Michael Chapman – Cinematography will be my career (6/94)

Michael Chapman – Cinematography will be my career (6/94)

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Born in New York in 1935, Michael Chapman is an innovative cinematographer. He has worked with a number of acclaimed directors including Martin Scorsese with whom he created his two best known films, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’. [Listener: Glen Ade Brown]

TRANSCRIPT: I operated a lot of movies for Gordie – ‘Godfather’, ‘Klute’, and all those movies, and… and I was extraordinarily lucky to be in that position, because I mean, what better training, or learning experience could there possibly be than to work for Gordon Willis? And… and not just to work for him, but to work for him when he first started, I mean, the first movie that he lit was the first movie that I operated. And we worked together and we worked a style, I don’t mean… I mean that he worked out the style of lighting, I had nothing to do with that, but… but framing and thoughts about how movies should go together and how scenes should be covered and… and what the master should be and what the cover should be. We talked about… years and years together, we spent more… probably more hours together than we did with our families, for about six years or so, you know, six or seven years, something like that. I don’t…don’t know, I can’t quite do the math, but something like that. And it was the most extraordinary learning experience that you could possibly ask for so I was very… I was very confident and content with my operating, and with that part of moviemaking, but it wasn’t until, I think, my second movie, that I suddenly realized that, by God, I could be… that I probably could actually have a career as a cameraman, that I could continue working and that I could do… that I could get as much satisfaction – I really hate to use words like aesthetic, but whatever the right phrase is – emotional satisfaction. Whatever the emotional satisfaction you get from writing a poem, or painting a picture or writing a novel, or, God help us, dancing a dance, I could get from being a cameraman, and…

I remember saying to my then wife, when I was partway through White Dawn, the second movie I’d made which, with Phil Kaufman in the Arctic. She and the kids came up to visit and I said, listen, I really… this is, you know, I really am going to do this, and, and I’m going to keep on doing this. I think she, rather correctly, said, you know, you’re… I’m living in West 94th Street and you’re in bloody Baffin Island, and it’s… this is not really how marriages go. Of course, she’d grown up with a father who did exactly that, so I don’t know quite what she… why she should have been surprised. And I remember saying, yes, I understand all that, but, by God, I’m going to do this, you know, and so somewhere in there I must have realized that… that this was, I mean… you know…

I… before that I had seen movie stars and worked with Marlon Brando and done ‘The Godfather’ and all that, and that part of it was all understandable and real and perfectly real and fun and all that, but there was somewhere in there that I realized that I could get whatever satisfaction I needed, other than money, out of being a cameraman. And then, and somehow it happened in the second movie, ‘White Dawn’, I don’t know why it didn’t happen on the first movie, it was a very good movie, ‘Last Detail’, but it… somehow it didn’t. I don’t know why, maybe… maybe because in ‘Last Detail’ I was just so terrified all the way through it that I never could draw a full breath and think, my God, look, we’ve made a wonderful movie, you know. And I wasn’t sure how much of it had been me, because it was… I’m sorry, ‘the Last Detail’ was a…a movie directed by a man named Hal Ashby, with a script by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson, and it has survived, I mean, it’s now part of the cannon of movies, and it is in fact a very good movie, albeit not particularly lit one. But I felt like such a fraud while doing it, because I knew that I knew so little about lighting, or thought I knew so little, maybe I knew more than I thought I did, that I never quite could draw that breath of satisfaction that I later was able to.

Now, looking back on it, it seems, I mean I… it seems to me I did a fine job, in a… kind of minimalist way, it certainly was minimalist. But, at the time I’m not sure I… I could have fully enjoyed it, you know, and later on I could, later on after I stood in ‘White Dawn’, which is this movie about Eskimos, also recommended by… but I was extremely lucky with the things that I was… that sort of fell in my lap, you know, and… and it is a……
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