ONFILM Interview: Joan Churchill, ASC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Joan Churchill, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"After graduating from UCLA film school where I was recognized for my shooting, I began my career as an editor since there were hardly any women working as cinematographers in those days. Gradually, I began shooting documentaries for people whom I had met at school. I was totally involved in observational filmmaking where we didn't interview people, use lights or stage anything. My approach to filmmaking is more experiential today but the purpose hasn't changed. I feel privileged to be able to go around the world and to have people let me into their lives. You must be genuinely interested in people, learn how to listen and anticipate, so you can follow what's happening with a camera and recreate that experience for the screen. That process of discovery is magic when it unfolds on screen. I may not be changing the world with my films, but I believe if you can shine a light on things, you can get people thinking and asking the hard questions."

Joan Churchill, ASC has earned some 50 nonfiction film credits that have won numerous awards. They include Bearing Witness, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Biggie and Tupac, Home of the Brave, Kurt and Courtney, One Generation More, The Story of Mothers & Daughters, Asylum, Lily Tomlin, Soldier Girls and Punishment Park. She was the first recipient of the International Documentary Association Award for Outstanding Documentary Cinematography in 2005.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]  


by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: We understand that filmmaking runs in your family.
CHURCHILL: My father Robert Churchill (Church) grew up in San Diego where his father was a doctor. Young Church was more or less told that he must become a doctor or a lawyer. So after college, he went to Harvard Law School, came back to California, passed the bar, and at a family party to celebrate this great event, he stood up in front of everybody and said, 'I've done what you want me to do. Now, I'm going to do what I want to do.'

He enrolled at the Art Center (in Los Angeles) and studied photography. When the Army drafted Church, he told them that he was a filmmaker. They put him in the Signal Corps where he made training films. When he got out, he and his Army buddy Sy Wexler began producing educational films for schools. The Los Angeles School District placed an order for some 400 prints of their first film Wonders in Your Own Backyard. My brother Jim and I were in that film picking up rocks and looking for salamanders, worms and lizards. We were also in Wonders in Plant Growth, Wonders in the Desert and a few of his other films and later I was the slate girl and worked in the mailroom. They started making a lot of sponsored medical films which Church wasn't happy about, so he and Sy went their own ways. It was at that point he formed Churchill Films, which went on to produce some of the more imaginative classroom films ever made, and was also a fertile training ground for many film school graduates.

QUESTION: Did you grow up surrounded by film people?
CHURCHILL: My father was the artistic one, and my mother was a dedicated activist with a Ph.D. in economics. She was very concerned about the infringement of civil liberties, especially by the L.A. Police Dept., and was very good at getting federal money for her very subversive projects. Our house was always filled with her friends, mostly investigative journalists. My father's life was at Churchill Films, and he didn't bring his work home. When he was home he painted and potted and made beautiful photographs, but he was always amused by my mother's friends and much loved by them.

QUESTION: Did you take movies or still pictures as a kid?
CHURCHILL: My father taught me about photography when I was about fifteen. There was a great darkroom at Churchill Films. Later, when I was a student at UCLA, and sharing a house with a bunch of students from Otis Art Institute, we built our own darkroom and I experimented with making abstract images with different filters and polarization.

QUESTION: Did you go to UCLA with the intention of becoming a filmmaker?
CHURCHILL: I wasn't going to have anything to do with filmmaking when I started going to college. I was an English major. Film was something that my father did.

QUESTION: When and why did you transition into film?
CHURCHILL: I had to take a French class in summer school and also decided to take a six-week course in filmmaking since I had to be in school anyhow. It was one of those classes where you did everything. You directed, shot and edited, and you worked on other people's crews. I used my father's ARRI S camera to make a documentary about a used car salesman. I was using 100-foot daylight loads, so I'd run out of film every 3 1/2 minutes. Of course, the camera ran out at a crucial moment in the film when a beautiful woman, licking an ice cream cone, comes to look at the cars. I remember sitting in the editing room cutting the film in a linear fashion, trying to have it make sense. But I couldn't make it work in this particular scene because I didn't have the material. My teacher, Ed Brokaw, came in, picked up all the pieces of film from the bin and threw them in the air. When they came down, he said, 'just pick a piece of film and make that your first shot. Then, pick another one. Don't look at them. Just do it.' It became a very surrealistic scene in the middle of a cinema verite documentary. I remember thinking this is fun. That's when I decided to go to film school. It was way too late to apply, but UCLA was experimenting with an ethnographic film program that caught my interest and I guess they were looking for students.

QUESTION: There were very few women who were cinematographers during the 1960s, but it sounds like that didn't deter you.
CHURCHILL: I wasn't thinking about becoming a cinematographer, but as a student, you took turns doing everything. I shot a film about a kid who was selling Christmas trees in my neighborhood. One of my teachers, a great cinematographer named Steven Larner (ASC), saw it and told me that I really had talent and encouraged me to continue shooting. I got a lucky break while I was shooting a student film about women trying on wigs. There were two of us shooting. We were using Éclair NPR cameras, and the other cinematographer didn't check the shutter, so the footage from that camera was unusable. After that, a lot of students asked me to shoot their projects.

QUESTION: What did you do after college?
CHURCHILL: Brianne Murphy (ASC) was the only woman cinematographer who I had heard about at that time. There were real barriers for women as shooters, so I got a job as an editor at a company called Ikon Films. John Bailey (ASC) was the cinematographer.

QUESTION: Did that experience help you as a cinematographer?CHURCHILL: Absolutely. Whenever I teach, I always tell my students that they will not know how to shoot a documentary until they understand editing.

QUESTION: How did you get an opportunity to shoot?
CHURCHILL: Friends from UCLA were beginning to get jobs as directors and called me to work on their films. There was a period of time when I was caught betwixt and between, not knowing whether to take the plunge and commit myself to shooting. There certainly weren't any role models out there to guide me. I had to make the decision to give up editing without knowing whether I would ever be able to make it as a cinematographer. I remember I used to take extended journeys around the Southwest waiting for work.

QUESTION: Were there people who were supportive at that time?
CHURCHILL: Looking back, there were a lot of people who encouraged me, including Baird Bryant and Haskell Wexler (ASC). They were instrumental. They encouraged and advised me, and gave me opportunities to work with them.

QUESTION: How did you meet them?
CHURCHILL: I met Baird when he was shooting an independent feature and I was doing the stills. I met Haskell because of the film Punishment Park. In 1971 a British director named Peter Watkins was preparing to shoot a film in California. He didn't have a lot of money to pay a cinematographer, so he went to UCLA thinking he would hire a student. The dean recommended me. I showed Peter rushes of a film I was working on, and he hired me to shoot Punishment Park. I was going to be shooting with an NPR and somebody told me that Haskell had made a brace for that camera. I called him, and he told me about the brace and who made it for him. He also gave me advice about a lighting rig. He became a supportive advisor on almost everything I did from that point on. Eventually, we started working together on documentaries and continue to do so to this day. He's an amazing role model. My goal is to be as active and engaged and productive as he is, when I'm his age. There were women as well, who believed in me. Susan Martin, the producer on Punishment Park, took a big chance on me, as did Charlotte Zwerin, a little later on. They both hired me before I had any finished films to show. And because of them, I got a big boost in m y career.

QUESTION: Will you tell us about Punishment Park? CHURCHILL: It was a fictional story about the U.S. government rounding up protesters during the Vietnam War and putting them on trial. When people were found guilty, they could choose to go either to prison or to run a course across the desert to reach an American flag that was 50 miles away. The course was a training ground for the police and military. We shot in the Mojave Desert during the summer on 16 mm. Peter didn't use actors and there was no script. People pretty much played themselves and improvised. In one scene, we had a Black Panther on trial confronted by a man who was a judge in real life. And in the desert, real cops were chasing real dissidents. Things got quite heated, literally and figuratively. The film was shot as if it were a documentary. I never knew what was going to happen from scene to scene. The entire budget was $25,000 and that included an optical blowup. It caused a huge controversy when it was shown theatrically, because people thought it was real.

QUESTION: What affect did Punishment Park have on your career?
CHURCHILL: I started getting calls. In the beginning I was shooting a lot of music films. I directed and shot a documentary about Jimi Hendrix performing at Berkeley. Jimi Plays Berkeley became a cult classic and led to a chance to work with Albert and David Maysles on Gimme Shelter. I also worked on No Nukes with Haskell Wexler and Barbara Kopple and on Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford. One of the directors of Gimme Shelter, and also its editor, Charlotte Zwerin, was a producer on An American Family, which was a cinema verite series on PBS tracking the lives of the Loud family in Santa Barbara, California. It was truly the first reality television show. Once it became apparent that Bill & Pat Loud were going to divorce, I was brought in as a second shooter. We had to be ready to go anywhere on short notice. I remember Bill talking on the phone with his new girlfriend. He said, 'I'll meet you at the airport in a half an hour.' We were on our way to Hawaii with no more notice than that. I probably packed five years of experience into those seven months.

QUESTION: We have heard the word observational used to describe your work on that film and other documentaries that you shot during that period and later. Is that an accurate description?CHURCHILL: Observational filmmaking is another term for cinema verite. We were observing the action rather than setting up shots. We didn't use lights or interview people. We followed the characters and tried to minimize our impact on reality. We'd show the audience what was happening and never used voiceovers or narration. I wasn't inventing anything. Frederick Wiseman, Albert Maysles and Pennebaker all worked that way.

Now because of the smaller cameras with flip out screens, I am more present as a participant because I'm no longer hiding behind a big glass eye. I think my style of shooting has evolved and would be called 'experiential,' a term my husband, Alan Barker, came up with. We see ourselves as being 'part of the circle' in whatever subculture we're following and really throwing the audience into a first hand experience much as it unfolds for us, by a process of discovery.

QUESTION: How did you transition from shooting documentaries in the U.S. to teaching documentary filmmaking in England?
CHURCHILL: Colin Young was the dean of theater arts at UCLA when I was a student. When he moved home to England, where he started the National Film School, he asked me to come to London and teach for a month.

QUESTION: Tell us what you recall about that experience.
CHURCHILL: I was very proud of a film that I had made for my dad. It was called Sylvia, Fran & Joy. Most of the films he made weren't any longer than 14 minutes because they were used in classrooms that only had 40 minutes to a period. I talked Church into letting me shoot a 28-minute film about women's roles in society. This was at the height of the feminist movement. It portrayed three very different kinds of women who were dealing with issues of motherhood, career and relationships. I took a print to England and showed it to my students. I got creamed when they saw it. They asked me, 'where are the people of color? Where are the working class women? How come these three characters are all middle class twits?' I was learning so much from them that I ended up teaching for six months. Some of my students were working on a film about homeless people taking over an enormous, unoccupied building in the middle of London. The miners were on strike in England and there was a lot of labor unrest. I became totally involved and politicized by the experience. I ended up living in England for 10 years. It saved me from "going Hollywood."

QUESTION: Will you tell us about the documentaries you shot during that period? CHURCHILL: I hooked up with Nick Broomfield, and we started making films together. We got a grant from the British Film Institute to make Juvenile Liaison about the police in northern England who were dealing very harshly with kids who had gotten into some minor mischief at school. The police leaned on the British Film Institute to suppress it. There was a huge furor and the film was banned, but not before the entire BFI production board resigned in protest. It was never shown publicly except for a screening at the London Film Festival.

QUESTION: How was a woman cinematographer accepted in England?
CHURCHILL: It was funny in a way, because I had already fought all the battles about being a camerawoman in the U.S. When I got to England, it was like I had stepped back in time and was fighting those same battles all over again. The head camera tutor at the school asked me to explain the difference between exposing and lighting for color reversal and negative. Fortunately, I was able to answer his questions, so I was allowed to teach. In those days, one had to be in the union to work on films for British television, but they had literally never heard of a camerawoman. In fact, twelve D.P.'s tried to get me deported claiming I was taking food out of their mouths. The union finally took me in because a producer wanted to make a film about an abortion clinic and she needed a woman to shoot it. My first union card stated that I was a "lady cameraman."

QUESTION: Were you a member of the U.S. Camera Guild by then?
I had decided that I was going to stay in England, so I didn't try to join the guild here until 1985 when I came back to the country to make a film about Lily Tomlin. She was preparing to do a show on Broadway called "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." I was going to be shooting in Boston and New York. Judy Irola (ASC) helped me get into the camera local in New York.

QUESTION: Were you working on films all the time you were teaching?
CHURCHILL: I only taught for six months. After that I was working on my own films, shooting, directing and editing as well as shooting for others. After our run in with the police over Juvenile Liaison, Nick (Broomfield) and I decided to shoot some films in the U.S. The first film that we made was Tattooed Tears. It was about the indignity of life for youthful offenders, ages 18 to 21, in a prison in Chino, California. After we finished, I went back to England. I was always applying for every grant that came along and a deadline was fast approaching. My mother suggested that we make a film about police training academies, a subject near and dear to her heart. She sent all the information we needed to write a proposal for the grant application, and we got funded. We were driving around the U.S., visiting police training academies, wondering how in the hell we'd gotten into doing yet another film about the police. And many of the police we met knew exactly who I was…i.e. the daughter of that woman, Mae Churchill, who was causing them so much trouble. So we weren't exactly welcomed, in fact we were thrown out of a couple of places. One day we were in a drugstore in North Carolina where we saw a rack of postcards of women in the military. There was one where they were charging with bayonettes on their rifles. That got our attention. The new equal opportunity laws were forcing the Army to take women into the military on an equal basis with men. We thought it would make a great film.

QUESTION: What did you do?CHURCHILL: We contacted the Pentagon and arranged a meeting with a major who was their public relations person. We told her we wanted to have a look at what was happening with women recruits. She sent us to five different bases. We saw a lot of pretty horrific hazing. We went back to the Pentagon and told the major we wanted to make the film, but we needed complete access to everything that was going on. She said we couldn't shoot the hazing. Coincidentally, we received a DuPont Columbia Award for Outstanding Journalism for Tattooed Tears. There was a little blurb on TV and in newspapers about the award. All of a sudden we were 'award-winning' filmmakers, and the Pentagon decided to give us the go ahead. We had a PR person with us for the first two weeks of shooting. His main concern was about interviews. We kept assuring him that we didn't do interviews. After fishing season started, he took off and we never saw him again, except for the occasional barbeque. (Editor's note: Soldier Girls ran on both PBS and Channel 4 in England. The film won the British Academy of Arts and Sciences Award for Best Feature Length Documentary and the Prix Italia.)

QUESTION: Are you still working with Nick Broomfield?
CHURCHILL: Yes. We recently did Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and we shot in South Africa this year, updating a film Nick made in 1991 about a paramilitary, right wing leader. It was called The Leader, the Driver and the Driver's Wife. We went back and talked with the ex-leader (just out of prison), his ex-driver and ex-wife in this little community in the Transvaal where they all live.

QUESTION: What else have you been working on recently?
CHURCHILL: Home of the Brave, directed by Paola di Florio, is a film about Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman killed in the Civil Rights movement. Bearing Witness is a recent project with (directors) Barbara Kopple and Bob Eisenhardt. It's about female journalists working in combat zones in Iraq. Currently I'm shooting another film for Barbara about the Dixie Chicks.

QUESTION: It sounds like the ultimate reality show. That's a glib way of asking of what you think of reality shows on television that some people call documentaries? CHURCHILL: Reality television is not documentary filmmaking. My impression is that it's an exploitative, sensational and contrived form of unreality.

QUESTION: Have any of your documentaries been seen in cinemas?
CHURCHILL: I've always wanted my documentaries to be shown theatrically. That's been my constant goal. They have all been feature length films. A lot of them have been shown in theaters. I've actually distributed one of them myself .

QUESTION: How does that work?
CHURCHILL: You make the deals with exhibitors, send the prints out, follow the box office returns and then try to get the money you're owed.

QUESTION: Can you give us a few examples of your theatrical features?
CHURCHILL: Lily Tomlin, Soldier Girls and Jimi Plays Berkeley, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Punishment Park, Pumping Iron, Biggie and Tupac, and Kurt and Courtney are some of the films I've shot that ran theatrically. And then there are the music films mentioned earlier.

QUESTION: Do you still teach cinematography and documentary filmmaking?
CHURCHILL: I do workshops whenever I can. I went to Cuba with Alan Barker, my partner and a brilliant soundman, where we taught a six-week workshop. Most Latin American documentaries are still shot on 35mm so our students had a real awakening when they discovered the kind of filmmaking we do. I think we made some real converts to our more intimate style. That's where we came up with the idea of calling it "experiential" filmmaking. We also got our students to understand the value of long takes by setting up an exercise where the students had to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, all in just one shot.

QUESTION: How do you feel about today's marketplace for documentaries?
CHURCHILL: There are many more venues for documentaries today. People like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have opened up the cinema for documentaries by proving they can make money. There are numerous outlets with electronic technology, satellite, cable, DVD's and cyberspace all offering different ways to reach people wherever they may be. Now that it's possible to shoot and edit films very cheaply, I think we're only at the beginning of a growing wave. Let's hope documentary filmmakers take these new tools and get away from that boring tradition of images serving as wallpaper for what is basically a scripted narrative. We've got the equipment now to throw the viewer into a first-hand experience with a subjective camera style that actively participates in the unfolding story. One person can go out and make the most amazing film. That's a technological revolution. Darwin's Nightmare (which tackles the issue of globalization by looking at a village alongside Lake Victoria in Tanzania) by Hubert Sauper, and The Liberace of Baghdad by Sean MacAllister, are two examples of single filmmakers doing just that. And those films are slated to open on the U.S. cinema screens.

QUESTION: Are you still having as much fun as you did in the beginning?
CHURCHILL: I love it. I think you have to be genuinely interested in people to make documentaries. I feel so privileged to be able to go around the world, be let into people's lives and have incredibly intense experiences with them. Many of them have become friends for life.

QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question. We have only had moving images for a little more than 100 years. What role does it play in our lives?
CHURCHILL: I mentioned Juvenile Liaison. Even though public screenings were suppressed, that film was shown to members of Parliament, and as a result, changes were made. I know I'm not changing the world with my films, but I think if you can shine a light on something, you can get people thinking about it and asking the hard questions. And that is what just might make a difference.

QUESTION: Have you felt the urge to make your mark as a narrative filmmaker?
CHURCHILL: I've never for one minute been interested in shooting dramatic narrative films. I don't have the temperament. But I do think my films are very much in the narrative tradition in the way that they tell stories. I love shooting in unstructured environments, where you have no control. You learn how to listen and anticipate, so you can take a camera, follow what's happening and recreate it on a screen for other people to experience. For me that process of discovery is the most fascinating thing imaginable. It's still magic to me when it happens.