Unlike many artists who strive to place their signature on their work, cinematographer Bill Butler has been adapting to the filmmaking circumstances at hand for five decades.
A veritable chameleon, Butler has been proudly changing his stripes with each picture he shoots. From the start, he displayed such versatility that he could go from lighting such diverse features as Francis Ford Coppola’s moody “The Rain People” to Jack Nicholson’s anarchic “Drive, He Said” to Steven Spielberg’s gripping “Jaws.” At the same time he has made a significant mark on the small screen, lensing such seminal telefilms and mini-series as “The Execution of Private Slovik,” “Raid on Entebbe,” “The Thorn Birds” and, more recently, HBO’s “Don King: Only in America.”
At 71, the latest American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award recipient is not being honored just for the chameleon factor, though. Rather, Butler is at the heart of the group of cinematographers, many of them past recipients of the award — the late Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zsigmond and Owen Roizman, to name a few — who fundamentally altered the practice and art of Hollywood camera lighting, starting in the mid-1960s by taking a run-and-gun, verite approach and relying less on artifice than their forebears.
As often as he is grouped with them, Butler stands in contrast to some of his peers. While such DPs as Hall, Wexler and Gordon Willis served the story while placing their personal stamp on the films they lit, Butler has — by design — no identifiable style.
“I think Bill believes that a cinematographer should be invisible, adapting to the material,” says Roizman, head of the ASC awards committee. “There are many effective approaches, and Bill’s is to do the work and draw the viewer subconsciously into the story. He doesn’t set out to do a tour-de-force every time he shoots.
“There’s an old expression in the business: Whatever’s on screen is what people think of you,” Roizman adds. “Beyond that, people may not really know you. People may not know, for instance, that Bill is a tinkerer and inventor, just like they don’t know I do magic tricks. Maybe that’s the invisible part that feeds the work.”
The gambler’s instinct
Butler has a slightly different spin on the cinematographer’s essential personality trait: “To make it, you’ve got have a lot of qualities that are pretty heavy-duty,” he says. “But above all of them, you have to have a gambler’s instinct, the confidence to take risks.”
An Iowa State University grad with a degree in electronic engineering, Butler’s path to Hollywood took him first to Chicago, where he helped design radio stations such as WBKB and WIND. He eventually struck up a friendship with William Friedkin and shot the Chicago filmmaker’s first documentaries, “Walk Through the Valley” and “The People vs. Paul Crump.” The latter presented evidence that saved Crump from Death Row.
“When I saw how this little 16mm film could actually affect and change people’s lives,” Butler says, “it showed me filmmaking’s impact. I was completely drawn into it.” Butler’s work for Friedkin impressed fellow Chicagoan Philip Kaufman so much that in 1967, Kaufman snagged Butler to shoot his first feature, “Fearless Frank,” about a man who could fly. These films established a pattern that has continued throughout Butler’s career, as he’s continued to work with first-time directors.
“When I’m meeting directors I’m to work with, I like to spend a little time with them, just talk about their lives, nothing about filmmaking, with the purpose of getting a good take on them,” says Butler, “which is why I can connect so well with younger directors.”
Today Butler has the reputation of being one of the nice guys in Hollywood, but Hollywood — specifically the unions — wasn’t as kind to Butler and others when they came west in the ’60s to get work. Having lit Coppola’s 1969 “The Rain People,” combined real locations with documentary immediacy and helped establish the blueprint for a new American road movie, Butler figured credits would help get him in the door.
“Haskell (Wexler) was the first to really ‘break’ the union rules, which required all these years of apprenticeship and the rest,” Butler explains. “But I wasn’t going to waste time doing apprenticeship when I knew I was already a full-fledged cinematographer. Some of the older hands, to put it simply, didn’t appreciate my position, so I didn’t get any work for awhile.”
Courtside with Jack
Nicholson changed that. The actor-turned-first-time-director hired him to light the basketball-themed “Drive, He Said,” which earned Butler his union card. On that shoot, Butler found that he could pull off even seemingly impossible tasks (such as certain shots with a basketball), and “that gave me enormous confidence.”
In short order, Butler established strong links with many of the young men who were to dominate American moviemaking in the ’70s, so it isn’t surprising that he was instrumental in three of the period’s most seminal films: Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (co-shot with Wexler).
Coppola’s fascination with gadgets and technology seemed to fuel Butler’s imagination for “The Conversation,” about a forlorn wiretapper-for-hire. Butler thought of covering a party scene with a slow-panning camera that moved back and forth like a surveillance lens. “It didn’t work for that scene,” Butler notes, “but it inspired us for the film’s final shot, where it really worked. I think I like this film, of all my work, the best.”
The inveterate tinkerer likes to talk about his inventions. “I never patented one of them,” he explains, “like a stop-motion device I came up with. I made all sorts of stuff for ‘Jaws’ that nobody even knows about, camera-related stuff that was used for that shoot only. Boy, we had our problems — Steven was faced with a shark that didn’t work, so he had to shoot around it, and the script wasn’t working, so we were all contributing to it.”
Spielberg recalls fondly that “Bill was a calming force on the set, especially when the crew was holed up for six months, really going cabin-fever crazy. It was almost like having your own priest or rabbi with you every day. People would often come to Bill and gripe to him and he would listen, because (he understood) that this was all a hardship for many crew members.”
More recently, Butler had a particular triumph with his richly expressionist work on Bill Paxton directorial debut, “Frailty,” for which he says he wanted to make use of the latest fast film stocks and ultra-fast lenses “that weren’t available when I first started shooting years ago. I wanted to see what I could get out of using really low light levels. And you know who my inspiration was? Connie Hall.”
For this disturbing psychological tale of a fanatically Christian, serial-killing father and his sons, Butler’s use of deep browns and ultra-black shadows supported Paxton’s view of the story as Gothic nightmare set in the everyday world. “I saw how constantly inventive he was,” says Paxton. “When our steadicam broke down, he came up with the simple, brilliant idea of overcranking the film (shooting at higher speed, producing slow-motion on screen) to get the effect we wanted. He’d set up shots with 5 or 6 sheets of filtering frosted paper in front of the lens, stuff that younger DPs wouldn’t have thought of.
“I get the sense of Bill and his peers passing on the torch, and how younger filmmakers should work with him as much as possible. He’s still going, doing vital work. Heck, the guy is as brilliant now as he ever has been.”