The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2010 Return to Table of Contents
The Wolfman
Chris Menges
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Presidents Desk
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

Though his documentary experience undoubtedly informed Menges’ approach to drama, the cameras generally used for the two genres differed far more at the start of his career than they do today. In 1963, when Menges joined World in Action, clair released the NPR, the first silent, portable 16mm camera with a coaxial magazine. “It was a revolution because you could pick it up and walk with it,” says Menges. “You had a reflex viewfinder that swiveled with your eye, so you could boom the camera up and down and your eye would stay with the eyepiece.” By contrast, “on Kes, the camera was in a huge, lead-lined blimp that took two people to lift it off the ground.” 

Interestingly, the freedoms and limitations of different formats and genres led Menges to the same conclusion: what the camera does is always subordinate to what is happening in front of it. Shooting handheld with the NPR, “you suddenly realized it’s no good getting great pictures if you can’t hear what people are saying,” he explains. “In a way, the real test when you’re on a film set is to shut your eyes and listen to the dialogue.” On Kes, the equipment was cumbersome and the work rate slow, but for Menges, it was a fascinating experience because he learned so much about what makes a fiction film succeed. “The first thing about Kes is that it’s beautifully written,” he says. “The next thing is the sensitive direction and great acting, and then, almost down at the bottom of the list, are the framing and photography.” 

The catalyst for Menges’ eventual renunciation of documentary work was a British film he made in Spanish Harlem called East 103rd Street (1981). He explains, “It wasn’t until then that I realized I’m scared of documentaries, because I recognized that however hard you try not to exploit people, you can end up in a situation where you do. That film was put out in America, and I wasn’t consulted; it was about a family with a drug history, and I think I should have been allowed to discuss it with the family before it was broadcast in New York. Also, ATV got about $30,000 for the transmission, and I think that money should have been put towards something that helped the family and helped with addiction in New York. What they did was rotten, and that’s why I stopped.” 

Following this disquieting experience, Menges made a decisive transition into feature films. After shooting Looks and Smiles (1981) for Loach, he was asked to work on Angel, Jordan’s first film. “Neil is a writer from a totally different tradition,” says the cinematographer. “It was exciting because he didn’t know much about movies, and I was learning about Irish politics. For Neil, it was a true baptism of fire, and in a way, it was also that for me.” 

Another director to make a strong impression on Menges at that time was Alan Clarke, for whom he shot Made in Britain (1982). Menges describes Clarke as “probably the best director I’ve worked with other than Ken Loach. He was a complete inspiration because everything was Steadicam or handheld; every time we did a shot, he would harden it up and give it real energy. Alan was a champion of catching the moment. It was totally different from what Ken does, and yet they both have enormous energy and a kind of logic that serves the writing.” 

While working on A Sense of Freedom (1979) with director John Mackenzie, Menges met Forsyth, who later asked him to shoot Local Hero (1983). Set in a small fishing village on the west coast of Scotland, the film charmed critics and audiences alike; its exquisite location photography won universal praise and brought Menges his first BAFTA nomination. “Bill is a smashing bloke and a really good director,” says Menges. “I don’t know why the hell he doesn’t make more films. It was just a fabulous experience. One day, Burt Lancaster was sitting in his chair on the office set, and I was looking at his desk while we were waiting. I moved two of the pens on the desk, and this voice growled, ‘Don’t touch my props. They’re my memory.’ Even that was an education: actors’ props are important to them!” 

The accolades garnered by almost every film Menges worked on during that period led to one opportunity after another. “It probably helped that Kes was a well-liked film, and when Angel came out, [producer] David Puttnam agreed to have me on Local Hero,” says Menges. “Then, when Local Hero came out, Roland [Joffé] asked me to do The Killing Fields, and Puttnam agreed to that as well.” Joffé was determined to give The Killing Fields, which is set amid the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, an authentic feel. “Roland wanted someone who’d been in a few bloody conflicts,” says Menges. “In addition to what happened in Burma, I’d done several films for the BBC in Vietnam. During prep, we went to Thailand and talked endlessly about how to give it the quality of the documentaries I’d shot in Saigon. The Killing Fields was an extraordinary film, and it was entirely Roland’s vision. A lot of talented people gave their hearts to it, but he made that film, and as far as I’m concerned, it was Roland who won the Oscar for cinematography.” 

Before taking a break to try his hand at directing, Menges shot The Mission for Joffé, an experience he does not look back on as fondly as The Killing Fields, despite the fact that it earned him another Oscar. He is dismissive of his directorial efforts during the years that followed, though A World Apart won awards at Cannes and from the New York Film Critics. “At least two of the films I made were complete disasters, ill-conceived and badly made,” he says. “So to be invited back to shoot Michael Collins and to work with Neil [Jordan] and [operator] Mike Roberts and all those actors was very, very important. It’s a film I warm to myself, and it was lucky that he asked me, because I was in a bit of a grump at that stage.” 

Since then, Menges has worked on a steady stream of interesting projects, including Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1997), for which he earned an ASC nomination (AC June ’98); Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001); Jordan’s The Good Thief (2002); Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002); Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); and Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal (2006). “I think the things I go for are good writing and a good story, and hopefully something with political energy,” he says. “The problem is that what you read on paper may not necessarily turn out to be a good film. You can only give it your best and pray.” Menges continues to operate the camera on his films. “For me, looking through the finder during rehearsals and during a take helps me discipline my sense of framing, of how to catch a character, of light, and of how to tell the story. I believe that if you don’t operate, you lose a lot of those skills because you’re probably looking at a video monitor that gives you no real sense of the performance or the light.” 

When Deakins left film school in the mid-1970s, he sought Menges out to ask his advice about how to become a documentary cameraman. “One of the first television documentaries I did was about a ’round-the-world yacht race,” says Deakins. “Chris and I were working for the same TV company at the time, and I’m sure he’d already turned the job down.” Menges recalls it distinctly: “Oh, God, I just couldn’t do it — be on a yacht going around the world and be sick every day!” Deakins took the project on and was excited to be using one of the cameras Menges had recently brought back from Burma. Two decades later, Deakins was equally excited to share cinematographer duties with Menges on The Reader. “I’m flattered to be on the same [title] card as him, really,” reflects Deakins.

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