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Chris Menges: The Guardian Interview (1988)

On filming in Asia, the Amazon and on a blue screen

Main image of Chris Menges: The Guardian Interview (1988)

Chris Menges was interviewed at the National Film Theatre on 6 September 1988.

1. Documentaries versus features

CM: The first feature that I worked on was Poor Cow - I was Brian Probyn's camera operator, the film that Brian shot. So that was Ken's first feature too. And then I went back with Adrian Cowell to the Amazon and I was amongst a number of cameramen who shot The Tribe That Hides From Man. And then I came back to work for Miroslav Ondricek on Lindsay Anderson's film If... - an incredibly exciting time and period.

Interviewer: I bet. What were the principle differences that you found? I know you'd made short films, but working on major features as opposed to the work you'd been doing before. What were the surprises in store for you?

CM: Well, I suppose that on documentaries it's rather like trying to catch the moment, the decisive moment that Cartier-Bresson talks about, and working on cinema films is a question of constructing everything from scratch, and obviously there's an enormous difference between a cinema feature film and a documentary film. But certainly documentaries were trying to catch things happening as they happen without reconstructing anything, without doing anything again.

Interviewer: And then, what year did you go into the Burma jungles? You were there for 18 months, weren't you, with Adrian Cowell?

CM: The second time I went was '73. We went to Burma...

Interviewer: That was for The Opium Warlords?

Yes, for the second film, with the Shan State Army. They took us illegally across the Thai border and we had a mule train of about 20 mules carrying equipment and film, and it was just Adrian and myself and about 300 soldiers. And what we were trying to do was show how the Shan State Army ran that part of the country, the part that they controlled. And what happened to us, unfortunately, was that the Kuomintang remnants of Chiang Kai-Shek's soldiers, who fled in 1948 from China, they fled into Burma to run the opium business. And our little army of 300 soldiers got into a squabble with Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang soldiers, and we were harassed and chased around Burma and Shan State for 18 months.

Interviewer: With a price on your head?

CM: With a price on my head from the Burmese government. It was heavy going. [Laughs]

Interviewer: It sounds incredibly dangerous - were you living literally in fear of your lives?

CM: Well, if you talk to Adrian now he'll say he's really surprised we came out alive, because he really thought that there was so much anarchy around us that we weren't going to survive.

2. Filming in Vietnam

Interviewer: And you'd also been in Vietnam, making documentaries?

CM: Yes, I went to Vietnam twice for the BBC, once with John Irvin, once with Richard Taylor. That was hard to... and again with Charles Denton after the American soldiers left. I mean, the extraordinary thing about being in Vietnam at that time was that it was just so clear that so many American recruits just didn't want to be there, could not see why they were there. It was a bad experience too. We went... once we were dropped in on the Ho Chih Minh trail by helicopter, where the marines had found by aerial reconnaissance some very big, heavy guns - they wanted to take these huge guns - there were two of them - back to some military thing in the United States, but they were big. And that night after we landed the North Vietnamese Army came in after us with RPGs and I was with Ivan Sharrock - he was nearly killed there. And we were working with Larry Burrows too, the Life stills photographer. It was pretty heavy going.

Interviewer: You're certainly one of the most agile cinematographers around, I would say, Chris! Did you find that you were... I mean, lugging camera equipment around in very dangerous situations, whether it's in a combat zone or up in a jungle, up a fall or somewhere, inventing styles and things to do as you were going along? I should think you'd have to.

CM: Well, usually in these working conditions there's only yourself and a sound recordist and perhaps a director, so there's no question of carrying equipment other than a camera and magazines - basically, you're there to run and run very fast. And in filming style... I think that's what Roland Joffé picked up on on The Killing Fields - it's kind of like if you're on wide lenses, you can't get the microphone in and it's very important to record what people are saying and what they're thinking - that's as important as the pictures; it's half the story, the pictures. And you had to work tight to get the microphone in, but you also had to work on long lenses so you could be sure that things were in focus. But of course when you're on a narrow vision you can't see everything, so then the camera has to pan and track and look for mannerisms - in a sense, play over the whole area so that you can see everything. And I think that's the style that led to Roland wanting me to do The Killing Fields.

Interviewer: So he'd seen your documentary and that's what he wanted from you?

CM: It's certainly what Adrian Cowell wanted, and I think it's what Roland wanted.

Interviewer: How did you find actually recreating... going from documentaries and being in a war zone and being in Vietnam and being in Burma and making a feature film about it? Okay, admittedly some time after the event, but...

CM: Well, I remember Ivan Strasburg who worked with me on second camera saying that the extraordinary thing about the cinema is that you have to completely create everything from scratch. And I think the most important thing to us was to make it believable, to make the story of Dith Pran believable, and to try and understand and capture on film some of the agony that was going on in Cambodia.

3. Shooting in the Amazon

Interviewer: You've worked with most of the major British filmmakers: Stephen Frears, Puttnam, Bill Forsyth, Ken Loach, Roland Joffé, at several stages in their careers, too. How have you seen them develop, or is there any one that you've seen develop?

CM: Oh, I don't know - it's eyes down when you're working! I don't know... I don't think I can answer that!

Interviewer: All right - let's ask you about something a bit more specific. Let's talk about The Mission, which had a great deal of publicity at the time it was made, for all sorts of reasons - I mean, partly the nature of the story, partly the film itself. It seemed on the surface to be quite a tricky feat for any cinematographer to film what you managed to film. Was that the case, or was it really that it was there and you shot it?

Well, Iguazú's very beautiful and Cartagena is very beautiful, so perhaps it looked harder than it was! But there's no doubt about it: it's difficult shooting in the jungle if you haven't got lights and the weather closes in on you, and the canopy... particularly in the Amazon, the canopy is very thick and it's hard to work in those conditions when the light goes on you. For instance, the jungle scenes shots outside Cartagena on The Mission and Iguazú in Argentina, we couldn't really take generators into the jungle, it's not really practical, so there are always compromises and there's always a lot of biting your nails and as much wizardry as you can make to make it work and make it work convincingly. Because in the end, like on most films, like on The Killing Fields and all those films, really, in the end, what it really goes down to is performance, and you can't stand in the way of story or performance or actors or the director's freedom. It's the one rule you can't break. So you just get out the conjuring box and do the very best you can and work as hard as you can. In the case of Iguzu it was difficult, but what saved us and made it possible and made us able to work quickly was that the construction party on the crew had erected about three miles, four miles of gangways to walk, and that meant we could move large amounts of heavy equipment by hand, quickly, and if we'd been clambering over rocks we'd have taken days to get wherever we were going on the waterfalls. So that gave Roland complete access to work very quickly and that's in a sense a case where on a cinema film a large construction crew and a brilliant construction manager can really make things work. And also the gaffer, you know, the chief of electricians. You can have as many dreams as you want, but if he can't do it and doesn't want to do it, forget it, you won't get it. And it's always worth remembering that.

4. Commitment, technique and inspiration

Interviewer: There was one further question I want to ask which is to do with your commitment to filmmaking which has run right the way through your career. As an offshoot of that, in an age when a lot of filmmakers, good and bad, are using more commercial aspects of their craft to make money, ie making commercials and things like that, you've actually only ever made three in your life.

CM: I think it's about five.

Interviewer: You don't consider yourself very good at them?

CM: I think to do commercials you must consider yourself to be technically able. And for me, I'm technically able if I'm inspired, and I can't be inspired by margarine. [Laughter] And I remember the National Film School in Beaconsfield they asked me to go in and teach a lighting session, and they said they'd build a big set on their stage and we could have a generator and electricians and everything. And I didn't think that I could teach in that... because there was no story, do you know what I mean? There wasn't a story to tell. So Ivan Strasburg and myself, we said to them: look, get a good cameraman - and they got Ossie Morris, the best - and we said we'd enrol as students, and we did, and we learned something. I learned this big thing about dimmers on the set. So it's no false modesty, it's survival. If you can be inspired and interested and involved in what you're doing, then the technical abilities come - for me, anyhow. Of course, there are some things you have to learn - like I didn't know anything about blue screen, so when Peter Suschitzky asked me to do the second unit on The Empire Strikes Back I spent four months at Elstree Studios doing blue screen and he'd come out and check me out all the time and I learned an awful lot, and I'm very grateful to him for that experience.

Interviewer: But that was more of a learning process?

CM: You don't run into blue screen every day, you know, it's very much for special effects. But I think for most things it's a question of knowing about light, looking at light, thinking about composition, knowing about paintings and about photographs, and relating to what you're trying to film - and then it's a question of being inspired.

5. Shooting in Tibet

CM: In 1963 the first documentary I shot... the first completed documentary was shot in Tibet. Basically what happened is that Adrian Cowell, the director and producer, knew a man called George Patterson who had been a missionary in Tibet. And George had collared Adrian and said, "This is where you should be making a film," because the Khambas were rising up against the Chinese invasion, and George could speak Khamba, and basically what happened is we went to Kathmandu where we met Tibetan agents who, after a lot of negotiation, agreed that if we walked up into the mountains in the west, he would contact some Khamba guerrillas who would take us across the border into Tibet, and that's kind of what we did. We were in Kathmandu for about three weeks organising the trip and when we got the go-ahead we drove as far as we could and then we walked for about five weeks with about 15 Sherpas. We walked up into the mountains and we made contact with a group of Khamba guerrillas. And basically what we had to do in the next week was walk across an 18,000-foot pass into Tibet, which is what we did. I went in sneakers and a pair of jeans and jersey - I was so naïve! - but lots of Tibetan tea. And we crossed the border and laid an ambush and a Chinese convoy came along a military road - let me see, that was about a day and a half over the pass so we were a day and a half inside Tibet. And by incredible accurate shooting with their 303 rifles they killed the drivers of each of the four trucks and each truck... it was a military convoy and each truck stopped almost... you know, absolutely military convoy, the shooting was that accurate. And during the fighting some of the Khambas went down in the road and got into a hand-fight with pistols and grenades and one of the soldiers, the Khamba soldiers, got wounded and we were told to retreat so we ran across... walked as fast as we could back across the mountains. Up at 18,000 feet it's three steps and a good count for breathing - you know, it's very hard, very hard work. And we got back to our base camp inside Nepal. And the extraordinary thing was that the reason we had left was that one Khamba soldier got wounded, and this man, who must have been at least 50, who had a bullet right through here and here, turned up at the base camp three days later, and this man, bless him, had walked with this huge bullet hole through him and with frostbite in his feet had walked across 18,000 feet completely on his own, and then it was down to us to repair him! Extraordinary.

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Audio & Video Clips
1. Documentaries versus features (3:15)
2. Filming in Vietnam (3:45)
3. Shooting in the Amazon (3:19)
4. Commitment, technique and inspiration (2:48)
5. Shooting in Tibet (3:51)
Poor Cow (1967)
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Menges, Chris (1940-)
Morris, Oswald (1915-)
Elstree Studios