WHAT: American Society of Cinematographers’ 21st annual Outstanding Achievement Awards
WHERE: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles
WHEN: Sunday; cocktails and reception 4:30 p.m.; dinner 6 p.m.; awards presentation 7:30 p.m.
WATTAGE: Presenters include Martin Scorsese, Charlize Theron, Ron Meyer, Joseph Sargent and Richard Benjamin, among others
Talking with Michael Ballhaus over a phone line crossing a continent and an ocean to Berlin, it’s hard to reconcile his voice with on-set photos of the burly, white-haired figure whose notable work in cinema began with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s.
He sounds uncannily young, alert and nimble, with the merest hint of a German accent — a creative spirit, it would seem, who exists apart from earthly time or international boundaries.
He is particularly happy on the day we speak because Martin Scorsese, with whom he worked on “The Departed” and six previous movies, has just won the Directors Guild Award for the picture. “Well deserved!” declares Ballhaus, and yes — “maybe it means this time he’ll get the Oscar!”
A three-time Oscar nominee himself, the cinematographer is the recipient, at 71, of the International Achievement Award of the American Society of Cinematographers, for which he’ll fly to Los Angeles to collect Sunday at the Hyatt Century Plaza Hotel.
“He’s exceedingly versatile, with an extraordinary body of work that encompasses so many different genres and styles,” says Russ Alsobrook, chairman of the ASC Awards committee, citing “the formalistic style of ‘The Age of Innocence’ and the dark and gritty realism of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Departed.'”
Some of Ballhaus’ handiwork is oft-cited by devotees of the art: the Steadicam tracking shot of Ray Liotta entering a nightclub through the kitchen in “GoodFellas,” for example, or the 360-degree pan of Michelle Pfeiffer vamping “Makin’ Whoopie” atop a piano in “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”
But for Ballhaus himself, it’s not the technical dazzle but the contribution they made to storytelling that makes these shots particularly satisfying — and it’s this emphasis on enhancing the big picture that has made him valuable as a collaborator to so many directors, from James L. Brooks (“Broadcast News”) to Robert Redford (“Quiz Show”) and Francis Coppola (“Dracula”).
The “Goodfellas” tracking shot “was Marty’s idea, for sure,” he says, but he himself cites it frequently to his film school students because “it’s a perfect example of a shot that with only two or three words of dialogue tells a story that you couldn’t tell with words. (Liotta’s) character could never explain to his girlfriend who he is, but you can show it, and that’s the best thing that can happen.”
In “Baker Boys,” the 360-degree pan and handheld zoom brings “an emotional high that pulls you into that place and that moment in a way that is so much greater than you could get from shooting close-ups and cutting,” he relates.
With “The Departed” up for best picture, it’s a heady season for Ballhaus, but then, much of his life has been characterized by a tinge of enchantment. By age 12, he was living in a Bavarian castle — the run-down but spacious accommodation chosen by his actor parents for their live-in theatrical company. Through the family’s friendship with filmmaker Max Ophuls, he was able to spend a week on the set of “Lola Montes” at 17 and became fascinated by the wordless, international language that seemed to flow — “like magic,” he recalls — between the German director and his French-speaking cinematographer, Christian Matras.
Growing up among actors, he learned “to respect the job and how hard it is,” which he says has served him well in gaining the trust of collaborators, from Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Departed,” “Gangs of New York”) to Meryl Streep (“Postcards From the Edge”), Diane Keaton (“Something’s Gotta Give”) and so many others in a career that spans nearly 100 narrative films.
In his youth, Ballhaus yearned to become an actor. But at his father’s insistence that he find a more practical profession, he took up still photography, then moved into television work and documentaries. Introduced in 1971 to Fassbinder, then the enfant terrible of the New German cinema, they began a stormy but creatively rich relationship that lasted through 15 films, including “The Marriage of Maria Braun.”
“He constantly pushed me to shoot ambitious movies on very short schedules,” Ballhaus says. “I learned a lot how to create visual rhythms as we went along.” The skills served him well when he was called upon in 1985 to shoot “After Hours” for Scorsese, which required pulling off a daunting 16 shots a night on location in New York.
The picture restored Scorsese to bankability and led to a lasting collaboration. “I feel that I know his vision and I can translate it into images,” the d.p. says. “This is the most wonderful relationship that I have.”
On “The Departed,” they began with an inclination toward a noir style, studying ’40s films like “T-Men” and “Raw Deal,” then made adjustments for the contemporary setting and budget. Ballhaus’ favorite sequence is the surreptitious pursuit through Chinatown of Matt Damon’s character by Leonardo DiCaprio. “I like the atmosphere and the weird colors,” he laughs.
Ballhaus has yet to shoot a feature on digital and says he is not particularly inclined to. “I don’t like the quality so much, though I would say it depends on the story you’re telling,” he allows. “The kind of stories I am drawn to, I think they feel much better on 35mm.”
For now, Ballhaus is at home in Berlin, teaching film school students as he has since 1968. Despite his remarkable history, he declares himself humbled by the ASC honor, which he calls “one of the best rewards of my life.”
“It’s an international award from my peers, and that means a lot to me,” he says, pointing out that he’s the first German who’s received it, “more than the Oscar, because this comes from a community that knows so much about the job.”
21st Annual ASC Awards
Emmanuel Lubezki, “Children of Men”
Dick Pope, “The Illusionist”
Robert Richardson, “The Good Shepherd”
Dean Semler, “Apocalypto”
Vilmos Zsigmond, “The Black Dahlia”
Thomas Del Ruth, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (pilot)
Adam Kane, “Heroes” (pilot)
Walt Lloyd, “The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines” (telefilm)
Bill Roe, “Day Break” (pilot)
John Stokes, “Umney’s Last Case” episode of “Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King” (miniseries).
Eagle Egilsson, “Darkroom”/”CSI: Miami”
Nathan Hope, “Killer”/”CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”
David Moxness, “Arrow”/”Smallville”
Bill Roe, “What if They Find Him”/”Day Break”
Gale Tattersall, “Meaning”/”House M.D.”