In one eight-year period, he photographed--among others--KLUTE, THE GODFATHER, THE PAPER CHASE, THE PARALLAX VIEW, THE GODFATHER PART TWO, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, ANNIE HALL, INTERIORS, and MANHATTAN.
His influence will never wane; there simply isn’t anyone who’s any good who isn’t standing on his shoulders.
I interviewed him for a documentary I made about his first feature, END OF THE ROAD, and used the opportunity to ask him about some other things as well…
Q: Aram found you through your commercial work.
A: I was shooting commercials. And I can't even remember how I got the call or what was going on, but anyway, I was shooting for this company, commercial work, and I got this request to send over some reels. They were looking for a DP to photograph a movie. Very thin information on this thing. I sent over a few reels, but I really didn't want to do it. I was sort of preoccupied with the comfort of shooting commercials at that point and making some money for my family. Anyway, one thing led to another and I ended up doing it. And that's how it came about.
Q: Did you know who he was?
A: I didn't know anything. I really didn't. I learned about Aram when I met Aram and I had no background on anybody or anything at that point. And I guess I was very foolish about it, I didn't see it as an opportunity because I was working and I thought, well, you know, I don't want to focus on that. I want to focus on this. But somehow you get pushed in the right direction. So that's how it came about.
Q: Do you remember the initial conversations you had? Did he have an approach?
A: Well, his approach was kind of interesting. He wanted to put a group of people together and do this kind of avant-garde movie from a book by John Barth called End of the Road. And he wanted everybody to just be very loose and sort of formulate this film as we went along. So we never really set up any kind of structure for this film except he wanted sort of a free-thinking operation from everybody and blah-blah-blah. And that finally meant a lot to me because I'm kind of pushy anyway when it comes to shooting. So I just had conversations with Aram about what he felt about this and what he felt about that, and I just went ahead and did what I felt like doing, based on those conversations. He said he wanted the interpretive level quite high and then we'd do it and he'd look at it, and he'd say, well, I think it should be even--you know--more. I think it should be more. I said, OK. And so any idea you had that you could paste on the movie, he was kind of for that. And I'm not that free in my thinking. I need--I'm definitive and I am a very structured kind of person. So doing what I want is one thing, but it always has to be within a framework of what's working. So anyway, it was a very good experience. Didn't cost much money because we were in a position to do it very quickly and very cheaply. He also was trying to make Terry happy, Terry Southern, regarding the screenplay. So it was this little group of people in this little inn in Edgarmont, Massachusetts, shooting in Great Barrington. And it was fast and very productive for me.
Q: How were you different when you came out of it as a cinematographer? Did you find yourself having to think in much larger strata about what you were doing?
A: Right. Well, the answer to that is, yes. I'm a minimalist in the way I think. So when I look at something, I usually start eliminating things as opposed to adding things. And not that I give any great thought to that, it's just the way I am. But the answer to the question is, yes. Generally after that, when I did things, it--I always have a tendency to think about one thing, which is a total picture. It's, oh, when you make this cut, how does it reflect to that cut? You do this, how does it reflect on not only the next cut but ten cuts up the way, and then finally the whole movie? I learned a lot from that movie because I didn't know as much as I thought I knew when I started dealing with a total entity like a whole movie. So from that point of view, I began saying to myself, well, I'd better learn more about this and about that. But to answer the question you asked--my overall view of something gained a lot of momentum. I began to think as one piece from top to bottom. But as I said, I'm a minimalist, so all the way through my career I used to have a lot of arguments--people kept putting things in, I kept taking things out, including discussions with directors concerned about scenes running too long, about this and this, well, you don't need that, all you need is this--boom. So that movie, because it was so inexpensive, we had to say so much in a very short period of time, shooting time, I did learn to move things in a very minimal way, not use a lot of stuff.
Q: Your experience obviously had enough of an impact that you started shooting more features.
A: Yeah, that was it. I'd go back and shoot a commercial once in a while, but I was fortunate. My career took off from that. I was doing things that people just don't do in movies. Not that I thought I was doing anything that people don't do in movies, I just did what I liked. And continued to do it. And they perceived it as something.
Q: Why do you think it took so long for certain ideas to take hold, like absolute adherence to the source? I recently watched The Long Voyage Home and what Gregg Toland is doing there is just spectacular--
Q: --he’s being really rigorous at a time when it was difficult to do that.
Q: So why wasn't it really until you and Watkin and a few other people came along that those ideas finally started to take hold, even though that's the way nature works? Did you ask yourself, “Why are people moving these lights around every time the camera changes angles?”
A: It’s a good question actually, because, well, to sort of scratch around the dirt about my thinking about that--I don't know if I'm answering the question--but the last thing on my mind is where to put the camera. You got to talk things out with the director, decide what the scene's about, what he wants to do and blah-blah-blah. Then, does the scene work in four cuts? Does it work in one cut? Does it work in twenty? And then, OK, the scene's in a bedroom, there are two people sitting on the bed and they're having an argument. And, OK, you have to make the decision what to do. Well, there's one light on by the bed. Click. I turn the light on. And it feels very good, and it feels very--well, that's the way I'm going to shoot the scene, with this one light on next to the bed, which is horrific for certain people at that point in the business, who would say, “What?” You know, “You're going to put on a 100-watt bulb and shoot the--?” Sure. It looks good, it feels good. It's absolutely wonderful, actually, for the most part. Thus, the source. The minute you start rebuilding something that doesn't really exist, I get really uncomfortable. Of course, after a while you learn how to supplement and do that so that it still feels like the source. But I don't know why people can't see that. It's like looking for locations and somebody says, this is great, this bar is fabulous, what we can do is just tear this all out and we'll put all that in, and I’ll say, well, why are we here? The bar is great. Just sit down and we'll work out the scene here. So it's the same thing in lighting, I feel. Of course, I've shot things where it looks like the junkyard, there's so much stuff, because that was what was necessary. But I think the star system probably engineered or created more of the lighting aspects. Girls had to look pretty, the guys had to look handsome, blah-blah-blah. And I look at some of those old movies and they're spectacular and they're quite beautiful. So I'm not against it when I look at somebody else's thing and it's done well. But I couldn't do it.
Q: Maybe it took the American new wave to happen, to deconstruct the tyranny of glamour.
A: That's true. Deconstruct the tyranny is right. Yeah. And I--women used to be afraid of me, I mean actresses used to be afraid of me because they were all afraid they'd end up looking like Marlon. I was kind of dangerous for certain women in movies, because I'd always do what was best for the scene or what was best for the movie, and if they happened to eat shit, well, that's the way it works in this scene, you know. Mostly, I was as kind as I could be with many actresses, but if it meant messing up something for the movie, I wouldn't do it. It was kind of right but wrong at the same time. But I managed to make them both work, most of the time. I did, actually.
Q: What was interesting to me in seeing the film and knowing that it was your first feature--
Q: --I was sort of stunned, because I felt like you sort of emerged full-blown right there. I felt like all the principles were in place.
Q: It was in a direct line to everything that followed, and that surprised me, because I didn't--I wasn't aware at the time that you'd been doing extensive commercial work.
Q: But knowing that features require a sort of 30,000-foot view--
Q: --I was really surprised. I just felt like, wow, it's all there. Everything. The color temperature--
Q: --mixtures, it was all there. That's something I want to talk about. That was rare, then, for somebody to come in and say, well, we're at 56OO Kelvin and we're going to let everything else go.
A: Right. Right. Right.
Q: Was that an argument often?
A: No, never. No. No. I mean, it just wasn't. It wasn’t a heavy thing on my mind. Like blocking, I'll look at something and it would take me five minutes to block. I mean, I can't jump in there and start blocking because the director has to work it out with the actors, but when it's done, usually it's fast, very fast. But I have the same feeling about light.
Q: When did you first start to notice light? When did that become interesting to you?
A: Well, when I was a kid I wanted to be an actor. My mother and my father were both dancers during the late 20's and early 30's, and then my father got this job at Warners, he was a makeup man at Warners in Brooklyn during the Depression. They made shorts and all kinds of things like that. And I used to hang out there, he'd bring me to the studio. But I've always been around the business, people in the business, and grew up with the business. And then I decided I wanted to be an actor. Luckily for me it didn't work out, because I just--it wouldn't have been a good thing. But I became interested in theater and then stagecraft. And summer stock. And I became more interested in the technical aspects of the theater and then finally photography. I can't tell you where I crossed the line there--my father was more interested--visually speaking--in the theater, so I spent my childhood, late childhood, in darkrooms with cameras and things. Then I went into the Air Force, ended up in a motion picture unit, documentary unit. Thought I knew everything. Came out and finally realized I didn't know shit. So I started at the bottom, got into the union, worked as an assistant cameraman, and just sort of hacked my way through. So I had this slow evolution of working in the business. But to tell you the truth, I had no feelings about what I finally turned out to be, meaning my perspective on life, my perspective on movies, my perspective--that didn't happen until quite late. Really late into my commercial career I was still doing things that I saw other people do, I was still doing kind of rudimentary reproductive kind of stuff. And why I'm so grateful for that movie, as I think about it, is everything that felt natural to me when I was put in the middle of a situation like that, I began to do. And I can't even tell you why I began to do it, except that it felt right. And possibly, being pushed in the direction of having to shoot a movie for far less money in a given situation and in an environment with a group of people who were very inspirational as far as, you know, doing what you want. Maybe that just sort of made it all come to the surface. And I got into a lot of head-to-head things with studios and studio heads and people in camera departments and everything, because “we don't do it that way”. So that was going on all during my early part of when I was working.
Q: When I've talked to Harris (Yulin) and Stacy (Keach) together--
Q: --they said it was an early film experience for them as well. Harris said it was his first film.
Q: He said, “I thought they were all going to be like this. Because the only people we had to please were ourselves.”
Q: He thought that's how every movie was going to be. And he was really disappointed when he found out it wasn't.
A: He's a terrific actor. I liked him a lot and I think he stumbled over that problem, as he--yeah, he did. Yeah, it's true. Yeah.
Q: And they both said you introduced them to “Mitchell” and “Arri”.
A: That's right. [laugh] Mr. Mitchell and Mr.--yeah, that's right. Exactly right.
Q: Did you read the book after you got the assignment?
A: No. No, I didn't. I'm lazy about reading. I can't read anymore, but I was lazy about reading. But the truth of the matter is, I don't really like to see a show about a movie or I don't like to see a movie before you remake a movie--I mean, I don't like to see anything about the movie that I'm going to work on, to be honest. I'd just rather not see it. When I did Pennies from Heaven for Herb Ross at MGM, I didn't want to see the series. I didn't want to see it. I don't want anything burned into my head. I want to look at something just based on what it is at the moment. I want as much information as I can get, but I don't want to see anything—-I just don't. Or read it. I don't care how good the book is. How's the screenplay?
Q: What was your feeling when you saw the finished version of End of the Road?
A: When I first saw it, I thought it was really interesting. Not “interesting”--I thought it was a great contemporary film. I thought it was--I liked it. And then I went hot and cold on it. I liked it a lot and then I didn't like it at all for a while. And yet there are whole sequences in the movie, or there are whole parts of the movie that I really like.
Q: The train platform sequence is stunning.
Q: That's probably my favorite thing in it, I think it's really, really something. Did you just go out and say, I can come up with 20 angles of how to shoot him standing on this platform, or--
A: Yeah, we went to the train station, which was in Westchester, I believe. Someplace. And yeah, we just worked our way through it. The catatonia thing, the catatonic thing, was really the trigger on these graphics that we kept doing, surrounding him with it. And it is a great sequence. It's wonderful. But yeah, it was just kind of free-form thinking about pre-Jimmy (Earl Jones) saying, “Catatonia.” So that really triggered the structure of it. Just keep him standing there, day, night--boom, boom. It was nice. It was fun when I think back on it. Yeah.
Q: It's very polarizing film. It's also trying to get at things I think a lot of movies don't try to get at and are very difficult to get at in a movie.
Q: And the abortion sequence is still really shocking, even 40 years later.
A: It is shocking. Really. It did drive a lot of people out of the theater, I think. Yeah. Especially then.
Q: Talk about Dr. D's room. Those are scrims, I'm assuming, the walls are made out of--
A: Well, they're made out of muslin. So what we did is take muslin and make the room out of muslin walls. And then they took carousel projectors, 35mm carousel projectors, and surrounded the room with them and loaded them up with all these images that we used. And then they didn't make much noise at all so we--on cue we just set them off--bang-bang-bang-bang--so it was a very effective and inexpensive way to do it. Hung one big light and--
Q: Yeah, I smiled at that light.
A: [laugh] Yeah, right.
Q: In that period--this is summer,'68--you’d be shooting at what ASA back then? 200, maybe? Slower?
A: It was slower. I'm trying to think now. It was on the edge of going to 200, but I don't think so. And one of the best negative stocks that Eastman ever made was 5254 and I don't even think I was up to that yet. I think it was 5251 or 5252. It was in that area. So--but I'll tell you something: I shot a movie after that called Loving. And on the same principle, I mean, whatever was necessary light-wise, that's what I did and what wasn't, I didn't. But there were a lot of scenes in that movie where I had one light on, you know, train stations, one light on the train and one light on going into a kitchen. And the same thing in End of the Road. There was so much silver in the film, Eastman’s negative quality was so good, you could really--I did things on that I couldn't do as well later, even with faster film. I’d do it, but it wasn't the same.
Q: The lack of latitude was almost a plus.
A: Yeah. That's right. And you got good blacks and it was quite lovely. It seemed fine at the time I was doing it. I never thought of it not working out, you know. I mean, I knew what it was supposed to do. But I look back on it now, when I think of the film stock, that's remarkable it worked out so well. Yeah, there was no “speed” involved. It was just the negative. And I loved the quality of it. I didn't love the quality so much until I looked back on it. You know, wow, this is good. Very good.
Q: I guess you were charting the difference between black and nothing.
A: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: There's so much latitude now I find I'm often using negative fill to get some tonality.
Q: To keep the light from bouncing back.
A: Well, this is true. Right. I agree with you. One of the great tools in filmmaking is number one, selective focus, and the other thing is what you see and what you don't see. What you allow people to see and what you, you know, don't. What you want them to see. Those are two great tools, and I think you should be free to control those without worrying. I never wanted the sharpest lenses, either. I wanted to pick lenses that were right, that felt right. I didn't want the sharpest lenses, I didn't want the sharpest film, I didn't want the sharpest anything. We've reached the point now where we're on the edge of newsreels here. I want to be more selective. I agree, the tonality in good film is something that's gone away in principle between video and bad film stock actually. I feel as you do. I don't want to see everything. I don't want everything sharp. I want a painting. I think there should be distance between an audience and what they're watching on the screen. I don't want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real. Well, dammit, it's not real. It's a story. I don't want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I'm watching on the screen. Otherwise there's no magic there. And I think that's probably what's missing a lot now, no magic.
Q: Well, I think people have forgotten you don't have to see everything, that every character who speaks doesn't need to be on screen. Or lit.
Q: I have to remind myself, we're not making television. If I want to play the whole thing in a tableau--
Q: --and it's a three-minute shot, I can do that.
A: Yeah, you can.
Q: It's a movie. You can do that in a movie.
A: Yeah. Right.
Q: I know a lot of young filmmakers coming up, and people are on them about coverage. When I started, people weren't bugging you about that.
A: “Where's the shot of the doorknob?”
A: I know. Yeah, well, see, it's a lack of point of view. If you have a point of view in the scene, as I say, a scene works in one cut or works in twenty, but what is the point of view? But I agree, “Where's the coverage?” It's what I call dump-truck directing. You shoot everything that's living and breathing--including the doorknobs, which aren't breathing--and throw it in there and they'll put it together for you. Meanwhile, you're on a plane to Bangkok or something. But that's unfortunate, actually.
Q: The job is to make choices there.
A: Right there. Exactly. Makes people nervous. [laugh] Makes 'em real nervous. Make a choice. Like: there aren't any more cuts. This is it. “What are my options?” You don't have any. This is it.
Q: I have a theory that's impossible to prove: that it's impossible to understand color cinematography without first understanding black-and-white cinematography.
Q: I don't know why that would be, maybe it’s this issue of tonality. But I thought about it because people like yourself and David Watkin have done extraordinary black-and-white work in addition to great color work.
A: Yeah, he was quite a guy.
Q: They’re connected somehow and I don't know why that would be. But I feel like they are.
A: Well, I think your point of view is connected on the two of them. I mean, I never shot black-and-white any differently than I shot color. Or I'll reverse that. I never shot color any differently than I shot black-and-white. In black-and-white you have to adhere to who's separating from the walls, etc. To me, color's a burden, because you have to think about it while you're working with it. Colors get in the way. If somebody's got the wrong color on, it's like…I've always hated blue and yellow and all those colors in movies, if they're not appropriately applied, because it gets in the way. So they are absolutely the same, except one's got color in it and one's black-and-white. But as I said, color's a burden, so you have to use a color to your advantage or get rid of it; it shouldn't be there. I always like earth tones in black and things like that, because it feels good and it feels kind of warm and encompassing, but it's not in the way. But you're right. They're different but they're the same.
Q: I’m very enamored of anamorphic.
A: Oh, that was my favorite format. Absolutely. Anamorphic is a great format. It's--the graphics are just…and negative space in it is great. I just love it.
Q: I'm always reaching to throw things out of focus, because everything looks so great soft.
A: Yeah, right. The selective focus in anamorphic was so…so painter-like, you know, it was highly selective at that level and I liked it a lot. Got to be a pain in the ass when you really wanted to see something at both ends, but still, it was quite wonderful. I remember having a discussion with somebody at Fox, I guess it was--yeah--I did a movie called The Paper Chase and I told Jimmy Bridges, gee, you know, now that we're figuring this out, we should shoot this anamorphic, because it's perfect for the movie, structurally it'll be lovely, and he was all for it. And the people at Fox, they said, well, this is not a western, and I said it doesn't have to be a western. I said the medium is how you use the medium. So there was a little bit of head-knocking there until we got started and they perceived it as something else. But it's a stunning format. So much you can do with it. So much. I love it.
Q: Those were not fast lenses back then.
A: No. But that was another thing, that you bring this up. I look at some of those movies I shot anamorphic, like Klute, and it looks really good. And I don't think I could do this now.
A: Well, the lenses, I mean, I can use the same point of view and shoot it the same, but the lenses were early anamorphics and I was shooting interiors and there were a couple in Klute that were shot at like 2.3 to 2.8. And they're crystal. I mean, they're beautiful. I didn't seem to be struggling with it. And later on--and I can't even remember the movie--some anamorphics I shot, they weren't any good. I tried doing some of the same things I did with the earlier lenses, with the earlier film, and it wasn't--it didn't feel good. The lenses didn't feel good. So with these junkier lenses and this crappy film, I was shooting better than with the more advanced optics and faster film. I'll put it that way. You're quite right, there wasn't any speed there, but at the same time, you don't know that when you're doing it; your selections are whatever they are at that point. But they were better somehow.
Q: Some quality got swept away.
Q: Some combination of something.
A: Too good technically becomes, you know, aesthetically bad.
Q: That must have been a real problem on the third Godfather. Aside from the fact that imbibition printing was gone.
Q: Matching that, the quality of those stocks and those lenses.
A: Yeah. Yeah. Now you bring that up, it was kind of interesting because I don't--I met a lot of nice people in studio work, but I met a lot of idiots in studios, too. But the first thing they wanted to do in III, was they said, well, what do you think about anamorphic? I said, what? I said, this is part of a, you know, one-piece operation here, what do you mean, anamorphic? “OK, how about Super 1:85?” So I finally ended up compromising on Super 1:85, because then they wanted to blow it up to 70mm. I was like--OK. But, the problem, as I said, I could keep one thread of the first two movies with the color, because the color's been the one thing that ties everything together on those movies. But the other thing, I'm just going to eat because they're not going to be the same and I guess probably they shouldn't be, but I wanted them to be. But I just didn't have the stuff to do it. So I had to do it with the film that was available and the lenses that were available. So you have this thing that you're dealing that's not the same. Probably finally didn't matter. He had a very good script to begin with. But--
Q: Why not pay Duvall whatever he wanted?
A: Hey, I'm with you. I thought, what the hell is that? I thought that was bad. There were a lot of bad things. But technically, I couldn't do it. The point of view and the structure and the lighting were the same, but technically it had gone past where I could even ground it. But I'm with you. What happened there? No, he's not coming? Right. It doesn't make any sense.
Q: Did you take Polaroids?
A: Never. I never took Polaroids. I'm very, very, very astute about what happens to the negative I'm using at that moment when you put that light on and this light on and turn that off, put this on. So I run a whole series of tests on it and find out where it bottoms out and where it gets clipped at the top end. And then I look at a scene, and I think, well, it should be 2 under over here and 2-1/2 under here. ‘Cause I know what that's going to look like on the screen.
Q: What about people waiting outside the dialies screening room until you’ve made sure that the footage looks right?
A: Let me see now. I might have done that once for something, but I--that wasn't my--
Q: It wasn't SOP.
A: No, no, no. Not at all. My only SOP was that I insisted that laboratories were usually Technicolor, and that everything went through the same printer every day. The same printer. I said, if it doesn't, I'll see it right away. So I'd pick a set of lights, and I never timed anything. I set it to the lights and that's how the whole movie went through. And if they made a mistake, it showed right away. So they'd have to re-do it. But I felt that…I can't see my mistakes or learn anything if you are doing a lot of timing here. I don't like your timing anything.
Q: How do you define a mistake?
A: Well, if I did something with a window, or I did something with an actor lighting-wise, and I see it on the screen--oh, that was too much or it was too little. And I'll make sure that I don't do that again. So if they're fiddling around with it, I can't tell what's going on.
Q: It’s surprising to me sometimes how a very theatrical stylistic choice can actually feel very real. I'm thinking about Parallax, when he’s in his little room, when Warren Beatty's in his room, pretending to be the guy, and Walter McGuinn comes and--
A: Yeah, in the door? Yeah, right--
Q: --when you go into a tableau, it's pretty--you're further away than any wall that was in that space--
Q: --in theory. But I noticed, in trying to break down how it was done, it's seamless when you watch it, you don't ever think--
Q: --that wall would be 20 feet from there.
A: Right. You don't think about it.
Q: No, because that's where you want to be. It feels right.
A: Exactly. If you go too far, though, it doesn't work. [laugh]
Q: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: Your relationship with Pakula must have been pretty fluid.
A: It was very fluid. To be honest, most of the people that hired me after a certain point were people that wanted me to help design their movies structurally. By that I mean visually. And so with Alan it was--we had a good start with Klute…he was very--
Q: I understand there could be a lot of deliberation…
A: Parallax was a lot--yeah, right, a lot of that. President's Men--he was dreadful with not being able to make up his mind. We'd lay things out and then he'd say, well, what are my options? I said, well, there aren't any, we have to commit to this idea and go through with it. I said, too many options and six months from now you won't know what movie you shot here. So he was not good at making up his mind. He was intellectually very fruitful. But he was happiest covered in papers and books. That was his happiest moment. And talking about scenes. I mean, he'd disappear in rehearsals for two hours and you’d wait around with a cup of coffee. He’d say, OK, we have it. And then I'd go into the set and they didn't have anything. They hadn't blocked anything, they hadn't done anything except talk about it. So OK, boom-boom-boom, we'd block and he'd say, oh, that's very good. Let's do that. And boom. So that was really the kind of working relationship with Alan, which was pretty good for a while. And then I guess the last movie I shot with him, Devil's Own, with Harrison, he had actually kind of turned himself over to Harrison at that point, so he became even worse. But he was a very nice man, intellectual, and he was very, very appreciative of good stuff on the screen, very appreciative. Women liked him a lot. Actresses liked him. Men didn't like him at all. He made male actors very--
Q: Just because of that quality--
A: Yeah, that effete quality made them very--yeah, yeah, they didn't like him. The women liked him a lot.
Q: You started working in a period where it seems movies mattered in a way that they don't anymore.
A: That's true.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Well, I'm just thinking of the overall day-to-day living standards of everybody today. Movies were a way of communicating. There was radio and you had movies. Newspapers. I think they were a definitive way of communicating with people and a definitive way of telling stories. And they were a special way. I know when I was growing up--which was a long time ago--going to the movies was a wonderful experience, and they were a special way for people to reach out and get something else, take in something. Now, movies aren't so special. In fact, it's like wallpaper now. People are running around watching movies on their iPods and blah-blah-blah. So everything is sort of stacked and overlapping and so I don't think they're as important as they used to be, because although they pretend they are, they used to be an event. It used to be a Saturday, it used to be a Sunday, it used to be an evening, it used to be something that you wanted to go to and see this, see that. I don't think that's there anymore. It is to a degree, but it's like a weekend, you know. Get the money, get out. So it's not--it's like opening a great book. You sit down and you open the book. It's something special. Going to a movie was something special. I don't think it's special anymore. I think it's just another way of turning out stuff.
Q: I know that filmmakers of my generation took note of the fact that one of the reasons for that great era of filmmaking coming to an end was self-destructive behavior on the part of a lot of filmmakers.
Q: They lost control of themselves the then they lost control of their movies.
A: This is true.
Q: And then the 80's were like the worst decade in American film, for studio movies.
Q: And I'm trying to figure out if movies stopped mattering before that, or if it's somehow connected to the fact filmmakers burned themselves out; did the idea movies could communicate in some significant way vanish along with them, or what?
A: Well, as I said, it's not special anymore. I think a lot of filmmakers were responsible for their own destruction. I'm just grateful that I had the opportunity to work in the 70's with a lot of great people who were so willing to let me do what I felt like doing. I was grateful for that. I mean, there were so many good people making movies then, interesting people. And these movies, if you flash back on them, they're still good movies. I looked at President’s Men, oh, I guess six months ago. No, four months ago. And I thought, gee, this is--I'm very proud of this.
Q: Well, what I love is there's no reason it should work, actually.
Q: We know what happens. And you end with their mistake.
Q: If you pitched it to somebody and said, we're going to tell it like this, they’d go, well, that's not going to work.
A: Right. Yeah, right. I know. I give Redford a lot of credit for pushing that through. He was very funny, actually. [laugh] Bob and Dustin. I'll tell you, you have time for a funny story about those two?
Q: Uh, yeah.
A: I was going home one night and I was going by the office and Bob was getting ready to go home and he said, how's it going? I said, oh great, how about you? And he said, I don't know, he says, Dustin has all the good lines. And then I'm talking to Dustin on the set: “Bob is better looking than I am.” I said, really? [laugh] I said, now what? So about a week later, we're ready to shoot and we blocked and the actors went away and then, OK, let's go. And I came back again and Dustin's the last one to step in. He comes in and he looks like Geronimo. He's got makeup on which is like five shades darker than anyone standing there. It's red, brown--so I said, hey, hang on a second, what are you doing? He said, what do you mean? I said, we can't shoot you, you look very, very dark, you'll have to take that off. So he goes back. Comes back with a normal makeup on. OK. Week goes by, same action--I'm ready to go, everybody steps in. He steps back in and, again, he looks like Geronimo. I said, what the hell's going on here? I was a little too loud. I said, we can't shoot this way. I call the makeup girl at night--that night--I said, what the hell are you doing? And then I realized, and I said, oh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be yelling. She said, he wants this makeup, and I said, OK, all right, I understand now. So he was so paranoid about not looking handsome, as good as Bob looked, that he was putting all this makeup on. I said to him, you look great. You look like Dustin. You look terrific. You can't put this all over your face. It was so funny in retrospect, now. It was very irritating at the time.
Q: Did he think you were not going to notice?
A: I guess so. [laugh] “But now I'm as good-looking as Bob, ‘cause I have my magic face on.” But he, like, waited until the very last minute and jumped onto the mark. And then thought: we'll get a couple of takes in. But I laughed at Bob too: “Dustin has all the good lines.” These are two grown-ups. [laugh] Bob, you're producing. But it is a wonderful movie.
Q: Oh boy.
A: I looked at it again and I said, yeah, I am proud of this. And then, something bad happened. Warners made a Blu-Ray of this and sent it to me. I got it. And they didn't do a very good job, unfortunately. I wish that they just wouldn't re-master the movie again. I just--leave it alone. They did a good DVD. Just do that. But that happens, unfortunately.
Q: But still, you built an entire film to visually lead up to that one tracking shot, where they stop Bradlee at the elevator.
A: Oh yeah, right.
Q: That's the climax of the film. Literally.
A: Yeah, right.
Q: That one shot.
Q: Nobody will ever do that again.
A: No. Great shot. That was a moment we had a mental lock, Alan and I. Yeah, they take off for the elevator. “We're having a problem here, we can't keep both people in frame.” So you play the shot the way it works. It works the way you see it now on the screen. So this became a 20-minute getting-a- headache discussion because they both couldn't be in the same frame equally all the way from one end of the room down to the elevator.
Q: That's what's great, it just sort of shrinks and grows.
A: Right, yeah, no, it works. Jesus. So--but anyway. Funny. Yeah.
Q: That's the best translight work I've ever seen. How did you do that?
A: Well, there's an interesting story behind that. What happened was, we were in Washington and I told the art director, George Jenkins, I said, George, make sure that when they print these, make sure they print them like a stop over--don't print 'em regular, because I generally over-expose these backings by a stop and a half, two stops. So--OK. I get back from Washington, walk into the set, there are the backings, totally wrong. They're printed normal. I said, get the translight people over here, they were told not to do this. And there was only--well, I guess about four feet behind the backing to the stage wall. That's all that was left. So I get this guy with the translight over there and I said what the hell did you do? He says, well, you wouldn't be able to see the backing. I said, this is not a movie about the backing. I asked you to print it--anyway, the story went on and on. So here I am, I've got I don't know how many feet of this backing. So I had to take sky pans and they were stacked along the studio wall behind this backing. Now, there was so much heat from these sky pans that I thought, Jesus, the fire department's going to close us down here. Almost happened. But I had to have that much light to get these backings up to where you see them in the movie now.
Q: They wouldn't just reprint them?
A: No. And we had to shoot. So then my other problem was, I had all these fluorescents put in. And I had them put in when you couldn't get 32OOK fluorescents, they were all cool white, and I had the electronics put on the outside of the studio so we didn't hear a lot of buzzing from the ballasts. But since I had cool white fluorescents on the inside of the set and tungsten firing up the back of this translight, of course the color temperature is not the same. So I have to make a correction when they're printing on all this green light that we're getting. So they make the correction as we go. And it turns the backings pink, so I had to put cyan, big rolls of cyan gelatin paper, all over the backing.
Q: Oh, man--
A: --to match that. So--but at any rate, I'm so delighted to hear you liked it, because it--
Q: Oh, it sounds like a nightmare.
A: It was a nightmare for about a day there. It was bad.
Q: Because when I look at it I think, oh, that must have been so meticulously planned.
A: It was. It was. I just had a few steps to get to it. But I'm glad you mentioned it actually. But the other nightmare about that movie, and I'm very proud of the movie, was staying in this newsroom for I don't know how many hours a day under fluorescents--let me out of here. The whole movie, every shot you're delivering information and there's no shot where you could just--you know--
Q: Right, just do a pure, abstract--
A: Yeah, right. Information. Information. Information. Information.
Q: Yet somehow it just comes off--it just has a feeling.
A: Talking about how to do the movie with Alan, I said, well, you know, it feels like sort of a deep focus movie, based on what's going on in the thing. So anyway--
Q: --you use the split diopters.
A: --a lot of diopters to make it work. So then there was this shot of Bob on the phone. I can't remember the scene.
Q: The Dahlberg call. It's like a 7-minute take.
A: Yeah, right. And off in the corner of the frame there you can see--well, I think they're still renting it to this day--I had them make this sliding diopter so that I could put it in and just calibrate it, just keep moving it.
Q: Moving it in shot?
A: I was moving it. I was moving it during the shot so to keep, you know, (gestures toward imaginary background) all that. So it would lock in there, the diopter. The second assistant said, Jesus, you can't do that. “I can't do this, sir.” I said, yeah, yeah, yeah. We'll get this device and we'll just do this. So the next day the second didn't show up. He was the one that was going to run it. He was so afraid--he was a thinker--so I did it. The first was on focus and I did the diopter. It worked really well.