Honoree Chapman helped usher in H'wood's '70s renaissance

It’s a measure of Michael Chapman’s modesty — and the cinematographer’s overall tendency to loom in the shadows — that he credits his most influential work to the vision of his collaborators.

“I happened to be in the presence of Marty (Scorsese), Bobby De Niro and Paul Schrader, who were at the top of their game,” he says of “Taxi Driver.” “I was very lucky in that I was allowed to give them the field to play on. It was their movie.”

Scorsese laughs when he hears this. “Yeah, my eye! Chapman was the key collaborator on the picture.” Scorsese and Chapman screened dozens of French New Wave and Hitchcock films during pre-production, and quickly developed a verbal shorthand for the kinds of angles, colors and camera moves they wanted to use in “Taxi Driver,” which took the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes film fest.

“He constantly took sequences beyond my storyboards,” says Scorsese. “There were these intricate camera moves, which he worked out, that were precise and perfect. He understood the kind of timing that I was trying to get at where the camera would move unexpectedly. His use of color and camera movement and lenses, particularly the night scenes in the street, have a mood. The way he uses light, the way the light moves across the cab and De Niro’s face, there was a real poetry to it.”

Scorsese, who worked with Chapman on four films, including “Raging Bull,” is not the only filmmaker who sings Chapman’s praises. According to Philip Kaufman, Michael Chapman is the smartest man in Hollywood. James Toback calls him a blue-collar intellectual. To Scorsese, he’s a ballet dancer when he has a camera in his hands. To the members of the American Society of Cinematographers, who are giving Chapman their lifetime achievement award this year, he is part of a generation that changed the face of American cinema in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

New York stories

Getting his start at the prestigious Manhattan commercial studio MPO, the Wellesley, Mass., native would play a vital role in bringing a new look to American movies — raw, gritty, filled with shadows and rough-edged textures, and marked by expressive hand-held camerawork. Chapman emerged as part of the New York school of filmmakers responsible for a string of American classics including “The French Connection,” “The Hospital,” “The Candidate,” “The Gambler,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “Straight Time.”

“Michael is a staunch New Englander,” says fellow ASC lifetime honoree Gordon Willis, an MPO alum with whom Chapman felt an instant rapport. “He’s very opinionated, with both feet on the ground, staring straight ahead. He’s a very definitive kind of person.”

Willis should know since he employed Chapman as his camera operator on such groundbreaking works as “Klute,” “Little Murders” and “The Godfather.”

“I learned everything from Gordy,” says Chapman. “He took his work terribly seriously and concentrated on it entirely. He did it because he had to. Gordy was an artist. He towed me along in his wake while he remade cinematography.”

In 1973, director Hal Ashby asked Willis to shoot “The Last Detail,” a slice-of-life drama about two sailors escorting a prisoner across country. Willis was already committed to another picture, so he recommended Chapman for the job. “I lost my camera operator, but it was time for Michael to shoot a film,” says Willis.

“Because it was a movie in which there were almost no sets, I managed to figure out in my terror that the actual light in the locations was far more charged with information and emotion than anything I could do to it,” recalls Chapman of his first d.p. credit. “So I spent as much time as I possibly could leaving it alone.”

Such veteran cameramen as Vilmos Zsigmond suspect more skill and effort went into it than that. “Only us who are cinematographers appreciate the techniques that he used to get that naturalistic look,” says Zsigmond. “That is extremely difficult to achieve.”

Chapman’s textured photography gave the film such visceral reality that viewers could almost smell the mildewed carpets of the sailors’ tacky hotel rooms, the stale beer of the bars and sour cigarette smoke of the train cars.

‘Tough, efficient strokes’

His next film, Kaufman’s “The White Dawn,” explored a much different landscape. The story concerned three 19th-century whalers who get lost in the Arctic. It was filmed 400 miles north of the tree line in the Canadian tundra.

“Chappie’s camerawork is like Hemingway’s writing, done with a short pencil in very tough, efficient strokes,” says Kaufman. “He’s got the same sharp definition in his work.”

“The Arctic is not like any other place in the world because the light’s never up in the top of the sky, it’s always low,” says Chapman. “It’s the most dramatic Caravaggioesque cross-light you ever saw.”

By the end of the ’70s, Chapman had shot some of the most original and influential films of the decade: “The Front,” “The Last Waltz,” “Fingers,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Hardcore.”

When he was hired to shoot Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980), there were four other boxing pictures in production that year. Scorsese wanted to differentiate his by shooting in black-and-white, and by going not only inside the ring for the fight scenes but also inside the consciousness of protagonist Jake La Motta.

“He reinvented the boxing film,” Scorsese says of Chapman. “He made his own dollies and special rigs, some of which he used for only one shot. At one point the actor playing Sugar Ray gets knocked onto the ropes. The camera had to go flying through the ropes into a still photographer, who was snapping a photo. It had to be done with a crane, plus an extension. You’d always hear sawing — wood being banged together.”

In contrast, the scenes outside the ring that chronicled La Motta’s shattered personal life were filmed with stark simplicity. “If you look at some of the dramatic scenes in ‘Raging Bull,’ they’re done in one take and the camera is locked in position like a rock,” says Scorsese. “It pans a little left, a little right. Chapman understood the dramatic continuity within the frame. There was one shot where De Niro picks up Cathy Moriarty and brings her to his father’s apartment. They go into the kitchen and sit at a table. Chapman said, ‘This is a very sweet moment between the two of them. You don’t want to go to the tighter shot. It’s all here in this wide shot. It may be awkward, but that’s the beauty of it.’ It’s one thing to use dramatic camera moves, but to know that the wide shot with a static camera was right for a scene — see, that’s a cinematographer who understands the film. He had a touch of the poet in him.”

End of an era

The runaway budgets of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) brought the studios’ brief flirtation with auteurist filmmaking to an end. Blockbuster fever swept through the movie business.

The new films offered engaging challenges. For “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), director Carl Reiner asked Chapman to shoot black-and-white footage of Steve Martin that could be edited seamlessly into scenes from a dozen or so film noirs from the ’40s and ’50s. For “Six Days Seven Nights” (1998), Ivan Reitman and Chapman decided they wanted to re-create the stylized look of the great Cinema-scope Technicolor South Seas movies of the 1950s.

“Michael refurbished all of these great old carbon arc lights that are not available anymore,” says Reitman. “He loved the weight and color of the light, and used it as fill. It added this lovely deep yellow glow to the faces against the bluer daylight coloring of natural light. The combination gave the film this lovely glow.”

In November, Chapman finished shooting his 39th film, “House of D,” an independent feature written and directed by David Duchovny. “I think it’s going be wonderful and way outside the mainstream,” he says. “I seem to have fallen into a niche of working with younger directors on low-budget independent movies and I’m very happy doing it.”

Selective filmography
House of D (2004)
Eulogy (2004)
Suspect Zero (2004)
Evolution (2001)
Six Days Seven Nights (1998)
The Fugitive (1993)
Rising Sun (1993)
Quick Change (1990)
Scrooged (1988)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
Personal Best (1982)
Raging Bull (1980)
The Wanderers (1979)
Hardcore (1979)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Fingers (1978)
The Last Waltz (1978)
The Front (1976)
Taxi Driver (1976)
The White Dawn (1974)
The Last Detail (1973)

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