Magazine article American Cinematographer

Landscape with Waitress: A Challenge

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Landscape with Waitress: A Challenge

Article excerpt

Landscape With Waitress: a Challenge

Produced by David Massar

Directed by Jeffrey Townsend

Photographed by Michael Ballhaus

Landscape With Waitress is a darkly comic fable that follows the unexpected contours of one lonely man's imagination, as he privately surveys the landscape of his life. At the moment, his horizons extend as far as the walls of a deserted greasy spoon on Manhattan's West Side. Deserted, that is, except for one companion: his waitress. And she doesn't even know he's alive ... Or does she?

A popular one-act play by Robert Pine, Landscape With Waitress could well be considered a cameraman's nightmare: How do you make a film about a guy who sits at a table and thinks out loud for half an hour? And never gets out of his chair? So there was My Dinner With André, but even that had two guys, unlike "My Dinner With No One," to borrow cinematographer Michael BaIlhaus' pet name for this project.

It seems the task fell to one of Germany's most prestigious cameramen, the man who shot 15 of the late R. W. Fassbinder's films (including The Marriage of Maria Braun). In the United States he has lent his considerable talent to the likes of Martin Scorsese (on his forthcoming After Hours), John Sayles (Baby If s You), James Foley (Reckless), Marisa Silver (OW Enough), Bobby Roth (Heartbreakers), and Volker Schlondorff (on a film version of Dustin Huffman's Broadway production of Death of a Salesman).

So what was Michael Ballhaus doing with his i6mm rig, his "tiny little Aaton" as he calls it, sweating it out in a diner on nth Avenue, when he could be resting on his laurels, and having a quiet evening at home with his lovely wife?

Ballhaus spends his time in New York in a townhouse situated in what could only be called a real-life jump cut: you walk off the busiest, noisiest corner in all of Greenwich Village, pass through a little tunnel, and come out into a courtyard. All of a sudden, you realize the soundtrack has dropped out: you're not in New York any more. Given the architecture and the semi-rustic tranquillity, you might guess you were in a suburb of Berlin. But there at the door is a man you'd sooner mistake for, say, Marcello Mastroianni, than for Robby Muller or Ed Lachman. The town also is home to his sons, Sebastian and Florian, his wife Helga, and their dog, Ernestine.

Ballhaus was enthusiastic about Landscape with Waitress. "The director of this little movie (Production Designer Jeffrey Townsend) is actually my oldest friend in America. He brought me into the industry in this country. We met when we shot (Peter Lilienthal's) Dear Mr. Wonderful together. He was preparing another movie called Baby It's You. He talked to the producers and the director, John Sayles, about me. They looked at the dailies and they liked my work and hired me." He grins for a moment, then becomes very serious. "It was all Jeffrey's fault," he says melodramatically. He laughs and says, "We promised to help each other as much as we can. We did five movies together, and 1 wanted to help Jeffrey to do this movie, to help him get started."

What a way to get started. The camera in Landscape With Waitress is like a satellite with a direct linkup to the main character's brain, relentlessly gliding around him, sweeping in for nuances of expression, crawling around behind him to see what he sees from over his shoulder, peering at what he pulls from a pocket. …

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