Trevor Hogg chats with Peter James about the international success of Australian cinematographers, an early collaboration with Peter Weir and a long-standing creative partnership with Bruce Beresford…
“We’re competitive and cinematographers in Australia have to do a bit of everything,” observes Peter James as to why his homeland has produced a number of Oscar winners such as Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves), John Seale (The English Patient) and Russell Boyd (Master and Commander). “The big Hollywood system and even in London with the bigger union studios, there was always a speciality thing where they only worked on feature films or television or documentaries or commercials.” During the 1970s a cinematic revolution occurred which lay the foundation for the Australian film industry. “The government realized that it wanted to have a film industry and some presence in the international world; they put quite a bit of money into backing films, and made tax incentives for people to make and invest in films. It worked to a degree but a lot of really bad films were made in that period too, particularly during the early 1980s. It did train a lot of people and that was a good thing.”
“We were up in North Queensland doing a film The Irishman  and all of the crew families were living in the caravan park with their kids who had their bikes and would ride around the park,” recalls Peter James. “The wives would get together and organize what they would have for dinner that night. It was like a little Gypsy community. The rest of the single people would be at the pub. It was simple and basic living. You got $500 a week if you were lucky; that was the most they could afford. Everybody worked. It was great.” James believes, “A lot of credit has to go to the Australian Cinematographers Society; it has been around for fifty years. I worked with the guys who started it. They would drag me along to the meetings and would get lens people to talk about stuff. One of the cameramen would light a particular difficult situation and film it. It was like a film school but this was on-going. Every month we had a meeting and always ended up with several beers afterwards. It still happens today.”
“I operated for Peter [Weir] on a film called The Cars That Ate Paris  and it was a stressful film to make because of all of the action,” states Peter James who did not eat for two days while the principle photography was taking place. “I was so scared that I wasn’t going to capture the action. We were doing stunts, using a geared head, anamorphic, a huge Panavision PVSR camera, and thousand foot magazines. I learned a lot about lighting from John McLean [Frog Dreaming] who was the cameraman and also the way Peter staged things was interesting; he always had an interesting eye. Peter was good with the actors too.” The feature debut of Peter Weir could be viewed as a prelude to the scavenging depicted in Mad Max . “It was a fantasy about these people who are wild. They got mirrors to attract the cars headlights so they would run off the cliff; the doctor in the hospital would work on the cadavers and the wrecked car parts were used by these people.”
“You knew Peter [Weir] was going to go on to do fantastic things,” states Peter James. “We first worked together on little documentaries [such as Stirring the Pool] where I was a camera assistant and operator for the government film unit which was also great training.” James notes, “Peter is quiet and unassuming but he is thoughtful. There is a lot of gravitas to what he says. Peter is a smart writer and knows film structure backwards; he knows how to direct a film to get the best out of the actors. Russell [Boyd] and Johnny Seale have done several films with Peter; he’s one of our best directors and those two guys are two of our very best Oscar winning cinematographers; they’re brilliant. We all grew up and worked together. Johnny was my operator on two films when I first started off. When I was 16, Russell came and joined the studio I was working at so socially we’d see one another all the time.”
“The first time I met Bruce Beresford we were working in a battery chicken farm outside of Sydney for a bank commercial with all of these rows of chickens all over the place,” remembers Peter James. “Bruce has a great sense of humour and is a nice guy. I thought, ‘I want to work with you.’ The creative partnership was to begin with a cinematic adaptation of a science fiction story by Philip K. Dick. “We were supposed to do Total Recall. Dino De Laurentiis [Barbarella] had it, came to Australia and wanted Bruce to make it. Dino had built the studios which is now Warner Bros. near Brisbane on the Gold Coast of Queensland. We had sets already built. Richard Gere [Primal Fear] was going to be in the Arnold Schwarzenegger [Predator] role. Then all of a sudden Dino ran out of money. Bruce tried to get some other things together; he wanted me to photograph Tender Mercies . I was going to do a big Jewish saga with Ben Lewin [The Sessions] called The Dunera Boys  and had already been down to Melbourne to meet with him. I said, ‘Bruce, I can’t shoot it. I’ve promised to shoot this film for Ben.’ He said, ‘That film is never going to happen.’ He was right. It never did happen. I rang Bruce up and asked, ‘Is that job still available.’ He said, ‘No. I’ve just booked Russell [Boyd].’ I said, ‘You’ll be very happy.’ We had a couple of goes to get together to do a film and they didn’t work. It was disappointing. It was the only time in my life I supposed that I became depressed.”
The intervention of another high profile producer, Richard D. Zanuck, Jr. (Jaws) resulted in a creative collaboration between the cinematographer and director which has resulted in 11 movies and a TV series pilot. “The house reflects the storytelling,” remarks Peter James when discussing Driving Miss Daisy (1989) which won the Oscar for Best Picture. “I was using a lot of diffusion in those days and the diffusion gets less and less. Dick Zanuck asked me, ‘Is it always going to be this smoky and foggy?’ I said, ‘I don’t know Dick. We have a plan.’ Bruce Beresford jumped in and said, ‘Dick, don’t worry about it. He has it all worked out. It’s going to get less.’ When Morgan [Freeman] takes Jessica [Tandy] to the Martin Luther King speech the diffusion goes from white diffusion and nets to black nets so it’s clearer and sharper. It is still soft but not as flat as it was. When Idella [Esther Rolle] dies there is no longer any smoke in the house. The house takes on a different feel. The sun never shines again in the kitchen.”
“The first time we see Miss Daisy I took an hour and a half to light her,” reveals Peter James. “It’s a simple shot. She’s looking into the camera as if it’s the mirror and she’s putting a hat on. That’s the opening shot of the film with her in it. I thought, ‘If this doesn’t make her look young and set the scene we’ve lost the story here. It’s got to look good.’ Jessica was 80 and also had cancer which we didn’t know. There’s this old woman on the set and we’re trying to make her look 25 years younger. Then at the end of the film she’s got latex make-up on to give her more wrinkles and she has got her own hair which was wispy and long giving her this incredibly frail look. Jessica was a brave woman to do that film.” James recalls, “I said to Bruce once, ‘Isn’t she too angry?’ When she puts up the window and rouses on Morgan for planting in the wrong place or dusting the light bulbs in the living room. Bruce said, ‘If she isn’t nasty there’s nowhere for her to go later on to be nice.’ He was right.”
“When the car goes over the wall into the neighbours’ backyard it was a major deal,” explains Peter James. “They are made of solid, thick metal and have huge engines in them. We had to get a crane to get it out of there in the end. When she is walking down the street and doesn’t want to be driven to the shops we had the camera on a steadicam going along the footpath. Erich [Roland ], the camera operator, had it on a Western dolly. Morgan is driving the car so there was no other way to do it. We couldn’t push the car it was too heavy. We had to try to keep up with one another, shoot through a window, and get the dialogue all of the time. It looks simple but the combination of timing the two moving objects was quite difficult.” A regrettable change was made to drama. “When we first screened that film we had a temp music by George Delarou which was fantastic. George and Bruce had worked together on lots of films together. However, Lili Zanuck wanted Hans Zimmer [Inception] to do the music, a new boy who had arrived in Hollywood. Hans did the soundtrack. It’s nothing as good as what the temp soundtrack was like. It was a completely different film.”
“Black Robe  was violent but what a marvellous film. What a marvellous script,” states Peter James who won his third Cinematographer of the Year Award from the Australian Cinematographers Society for lensing the historical drama. “That was the first and only co-production between Canada and Australia. Robert Lantos [Eastern Promises] was the producer in Montreal and Sue Milliken [Sirens] was the producer from Australia. We finished two days after the shortest day of the year and everybody rushed to get home for Christmas. It was freezing cold for the last half of the shoot. The autumn was terrible. It was wet and muddy. We had early snow. In fact it came two weeks earlier than everybody said it was going to come. We ended up with snow on the Iroquois village. That’s where I said to Bruce, ‘Why don’t we take the side off of the buildings, and start outside and go into the buildings?’ Herbert Pinter [Paradise Road] had built these fantastic sets which were inside and outside sets. They were all dressed with animals hanging up, corn, geese, deer, and moose. It was amazing. We took the sides off the buildings and did these iris changes and dollied from the exterior to the interior. We did it again in the Huron village when the priest dies; we dolly outside and he’s digging the grave. They’re effective shots.”
“The last scene in the film is when the priest is baptising the Indians,” remarks Peter James. “I said to Billy Two Rivers [Taking Lives], who was our technical advisor and had been an actor in the film, ‘We need to have the sun come out for this one scene at the end of the film when we’re at the Huron village and some Indians go into the church and some walk away. It’s snowing outside and I want the sun to be setting.’ He said, ‘What day is that going to happen?’ I said, ‘It’s about two weeks away. I’m praying to the Holy Spirit so you better talk to your guy.’ The day comes along and it’s as foggy as you wouldn’t believe. You could reach up and touch the cloud it was that low. I turned to Billy and said, ‘We need the sunset to come out after lunch.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ We setup this scene with the baptism and I have golden light coming into the church and everybody says, ‘He’s mad.’ It’s about to snow. The cloud is so low. It’s terrible. We go and have lunch. We come back. I had a dream a couple of weeks before of what the sunset would look like. I said, ‘Look the sun is going to come out.’ We got everybody ready and had the camera inside the church. Lothaire Bluteauis [I Shot Andy Warhol] going around baptising everybody, I do this iris change as the camera comes out and cranes up, the sun is right behind the cross, the wind machine is blowing potato flakes into the air and it’s coming down as snow. We got two or three takes and that was the end shot of the movie. I turned to Billy Two Rivers and I said, ‘Thanks, Billy. That was fantastic. It worked.’ He said, ‘I think we were both talking to the same person.’ I said, ‘I think so.’”
“Miss Daisy was a single camera film,” states Peter James. “But other films I’ve used 12 cameras. With a big action picture you can’t give me enough cameras.” The dozen cameras were used for a project with Bruce Beresford which lauded Peter James with a Primetime Emmy Award nomination. “That was And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself  with Antonio Banderas [The Mask of Zorro]. It was made for HBO. It was made to encourage Spanish speaking people to sign up in America for HBO. It was about Pancho Villa and when D.W. Griffith sent a film crew down to photograph the revolution. It’s a true story. It was a big budget picture. They did all of these Calvary and peasants charging the haciendas, and hundreds of peasants on top of a train. It was tricky stuff to shoot. Shooting with trains and horses are a nightmare.” In Double Jeopardy (1999) both Ashley Judd (Kiss the Girls) and Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) got wet. “Neither of them had any qualms about jumping in the ocean and doing the Car Overboard Sequence. I thought, ‘God! This is going to be a nightmare.’ They had to be 20 feet underwater. Tommy did all of his own stuff and so did Ashley; they were brave.”
“We do a bit of CG these days because it is so easy,” remarks Peter James. “In Mao’s Last Dancer  there’s a driving sequence where they come from the airport at the start of the film and that’s all done in CG. But you couldn’t tell because Andre Fleuren [Alive] who I have worked with on several films; he did all of the background plates. I asked, ‘Which way do the streets run? Will the sun be coming in on the left or right?’ We worked it all out and did it. Andre shot the plates and it all fits together. You can’t tell it’s a car in the studio. You can run the scene five times which I have done for students and they can’t believe it’s done in the studio.” Bruce Beresford is an adaptable filmmaker. “Bruce always gets involved with the writers and makes suggestions. A lot of that is driven not just from character but also from where the locations are and how it can be made better. Bruce knows where he wants the film to go and how the story should be told. That’s why I like working for him because he knows exactly where he’s going to cut, how he’s going to tell the story and there’s no, ‘I’ll shoot everything and leave it up to the editor.’ James adds, “Bruce makes films about the human condition. How people deal with a difficult situation and make the best of it. That’s a noble thing to do.”
Many thanks to Peter James for taking the time for this interview and make sure to read his Picture Perfect profile.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.