For nearly 50 years, British director of photography Chris Menges, known for his use of natural light and his deft camera composition, has pursued a distinctive and unconventional career path.
He has photographed in some of the world’s most troubled hot spots — from apartheid-era South Africa to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh trail to, most recently, Iraq — first as a documentary cameraman and then as a cinematographer on narrative features. In addition, many of the d.p.’s credits are on films freighted with social, political and moral issues.
“I’ve always liked to work on films that have probing stories I can learn from,” he declares. “I tackle projects because I care about the narrative.”
Menges has been nominated for four Academy Awards and won two: for “The Killing Fields” (1984), about the massacre of millions of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, and “The Mission” (1986), the story of an 18th-century South American Indian tribe threatened by Portuguese slavers. Both were directed by Roland Joffe.
“Chris Menges has dedicated his career to helping to create films that tell the important stories of our time,” says Michael Goi, the president of the American Society of Cinematographers. The d.p. will be honored with the ASC’s International Award at its annual awards dinner Feb. 27.
In his teens, Menges apprenticed with an American filmmaker, Allan Forbes, “a one-man band” who lived next door to his family in England. “I got to make his coffee, and he taught me how to use a camera and how to record sound and edit,” he recalls.
At 22 he began a six-year stint as a journalist cameraman for “World in Action,” an English investigative newsshow, taking him all over Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America. “By doing documentaries, I learned a lot about the world we live in,” Menges notes. It also informed his style when he became a feature cinematographer. “I learned about light and the energy of light,” he observes. “After all, if you’re in a jungle, you’re not going to have anything but natural light to work with.”
Forbes jumpstarted Menges’ career as a theatrical cinematographer by introducing him to a group of up-and-coming English filmmakers, including directors Lindsay Anderson and Kenneth Loach. One of his first commercial jobs was serving as camera operator for d.p. Miroslav Ondracek on Anderson’s “If …,” about a revolt at an English boarding school, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes.
He moved up to full-fledged cinematographer a year later on “Kes,” Loach’s second film, about the dead-end prospects of a young person growing up in the Yorkshire coal-mining region. Considered a seminal example of England’s social realist school of filmmaking and an indictment of the country’s class structure, the film ranks No. 7 on the British Film Institute’s top 10 list and was the winner of two BAFTAs.
“Chris has a very special eye — his sense of light is unique — delicate and truthful,” says Loach, who has collaborated with Menges on a dozen films, including one currently in the pipeline. “Chris also has a strong sense of politics,” he adds. “His documentary background has given him an understanding of and hatred for imperialism in all its forms. The gentle manner is deceptive. He’s no soft touch.”
Menges turns 70 on Sept. 15 but shows no signs of slowing down. He shot Indian director Udayan Prashad’s “The Yellow Handkerchief,” about three lost souls driving through Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. It opens in March.
And Menges has lensed two films set for release later this year: “Route Irish,” his latest with Loach, about the death of a British security contractor in Iraq; and “London Boulevard,” the helming debut of scribe William Monahan about an ex-con and a reclusive actress, starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley.