Michael Chapman, ASC, recipient
of the 2003 American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement
Award, assesses a career full of storied productions.
by Jon Silberg
Director of photography Michael Chapman, ASC, who will be honored
with the American Society of Cinematographers' Lifetime Achievement
Award this month, has shot more than 40 feature films, including
several from the celebrated American New Wave of the 1970s. Twice
nominated for Academy Awards - for Raging Bull (1980) and The
Fugitive (1993) - he has also tried his hand at directing (The
Clan of the Cave Bear and All the Right Moves) and screenwriting
(The Viking Sagas). Chapman's varied contributions to filmmaking
might suggest that he spent his youth striving to work in some
form of visual expression, but he maintains that his entrance into
the film industry was a "complete accident."
As a youth in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Chapman was more interested
in sports than photography or painting. "I was certainly as
passionate about movies as any other kid in Wellesley," he
says, "but it never occurred to me that I could go get a job
in that business - that movies were made by ordinary people who
had families and who went to the bathroom. It was a whole other
world to me." After he graduated from high school in the late
1950s, Chapman attended Columbia University, where his major was "useless
knowledge," he says with a laugh. "There was a system
at that time where you could basically take whatever you wanted
and get your degree. I suppose I was an English major or a history
major in some vague way." Upon graduating from the Ivy League
school, Chapman went to work as a freight-brakeman on the Erie
Lackawanna Railroad. "It was a very chic thing to do in the
late Fifties - echoes of Kerouac and Ginsberg and all that," he
The U.S. Army soon put an end to his railroad career. "This
was back when they were drafting middle-class white boys," says
Chapman. "Fortunately, it was after Korea and before Vietnam,
so I managed to get out of the Army without having to shoot at
anybody." After he was discharged, he returned to New York
and married a Columbia classmate whose father, Joe Brun, ASC, happened
to be an Oscar-nominated cinematographer. Brun, who had emigrated
from France, was one of the most respected cameramen on the East
Coast at that time. "He was a wonderful guy, but he was scandalized
that his daughter should be married to a freight brakeman, so he
got me into the [camera] guild. I started out loading magazines
on commercials - there were very few features being shot in New
York at that time - and I worked as an assistant camera, focus
puller, clapper loader and all that."
By the time he started working at commercial house MPO, Chapman
was hoping to get a chance to move beyond the rank of assistant.
MPO happened to employ some major cinematography talents, including
future ASC members Gordon Willis and Owen Roizman. Chapman says
it was his collaborations with Willis that made him see filmmaking
as a passion, rather than just a job. "Gordy was offered a
feature, and he asked somebody else to be his operator, but that
guy had a chance to work on a series and foolishly turned Gordy
down. When he asked me, I changed my card from assistant in a second.
Then Gordy took me along for an amazing ride."
Chapman operated for Willis on The Landlord (1970), Klute (1971), The
Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).
After overcoming some initial doubts about operating, Chapman
realized that he was good at it, and that it gave him immense
satisfaction. "I'd always been a good athlete, and there's
a lot of athleticism in operating a camera," he observes. "That's
what makes operating so wonderful and seductive and exhilarating
to do: it combines athleticism and aesthetics. I loved instantaneous
framing and thinking as I went. It was like swinging a baseball
bat. It's wonderful fun, it's sexy and it's gratifying. You get
to flirt with the actresses. What more could you ask for?"
After several successful years, Chapman decided he wanted to be
a cinematographer. "I didn't really lobby to shoot anything," he
recalls. "I didn't know how to do such a thing - and I still
don't. I just hoped that an opportunity would come along, the way
the chance to operate had." That's just what happened: Hal
Ashby, with whom Chapman had worked on The Landlord, began
to prep The Last Detail (1973), and his top choices for
director of photography were either unavailable or carried the
wrong union card for the East Coast shoot. Ashby therefore decided
to let Chapman come aboard as director of photography. "Hal
is one of the Seventies directors that people don't talk about
enough," says Chapman. "He was really good, and he made
some wonderful films. I think The Last Detail is one of
the best things Jack Nicholson has done. Besides that, I owe Hal
a huge amount; he's the guy who started my career as a cinematographer."
As he had with his move up to operator, Chapman approached the
transition to cinematographer with a mixture of confidence and
doubt. "I was very lucky in that what I was asked to do [on The
Last Detail] seemed to almost petition for a certain kind of
look. It clearly was meant to look like the 11 o'clock news, and
that's what I said to everybody. But the reason I kept saying it
was that the 11 o'clock news was the closest you could get to no
lighting at all, and I was terrified about my ability to light!
I figured there was no way I could light those scenes in a way
that would have the power of the light that existed on location." Chapman
recalls a fight scene that occurs inside a train station men's
room: "We used a railroad station in Toronto, and existing
lighting in the men's room was the lighting in the film. I enhanced
it a bit here and there so you could see the actors' faces, but
that was it."
Whereas some cinematographers might want to show off a bit in
their first outing, Chapman felt the opposite way. "I wanted
to be invisible - which, of course, turned out to be the right
thing to want to be. I think The Last Detail is a wonderful
movie, and I hope that part of its strength comes from its newsreel/documentary
style, which was as much a result of my terror as anything else.
Luckily, it happened to work out."