Michael Chapman: Cinematographers, in the Traditional Sense, Are a Dying Breed

By Sven Mikulec

After the projection of Raging Bull, one of the landmarks of American cinema and a crucial part of the Michael Chapman retrospective held at the 2016 Camerimage International Film Festival, an overwhelming applause fills the theater hall as a smiling man slowly climbs the stage with the help of a walking stick and waves to the audience. The renowned cinematographer Michael Chapman, invited to the festival as the most special of guests to receive a lifetime achievement award just a couple of days before his 81st birthday, is a name impossible to miss if you’re an aficionado interested in the history of film: cinematographer on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Last Detail and The Lost Boys, camera operator on such classics as The Landlord, The Godfather and Jaws, Chapman has left a deep mark having influenced and witnessed the creation of some of the most significant movies ever made. Humble and completely down to earth, he radiates experience and humor as he tackles the audience’s questions before retreating from the stage surrounded by a horde of film students. As we sat down to discuss some aspects of his career and the current stage of the art and craft of cinematography, the legend of the industry smiles and sips his tea patiently, modestly acknowledging the fact that he “must have done an okay job” to be where he is today.

Congratulations on the lifetime achievement award here at Camerimage.
Thank you very much.

You said that great cinema doesn’t need to be beautiful, that a film’s visuality should first and foremost be appropriate. Would you say this is a mistake contemporary filmmakers keep making?
Mistake is probably not the right word, but in the simple sense, yes, I think they do. People tend to think, oh, this is going to be beautiful, and that sometimes gets in the way. The visuals need to be appropriate, and sometimes beautiful is appropriate. Sometimes it isn’t. For instance, and I’ve used this example before, a scene begins with a man in a room, he looks down, beaming with love and affection, it’s wonderful, and you cut to what he’s looking at, and what he’s looking at is a wonderful woman on a bed, it’s the great love of his life. It’s just heavenly for him. Certainly the image of that woman should be beautifully lit. It should have lovely soft sidelight coming in from the window, she must look gorgeous, you know? So in that case, beautiful is appropriate. Cut to six months later, they’re having a furious argument in the back of a taxi. You son of a bitch, she says and hits him. Now, should it be beautiful? No! If it were beautifully lit, it would just get in the way. So all I’m saying is that lighting, and any of those things, are simply tools to tell the story, and while at a certain time being beautiful is wonderful, sometimes it just gets in the way and screws things up.

There were at least three people who had huge impacts on your career. Your mentor, Gordon Willis, the director of The Last Detail Hal Ashby who got you your first job as a cinematographer, and Martin Scorsese, with whom you made several landmark films. Who would you add to the list?
Well, Hal Ashby had huge influence on me in the way that he hired me. But Gordy, of course, above all. Marty Scorsese, well, you can’t help being influenced by him! It doesn’t get any better than that, and I was really lucky to have done three or four different things with him. The one you didn’t mention was Raoul Coutard. He’s had a huge influence on me. On all of us, actually. He freed cinematography, opened it up. He demonstrated it can be absolutely off on its own, that it doesn’t have to have all of the silly rules it used to have. Enormous influence on me. Of course, I’m not the only one, but from the cinematographic point of view, Raoul Coutard was on the one end, Gordon Willis on the other, those were the two poles of cinematography, it seems to me.

You got into cinematography primarily because you married a girl whose father, a successful cameraman, didn’t want his son-in-law working as a freight breaker. You were a bit lucky, it seems.
Luck has enormous amount to do with it. Oh God yes. It’s good to be talented and take your opportunities when you get them, but sheer luck has an enormous impact. The reason why Hal Ashby hired me for the first time to be a DP was a series of coincidences. Gordy and I had made a movie for Hal Ashby before, Gordy had been the DP and I’d been the operator, so he knew me. (It’s The Landlord.) He wanted us to come to the East Coast to make The Last Detail. In those days the unions were divided between New York and Los Angeles, and if you were making a film on the East Coast, you had to use East Coast people. Since this was after The Godfather, Gordy had become a big star, he was off, I can’t remember what he was doing, conquering Hollywood… He wasn’t available. The other person Ashby tried to get was Haskell Wexler, but Haskell didn’t have a card on the East Coast. It was just a whole series of things that happened that made me the DP on The Last Detail. He said, alright, let Chappy do it. So they hired me.

Martin Scorsese and you made some unforgettable films now deemed classic. What made you such good partners that you kept working together?
Again I think it’s just a matter of things happening by chance. You’d have to ask Marty, but I think we worked well together on Taxi Driver. He hired me there again because it was going to be made in New York, he had to have an East Coast cameraman, they didn’t have any money, it was a low-budget movie, they couldn’t hire a big, expensive cameraman, so he hired me. We did Taxi Driver and I think it turned out pretty good. But when he was going to do The Last Waltz, he was originally planning to hire László Kovács, with whom he worked the previous year on New York, New York. Kovacs backed out, said he was too swamped to do it, so Marty only hired me then as a second choice. Again it turned out pretty well, but again, it was a coincidence. He knew I was able to do elaborate planning, which was needed because The Last Waltz had, I don’t know, ten cameras all over the place, and he knew I could figure that stuff out, he was confident about me. I’m not sure why he hired me on Raging Bull, though, I’m certain he had access to lots of people… It seems to me we saw movies the same way. We got along fine, I don’t remember ever arguing with him. At the end of Raging Bull I thought I’ve had enough. This sounds wrong, it’s not that I was fed up with Scorsese, it was just that I felt I’ve done enough Marty Scorsese movies and that I needed to seek another direction, another challenge.

Just to go back to Taxi Driver for a bit. You said Paul Schrader’s script was one of the best things you’ve read. It was a low-budget, small film, but when you made it, did you have the feeling this was something people will be talking about for decades to come?
I don’t think so. I’ve never had that experience. And I worked on The Godfather, and Jaws, Raging Bull, and so on. All these movies turned out to be pretty well-known, but I don’t know that during that time that you ever think how a classic is being made. On The Godfather, for instance, they were constantly trying to shut us down, threatening to close us, complaining all the time. And the same on Jaws, constantly trying to pull the plug during the first two months. So who knew? No, I don’t think I knew Taxi Driver was to be so great. I knew it was a wonderful script, that the film had New York, that it just had New York, but that I knew people are going to be talking about it like we’re doing right now? I don’t think anyone of us knew that. And I didn’t have the time to sit down and think about it, we were working our ass off!

How did you pull off that unbelievable scene at the end, where Travis lies on the couch covered in blood and the camera glides around the room over the massacre?
(laughs) We cut through the ceiling. Marty wanted to do it, and it was an old beat-up building on the West Side that was kind of falling apart, so we took a chance. I drew a line where it should be, the grips took chainsaws and they cut it! And it worked. They had to brace the outsides of the building so the structure wouldn’t collapse, but it worked.

You weren’t a huge fan of Raging Bull when it came out.
That’s true. Paul Schrader and I watched it, he wrote one version of the script, we were both kind of disappointed in it. We thought it was brilliantly done, that everybody had done a marvelous job, but that it didn’t add up as a movie so much. Paul’s script was rather different from what was finally shot. I saw the film, however, many years later and realized I had been wrong, and Marty had been right, that it really was a wonderful film. I just hadn’t got it at the time, it was stupid of me. I hadn’t quite got it, its horrible poignancy about how everything in your life finally just comes down on you and you can’t avoid it. Which is a very grim thought, but certainly true. I hadn’t quite realized it was what the movie was saying. Well, you know, we all mess up sometimes.

Is it a film you’re most proud of?
Well, technically I’m very proud of it. As a movie, I think it’s wonderful, but I believe Taxi Driver is a better movie. I’m proud of my work there, too, for that matter. It’s not as demanding as Raging Bull, but I think I did a really good job and that I did just the right job. I let New York light itself. I’m proud of both of them, but I prefer Taxi Driver as a movie. Raging Bull is a technically perfect movie, it’s just that I got more emotion from Taxi Driver.

Bridge to Terabithia was a film I enjoyed, it did great at the box office, the critics loved it. Why did you retire after shooting it?
I was seventy years old and I was tired! The reason I did Bridge to Terabithia in the first place was that it was a children’s movie. The laws of the state of California state that you can’t make children work 15 hours a day. There was a time when they did, you know? Judy Garland and those other child stars, they fed them speed and they worked forever, but you can’t do that now. The shooting schedule stops at ten or twelve hours. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is. You try being seventy years old and working fifteen hours a day. See how you like it! I think the last three movies I shot were all children’s movies. I was running out of steam, just getting tired. I couldn’t work those hours anymore. The hours in the movie business are scandalous, they really are. You know, I don’t know how many times a year grips or electricians work for fourteen or fifteen hours and then drive home one hour away and fall asleep, crash and die. The hours are terrible. And they’re getting even worse.

You said cinematographers were a dying breed of professionals, that the rise of technology might make their position obsolete.
Well, cinematographers in the old, traditional sense are a dying breed, yes, because the technology has changed so much that the same skills are not needed. Skills of screen direction and framing size not so much, but even that’s loosening up a lot. But the skills of lighting and getting it “just right” in the old-fashioned filmmaking sense no longer apply because you can change everything in postproduction. You can screw up badly and still fix it in postproduction. I don’t like that blue wall, make that wall red. The light is too low here, fix it a bit, good. I think that the task of cinematography has changed, but I don’t think it’s disappearing. I often think you should probably just get any old wally to shoot it, and that the cinematographer should take over in postproduction and paint it. Cinematographers are more and more painters than they used to be, you know? I don’t know anything about technology, I’ve never shot digital, but that might be wonderful for new cinematographers, to just sit there and paint. Paint her face, paint that wall, you can do anything. That’s the direction it seems to me that the cinematography is going. That and the other end of cinematography which should be taken more seriously is Raoul Coutard expanded to the hundredth degree: shooting with your cell-phones. The emotionally most gripping images we see now are things people shoot with their cell phones. Aleppo, for instance. No cinematographer on set is going to do anything as powerful as that. So there’s painting in postproduction and shooting with your cell phone, either one of them is a real and strong option, I think.

In loving memory of Michael Chapman (November 21, 1935 – September 20, 2020)

An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. Production still photographers (Taxi Driver): Josh Weiner & Paul Kimatian. Special photography by Steve Shapiro © Columbia Pictures, Bill/Phillips, Italo/Judeo Productions. Production still photographers (Raging Bull): Brian Hamill & Christine Loss © Chartoff-Winkler Productions, United Artists.

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