The recipient of this year’s American Society of Cinematographers international achievement award rode the crest of the Australian New Wave of the late ’70s/early ’80s.
At the time, Down Under cinematographer Donald McAlpine thought it unlikely that the siren call of Hollywood would reach beyond some of the fellow Aussie filmmakers he’d worked with, including such rising stars as Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong. But an unlikely fan changed all that in 1982 with a predawn phone call.
Paul Mazursky, an actor-turned-auteur who gained acclaim for such films as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and “An Unmarried Woman,” was drawn to McAlpine’s work. The d.p. had shot three critically acclaimed Australian films — Beresford’s “Breaker Morant” and “Getting of Wisdom” and Armstrong’s “My Brilliant Career” — that had opened in New York and become the talk of the town.
Having been roused from his sleep at 3 a.m., McAlpine asked the director to call him right back so he could look up who he was. Mazursky wound up hiring the Aussie for “Tempest,” starring John Cassavetes, which was filming in Greece. That was the beginning of a four-film collaboration that also included “Moon Over Parador,” “Moscow on the Hudson” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
“I attribute my breakout to Paul’s interest in using me and his faith in me,” declares the 74-year-old McAlpine, the first Aussie to receive the ASC international accolade. “Because of him, I hit the American league, and I enjoyed playing that game.”
It’s appropriate, then, that Mazursky (who, coincidentally, is receiving this year’s Cinema Audio Society Filmmaker Award) will introduce McAlpine when the latter receives his tribute from the ASC at the org’s annual awards dinner Sunday. “It was quite a hilarious experience working with Paul — he’s a real eccentric, but in a very good way,” says the d.p.
McAlpine has worked on some 50 features covering virtually every genre — including collaborations with Baz Luhrmann, Alan Pakula, Ron Howard, Martin Ritt, John Badham, Chris Columbus and actor-directors Mel Gibson and Paul Newman. The lenser’s hallmarks are versatility and strong narrative focus. He describes himself as “a storyteller who happens to be able to control a camera.”
But he claims no distinctive stamp. “An overall style for a cameraman is virtually a kiss of death,” he says. “If you’re enduring, you develop the style that’s needed for that job, which depends on the essence of the script and the story the director really wants to tell.”
When it’s called for, McAlpine can provide virtuoso camerawork. He was the d.p. on two of Luhrmann’s most visually dazzling films, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” The lenser received an Oscar nom for the latter.
McAlpine came to filming theatrical features relatively late at age 38. Born in a small town in New South Wales, about 250 miles inland from Sydney, he was still in his 20s when he was asked by coaches to make slow-motion films of athletes training for the 1956 Olympics in Sydney.
He then became a stringer for a small television station, which led to photography work with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., followed by a move to government-funded Film Australia, where he shot numerous 35mm color documentaries.
After seeing several of his short films, Beresford chose McAlpine in 1972 to be the cinematographer on a slapstick comedy, “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie,” which featured comedian Barry Humphries in one of his first film incarnations as Dame Edna. Despite its slight subject matter, “It was debatably the first Australian-financed film,” McAlpine observes, leading to “our golden age of cinema, since the Americans came in during the 1930s and bought out whatever cinema we had and closed it down.”
Beresford and McAlpine wound up making 10 more movies together. The most acclaimed collaboration was “Breaker Morant,” based on the true story of three Australian military officers who were tried for murder in South Africa during the Boer Wars. It went on to win 10 Australian Film Institute awards, including best cinematography, and an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.
McAlpine’s career continues to evolve as he tackles new challenges. He’s currently in Vancouver finishing up on “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” directed by South African director Gavin Hood (“Totsi”). The d.p. is unfazed by the extensive digital effects employed in the next film in the blockbuster series, requiring him to shoot actors against greenscreen. “This is easy compared to my last film, where I had to deal with an invisible lion,” he says, referring to Aslan in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
The cinematographer has not yet employed a digital camera on a film shoot, though he says he’d very much like to give it a try. He also predicts that “digital’s day is inevitably coming” — not for the usual reason, however, but because of the environment. “When you think of all the prints that get made each week, causing pollution with these nasty chemicals that get thrown out — it’s got to change,” McAlpine declares.
What: 23rd American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards
Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, Los Angeles
Career Achievement Award in Television: Robert F. “Bobby” Liu
Presidents Award: Isidore Mankofsky
Lifetime Achievement: Jack Green
International Achievement: Donald McAlpine
Board of Governors Award: Christopher Nolan