Had he only worked for a period of roughly ten years, Michael Chapman would still be among the best-regarded cameramen of his time. How else to qualify the man who acted as operator on Klute, Husbands, The Landlord, The Godfather and Jaws, as well as cinematographer on The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Hardcore, The Last Waltz, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (The decades-blurring Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is no small achievement, either.) But then he’d go on to helm All the Right Moves (a key early point in Tom Cruise’s career), then photographed (to name but a few) The Fugitive, Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” and, of course, Space Jam. How many people in his trade can lay claim to that wide a berth?
Chapman’s been retired for nearly ten years — his last feature, Bridge to Terabithia, was released in 2007 — making it fitting that he’d now, at 80, receive a lifetime achievement award from the Camerimage International Film Festival, which is also holding a retrospective of his work. While there, I was lucky enough to sit down with the man, who shared a wide range of humble thoughts on his career, some frustrations with his former collaborators, and a perspective on today’s cinematographic world.
The Film Stage: There’s this retrospective of your films being shown here. Did you have much hand in choosing the films?
Michael Chapman: No, I didn’t, actually. They chose the ones that they always do — Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and all that — and I think they asked me for some suggestions, but we talked over what films were available that they could actually get prints of and things. That limited it, to some extent. A couple of the ones I wish they had done, they didn’t, because I suggested them too late or they couldn’t get the right print — or something. It was a mixture of my suggestions and what they could do, so there was no overarching authority on it.
Are these prints or digital?
I guess it’s mostly digital. I suppose. No, I think it’s almost all digital.
How do you feel about the proliferation of older films being shown on DCPs? Do you approve, or would you prefer that older films are seen on 35mm prints?
No. I think that, by and large, old 35 prints are in crappy shape. They’re probably better. If they make the digital prints from a good negative or something, they’re a lot better than they would be. They preserve them in a way that film is not preserved — forever — so I’m all for it. Let them do it; let them save those movies. It’d be wonderful if there were a way to preserve them on film, and all that, but, in the real world, what you want is to make sure that the image survives and exists. So make them digital. Why not?
You’ve participated in restorations of your work. A new Blu-ray of Taxi Driver was released last month.
Yeah. I supervised a new print of it. But it just came out now? Because I did it a couple of years ago.
I think this 40th-anniversary disc uses the same restoration.
Okay, yeah. What I did was for Blu-ray, and it was easily two or three years ago — more than that, I think. I can’t remember. It was a while ago, anyway.
I’d love to know your thoughts about watching these films again for restoration. In the career-spanning book Camerimage has created, you said your skills on Taxi Driver were “still quite primitive.” So I imagine it’s interesting to revisit it now with the intention of making it look as pristine as it can.
Yeah. I was trying to make it pristine, but I was trying to make it look what it looked like; I wasn’t going to change what it looked like. In one case, I was, because the final big shoot-out scene had to be toned-down in color because they would threaten to give it an X rating, and they wouldn’t give it an R unless we took the blood down. The whole last scene is completely screwed when they first put it out. I was very angry, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I managed, I hope, to bring that back up to the color level of the rest of the movie, and I pretty much did.
Occasionally — in fact, whenever I see them — I see a mistake I made here and there, and I think, “Oh, shit, I should’ve put that light a little further there,” or, “I should’ve taken that one down a bit.” Constantly. But they’re usually minor things that most people never notice — in fact, nobody seems to notice but me — so I get nagged by my own mind and those things, but, in general, what can you do? You did what you did, and there’s no sense brooding about it now.
And you’re here with this lifetime achievement award.
I must’ve been reasonably successful.
I wonder if you have a sense of the “lifetime achievement.” Do you find that a sufficient way of considering your career, or is it hard for you to see your work this way?
I guess it is hard for me to think of my work in that way, yeah — as if I set out with this great thing in mind, to climb Mount Everest and I had climbed Mount Everest. Well, I didn’t set out with anything like that in mind; I set out to make a living. Then I set out to do this movie well and that movie well. I was not conscious… I hope I’m not lying to myself. I was not enormously conscious, in any way, of, “Oh, I’m leaving this great trail of great works behind me.” I don’t think I thought that. I really don’t. I was leaving behind me whatever I did, because you almost always… I mean, I was involved in some marvelous movies, but there is always, in what you do, a very practical element of, “I’ve got a wife and I’ve got alimony and I’ve got kids and are they going to go to college?” Very practical.
It may be a great art form, but it’s an industry, also, and you shouldn’t lose track of the industry part of it. [Laughs] If you do, you will end up screwed out of it. So I don’t know that I… most of the time, anyway; maybe my most pompous moments alone in bed, no I doubt I thought of this and that kind of crap. But, most of the time, anyway, I didn’t even have to consciously try. I was just there, doing it. I was doing it as well as I could, and I was doing it on this movie and that movie. Sometimes, it was a good movie; sometimes, it was an ordinary movie. But I was trying to do the best that I could, and I thought of what I was doing the next day more than anything else.
I’d heard that you made something of a point of working with first-time directors, since many making their debut don’t know what to get from a cinematic image.
Oh, that’s not my choice. Specifically for Warner Bros., but also various other people, I had that reputation in Hollywood: that I could walk a first-time director through it and at least make sure that really egregious errors didn’t get made. That was a niche that I had. They called me and offered me good money to do it — fine with me. I mean, this is later in my career, when I was not yearning to be Michelangelo. By then, I was just getting through the day, getting through life. I had that niche in Hollywood for some years, yeah, that they would call me in for certain situations. Sometimes, even, big movies, like The Fugitive. They called me to take it over, and various other things. Often, if they were first-time directors, they would try nudging them into using me, because I could more or less, as I say, make sure the most egregious errors were not going to get made.
Your final film, Bridge to Terabithia, was nine years ago, and so much has changed in the cinematographic art form since then.
You’re retired and have talked about being happy in that life, but do you look at certain things that have emerged in the time since and wish you could’ve tried them?
I do wish. I do wish very much that I could’ve shot digitally while I was still doing it, because it seems fascinating and I think I would’ve loved to experiment with it. I just didn’t get a chance to. Would I do it now, go back? No. I’m an old man. I ain’t going. I wouldn’t mind fooling around in a studio if Panavision or something just wanted to let me try some stuff out — I would love it — but shooting a movie now, in digital or anything else? I couldn’t do it. I would be lying to the people if I said I could. It’s too physically demanding.
You’ve worked with some of their era’s most-defining directors — Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg — and I’m curious if you have thoughts when you watch their new movies now. Scorsese and Spielberg still work very frequently, so do you see them and think about the cinematographic character of them? Maybe watching them will bring to mind working with them, where you can kind of see traits of your working relationship.
No, I don’t think I do, necessarily. I’m not that wild about some of the later work of either one of them. Their great years seem to be somewhat behind them. Not to say “they had to have me there” — I don’t mean that — but we only have so much in us of great work. Actually, the latest movies of Marty’s, I haven’t even looked at. He did that television series — what is that? Vinyl, or something? I tried to watch that, and I just… whoo. I just couldn’t. It just seemed pointless. It was well-shot and everything — I don’t mean that — but this is an example of how you can shoot things wonderfully and have nice dolly moves and everything and it doesn’t mean shit. It really doesn’t.
It seems to me, unless a director makes some huge sea change in what he does, that the work, the mechanical work, is going to be vaguely the same — or of the same school, anyway — but what changes is the intelligence and passion behind it in the script. Steven Spielberg, I’m sure, does still do wonderful dolly shots and this and that and all of it — and, mostly, who cares?
Do you watch a lot of films in your free time?
No. I’m in the Academy and they send me everything in the fall. It’s probably stacking up at home now, Blu-rays of everything. I almost never go to the movies anymore. I’m corrupted: I just wait and watch them at home. Because, you know, I have a big-screen TV; it looks just about as big as the image of what you’re going to see in a theater. I see, occasionally, things. What is it, Dr. Strange? And I turned out liking it. And a few things I hear about, I see — but, basically, I just wait, they mail them to me, and I look at them at home.
That might answer this next question: are there film artists, particularly cinematographers, working today who you like? It seems there’s a glut of good ones.
Yeah. But they seem, to me, to be imitating each other all the time. It all looks the same to me, pretty much. They’ve worked out a style with digital; they’ve worked out a style of how to do flashy, nice things, but it all looks the same, whoever’s shooting it — it seems to me, by and large. I mean, big-time movies do it. There are obviously small, independent movies that look different. But there seems, to me, to be a certain style which has pervaded the major-movie industry. So I can’t really tell the difference between this guy and that guy, by and large; they look pretty much the same.
That’s maybe just me being an old, grumpy asshole; don’t take it too seriously. But I wish that somebody would come out and do something radically different. I don’t even know what it is, but I wish to hell they would — for a big movie, I mean. For a big-time movie that a lot of people are going to pay money to see. I wish somebody would do something startling, and I would like to see it, whoever that person is. Most of the cinematographers who I admire are people who, most of them, [Laughs] are now dead. I’m trying to think if there are new guys who… no, there isn’t. There isn’t anybody who jumps to mind. That is, as I say, partly because I don’t go to the movies as much anymore. I don’t find them as central to the culture as they once were — because they’re not — so the need to go see them is problematical, at best.
Do you watch a lot of television, then?
I watch the Red Sox. But, no, I don’t. I watch a few things, but the last thing I watched passionately was The Sopranos, and that was some years ago. It seems, to me, that no one’s gotten to be as good as The Sopranos — so, until they do, why watch? I watch the Red Sox instead.
And The Sopranos was a beautiful-looking show.
Oh, it was beautiful in every way — not just “looking.” In every possible way. And I watched Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie. That was kind of fun, too, because she’s such a good actress. I don’t know, everybody says… what’s that one about the high-school teacher?
Breaking Bad. Everyone says it’s wonderful. I never quite could get into it; I don’t know why. I should’ve paid more attention to it, I guess. It can’t be anything but wonderful if everyone says it’s wonderful. It’s got to be pretty good. That’s probably my fault. But, no: I don’t watch television much. I watch the news and I watch sports.
I’m interested in that you’ve worked as both a DP and camera operator. In this book, you said that working on The Godfather was nice because you weren’t involved in “any of the big decisions or disagreements.” I’d like to hear, from your own perspective, the pleasures that come with being an operator.
Oh! A camera operator is, far and away, one of the most wonderful jobs in the movies, I think. [Pause] Well, I’ll leave aside some other things. [Laughs] Because it is very challenging, and it’s a mixture of athleticism and aesthetics: you have to make choices, constantly, at 24 frames a second, and, at the same time, be able to do it. It’s a hard job, and, if you’re good at it, it’s a wonderful job. If you do it well, you’re immediately gratified by it. You know, “Why, I made that. I knocked that one out. I hit that one out of the ballpark.” Whatever you want to say. Also because you are the first person to see the movie. You are seeing the movie as it’s being shot — far before the director, before the DP, before anybody. You’re seeing it as it’s shot, for the very first time, and that’s very exciting, because you’re the eye that is the movie. You are the movie. Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s heavenly. You don’t have to go to dailies. You get to flirt with the actresses. Oh, it’s a wonderful job. It’s a heavenly job.
Have you worked on movies with more than one camera operator?
I guess I probably have, but, when I was an operator, I was always the key operator. I guess in big scenes, big shoot-outs, there’d be more than one camera. But, by and large, I was always the “A” operator.
I’d imagine Jaws requires more athleticism than The Godfather, which is much more still.
Oh, yeah. Well, Jaws was all handheld, standing on a rocking boat. That was a real triumph of operating. They owe me a lot of money, because they’d still be there in Martha’s Vineyard, still trying to get that thing, if it hadn’t been for me. But, anyway, operating is… I can’t say enough about it, how wonderful it is.
Do you have a clear preference for something slower or faster?
Not at all. I just love whatever comes along. I like whatever’s appropriate. The first scene of The Godfather, it’s all very still and quiet and dark and kind of mysterious-looking; running around on the boat in Jaws it’s all very frantically going here and there. But that’s what’s appropriate to the scene. There is no one thing better than the other.