Chris Menges, ASC, BSC - Photo by D. Kirkland
"I don't know a cinematographer - certainly not myself - who has contributed to a meaningful movie who wasn't collaborating with a highly visual director. Part of it is luck, getting to work with the right director, actors and script, and then it takes an incredible amount of hard work. The inspiration comes from the words and inside the characters. All you have to do is bring your soul and great energy. But it goes beyond collaborating with directors. You are also working with the production and costume designers, makeup artists, gaffers and everyone on your crew to get the right composition, camera movement and focus to capture magic moments on film. Film is collaboration; you cannot dream on your own, but more importantly you have to trust your instincts."
Chris Menges, ASC, BSC won Academy Awards® for The Killing Fields and The Mission, and earned additional nominations for Michael Collins and The Reader. He is the 2010 recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers International Award. His body of work includes Kes, Angel, Local Hero, The Boxer, A World Apart, The Pledge, The Good Thief, Dirty Pretty Things, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Notes on a Scandal, and other memorable documentary and narrative films. [All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS MENGES, ASC, BSC
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
MENGES: My grandfather was a violin player who was born and raised in Germany. He moved to England in 1890 to teach the fiddle. I was born on a farm in Herefordshire, England. I was 3 years old when my family moved to London after my father became music director at The Old Vic Theatre.
QUESTION: Do you see a connection between creating music and cinematography? MENGES: There is a connection between music and cinematography. They are both arts that require mastering tone and then technique - but tone comes first. I learned to trust my instincts, and above all, I learned that tone is more important than perfect technique.
QUESTION: When and how did you decide that you were going to be a filmmaker?
MENGES: As a kid I was fascinated by interesting documentary films and photography. When I was 17 years old, I went to work for a neighbor Allan Forbes. He was an American filmmaker who made documentary films for the cinema. Allan shot documentaries all over Italy, France and Britain. I was his assistant. I also recorded sound and helped him in the cutting room. Allan was a huge inspiration for me.
QUESTION: How did you get started as a cinematographer?
MENGES: I began shooting films for World in Action, a weekly current affairs documentary series, when I was 21 years old. I draw on those experiences every time I work on a new project.
QUESTION: You were 22 years old when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for leading an armed struggle and the African National Congress was made illegal in South Africa. You roamed the streets of Johannesburg dressed like a tourist shooting 16 mm film with a Bolex camera. You shot other documentaries in war zones all over the world, including The Opium War Lords in the jungles of Burma. Tell us about those experiences.
MENGES: I spent two years in Burma on two different trips in 1963 and 1972 during a very brutal civil war between different ethnic groups who were pushed into the Union of Burma by the British. Those types of documentaries expose you to a different world. … You learn about composition, how it affects the story and about natural lighting. You experience those things by observing. You also learn to fit into the environment with the indigenous people, and that there is no one right way to tell a story. The experience of being a fly on the wall while shooting documentaries helps you develop as a filmmaker. I think everybody who wants to be a filmmaker can benefit from shooting documentaries with a handheld camera.
QUESTION: That's just a snapshot of your documentary endeavors, which also took you to places ranging from the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war in Vietnam to the streets of Harlem. You mentioned Allan Forbes. Were there other films and cinematographers who influenced you during that early stage of your career? MENGES: I recall seeing The 400 Blows which was directed by Francois Truffaut and shot by Henri Decaë; The Loves of a Blonde directed by Milos Forman and shot by Miroslav Ondricek (ASC, ACK); and Medium Cool directed and shot by Haskell Wexler (ASC). They were awe-inspiring films with cogent stories that went into great depth. For a couple of years, I worked as (cinematographer) Brian Probyn's assistant. He was another important mentor. I was his camera operator when he shot Poor Cow, an independent film directed by Ken Loach in 1967.
QUESTION: You shot Kes, your first narrative film in 1969, with Ken Loach at the helm. What do you remember about that experience?
MENGES: The joy of Kes was in the writing, the brilliant performances and skillful storytelling. Brilliant! It was a special film and the kind of experience we dream about.
QUESTION: Kes was not a bad way to start your career as a narrative film cinematographer. That film won two BAFTA Awards and four other nominations. You followed Kes with a number of real-life dramas, including After a Lifetime, which focused on a family living in Liverpool, and Bloody Kids, a film about kids living on the south end of London. Were there other pivotal experiences during that period?
MENGES: In 1980, I shot a remarkable television movie called Made in Britain entirely with a Steadicam. Alan Clarke was the director. I also spent five months as the second unit cinematographer on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It was a great learning experience, working on a big budget film under the delightful team of (director) Irvin Kershner and (cinematographer) Peter Suschitzky (ASC).
QUESTION: You came onto the international scene when you earned your first Oscar® in 1985 for The Killing Fields. Share some insights about that film.
MENGES: Again, I was fortunate to work with an incredibly talented director. Roland Joffe had a clear vision for the story he wanted to tell. It's a story about what happened in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime when more than two million people were murdered. Roland wanted the film to tell the story of a dirty war and a time of pain and darkness for the people of Cambodia. I was thrilled at having that opportunity to work with Roland because he has such a strong visual sensibility. Many talented people worked on The Killing Fields, including production designer Roy Walker, and the best camera operator, Mike Roberts. That helped make the experience of working on this film very special for me.
QUESTION: You earned your second Oscar® for The Mission in 1987, which was also directed by Roland Joffe. That film took place in the jungles of Brazil during the 18th century. Spain and Portugal had established colonies and had made the native people who were living in the jungle slaves. Jesuit priests from Spain built a number of missions above a waterfall with the goal of converting native people to their religion. The story takes a dramatic twist when an emissary from the pope said the native people have to leave the missions and return to the jungle. What are some of your memories of this film?
MENGES: It began with discussions with Roland and David Puttnam, who produced the film. I drew on memories of a television documentary called The Tribe That Hides From Man that was directed by Adrian Cowell. We shot that documentary in the Amazon jungle in South America in 1968. The air around the mission was thick with a white, steamy mist created by the waterfall. We re-created that look by using several water pumps to generate a fine spray of vaporized water, which reflected the beams of sunshine that came through the trees and created light and shadows on the ground.
QUESTION: You collaborated with writer/director Neil Jordan on Michael Collins, a film about an Irish revolutionary. You earned your third Oscar nomination for that endeavor in 1997. Tell us about this project.
MENGES: Neil had shown me an early draft of the script in 1982 when I shot a movie called Angel with him. Michael Collins took place during the turn of the 20th century. Neil wanted to re-create the grimy, sooty look that was common in Dublin during that time in history. The streets were lit with carbon arc lamps, and there was smoke in the air from coal burning fires. I used smoke, cyan filters and the ENR process at Technicolor to help create a nearly monochrome look.
QUESTION: You followed Michael Collins with a number of interesting films, including The Boxer, The Pledge, Dirty Pretty Things and The Yellow Handkerchief. You earned your fourth Oscar nomination in 2009, which you shared with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC for The Reader. Roger began shooting the film, but he had to leave after around 30 days because he had another commitment. You stepped into the breach. It was a seamless transition. How did that ambitious endeavor work?MENGES: That was an unusual situation. Redmond Morris, the line producer called and told me what the story was about. I had read the book written by Bernhard Schlink that the movie is based on. The story is set in post World War II Germany. It involves a kid's relationship with an older woman who was accused of war crimes. I wanted to know more about what happened during that period. My grandfather was a German who migrated to England. I wondered if he would have gotten caught up in that insane and barbaric time in European history if he had stayed in Germany. I met with (director) Stephen Daldry and also watched the film that Roger had shot. I thought it was wonderful. I felt comfortable continuing the film because Roger and I think alike about using light and shadows to create a natural feeling. There is one thing I will never forget. We filmed a scene in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was a heartbreaking experience. It was impossible to be there without crying your heart out.
QUESTION: In general, what are your thoughts about the collaborative process between cinematographers and directors?
MENGES: I don't know a cinematographer, certainly not myself, who has won an award or contributed to a meaningful movie who wasn't collaborating with a highly visual director. Part of it is luck, getting to work with the right director and script, and then it takes an incredible amount of hard work. The inspiration comes from the words, and from inside the characters. All you have to do is bring your soul and great energy.
QUESTION: One of the unique things about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative form of artistic expression. What are your feelings about that collaborative relationship?
MENGES: It goes beyond collaborating with directors. You are working with production and costume designers, makeup artists, gaffers, and of course everyone on your crew to get composition, camera movement and focus that delivers.
QUESTION: You recently shot Route Irish. It was your 13th collaboration with Ken Loach as a cinematographer, beginning with Kes. It has been a while since the two of you got together on a film. When did he tell you about this project?
MENGES: About two to three months before principal photography, Ken said it was time for us to do another film together. I said that was a brilliant idea. Ken told me the story is about British contactors who are working for the military in Iraq. One of the contractors is killed and his friend tries to find out what happened to him.
QUESTION: Where did the idea come from? Is it something that actually happened?
MENGES: No. It's an original idea created by Ken and Paul Laverty who wrote the script. Of course, we all know that contractors are doing a lot of work for the military in Iraq. There are mercenaries from the U.S., England and other countries.
QUESTION: What was your first impression when Mr. Loach discussed the film?
MENGES: I'm always tempted by political drama, and I loved the way the story unfolds. We shot Iraqi scenes in Jordan, but the main part of the film was produced in Liverpool, because that's where the characters are from.
QUESTION: How did you prepare to tell this story during preproduction planning?
MENGES: We read articles and studied photographs in newspapers, magazines and books about Iraq, and scouted locations in Jordan and Liverpool.
QUESTION: Tell us about your early discussions with Ken Loach about this project.
MENGES: The cornerstone for all of Ken's films is making them believable, so the audience feels like they are witnessing something happening to real people.
QUESTION: How did you and he plan to do that on Route Irish?
MENGES: There is a shorthand in our communications, because Ken and I have worked on 13 films together, starting with Poor Cow in 1967. I had an idea about how he would approach telling this story. We weren't re-inventing the wheel. It was already spinning. We did some research, but we started with an understanding of how we would use light and lenses, and how we would catch the performances.
QUESTION: What were your discussions about choice of a production format?
MENGES: It was definitely going to be composed in 1.85:1 on 35 mm film, and edited in the old fashioned way on a Steenbeck editing console. The frame for composing the story is a very important decision. I agreed that 1.85:1 was right for this story. It was how we saw it in our minds when we discussed the script. We shot the Iraq scenes in Super 16 format.
QUESTION: Why was the choice of lenses important?
MENGES: The widest lens we used was a Cooke 50 mm. Ken likes the way it takes you into the action. It's the way the human eye sees the world. He also wanted the camera to be beyond the circle of the performance, so that it created the least distraction for the actors.
QUESTION: Was it shot at practical locations, on sets or both?MENGES: The whole film was shot on practical locations. You could say the accidents of reality that you find on location define a Ken Loach movie. There is a kind of quirkiness in a real house that you are less likely to find on a set.
QUESTION: What did you film in Jordan, and what was it like shooting there?
MENGES: It was a friendly country to work in. We scouted locations, and went back a couple of months later to shoot those scenes about what happened to these guys in Iraq.
QUESTION: Were there any surprises while you were shooting this film?MENGES: The thing that surprised me slightly was the way that Ken was still very interested in shooting on long lenses, outside the circle of performance - always needing the lighting to be minimal and the crew not to be seen, and no handheld work.
QUESTION: What was the basic approach to lighting?
MENGES: We choose locations where the natural light was right for the scene. If natural light failed to deliver, which it often does in the winter, we found another way to get it done.
QUESTION: Did you shoot this with a single camera or multiple cameras?
MENGES: One camera.
QUESTION: Why was that decision made?MENGES: Because Ken likes to be beside the camera with the actors rather than in a video village looking at monitors. He was right beside the camera whispering (like a buzzing bee!) in my ear about framing and other things while we were covering scenes.
QUESTION: What do you look for in choosing a film stock in this type of situation?
MENGES: Latitude, because you can take more risks if the stock has more latitude.
QUESTION: Will the audience experience Route Irish from a subjective viewpoint as though they are there, or more objectively as spectators?
MENGES: I think it's more like someone observing what is happening.
QUESTION: How much time did you have to shoot Route Irish?
MENGES: About 35 days.
QUESTION: What about was the film lab?
MENGES: Deluxe in London.
QUESTION: Did your documentary experience come into play on this film?
MENGES: My experience shooting documentaries influences the way I frame and light scenes in all my films. Capturing magic moments on film becomes part of your instincts. That's true whether you are shooting a documentary or a theatrical feature.
QUESTION: Cinematographers choose films like artists select paints for their palettes. What were your choices on Route Irish?
MENGES: I used (KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film) 5219 and (KODAK VISION2 200T Color Negative Film) 5217, which has a bit more dynamic range and slightly less grain.
QUESTION: Did Ken Loach use storyboards or rehearse with the actors?
MENGES: There were no rehearsals or storyboards. He would speak with the actors and discuss scenes. He listened to their ideas and told them what he hoped to achieve. I tried to listen to those discussions, so I knew what to expect.
QUESTION: How many takes did he usually shoot? MENGES: Three takes were the average.
QUESTION: Do film students and young filmmakers ask you for advice?
MENGES: Yes they do ... I understand because I did the same thing. I was lucky to understudy with Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC) when he was photographing Agatha and Reds. They were very short bursts of time, magic and study. He is a man of vision and what a teacher. … I am always asking questions. We should encourage and help inspire those who dream about becoming filmmakers.
QUESTION: Your peers in the American Society of Cinematographers presented you with the 2010 International Award in recognition of your artful body of work. That had to be an especially interesting experience for you, since you were one of the five nominees at the first ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards celebration for The Mission in 1986.
MENGES: I hope that isn't a question, because there is no easy way to express my feelings.