‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Raging Bull’ Cinematographer: ‘Great Cinema Need Not Be Beautiful’

Michael Chapman to receive Camerimage's lifetime-achievement award

Cinematographer Michael Chapman: 'Great Cinema Need
Courtesy of Michael Chapman Archive

Cinematographer Michael Chapman, best-known for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” and feted at Camerimage with a lifetime achievement award, advises young would-be master lensers that great cinema need not be beautiful.

Visual splendor can be “a terrible mistake,” says the former ‘50s-era New York beatnik and later freight brakeman. “It shouldn’t be beautiful — it should be appropriate.” And the most impressive visual images “are often things shot on people’s cell phones,” he adds, whether natural disasters or ISIS atrocities.

That approach was key to Chapman’s breakout film as a young cinematographer, the now-iconic 1973 Hal Ashby pic “The Last Detail,” which followed two foul-mouthed sailors on a nonsensical cross-country assignment to hand over a young seaman to the brig.

The low-budget film, shot on street locations with available light, often “bars, railway stations and lunchrooms,” showed off an early-career Jack Nicholson “and maybe Jack’s best role in a weird way,” Chapman recalls.

He also remembers constant terror at handling his first job as cinematographer. Ashby had been impressed with his camera operating under director of photography Gordon Willis on his previous film, “The Landlord,” and, on discovering that Haskell Wexler could not shoot “The Last Detail” for union reasons, he hired the eager Chapman.

When considering the right aesthetic for the story, Chapman recalls, the decision to go with a documentary-style approach, often shooting hand-held, rang truest to him. Besides, he confesses, trying for an elaborately lit theatrical look like those favored by his mentor, Willis, cinematographer on “The Godfather” — for which Chapman was camera operator — was probably beyond his reach at the time.

“I bloody well wasn’t a great artist,” he says, but knew he had to “do something.” He soon found “the actual light in the actual locations was far more emotionally evocative than anything I could do at that stage in my career.”

The approach — along with Ashby’s and screenwriter Robert Towne’s rejection of the sanitized language used on screen for rough characters up to that time — lent a realism and minimalism that has helped the film to retain its authentic, organic feel through the decades.

It also meant the small company and crew found themselves facing real-life challenges while shooting, Chapman says.

Recalling the exterior winter sequence in which Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young throw back beers while looking half-frozen, shot in a city park in Toronto on a miserably cold day, he says, “They weren’t faking it.”

The D.P. would return to this low-key ethic, relying as much on “athleticism” as nuanced composition, he says, while operating camera for “Jaws” with an upstart Steven Spielberg in 1975. Chapman, an East Coast native and old hand at sailing, also shot hand-held during the third-act quest for the monster shark, all filmed at sea with Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider wrestling with waves, egos and one determined maneater just off-screen until the final climax.

In fact, Chapman remembers fondly, the frequent mechanical shark breakdowns that led to more paid days enjoying the beaches of Cape Cod than he would have ever imagined.

Other shoots, whether on all-night cruises of New York streets in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” or filming for days without sleep for rockumentary “The Last Waltz,” were more demanding. Others still, including the balletic opening shots of “Raging Bull,” for which Chapman had his assistants hand shift frame rates during fight sequences, resulted in what have been called cinematic “arias.”

But one of his earliest discoveries proved its use throughout his career, he says: The camera image is “the underlying support that carries it all along. Cinematography carries the whole bloody thing on its back.”

Camerimage runs Nov. 12-19 in Bydgoszcz, Poland.