Friday, January 21, 2011

PSIFF 2011: CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE & WORK OF JACK CARDIFF—A Few Evening Class Questions For Craig McCall

Thirteen years in the making, Craig McCall's documentary profile of cinematographer Jack Cardiff reveals an impassioned artist who literally painted with light and dramatically transformed the art form of cinematography through his chiaroscuric B&W lighting and his early experiments in Technicolor. As detailed at the film's website, 54 years after first winning an Academy Award® for his stunning Technicolor work on Black Narcissus (1947), Jack Cardiff became the first cinematographer to receive an honorary, Lifetime Achievement Oscar® for contributions spanning a 70-year career. Though responsible for the camera work that distinguished some of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's best loved films, including the aforementioned Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, 1946) and The Red Shoes (1948), Cardiff went on to work with Alfred Hitchcock, Lawrence Olivier, Richard Fleischer and John Huston, eventually directing several notable films of his own, though remaining relatively unknown to the general public. Craig McCall's Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) effectively and entertainingly redresses that oversight.

No less passionate than his subject, Craig McCall and I fortuitously sat next to each other at the PSIFF screening of Matias Bize's La Vida de Pesces (The Life of Fish, 2010), struck up a conversation, and shared several more exchanges in the press lounge throughout the run of the festival. A true raconteur, McCall had stories aplenty about Jack Cardiff and the many individuals interviewed to effect his engrossing portrait; individuals who—as Mark Adams suggests at Screen Daily—"help give the documentary a real sense of real insight and gravitas." Eager to praise Cardiff, such luminaries as Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Charlton Heston offer fascinating remembrances that account for why Telegraph reviewer Sukhdev Sandhu wished the film could be longer, and with Martin Scorsese on board to provide valuable cinephilic context, McCall's documentary is definitely winning, earning the favorable Cannes reviews rounded up by MUBI's David Hudson. The first to agree to an interview, in fact, was Kirk Douglas, which was especially noteworthy because it was held shortly after Douglas had regained his speech after suffering a stroke. Douglas generously invited McCall into his home.

McCall explained that he didn't know who Jack Cardiff was when they first met by chance in the mid-'90s. Cardiff took an interest in McCall's clockwork home movie camera, which was similar to one Cardiff had used to record candid moments with the casts and crews of numerous productions. It was an instance of being in the right room at the right time and Cardiff made McCall laugh, which he liked. McCall felt Cardiff had the energy of a film school graduate and was impressed with his enthusiastic storytelling, which could range from Marlene Deitrich to Sylvester Stallone in the same sentence. Over a glass of red wine he would say to McCall, "Let me tell you a story" and then "let me tell you another story" while pouring a second glass of red wine. McCall found himself relaying Cardiff's stories to others so frequently that he decided he might as well chronicle them in film.

Describing the cumbersome process of editing his ample footage to a distinct narrative line that emphasized Cardiff's passion and artistry as a cinematographer rather than a straightforward catalog of his filmography, McCall likewise spent years securing rights to film clips from admittedly famous movies. "There's no straight path to the studios," McCall advised. Even with money, a filmmaker can't get whatever clips he wants. But McCall dug in his heels and the benefit of having to wait so many years is that—when permissions finally came—McCall was able to use restored clips. After this laborious process of securing the clips, McCall brought a working print to Los Angeles and screened it for Cardiff and Richard Fleischer, among others, and—though surprised by some bits—Cardiff genuinely liked the film, and gave McCall a hug when he heard the audience laughing. Adding value to the documentary over and above its generous usage of film clips are Cardiff's paintings, his photographs of beautiful actresses, and his on-set home movies, elements which created visual layers that spoke to the way Cardiff fused his various artistic expressions into cinematography. Without a formal education, Cardiff broke some of the conventions of his time to achieve his art and McCall felt this made him an accessible subject, let alone an inspiring one.

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Michael Guillén: Craig, congratulations on a fantastic project. I'm impressed that—not only do you single out the artistry of cinematography by profiling Jack Cardiff—but, also that you are suggesting the artistry of the interview format. I'm intrigued by your choosing to include yourself within the frame, in contrast—let's say—to someone like Richard Schickel who purposely strives to keep himself out of his documentary profiles. Can you speak to why you chose to include yourself?

Craig McCall: I thought it would be a bit cold not to. Jack becomes electric within a conversation so I literally wanted the audience to see him talking to me when we were joking and at ease. I didn't really want to be in the film—I thought I was going to be behind the camera—but, when he tells stories they don't come across as easy out of conversation. It's a bit like Jack standing next to a Turner painting—which you see a little bit of (though I cut most of that out)—because Jack was more easygoing when we were talking about painting rather than him standing next to a Van Gogh or a Turner. That was the way it went. It seemed that when I was behind the camera, he stiffened but when I was standing next to him or walking beside him, he was more comfortable telling his stories. All those stories we filmed while we were walking were literally told during a 30-minute walk where his mind triggered and he just started remembering things.

Ordinarily, with most TV commissions you have to be in and out and get as many photographs as you can, as many bits and pieces; but, I had the luxury as an independent filmmaker to ask Jack the same question three times and I got different answers each time. That allowed me to weave quite a detailed tapestry.

Guillén: Were any of your interviews scripted?

McCall: No, they were all impromptu. I tried not to feed Jack questions unless he absolutely insisted; but, I tried to explain why I didn't want to do it. Some people feel put on the spot that way but I explained that I was not asking in a journalistic way and that everything would be edited. I did all of the interviews myself except for Moira Shearer. Someone else had to go on that day and then she grew quite ill afterwards so I was never able to interview her myself. Some of the interviews were very short and some were very long.

Guillén: Can you speak to Martin Scorsese's involvement in your film? I'm aware that Scorsese attributes the influence of The Red Shoes on Raging Bull and that he engineered its restoration.

McCall: Scorsese was my last interview. I went out to see him twice and he didn't turn up twice while I was interviewing other people, which was expensive. But I tell people that at that time he was being asked to do 20 interviews a week, okay? He can't do them all. But what I will give him credit for is that he just doesn't do the big ones; he selects. I also think you have to be persistent with him. If you just go away after a couple of weeks, then that's the end of that. I waited two years. I didn't deal with him at the Venice Film Festival because I was in a kilt, even though his assistant said, "Do it now. He'll remember!"

Guillén: Frequent allusions have been made to Cardiff's The Red Shoes to gain insight into Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Have you had an opportunity to ask Aronofsky if he actually cribbed from Cardiff?

McCall: I was in Poland a little over three weeks ago where they showed my documentary and The Red Shoes at
Camerimage, a film festival that honors cinematographers. Aronofsky and his DoP Matthew Libatique arrived to receive an award for Black Swan. Apparently, Aronofsky had never seen The Red Shoes but watched it after he completed his film; but, several people in the room saw similarities. I haven't spoken to Darren directly about that and didn't have a chance to ask Matthew about it. I think Matthew had seen The Red Shoes but Darren hadn't. I know this topic has been raised but I would be reluctant to speak about another filmmaker's path. I don't think the pressures of being a ballerina are that different now than they were in Cardiff's time. The world of prima ballerinas is so unusual to most of us and the pressures put upon them at their peak allows us to draw parallels from different times, which has happened here. I think it's interesting that they work off of each other. I don't see them as combative.

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Picked up for North American distribution by Strand Releasing, Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff will be screened in San Francisco at the upcoming Mostly British Film Festival on Saturday, February 5 in tandem with Cardiff's Oscar®-winning Black Narcissus. Further, in mid-February at Toronto's BELL Lightbox, Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff will premiere within a program of retrospective screenings that will include Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, John Huston's The African Queen, Joseph L. Mankiewiecz's Barefoot Contessa, and Albert Lewin's Pandora and The Flying Dutchman.

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