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Interview: Cinematographer Chris Menges on ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

Waiting for the Barbarians

In the 1980s, Chris Menges won two Oscars for Best Cinematography for his work on The Killing Fields and The Mission. He’s also collaborated with Roger Deakins to earn his most recent Oscar nomination for The Reader in 2008.

His latest film, Waiting for the Barbarians, first premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 before its VOD release by Samuel Goldwyn Films this past August. It follows a magistrate (Mark Rylance) who becomes gradually more disturbed by the way the imperial military led by a coldhearted colonel (Johnny Depp) treats the native populace it deems “barbarians.”

At age eighty, Menges is still taking on challenging projects and shows no signs of slowing down. He even offered to cut me in if I could help get him his next movie! Keep reading to hear about his extensive documentary past, his opinions on the evolution of cinematic technology, and the scene he remembers most from a career that has spanned more than fifty years.

Q: Can you tell me what interested you about this project? Were you familiar with the novel by J.M. Coetzee? How did you come on board?

A: It goes back to a long time ago. In 1986, I think it was, I read the book and thought this would make a great potential film. It was a kind of searing indictment of colonialism and about our indigenous people being subjugated to that. At the time, I had just made a film called A World Apart with Barbara Hershey about Ruth First in South Africa. So I was hoping that it would be my next project, but I couldn’t get anybody in LA to trust me with it. In 2000, the producer Michael Fitzgerald, who I worked with on Sean Penn’s movie The Pledge and on Tommy Lee Jones’ movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, got the rights to the book. He got Coetzee to write the screenplay, which in fact is almost a mirror copy of the novel. Eventually, and I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but he did ask me if I might direct the film. I actually didn’t quite have the courage to do that because sometimes a novel is a very hard thing to adapt. And it’s a great book. I thought, well, I’m not really experienced enough to do this. So that was in 2004. And then a couple of years ago, Michael asked me if I would consider being the cinematographer. As I said, I thought it was a really worthy, honorable, exciting and important novel. He suggested Ciro Guerra as the director, who has made a couple of magical films. So I thought, I didn’t have the confidence to turn a book into a screenplay, because that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. And often people blow it a bit. It just doesn’t work out the way they thought it should work. So I was very honored to be asked by Michael to be DP on Barbarians because I think it’s about important issues.

Q: Had you seen any of Ciro’s previous films like Embrace of the Serpent or Birds of Passage?

A: Yes, the one I liked most was Serpent. I had spent time in the Amazon with Orlando and Cláudio Villas Boas when they were trying to set up the national park on the Xingu River. Their struggle for the indigenous people was a documentary film that I had worked on for a director called Adrian Cowell, The Tribe That Hides From Man, which incidentally won top awards in Venice and everything. It was a baptism of fire, learning from Orlando and Cláudio about the indigenous people. Barbarians is really the same story in a way.

Q: The look actually reminded me a lot of Birds of Passage. You use the desert as a landscape throughout most of this film. What are the challenges and advantages of that, and is there anything you wanted to be sure to emphasize in those shots and scenes?

A: Well, the big thing always is that, if your DP, you’re in charge of a technical troop of people and you’ve got to get the day’s work done. And it was a tight schedule – 37 days of shooting. The budget was very limited. So, there were enormous problems, but between them, Crispian Sallis, the designer, Michael Fitzgerald, and Ciro Guerra, they found this fort south of Marrakesh. It’s a farmhouse that you could imagine in the Middle Ages in Europe. And so it stood in the desert, but most magnificently it stood below the Atlas Mountains with just the most amazing display of mountains up to twelve and a half thousand feet covered in snow. And that was our backdrop and we were really blessed by it and by pretty good weather. I come from a school of cinematography. The first film I shot for Ken Loach was all about natural light, and I come from a documentary background where capturing the moment in that Cartier-Bresson sense is the vital thing. We had to work fast to catch the light, but we had some great actors and a great crew and we did our very best to make the best film of Coetzee’s book.

Q: I wanted to ask you about some of the actors. I think it was particularly interesting to me to see how you framed Johnny Depp’s sunglasses-wearing colonel from the first moment he appeared on screen and in each subsequent scene. He felt mysterious and distant in a way that Mark Rylance’s magistrate wasn’t. Can you explain the different ways in which you shot and framed these actors?

A: Honestly, you’re trying to give me credit. It’s the actors who dictate the way they’re shot. The atmosphere that Johnny Depp presents is very almost chilling sense and atmosphere that Mark Rylance presents is almost embracing. So our job was to catch their performance and to serve the performance. So, yeah, no, [laughs], not responsible.

Q: I’m a big fan of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I know was one of your most recent films. I know that in that and other films like London Boulevard you’ve utilized busy cities as your canvasses. Do you prefer that to the rural setting for this film?

A: I’m a country bumpkin. I was born on the Welsh border. I lived for 47 years on a farm raising sheep, so I’m very much at home in the country. Working in Morocco with a crew from all over – we had crew from London, we had crew from Rome, we had crew from Marrakesh, we had crew from Colombia – this kind of international group of hard workers to bring this story to life, it worked. The countryside and the desert and the power of the light and observing the power of the light. We learned to work with it, scoop the light into the rooms with big reflectors, with different colors, different silvers and golds. It was an exciting project. So yes, I love the city too but I’m a big fan of Morocco.

Q: Some of your most well-known films like The Killing Fields and The Mission are now over thirty years old. How has your perspective changed in the past few decades as technology has evolved, and what techniques have you made sure to keep the same?

A: Well, the thing is that I’m dictated to by the writing. If I read a script or book, and I have an interchange with or feeling for the story, I immediately, without any pretension, am in that scene. So I visualize what I’m reading and I can’t honestly say that – it may be boring to say this – my approach has changed much. I’m coming from a documentary background. I’m interested in sound and I’m interested in light and catching images. That’s very much what I try to do. And of course, we’ve now got some fantastic equipment like the Alexa and we can rate off our image at 800, 1200, or 1600 ASA. We’ve got some marvelous lenses, like the lenses we used, which were the Cooke S5s. The Alexa gives us more contrast, or less contrast, if we want it, and it makes the camera actually quite fast in terms of ASA. So it gives us more flexibility. And I believe the one thing the video images helped us with is taking bigger risks. When I used to shoot movies like Michael Collins, Neil Jordan’s film, I would go to bed at night having done a day’s work, very excited but questioning whether it would ever come out, what we had just shot. And the thing about working with an electronic camera like the Alexa, you actually can see on the set what’s working, and what’s not. So it is a different tool. And I guess the approach is different, but I’m still driven by naturalism.

Q: In other films that you see, is there anything that you think is missing from modern cinema as a result of people only using new technology?

A: No, I don’t think so. I’ve done a lot of films with directors, and we’ve worked with children like David Bradley in Kes. The wonderful thing about the electronic camera is that you have maybe fifty-five minutes of record time. If that was film, you’d have to change your magazine every ten minutes or less. When you’re working with children, to be able to just continue, and just be relaxed about it and let the performance come forth and repeat it without the pressure is another great thing about electronic media.

Q: What would you say is the scene you most remember shooting over the course of your career?

A: Oh, god, I’ve never been asked that before. I think it was probably the execution in jail of the of the leaders of the 1916 uprising in Michael Collins because we shot it in the prison yard where the real people were executed. That was a very humbling experience. But there are so many. I remember being in Zanzibar during the river revolution. I remember crossing Tibet at 20,000 feet. I remember working in Vietnam during the war, in Cambodia during the war, in Angola during the war. There have been many kind of tragic moments, I suppose. That’s part of the job too.

Q: What’s next for you? Are you eager to continue working, and are there any directors you want to work with or genres you want to try?

A: I’m ready to leave. The second I get a great screenplay, I’m off. If I read the script, and I love it, doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll be there. I just need the offer. So get me an offer, and I’ll cut you in on a percentage.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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