The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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The Wolfman
Chris Menges
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Presidents Desk
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Chris Menges, ASC, BSC receives the Society’s International Award for creating a litany of outstanding images.

Photos courtesy of Chris Menges, AMPAS and the British Society of Cinematographers. 
Later this month, director of photography Chris Menges, ASC, BSC will receive the ASC International Award in recognition of a 50-year career in film and television that has taken him to the far corners of the earth. It is a career that shows no sign of abating; he recently wrapped London Boulevard for first-time director William Monahan and Route Irish for long-time collaborator Ken Loach. These latest two credits illustrate a common thread that runs through Menges’ work: the knack of teaming up with interesting new directors, often shooting their first films, and also sustaining relationships with directors across many years and many projects. Loach is a classic example: Menges made such an impression on the director while operating the camera on Poor Cow (1967), Loach’s first feature, that Loach asked him to photograph the next one, Kes (1970), Menges’ first movie as cinematographer. Kes had a profound impact on British cinema and marked the beginning of a creative partnership that endures to this day.  

Other acclaimed directors who worked with Menges early in their careers and sought him out again include Stephen Frears, Bill Forsyth, Neil Jordan and Roland Joffé. The latter three established relationships with Menges during a period of intense creativity for the cinemataographer, when he abandoned documentaries and turned his full attention to shooting features. He won Academy Awards for two collaborations with Joffé, The Killing Fields (1984; AC Apr. ’85) and The Mission (1986; AC Feb. ’87); the latter also brought Menges his first ASC Award nomination. 

After he spent a decade focusing on directing, Menges returned to cinematography with Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996; AC Oct. ’96), earning another set of Academy and ASC nominations. He was nominated by the ASC and the Academy again last year, along with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008), a film Menges took over when production delays and previous commitments forced Deakins from the project. “When I started out, Chris was kind of my idol — and always has been, actually,” says Deakins. “I think he’s probably the greatest cinematographer working today.” 

Menges was born just over a year into World War II in the rural county of Herefordshire, England, a short distance across the border from where he now lives in Wales. Coming from a family of musicians who worked in the theater, he developed an early interest in the arts. He had a cousin with a job at the BBC, and it wasn’t long before Menges’ interest gravitated towards filmmaking. At the age of 17, he was introduced to Alan Forbes, who would become an early mentor. “At that time, we were living in North London, and I became an apprentice to Alan,” recalls Menges. “He was an American making documentary films for the cinema and television in London. He was really the man who taught me the basics of cinematography, editing and sound. I was his assistant, and he was a one-man band, so I had a rich opportunity to learn different genres and techniques. He was a great teacher.” 

By the time Forbes returned to the United States, at the end of the 1950s, Menges had cut his teeth on a number of gritty social documentaries and dramas. He had also built up some useful industry contacts, and he quickly found a job in the cutting room at Derek Knight & Partners in Soho, which in turn led to work as a cameraman for Alan King Associates. One particularly influential person to whom he was introduced by Forbes was cinematographer Brian Probyn, BSC. Menges describes Probyn as “another very good teacher” and worked sporadically as his assistant on short films, including The Saturday Men (1962), which came straight out of the naturalistic tradition of Free Cinema. In 1963, Menges joined the World in Action team at Granada Television and swiftly became a highly experienced cameraman. Over the next few years, his working relationship with Probyn continued; it was for Probyn that he operated on Loach’s Poor Cow, Menges’ first taste of feature-film work. 

World in Action was a hard-hitting, investigative-journalism program that aired in Britain from 1963 to 1998. “They sent me all over the place with really good journalists like Alex Valentine, Stephen Peet and Michael Parkinson,” says Menges. “We covered news stories such as the fighting in Angola, the uprising in Zanzibar, the civil war in Cyprus, Spain under Franco, and, most importantly for me, we went to South Africa during the time of apartheid. Armed with a Bolex and looking a bit like a student, I went up to Bulawayo in Matabeleland with Alex Valentine to make a documentary about the Ndebele’s support for the African National Congress, which was a real education. All of these things were amazing — to be that age and to be traveling, learning and seeing — but South Africa was important because when I was asked to direct A World Apart [1988], I knew I could film it in Bulawayo. I knew I’d have political support from the ANC groups I’d met and could give the city enough of a feel of Johannesburg, because, obviously, we couldn’t actually shoot the film in South Africa.” 

Experiences such as these made Menges an international filmmaker from the earliest years of his career. Many of the documentaries he shot involved traveling to dangerous regions and taking extraordinary risks, especially the films he made with director Adrian Cowell. Their first collaboration was Raid Into Tibet (1966), a 30-minute documentary that followed a group of Khamba guerrillas as they crossed the border into Tibet and attacked a Chinese military convoy. Menges, Cowell and journalist George Patterson accompanied the Khambas on a grueling trek across the mountains and filmed the raid. Several Chinese soldiers were killed during the attack, and the raiding party eventually fled when one of the guerrillas was shot. 

Menges and Cowell also worked together on a series of films about illicit opium production in the Golden Triangle. The pair had visited Burma during an earlier filmmaking tour of Southeast Asia, but their 1972-73 expedition into the Burmese mountains for The Opium Warlords (1974) proved far more treacherous. “We were with the Shan State Army, a group fighting for independence from Burma, and we had a lot of trouble,” Menges recalls. “Remnants of the Kuomintang [who fled China after losing a power struggle with the Communists after World War II] had come to Burma to run the opium trade, and they declared war on the Shan State Army. For a year-and-a-half, they chased us from mountain to mountain, ambushing us and trying to blow us up. During the long march from northern Shan State to the Thai border, we carried our shot rushes in polystyrene boxes on mules — much of the footage remained exposed and undeveloped for over a year. The five mules with our rushes had big crosses on them, and our instruction to the army was that they were the only ones to save when we were ambushed.” 

The 1960s and 1970s were dominated by documentary work for Menges, though he grabbed opportunities to build on his fiction-film experience between projects. “Having just come out of the Amazon with Adrian Cowell on The Tribe That Hides From Man [1970], where we were searching for the Kreen-Akrore [tribe] with the Txukahamae, I caught the train to Cheltenham the day after arriving back in London to operate on If… [1968]. That film was a learning curve for me and an important project for two reasons: one was working with [director] Lindsay Anderson, and the other was working with [cinematographer] Miroslav Ondrcek [ASC, ACK], who had shot A Blonde in Love [1965].”  

An appreciation for Czech cinema was one of the things that drew Menges and Loach together when they met on Poor Cow. “I suspect we were both profoundly affected by films coming from Czechoslovakia, such as Peter and Pavla [1964] and A Blonde in Love — Milos Forman’s early films,” says Menges. “Those films had a real sense of irony, of sensitivity, of catching the moment and of natural light. They were moving and also funny.” Loach recognized that Menges’ skills as a documentary cameraman could help give Kes a similar style. “Doing documentaries, you learn to catch everything that comes at you,” says Menges. “I’m sure that must have been partly what appealed to Ken about my work.”

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