Shooting on Real London Locations, the Importance of Digital Grading, and the Eeriness of Performance
Chris Menges began his career as a documentary cameraman before segueing into narrative cinematography under the tutelage of such world-class English directors as Ken Loach (on 1967’s Poor Cow and 1969’s Kes) and Stephen Frears (1971’s Gumshoe). He’s a world-class cameraman who has worked on locations ranging from the Amazon and Argentina to Tibet, Vietnam and the Burmese jungle, and won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on The Killing Fields in 1984, and again for The Mission in 1986.
Menges took some time off from cinematography after that dual triumph, shifting into the role of director for a series of films beginning with the South African drama A World Apart, which was the toast of the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and even won him a Best Director nod from the New York Film Critics Circle. His return to cinematography, with an Oscar nomination for 1996’s Michael Collins, was another high point in a many-storied career. His remarkable workload in recent years has included The Pledge for director Sean Penn, Dirty Pretty Things and The Good Thief for Frears, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for Tommy Lee Jones, and North Country for Niki Caro. He even reunited with Loach in 2005 for a segment of the anthology film Tickets, filmed on board a moving train. F&V asked him about his work on Notes on a Scandal, the new film directed by Richard Eyre with a knockout performance by Judi Dench as Barbara, a lonely woman who takes a not completely wholesome interest in fellow schoolteacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett).
Film & Video: How did you approach Notes on a Scandal?
Chris Menges: I’ve known [director] Richard Eyre for a long, long time – but I’ve never worked with him. [Producer] Scott Rudin asked me if I’d do Notes on a Scandal. It’s a pretty fantastic book, and to me the feeling of the loneliness of people living in a big city was a challenge. I guess it is the story of two inappropriate obsessions. But there is a lot of satire and psychological suspense. I was excited by the project, and by the screenplay. And that’s where I started from.
And how did you feel about the casting?
Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench are extraordinary actors. They’re very different. Cate Blanchett is so well prepared and, she has a great sense of space in a film. Judi Dench is different. She’s a great actress, but somehow she deflects it. She can be on the set and she can joke and chat – and then, as the camera turns over, there’s an eerie moment when she slips into character. They were very exciting to work with.
Nuts and Bolts
What was your visual strategy?
We wanted spontaneity. We wanted the individual shots to have some tension. And we wanted to to photograph it in a way that gave it as much life and spontaneity as possible. It is a very considered script with brilliant actors. I know Richard, and I felt like catching it on the wing. That’s why there’s a great deal of handheld photography.
What about lenses?
We shot the majority of the film on 14mm handheld. The mood of the film is different in terms of light. For instance, Sheba’s very middle-class home was light and airy. Those houses built in about 1900 are very elegant. Barbara was living in a tiny flat in a basement in North London, and obviously the atmosphere in her life was very different – just by the fact that she was underground. They were the two prime movers in the sense of color and composition.
Were the homes of Sheba and Barbara actual flats or sets?
It was all shot on real locations. A bit of Barbara’s interior was shot on stage at Elstree, but the majority of it was shot on location, and all of Sheba’s was shot on location. It is 99 percent a location film, and I like working on location. It throws in a new character.
How does that affect your lighting scheme?
It’s harder to control. Obviously, if you’re working on location the exterior light is really important, and whether you can catch it depends on how long it takes you to shoot the scene. Then you’re supplementing and adding and controlling. So in a way location shooting is harder – but it also brings its own particular delight.
Was your choice of film stocks important in that context?
I’m very keen on the 5218 stock from Kodak. It’s got good dynamic range, and that’s what one’s praying for when you’re trying to control bright windows and dark interiors. For instance, Sheba’s house is a substantial house, built in the 1900s, and you couldn’t rig it in the same way you would a stage. You have to be very respectful, and that makes it harder. But it also brings a special quality. The '18 is a good stock because it helps balance highlight exposures out the window with the darker interiors.
First Comes the Performance
Thinking about several of your recent films that take place in urban settings ‘ I’m thinking of The Good Thief but also Dirty Pretty Things – I notice a lot of color, whether it’s a wash of color in the background or the glow of neon signs in reds and greens and blues. City movies are often more monochromatic than yours.
The thing is, all the ideas come from the script and what you hear from the director and what you see and hear from the actors. It’s not necessarily planned. It’s a question of trying to live in the moment and do something that’s exciting – something that liberates the actors. I love to work on locations where you can easily create very simple but interesting colors and shapes. Ultimately, that visual palette comes from very considered, thought-through – and hopefully brilliant – location scouts. If you can shoot locations that suit the story, you have a chance to create a quality that intensely supports and delivers the story. But also, you’re able to photograph actors in a light that has some drama. First comes the performance, and then comes the composition. The composition is really everything. And then comes the light, to give a real feeling of vitality. And, in the case of Notes on a Scandal, trying to bring a sense of reality, so that what is said is believed. Light can do that. Composition can do that, too, but light has an extraordinary ability to bring out a performance so that it can be believed.
Do you light the actors separately from the environment? Or do they go together closely?
They go together closely – to serve the performance. We try to catch up behind when no one’s looking. It’s a challenge, because time is always limited. One of my regrets on Notes on a Scandal is that we didn’t go through a DI. I would have loved to go through a DI because it frees you up in many ways.
You didn’t have a DI?
No, we couldn’t afford it. I did the video transfer for the DVD. But that’s the only thing I graded on a digital medium. It’s a shame. It’s short-sighted. When you work on a film like this, with a moderately low budget, you have to work incredibly fast. And you have to catch the performance. If you have a DI you can take certain risks, so that’s a huge tool to have in your pocket. Basically you’re faster with a DI.
A lot of smaller films do manage a DI even when you might not think they can afford it.
We didn’t have a DI on The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, either. I was horrified. I thought we really could have done something more exciting. I don’t remember who made the decision, but they just said, “No!” There was no discussion.
Have you done a DI before?
No. But I’m well trained, because from Michael Collins onward I’ve always done the digital work for the DVD. So I know this business backwards. I made a film some time ago called A World Apart. They re-released it on DVD without even telling me. I would have gone to the lab and done whatever it took to get the grading of that film right. They just assume, “Oh, we’ll send some person down, and they can grade the film.” But how do they know what we were trying to achieve? They made the DVD in London, and they never invited me to be a part of that. That film won Best Director for me in New York [from the New York Film Critics Circle]. It’s criminal.
Do you feel it’s a deliberate –
I think in distribution they don’t actually have an understanding of what format, what frame the director is composing to. It’s the most basic thing. Was it 1.85, was it Super 35, was it 1.66, was it 1.33, what are we talking about? That’s the first thing. And the second thing is I think there’s a general feeling that if an interpositive is being made, they can just go off and make their own DVD master. But an interpos is not an automatic transfer to DVD. It’s like three days’ work. And they often don’t involve the DPs. I’ve done DVDs for four or five of the films I’ve worked on, but I’m talking about older films that are getting transferred with no input by the director or DP.
Also, the native aspect ratio of HD is 16×9, which doesn’t automatically correspond to any film aspect ratio.
It’s close-ish to 1.85. But you’re absolutely right. The frame, the ground glass, is the composition and, because a movie is writing with light, it’s the principal element in a director’s handbag. [Laughs.] The writing comes in and the actors come in, too. But it’s writing with light. That’s what cinematography means. The actual composition set by the director is sacrosanct. It cannot be discussed or approved by a distributor or anyone else. That is the frame he decided on. And his cameraman, very willingly – mostly – went behind, making those frames, like a good technician. It’s incredible, this flippant attitude of distributors.
Have you seen the DVD of A World Apart?
Is the framing wrong?
The framing is fine. But the grading is appalling – absolutely appalling. I needed to be there. And if Peter Biziou [the DP] could have been there too, that would have been great. But, no. It was awful.
Is there anything cinematographers can do to help ensure that they’re consulted on these issues?
It happens less now. Everyone wants the DVDs made as the films are made, so it’s not really an issue now. But I think the attitude is still there among the distributors. They feel they can actually do the work, and they don’t need the input of the people who made the film. It’s where the business becomes very business-like.
Is the issue that they don’t want to pay you for your time?
When I did the DVD master for Notes on a Scandal, I gave them four days in London. But if you were grading a movie, it would take longer – probably three weeks. And it’s generally accepted that you would be paid something. For the DVD master, the equipment is much less sophisticated. You don’t have fields that you can move across the screen – which are great, because you might go into a room and have very little time to work. You may have nowhere to rig lights, because the ceilings are all beautifully plastered. You can put practicals into a room, and they’ll burn. On film, that won’t look very nice, but in a DI you can quickly solve the problem you’ve created for yourself by dimming the actual lampshades. You can do the same with windows. Things like that are very valuable if you want to work really fast.
I understand you’re working on the new Kimberley Peirce film. Were you able to do a DI on that?
We don’t know yet. We’re fighting for it.
It’s a shame you can’t know, while you’re filming, that you will have that tool.
I’m obsessed with certain kinds of stories, and they don’t always necessarily bring the big budgets.
Well, that’s something else I was going to ask you. Looking at your career – I don’t know exactly how to characterize it, but the films have a real awareness of certain social issues and personal issues and how they interrelate. Do you feel like you’ve exercised a lot of control over which projects you are on?
I’ve always tried really, really hard to go with stories I can learn from. I think I’m motivated by almost a wonderment about storytelling, and about ideas. I’m drawn into a process from which I personally can learn. They’re the kind of scripts I try to work on. It’s not just a technical job. If it becomes something you become emotionally and creatively involved in, you can bring more passion to your work. I think that kind of passion is important if you want to be inspired in how you make your life and movies.
Early in your career you did a lot of documentary work. Did your experiences as a non-fiction filmmaker impact the way you approach storytelling?
I think so. I think learning to observe and to watch and to listen – really to listen is something that documentary teaches you. If you work on documentaries you develop an observational kind of work, and it’s usually very fluid and it’s usually handheld. I think it can be hugely exhilarating, and I would suggest anybody who is interested in making a life in movies should work in documentaries. It would be a very inspiring way to see and meet different people and see different lands, different life and different landscapes. It’s a real inspiration. But in the end I directed a film in Spanish Harlem [“East 103rd Street”], and I felt, for a moment, that I was exploiting the people I was filming. And I quit.
I’ve been really lucky, because from early on I’ve worked with Alan Forbes and Ken Loach and Neil Jordan and Brian Probyn. Franco Rosso, Kevin Brownlow. They’re all people who taught me the craft of being a DP. I had a good background, so I had already shot features before I did my last documentary in 1980. It wasn’t like suicide.
On Camera-Operating and Focus-Pulling
How often do you operate your own camera?
I operated on the last three films I did – maybe not the A camera, but the B camera. Certainly on Dirty Pretty Things and Notes on a Scandal I operated. I just think that involvement, the eye on the ground glass with the performance, is something that you have to see. I have to see it. It drives me, it informs me, it helps me be decisive about the next set-up and continuity. It’s a part of the living of the performance, that moment when Judi Dench slips into character – I can’t imagine shooting a movie without operating.
It’s like we were saying early on, that if you choose locations well, the work you do can be inspired and be simplified. Working with an art director, and the costume designer, is vital. Film is a collaboration of lots of people. You’re very dependent on everybody around you. I can’t dream up a great shot and not give the focus-puller enough of a stop to keep it sharp. I remember once, a long, long time ago, after I shot Kes for Ken Loach, I was asked to do a film called Black Beauty. It was set in Ireland, and there were lots of scenes in the story set in big dining rooms with candlelight. And I went to Joe Dunton in London and said, could you put 1.4 Zeiss lenses on a [Mitchell] BNC? And he did. And I remember someone on set saying, at the time, “You are asking for the impossible.” And it was superbly in focus. So I suppose what I’m saying is there’s no point having aspirations if you haven’t got a great crew around you.
The focus puller may be the most unsung man on a film set.
Completely, completely, completely. [Pauses, then laughs.] Believe you me! It’s an amazing skill. And that’s all about performance, too.
And you became a director for a while. What was that like?
I chose my cameramen carefully, because I just didn’t want to get involved. I chose my locations even more carefully because I knew that if I chose them carefully enough, I knew exactly how we would shoot the scenes and how the DP would light them. The challenge was giving the actors the space they needed to breathe the material. Again, it was about spontaneity.
There are two films I like [that I directed] – there’s one called Second Best with Bill Hurt, shot in a valley next door to where I live in Wales, about a Welsh postmaster, and A World Apart, which was set in South Africa, and which we shot in Zimbabwe.
Finally. I wanted to ask you about the anthology film, Tickets, which came out on DVD recently. You worked with Ken Loach on it for the first time in many years. Was there anything unusual about that experience for you?
Tickets was fun. We were staying in Rome, and every morning we’d shoot up to Northern Italy, catching the fast train about 6 a.m. And then we’d come back to Rome on the slow train on the other line, and we would film the scenes as we traveled.
So you actually shot on a moving train?
Oh yeah. It was a third-class carriage so there was no air-conditioning. It was hellishly hot. And those boys had a lot of bottle. It was great. Every now and then I would look out the window and I’d see this amazing countryside, and I kept saying to Ken, [whispers] “Ken, you’re not seeing the countryside!”
Was it a challenge to light properly?
We decided that we weren’t going to light it at all! We just chose the carriages carefully so there was natural and fluorescent light. That’s the secret, choosing the right location: the right house, the right building, the right carriage.
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