Magazine article American Cinematographer

Hero in High Places

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Hero in High Places

Article excerpt

"My cameraman was a grumpy fellow whom I came to love. His name was Leon Shamroy and his nickname with the crew was "Grumble-gut." He immediately set back the young fellow from the New York stage (me) by arriving for work every morning with only the vaguest acquaintance with the text for that day's work. "What's the garbage for today? ' he'd ask in his rasping voice. 'Why the hell didn't you read the script?' I'd come back. 'I'd rather watch a rehearsal,' he'd say. 'That will tell the story.' I soon came to see that his point of view, while extreme, was essentially the correct one, that I should photograph behavior, not 'talking heads.'"

- Elia Kazan,

from An American Odyssey,

by Michel Ciment

A mixture of reverence and a rare hint of vituperative pleasure surfaces in British cinematographer Oliver Stapleton's voice as he relates what he has read about Leon Shamroy, ASC and his fiery initiation of Kazan. "I like Shamroy's attitude, and though I'm personally very interested in the script, I have the good fortune to have a bad memory (not in terms of technical details): when I show up in the morning, I arrive as if I haven't seen the scene before. This way I can judge the work afresh in a way the director can't. If I have a strength, it's the talent to be present, to be very concentrated, and not to come in with preconceptions that will clash with what the director has stayed up all night figuring out."

There is a noticeable ease in the way Stapleton works with director Stephen Frears. Few words are exchanged on the set of Hero, their latest collaboration in a series of films that includes My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and The Grifters. Quiet and unassuming, with Birkenstock sandals on his feet, Stapleton seems the antithesis of Shamroy as he goes about lighting a pick-up shot for the movie's climactic ledge scene.

"I tend to function differently depending on the director I'm working with," he continues. "With Stephen I throw out every idea that passes through my head because he is an absolute expert at selection. One of his great strengths is allowing others to contribute. It's not a nice business, directing; you need to have a certain self-centered ruthlessness just to get through the day."

Between takes, Frears describes the collaborative process in a way that makes him seem anything but ruthless: "What astonishes me is that I meet people who can somehow make it make sense, translate it into technical terms, actually frame it. They can identify something I'm inarticulate about, concentrate on it, and make it precise. Oliver seems to be able to tell what I'm looking for almost more clearly than I can. It's a sort of coincidence of sensitivities."

The director looks back toward the set, where Stapleton is adjusting a keylight on the movie's unlikely heroes, Andy Garcia and Dustin Hoffman. "We don't talk very much. He talks about the characters and the way the story's being told. But in a way, you depend on things being emphasized-subtleties, ambiguities (he seems to understand them, often rather better than I do) and on being able to put them down on film. It's very hard to explain, because if you were to ask me to express the story completely in terms of light, I wouldn't know how to. I just expect it all to be there and everything to be perfect. Somehow he makes that happen."

"I'm an entirely script-based cinematographer," says Stapleton. "It's probably because half of me is a director, so when I read a script I read it half like a director and half like a cinematographer. That's the key thing for me. If you want to form a strong relationship with a director you have to be able to help him out. He's got to know that you know what he's doing."

Actor Dustin Hoffman concurs. "Working with Oliver is very interesting because he's one of the few cinematographers who's very involved with the scene," he says. "Some people are colorblind, and some cinematographers, not a lot, are kind of sound-blind. …

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