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Camera operating is a heavenly job

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Fortunate accidents
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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I was very lucky to go to... to Andover and to Columbia, because the level of... the academic level was as... as good as it gets, at least in the United States, and there were all sorts of teachers who, in one way or another, inspired me. But I don't know that it was exactly one teacher, or someone, no, there were a few, there was Pat Morgan and Diz Benzley at Andover, who were art teachers, and... and certainly made me think that possibly, they, somewhere in the arts, you could, you know, you could make a living and survive, and... and be happy. And at Columbia there was an extraordinary faculty in those days, really, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling and other people at, perhaps not as heard of, but equally important, and I studied with all of them, and I... along the way I picked up a kind of, really very inefficient and... and enormously snobbish idea, but it was the idea that everyone had, although it was never, no one ever quite spoke of it, but that you were supposed to... you were supposed to know everything that you could possibly know, about everything, as long as it no monetary value. An... an utterly snobbish idea, and of course, intensely impractical, but it was...  it was certainly the kind of reigning – whatever the word is – way that you were supposed to think about your education and the way you behaved, and the way it's, as I say, both impractical and utterly snobbish.

But it did allow you to learn a lot, you know, I mean about a whole lot of things. It made you very good at Jeopardy and things like that. There wasn't any Jeopardy then, but... but what few brain cells I have left, I'm still pretty good at Jeopardy. And, I'm not so sure, but what that... that education has done more for me in the movies than, certainly than going to film school. Forgive me, Tamara, but film school teaches you exactly not those things, and that kind of learning and the army and the railroad and bumming around and hitchhiking across the country and various things, seem to me far better film school than film school, because the technology of movies is not very difficult, and if you don't know it, somebody else does and they can help you out. But the emotional content of what you're looking at and the way in which you look at it is all-important, and that's not what they can teach you in film school. And, I was extremely lucky, utterly by accident, to have had that education and that approach to the way I thought about life, you know. This sounds so pompous, Jesus. Let me think if there isn't some way to say it, other than that. But I... I guess there isn't.

Anyway, I'm very, very grateful for the... the accidental things that happened to me, I mean, imagine if I had not, if I, as a child, my family had not moved to this small town where they were able to buy a... a lovely old house, I'd have been in Wellesley, Massachusetts and gone to Wellesley High School, and not to Andover, and my life would have been very different, you know. All the way through everybody's life, and certainly in mine, odd accidents happen that have, you have no idea are going to turn out to be what they are. I looked up this girl whom I'd known in college, and... and her father put me in the movie business. I was an operator with Gordie on a not particularly good movie called The Landlord, and I met Hal Ashby and I ended up finding myself doing Last Detail, and there's no... the... I went to do the next movie, White Dawn, and this is a really sad sort of story, Phil Kaufman was going to do the movie White Dawn with Eskimos, and it was in... in... on Baffin Island in Canada, and he hired a Canadian cameraman, and the Canadian cameraman made the terrible mistake of doing some tests in the Arctic, and Phil saw the tests and he was so appalled that he fired him, and... and I'd finished Last Detail, and for whatever reason, my name was around, and I was in... in the East Coast Union, everything, so, so he called me up and said, would you like to go to the Arctic, and he didn't know that I'd, of course, spent a year in the Arctic and fallen madly in love with the Arctic, and all of these things, these are simply accidents that happen, and in my case, all happened, sort of for the good. I have no explanation for why or how, but those things happened, those things worked out.

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: Andover, Columbia, The Landlord, Last Detail, White Dawn, Baffin Island, Canada, Arctic, Pat Morgan, Diz Benzley, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Hal Ashby, Phil Kaufman

Duration: 4 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008