From The Vault: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

Shadow play

WHEN Robert Harris's cracking political thriller The Ghost was published in 2007, nobody doubted that the author's former friend, Tony Blair, was the model for Adam Lang: a former British prime minister who embarked on an illegal war in the Middle East and who faces extradition to The Hague, if he leaves the US, for his complicity in the capture and torture of alleged terrorists. The book wasn't a roman-a-clef exactly but pretty damned close to one.

Three tumultuous years later comes a gripping new film of the novel that, Harris says, seems "more like a documentary than a fantasy".

The Ghost Writer -- co-scripted by Harris and director Roman Polanski -- stars Ewan McGregor as the unnamed ghostwriter hired to rescue Lang's memoir after the mysterious death of the original author. Pierce Brosnan also stars as the beleaguered Lang.

Harris -- whose other books include a speculative novel about Nazi Germany, Fatherland -- had started thinking about The Ghost in the early 1990s, but at the time could not make it work. Then, in 2006, he heard about an attempt to bring a private prosecution against Blair for war crimes and the pieces fell into place.

By this point the writer had lost patience with Blair and New Labour. He had been dismayed by Blair's ruthless treatment of his close friend, former government minister Peter Mandelson -- "No one had been more loyal to Tony than Peter, no one was more casually tossed aside," Harris says -- and angered by Blair's decision to follow the US into Iraq.

Blair was no longer the same man the author had shadowed during the 1997 election as a political reporter for The Sunday Times. Harris liked him back then. "He was very normal," he recalls. "He had young children, he took them to school, he had a working wife, he was a sort of aspirational bloke -- clever but not super rich -- and he was recognisably human." The figure who appeared, in January, before the inquiry into Britain's involvement in Iraq was "was like some creature that had been parachuted in from some neo-con planet orbiting Earth, refusing to apologise or express regret [over the loss of life in Iraq], and talking now about the necessity to take on Iran. I thought he looked and sounded not quite human any more, and I think that's the tragedy of power."

In The Ghost, Lang's former foreign minister blames him personally for taking the country to war. Harris, likewise, holds Blair responsible for Britain's involvement in Iraq and all the problems that have flowed from it. Andrew Rawnsley's book The End of the Party "makes it perfectly clear", he says, "that on several occasions George Bush said to Blair, 'You guys don't need to come in on this', and Blair said, 'I was with you at the beginning, I'm with you all the way along.' It doesn't seem to me that we got one scrap of extra kudos in the US or around the world, rather the contrary. Years have been wasted of a Labour government that could have been doing the things it was elected to do, all because of one man."

Harris's fury over the "abdication of British foreign policy to American interests" is, to a large extent, arguably, what powers The Ghost.

"I feel that, more than any single thing, is what appals me looking back," he spits. "You had what was pretty well an aberration of an American administration, and a British Labour government completely lying on its back to this regime strikes me as utterly amazing."

Why this happened is still somewhat hazy, so Harris comes up with his own satirical explanation, involving the CIA. It is meant to be humorous but, Harris says, laughing, "it makes more sense than what actually happened, to be perfectly honest".

It's not just Blair who looms over the film version of The Ghost, however. Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in September last year on 32-year-old sexual assault charges. He is confined to a house in Gstaad while awaiting possible extradition to the US for sentencing. In what must be a film industry first, Polanski completed The Ghost Writer in jail, where he received DVDs from a cutting room in Paris through his lawyers.

"At the end the governor allowed the film editor to come in and work in the prison," Harris says. "Roman had to go to his cell at 4.30 every afternoon, but the Swiss were good about letting him finish the work."

For Polanski, the predicament is just the latest test in an epic life that has encompassed the Holocaust and the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by followers of Charles Manson.

"He always says, 'Worse things have happened to me, as you know,' " says Harris. "He's just a survivor."

Returning to British politics, and speaking before the May election that produced a coalition government, Harris expresses his disillusionment. "They [Britain's governing politicians] are going to be controlled by the White House who in turn are being controlled by something beyond it, and power is just Russian dolls," he says.

Alarmingly, and based on his knowledge of history, he says he believes Britain is in a "pre-revolutionary period". "We're developing a highly educated middle class that's going to be deeply frustrated, unable to get hold of the material benefits that it believes it deserves, and once those people start to lose faith in the system. . ." He pauses suddenly. What does he mean?

"I think the democratic process is broken, it goes far beyond the expenses scandal," he says. "I feel that an era is starting to come to an end and something else is going to come along, simply because the ordinary person has lost control."

Published in The Australian, June 12, 2010


From The Vault: Cannes Returnee Mike Leigh On The "Inescapable" Jewish Spirit In His Work

Mike Leigh may be a staunch anti-Zionist but much of his work is ‘inescapably Jewish’, he claims 

By Stephen Applebaum, November 4, 2010

So much dust was kicked up by Mike Leigh's recent decision to cancel a cultural visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank that it almost obscured the fact that the outspoken veteran of stage and cinema has a new film out this week - and arguably one of his best, at that.

Another Year is like the hangover from Leigh's uncharacteristically upbeat 2008 comedy, Happy-Go-Lucky. Where that film was filled with a youthful joie de vivre, thanks to its positivist singleton protagonist, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the new film taps a gloomier vein of middle-age angst. Leigh himself regards Another Year as no less "life-affirming", though he admits that "it does deal, in a more obvious way, with what we may call deeper and darker things".

Set over the course of a year, the film follows a group of family and friends revolving around a happily married, late middle-aged couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). While their lives seem sorted, some of the people in their orbit, in particular Gerri's desperately lonely fifty-something work colleague, Mary (Lesley Manville), are barely coping.

As usual, Leigh, who grew up the son of a doctor in what he calls the "north Manchester Jewish scene" in the '50s, serves up tears and laughter in Another Year - a characteristic of his work which he describes as "inescapably Jewish".

There's always two sides to a thing — in that sense there's a Jewish spirit in my work
"Inescapable" is an interesting choice of word, since Leigh long ago turned his back on Jewish life, in between returning from a trip to Israel with the Zionist youth group Habonim as a teenager, and enrolling at RADA to study acting.

And he is keen to make something clear about that period of his life. While he was in Habonim, "I was never a kibbutznik or anything," he says. "I was just a kid, you know? I went on their very nice, wonderful Israel camp, supported by the Jewish agency, and the idea was to make us go and be kibbutzniks. Indeed some people did, and I still know people at a couple of kibbutzim, that go back all that way. But I walked away from the whole thing because I was sceptical, and have become more so really."

Yet he believes his funny-sad aesthetic proves that the ties to his Jewish roots still bind. "It's not something I do consciously or I think about," he says, "but it is nevertheless a fact. The films are comic and tragic, there's always two sides to a thing, and all of that - in that sense there's a Jewish spirit in my work."

This, perhaps, explains why he makes "films - and sometimes does plays - which are never concerned with general political statements or simplistic analyses or propagandist conclusions. That's not what I'm concerned with," he says. "I'm concerned with humanity and compassion and life as we live it, and all that sort of thing."

His works observe life, and the human condition, from different angles, without telling the viewer what to think. For instance, Tom and Gerri's relationship with Mary raises a number of questions about the limits of friendship, without actually answering any of them. Are the couple helping her or unwittingly preventing her from moving on with her life? Another Year does not tell us, because Leigh probably does not know himself.

Famous for building his films through a protracted process of improvisation with his actors, who only know what their own character knows, the director says: "I embark on a journey, always, and Another Year is no exception, and that journey is a journey of discovery as to what the film is."

In the way that they are made, and the way that they play out on screen, Leigh believes his films embrace the "spirit of Talmudic study". "I'm inviting you, my audience, to sit round the table and for us to say: 'Maybe it's this. Maybe it's that. We don't know'. Which is a Talmudic investigation that doesn't arrive at any conclusions, basically."

Indeed, the central subject of Another Year is ageing and what comes with it; how life, says the 67-year-old director, "becomes at the same time clearer and more complicated. The film is about how we come to terms with life, really, and face ourselves and each other." Leigh offers no answers, of course, and he is uncomfortable with the suggestion that the film focuses on the pursuit of happiness and how, as we get older, we are forced to look for it inside ourselves.

"That may be true and it may not," he grins. "I don't know about it because we are all products of our background and victims of stuff that has happened to us. Yet there's talk in the film that you have to take responsibility. Mary is a victim of bad things - relationships, abuse, etc - but on the other hand, you can plainly say she's only got herself to blame. Then again, if she's an alcoholic, why does she need that? Also, you can see she's a woman that's spent a lifetime saddled with the received notion of being sexy, of being feminine. That comes from what's been fed to her. You see her hanging on to that, but it's desperate."

This understanding of the intimate relationship between past and present, and the need to look at the complete picture, is there, too, when Leigh talks about Israel - and may have had some bearing on his recent decision to cancel his visit. He does not dispute the connection between the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, but says that he and his "old haverim from way back" often "ruminate about how we never knew Palestinians were evicted from the properties and everything that goes with that. It was denied to us," he claims.

"We were never, ever, really focussed on the fact that they actually were people with roots and a place and they weren't just generic Arabs. You still hear that now: 'It's their fault'. And the fact is now you've actually bred generations of resentful Palestinians. In the end people may say it's an insoluble situation. Well, that's a tragedy."

Leigh had his artistic say on the subject in 2005, in the play Two Thousand Years. He is now about to return to the theatre with a revival of his 1979 play, Ecstasy, at the Hampstead Theatre. He will also put on a new play at the National Theatre. As usual, the project is draped in secrecy. "I can't say anything about it," he smiles, "except that it's extremely unlikely it will be a further investigation into matters of a Zionist nature."

Mike Leigh returns to Cannes next month with Mr Turner

First published in The Jewish Chronicle, November 4, 2010


Cannes Film Festival Coverage: Writer For Hire

I am available for online/print coverage during the Cannes Film Festival. My dates in Cannes are May12-24th. Please drop me a line if interested.


New Cannes Poster

The poster for the 67th Cannes Film Festival has been revealed, and it is a classic

Says the festival:  HervĂ© Chigioni and his graphic designer Gilles Frappier have based the poster design for the 67th Festival de Cannes on a photogram taken from Federico Fellini’s , which was presented in the Official Selection in 1963.

In Marcello Mastroianni and Federico Fellini, we celebrate a cinema that is free and open to the world, acknowledging once again the artistic importance of Italian and European cinema through one of its most stellar figures. 

“The way he looks at us above his black glasses draws us right in to a promise of global cinematographic happiness,” explains the poster’s designer. “The happiness of experiencing the Festival de Cannes together.”

In his films, Marcello Mastroianni continued to encapsulate everything that was most innovative, nonconformist and poetic about cinema. On seeing the poster for the first time, Chiara Mastroianni, the actor’s daughter, said simply: “I am very proud and touched that Cannes has chosen to pay tribute to my father with this poster. I find it very beautiful and modern, with a sweet irony and a classy sense of detachment. It’s really him through and through!” 

The Festival de Cannes thanks Gaumont, which owns the rights to the film.Add caption


From The Vault: 9/11 WTC Survivor John McLoughlin

As a Port Authority Police Officer, John McLoughlin led a rescue team to find survivors of the WTC attacks on 9/11. He and team-mate William Jimeno became trapped and looked doomed to die. Their story became the subject of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Here McLoughlin recounts what happened.

What was your reaction the first time you watched World Trade Center?

"My general reaction was that it was very well done and it was very emotional. Because it was so well done, it was difficult to see."

What were your initial thoughts when the idea was proposed to you about this film being made?

"Well, it was a process that came up before they actually said they were going to be doing a movie. During that process, Will [Jimeno] and I weren't looking to have our story told. It was important for us to tell the story of the men from our team we lost that day - we were the last ones to see them alive - and the heroics of the rescue workers. That was the important part and what we wanted to let the world know happened. So with that in mind we were very much in support of it to get their stories out."

Some people have said that it is too soon for films like this and United 93. It never struck you as being too early?

"No, my observation since it's come out in the United States is that those who maybe said it was too early and have changed their minds about it. We read a lot about that in the press and once they saw it they realised it's not a 9/11 terrorist story; this is a 9/11 story about humanity. Part of what is important to us is that everybody has their own level in dealing with tragedy. Some people will never be able to watch movies about 9/11. I mean I personally witnessed some of that trauma of people that I know. But some people a year later would have been okay to see it. The important thing is that this is part of us not forgetting, that we have to remember the tragedy of that day.

"It is also a historical event and if you want to get the information on a historical event, you'd better get it while the people are still alive and the memories are fresh and the details are still there. It's a shame we had all these soldiers from World War 2 that now are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and all of a sudden somebody said, ‘Maybe we should find out what they went through.' We should have found out what they went through when they were in their 20s, because suddenly these walking pieces of history are disappearing, and people are realising that. I think that's part of it too. It was an historical event, we were all part of it, and while the story is still fresh in our minds, tell it."

The film is also a love story, between you and your wife, Donna, and between WIll Jimeno and his wife, Allison. How did you react when they said they wanted to do something so personal? What was your reaction when you saw your relationship on screen?

"I think the emotion of the trauma of 9/11 is more difficult to deal with than telling the story of my family and my wife. The story about my family, my wife, is a happy story. It's a good story to tell. So the more difficult part was telling the details of what happened to us and our friends on 9/11. It was nice that people understand how families come together. I hope people get out of the movie how important it is to appreciate your kids, appreciate your loved ones. Life gets too involved and you start taking too many things for granted that maybe we shouldn't in our normal everyday life. People take away from the movie that they should be thankful for what they've got and hang onto it. So that's very good."

What did you draw on to survive?

"It was thinking about my family. I had to get out for my family. I had to try and survive for them."

What was your first thought when you realised what was going on?

"When the planes had hit the towers? At first I thought this was just a very tragic accident. Until I got down on the scene and realised how significant it was. Then I realised this was much more serious. But I didn't think we were facing the end of the world or anything. I thought we were facing a serious condition and a lot of people were in need up in those towers."

Was it a tough moment when you asked for volunteers to go into the towers with you, or was it just part of the job?

"I took it as part of the job. I knew what we had to do. I worked Emergency Services, which is a specialised unit within a police department to deal with these kinds of events, and I worked at the World Trade Centre for 12 years setting up equipment and training and preparing for a major event. Nothing to that significance, though. So as a supervisor it basically was my job. I had to get people in. I didn't order people in because I knew the significance of it. I asked for people that were comfortable with the equipment we were going to need to get up into those towers, and those men stepped forward that were comfortable with it. Then there was no hesitation. I didn't feel bad or I was doing something unusual asking people to come with me up into the tower."

When you were trapped, did you experience any kind of guilt with regards to the people you had led into the building?

"At that time, that day, no, I had no guilt feelings. I knew these officers, I worked with them, I was comfortable and confident that these were the type of men that with direction were going to do the job right. So I was comfortable with the men I was going in with and that we would be able to handle whatever we came across. It was just circumstances turned out beyond any of our control and tragic things ended up happening."

You helped put emergency plans in place after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993. Could any preparations for something like this have been put in place, because we have heard subsequently that the government was being warned by the CIA security services that terrorists were planning to hijack planes, and there have been suggestions that they may have had concerns that thy might be used as weapons?

"It wasn't handed down to my level, to street level, that that was a possibility. We had trained and set up contingencies, different types of training scenarios for problems, and that wasn't one of our training scenarios. Let's put it this way: we could have dealt with an accidental accident in a better manner than in the manner it was done, which was a terrorist event with such a large airliner. That was beyond our training and there was nothing in our training scenarios that we had set up."

Were you being kept in the dark to some extent and are you angry?

"[Sighs] Can you be angry over it? No. Sometimes people think this is such a simple process that they assimilate this information, it's black and white, cut and dried, this was going to happen, let's put everybody in fear of going into high-rises and tell them planes may crash into your buildings any day now. I've been in a position on a lower level, I would never want to be second guessed - you know, what we call Monday morning quarterback - on what happened the day before, the day after. I am comfortable that people did what they felt . . . Could I live with people actually knowing what was going to happen and consciously made the decision not to supply it? I don't think that occurred. You'd have to be some kind of horrific human being to consciously allow something like that to happen. I don't think that happened."

How did you feel about being played by Nicolas Cage?

"I was honoured that Nicolas wanted to take this role on. He truly went into it with a very dedicated attitude to get this as close as he could."

Can you tell us about how you worked together with the actors, Nicolas and Maria Bello, who plays your wife, Donna?

 "Well they both came to our home and we sat and talked. Nicolas came to the house, we went out, we had hours of discussions. We went to lunch together, just a couple of guys going out talking. We went out to a couple of places, we were on the set, and I think he understood. He went on patrol with one of our sergeants; all the main characters that play police officers went to the bus terminal [in midtown Manhattan], went on patrols, were assigned to a police officer and went out on patrol with them. Nicolas went out on patrol with one of our sergeants so they could see what it's like to be a street police officer in New York City as opposed to a Hollywood police officer. One of the aspects of the movie that I liked was you saw real cops. You didn't see the Hollywood cop. You saw fear. You saw how they handle themselves in public. They got the feel of the mannerisms of police officers because they went out with them, and they portrayed how a normal police officer goes out in a day in New York City with the Port Authority Police."

How involved were you? Were you on set during the shoot?

"No. We went into the details extensively prior to even the first piece of film being shot. All the details were already down and discussed over and over and over again. Then as they progressed with the film, we were on the set. I was only on the set once in New York. I was out there 10 days in California when they were doing the rescue scenes, and in between that if they had any questions they would call me up at home and asked me what was I wearing, what was I doing, how did I feel, and I'd fill them in. But I wasn't on the set extensively."

How much did you help them with the physical details of the locations?

"The debris-field set, I couldn't even help them with. I never saw the debris field. I was in the inside. There were two separate sets. The one where you see Nicolas and Michael [Pena, playing Will Jimeno] where they were buried, that was inside and they had this set inside for the hole. Then there was an outside set where there was a debris field. So the only thing I could help them with was the hole. They had to talk to all the Port Authority Police officers, New York City Police officers, and New York firemen to help them on the set with what they saw. Mainly the rescue workers on the set came out with us so they helped them out with what they saw and what they did on the debris field. And all those officers and firemen, it was very emotional for them. That's how realistic the set was when they saw that debris field."

Do you and your family talk about 9/11 much today?

"At this point we don't have a lot of discussions about 9/11, especially with family. We've talked about it. Everybody knows and everybody in the family knows what's going on. We don't want that to be a constant part of our life so we go on with life. Sometimes strangers are curious and ask questions. Our friends know most of the details and they don't bring it up."

Often people who have suffered a trauma cannot speak about it for some time. Did you go through a period like that?

"No, I don't think there was any period of time I couldn't talk about it. But there was definitely a period of when I couldn't deal with you as calmly as now. It was extremely emotional to deal with, whereas certain aspects of it now it's a lot easier for me to deal with than years ago. But aspects of it are still very emotional and raw and probably always will be."

Tell me about the moment you were pulled out.

"When I came out on the stretcher I didn't know the towers were down. I thought it was car bombs that went off. When I got trapped I was in my own little world. So not only didn't I know the towers had come down, I had no idea of the magnitude of the event at that time. I only found that out months later. It obviously upset me because it was very personal to me. This wasn't an event where nearly 3000 people died but it had over 30 of my personal friends die. So this wasn't an event or tragedy that I was separated from, plus I lost three men that I had personally brought into that building, so it was very personal."

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014

From The Vault: Cinematographer Jack Cardiff On His Career In Light

The late, great Jack Cardiff discusses his career

Is it true that your father played for my hometown team, Watford? 

"Yes, a long time ago, he was centre-half. I had a book sent to me a couple of years ago with a letter asking if I have a photograph of him. I did – an early photograph – and I sent it to be included in a book of ex-Watford players. So I have become a fan of Watford. We haven’t done much good, but there you are."

Did you ever live in Watford? 

"In between shows I used to stay with my grandmother, for a week at a time sometimes, so I virtually lived in Watford for a while; 7, Sutton Road, in Watford, I remember it well." 

How old were you? 

"Six or seven, something like that."

What are your earliest memories of being on stage?

"I didn’t have a home but we had digs, and I used to call the land lady ‘Auntie’, that was my idea of family life. I knew that when I got older I would be a Call Boy – that was the boy that called the actors, overtures and beginners or something. Then, in between shows, when we were ‘resting’, we used to fill in with film work. Which was very nice, very pleasant stuff. I did a bit of acting, of course, I worked for some time as a child actor. Then at a certain point we all moved to Elstree, which was then the beginning of the film business. I went to a different school every week from the time I went to school, until about the time I was about eleven or twelve and it was a weird life. I didn’t really have a stable existence at all. I got my first job on the silent version of The Informer, in 1928 – I was two weeks short of 14. From then onwards I worked behind the camera."

I have read that you did some camera work on The Informer.

"No, on the silent version I was not even on the camera. I was sort of an office boy on the set who used to get drinks for people, run messages. I had to give the director, Arthur Robeson, Vichy Water all day. This is a funny story because people think I always had an interest in photography. I hadn’t a clue about photography. I had no interest in it. But what fascinated me about when I was on The Informer was that I noticed in the camera department, all the young lads used to go abroad a lot. They used to go to France and Italy, Germany, and maybe even Egypt. I thought, ‘That’s the job for me’. I managed to get a job in the camera department as a number boy not because I was fascinated with photography, but because I wanted to go abroad. The joke was I didn’t go abroad. In two years, the nearest I got to going abroad was the Isle of Wight one afternoon. After that the studios caught fire and we rescued some cameras. One of them wasn’t insured, that was a French camera, so for the French Debris they gave me three or four days in Paris. That was it, that broke the notch, and from then on I started doing all kinds of pictures abroad."

What was the moment that you really grew to love cinematography for its own sake rather than the opportunity it gave you to go abroad?

"It came very slowly. It wasn’t like a settled thing where you go into a trade and work for so long and then get a promotion. The thing is on a film set you work on a certain job – in this case I was a Number Boy, and I used to do the clappers when sound came in – and you keep your eyes open, you watch the camera and the movement. I didn’t watch lighting too much at first, obviously, but I got a job eventually as a Focus Puller on the camera. Usually something happens where the director wants so many cameras and there aren’t that many operators so they give you a camera to operate a bit. Lucky breaks ease you into it.

"Eventually, I remember I was working in Elstree, I was supposed to be the camera operator on a test of Freddie Bartholomew, an important test for David Copperfield, and on the day of the test the cameraman was ill and couldn’t turn up. The Chief Cameraman was somewhere abroad, and I was the only one in the studio to do it. They said, ‘Could you light this test, it’s very important?’ So I said ‘Yes’, I lit the test, and they were very satisfied with it. But when the Chief Cameraman came back he was furious. With good reason I suppose. If I had mucked it up, we would have been responsible. As it was they liked it and it was that moment I felt I could do things here.

"There was a time I felt I made a wise decisions. I could have got an early break as a cameraman but I wasn’t sort of confident that I would be ready to photograph anything. I thought I would stay as an operator working with good cameramen. This was at Denham with Alexander Korda – he brought over lots of people from Hollywood and I worked as an operator with them to gain experience. I came home one evening - I had just driven from Isleworth to Borehamwood, which is a long drive, and my mother said, ‘You’ve got to go back to the studio right away’. I was furious. I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘They’re testing operators for something – Technicolor or something – so you’ve got to go back to be tested and have an interview’. Those that had been in came out shaken because the questions were highly technical. When it came to my turn they started all this technical stuff and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m your man because I’m a dunce at a lot of these things’. So there was a shocked silence and they said, ‘How do you expect to get on?’ I said, ‘Well I’m very fond of painting, and I also watch the light’. I had formed a habit, oddly enough, of watching the light in a room. Anyway, they said, ‘Which side of the face does Rembrandt light?’ I said ‘This side,’ which was a guess, really. ‘And for etching, of course, it would be reversed’. That was another bluff. But the next day they told me I had been chosen.

"That meant I was automatically working under contract for Technicolor, as a kind of junior staff cameraman. Then came the big problem that I couldn’t photograph a feature. I did two years of travelogues, which was invaluable for experience, and finally I got the big chance. I used to do a lot of Second Unit work, which usually is a bit dull. You know, a close-up of an ash tray or a postage letter, all very dull. But the first unit wouldn’t have time to do those little things and they’d leave it to the Second Unit.

"But one of the things I had to do was complicated, on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I was lighting this thing and it looked pretty good, and I heard this voice say, ‘Very interesting’. I turned around and there was the great Michael Powell. He said, ‘Would you like to photograph my next film?’ and that was it. That’s how it all started."

Did the love of painting feed the cinematography or did it arise from the cinematography?

"It became a background of knowledge. What I had picked up from painting was that light was the most important thing. The lighting played an important part. So it’s easy enough to analyse it and work out what looked good or what worked and so on. The only difference was I realised early on that because film was a transparency, and the Hollywood photographers used to use a lot of back-light because it made everything look crisper and glamorous. I realised that back-light and I relied very much on what I had picked up from paintings - a simplicity of lighting. Mind you, I recognised that painting’s a still picture where it’s easy enough to have a lighting effect, and on film where the actor gets up and walks around the room, you had to bear that in mind. But I still felt then, and still do, that you stick to a simple form of lighting."

The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes seems to be informed by lots of painters, including Van Gogh.

"Yes. I fell very much in love with Van Gogh and on Black Narcissus I remember saying to Michael Powell that Van Gogh had used on a picture of a billiard table saloon green and red. It was a harsh dramatisation and had a kind of interest to it. I said to Michael, ‘I’d like to use green filler-light in the shadows’; it wasn’t strictly true to nature but it gave a subtly dramatic effect. One in ten might have seen it, but it was there. So these things definitely made a difference."

Did you try to use lighting to create emotional effects subliminally?

"Yes I did. Because later on I had an added love, in a way – my original love in painting was Rembrandt, Carravaggio, people like that – but then I fell in love with the Impressionists. The Impressionists exaggerated everything. If someone is sitting on the grass, they would reflect the green light on their face. I sometimes used subtle green filters that probably one in fifty would notice but I got satisfaction out of it. That was the great thing. I used to use on the spot rails – in those days we used lots of arcs and arc-lights – when light was apparently coming from the sky. I used to use a faint blue filter so that it’s cold, and I used to use their methods by exaggerating the colour. I was always fighting with Technicolor because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was."

In A Matter of Life and Death you used colour and black and white and the latter was a challenge, I believe, because you’d never shot in b&w before.

"I didn't have trouble with it. When I started to light, I went straight into colour and side stepped black and white. But I knew black and white lighting was virtually the same but the contrast was different. I didn’t tell anybody that I hadn’t photographed anything in black and white. But nevertheless when we shot the sequences in heaven, we used black and white cameras and black and white film. The penultimate shot was done with a Technicolor camera that we had to sort of merge into colour as we went on. There was no great difficulty, but it was a great, great break. That was my first feature film."

Did Powell ever discuss with you his reasons for reversing the usual colour language of Heaven and Earth?
"No, he didn’t. I said to him right before we started work, ‘I suppose Heaven will be in colour and Earth will begin black and white’. He said ‘No, on the contrary. That’s what the public expect and I’m not going to give it to them’. That was his whole attitude, to do something different.

"Hitch was another cup of tea entirely. He had a great genius for dramatic ideas, and he’d put it all in the script. He’d work on the script more than any other director that ever existed, and the more power he got, the more recognition, the more dissatisfied he would be with the first few scripts and have another writer on it improving it. So that finally, the script that he was satisfied with went on the floor, he was bored shooting the picture. Because it was a fait a complit. It amazed me that he hardly ever looked through the camera. I don’t think I ever saw him look through the camera and he didn’t go to rushes much. He had an editor put it together and show it once or twice to him during the making of the picture. And that was it. He would say to me sometimes, ‘Jack, you have a 35mm?’ ‘Yes’. ‘And you’re cutting through the hand?’ ‘Yes’. He knew so much about what he was getting that he didn’t have to look through the camera."

The Red Shoes – were you a fan of ballet when Michael Powell broached the project to you during Black Narcissus?
"He asked me what I thought of ballet and I said, ‘Not much, you know’. He said, ‘Have you ever been to ballet?’ I said ‘’Fraid not’. He said ‘Well you’d better start right away. You’d better have tickets to go practically every night’. I said ‘Oh my God’ and I did go practically every night. And, of course, I was hooked immediately. It was a wonderful experience. I had permission to go back stage and look at all the dressing rooms and the way things were lit; funny looking brass lamps hanging down. It always looked a little moth-eaten and one got a lot of character looking at these things. So that was great and it was a great adventure."

"We had certain problems with the ballet dancers. They were a lovely corps de ballet but studios are mostly concrete floors and they weren’t used to them; they usually have a certain amount of softness in their wooden floors on the stage. So they had a lot of sore feet and it was very painful for them."

I believe that Moira Shearer hurt herself when she fell from the balcony in the studio onto her head. Did that cause any production problems?
"It was fairly safe. When she jumped there was this supposed steam effect that covered the fall and then we cut to the real thing. The funny thing was that the critics – it wasn’t funny, it was sad – was that Rank himself and all his people thought The Red Shoes was a disaster and they wouldn’t allow it to have a premiere. They said it was a complete waste of money and they said to Michael, ‘In the future we’ll choose the subjects’. That’s when Michael left Rank."

Was it the subject matter?
"I couldn’t believe it, it was so silly, but they thought that the public weren’t ready, that it was a silly story and didn’t make sense; and a lot of the film critics were puzzled that it wouldn’t have a premiere. That was a dead sign that Rank weren’t happy and a lot of them criticised the film. Moira’s death scene was heavily criticised. Looking at it recently, I thought heaven knows what it was about it they could possibly criticise. It was as if she looked ghastly and was entirely covered in blood. She had a little bit of blood. But today they’re just drenched in blood, aren’t they? Anyway, one or two of the critics were sarcastic and talked about things like when the waves break over the stage, which is an entirely fantasising thing. What saved the whole situation was that this man from America had this little bijou cinema in New York, and he persuaded Rank to loan him the film for a little while. So he took it to New York and it ran for two years in his little cinema. With word of mouth it got more and more important, then it toured on a big road show in America. It was a huge success, and then someone high up in the film industry phoned Rank to congratulate him that the film was an enormous success, it would have been funny to watch Rank’s face when he heard that."

How did you achieve some of the movement with the camera during the ballet sequence? It is very fluid, given the size of the cameras at the time.
"That’s easy because we had to shoot the ballet sequence to playback. It had been decided that we’d do the music first and then work to the music. That was a great relief to the camera crew because we didn’t have to have this awful blimp. We just had the camera taken out of the blimp and we were able to have much more manoeuvrability with it than when it was inside the great Technicolor blimp, which was colossal. The corps de ballet were usually rehearsed on another stage, by another ballet man, so that they were ready to come straight on the stage, otherwise we would have lost a lot of time rehearsing the ballet scenes."

You experimented a lot with speed.
"Michael gave me about a week on my own, testing, which was great. I was given a couple of ballet dancers – on male, one female – to do pirouettes, etc, and I was very pleased with them. I did the tests for the paper dance where they go round and round, increase speed, decrease speed, and when we did the tests I showed them to Michael. He said, ‘They’re great, but I have to tell you that we’ve decided to do the music first because we don't think that the audience are ready for too much ballet in a picture’. They were right, as it happened. So we’ve got a maximum of 18 minutes for the ballet."

What is your opinion of what we see in today’s cinema?
"What seems to have happened is that in the average American film, the Hollywood sparkle, glamour has gone out of it, because it was unrealistic. Most modern stories have got a very realistic atmosphere and obviously it would ruin the atmosphere. Actually, the standard of photography in this country has improved enormously in the last few years. Some of the cameramen in England are actually working in Hollywood on Hollywood films, so they’re doing a great job at the moment. But the tendency is realism, and it’s changed the whole sort of genre of films. So the old-fashioned things of glamour and backlight and sparkle have gone in favour of realism."

Tell me bout Sabina Anima, the film you’re trying to get made.

"Actually, we’re still hoping to finalise the money side of it. It’s one of life’s major mysteries to me that England has turned out marvellous films recently, and the speculators just won’t invest in British films. All the films we’ve made, Billy Elliott is a very low budget picture, has made a fortune already. They’ve all got lots of money and they’re investing millions and millions, but they won’t invest an odd million or two in a British film where they could make all this profit. The one I want to work on, I want to photograph it, I would rather photograph it than direct it, because it’s an interesting true story. This Russian Jewess comes over, she’s highly disturbed, and Freud gives her over to Jung, Jung cures her over a few months, and in that time they have a big, big love affair. He’s married with two kids but they have this big affair. Then she, the wife, becomes pregnant and tells the girl that that’s the end of the affair. In the meantime she becomes a brilliant psychiatrist herself. She goes back to Russia at the wrong time but she becomes a very big psychiatrist. When the war starts, she is shot by the Nazis as a Jewess. So it’s a powerful story. It’s a budget of £3m, and we were all ready to go but on the money side, suddenly something happened and they dropped out. So that’s when Scorsese stepped in and put me onto someone."

What’s the attraction of the story to you as a cinematographer?
"What is fascinating to me is it has great opportunities to show what goes on in this person’s mind with terrible mental problems. That suggests all kinds of strange, weird lighting. Also, Jung had this spiritual guide, which fascinates me because I can’t believe it but all the books talk about his spiritual guide. So the way to portray the spiritual guide is a challenge without being too obvious or too subtle. There are a lot of photographic opportunities and I am dying to do it. But as I say, it is fascinating that these cowards in this investment lark won’t invest a very small amount."

What did this latest Oscar mean to you compared to the one you won for Black Narcissus?
"Well it was a great compliment and one that I sincerely appreciated, recognition of my work, for better or worse, and recognition of my long service in the film industry. And that’s better than winning it on a single film. The average person is nominated for an award and they wait and wait for weeks and wonder if they’re going to win it, but this was something that was decided. I thought they were joking when they told me over the phone. I said, ‘You’re kidding. Who is this?’ And then when I realised it was true, I thought it wasn’t a questioning of waiting to see if I’d get it; I’d got it. It was an extraordinary situation."

Did this make up for the fact that you didn’t get one for The Red Shoes, which amazes me?
"I had a big friend, Lee Garmes. He was a very fine cameraman, and at the time when The Red Shoes was coming out, the American newspapers said one thing is for sure, there will be a lot of awards for visual effects and the photography is certainly going to get the award this year. Everyone expected it because it was obvious. Lee Garmes phoned me when I was in England from America and said, ‘Jack, you’re not going to believe this, but at a meeting of the American Society of Cameraman, they said it was obvious that I was going to win the award. But, because I had won the award the previous year, for Black Narcissus, it was denigrating for American cameramen that an Englishman would capture the award and it would make out that we were so much better’, so they decided not to nominate me. I wasn’t even nominated.

"I’ll call this one the award for Red Shoes. I’ll scratch out the Achievement Award and put The Red Shoes."

Did you feel bitter at the time?
"Looking back on it I wasn’t very upset I suppose. But what happened was that I had dinner with a few cameramen, because I was very friendly with them. That’s why I didn’t complain too much because I didn’t want to be an outsider from my chums in America – but I went to this dinner, there were two or three people around the table, including Lee Garmes, and the subject of Red Shoes came up. One of the cameramen said, ‘Well Jack, you can’t win them all. I guess Technicolor did the dirt on you on that one. The colours were awful, weren’t they?’ I said, ‘Well it got an award for Best Colour Art Direction’. He said ‘But for photography, something went wrong’. And I looked at Lee Garmes and he went a dull red because he knew that I knew what really happened. This cameraman was making out that the colours were all wrong."

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014