"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

FUTURE OF CINEMA IF YOU WANT TO KNOW – Interview with John Boorman

Sunday, 19 July 2015 10:41

Donatello Fumarola, Alberto Momo


Lucca (Italy), during a tribute to Boorman made by Lucca Film Festival in september 2014, in the hall of the hotel where he's staying in the centre of this beautiful city. The last film by one of the last dinosaur of cinema, Queen and Country, give us the idea that with freedom and knowledge you can make what you want, despite to the technical matters (that seems to don’t interfere too much with Boorman job in films). We try to focus our talk with him around this point (blank). Anyway, this is just a part of the long conversation we had with him, and one more step in our utopian search for the words that could tell what cinema is.

You’re a perfect subject for our idea of Atlas of Cinema, you shot in Africa, Usa, Ireland, England, South America…

Well, cinema is an international language. I work with crews, I work with English American French and Japanese crews, the differences between them are very small, I mean they are different a little bit in a very minor way, but the fundamentals are always the same. So, it’s not difficult to work with different countries, I found it quite easy.

Even between American and Japanese? They are an example of two opposite attitudes… Did their different approach have reflections on your way to work?

Well, a Japanese crew at that time - maybe is changed now - but at that time was incredibly disciplined. An American or british crew, you know,  they are always eating, anytime you need something they are looking for food. Japanese would never do that, would never eat on the set, they  wait, they stand still and wait to be cool. Also in term of preparation, they prepare everything, and I think in filmmaking preparation is everything. It takes probably two years to make a film and the shooting of the film probably takes six or eight weeks, so the shooting is the smallest portion of the all process and also the most expensive part. The more you prepare, better value get out of the shooting. In every department Japanese was very prepared. Now, I think the American method is solve every problem by money, which generally speaking you can, but it is not an efficient way of doing it.

At the beginning you spoke about cinema as a language. What’s your relation with the new cameras?For example that one that shoots you now. The object doesn’t change, we’re shooting one scene and we could do the same with a 35mm. But even more and more in the last two or three years the machines impose again the kind of language to use. When we watched your last film Queen and Country what we noticed is that you don’t care about the kind of camera you’re using, but only of the set and the actors, as if nothing was changed for you.

I’ll tell you something. When I started we used a Metro-camera, which had a big blimp for the sound and that was a very large camera, movements were a bit difficult, even putting it on tracks was a big operation, but it also had a certain importance, because of his size. When I was making Point Blank in MGM, I started shooting a lot of things with a small Arriflex, because I could move around easily, and the cameraman said to me: "you know tomorrow the studio executives will come to visit the set, and you know John, tomorrow you should use the Metro not the Arriflex." I said: "Why?" He said: "Well... if they see all money disappearing in that tiny camera they’ll get very nervous!" Now film ends up in a little disk and somehow is rather diminutious, I mean is much more convenient but nerverthless somehow it takes away some of his importance.

But what has really changed? Or what has pushed you to change in filming?

BoormanFirst of all I was very glad to leave film behind and go to digital and I tell you why. I have nothing but pain from film in all my life, you get scratched, you get dirt, and then eventually when you put all things together and you go to the laboratory and you try to get some intensity you have a very little control of colour… Whereas the greatest thing that happens in film is not the camera or the digital, it’s the fact that you can digital grade, and grading means that you can remake the film, you can put in shadows, you can bring the eyes up… You know, I worked a lot with a French cameraman who deviced a way of lighting, which was a chinese lantern on poles, so if you had a scene with two characters, one in the dark and one in pale, you could balance the light moving it around, it was very complicated. Now you don’t need to do it, with grading you just bring one face up lighter, one face darker, and you can bring the eyes up and make the eyes lighter. I’ll give you another example. When you night-shooting and you put up a big lamp on a crane for a moonlight effect, well... I’ve spent so many nights shooting where the first two hours you spend trying to deflect the river flow from the lamp putting up flags or whatever... Now you don’t need to do that, you just paint those flows out. So, is much easier and you save a lot of time. I think perhaps a lot of cameramen don’t like digital grading because they feel it like taking away Art, but I never met cameraman who hasn’t been converted to the possibilities of digital grading. Nowadays we take a week for digital grading and we consider side by side every shots, discussing how can we improve it and make it more beautiful. You have to embrace this things. Film is a nineteenth century invention, I made film with Lumiére brothers camera and fundamentaly is identical to the modern camera, the way how the frame is pulled down, the shutter opens, the frame is exposed exactly the same, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years until digital camera few years ago.

Don’t you think these cameras they get too much light and bring too much definition? Like an unnatural effect…

Yeah, that’s the question. Do you want the camera or film has the same quality as the eye? I don’t think you do really because the eye generalizes whereas the camera is specific. If for istance you look at a London street in november and it looks completely grey and the eyes sees completely grey, the clouds, grey buildings, all thing is grey, if you photograph it, all you see is a red bus. Now, the eye generalizes, the eye says generally grey and I want to consider everything is not grey, camera can’t do that. There’s a question of focus. One of devices that help you by bringing into focus the important thing you want and putting out of focus what you don’t’ want, was deep focus used by Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane. Deep focus was hard to achieve at that time because you need low light and more depth. Now it’s easy, you have only to rely on composition, you compose the shot in such a way you bring the eye the way you want to be because everything is on focus. So, If you decide to shoot a film in deep focus then you have to be very careful to your compositions, otherwise the audience will be distracted as in life when you look things and everything is there and you don’t need to focus on one thing.

We think that it’s problematic if everything is on focus.

If you make images, every image has a composition, has a centre, has a purpose. Don’t forget the audience can take so much information from each image, if you give so much like overloading, they loose the concentration.

When you’re on the set and start shooting, are you instinctive or more rational?

Well, first of all when you are on the set with camera most of your work is done. You’ve chosen the colour of the set, the clothes the actors are wearing and even the camera movements. I’m often asked by first time directors, they say how do you know where to put the camera? And I say them: "If you have done your preparation there’s no question, the camera position chooses itself, determines itself. If you don’t know where to put the camera, if you can’t decide, it usually means that there’s something wrong with the scene." When I first started, I used the sight finder on the Metro-camera, but I don’t need it, I can tell you exactly what any lens will show me, just by experience. When I shot Point Blank in 1969 I shot in anamorphic, it was my first experience with anamorphic, which I loved, and they just produced the first forty millimetres lens and it gave a knid of coldness, kind of remoteness to the scenes… So, if you prepare well when you get to the set it becomes completely instinctive, your subconscious mind is working for you, and I like to work quickly at that point. You know, if you work slowly you lose energy. For example another question is how many takes you do. I remember one time I was having a dinner with Jack Nicholson when he was shooting Shining with Kubrick and he said: "You know we spent two days on set-up, we did seventyfive takes and in between each takes Stanley would adjust a lamp or move the camera slightly". He was exhausted. Well, a few months later I met Kubrick and I told him: "You know I spoke with Jack and he told me you did seventyfive takes?" I asked him: "How can you judge between them?" And he said: "Well, what I do is that: I try to exhaust the actor because when the actor is tired and exhausted he stops acting, he behaves naturally." For me is different, I say to the actors: "You should be ready, the first take should be the one. If something gets wrong we do it again, but that’s what I want." If you do a lot of takes or you shoot the scene from several angles concentration drops down, I was trying to say: "Everything I shoot is gonna be in the film, so you’re gonna be ready, you’re gonna be on your top level." It creates tension. Now, it’s true that some actors don’t respond to that and in that case I do more takes, but I’m one tape man. I became fascinated by the language doing a BBC documentary on Griffith. I watched all his films and I studied the way he built all the conventions of the grammar. But now film is a language which is very easy to understand but difficult to speak. We watch movies and we are all involved with techniques, but when you go for shooting and you have to put all these things together to tell a story, is quite difficult.

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