Picture Perfect: A conversation with cinematographer Peter James

Trevor Hogg chats with Primetime Emmy-nominee Peter James about his career and the art of cinematography…
“My father was a house painter and my mother worked at the school canteen; she was a hairdresser as a young girl during the war,” recalls Peter James of his childhood growing up in Sydney, Australia.  “We didn’t even have a record player in the house.  We didn’t get a black and white TV until 1963.”  The prospects for the teenager did not look good until his cousin Jon Cleary, a prolific novelist who had an Oscar nominated adaptation called The Sundowners (1960) produced, intervened.   “He had written several film scripts and asked my parents, ‘What is Peter going to do when he finishes school?’  I was only 15.  They said, ‘He’s hopeless.  He can’t read or write.’  In fact I’m dyslectic. The word dyslectic hadn’t been invented in those days.  They thought I was a slow learner.  I was in a class with kids where English was their second language.  This was frustrating for me.  Jon said, ‘He seems to be taking photographs all the time [James owned a box Brownie camera].  Maybe he wants to be a photographer?’  Jon organized an interview for me at the studio [in Sydney] and I got the job.  They asked me to stay on after the summer holidays and I stayed there for five years.  It was the start of my career.  They put me through an apprenticeship which included the laboratory; the sound, editing, titles and animation departments; and we built the building at the same time.  We carried the bricks and wired the steel together to make the high rise.  It was good.  It was a fabulous way to learn because it was hands on.”

Geoffrey Unsworth and Stanley Kubrick filming 2001: A Space Odyssey
Lawrence of Arabia [1962] was one of the first films to make a huge impression on me,” states Peter James.  “I’ve been over to the West Coast of Ireland looking at where Ryan’s Daughter [1970] was shot.  Those big David Lean films were impressive but a film like Suddenly Last Summer [1959] was a disturbing film for a youngster to see and later on at the Sydney Film Festival there were the Japanese films like The Woman in the Dunes [1964] and all of the English New Wave was coming in at that stage such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner [1962] and Kes [1969].  They were all done like a documentary and minimalist.  We were impressed by the naturalistic approach to light as suppose to the Hollywood theatrical approach.  We all started to light like Geoffrey Unsworth, he did Cabaret [1972].  I made a documentary about Geoffrey photographing Don Quixote [1973] and stayed on after I had finished.  I slept in one of the crew member’s sofa in his hotel room so I could come to the studio every day and climb up into the gantry, lie on a plank and watch Geoffrey light.  It was amazing to see what he did and that changed my life.”
“It’s nice to be able to apply classic still photography techniques to certain films,” remarks Peter James.  “I often use photographers or a photograph or a painting as a visual reference for a film.  One film I did I used Edward Hopper, the American painter, as a reference for composition, pallet and the use of the negative space in the frame.  It was a helpful tool.  I had postcards of Hoppers work stuck all over the camera to remind ourselves that was what we were looking for.  We were looking for brave compositions that were framing people off into one corner of the frame and using a lot of blank wall.  It was Rich in Love [1992] with Albert Finney [The Bourne Ultimatum] and Jill Clayburgh [An Unmarried Woman].  Jill leaves her station wagon with all of the groceries on the front seat, the ice cream melting and the key still in the ignition. Albert Finney comes home and thinks she has been kidnapped.  But Jill has left a note which her daughter has found.  I wanted to have that feeling that she was going to come back at any moment.  I always had a window or door in frame so you might see her go by but she never did.  The audience is all the time looking at the other side of the frame to find her but she’s not there.  It builds a tension in the composition.  If you keep doing that for the whole film it’s like Paradise Road [1997] which was an anamorphic film where I photographed the women who were prisoners of a war camp.  I photographed them on 300 and 600mm lenses but the Japanese soldiers who were guarding them I photographed them on 40 and 50mm lenses anamorphic.  What happens is that the women are all packed together and gives them solidarity as a group; they become a mass and have the company of one another. But the soldiers are alone and the palm trees are all around them like prison bars so they’re like prisoners of the jungle.  It turns the tables visually.  If you do that throughout the whole movie it’s a subliminal feeling people get from the way you photographed it.”
“You have to tell the story that enhances the script in the best possible way,” notes Peter James.  “Put the audience in the position where it’s the best seat in the house to look at that story.  You cannot bring the drama perspective into the comedy area.  It won’t get any laughs.  You won’t make any money.  The same way you can’t take the comedy aspect to the dramatic side of things.  You’ve got to understand what the genres are and how they work.”  Comedy pictures require a particular shot selection is in order for the film editor to cut the scene effectively.  “You have to get if you can a wide and medium shot at the same time because often the wide shot is funny and then the close-up. You’ve got to cover yourself and that’s where more than one camera is handy.”  James states, “With a big action picture you can’t give me enough cameras.  Generally, I use two cameras. There is one camera which gets the angle and when you’re doing drama and over the shoulders, you can only use one camera to get the perfect match.  Sometimes if the style of the film is slightly long lensed and it’s a contemporary film where people are moving around a lot, directors want to shoot simultaneously because it is better for the actors to have a performance.   You put the cameras on sliding plates so the camera operator can slide their cameras forwards and backwards so they don’t get blocked by the other actor.  But this only works to a certain amount.  Sometimes you might end up working with two steadicams.”
“I was doing commercials and documentaries and some people I knew got the money up to make a film and asked me to do it,” recalls Peter James who earned his first film credit as a cinematographer for Avengers of the Reef (1973).  “Chris McCulloch directed it.  We had a cyclone in the middle of the filming and had to carry all of the boats out of the water, lock everything down, and board up all of the windows of the travel lodge we were staying in.  It was a tough film to make.  I shot everything even the aerials and underwater footage.  I was about 25.”  The next two projects resulted in the emerging talent being rewarded with consecutive Australian Cinematographers Society Cinematographer of the Year awards.  “Willy Willy [1975] was a student film [by Gregory Ropert] shot on 35mm short ends.  It was the last film for Chips Rafferty [The Desert Rats] who was an icon of the Australian cinema.  It was the first film for Pamela Stephenson [The Comeback] who ended up marrying Billy Connolly [Quartet].  It’s a fantasy set in the countryside and I photographed it with lots of pink chiffon in the camera.  My mother had a hairnet she used to put on when she had her hair in rollers and I ended up talking her out of that chiffon scarf, cut it up and put it on the lens. Everybody loved the look of it.”  Success would strike again with a low budget film called Caddie (1976) which is about a woman who leaves her physically abusive husband and supports her children by becoming a barmaid in rough working men pubs and fancy gentlemen clubs.  “I wanted the film to look rich and luscious,” revealed James.  “It was my first real film.  Tony Buckley [Bliss] was the producer and Donald Crombie [The Killing of Angel Street] was the director, and I went on to do several more films with them.  Tony Buckley edited Willy Willy that’s where I met up with him.  Donald and I had done some docudramas like a wonderful film for social security about a woman who is down on her luck, commits suicide, and how it affects the whole family.    The film was powerful.  People came out of the theatre crying.”
Phillip Noyce
“Phillip [Noyce] has a huge amount of energy,” observes Peter James.  “You can’t stop Phillip; he’s a giant of a man and a dynamo.  We did a film [called Echoes of Paradise].  We were suppose to shoot it Bali but Australians weren’t allowed to go to there because of a dispute with a journalist from the Sydney Morning Heraldwho said that the first lady of Indonesia was on the take from the multinationals so they cancelled military contracts.  Phillip and his wife Jan at the time had been working on for five or six years to get the rights to go into Bali to make a film and it got cancelled overnight.  We had already started filming in Sydney so he rushed off to Phuket in Thailand with the first assistant, Carolynne Cunningham who has worked on all of Peter Jackson’s films as a producer and first assistant.  Carolynne lived there so she knew the place.  They both went around with a stills camera and came back with a plastic bag full of stills film; we selected all of the locations from that.  It was a nerve-wracking film to make.  Every night was either a script conference or a location scout.  This went on for weeks even while we were filming. We were still writing the script and finding the locations.  Not an ideal situation.”

When a Hollywood producer decided to step behind the camera for Alive (1993), he hired Peter James to lens the project.  “That was a big team.  We shot a lot of wide shots on that film.  I had Andre Fleuren (Evelyn) on that and he did some beautiful second unit stuff but unfortunately Michael [Kahn] only likes close-ups so he stayed with the actors.  It is cut in an American style and he’s a master of that technique.  Michael has done [Steven] Spielberg films.  Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy produced the film, and Frank directed it.  It was a tough film to make, to take that many people up on top of a mountain onto a glazier.  I was lucky enough to find the location for that glazier.  We stayed there much longer than we should have but we could because the glazier didn’t melt.   Working at that altitude is not much fun.  We were up about 14,000 feet and it was difficult.  Some people got altitude sickness and very cold.  If a storm comes in you’ve got to get off immediately and to get 60 people off a mountain immediately in helicopters is a military manoeuvre.  Bruce Cohen, one of the junior producers, had it so well organized that we could get on and off that mountain in a flash.”
During the principle photography for The Thing Called Love (1993), the Australian met River Phoenix (My Own Private Idaho) whom he found to be sensitive, quiet and charming.  “Sandy Bullock [Gravity] was in it [one of her early films], Dermot Mulroney [Zodiac], and Samantha Mathis [Broken Arrow],” remembers Peter James.  “It was a good cast.  Peter Bogdanovich [The Last Picture Show] is such a big fan of John Ford [The Searchers] and John Huston [The Maltese Falcon] that he only wanted 28mm, 40mm, and 50mm lenses. I sent all of the other lenses back.  We shot the whole film in that style.  It was a rather strange thing to do.  Peter is strict about where he wants to edit and only wants to use a certain amount of the film. I said to him, ‘Let the actors act.  Put your hand in front of the lens and take your hand away when you want the bit.’  He did that and it made him happy.”  James was also involved with a Hollywood picture helmed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) which had the set visited by nervous studio executives.  “Fox were doing The Newton Boys [1998] at the same time as the Titanic [1997] so it was scary for them.  Rick is a great director.  He is great with people and with the actors.  It was a big ensemble cast with a lot of egos to deal with.  Rick is inventive, a more independent guy. The studio wanted to change the cut and he said, ‘No.  You can’t change the cut.’  The studio dropped the film. They said, ‘We won’t advertise the film.’  The film flopped.  It was the studio trying to punish Rick as far as I could tell for not letting them recut the movie.  The movie is fine.  It is a true story well told.  It was certainly fun to make with all of the horses and actors.  All the boys were great.  Julianna Margulies [Ghost Ship] was in that too.  She was lovely.  I made a film with her called Paradise Road with Bruce Beresford [Breaker Morant].  Julianna is a fine actress.”
“I read a script called Four Christmases which I enjoyed,” remarked Peter James.  “It was going to be directed by Adam Shankman [Rock of Ages] and the film got canned because there was another movie happening at another studio at the same time with a similar storyline which often happens.  Then Adam rang up for me to do The Pacifier [2005] and I’d already done Meet the Parents [2000] which was another one from left field.  Once you do one comedy success everybody wants you to do their film.  Meet the Parents made $400,000,000.  When you read it you could see million dollar bills falling out of the script.  It was a sure fire success.  Not so with The Pacifier or Cheaper by the Dozen 2 [2005] but by that stage I’d worked with Adam and they wanted me to photograph those films so the producer and director were nice.  I met Anne Fletcher [The Proposal] on that film and she’s a friend of Adam’s, a fellow choreographer.  Anne got me to do 27 Dresses [2008] which was a nice film to make with Katie Heigl [Killers].  It was fun working with Anne; she is a bright director doing good work.”
“I’ve tried to avoid green screen movies my entire career,” confesses Peter James.  “In Australia we have a category for virtual cinematography.  I taught the lighting people from Happy Feet [2006] how to do it and also Legend of the Guardians [2010].”  The unlimited possibilities of a digital world can be problematic.  “They can put a light source in completely the wrong direction.  It may work in a sci-fi or a futuristic fantasy thing but it won’t work in a naturalistic storytelling piece.”  James shot the opening and closing sequences for Working with Dinosaurs (2013) which involves the natural history people from BBC Bristol and Disney animators.   “The whole film has been four years in production and they’d never worked with an actor; that’s going to be the case for more films in the future. There will be films that will be made with no actors.”  The future for cinematography may be in shooting second unit background plates or sequences involving actors.   “Let’s face it the public won’t stand for not having stars.  Stars are important to the whole romantic notion of cinema and going out on a Saturday night to see your favourite Brad Pitt in World War Z [2013] or it may be a Ladies in Lavender [2004] movie where you want Dame Judi Dench in it.  You’ve got to cater for all tastes and styles.”  James believes, “It’s going to be evolving working with digital imaging, using different cameras and light sources.  If you want the film to look a certain way you can take your iPhone and make a movie.  It still comes down to good stories well told and the images have to reflect that whole process.  It will be even more varied. If you look back to the black and white cinema how the images were all of the same style in many ways. It might have been film noir or it may have been a soft focus [Greta] Garbo but they used the same cameras, and lights.  Nowadays they use anything that’s available.”

“When I first started there were 500 shots in a film and with every film I do now there’s a minimum of 2000 shots,” states Peter James.  “John [Seale] just did Fury Road [2014]. It’s probably going to be 8000 shots in that film.  It might be even more.  If you’re working on a Baz Luhrmann [Moulin Rouge!] film it’s going to be a lot of cuts.  But then you can work on a film with somebody like Rick Linklater and it’s a couple of takes.  When they’re [Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy] walking from lunch to the hotel in Before Midnight [2013] there’s two angles in the whole sequence and it must last for 15 minutes.  That’s unusual.”  3D is not for every project.  “I thought The Hobbit [2012] in 3D was interesting.  The use of perspective and the scale was sophisticated.” The process is labour intensive.  “To shoot as a real camera set-up technically it’s a lot of work.  The 3D in The Great Gatsby [2013] was quite good.  It made the romantic notion of the film even more romantic than 2D would have.”  James remarks, “People should make films that they would like to be seeing themselves.  I’ve stayed away from a lot of slasher violent movies because I don’t enjoy those sorts of films so I don’t do them; Fast and Furious 7 is not for me.  I like stories that elevate the human condition; a lot of people don’t find that entertaining but I do.”
Many thanks to Peter James for taking the time for this interview and make sure to read Wizards of Oz where he talks about working with Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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