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On the Clock page 2page 3
Michael Chapmanpage 2page 3
DVDpage 2page 3
A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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After The Last Detail, Chapman began a very productive series of collaborations with director Philip Kaufman, who had commenced production on The White Dawn (1974). The drama concerned a group of whalers stranded in the Arctic, and "he was shooting with a Canadian cameraman who had made the bad tactical mistake of doing some tests," Chapman recalls. "Phil was apparently so appalled by what he saw that he fired the guy, and then he needed somebody who had an East Coast union card." Chapman feels that this little-known film, which stars Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gossett Jr., is underappreciated. "It's kind of wonderful, and I really liked working with Phil. We also worked together on Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978], which was a hell of a lot of fun, and The Wanderers [1979], which is a very rich movie, heartfelt stuff. I was very glad I was able to work so often with Phil."

Following The White Dawn, however, East Coast cinematography jobs slowed down to a trickle, so when Bill Butler, ASC asked Chapman to operate for him on Jaws (1975), Chapman jumped at the chance. He says he never felt that operating again was a step backward in some grand career plan. "I was working overtime almost every day," he says. "My only thought was, 'I'm going to make a very good buck all summer, so I'm a happy Chappy!'"

Of his extensive handheld camerawork on the blockbuster, Chapman recalls, "Bill and I figured out early on that I could handhold the camera on those small boats and roll with the waves as I climbed all over the place. I think it was very effective in terms of creating suspense, but there was really no other way to do it. I'd probably still do that film handheld today."

Shortly after completing Jaws, Chapman landed a cinematography job that began one of the most important collaborations of his career, with director Martin Scorsese. The young filmmaker had directed a few low-budget features, including Mean Streets, and was planning a small drama about a New York taxi driver. Chapman read the script by Paul Schrader and saw tremendous artistic possibilities. "Paul could write like an angel," he says. "Taxi Driver is as good a script as I have ever read - and it was very visual. So many of the little details in that movie actually were in the script."

Taxi Driver most certainly did not call for the "11 o'clock news look," and Chapman, now more confident in his skills, was eager to try new things. "The project had enormous visual possibilities, and we felt it would be correct to be unusual and to do odd things with the camerawork and lighting. It would have been a terrible mistake to do any sort of surrealism in The Last Detail, but with Taxi Driver, the whole script was laden with visual information and suggestions, and we went for it." The filmmakers used slow motion to great effect to show characters floating through the urban milieu, or to dissect moments of extreme violence. "Nowadays, slow motion is often done in a cheesy way," says Chapman. "If you see somebody running toward you in slow motion, you know there's going to be an explosion behind him. I think we used it much more effectively, but those ideas were Marty's, not mine. Shooting straight down on a table and having a hand go across in slow motion - that's me doing what I was told. If ever there was a director with a visual sense, it's Marty."

The duo next teamed for the ambitious concert film The Last Waltz. Scorsese and Chapman, both fans of Robbie Robertson's group The Band, wanted to create a documentary that would match the power of the music. "They wanted to go out with a big bang," he says of the musicians. "I did all the lighting, and it was showbiz lighting all the way. We had sets from the San Francisco Opera Company, and there were eight or nine cameras, which people like Vilmos Zsigmond [ASC] and Laszlo Kovacs [ASC] were operating. Marty and I knew all the songs, and we could draw storyboards for every verse - at this point zoom in, at that point dolly left. The strategy for filming all of their songs was planned out in enormous detail. Backstage, we had a whole roomful of people desperately loading and unloading magazines all night."

Shortly afterward, Chapman and Scorsese embarked on what would become a key film not only in their own careers, but also in the history of American film: Raging Bull (1980). Chapman's black-and-white cinematography on the Jake LaMotta biopic was inspired by the media that had brought boxing into the filmmakers' living rooms. "Boxing was black-and-white to us, whether it was the Friday night fights on TV or the graphics in Life magazine," says Chapman. "And then there were all the movies we associated with boxing, like City for Conquest." By that time, however, black-and-white motion pictures were rare, and on top of that, Chapman's experience with the format was limited. He recalls, "I knew in theory that you had to use backlight to separate [elements in the frame], and that you only had tones to work with. But I found that it was actually liberating to shoot black-and-white because it's inherently more abstract than color. It's one step removed from the reality of the red tie and the blue shirt. You start one step from reality, and from there, you can do pretty much whatever you want."

Chapman and Scorsese decided to cover scenes depicting LaMotta's personal life naturalistically. "I lit those more like I would have lit them in color than I probably should say," the cinematographer reveals. "Obviously, I had separation by backlight, but for the most part the lighting was pretty straightforward." The scenes in the ring were another story. "Those were very much meant to be ballet. Like many of us, [LaMotta] was far more at home and at peace with himself when he was at work - or boxing, in his case - than when he was trying to deal with ordinary life, which he was obviously terrible at."

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.