×

Camerimage: ‘Killing Fields’ Cinematographer Chris Menges on Keeping it Real

Cinematographer took lessons learned shooting documentaries into his fiction film work

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — Whether shooting handheld on film in a war zone or creating a chilling digital period piece for “The Reader,” it’s never about technique or technology, according to two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges.

Instead, the master cinematographer advises, “It’s about tone.”

The lenser of Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” presented his inspirations and lessons at Poland’s Camerimage fest Wednesday as dozens of industry vets and emerging shooters leaned in for counsel from the soft-spoken D.P.

The fit 74-year-old, who shot Steven Knight’s “Redemption” last year as his 59th pic, is remarkably humble about his work, citing story, director, actors and location as primary building blocks for good film before getting to crew.

“If you’ve got locations right, you’re onto a winner,” he says — although the effort to capture the authentic backdrop of Southeast Asian conflicts of the 60s for the “World in Action” weekly news series nearly cost him his life. Menges and a colleague were lost in the jungle and on the run from the Kuomintang for 18 months and believed dead before they finally made their way back to freedom. During the desperate sojourn, Menges’ son was born.

His early documentary training, which also involved slipping into restricted areas to shoot the African National Congress under Apartheid and breaking into Tibet along with helmer Adrian Cowell and journalist George Patterson to document brutal Chinese oppression, was the best schooling a filmmaker could hope for, he recalls.

Popular on Variety

Now, after decades of work, often with directors attuned to documentary-style minimalism such as Ken Loach and Neil Jordan, Menges still insists on authenticity.

Often he’s found that’s best achieved by giving actors space to create — and move — without cameras in their faces. While working with Loach on the seminal film “Kes” in 1969, Menges says, it was all about long lenses and shooting from a distance.

“We would always work outside the circle of performance,” he says.

For a cinematographer who prefers to operate the camera himself with as little fuss as possible, an Oscar can be rather annoying, Menges confesses — let alone two. “I think in my case it did me no favors,” he says.

Nor do hazards to good camerawork end once the shoot wraps, he says. A pervasive issue with home vid releases coming out in different formats from the one a film was shot in is just one example.

Cinematographers must fight to ensure their vision reaches future auds, according to Menges, because film is “a labor of love – that’s something that should be fought for.”

More Artisans

  • Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, California,

    Alison Small Set to Lead Training for Netflix in U.K. (EXCLUSIVE)

    Alison Small, CEO of The Production Guild of Great Britain, is in discussions to join Netflix as head of its training initiatives out of the U.K., Variety has learned. The Production Guild, whose members include line producers, production managers and location managers, among others, advertised for a new CEO last week. Its chair is Alex [...]

  • The Gentlemen Costume Design

    How Costume, Production Pros Used Class Style to Define Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Gentlemen’

    For Guy Ritchie’s newest crime-meets-action film “The Gentlemen,” about an American drug kingpin living in Britain and trying to sell his business, the director turned to his “Aladdin” team of costume designer Michael Wilkinson and production designer Gemma Jackson. But the backgrounds and looks they created had less to do with Arabian Nights than with [...]

  • Frozen 2 Rocketman Avengers Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame,' 'Frozen 2,' 'Rocketman' Take Top Honors at Lumiere Awards

    “Frozen 2” led the Advanced Imaging Society’s Lumiere Awards on Wednesday. The hit Disney sequel was honored with three Lumieres for immersive animated feature film, original song and use of HDR. Director Jennifer Lee was on hand to accept the prizes during a ceremony at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. The Advanced Imaging Society [...]

  • 1917 Movie

    How the '1917' Special Effects Makeup Team Created Realistic Dead Bodies

    Prior to working on “1917,” special effects artist Tristan Versluis had designed no more than five or six corpses. But Sam Mendes, director of the WWI drama, which has garnered 10 Oscar nominations, needed Versluis, who picked up one of those noms in the hair and makeup category, to create 30 corpses and dead horses, [...]

  • The Irishman

    Editor Thelma Schoonmaker on Cutting Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman'

    When Thelma Schoonmaker heard about her Oscar nomination for “The Irishman,” she had just stepped off a plane from England. Martin Scorsese’s assistant had texted her about the news, one of the first people to do so. “The Irishman” received a total of ten nominations and was unlike anything Scorsese had done before. “He wanted [...]

  • David O. Russell

    David O. Russell Looks at 'Three Kings' 20 Years Later

    When David O. Russell made “Three Kings” in 1999, it was one of the most definitive films on the Gulf War. At the time, the director had worked on shorts “Hairway to the Stars” and “Bingo Inferno: A Parody on American Obsessions.” He had also worked on features “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting with Disaster.” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content