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Two kinds of lighting: documentary and theatrical

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The Last Detail: My first film as Director of Photography
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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Last Detail was the first movie that I was the DP on, and I was asked by Hal Ashby, who... have we said all this before? I can't be... and who had been... we'd done a movie in the East and used Gordie [Gordon Willis] as the cameraman and I, as the operator and knew me from that, and for various reasons Gordie couldn't do it and there had to be an East Coast cameraman because the unions were separate in those days, so Haskell [Wexler] was going to do it but, but he couldn't because he wasn't in the East Coast Union, and he'd done a movie with... with Hal, so he... so Gordie, I think, told Hal to go ahead, use Chappie – he'll be all right – and he... and he asked me to do it, knowing in part that I... that I at least was a very good operator. And of course I said yes, you know, who... who wouldn't, and I found myself... I owe Hal a lot, I mean it really... there was no rational reason to ask me to do that in terms of experience, I'd really lit a few commercials at best. But he did and I said yes, terrified, and thinking that I was going to be found out, you know, every time that the dailies came, I.. I was like, oh my God, they're going to find out that I don't know what I'm doing and they're going to fire me. And they didn't, and I, as I think I said, or have said certainly, I sort of went around and looked at all the locations in Toronto and in... in various places before shooting.

I saw that since they were all real locations, with, I think, one exception, a hotel room that we built, the... the light in those actual locations was far more emotionally charged and evocative than anything I could much do. So I very happily left them alone because I was terrified that if I put any light I wouldn't know what the hell I was doing, and I left the light of the... the men's room in the railroad station, the bar, the whatever it was, the little lunch counter somewhere in Washington DC, be what it was. The light came through the windows, the light was there and it was evocative of a real place and... because it was a real place, and... and I did as little as I possibly could to disturb the reality of that place, and that turned out to be, I think, a good decision a) it kept me from getting fired, and b) it made the movie look, as I think I've said, like the 11 o'clock news, which is just right for the emotional content of that movie.

And again, that was, I mean I guess I was smart enough to figure it out, but it was in a large part a... a happy accident that that was the first movie I... I did. If I'd had some incredibly complicated costume drama, where everything had to be lit and beautiful movie stars had to be made to look gorgeous, then they really would have fired me, I would think. But it turned out that this movie matched what little skills I had at the time. But nonetheless, I mean, you're working with Jack Nicholson. Oh, I was working with Jack Nicholson, yes, script by Robert Towne, I was way outside of my... I mean, by the way, the fact that the movie is the success and has entered the cannon of movies is not because of my lighting, it's because of a script by Robert Towne and the acting of Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid and various people. It's a marvel – and the direction of Hal Ashby – it's a marvelous movie, a marvelous movie, and it holds up very well and it's shown all the time. It's also one of the... it's the first dirty word movie, it's the first movie where, you know, famous lines,' I am the motherfucking shore patrol, you motherfucker', was the first time somebody could say that, and... and it's famous for those things, or it was famous at the time for those things, for breaking barriers and things like that. Oh, it was a marvelous movie, and not because of my lighting, please!

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: The Last Detail, Hal Ashby, Gordon Willis, Haskell Wexler, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, Randy Quaid

Duration: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008