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The Front and Zero Mostel


Zen and the art of movie making
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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I said, you know, you must never think about art and... and only try and solve mechanical problems, and... and I believe that very firmly, but I think that I didn't quite say enough why that's true, and I think why that's true is that if you block your conscious mind onto solving the problems that you... that you face – and this is the right angle we don't have... we only have ten minutes to lunch, I only have so many lights... we go to do this, you know, all of that sort of day to day ordinary problem-solving in a way allows unconscious material to come to the surface... or if not... unconscious may be too pompous a word, but at least unanalyzed material, which often is what the best stuff is, you know. You don't quite remember why or how you chose that angle of light or that angle of the camera because you were rushing and trying to solve – you did it, but as far as you were concerned for very simple mechanical reasons but often other more... I... I dread using those words so I won't, but more unexamined reasons come to the surface later that you didn't notice then, and they would only come to the surface and they would only be achieved by making your mind; it's almost a sort of Zen activity that you... you know, you chant, 'Ohm ohm ohm ohm' – in this case you're chanting, 'Oh my God, there's only ten minutes to lunch', and... and doing that for... with enough intensity, other material is allowed to come to the surface. I do truly believe that is... is a fact, and the quality of the material that comes to the surface depends on the quality of the mind that's chanting, and that's not something we can control, but what you can do is... is concentrate very hard on solving those problems and... and trust that if you're not a... not an idiot other things may emerge, and I know of specific examples in my life when they did. I don't want... I mean, those will come up as we talk.

I mean, I once directed a movie that... it was only in post production that I realized what I'd really been making a movie about – I had no idea at the time, I'd been talking to the actors, fighting with the actors, yelling and screaming, trying to get done on schedule, this and that –and only later did I realize what the movie really turned out to be about and it was the only movie I directed that was any good, because it had some actual emotional relevance to me that... that mercifully I didn't know, and... and it's obviously very good that I didn't know, or that my conscious mind didn't know until later on. It was quite an amazing revelation in... in the editing room when I go, 'Oh my God, this is what I was doing this about' – well, that sort of thing on a... on a much smaller level happens day after day after day, I'm quite sure, and you may not even... there may not be a moment when you... when you see the dailies and you say, 'Oh my God, that's what that shot was about', you know; you may not ever see it, but those shots, those angles, those bits of lighting do carry some kind of emotional message if you've done it right, and that may be emotional message of... of boredom and stupidity if you haven't done it right, but you have to sort of trust that eventually you won't get hired any more if they're really boring and stupid.

So I... I strongly advise and... and almost insist on what I was saying of the strictness of not worrying about art and all that crap, but knowing all the time that you are in a way tricking yourself into... into it, you know. I mean – I've used this example before but I will again – in... in As You Like It Touchstone the clown said... well... trying to seduce a girl... the shepherdess with a name I can't remember, says, 'The truest poetry is the most feigning', and that's really, really true. There's a marvelous poem by W.H. Auden that takes that as its title – The Truest Poetry is the Most Feigning – and it's all about tricking yourself into telling the truth, like elaborate subterfuge and the elaborate subterfuges mostly are; I mean, they may be... they may be to a certain extent the poet tricking the audience, but in fact it's mostly the poet tricking himself, and I'm not saying I'm a poet – I'm a working cameraman – but in the... the person doing the work, whatever it is – be it poetry, painting, movies, being a grip, loading magazines, whatever it is – often best succeeds by tricking him or herself into letting material come up that he didn't even know about.

Michael Chapman (1935-2020), an American cinematographer, 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: As You Like It, WH Auden, The Truest Poetry is the Most Feigning

Duration: 4 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008