ONFILM Interview: Phil Meheux, BSC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Phil Meheux, BSC - Photo by D. Kirkland

“My parents gave me a primitive stills camera when I was around 13 years old. Later, I got a better one and began processing my own film and making prints with an enlarger. That’s how I learned about resolution, grain, composition and finding the right light for different photographs. … Most people think of books, paintings and sculpture created by one person as art. Filmmaking is a collaborative form of art. Everyone contributes. We all need each other. Directors who have a vision and share their feelings bring out the best in me. It’s a fantastic experience. I believe it’s important to get it right while you are shooting instead of planning to fix it later. Film offers superior resolution, more nuanced colors and contrast, and big differences in flesh tones. There is more emotional impact that pulls audiences deeper into stories.”

Phil Meheux, BSC began his career working on documentaries and television plays for the BBC. His credits include the television movie Max Headroom and such cinema films The Long Good Friday, GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, Around the World in 80 Days, The Legend of Zorro, Casino Royale, Edge of Darkness and The Smurfs in 3D. He was president of the British Society of Cinematographers from 2002 through 2006..

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

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
MEHEUX: I was born in Sidcup, a small town in north Kent, not far from the Thames River in England. My father and mother were born in the same town.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan during your youth?
MEHEUX: My father was an accomplished amateur saxophonist and played with a five-piece band during his spare time. In those days, live bands were very popular for socials and weddings. He was actually quite good. The band was offered a so-called permanent gig to play at a seaside resort called Canvey Island further towards the Thames Estuary. Thinking this would be advantageous; he moved the family there when I was 6 or 7 years old. That’s when I saw my first film. It was Disney’s Bambi. I remember that experience vividly to this day. I was totally consumed by the images and emotions. I remember crying when Bambi's mother got shot by the deer hunters.

By the time I was nine or 10, the Canvey Island gig didn’t work out and we moved back to Sidcup. Going to the neighborhood cinema was a weekly event because owning a television set was not common for ordinary working people and anyway, there were no films on TV— only a few hours of ‘live’ broadcast every day. Nearly every film had a G rating. There was an occasional A rated film for adults, however you were allowed in with grown-ups. We did a lot of that. When my brother and I were old enough, we used to walk to the local cinema by ourselves. We went every week and saw whatever was showing.

I really loved the Hollywood films and particularly Technicolor. I was captivated by films like The African Queen, Scaramouche, Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, as well as classic black-and-white films like High Noon and 12 Angry Men and Bad Day at Black Rock. I used to keep a notebook of DPs names of the films I liked. Of course, in those days there was no videotape or DVDs.

QUESTION: Were you a still photography hobbyist?
MEHEUX: When I was around 13 years old, my parents gave me a primitive camera with a fixed lens. If you pointed it in the right direction and it was daylight, you got a reasonable picture. After a while, I bought a Rolleiflex camera and started processing my own film. I took pictures of anything and everything… the countryside, the railway station and people on the street, objects in my parent’s house. I had a makeshift darkroom in the loft, which I reached via a rather rickety ladder. There, I kept my tanks for processing, developing dishes and an enlarger. Printing my own work, I learned a lot about what happens if you under-or over-expose film and change the development process.

QUESTION: It sounds like a great learning experience.
MEHEUX: I learned about resolution, grain, how to compose images and how to find the right light for different photographs. I remember waiting for the sun to set for over an hour just above a line of trees just to get the perfect shot. I recently found most of my old negatives. Nine out of 10 times I took a shot at a particular moment because of the quality of the light.

QUESTION: Did you know what you wanted to do when you grew up?
MEHEUX: When my grammar school teachers asked me that question, I said I wanted to be in television. Mainstream television in England was only 10 years old at that time. I heard that the BBC had a training program for television cameramen. My teachers thought I wanted to learn how to repair television sets!

QUESTION: Did you think about going to film school?
MEHEUX: I remember reading about Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, the Warner brothers and other people who were leaders in the industry. None of them went to college. I remember thinking; I don't need to go to a university to work in the film industry. I discussed it with my mother, and she told me to make up my own mind. I remember a day at the end of the summer, when everyone was going back to school for the next term. I was lying in bed and my mother shouted from downstairs, “Are you going back to school or not?” I thought about it for about 30 seconds and said, no. She said, “I'll have to ring the headmaster and tell him.” She rang the headmaster. I was an average student who didn't really excel at anything. Amazingly he said he had such high hopes for me. When mother told me that, I thought he was just making that up, because he had never paid any attention to me. I couldn't see any point of staying at school.

QUESTION: What did you do?
MEHEUX: At that time, there weren’t any film schools in Britain and the film industry was heavily unionized – no job, no union ticket – no union ticket, no job! I was sent to see the youth employment officer. When he asked what I wanted to do, I said, I want to be a photographer because I didn’t think they’d take my request for the film industry seriously what with the unions and my school misinterpreting “television”. He said, ‘Oh no, you don't want to be a photographer. It's a freelance job. You’ll never know where the next job is coming from. There are some really good jobs with prospects for the future. I have a job for you as a clerk on the London docks.’ I looked at my mother and said I didn’t think it was for me. We went to Lyons Corner House next to Trafalgar Square, where she had a pot of tea. I got a copy of a London newspaper and looked through the jobs section. I saw an ad by a film company that needed a clerk. My mother said, let’s ring them now. We put four pennies in a pay phone and rang them up. The woman who answered the phone told me to come around straight away and apply for the job.

It was the British distribution arm of MGM. Amazingly, I got the job just like that. I was not quite 16 years old. Working there, I met a guy named Mike who had a room he had converted into a small cinema in his home. He invited me one Sunday to watch films. Mike, and two guys who were twin brothers, met me at the bus station and took me to his house. They projected a couple of sound newsreels but mostly silent films while one of the twins played music discs. I formed a great friendship with these guys. We met every Sunday for years. We used to rent 16 mm prints of feature films, which we screened after lunch with the curtains pulled. Afterwards, we would talk about the films we watched. That inevitably led to us to deciding to make our own films.

QUESTION: How did you do that?
MEHEUX: We registered the name Studio 16. Malcolm, one of the twin brothers, wrote a script for a story about a girl who comes to London looking for fame and fortune. She discovers that moving to the big city was a big mistake. The title was Dust in the Wind. We bought a second-hand Bolex camera and agreed that Malcolm should be the director, because he had written the script. Mike said that he would do the editing, and that I should be the cameraman. I was overjoyed. I learned so much about composition, camera angles, double exposures and other tricks of the trade by making amateur films for Studio 16, and because we had no access to sound equipment, we learned to tell stories with pictures only.

QUESTION: What were the next steps on your journey?
MEHEUX: I got a job as a projectionist for an advertising agency that had a screening room with 16 mm and 35 mm projectors, and some cutting room equipment. Everybody went home at 5:30 on week nights, so I told my friends to be there at 6 p.m. and I would let them in. We would look at films or work in the cutting room. During that time, we made four more short films, which I ended up editing.

QUESTION: When was this happening and how old were you?
MEHEUX: It was between 1959 and 1963 from age 18 to 22.

QUESTION: What were the next steps on your journey?
MEHEUX: We had just seen John Cassavetes’ film Shadows, photographed by Erich Kollmar, produced on 16 mm black-and-white film and blown up to 35 mm prints for art house cinemas. It was made very cheaply. We thought we could do that and decided to make our own feature length film. We wrote a script and found some guy who was going to put up £1,000 pounds to finance it. That’s the equivalent of about $25,000 today. Another guy said he would invest £1,000 pounds. All of us had left our jobs and were ready to begin shooting the film when the first investor had a heart attack and died and the other guy backed out. So that was that!

QUESTION: What did you do?
MEHEUX: I went back to the jobs vacant column and got a job as a second projectionist in a London West End cinema. I did that for about six months when one of the usherettes asked if I had seen the BBC ad in the newspaper for trainee assistant film cameramen. I applied and got a letter back saying all the positions were taken, but they needed projectionists. The letter said if I was hired that would put me in a good position next time there was a training program for assistant cameramen.

QUESTION: We presume you got that opportunity.
MEHEUX: I joined them as a projectionist and later got onto the next training scheme. I worked on BBC documentaries and on sequences for television productions that they couldn't do in a TV studio. Scenes with rain, fire, smoke and things like that, a lot of it was exteriors, but there were also sequences in the film studios at Ealing. I worked on a very popular half-hour series about a uniformed police constable in the East End of London. Nearly all the crimes happened at night. Unless it was indoors, the film unit did those sequences on 16 mm black and white film. I happened to work with a cameraman who let me operate so he could concentrate on the lighting. There was a lot of handheld camerawork, which everyone now thinks is new wave.

QUESTION: When did you first work on films in the United States?
MEHEUX: The first time was on a BBC documentary about the shallowness of popular music, including The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Animals, Jimmy Hendrix and others. The director asked the production manager who was good at handheld camerawork, so the cameraman I assisted got the job. All these pop concerts were usually done practically in the dark with lava lamps lighting a screen in the background. Color film was very slow in those days. I believe the exposure index was only 50, so we needed a lot of light, which inevitably caused issues with each band. After the American locations, the cameraman backed out as he wasn’t fond of popular music and the noisy concerts. The director had me finish the film. That was my first credit.

QUESTION: What was that documentary called?
MEHEUX: It was called All My Loving. It got a lot of attention. The last sequence had the sound track of The Beatles singing “Give me Money – that’s what I want!” with cut-away shots of the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, including a famous shot of a monk who set fire himself in protest at what was happening. It caused a furor in the press and questions were asked in Parliament! That program is still available on DVD.

QUESTION: What were the next steps on your career path?
MEHEUX: On the strength of that, I was posted as acting cameraman for a BBC television tabloid-journalism group called Man Alive. It was all handheld, live 16 mm color camerawork. I learned to work with the camera on my shoulder without an exposure meter. The producer was never worried about exposure. It taught me the value of good sound. The great thing about documentaries is that they teach you to be ready for anything. There's no control over what you are shooting. I learned how to compose shots on the fly and work without on-set direction. For instance, whatever you are doing, you know the editor is going to want cutaways and reverse shots, and it’s up to you to get them. I learned when to be at the right place at the right times. I stayed with BBC doing mostly documentary work for eight years.

QUESTION: How did you get into narrative filmmaking?
MEHEUX: BBC had a series called Play For Today. Some of them were conventional television plays, but after the success of Cathy Come Home many directors naturally wanted to make original movies. It was a groundbreaking series. Because of my documentary background I shot a play for director John Mackenzie that needed a documentary approach. He was a very good director—good with actors having been one himself. That started a relationship that lasted over four films and subsequently into features with the Long Good Friday.

A freelance director named Tony Simmons saw one of these plays. Tony liked working in documentary style – improvising dialogue and action. He phoned me up and said that he had seen one of the Mackenzie plays I shot. He asked if I was interested in shooting a feature film with him. He said it’s not a normal feature film. He wanted somebody who could do handheld camerawork in available light on a very small budget. Tony wanted the camera to be unobtrusive. Of course, I was interested. Some people were horrified that I left my contract job and what was known then as a “job for life” at the BBC to freelance. The film was called Black Joy. It was my first 35mm feature. As a matter of interest, the line producer was Martin Campbell who became quite influential in my later career. A lot of it was indeed filmed handheld in available light, including the night work. I had an ARRI BL camera with a 1,000 foot magazine on my shoulder most of the time. The film stock was Kodak 5247 with an exposure index of 100. The film became the official British entry at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. That was the beginning of my freelance feature career.

QUESTION: You are compiling an amazing body of work. One of those films was the original Max Headroom, which became a television series.
MEHEUX: The original Max Headroom was a television movie, which I shot as a freelancer. It is one of my all time favorite films. We had a very small budget and only 20 days to shoot it. It was set in the future so, I filled the set with theatrical smoke every day, because it disguised any shortcomings in the sets and created beams of light that set the right mood. Everyone complained that it was unhealthy, so I had the smoke analyzed and the doctor said it's no worse than eating a bag of French fries! The directors were a husband and wife team, very creative but not very practical or experienced. They kept throwing things at me, and I never said no. It was a very interesting looking film.

QUESTION: Please share some of your experiences on other films.
MEHEUX: I am very fond of The Mask Of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro. The director of both was Martin Campbell. As I said before, I met him when we were both working on Black Joy. I worked very hard on the Zorro look. I tried to shoot it like an old Hollywood studio movie that was colorful and conventionally lit. For exteriors, I used a technique so that shadows under a blue sky would not photograph as blue because I wanted a slight sepia feel. I used double 85 filters and tungsten stock … Kodak 5293.

I’m also fond of Beyond Borders, which featured Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen in leading roles. That was the last time I shot a film that was timed with a photo-chemical process rather than a DI. I miss it, because I believe it is important to get it right while you are shooting instead of saying, I’ll fix it later. They made a lot of great films that way. We shot Beyond Borders at four locations with different looks. I used tobacco filters in one place, a bleach bypass technique in another and different lighting at the other locations. Sadly, every critic in the U.S. trashed it and nobody went to see it. It didn’t even get a release in the U.K. But, the truth is you never become completely satisfied with any of your films. When I look back, I think of things I might have done differently.

I'm proud of No Escape, another Martin Campbell film. The story takes place in on a remote island where there was no electricity. We shot it in Queensland, Australia. The night scenes were supposedly lit only with fires, candles and oil lamps and we were shooting anamorphic. That called for a lot of ingenuity in terms of what we wanted the audience to see and not see at night. There was a huge battle scene at night with primitive weapons. That film got the attention of the people who produce the James Bond films. They asked Martin if he was interested in directing a Bond film.

QUESTION: You collaborated with Martin Campbell on a two James Bond films: GoldenEye and Casino Royale, right?
MEHEUX: I've always been a Bond fan since Dr. No. For GoldenEye, Martin and I got the videos of all the previous 17 Bond films and spent two days in my apartment watching all of them with bottles of wine and pizzas. We analyzed what it was that made Bond the iconic figure he became so we could capitalize on that. We spoke about trying to modernize the look, when to use a handheld camera and how to use light and darkness. Up until then, the films had a rather traditional look. I was concerned that the Bond producers would want the same but they told us we could do what we thought was right for the project.

QUESTION: Edge of Darkness was your ninth film with Martin Campbell at the helm. It featured Mel Gibson as a homicide detective who is investigating the murder of his daughter on his own doorstep. Why was it produced on film?
MEHEUX: Edge of Darkness is a dramatic story that was filmed mostly at practical locations, which were right for the story. Originally there was talk of shooting with the RED camera because it was all the rage, but I felt the working method and image capture was not right for Martin or the project given that in tests, the shadow details were restricted. We all agreed that film gave us the ability to capture superior resolution with more nuanced contrast and colors. There are also big differences in flesh tones recorded on film. There is more emotional impact that pulls audiences deeper into the drama by making the characters and places look and feel more realistic.

QUESTION: Is filmmaking a global language that people around the world can understand?
MEHEUX: I believe filmmaking is a global language. It was probably more so during the days of silent movies because it was all about imagery and telling stories with pictures. The Red Shoes, Lawrence of Arabia and Black Narcissus are good examples of films with sound that did wonderful jobs of telling stories with images that evoke emotional responses.

QUESTION: Is cinematography an art, a craft or both?
MEHEUX: That's a deep question, because we think of books, paintings, sculptures and things like that which are created by one person as art. Filmmaking is collaborative with writers, directors, actors, music composers, cinematographers and other people. There is no formula. There are successful films with and without music, but I think the two go hand in hand. There are wonderful sequences in movies where there is no dialog, only music and imagery. In Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence goes to find one of the Arabs who has fallen off his camel in the desert, 20-minutes go by without a line of dialogue and barely any music, but the scene is incredibly emotional. Most people would never see the depth of the desert in real life. Freddie Young captured those images brilliantly on film.

QUESTION: Please share more of your insights about filmmaking being a collaborative art.
MEHEUX: There are so-called auteurs but I think that a lot of the best films are collaborations by people with a shared vision. Someone has an idea which is turned into a script. A director and cameraman get together and interpret that script. Production designers, location managers, costume designers, makeup artists and other people play roles. We all need each other. Everyone contributes.

QUESTION: If you could go back in time which directors would you want to collaborate with?
MEHEUX: I liked a lot of John Ford’s films and how he used visuals. Fellini and Truffaut would definitely be on my list. David Lean had a good eye and knew what he wanted and demanded perfection. Directors who have visions for interesting stories and share their feelings bring out the best in me.

QUESTION: If a film student asked you, what films they should watch, what would you advise?
MEHEUX: I have a list of nearly 400 films of what I call “of cinematographic interest” in a database on my computer. My list goes back to Birth of a Nation in 1915. It’s impossible to rank those films and say that one is more important that another.