if you’re losing the light, or you lose the light if a cloud comes, then yeah I would use a big, an arc, a brute or an 18k, and then I would filter it to try and match the light that I’d just lost. It’s not that I wouldn’t… I would use lights, but I would use lights so I could stay in continuity.

PF: And would the same apply for coloured filters? You wouldn’t use them to, kind of, enhance the image. You would do it to…

CM: I used to in documentaries. I used to use an Aero 5, a yellow filter, when I’m shooting colour sometimes and I would use [corals ?], and I would use Harrison blues. Emotional, depending on where the story was at, I might induce the negative one way or another. So yes, I think, like we were talking about, the stories, everything, the mood of the photography and the lighting comes from what you read and how it affects you. And then off you go and do your thing and hope that everyone likes what you’re doing. So you might use filters to change things.


PF: Could you talk a little bit, perhaps, about your experience with Eastmancolor itself? You were talking before about some of those earlier stocks with the lower ASA. Did it ever get to a point where you were more satisfied with the colour reproduction with a more natural sort of look to the film, or were you always trying to enhance that at all, the negative?

CM: I think that I was always trying to… I was always trying to make Eastmancolor neg more, I’m going to use the word subtle, more gentle, more… less in your face. I was always trying to do that. And, as I said, Brian Probyn did that with talcum powder and we did it by pre-flashing. So I was always working… like if when lighting [it’d ?] quite often be a question of using negative light rather than positive light. But again it’s a question of observing what you see in real situations and that’s a great teacher.

PF: So, sort of talking about Eastmancolor still, as we’re moving sort of into the late-70s when the stocks were becoming much faster, do you feel that there was less that you had to do to achieve the look you wanted? When you put the negative in the camera were you generally satisfied that you would get a better look? Thinking about, probably in the ‘60s they had stronger blues in the Eastmancolor. They were, kind of, the colours were much stronger.

CM: But I mean, when you have a close relationship with the grader and the lab, you can almost fix any problem. There are certain problems you can’t fix, like cyan and magenta can be problems, but on the whole you can almost fix any problem with working with a lab. The big problem that you can’t solve is speed. So I used to send my 16mm colour neg to Chemtone in New York and they had a boosting system and fortunately ATV allowed me to send my rushes to New York to be processed so I could push my neg at least a stop. And then one of the lenses I used a lot was a .95 Angenieux which, of course, is two stops faster than the standard lens. So I was basically getting, even in the mid-60s, I was getting… when did the 500 stock come out?

PF: I think it was…

CM: 93?

PF: Probably, yeah.

CM: But I, by using Chemtone processing in New York and by using the Angenieux .95 lens, I was able to shoot in almost any circumstances. That was always my issue, was enough light for exposure. That was my number one concern, whether I was on the back of a fire engine in Chicago, or with the LAPD or anywhere, or in the jungle in Burma, was having enough exposure. So that was my issue and that’s how I dealt with it by getting it processed in New York or by using an Angenieux .95 lens.

PF: You mentioned the labs there. What about the labs in the UK? Did you have a particular relationship with…

CM: There were two labs I worked with a lot and one of the people I enjoyed most of all was a man called John Ensby who was at Technicolor and then David Hemmings at Kays. Yeah that relationship was incredibly important, as important as dealing with, or as working with the art department or the costume department, and the schedule. I suppose equally important is scheduling of a film to make sure the light works for the story and in serving the actors.

[00:25:30 – 00:25:40 brief interruption]

PF: Yes so, to go back to that Chris, the relationship you had with Kays and Technicolor, did you have much say in which lab processed your work, maybe thinking about the features? Or was that largely determined by the producer?

CM: I always used to work with Technicolor but then on, I remember on Local Hero David Puttnam saying we had to use an English lab so we went to Kays. But most of my relationship was with Technicolor.

PF: So, thinking about working with the grader, I know you said before that you like to keep the essence of the negative. Can you talk a bit about that process of working with the grader and ensuring that that image was maintained right through processing to printing? How much involvement did you have there?

CM: I think that the biggest problem is always that the directors always spends a long time in the cutting room with the dailies, with the rushes, and he gets used to it looking in a certain way. Now, if those dailies weren’t printed exactly as you, as the DP, wanted you might then have a problem with the director thinking you’re changing his film. But, on the whole, if you worry about it and care about it from the word go it’s going to be a good collaboration. If you know which battles to fight.

PF: And thinking about the final print of the film, how involved were you at that stage, because…

CM: Always. And largely I always achieved what I set out to achieve. I remember on The Reader, that was one of the films that was a bit odd, I’d shot the love scenes between David and Kate. I shot the scenes where, the love scenes, they were naked and I shot the scenes where their nakedness was minimal visually, I kept them in shadow. But when it came to the grading Stephen Daldry wanted the bodies brighter so he absolutely insisted, and I fought him but I lost, to create a field over the areas of the bodies so he could print it lighter. Which seemed to me miscommunication because I wanted the nakedness to be minimal, he wanted it much more. But otherwise, I would say “Do your job and they’ll be happy”.

PF: Thinking about Technicolor, obviously imbibition printing ended in the UK in the mid-70s. Where any of your films released using IB prints at all?

CM: I’m not sure.

PF: Just thinking about if there are any differences between the labs that were printing your films, if you had a preference if they went through Technicolor or Rank for their final release print, but I guess…

CM: There was always some of that and often you weren’t told but I would go, whoever processed the neg I would go through to the final print. What happened after then, you can’t tell can you? I mean, it’s like DVDs. You may have graded the original film but they’re not going to invite you to grade the DVD. And what’s good about Kes is that at Criterion, when we did Kes for the American market, not only did we manage to restore the original soundtrack, which on release Kes was considered not really intelligible so they made us dub a lot of it, on the Criterion release we repaired the negative, we made a new negative, we managed to get the original soundtrack and we managed to grade it so that it, the Criterion copy looks magnificent. If you compare it with a copy that… whoever releases it in Britain, it’s crap. Criterion one is brilliant.


PF: It was something I was going to ask you about later on actually Chris. What have your experiences been working with blu-rays and rereleases of your films? Have you been able to, kind of, think back to when you made it and, kind of…

CM: Yes. I mean, I keep all… I’ve kept all my scripts, and I’ve kept all my notes so I know where to go but Kes is the only film that I’ve actually signed off on the grading. I mean, even Michael Collins I didn’t do the final grade of that on the DVD, on the blu-ray. I think that the distribution companies think they know best and they also think it’s going to cost money and cause delays. Well it doesn’t cost money and it doesn’t cause delays and they don’t know best.

PF: And, you know, that’s been a topic we’ve been discussing during our project. This issue of these films being released digitally with a different approach, you know, a lot of these companies are looking for the best image but that’s based on their opinion of what the best image is. What are your feelings on that?

CM: I feel that the person, whoever it is, who made the original commitments will be the only person who knows what it should look like. Nobody else knows. Directors definitely don’t know.

PF: Do you ever see that sometimes when you watch your films on… when you see them on television? Do you ever, kind of, have a moment where it’s not been graded correctly for broadcast?

CM: Yes.

PF: But that’s interesting because, you know, thinking back to… it’s very difficult to see some of those original film prints again and, you know, a lot of them have faded over the years. So, you know, these are the best versions available but they’re still not quite capturing the original look of the film are they.

CM: It’s true.

PF: There was something else I wanted to touch on when we were talking about colour and natural lighting. In the past you’ve mentioned that… moonlight as being a blue colour and watching Walter again recently I noticed that we see that in a number of your films and I was wondering, is that a particularly important colour in your filmmaking because I’ve noticed it several times now. Sort of in evening scenes we see that soft blue lighting cast across the scene.

CM: Well it should be more green. Never quite got it right. Should have more green in it.

PF: Would you say, is there any other, kind of, colours that you’ve, kind of, always gone towards in your filmmaking. Are there…

CM: I think, I honestly think that colour is dictated by script and by words, and by your emotional development with the story. I really do.

PF: So we’ve talked about your relationship with the labs. How closely did you work with the costume department and the art department? Did you start, before filming, did you have much of a relationship?

CM: Well, on films I always try and get involved in the costume and the art department and the design department because it’s going to affect what you do as a DP. And also it’s part of the emotional journey. And there needs to be good collaboration to make something work, you’re not doing it on your own. So the lighting design and the costume design, the design of the sets, are all crucial to the whole working. So yes, I get involved from as early as possible.

PF: And would you say that you let the designs influence your approach or would you, kind of, have your own say into the work they’re doing?

CM: Well I always have my own say but I try to be always able to see a better idea than my own. I’m a magpie. I always steal a better idea.

PF: Actually on that point, we’ve talked about some of your earlier influences. Has there been any people working within the period of your career that you’ve looked towards as, you know, been an inspiration for your work?

CM: Oh, I think definitely the designer on Michael Collins, Tony Pratt. I think the designer on The Mission, Stuart Craig. And I think the designer on The Killing Fields, they were all completely inspirational and I’m quite sure that the photography was hugely better because of those men’s talents. They’re truly great designers. I’m fortunate to have worked with them. And there have been designers who I’ve really not enjoyed working with at all and have been a real pain in the butt. But on the whole there have been some great designers I’ve enjoyed.

PF: So if we can move on to talk about some of the specific films you’ve worked on in your career. You’ve already talked about working with Brian Probyn on Poor Cow. Was that one of your first experiences working with colour on a feature? Was that the actual first?

CM: Probably.

PF: So if you could talk us through that experience of moving from black-and-white to colour on a feature. Was there anything different? Did it feel different?

CM: One felt that there was a lot more light on the set and there was more generators, and more cable and more sparks. And everything was a little bit more larger. And I think that was partly the way we worked. I think that later on, on for instances Kes, we worked out how to deal with that. Yes, so obviously colour does have needs.

PF: And you mentioned before about trying to limit the amount of colour in those films. How did you see Poor Cow and Kes in relations to other films of that period? Thinking about ’66 ’67…

CM: Can you name some of those films?

PF: Well if we think about films like Modesty Blaise or, you know, these really vibrant ‘60s films. Very contrasty…

CM: But that’s not kitchen sink is it.

PF: No.

CM: I mean, Kes had to reflect what Barry had written. It was hardly Modesty Blaise. So it was subdued in a way that the life of that kid in Barnsley was subdued except when he came into contact with the kestrel. So we served Barry Hines’ writing by making it subdued and flashing the neg. And everything about the costume and the design was to make it as real as possible and not a fantasy.

[00:39:30 – 00:39:42 PF & KJ check equipment]

PF: So if we can talk about working on Lindsay Anderson’s If…, could you talk to us a bit about your experience on that film perhaps in relation to the black-and-white and the colour and shooting?

CM: So, If… was a really important film for me because it came just before Kes and the film I’d been doing before that I was in the Amazon with Adrian Cowell with the Kreen-Akroree and Orlando and Cláudio Villas Boas. So I came in to Cheltenham onto If… right from the Amazon and then the next thing I was going to work on, and I knew I was going to work on, was Kes. So, Miroslav Ondrícek is a great DP who had shot the fabulous films of Miloš Forman and The White Bus for Lindsay Anderson too. Miroslav’s films had nearly all been in black-and-white but when I was phoned up and asked to be his assistant it was an exciting moment because he was one of the DPs that I really respected and could learn a lot from. So the film was shot on the same negative we used on Kes which is 100ASA and the problem that we had was some of the locations were huge and Miroslav said it would be impossible on his budget to light them. And so Lindsay said “We’ll shoot it in black-and-white” and I said to Lindsay, on one of the scouts, I said “Won’t that be weird? You suddenly cut to black-and-white scenes? What are critics going to make of it?” and he said “Oh don’t be ridiculous. They’ll think it’s art.” So that’s what happened. We shot those scenes in black-and-white because we couldn’t afford to do them in colour. In a funny way it became, it almost added tension to the film and it certainly caused the critics a few raised eyebrows. So in a funny way it became controversial when in fact it was just to shoot it in colour would be too many lamps. So it was as simple as that really. It was, for me, a great experience because I learnt about [unintelligible] and I learnt about a multitude of sparks and I learnt… Miroslav had me organise things for him the way he wanted it so I was learning very fast and I could take all that help he gave me, inspiration he gave me, on to Kes. So, for both Ken Loach and myself it was a great experience, important experience.

[00:43:00 – 00:43:12 End of Part One]

Part Two

KJ: So, we’ll continue talking about some specific films and directors that you have worked with. If we start off with… we’ve talked a little bit about Kes already, but perhaps talk a bit more about that relationship with you and Ken Loach, kind of your approach to using colour through the various films you’ve made with Ken over the… particularly during the 1970s. Kind of your assumptions that you, perhaps, you developed together around the use of colour.

CM: Well, the film we made after Kes was After a Lifetime by Neville Smith, set in Liverpool, and that was a colour film. And it was in colour because it was made for London Weekend Television and that was… they needed, because of their license and because of their commercial needs, they needed it in colour. It was produced by Tony Garnett, it’s a beautiful script by Neville Smith. Again, we tried to slightly subvert the colour by using grey tones and I think we even went as far as to use a bit of smoke, a bit of atmosphere, and I definitely remember using a light Harrison fog, again to try to desaturate the colour. And it was a winter story and a very sad story of a funeral and the relationship of the family. It was also quite a difficult shoot. I remember shooting, grabbing shots when the funeral car came to the house and there were people, real people, in the street looking out the windows at us filming and I would grab shots in, kind of, Ken Loach style and got into terrible trouble with them. London Weekend continuity girl who said “If you do any more shots like that I will report you” and I’m going [looks panicked]. So it was made under a fair amount of difficulties but, nevertheless, I think a great film. And then we did a black-and-white film, I think it was paid for by Central Television, ATV, Looks and Smiles about unemployment in the north of England. And the black-and-white definitely served the story. It kind of gave it a pathos. And at that time I’d shot a black-and-white documentary film with the MPR about a travelling circus, the Robert Brothers circus. I did that collaboration with Nick Gifford. That was in black-and-white and that was all handheld. I think if you said “What’s your favourite way of working” it’s with the MPR handheld and shooting wobblyscope. That’s what I love most. And often when you’re shooting wobblyscope because you’re doing your own focus pulling, because to have someone hovering on your camera and getting in your way you wouldn’t be able to move and catch the action if somebody was hovering over you. So when you’re shooting wobblyscope, for me anyhow, I often used to shoot on long lenses so I was sure about the focus but the problem about long lenses is setting the whole scene, seeing the whole scene, because you’re on a tight lens. In John Huston’s book he talks about a way of shooting where he talks about three shots in one. So you might start wide with the cowboys coming towards you, and then you might pan around and end up on a mid-close-up of a character, and then you might be motivated to pan back on a tight shot. And that’s all in one. And he said that’s an intelligent way to shoot a film. So that’s what I try to do. Not that I was copying him but it became obvious that the only way to capture motion and make sure you’re in focus is to pan and develop the shot so the audience knows where they are. If that makes sense?

KJ: Yeah. And did, I mean, is there… you talk about, kind of, doing that kind of work and black-and-white films. Is there a difference, or are there problems, in doing that kind of work in colour that is different from doing that kind of work in black-and-white or is there… is that not an issue?

CM: No, I think… I mean obviously black-and-white stock is faster and the speed, as we talked about before, is absolute paramount because it means you can shoot without lighting, you can use natural light, so… but I don’t think it’s different I just think the big issue there is the ASA, in my opinion. That’s a thing that I’ve always fought for, is a good ASA.

KJ: So I mean in that kind of ‘70s period, you’re working on different documentaries and you’re working obviously with Ken Loach on a number of those, and other, sort of, projects. What was the relationship between you and Ken Loach? Were you, I mean, was that a good kind of collaboration in terms of your approach to the style of the film, how it looked, the use of colour or black-and-white, depending on the project?

CM: It’s interesting because Barry Hines’ brother talks about our working relationship in his book that he wrote recently. He said that we were both a little stubborn, that we were both quiet and thoughtful, and he even used the word respectful. So I think we had a really good collaboration. I know that when Ken was going to shoot After a Lifetime he was so desperate that I shot it that he flew all the way over to Ireland where I was working on Black Beauty to try and persuade me to do it. So I think it became… our relationship was very important. I didn’t end up shooting that film but we had a very strong relationship. I just think we instinctively, by luck, had the same kind of approach to the work. So we did about eleven films.


KJ: Was there an obvious difference, you know, in terms of that relationship between a project like Kes, which you’ve described as being a response to the script and the story being told, and something like Black Jack which feels like a very different kind of film because it’s much more of a kind of period piece than Kes which is, kind of, very contemporary. Did you feel like you changed your style for that, or the film style, or was it…

CM: I think James Hill had done a lovely film called Josphenine and he asked me if I would shoot Black Beauty. And it was in Ireland and I was available and I was a freelance technician so I jumped at the opportunity. It was a completely different experience. I’m not saying it was an unhappy experience but the whole… it wasn’t like working with our Ken at all. And of course the style of the lighting and the camerawork was different to what we were trying to achieve on Kes. James Hill had no worries about having movie lights on the set. In fact, if you didn’t have movie lights on the set he was worried that it wasn’t going to come out so I’d bring large north lights onto the location on the set. And of course north lights can create a beautiful penetrating soft light and that’s kind of how I lit the film. But it wasn’t… it would never be a collaboration like with Ken Loach and also I wasn’t operating and I think, for me, operating is crucial because not only are you looking through a round glass, you’re seeing the exact focus, you’re seeing the exact sense of the light. You’re also seeing the eyes and the performance, and while you’re operating, between and during takes, you understand what coverage might be needed to complete the scene. So you’re actually ahead of everybody else in the sense that you’re seeing the performance on the round glass and you’re working out what you need to cover. In fact, whether the scene needs any coverage. So, when you’re operating, I think, for me anyhow, you’re learning as you shoot.

KJ: And on Black Beauty you weren’t doing that? You had a camera operator.

CM: So, we had a camera operator on Black Beauty so the experience was different, very different.

KJ: What about a film like Gumshoe, which was your first with Stephen Frears, which was the same sort of time period? Again, is there a different sort of…

CM: Gumshoe was interesting inasmuch as it was Stephen’s first feature feature. And Stephen was very inexperienced, a little bit scared. We had a wonder script, again by Neville Smith, the great Albert Finney and, as I said earlier, when you read a script you come to a visual, chemistry of visual, sense of what the story should be, how it should be seen, and you hope that what you see is what the director might see and what the actors might see and what the writer has seen, and the many people making a film. But, nevertheless, you have your vision and that’s why you took the job. You didn’t take the job about money, you took it because that’s something you fancy and what I saw… I saw Gumshoe like the films of doing French New Wave, I thought of it as developing shots, I thought of it as being that the camera was a character and the camera became a part of the actual story. And the thing was that it was my naivety in a sense because that’s quite tricky to achieve if you want to be at a certain standard of work. And Albert Finney is a brilliant actor but he’s best on take one so we’d be lagging behind him. We’d go for take one and we missed some connection in the complicated set-up and then Albert would complain about why he has to do it again. So all I can say about Gumshoe is, there are great things in it but it didn’t really quite work. And after that Stephen went off and got a job with Thames TV to learn how to be a director and he learnt but he didn’t really know when he did Gumshoe. And I certainly didn’t know because it was my second or third film.

KJ: I mean, you talk about, you know, thinking about in terms of the French New Wave, were there any, I mean given the topic of the film, did you think about, kind of, the classic Film Noirs of the ‘40s or the… that, the more kind of, I suppose, John Huston, Maltese Falcon

CM: We did talk about that endlessly and that’s what Neville had written and yes, we did quite a lot of studying different films and different ideas. It’s almost instinctively in the script. If you read the script, you know where you’re headed. It’s a superb script. I don’t know if it’s any good as a film.

KJ: So you have that period in the late-60s early-70s, you know, you go from If… to Kes, you’ve got Gumshoe, Black Beauty. You then spend quite a lot of the ‘70s working largely in television?

CM: Yes I did. I went back to Burma with Adrian Cowell in seventy… straight after Gumshoe ‘cos I think I must have been a bit pissed off with the cinema business. And I went off with Adrian Cowell to northern Thailand and we crossed the border into Sharn State, Burma, illegally with SSA army who were fighting for independence. Unfortunately we were only supposed to be away five months but it became a long journey of a year and a half and my youngest son was actually born in Bangkok while I was up in the Burmese jungle. The Sharn and the… the Kuomintang declared war on the Sharn and the Sharn army. The Sharn army would spend their whole time running away from the Kuomintang and with us following them. It was a complete disaster. It was supposed to be about opium and the opium trade and the Wa State and the Sharn people and the [unintelligible] and the Hakka and all these hill people, but it was a year and a half battle. Then I came back and I went on doing documentaries.

KJ: And did your… we talked a little bit about this earlier on, but did your approach… do you think you’ve got a different approach when doing television to film? Or is it just, again, is it just the story or the, kind of, thing you’re trying to…

CM: I think it’s always the story. I think what you learn in documentaries about natural light and how it works, and how, you know, how the colours of the spectrum… I’m explaining this badly. When you’re shooting documentaries you’re working with natural light and you start to learn about shadow and brightness, about different colours, about different reflecting colours. I mean we think of light in its purity but in fact it’s what is reflected and it’s the reflected light that’s the important thing if you’re a documentary cameraman and you realise that the complexity of reflected light is something that you could capture in the cinema film. I’m not explaining it well but documentary films, if you’re working with natural light, do teach you about lighting, about colour, about contrast, about different reflective values. You never get that chance on a feature film. If you started… if you came as a clapper boy on, or clapper girl, on a feature film and you stayed only shooting features, you would never have the opportunity to study light that you do have on a documentary film and that’s a priceless experience.


KJ: So do you think that experience in the 1970s… did it change how you looked at film work as you moved into the ‘70s and the ‘80s?

CM: It just made me confirm what I’d always thought, that cameramen who walk in on a set and black-out daylight and light it are actually crackers. They should embrace and understand what the light is, what the real light is.

KJ: Perhaps, there’s a… we were looking and talking about your career and there’s a moment in the late-70s early-80s where you work, I mean, you work alongside Peter Suschitzky on The Empire Strikes Back. There’s film in New Zealand which I’m forgetting the name of, which is kind of big…

CM: Harley Cokeliss’ film, yeah.

KJ: Those feel very different in your career in terms of the kind of films.

CM: Well I think the film in New Zealand was done for a friend and I was able to take my kids with me, it was during their summer holiday. So that’s a fair enough reason to go. I only really work on films that scripts is what I really like. And the thing about The Empire Strikes Back is that Peter, it was shot at Elstree Studios, Peter was a very experienced DP because, partly because of the films he’s done but also because he’s done, had done, so many commercials. He had a big vocabulary. He needed someone who would actually do what he said and not mess him around. So he got me employed for four months and I spent four months basically doing blue screen working with a Todd-AO camera and doing plates for the film. And it was four months of getting to work at eight-thirty and going home at six. It was a wonderful learning curve and also my kids thought that I’d finally arrived. They were lovely. I mean, I knew nothing about blue screen and the visual effects unit, or whatever unit I was on, the whole crew were… they knew I was a novice and they looked after me. They were wonderful. And Peter would come over every now and then and check on what we were doing on our stage and sometimes he’d not like it and sometimes he would love it. It was just working to his needs.

KJ: Do you think anything from that experience stayed with you for films you made later?

CM: I think that you learnt about big lamps and lots of lamps and you learnt a bit about scheduling and about timing and about visual effects which, they’re things which are all useful to know about. And Peter, I thought lit the film beautifully. And Irvin Kershner is a wonderful director to work with. Very tolerant, very, I thought, a great man.

KJ: We were talking earlier a bit about Angel, which you must have made in that early-80s period, and, sort of, working with Neil Jordan. Is it worth maybe talking again about it, on camera, the, kind of, his approach to colour or that film’s use of colour?

CM: David Rose, who’s commissioning producer at Channel 4, asked me if I would go to Ireland to work with Neil Jordan. He said it’s a script that was being partly produced by John Boorman and he told me roughly what the story was about and I met Neil in Dublin and got on really well with him and he hadn’t the faintest idea how to make a film but he was a good writer. As I’ve said before, the words are the most important thing and the words were pretty amazing, Stephen Rea was pretty amazing. The only thing Neil said is he would love to explore colour so I took that que and explored colour. For instance, when Honor’s singing I chose a real restaurant, because we had no money, that had all these fantastic neon signs in it. I went everywhere, I went for colour. It was a small budget, a Channel 4 film, but it was pretty good, pretty good experience.

KJ: So that was a chance for you to, kind of, explore some of the more obvious extreme sides of colour rather than the more naturalistic?

CM: Yes, absolutely. I suppose the same thing also slightly when…. Stephen Frears when I did Dirty Pretty Things. To us that again was about colour and it was about vibrant colour on Dirty Pretty Things. I think that’s what Stephen wanted.

KJ: Yeah it’s an interesting film for that kind of combination of…

CM: But my favourite film with Stephen is called Last Summer, made for Thames Television. It’s by far my favourite film, with Richard Beckinsale. And the energy of the light in that film is amazing. I think it was ’76, 1976, and there was not one day of the shoot when the sun didn’t shine. It was… London was completely vibrant with light and it was so exciting to catch it. Normally when you work in London, or in Britain, you expect the morning to be maybe sunny and the afternoon cloudy and that won’t match. Or the whole day is raining and that won’t look very interesting. Or it’s, you know, the light is so inconsistent and you’re so jealous of people who live in Italy or American where their sun is vibrant and there’s energy. And that’s what you want isn’t it? You want, with the photography, you want to create energy and what you get is pea soup. So that film is my favourite film that I did with Stephen Frears.

KJ: I want to move on to talk a little bit about the two films you make with Bill Forsyth, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. Obviously when we talk about, you know, the quality of light and the, kind of, the use of light… I mean Local Hero is often talked about in terms of its use of light, particularly sequences towards the end, a lot of it being shot at, sort of, magic hour. I wonder if we could talk through about that kind of collaboration with Bill Forsyth, particularly on Local Hero but also again on Comfort and Joy. Again, about the relationship between you and the director and kind of the, what you felt you could bring to those films.

CM: I’m not the person to ask. The person to ask is Bill. I like Local Hero a lot because I thought it was, it had a great heart as a story and Bill is a very funny and kind man. Particularly the west coast of Scotland does actually have, during the day, light can be amazing and it’s gentle but it does have energy. And I guess as a DP what you’re searching for is energy in your work. We were talking earlier about the flatness, that light can be quite [unintelligible] and I remember from Local Hero a lovely script, some good actors, some fabulous light, and humour and the friendship. One of the kindest directors. It’s not often that you work with directors that you think are the most kind people. Bill is truly lovely.

KJ: And was that a good relationship to take into Comfort and Joy, which I think…

CM: Yes, I mean Comfort and Joy was different because it was a town film and a lot of it was shot at magic hour. Perhaps it wasn’t a quite as successful screenplay but certainly a joy to work with, certainly.

KJ: I was thinking about Paul’s earlier point about the, kind of, the blues and the, kind of, moonlight. Obviously both films feature night time sequences but Comfort and Joy particularly has a very urban colour to it. I think there’s… several of the sequences are at night with him driving through the city. And again, coming back to what Paul said earlier on, I wonder if you remember whether or not there was a particular sense of trying to capture an urban, kind of, colour scheme for Comfort and Joy in a way that perhaps is different from other… it feels slightly less naturalistic. It feels slightly more… there’s a particular kind of mood that perhaps was being aimed for.

CM: I remember that we were quite insistent on trying to shoot at the right time with the right quality of light and we made a huge effort to do that and on a low budget film that’s quite difficult and it wasn’t a high budget film. It’s quite difficult to, on a sort of 35 day shoot, to maintain that quality but I know that’s something we fought for. And I guess if it’s… the consistency of the low light must have been dealing… to do with the grading I think. Bill, in his book, talks about that, our collaboration, quite well if you want to read it.

KJ: No, that’d be great. It’s… there are two films that I think… I think Comfort and Joy is a bit underrated.

CM: Underrated?

KJ: Yeah I think it’s a nice film but coming after Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero it tends to be…

CM: It got pushed aside. I love Gregory’s Girl.

KJ: I suppose with both Local Hero and Comfort and Joy they’re also films where you’re not camera operator on those are you?

CM: No I’m not, no.

KJ: So, again, a slightly different set-up. I suppose to move on right at the end of our period for the project, to talk a bit about The Killing Fields and The Mission, and I suppose we were wondering about your experiences on, like, the Adrian Cowell documentaries, whether those contributed to what you were trying to do with those.

CM: I’m sure David Puttnam wanted me, and therefore Roland wanted me, on The Killing Fields because I’d been in Vietnam several times and been in Burma several times and all over the shop filming real wars and I guess they thought I would make sure that the explosions and the visual effects were black and not all sparkly and lovely. And I think, for me emotionally, the scenes of Sydney Schanberg in Phnom Penh, those scenes were lit by my experience. So I suppose I was copying what I had seen in war zones. Having said that there’s some amazing operating, there’s some amazing visual effects, special effects, and acting. Roland was no fool, he made those films. They’re his films. I mean, of course, Bruce Robinson wrote the screenplay and he did a fine job too. And The Mission, I suppose, the sense of working with Orlando and Cláudio Villas Boas in the Xingu is the light of The Mission. But, again, Stuart Craig did such a wonderful job and Cartagena was so amazing, and the actors were so amazing. And, again, Roland did a good job. My only thought about the film is that somehow the script was not quite clear where it was headed so one hesitates about saying it’s a great film. But it’s certainly a very rich film.

KJ: Yeah. Did you feel…

CM: We used Agfacolor a lot. I seem to remember using Agfa for a lot of the interiors to try to get the feeling in the difference because when you are in a tropical area, outside the feeling of the humidity and the light is so different than when you’re inside. I used Agfa to try and make the separation between the inside and the outside.

KJ: Was there a… given there’s faster film stocks available at that time…

CM: It’s slightly faster and to my eye it’s slightly… the Agfa was slightly softer, I’ll use the word softer. The tones were not quite so brittle. And, you know, DPs they’ll try any trick to do something differently. They don’t want to get caught in the same old scenario. I gave up shooting to direct A World Apart because I thought I was repeating myself. That was after The Mission. I just thought “Well, I’m going to repeat myself again. No thanks, let’s go and direct something” and Peter Biziou shot A World Apart which turned out great and it was about something important and a good script. So that is the danger, if you’re a DP, is you’re gonna end up going around in circles. Don’t do that. Throw something in the works.

KJ: I mean, is that why it’s useful to, I mean, I was thinking, you know, you go from Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, kind of, need I say, low budget, quite small shoots, to something like The Mission or The Killing Fields. Is that… is there a deliberate attempt to try and change?

CM: Yeah and also to learn. One of the films I love the most is Made in Britain with Tim Roth. Alan Clarke, to me, was a genius of a director. That happened almost just when we were… just before we shot A World Apart, I worked with Alan and Tim Roth on Made on Britain. To me that was a joy because it was all Steadicam and I was completely free. But my camera, it wasn’t up to me, my camera had a relationship with Tim Roth I’m sure and I just followed the Steadicam. That was so exciting and exhilarating, and I just used fluorescents and let the tubes burn the image and I didn’t mind if things were overexposed or grainy or whatever, I just wanted to catch the performance of Tim. It’s that kind of thing, that kind of…

[01:18:32 -01:18:43 break in recording]

CM: The chance to work on, with Alan Clarke, Made in Britain, was like a big fresh air in becoming… in a way, I found it liberating because otherwise you might get set doing something always the same way.

KJ: And do you think your, again, your experience of documentary helps with something like Made in Britain, or Sense of Freedom, or Babylon? You know, those kind of very contemporary British films, but they seem to have a very, to us… because it’s got that very documentary aesthetic to it. So your experience would help shape that?

CM: I’m sure you’re right. I don’t know if it’s desirable but I’m sure you’re right. I’m sure the World in Action background permeates throughout the work I’ve done. And I’m sure that I’ve never done a better film than Kes, and that’s the first film, and I’m sure I never shot a better documentary than some of the World in Actions. The really good films I worked on, they’re really good scripts and the good directors. You can’t work in a vacuum, it is a team, and new ideas are the thing that make it work.

[01:20:21 – 01:20:30 break in recording]

KJ: So, across your career you talked about making… trying to challenge yourself, trying new things. What role would something like a new film stock or a different film stock play? How would you make those decisions about, “I’m going to try Agfa now rather than Eastman”? What would be your motivating reason to do that?

CM: I think it’s the same. When Steadicam… I read about Steadicam for the first time, I thought this is something that might be interesting to explore, that might be exciting. What I found with the Steadicam on Alan Clarke’s film Made in Britain that the Steadicam actually had a relationship with Tim Roth the actor and, in a way, they dictated what… and I followed behind. And I think on The Mission, I desperately wanted to find a way that the interiors on The Mission had a different quality to the exteriors. From my experience of being in the Amazon, the exterior light is so different from being inside, in terms of smell, atmosphere, I wanted to find a way to express that so I looked for how I could do that and I thought Agfa would be an interesting way to try and find a way of showing the difference between life inside and life outside. I’m not explaining it well.

KJ: No I think I understand.

CM: Nobody else will.

KJ: Are there any other examples? I mean, we talked about the flashing the negatives for Kes. Are there other things you tried with film stock such as that to try and get a very particular look?

CM: Well obviously in documentaries I’ve used a huge amount of Chemtone. So with Chemtone, Eastmancolor and a .95 Angenieux, you can almost film anything so I could jump in a police car or be on a fire engine rushing through the streets and catch the action without any lights whatsoever. So that’s what we’re trying to make in a documentary sense is to be as free as possible, to be handheld, to be doing your own focus, to be find your own rhythm with the people you are photographing. So Chemtone is a good example of how that, made that more possible.

KJ: I suppose finally, is there anything else about, kind of, colour or, kind of, film, Eastmancolor, that, you know, you’ve thought of while we’ve been talking? Or anything that could be relevant before we finish up?

CM: Well, what we did… what I did on the films with Technicolor and with Denham labs, I had a special clapperboard put up and on the clapperboard we would have a colour chart of different numbers. So we would talk, on the slate, we would talk about density and we’d talk about the tones we wanted, plus yellow, plus green, plus… So we would try to make it as clear as possible to the lab exactly what we were trying to achieve as a starting point. We did huge… a lot of tests to make sure that we are understood what colours we were trying to achieve. So I think lab testing was, in those days, was incredibly important, to have a very precise and clear way for the rushes to look. Because what would happen is, if you didn’t control the way that rushes were printed, if you left it just to the lab, you could find yourself presenting rushes that were not acceptable to you, and what you were trying to achieve as DP is your vision of the story. You have to find a way of… that the rushes represent that. If they don’t, then you’re gonna find that you may well run into trouble with the producer or the director, or whatever. You’ve got to be in control. You have to control the way your film looks. You just have to do it. I don’t know how to put it in any other way, but you do.

KJ: No, that’s great. I think it’s a really important point.

CM: It’s not coherent though.

KJ: I think it is.

CM: Let me try again. I think that the important thing with the lab, and the contact at the lab, is that you are very precise with what tone, what colour, what density you want the print, the visual effects you’re trying to achieve. You have to find a way with exhaustive testing of producing what you want produced.

KJ: Yeah, that’s good for me.

CM: Yeah.

KJ [to PF]: Have you got anything else? I think we’re done.

CM: Good.

KJ: Thank you very much