Bojan Bazelli, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland
"Filmmaking is a global language that began with silent movies. I remember my father taking me to a cinema where I saw a movie through the glass window in the projection booth. It was an amazing experience - like watching poetry being written with light. A cinematographer's language includes light, lenses, camera angles and movement, as well as the films we choose and how we expose and process them. We can do things with film today that we wouldn't have dreamed about trying 10 or 15 years ago. That gives us more freedom to experiment and try different things, but the important question isn't how a cinematographer shot a scene. It's why they did it that way. You have to trust your instincts and not be afraid to break the rules."
Bojan Bazelli, ASC has earned nearly 30 narrative film credits since 1987, including King of New York, Kalifornia, The Ring, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Hairspray and the upcoming G-Force, in addition to shooting award winning commercials.[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Bojan Bazelli, ASC
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
BAZELLI: I was born and raised in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. The name of the town translates to New Herceg in English. Herceg is an old Turkish name. The area was under Turkish domination for 800 years during the Middle Ages. Herceg Novi is a beautiful coastal town on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. It is surrounded by tall cliffs. I grew up and went to high school there.
QUESTION: What was it like going growing up there?
BAZELLI: It was a sleepy town with a very short, summer season which attracted many tourists. There wasn't much to do. There were some 20,000 people there on the 31st of August, and on the first day of September, there was nobody around. The population dropped to about 500. My father was the local doctor. It was great growing up there.
QUESTION: Was there a cinema in your town?
BAZELLI: There was a huge summer theater, which still exists. At night, an old Turkish fort became a theater with films projected on a large screen on the side of a cliff. In the summertime it doesn't get really dark until about 10:30 p.m., but they would start showing films at dusk at 9 p.m. You could see the moon and a light blue sky in the background. I remember my father taking me to a cinema in another town, where I saw a movie through the glass window in the projection booth. It was like a scene in that movie Cinema Paradiso. It was an amazing experience watching the projector shooting light through that window and illuminating the screen. It was like watching poetry being written with light. I can still see the backs of the bobbing heads of the people in the audience as the light of moving images illuminated the screen.
QUESTION: Were you interested in photography?
BAZELLI: I took pictures with my dad's camera. We lived in a very small apartment with not much space. After a while, I converted my mother's pantry into a dark room. I took pictures of everything, kids in the school and monuments in the town, and I was fascinated with the shapes of trees. I don't think that I had any concept of photography being a visual art. It wasn't anything like that. I was just using the camera to capture images. To be honest, in the beginning, having that camera and taking pictures made me a little special at school. I didn't have the artist in me. I had the camera on me.
QUESTION: What happened as time went on?
BAZELLI: I got more and more interested in film as a media for expression, and decided that I wanted to go to a school where I could learn about filmmaking.
QUESTION: Filmmaker is a general term. What did you want to do?
BAZELLI: The Prague Academy of Performing Arts had a Film and TV School that was divided into five branches, including directing, cinematography and producing. You had to apply to one of those divisions. I knew that I wanted to be a cinematographer behind the camera making pictures from the beginning.
QUESTION: So you understood way back then what a cinematographer was and did?
BAZELLI: Yes. You had to know what you wanted to do in order to be admitted. They only accepted 80 people. Being accepted for admission was a big deal for everyone.
QUESTION: Did you have mentors who taught and inspired you?
BAZELLI: I did have mentors, including the great cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (ASC, ACK). He was a mentor at school. When he was shooting Amadeus in Prague in 1984, I was kind of an apprentice. It was a great movie about the life of Mozart.
QUESTION: Please share some memories of that experience.
BAZELLI: It was amazing to watch a big U.S. production company come to Prague and use the streets and buildings like sets. I watched how he lit, worked with everyone on the set, and decided on using different lenses and camera movement. It was a period movie before there were electric lights, and this was before they had fast films. He was using soft light and exposing the film at T2.5 with anamorphic lenses. According to our textbooks that was impossible. It was also interesting watching him work with Milos Forman, the director who was also a graduate of the school I went to in Prague. Most of all, I got to watch them working together shooting a period film in a contemporary way.
QUESTION: Tell us about some of the things they did which made an impression.
BAZELLI: I watched them use smoke to diffuse images. It wasn't random. Milos Forman was very exacting about whether he wanted to use a lot or a little smoke. The camera operator was Tom Priestley, Jr., who went on to become a talented cinematographer. I watched the three of them communicate without talking. There was no video assist at the time, so there was a lot of trust between them as the camera moved to follow the actors. It was very subtle and incredible to watch. The headroom needed for close-ups was always perfect. Amadeus won eight Oscars, and Miroslav Ondricek was nominated for an Academy Award, but he didn't win.
QUESTION: Did you have any other mentors?
BAZELLI: I also consider Vittorio Storaro a mentor. I have never met or spoken with him, but I really admire his impressionistic cinematography. I saw and analyzed all of his movies. I still remember watching The Conformist, because it was so inspiring.
QUESTION: How long were you in school?
BAZELLI: It was a five-year program, but I stayed an extra year in order to complete a feature length film that we had started. It was a story of a boy who grows up in a communist country and wants a better life for himself. It won some prizes at festivals. (Director) Abel Ferrara either saw it at a festival or someone showed it to him. He was instrumental in getting me started shooting films in the United States. I shot China Girl for him in New York in 1985. You can graduate from film school 80 times and not get a chance like that. It was like one of those Hollywood movies with a happy ending.
QUESTION: How were you actually contacted to work on this film?
BAZELLI: It was like a fairy tale in a story book. I was sitting in a café in Prague when someone came in looking for me. He introduced himself and asked if I would be interested in traveling to the United States to do a movie with a director named Abel Ferrara. At first, I thought it a joke. But, he was an agent who tracked me down through the film school. About a week later, I flew to New York and met Abel. We started shooting China Girl seven days later.
QUESTION: You are right; it kind of sounds like a fairy tale.
BAZELLI: It was almost unbelievable, except that it was really happening. I still vividly remember shooting every scene. I had never seen a camera crane in my life before. Then, all of a sudden, I was sitting on a crane, shooting a night scene with two cameras on the streets of New York. I don't think anything can beat that feeling. It was like being in an earthquake and feeling that explosion of energy.
QUESTION: What was China Girl about?
BAZELLI: It was an independent film that we shot in 40 days. The story was about Italian and Chinese gangs which were fighting for dominance in a New York City neighborhood. Their territories were divided by Canal Street. It was kind of a low-budget version of West Side Story about a Chinese girl and an Italian guy who fell in love. It is a great story that I could feel as I was reading the script. I got some ideas about how to approach shooting the film from watching Rumble Fish and some early black-and-white films. Just being in New York and getting feedback from the architecture of the buildings and the streets were part of it and working with Abel was a wonderful experience.
QUESTION: What did you decide to do after finishing China Girl?
BAZELLI: That decision was made right at the beginning of shooting that film. I decided that I wanted to stay in New York and make films. A lot of exciting things were happening in New York at that time. I felt that energy was right for me.
QUESTION: What did you do when that project was finished?
BAZELLI: My next project came up on the West Coast in Los Angeles. It was a film called Tapeheads that featured John Cusack and Tim Robbins. It was about a couple of losers who get into making music videos. It was a totally different experience than China Girl. I learned quickly that is the nature of the film industry. Every experience is different, and there are ups and downs. I worked on 17 different low- and medium-budget films over a seven- or eight-year period. It was interesting and enjoyable work most of the time, and I was always learning.
QUESTION: You won an Independent Spirit award for cinematography on King of New York in 1990. That had to be a milestone experience for you.
BAZELLI: It was a great experience. It was another film directed by Abel Ferrara. We had a great cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, Christopher Walken and David Caruso. It was another gangster film, produced on the streets of New York.
QUESTION: Somewhere around that time you got into shooting commercials.
BAZELLI: I shot 17 movies before I did my first commercial. I was going from one project to another, and never spent a day thinking about shooting commercials, probably because the opportunity never came up until I worked on Kalifornia. That was another crime-type thriller with a terrific cast, including Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis and David Duchovny. The director was Dominic Sena, who worked on a lot of commercials. There was a car in the film that was kind of a centerpiece of a lot of scenes. All of a sudden I started getting phone calls to shoot commercials. It was a new and interesting experience, because it allowed me to experiment with images in different ways.
QUESTION: You have subsequently won a number of Clio Awards for your commercials, and several from the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), including one for a black-and-white car spot. That's something you don't get many chances to do in movies. You mentioned experimenting on commercials. Give us an example.
BAZELLI: There is no simple answer to that question, because every commercial is different. I experimented with pushing and pulling processes and using different types of lighting and lenses. We can do things with film today that we wouldn't have dreamed about trying 10 or 15 years ago. That progress gives you more freedom to experiment and try different things.
QUESTION: What was your breakthrough on a studio film with a bigger budget?
BAZELLI: My first crack at a studio film was Body Snatchers (1993). It was Abel Ferrara's graduation from being purely an independent filmmaker. It was a Warner Bros. production with a relatively low budget. That film was produced in Alabama. I wouldn't call it a breakthrough in terms of budget, but it was different in some ways. I was still working with the director and production designer making decisions together, but now we were also dealing with people at the studio that had opinions. It was an interesting film conceptually. I think it was originally perceived as a horror movie, but Abel wanted to make it more psychological and not too in your face.
QUESTION: How do you decide whether you want to work on a movie? It is such a big commitment of your time and energy, and it has to be emotionally draining.
BAZELLI: There is a different answer to that question at different points in your life. In the beginning of your career, you are more likely to accept offers to shoot films because you want the work and there aren't other options. Later in your career, you tend to have more choices and can choose to work on more interesting films.
QUESTION: Why did Mr. & Mrs. Smith appeal to you?
BAZELLI: I had worked with Doug Liman on commercials. He is a talented and interesting director to work with as a cinematographer. The film featured Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a husband and wife who find out that they are both paid, political assassins. The original idea was to shoot a lot of the film with handheld cameras with kind of a grainy, tactile look and feeling. We shot lots of tests during the first week and ended up deciding on a smoother Steadicam look after people at the studio saw the tests.
QUESTION: Hairspray was based on a low-budget, cult classic film produced in 1988 that was developed into a Broadway musical that won eight Tony awards in 2003. How did you approach shooting that film, and what was that experience like?
BAZELLI: I embraced that opportunity. How many times do you get to shoot a musical in your life? It was one of the better movie experiences that I've had. It was great working with (director) Adam Shankman. Everybody was happy. We had fun on the set everyday. I think that emotion shows on the film. We had 13 weeks of preproduction and rehearsals, including two dozen dance scenes. I was probably thinking like a dancer or a choreographer by the time we were shooting. I knew every step by heart. We used all the colors in the rainbow like non-verbal dialogue. Color was part of the language.
QUESTION: You recently completed G-Force, a science-fiction film directed by Hoyt Yeatman. He is a world-class visual effects supervisor taking his first turn at the helm. Share some memories from that experience.
BAZELLI: I was very interested when I read the script. I went to my first meeting with Hoyt prepared to talk about my ideas to see if we were on the same page. Before I could say a word, Hoyt said, we want you to work with us on this movie.
QUESTION: What was the basic visual grammar for G-Force?
BAZELLI: It was obvious that this film required unique camera angles and coverage that were different than anything I had done before, because we have CG characters that are animals. There are times when we want the audience to see things from different perspectives of animated creatures. I had to ask myself, how would they see the world? That affected every decision, including choices of lenses, camera angles and movement.
QUESTION: What was your criteria for choosing a production format?
BAZELLI: We made an obvious decision to produce the story in widescreen, Super 35 format knowing that we would be doing a DI to integrate visual effects. I have never worked on a film like this before. That's one of the things which appealed to me.
QUESTION: Is this an original story?
BAZELLI: The concept came from an idea that Hoyt's son had based on family stories. Hoyt developed that idea into a screenplay. I both liked him on a personal level and enjoyed working with him. It was a totally different type of film on both technical and creative levels. Hoyt also brought an incredible grasp of technology to this project.
QUESTION: Is it meant to look and feel like real or a fantasy?
BAZELLI: It's a little bit of both. Hoyt doesn't want it to feel too realistic, so the audience is questioning how these characters can walk and talk like human beings, but we want the audience to make an emotional connection with them. We had replicas on the set that we called 'stuffies' which gave the actors and editor references for where the CG characters will be integrated into the film. We had to visualize and shoot every scene as though they were there. It affected everything, including how we moved the camera, focused, chose angles, framed and lit shots.
QUESTION: So, you had to imagine characters that weren't there?
BAZELLI: Exactly. It was almost like being an animator. We had to pay attention to every frame, because even with the flexibility DI gives you, there are things that you can't change in postproduction like focus and camera angles.
QUESTION: You have a unique perspective on filmmaking as a global language.
BAZELLI: I think that's the premise behind all filmmaking that began with silent movies. I think it is important for audiences to be able to follow stories without the dialogue. Don't get me wrong. The actors' delivery of their lines makes it more interesting, but they are also speaking with their facial expressions and body language. The cinematographer's language is the way we light, lenses, camera angles and movement, and the films we choose and how we expose and process them. A good film should be able to express ideas and emotions with images.
QUESTION: This is probably an unfair question, but we'll ask it anyhow. What are some of the films that have influenced you as cinematographer?
BAZELLI: That's a huge question. There are many great films that have stayed in my memory. I would put Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor at the top of my list. Somehow, memories of vivid images from those two films linger in my mind.
QUESTION: That is interesting. Both of those films were shot by Vittorio Storaro with two different directors. Apocalypse Now was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and The Last Emperor was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Apocalypse Now was produced in 1979 and The Last Emperor in 1987. There has been a lot of technological progress since those films were produced. What do you think the future will bring?
BAZELLI: The nature of life is that we are always riding the crest of the wave into something new and debating whether it's true or just an illusion. The truth is that no one knows what will happen tomorrow. There is always a lot of talk about technology, but memorable movies come from the feelings they stir. I think the important thing is to be true to your feelings. There is a huge misconception about how new technologies are making it easier to make films. But technologies can't determine the reason for making a film, or shooting in a particular way. The important question is why you do things, which determines the how. You have to trust your instincts and not be afraid to break the rules.