Music on Air Interview
Acclaimed cinematographer of new film The Killing of John Lennon gives insight to the world of film.
Do you think you’ve reached a period in your life where you find yourself looking back on your achievements more than looking forward to new aims and goals?
No, not really. I mean the only reason I’ve had to look backwards was because I’ve had to update blurbs on websites and such. In terms of my outlook no, not looking back at all. In fact I find it strange looking back. I’ve always tended to look forwards. Because my idea of looking backwards is sort of like, well why would I?
Not resting on your laurels then?
No, no way whatsoever. *laughs*
Let’s look back for a bit, can you describe the defining moment that made you decide to pick up a camera?
I started as a stills photographer and I suppose one defining moment was when; well there were two things. The first was when I was at primary school. I found one of my parents’ cameras and took it to school. I felt a particular sort of fascination by the dynamics of the use of the camera. The second, I think the real defining moment, was when I had discovered a roll of black and white negatives hanging in a friend’s house. I was pretty young, around 8 and I was absolutely transfixed by them for what seemed like two hours, because I was trying to work out how on Earth you could get…I was mesmerised by this process, this magic, and that was the real moment of magic. From that moment onwards I really wanted to find out how it all worked.
What was your training under Lord Snowdon and Eve Arnold like?
I started as a photographic assistant. Well I started by doing photography on my own. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my life, so I thought well either I’ll go to Oxford and become a solicitor or barrister or something like that, but what do I really, really like? I thought well if I can’t work out anything else I’d go to photography, because I was fascinated by it.
The first job I could get was in a merchant bank…I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about, I realised I hated it. So I saved up enough money to buy a van and went off travelling with mates. When I came back I decided what I actually wanted to do was photography. So I started just doing it. Of course I was fairly untrained and that sort of stuff. I got a job in a photographic studio making tea and coffee and learnt, went through the dark room, learnt large format, started working on 8×10 colour transparency which is incredibly exacting.
Then I got a break with Conde Nast (magazine publishing company, Vogue, Glamour etc), with Lord Snowdon. Suddenly I was working with him and it was absolutely amazing because I was learning about seeing, as well as technique. I’d got my technique covered, I’d done a lot of lighting training as an assistant, setting up lights for people and I was absolutely absorbed by that. I was really hungry to learn. Snowdon was great because he made me more aware of what was actually in front of the camera, how to see. That was fantastic. Then I worked with Eve Arnold and various other people. Learning how to use the craft, to use what you want to convey and what’s in front of the camera
Then you moved to New York…
I went over to America for a visit in the early 80’s; I’d had a fantastic commission, somebody called Christopher Brooker who said ‘If you want to photograph anything for my company, what do you want to do?’ I said I want to photograph these particular models, which were the top models of the time, in Paris which was where it was all happening. One of these girls was called Leslie Winner who was a very androgynous, interesting model. Also a very difficult personality, very unreliable, but we ended up becoming quite good friends. I bought her a pet rat. So we sort of bonded. *laughs* She needed something to look after, because she was sort of lost and everything, so a pet was, you know… *laughs*
Have you ever felt the need to capture images of war or disasters?
Some of the very first pictures I took of my own were actually of evictions. I got myself heavily into the documentary scene and found myself completely horrified by how heavy some people’s lives could be and I found it incredibly traumatic at the time. Much later on I went back to address the whole situation of death in photography. Which was something to do with growing up in the countryside, understanding death in order to learn about it, accept it and transcend it possibly in some sort of way.
I have thought about doing war stuff. I haven’t actually gone out to any wars, but I’ve been in pretty scary situations.
Is it something that photographers gravitate towards? The need to capture conflict and violence.
Well if you’re looking at subject matter, powerful images have a really strong pull for any photographer’s eye and there are very few stronger elements than death in a way. Death is the most obvious one to look at in terms of powerful images.
There is the story of Kevin Carter who won a Pulitzer for highlighting a humanitarian issue, but who instead of helping, took a photo of a dying Sudanese child crawling towards a food centre in Sudan in 1993, with a vulture in the background. Have you ever walked that line?
Yes. Absolutely, I mean that’s what happened when I first did these documentary pictures of people squatting and basically what happened was; I ended up getting involved. I couldn’t just take the pictures and walk away. I took some pictures, but I got involved. I realised at that point in my life, that this was something I couldn’t do. Which was just take a picture and walk away. I mean if faced with what that person went through in Sudan I would have actually done something about the child rather than…
And there are the infamous Vietnamese war pictures, one of a man getting a bullet in the head.
Yeah, I think there’s a point where you get hardened to it. If your photo’s purpose is really to do it because…maybe to show images of that nature, maybe you’re doing more about it by actually…
By making people aware of those images, rather than actually getting involved in a sort of microcosmic way, you’re looking at the bigger picture. There’s a couple of films I co-directed which were very much about that. One was a short film called ‘Frog’, which showed how; if you place a frog in cold water and pour boiling water in, it’ll jump out. Whereas, if you heat it ever so slowly the frog will sit there until it reaches one-hundred degrees centigrade. We’re a lot smarter than frogs, aren’t we? It was about global warming. The frogs didn’t die but the film used the image of death and knowing that was going to happen. Likewise we had a baby in a film where it felt like the baby actually drowned. It was actually using the message of death in a beautiful way to actually show the bigger picture. Which I think in the same way reporters report on death in a detached way, is something I’m more capable of doing now, than I would have been at a younger age, because I’m harder, cynical and can possibly see the bigger picture a little more easily. I’m more able to step back from the issues with experience.
Do you think older photographers would be more suited to war zones?
No, I think it’s about the individual mentality towards the whole thing. Some people can detach from things more easily and emotionally, from a subject matter, and some people cant. I think there’s something very glamorous about being a war photographer. I know one, he’s a very sort of glamorous guy, surrounded by beautiful women, sort of like ‘the dude’, the brave…
With a flak jacket.
Oh yeah, you know, bullet tears and all that. *laughs* I think the real difference is, I think I could go out to a war zone now more easily. The only thing preventing me doing that really is my child, because I think to put my child’s father at risk, what it means is I’m putting her life at risk by taking her father away. From a personal point of view; I kind of like dangerous situations. I don’t mind looking down barrels of guns two times a day, I sort of feel good if I keep getting away with it.
I shot in Africa and we had three or four near death experiences almost every day. Whether it was a light aircraft running out of petrol over crocodile-infested lakes, a crocodile literally in the same water the first Assistant Director was swimming in the day beforehand, or people being bitten by deadly snakes. I mean generally speaking when I got used to it, it became a bit of a thrill dealing in that element of danger which I liked a bit too much.
You worked with Andy Warhol for a while; I’d imagine that was a particularly enlightening experience, what was your working relationship like?
He was a very weird enigmatic kind of guy, really unusual human being. He never really had conversations; it was always hints and telepathy, vibes and feelings, and all that sort of caper. There were two reasons I moved to New York ; the first was that I was listening to too much Velvet Underground. The other was I really wanted to meet Andy Warhol. I was just fascinated by what was going on there at The Factory (Warhol’s original New York studio) and the whole collective art of the time. When I arrived, to my astonishment, he was sort of around and available. I ended up working for Interview magazine and was in contact with him quite a lot. I found that it was an enigmatic draw, that he had this…he was a very strange person.
What do you think he’d make of how he is regarded now?
He obviously had a massive kind of ego in a way, but he was also an explorer and I think in a way he was also very cynical. He also had a naivety, a cross between very naïve and very cynical, the conflicts inside him were possibly what made him really interesting in a way. But he also wanted to be interesting. He wouldn’t have gone round with a white wig if he didn’t want to stand out.
Would he have been pleased? I think he would have been pleased, yeah, in a way. I mean he was never a smug guy; he was sort of there but not there. He was very full of contradictions all the time so I would imagine that he would be pleased and not pleased, because of his character. He would be in conflict over his legacy, being what it was, about popular art, making art available, which he certainly did, but there was also the thing about chucking out the same old formulaic stuff all the time.
So I think he was greater as a conceptualist than the actual technical paintings themselves, which are sort of fairly…there wasn’t a hell of a lot in that. But that goes with what he was saying, he did achieve to express and realise his own potential in that way, but I also think he died very unfortunately and had more work to do. But he did make his point and where would he go to from there anyway? As an artist I think he had completed the expression of his, whatever he was trying to say really.
You then moved into fashion photography. Most people’s impression of the world of fashion is that it’s a vapid soulless narcissistic place full of ghouls.
To an extent, yes. The one thing that fascinated me most about fashion photography was how it was such a kind of specialised medium, that it sort of distilled an awful lot of external stuff. It was very blinkered in what it did. What really fascinated was the zeitgeist that went on in that world. A similar feel of pictures would be coming out at similar points in history for no apparent reason, and I found that to be the most fascinating thing because it was an expression of zeitgeist at a time in history. So from that point of view I think it’s far from shallow.
Fashion photography is sort of split between photography that includes fashion, and the selling and machine of fashion, that uses photography as one way to express what’s going on and to help that machine. I met some of my very best friends through that world, so I can’t say they’re all a bunch of vampires, but one of the reasons I distanced myself from it is because I got bored with all the superficiality and all that kind of crap. So yeah there is a huge amount of that, as there is in advertising. I remember at one point sitting around a boardroom of clients and agency people talking about the look in somebody’s eyes, for a whole day. And you think, ‘My God’, you know, to analyse that…what on Earth are we talking about? It’s absolutely ridiculous! Because in fact, it’s analysing something which is in the moment and one of the things about photography for me is it’s always been about alchemy and magic. It’s very difficult to strip down and analyse alchemy and magic and that moment. There are so many different elements and usually the strongest element is serendipity, which is an accidental moment.
Being a photographer is about capturing life around you, but when the images in front of you are staged to a high degree, such as they would be in fashion, did that ever get to you?
Well no, I always saw a chink of light, because however staged they were, at the end of the day you were taking a photograph of a person. I think it’s fascinating taking photographs of people. Photographing beautiful girls has its own interesting psychology. Some are incredibly interesting, some of them are shallow and dull and some just after the money. Personally I find that when things are a bit more controlled I can then investigate a little bit more of a subliminal subtext within that, because if you’re just recording a documentative photograph of something that’s already there, you don’t as a photographer, have any input really on that subject.
I’m more interested in influencing the subject matter and if you’re dealing with the same situation, I feel I can have more control and express myself artistically a little bit more. I like accidental situations but it’s about levels. Over staging is rubbish but half the secret is to get great staging in some way and then find the magic moment within that staging and focus on and realise that.
Having been around so many famous and iconic people, do you think you’ve gained insights into the nature of people and the affects of fame on psychology, partly becoming a sort of philosopher almost?
Yeah, I think so, absolutely. Philosophy totally intrigues me anyway. I’m fascinated by human beings; that’s what photographing people is all about really, dealing with different levels of psychology. As far as the famous people are concerned, I’ve found a lot of the time the more famous and successful people, who have come to a realisation of their potential and craft and who are really very good, tend to be incredibly human and drop a lot of fear. I think the whole fear factor comes into play quite a lot, particularly when people are famous without actually having the substance to support it. That’s where often you get the dodgy people pretending to be something they aren’t. Taking credit for something that they’re not worth and therefore they know that on some level and become afraid or scared that they’re going to be found out.
For example I was at school with Stephen Fry, and he’s one person who I really think that fame has actually done him personally a lot of good. He’s actually become, possibly through his fame, a much kinder, more sympathetic, and I can almost say better person. Whereas other people turn into complete arseholes.
Was moving from still photography to moving image a natural transition?
It was strange. I kind of had an epiphany. I can say specifically when it happened. I was shooting a Bounty bar stills advertising campaign in Antigua . Because the production values were so high, we had yachts and spent lots of money. I was working with a commercial film crew, and the cinematographer on that was a guy called Adrian Biddle. Back in those days we couldn’t paint in a blue sky, we had to wait for it and we had quite a lot of down days, we’d be sitting in these gorgeous places waiting for the sky to clear because it was overcast. I spent a lot of time talking to Adrian about photography and cinematography and the similarities and differences.
I realised at that I should have really always been doing moving pictures, because I was also very interested in narrative within still pictures, to distil that narrative into a single image. Then I realised that through moving image I had a hell of a lot more freedom. The other thing was to deal with the temporal difference, because the other thing that got me with stills photography is you end up with one photograph in a magazine, on a wall, whatever it is, and that’s it really. If it’s in a magazine, the highest accolade you’re going to have is that it gets left open by the toilet. Whereas with the moving image I really felt there was much more scope and space to investigate human psychology, people, stories, all that sort of stuff.
When I came back I was working with a director called Marcus Thompson, shooting a music video out of a helicopter for a pop promo. We became very close talking about stories, narrative, images, so he introduced me really and gave me the tools I needed to be able to investigate the moving image. So that was a turning point. Was it a natural progression? I think it probably was because I learnt my craft and skills doing lighting, dealing with people, dealing with the politics on the set, all that sort of stuff, so in a way it put me in a very good stead. That was a very strange move not to come up through the grades, in a way, to split straight from stills photography into being a cinematographer.
The role of the cinematographer is murky for a lot of people who are used to the basic roles such as director, editor, etc. Do you think the term needs to be changed, or something else, to make people aware of just how integral your role is to a production?
Well I don’t know; there are usually three words to describe the same thing, cinematographer, lighting cameraman, and director of photography. They’re all fundamentally the same job, though in every job the role is actually different because it’s to do with the balance of art and craft that one would put into it. As a cinematographer fundamentally you need to know your craft which is about everything that gets onto the negative or nowadays the chip I suppose. Which includes all your glass, filters, everything you do with your lenses, all the camera moves, film stock, emulsion, you’re dealing with capturing an image, with everything that passes through that lens. So you’ve got everything with the camera, the framing, all that side. There’s also everything to do with lighting, how you light stuff, continuity of light. There’s also artistic input of how you deal with the subtext and the storytelling within the image making.
Now, some directors are very locked in their minds and they sometimes just want you as a technician to make sure that you record what they’ve got in front of the lens lit nicely. Other directors will actually say, ‘Well here is the drama, how do you want to film it?’ And it will be completely open.
Your relationship with a director has a high chance of turning into a conflict. How do you get through a production without resorting to arguments every five minutes, how do you draw a line between compromise and integrity?
Well when I think you’re using film to express something, there are actually hundreds and thousands of ways to say the same thing and it’s a question of deciding which is the most appropriate way to convey that information. So I think in some sense its very important that the director and the cinematographer are reading off the same page to begin with and have a sense of like-minded purpose towards the same film. Which is why I always think that pre-production is so important because it’s not just between the cinematographer and the director, it’s between all the heads of department, and the actors, and the producer, and everybody else. If everybody is making the same film it just becomes a lot less conflict-ridden.
Half the problems arise when there are misunderstandings, miscommunication, because somebody’s making one film, some other people are making another. In terms of on the set, there are conflicts. I mean it’s a bit like a mini-war with a dysfunctional family and some families are more functional than others. There are differences of opinion. I mean, there are very few times when I’ve had major conflicts with directors myself, but they do happen and generally what happens is you have your conflict, and you get over it as quickly as possible and move on. Because there’s no time to sulk or bear grudges and it depends on the personality of the director. Some directors are very communicative. Directors often find themselves in a sort of tunnel vision; they get very isolated because of the nature of the position. I like to support my director as much as I possibly can within those situations and often give him a fresher view of things. I think it’s very important for a cinematographer to be flexible. If you feel absolutely definite about an idea, you state how strongly you feel about it and then it’s up to the director. You know, the director’s the boss, so ultimately he gets what he wants.
You’ve won quite a few awards by now; does winning one create motivation or more pressure?
Awards are just nice to have really. *laughs*
You don’t feel you have to live up to the fact that you’ve won an award?
No, because I do what I do and I have what I have to offer and I’m just me. All I need to do is continue what I’ve always done, and that is to be honest.
Is there a particular genre of film you’re attracted to?
I like drama. I like drama with plenty of subtext. I don’t particularly like very linear stories that are usually associated with television films. I like more complex proper cinematic stories that deal with all sorts of levels that look into the shadows of human nature and use the grammar and language of cinema that exists in a really skilful and interesting way. That’s the kind of film I like to make. Technical loud whizzy stuff, I find just craft, for me what’s really interesting is adding the whole language of cinema into the whole thing which goes way beyond a technical craft, it goes into story, underpinning story, cinematic subtext. Films that often need that kind of stuff are what I really like.
Have you had a substantial relationship with music in any of your careers?
Yep. I started as a classical French horn player so I’ve played music and composed music and I’ve played guitar, bass, so I have a sense of music. On my first feature I was actually given music by Ben Webster (jazz singer and saxophonist) to shoot to in terms of how I felt about it…so I was inspired visually by the music. I think the visuals, music and sound design lie very closely together, particularly I think, even technically and chemically inside the human brain. They’re very close together. When Ben Webster’s estate said no to the soundtrack it turned into Courtney Pine (acclaimed jazz musician) and became a completely different film to me and I actually had my first falling out with a director over something that was nothing to do with on set, but was actually to do with the way that I was driving it. We’ve made up now and I was not necessarily right, but because I had such a strong visual sense from the music it sort of lost so much of it when the tone of the music was changed.
I’ve done a lot of music videos and that sort of stuff. So I’ve been very used to having one track playing and playing repeatedly for sometimes days on end, to shoot to. So shooting within that rhythm and that style as well with feed and playback and all that sort of stuff is something that I’ve dealt with.
There is a quote, I can’t remember who it’s from, ‘A great soundtrack makes the pictures look good’, or better, and I do think there’s a truth in that, that as a cinematic experience, the marriage between sound visuals is absolutely, incredibly important. Which is why I also give the sound people on set a lot of respect, because I know that if you’ve got good sound it’s so important to the filmmaking process.
Any plans for the future?
At the moment I’m producing a feature called ‘Far Out Far In’ which is about rave culture, the beginning of the movement of rave culture. There’s a few other things, and I’ve just finished a film called the ‘Killing Of John Lennon’ which has had fantastic reviews in Variety, shown at a world premiere in Edinburgh and it’s now getting distribution deals, so I’m very keen to know what those are going to be because I think that will actually dictate what might be available to me or not. Funnily enough it has gone down incredibly well in America with distributors, more so than here for some reason, which is puzzling. Because it’s actually quite a subtle, well crafted, complex film, which one would associate more with Europe than America, but they’re the ones that seem to be given it more attention.
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