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"I start from realism My way of lighting and seeing is realistic. I don't use imagination, I use research. Basically, I show things as they are, with no distortion."
Nestor Almendros visibly flinches whenever anyone asks how he likes being a Hollywood cameraman now. He has to point out that he's never shot a film in Hollywood. Days of Heaven was shot in Canada, Going South in Mexico, Kramer vs. Kramer and Still of the Night in New York City and The Blue Lagoon in Fiji. But that's not really surprising since, in his twenty-year career as a director of photography, he has shot film in almost all corners of the world. And while he has never shot a film in Hollywood, he is one of the leading cinematographers in the American film industry: of the five major American films he's done, three have been nominated for the Oscar in cinematography. And, in 1978, he won for his exquisite naturalistic photography on Days of Heaven.
Almendros's cinematic roots are unusually deep. Born in Spain and raised in Cuba, he wholeheartedly embraced the cinema as a student; he and his friends were always making short 8mm and I6mm films. They realized, however, that they had to leave Cuba in order to broaden their knowledge of filmmaking. Almendros came to New York City where he studied at City College and met experimental filmmakers Hans Richter, Maya Deren and the Mekas brothers. He returned to Cuba after the fall of the Batista dictatorship and was hired to make propaganda documentaries, which he quickly became bored with, although he considers it was a good training ground for him and it had an influence on his style. But France beckoned: the New Wave was at high tide. In Paris he fell almost by accident into a job shooting for Eric Rohmer. The result of that initial collaboration is that he photographed six of Rohmer's "Moral Tales." François Truffaut has used him for eight films while he has worked with Barbet Schroederon six major films plus assorted documentaries. Even if Almendros had never begun to shoot "American" films, his world reputation would have been assured. An urbane and witty conversationalist, he is a cosmopolitan man of the world and even an author of a book on cinematography. Inundated with job offers after his Oscar win, Almendros would prefer a more leisurely work pace of shooting only two features a year. But now with the demands of both French and American filmmakers for his services, that may not be possible. As in a classic demand-supply relationship, the supply is limited because the quality that Almendros puts on the screen is often hard to come by.
We read an article that you wrote for Film Culture when you were a young cameraman; you were impressed with the neorealist cinematography of G. R. Aldo. We wonder how that's affected your work?
Enormously. I really owe a lot to Aldo. I think he really was an exceptional case. Aldo was even before Raoul Coutard in using indirect lighting, using soft lighting. And I think that's because he came to motion pictures from still photography. He came to the cinema not through the usual way of the period, which was to be a loader, an assistant, a focus puller, a cameraoperator, and after all that, many years later becoming a director of photography. He came straight from still and theatrical photography and only because Visconti imposed on him. That's why his lighting was so unconventional for the period. He had not come down the same path.
But he really was a source of inspiration. Other films of the period like Open City and Shoeshine made by other cinematographers had an interesting look not because the director of photography wanted it that way; it was due to lack of money. They looked interesting in spite of them. I'm sure that if they had given those cinematographers more money and technical support they would have done something very professional and slick. But Aldo knew he was doing something different. Visually, La Terra Trema is a very modern movie and Umberto D is too, as well as Senso. Aldo photographed them.
It would seem that the cameraman who shot Open City was a cameraman that had been working in a studio situation and then suddenly he had to make do with what he had. Whereas with Aldo, it was different; he knew what he wanted. How does that affect you today? Do you have any basic philosophies about filmmaking?
I always hear Americans say "philosophy"; it's such a big word.
I meant where you start from or your point of departure.
I start from realism. My way of lighting and seeing is realistic; I don't use imagination. I use research. I go to a location and see where the light falls normally and I just try to catch it as it is or reinforce it if it is insufficient; that's on a natural set. On an artificial set, I suppose that there is a sun outside the house and then I see how the light would come through the windows and I reconstruct it. The source of the light should always be justified. And when it's night, my light simply comes from the lampshades or any natural source light that you see in the frame. That is my method. I haven't invented that, of course. They used to do that before my time, but they used to use hard lights with fresnel lenses. Hard lights only exist in the theatrical world; if you were filming a play or a nightclub, it would be justified. But in normal situations, very seldom do people have spotlights in their houses. When there should be sunlight, then there's nothing better yet to imitate real sunlight than arc lights, which unfortunately, in many small productions, you cannot afford. I used arc lights outside the prison in Goin' South to imitate the sunlight falling inside through the windows.
How did you first meet Eric Rohmer and start working on his films?
After I decided to leave Cuba, I chose to come to France because I very much liked the New Wave movies. For three years, I relied on my former profession, teaching language, and I survived. Then by chance, I met Rohmer. To make a long story short, I just happened to be on the set while he was shooting Paris Vu Par. Well, the cameraman left because he quarreled with Rohmer and they couldn't get anyone, so I said, "I am a cameraman." And they just tried me and they liked the rushes afterwards. It's like the story of the chorus girl who replaces the star in the show who has twisted her ankle. Something like that.
Barbet Schroeder was producing the film?
Yes, and Rohmer was directing. I did some of the other sketches as well.
You shot two or three of the sketches for that film then?
Officially, I shot two episodes but I did camerawork and retakes on all the others. It was in 16mm, and hand-held; it was in that period in which we thought 16mm was going to be the thing. I had a lot of 16mm experience in Cuba plus my underground experience in New York. Later we abandoned 16mm because we realized that we had confused the issue; we had thought that it was a question of millimeters.
What about the first feature that you shot with Rohmer, La Collectionneuse? Barbet Schroeder, who produced the film, said that he had a vivid memory of the shooting and that both you and he were influenced later by the style of that film Can you explain that?
That film is very important to me. When people ask me what is my favorite movie that I did, I always say La Collectionneuse. On that movie, there was already everything that I did later, in an embryo way, you know. But everything was there already. It's a movie that I can't forget. My first was also my best. It's a landmark for me as well as Schroeder and Rohmer.
It was intended to be done in 16mm; that was when we were giving up fighting for 16mm. We decided to make the film in 35mm but shoot it as if it were 16mm. Because what gives 16mm the look that we like in the movies—it wasn't the millimeters, it was the way you made them. And of course, those things always go together; the fact that you had a small budget, you had so few lights, forced you to use natural sets and natural light. If you do all those things and just change one—go to 35mm—then you still keep this look and acquire some technical qualities which will make the film more interesting for the audience. So we shot the film in 35mm but we hardly had a crew. Barbet Schroeder was the producer and also, at the same time, a sort of gaffer, grip, superintendent; everything really. I was also loading the camera and doing some of the focusing myself. We did it like we would do a 16mm underground movie, only we were doing it in 35mm. We used the technique of not lighting; we waited for the right light. Like we are sitting in this room here; I like this light here the way it is now so why change it if I had to film it? And with this technique, we saw that the results were not only as interesting as in 16mm but even better because they were not degraded by the inferior quality of 16mm. Also the sensitivity and latitude of the film was greater so we could actually go further.
Use less lights?
We used less lights than we used in 16mm; we practically needed none. And we also realized that most technicians had been bullshitting, you know, and inventing uses for enormous amounts of light to justify their importance, to justify their salaries and to make themselves look like someone who knows a secret, when there is technically very little to know.
That's the New Wave?
Yeah, but the first New Wave movies—I think that's where Rohmer was great—they were not that conscious about those things. They were still a little naive, they were undergoing a transition. But I believe we went a further step, thanks to Rohmer.
In general, from the New Wave directors that you've worked with, what do you find their attitude to be toward the camera work? How do they deal with it? Do they put a lot of emphasis on that?
They do give a great deal of importance to the camerawork. But, at the same time, they don't like it to overwhelm the movie, like it used to be. Because, in the past, the cameraman was like a dictator, you know. There was so much time for preparing the shot and so there practically was no time for the actors to rehearse or the moviemakers to make the movie. There was all the business of putting the lights up and it was a big ritual. I think we work faster now than they used to. And that comes also from the reduction of the shooting time in Europe.
But even with all the business of working faster, the directors still wanted good cinematography?
Oh sure, they certainly care a lot about it. The fact that they don't have an army of technicians any more doesn't mean that they don't care about the photography. On the contrary, they dislike that glossy look, that artificial look that films have, especially old French films. The Americans never went that far; the French films of the fifties especially were unbearable in that regard. They were so artificial; actors could hardly move because they had a light on their eyes that was hitting them in a certain manner and the actors had to be there still on that spot and so they had to be acting as if they were mummies because they could not move. Instead of the lighting being for the actors, it was the actors existing for the lighting.
You've done a number of pictures with Truffaut; could you describe what your working relationship is with him; what kind of input you have to him and vice versa; what emphasis he places on the camera.
To begin with, Truffaut is one of the nicest persons to work with. He's a man who believes, like Jean Renoir, that a good atmosphere during the shooting will be good for the film too. On the set, there's no hysteria, there's no screaming; everybody on the crew are like family. We are working together to make a movie. Everything goes very smoothly and it's a work of cooperation. He's a man who, amazingly for his enormous talent, listens to people who work with him. You would tell him something and he would take it into consideration; he might reject it but it's not just the attitude of "I'm a genius and I don't need any kind of help." He listens to the people who work with him, whether it's a set designer, assistant director or actor or even a grip. And he will use things that people bring to the movie and use them so the film looks like Truffaut nevertheless. That's one of his great talents.
The camera, for Truffaut, is much more mobile that it is with Rohmer. Rohmer likes for the characters to move in the frame as in The Marquis of O where they come close to the camera and they go back, back, back to the end of a corridor. And the camera just stays there and they go in and out of the frame. Truffaut, on the other hand, usually follows the actors; he's always in a sort of medium shot position; that's his favorite distance. He goes more often to close-ups in certain movies, especially on contemporary subjects. So he moves the camera but it's hardly noticeable because it's following the action so closely that it's justified and it's almost invisible. In this sense, I think he has learned a lot from the American cinema of the thirties. He admires very much Leo McCarey, Capra and all those people that have this almost invisible camera. That's for light comedies. But when it comes to drama, then he would have camerawork that is more underlying, where the camera is almost like a character in the film.
As in The Story of Adele H?
Yes, or in The Green Room in which the camera does actually describe things and underline them. Big dolly shots, big camera movements come from the geography of the place (location) instead of in the editing. He is the master of the "plan séquence." That's a French expression. It does not really indicate a master shot because a master shot implies you're going to do close-ups and insert them on that master. His conception of a shot is such that it's just the way it's going to be and there's no other way to fill in any close-ups. The camera will go from one character to another or will move to another room, all without a cut. He tries not to edit. If he can keep it all in one shot, he's very happy.
What sort of problems does that style of shooting present to you?
Well it does present some problems and some advantages. One of the problems is focus, for instance. When the camera is moving all the time, it is quite difficult for the focus puller; he has to keep following and keep the correct distance. Also it presents a problem for the camera operator, which is me, because in Europe I do operate the camera. At every moment in every camera movement, there has to be a composition that looks good. So it's like making a thousand compositions in a very short period of time. On the other hand, you have an advantage in that you have no problem about matching. When you're editing and you're going from one shot to another, you have to make sure that the eyelines are right, that the lighting is the same for every shot of the sequence. When you do a "plan-séquence," it takes a long time to prepare; you might do one a day, but you save time in the long run too.
The shot may make up several minutes of the finished film
Well, in the editing of the film, there is less work to do because the whole thing is preedited. So you work the whole day and you only do one shot, but you save all the time in the editing later.
Monte Hellman whom you worked with on Cockfighter said that you were fast; that it was one of the first things that came to his mind about you.
Good, I'm glad he said that. I don't boast about being good but I boast about being fast.
He said, "Of course he's good; you've seen his films, but the thing you don't know is that he's also very, very fast."
Excerpted from Masters of Light by Dennis Schaefer, Larry Salvato. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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