Sat 26 Apr 2008
Talia Lavie is a promising young Israeli director whose thesis film “The Substitute” - a wry and ironic brilliant little movie about failed suicide attempts - won her prizes in festivals around the world in the last two years. After winning the grand prize at the Munich student film festival, she was asked back this year to sit on the jury of the festival. The president of the jury was Michael Ballhaus, whose turbo camera movements in “The Color of Money”, “After Hours” and “Goodfellas” blew me away. Now, after shooting “The Departed”, he claims he is retired, and back living in his native Germany, and not in Hollywood anymore. Lavie took the opportunity of sitting side-by-side with him on the Munich jury, and asked him to sit down for a little formal interview.
Some the material here is quite revelatory: he tells of how Martin Scorsese felt that “The Departed” may be his worst film and that he thought that Jack Nicholson is stealing the movie from him. He talks about working with Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis and Robert De Niro (”We were grateful for him actually staying in the room”), and the difference between a Scorsese and a Redford. And how a long, but abusive, relationship with Rainer Werner Fassbinder started it all.
Read the Michael Ballhaus interview after the jump:
A talk with Michael Ballhaus
By Talia Lavie
(translated by Miri Cohen)
Michael Ballhaus, who was the director of photography on Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”, “Gangs of New York”, and “Age of Innocence”, was born in Berlin in 1935. His Parents were actors who owned a theater. Though they did not agree to let him act in the plays they put on, they did ask him to photograph the actors during rehearsals – in order to use the photos as publicity ads, and there his great talent broke out. When he was eighteen he found himself on a movie set for the first time in his life, Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montès”. “The visit on that film set changed my life”, he reminiscences. “I was amazed to find there exists a perfect and magical combination between the two worlds that I’ve known and loved all my life: photography and the theater.”
Ballhaus turned to photography studies and after a short and failing career as an assistant cameraman – he somehow found a job as a DP in German Television.
The first turn around came when a TV producer gave out his name to Rainer Werner Fassbinder – while he was looking for a cinematographer for one of his projects.
Fassbinder wanted a different cinematographer who was busy at the time, and settled for Ballhaus as compromise, and Michael, who was sent to Almeria, Spain on a day’s notice in order to meet Fassbinder, received a less than warm welcome.
“He disregarded me because I was worked in television, but I couldn’t understand why he was so condescending, seeing that back in those days, his record wasn’t much bigger than mine.”
After a few days of mutual acquaintance and talks, the chilly welcome turned into downright hatred. “I was sure that this was the way this bleak meeting will come to an end, and I wasn’t especially sorry.” But in fact, that was the beginning of one of the most intensive and productive relationships between a director and a cameraman, lasting ten years and turning out sixteen movies, among them “The Marriage of Maria Braun”, “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and others.
Working alongside Fassbinder had its unusual side. Fassbinder was a productive and industrious director and screenwriter (”he would write for thirteen hours a day, every day, just like a true cocaine addict would”) – But he didn’t like to prepare the shoot. He liked to invent his ideas on set. This work method induced wasting valuable time and threatened to bring down whole productions.
“Working with him was hard, both mentally and physically. He used to emotionally abuse me and also my wife, who was an art director on a few of his movies. I never understood his behavior but I learned so much from him. He upped my excellence level, my thoughts and way of thinking improved, and most of all I learned how to be agile and ready for anything.”
The traits he adapted for himself by working with Fassbinder were found out to be most valuable in the years that followed, on the set of the first movie he shot for Martin Scorsese:
“After Hours” (1985): “On the first night of shooting, Scorsese got up to go to his trailer after we agreed on the set-up of the first shot. Before he reached the trailer, he was called back to the set seeing that I was ready and we can begin shooting.” From that moment till the end of the shooting, Scorsese did not go back to his trailer even once, the movie was shot night after night in sequence, in a phenomenal rate of sixteen set-ups a night, adding to which, the shooting list included some six hundred shots that Scorsese planned but did not dare believe would be completed to the full extent.
How did you get to work with Scorsese?
“I came to America in 1982 as a cinematographer on a German production. John Sayles happened to see the footage I shot and invited me to shoot his film ‘Baby It’s You’.”
And then Scorsese came to visit Sayles’ editing suite , checking out Sayles’ leads, whom he considered for his own movie (Rosanna Arquette ultimately made it) when he saw a typical “Ballhausy” shot, where the camera revolves around two characters. He immediately asked who the cinematographer was.
“When Scorsese called me, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Just two years before I saw ‘Raging Bull’ in the Berlin Festival, and whispered to my wife, who was sitting next to me ‘This is a director I would like to work with.” It was the equivalent of saying I would like to go to outer space next year. When he asked if I would like to meet him I was so excited. I guess I wanted it so badly it just happened.”
Scorsese hired Ballhaus to shoot his next picture: “The Last Temptation of Christ”, and while they searched for filming locations in Israel, budget problems arose and filming was postponed indefinitely (the movie was finally shot only in 1988). Ballhaus waited for two more years for a second chance to work with Scorsese and this chance came when he hired him to shoot “After Hours”, a small experimental low budget movie, which made Hollywood notice. Under Scorsese Ballhaus created landmark movie moments, such as the famed tracking shot at the beginning of “Goodfellas”.
That was the beginning of a splendid career which stretched over twenty five years, during which he shot some forty movies, among them: “The Color of Money”, “Goodfellas”, “The Departed” and “Age of Innocence” for Scorsese, “Dracula” for Francis Ford Copolla, “Quiz Show” for Robert Redford and “Sleepers” for Barry Levinson. He was nominated for three academy awards.
Ballhaus is thought of as the cinematographer who imported the dynamic style of the Germen New Wave of the late sixties, beginning of the seventies, to the American cinema integrating it into the mainstream style.
It was actually Fassbinder who set his eyes on Hollywood for years. His dream to establish a “German Hollywood” paralleled his teen dream of working in the “real” Hollywood. But it was his cameraman who unintentionally realized this dream himself.
Can you describe your method of working with directors?
“With each director I worked differently. There are directors who have less of a visual vision, who specialize in directing actors, like Robert Redford and Mike Nichols. They build the scene with the actors, and I look at it from different angles and purpose various ways of shooting it. Scorsese, on the other hand, thinks first of all through images, and an integral part of his meticulous preparations for the shooting of his films is making a detailed list of shots, that he hands over to me. This list expresses for me the rhythm and length of breath for each scene.”
And which is your favorite method?
“I like both of them.”
Pressing the point, if you had to choose between the two?
He smiles and admits: “I would choose Scorsese.” And then he adds: “what can you do. The man’s a genius.”
What’s the relationship between the cinematographer and the actors?
“Film actors have to understand that the camera lens is their audience. Leonardo DiCaprio is an example of someone who is perfectly aware of the camera. There are also some great actors who will never be able to get this, like Daniel Day Lewis, he acts as if there is audience that surrounds him from all three hundred and sixty degrees. He has no clue where the camera is situated.”
And Robert De Niro?
“De Niro in a genre on to itself. He is a total actor who is true to his character all along the period of shooting the movie. When he plays a good man he is very nice. But when he plays a negative character he can be unbearable. Other then that, he never repeats the same performance twice. In each take he surprises everyone with his acting and his overall way of his behavior. It is hard to follow him. He forbids putting marks on the floor for him, to tell him where to go, or where to stop. We were grateful for him actually staying in the room.”
During the judging of the films contending the festival, Ballhaus’s personal taste led the way. As expected, he likes grand, precise, larger than life films, and is impressed mainly with films that make a strong visual stance. He tends to rule out any movie who is sloppily photographed even if the reason for this is a low budget, and even if its plot is complex or thought provoking more then a film which is shot with much talent but doesn’t leave any other mark.
An over-frantic cinematography in a Polish movie agitates him. “Why shoot this way? I can’t understand it. Why not just bring in a tripod?” he gruffs. And so the ax falls for a film that would be looked at differently by another set of judges, maybe gaining bigger appreciation, maybe even a chance for winning an award for the depth of characters and the touching story. On the other hand, on an astonishingly visually beautiful movie, but banal and a bit superficial he says: “I don’t expect to see a perfect student film, but I do look for eminent talent.”
It seems to me you are willing to forgive a script full of holes, but you cannot forgive bad esthetics.
“I can be forgiving, but only if the story is strong enough.”
This must be the reason why “Breaking the Waves” shot in shaky-cam mode (by fellow German new Wave DP, Robbie Muller) won the Cannes Festival Grand Jury prize the year Ballhaus resided on the jury (”head of the jury that year, was my friend, Francis Ford Copolla.”) Defeating the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” and Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies.”
“When I first saw ‘Breaking the Waves’ the photography angered me so much. I would get up and leave the movie theater in a demonstrative manner, had I not been one of the judges. But sooner or later the story’s intensity gets to you, and Emily Watson’s grand tour de force acting is implanted on your memory much more then the unbearable camera work. ‘Breaking the Waves’ was actually ‘breaking the rules’. It got the attention to push it forward, and that was its actual purpose.”
Do you have any involvement in the editing stage of the films you shoot?
You don’t come for screenings of the different cuts?
“Only if the director is a friend of mine. For instance, I saw ‘The Departed’ in six different versions in the editing room.
As of now, “The Departed” is Ballhaus’ grand finale of his American career.
“Working with Jack Nicholson was complex and complicated. Scorsese was drawn into a state of insecurity when up against Nicholson and consulted him a lot. As a result of this, Nicholson took the reins into his own hands, and had changes made in the script, practically rewriting it. The problem was he not only broadened and made his own role bigger, he actually cut back the other characters’ roles. The other actors rebelled against this. Scorsese feared that his authority was being undermined by Nicholson’s charm and charisma, the actor who he adored and had three Oscars in his possession.”
Scorsese, Ballhaus says, was convinced that this will be the worst movie ever to be made by him, and believed it would finish off his career for good. But later on, “The Departed” turned out to be his most profitable movie and will be remembered,
Of course, for the film that earned him the coveted Oscar. “Since Marty won the Oscar, he is a changed man, happy and showing interest in many things.”
To my question if he was ever tempted to try out the role of the director he answers:
“There was once a project, offered to me by producer Mark Rosenberg, and I actually considered it but Rosenberg passed away, and the project was cancelled and since then I did not take any steps towards directing. I don’t regret it. I love my work so much and don’t want actually to trade it for anything else, adding to which, the temptation to do so is miniscule. Directors have to deal with so much shit, which I am exempt of as a cinematographer. When I arrive to work on a film, it is already written, budgeted and cast. I get to experience the work itself without the bitter disappointments that directors accumulate for projects canceled and linking up with failing businessmen”.
Now that he is retired and moved back to Germany his eldest son, Florian, seems to be his successor, and is an up and coming star as DP, lensing the hit “The Devil wears Prada”.
“At the last Berlin Festival I met Meryl Streep. She came out of her limo, and immediately stepped up to me and said: ‘Michael, your son is divine.’ That is the most touching compliment I have ever received.”