A Conversation With Chris Menges, ASC BSC
December 3, 2009
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
MENGES: My grandfather was a violin player who was born and raised in Germany. He moved to England in 1890 to teach students to play the fiddle. I was born on a farm in Herefordshire, England. My family moved to London when I was 3 years old when my father became music director at The Old Vic Theatre.
You obviously didn’t follow in your father’s footsteps, but do you see a connection between creating music and cinematography?
MENGES: There is definitely a connection. Both music and cinematography are arts which require mastering a complex craft. I learned to trust my instincts, and above all, I learned that tone is more important than perfect technique.
When and how did you decide you were going to be a filmmaker?
MENGES: I was always fascinated by cameras and photography. When I was 17 years old, I went to work for our neighbor Allan Forbes. He was an American filmmaker who made documentary films for the cinema. Allan shot documentaries all over Italy, France and Britain. I was his assistant. I also recorded sound and helped him in the cutting room. Allan was a huge inspiration for me.
How did you get started as a cinematographer?
MENGES: I began shooting films for World in Action, a weekly current affairs documentary series, when I was 21 years old. I draw on those experiences every time I work on a new project.
You were 22 years old when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for leading an armed struggle and the African National Congress was made illegal in South Africa. You roamed the streets of Johannesburg dressed like a tourist shooting 16 mm film with a Bolex camera. You shot other documentaries in war zones all over the world, including The Opium War Lords in the jungles of Burma. Tell us about that experience.
MENGES: I spent two years in Burma on two different trips in 1963 and 1972 during a very brutal civil war between different ethnic groups who were pushed into the Union of Burma by the British. Those types of documentaries expose you to a different world. You learn about composition, and how it affects the story, and about natural lighting. You experience those things by observing. You also learn to fit into the environment with the indigenous people and that there is no one right way to tell a story. The experience of being a fly-on-the-wall while shooting documentaries helps you develop as a filmmaker. I think everybody who wants to be a filmmaker can benefit from shooting documentaries with a handheld camera.
That’s just a snapshot of your documentary endeavors, which also took you to places ranging from the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war in Vietnam to the streets of Harlem. You mentioned Allan Forbes. Were there other films and cinematographers who influenced you during that early stage of your career?
MENGES: I recall seeing The 400 Blows which was directed by Francois Truffaut and shot by Henri Decaë, A Blonde In Love directed by Milos Forman and shot by Miroslav Ondricek, (ASC, ACK), and Medium Cool directed and shot by Haskell Wexler (ASC). They were awe-inspiring films with cogent stories that went into great depth. For a couple of years, I worked as Brian Probyn’s assistant. He was another important mentor. I was his camera operator when he shot Poor Cow in 1967. Ken Loach was the director.
You shot Kes, your first narrative film, in 1969. Please share a memory.
MENGES: The joy of Kes was in the writing, the brilliant performances and skillful storytelling. Brilliant! It was a special film and the kind of experience we dream about.
Kes was not a bad way to start your career as a narrative film cinematographer. That film won two BAFTA Awards and four other nominations. You followed Kes with a number of real-life dramas, including After a Lifetime, which focused on a family living in Liverpool, and Bloody Kids, a film about kids living on the south end of London. Were there other pivotal experiences during that period?
MENGES: In 1980, I shot a remarkable television movie called Made In Britain entirely with a Steadicam. Alan Clarke was the director. I also spent five months as the second unit cinematographer on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It was a great learning experience, working on a big budget film under the delightful team of (director) Irvin Kershner and (cinematographer) Peter Suschitzky (ASC).
You came onto the international scene when you earned your first Oscar in 1985 for The Killing Fields. Share some insights about that film.
MENGES: Again, I was fortunate to work with an incredibly talented director. Roland Joffe had a clear vision for the story he wanted to tell. It’s a story about what happened in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime when more than 2 million people were murdered. Roland wanted the film to tell the story of a dirty war and a time of pain and darkness for the people of Cambodia. I was thrilled at having that opportunity to work with Roland because he has such a strong visual sensibility. Many talented people worked on The Killing Fields, including production designer Roy Walker, and the best camera operator, Mike Roberts. That helped make the experience of working on this film very special for me.
You earned your second Oscar for The Mission in 1987, which was also directed by Roland Joffe. That film took place in the jungles of Brazil during the 18th century. Spain and Portugal had established colonies and had made the native people who were living in the jungle slaves. Jesuit priests from Spain built a number of missions above a waterfall with the goal of converting native people to their religion. The story takes a dramatic twist when an emissary from the pope said the native people have to leave the missions and return to the jungle. Please share some memories.
MENGES: It began with discussions with Roland and David Puttnam, who produced the film. I drew on memories of a television documentary called The Tribe That Hides From Man that was directed by Adrian Cowell. We shot that documentary in the Amazon jungle in South America in 1968. The air around the mission was thick with a white, steamy mist created by the waterfall. We recreated that look by using several water pumps to generate a fine spray of vaporized water, which reflected the beams of sunshine that came through the trees and created light and shadows on the ground.
The ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards began in 1987, and Feature Films was the only category. You were nominated for The Mission. The other nominees were Jordan Cronenweth, ASC for Peggy Sue Got Married, Don Peterman, ASC for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Jimmy Crabe, ASC for The Karate Kid: Part II and Tony Pierce-Roberts, BSC for A Room with a View. There was an awards dinner at the ASC’s Hollywood clubhouse hosted by legendary actor Gregory Peck. What do you remember about that night?
MENGES: It’s hard finding the right words to describe my feelings about that evening. I remember the sense of history that I felt being at the clubhouse, and the camaraderie that filled the air. I had been reading about the ASC and its members since I was an assistant cameraman when I was 18 years old. Now, I was meeting and talking with its members.
You took a bit of a hiatus from cinematography in order to try your hand at the helm as a director. A World Apart was the first film you directed in 1988. It took place in South Africa during the days when you shot your first documentary in 1962 about the banning of the African National Congress. You won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, The New York Film Critics Award as best director, and various other awards and nominations. You directed several other films after that.
MENGES: I was immensely proud of A World Apart, but the next three films I directed were rather depressing experiences.
You returned to cinematography when you collaborated with writer/director Neil Jordan on Michael Collins, a film about an Irish revolutionary. You earned your third Oscar nomination for that endeavor in 1997.
MENGES: Neil had shown me an early draft of the script in 1982 when I shot a movie called Angel with him. Michael Collins took place during the turn of the 20th century. Neil wanted to re-create the grimy, sooty look that was common in Dublin during that time in history. The streets were lit with carbon arc lamps, and there was smoke in the air from coal burning fires. I used smoke, cyan filters and the ENR process at Technicolor to help create a nearly monochrome look.
You followed Michael Collins with a number of interesting films, including The Boxer, The Pledge, Dirty Pretty Things and The Yellow Handkerchief. You earned your fourth Oscar nomination in 2009, which you shared with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC for The Reader. Roger began shooting the film, but he had to leave after around 30 days because he had another commitment. You stepped into the breach. It was a seamless transition. What do you recall about that ambitious endeavor?
MENGES: That was an unusual situation. Redmond Morris, the line producer called and told me what the story was about. I had read the book written by Bernhard Schlink that the movie is based on. The story is set in post World War II Germany. It involves a man’s relationship with an older woman who was accused of a war crime. I wanted to know more about what happened during that period. My grandfather was a German who migrated to England. I wondered if he would have gotten caught up in that insane and barbaric time in European history if he had stayed in Germany. I met with (director) Stephen Daldry and also watched the film that Roger had shot. I thought it was wonderful. I felt comfortable finishing the film because Roger and I think alike about using light and shadows to create a natural feeling. There is one thing I will never forget. We filmed a scene in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was a heartbreaking experience. It was impossible to be there without crying your heart out.
In general, what are your thoughts about the collaborative process between cinematographers and directors?
MENGES: I don’t know a cinematographer, certainly not myself, who has won an award or contributed to a meaningful movie who wasn’t collaborating with a highly visual director. Part of it is luck, getting to work with the right director and script, and then it takes an incredible amount of hard work. The inspiration comes from the words, and from inside the characters. All you have to do is bring your soul and great energy.
One of the unique things about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative form of artistic expression. What are your feelings about that collaborative relationship?
MENGES: It goes beyond collaborating with directors. You are working with production and costume designers, makeup artists, gaffers, and of course everyone on your crew to get composition, camera movement and focus that delivers.
Tell us about the film which you just completed shooting.
MENGES: Route Irish is a story about a private security contactor in Iraq who rejects the official explanation of a friend’s death and tries to find out more about what happened to him. The film is directed by Ken Loach. It is our 12th collaboration. We filmed the Iraq scenes in Jordan and other scenes in Liverpool, England. I think it’s an important and interesting story.
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