With his unfussy approach to composition and an unerring eye for the telling detail, Australian cinematographer John Seale has long been the d.p of choice for many of Hollywood’s top directors, including fellow Aussie Peter Weir, Wolfgang Petersen, Rob Reiner, John Boorman, Barry Levinson, Chris Columbus and the late Anthony Minghella.
In turn, Seale has arguably elicited some of those A-listers’ best work, often in collaborations that stretched over several projects and many years; for Weir he shot “Witness,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “Dead Poets Society”; for Minghella, “The English Patient” (for which he won the Oscar), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain”; for Petersen “The Perfect Storm” and “Poseidon”; and for Reiner “The Ghosts of Mississippi” and “The American President.”
Even less fruitful partnerships yielded memorable results; Levinson’s “Rain Man,” Boorman’s “Beyond Rangoon,” Sydney Pollack’s “The Firm” and Columbus’ franchise-defining “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” all benefited from Seale’s firm hand and ability to put his craft fully at the service of the story being told.
“My aesthetic approach has always been to keep it simple and honest,” says the latest recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers’ International Award for career achievement. “I started off, like a lot of d.ps., doing commercials, and they can often taint you towards a fake, glossy image. And I think a lot of cameramen tended to take that look to their feature film work, because it looks good and was a very acceptable image.
“But I was lucky in working with a lot of wonderful directors who specifically asked me not to be glossy and commercial, which suited me perfectly. I always set out to create a very recognizable reality, even if it was a period piece. And most of the films I enjoyed making were reality-driven, contemporary films.”
Seale also counts himself “very lucky” to have been part of the Aussie New Wave’s invasion of Hollywood in the ’80s, “along with all the directors who helped create the renaissance,” he says. “And I was lucky to be part of a lot of their early films, mainly as camera operator.” It was Weir who first brought Seale to America, to shoot “Witness” in 1984. “I got an Oscar nomination for that, and that immediately opened a lot of doors in Hollywood and basically jump-started my career,” he recalls.
Ironically, that success in America (he was later Oscar nominated for “Rain Man” and “Cold Mountain”) bred “a certain resentment back home,” he explains. “If you went to America in that first wave and made good, when you came back home you were attacked a bit by the press. They really got quite belligerent about it for a long time, which disappointed me a lot. But the American system doesn’t try to cut you down like that. When you get nominated or win an award, Americans are the first people to congratulate you — and mean it.”
Seale, who was recently in Venice and France for “The Tourist” and before that in England and Morocco for “Prince of Persia,” fondly recalls globetrotting and location scouting with Minghella. “We shot ‘The English Patient’ in Tunisia and Italy, and Anthony hired me without even meeting or interviewing me,” he reports. “A plane ticket to Rome arrived and I met him for the first time there and we started right away into prep. He was that kind of man — he just followed his instincts.”
While Seale rates his films with Minghella as some of his favorites, he also stresses that the 30-plus productions he’s been a part of over the past 25 years, “are all my children, and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of choices to choose from.”
So what’s his secret for picking a project? “Simple. I just sit down and read the script straight through, as though it’s a movie,” he says. “I let it unfold visually in my mind, and when I put the script down, I just ask myself, ‘Would I pay $15 to see that, and would I enjoy it?’ And if the answer’s yes, I do it. Of course, that’s when all the real hard work starts.”
Roger Deakins | John Seale | Douglas Kirkland |Michael O’Shea