Alan Parker on the Curse of Video Village, Working With DPs, Actors

The British director chairs the main competition jury at the Camerimage Film Festival

Alan Parker on Working With DPs
Courtesy of Rii Schroer/REX/Shutterstock

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — Alan Parker’s remarkable record of critical and audience successes — an unlikely feat considering he’s made just 14 films since 1976’s “Bugsy Malone” — also display a surprising range of style and genres from musicals, including “Fame” and “Evita” to actor vehicles “Birdy” and “Angel Heart,” and fact-based political stories such as “Mississippi Burning.” He chairs the main competition jury at the Camerimage film festival this year, considering work from 15 countries that incorporates standout cinematography.

Your career-long partnership with DP Michael Seresin has resulted in striking visuals in all your films. How did your process work together in creating so many different looks and moods?

Ironically, the time we won the Academy Award, for “Mississippi Burning” it was Peter Biziou, it wasn’t Michael Seresin. But Michael has done most of them. And prior to doing film he probably did a hundred commercials with me too.

So you had intensive training together in the ad world of 1960s London. Did that ever cause him to step beyond the usual DP role?

He deferred to me. The relationship is very clear – absolutely, it’s a collaboration and I rely very much on him on the visual aspect of things. But I think the great thing about having your friend as well as your collaborator is that you do get on. People think of long-term relationships of the director and cinematographer as regarding the work, which is correct.

Actually, what’s more important is, you’re usually away from home and you want it to be someone you can have dinner with as well. And when things get difficult as they do on every single film – there’s always a moment when you get brain freeze where you say, ‘I’ve done a thousand shots and I can’t think of a thousand and one’ — he’s there to help you through those difficult times. Not just as your collaborator but as your pal.

How crucial is that harmony and respect for films — especially on long, location shoots?

If you don’t get on with a cinematographer, well if there’s conflict between a director and a cinematographer, you will undoubtedly get a bad film. That’s why it’s so important to be with someone you’ve known for so long.

And the language is easy, the vocabulary. He knows exactly what you want. Also, we’ve got so many reference points, whether previous work, previous situations with regard to the light, the shot, the lens, what can go wrong, what will enhance it and make it better.

For all those things you’ve got either reference points from the work you’ve done. Also, the interesting thing is we grew up together because we started so young. We went to the same photographic exhibitions, we went to the same art museums. Our visual sensibility grew and developed in parallel, really.

Has it now become so easy and cheap to make a film that this relationship is in danger of becoming extinct?

The nature of things now — you can make a movie on this DSLR dead easy, it’s that small — and I think that with this new generation…I have a 12-year-old who makes films. He shoots, he wouldn’t think of having anyone else shoot it. In other words, the whole collaborative thing might not be so great in the future.

But great cinematographers and great directors have quite different skill sets and even world views, don’t they?

When I first started, the camera was a mysterious thing. Only certain people understood it. It was technically really difficult. And certain people were really good at understanding that but they weren’t any good at understanding writing a script or directing or working with actors. They were very different skills, you know.

Now the mystery of the camera is gone – everybody, technologically, can make their own movie. On their iPad. The cinematographer/director may be much more of a thing you see in the future.

Many of the films at Camerimage this year were shot by the director — often with incredible results, as in the Polish feature here, “Forest, 4am,” or increasing numbers of docus, including at least four at the fest. When can this work well?

It depends, I suppose, on the ambition of the piece. Because the more advanced technology has made these cameras so small, you get ease of use rather than pushing around this washing machine. But then there is an argument regarding the stylistic choice of ease. They move the camera so much it never stops. And that can be very bothersome or it can give a fluidity and an energy to the storytelling.

You also have more inclusiveness in the technology, with a video village displaying the actors on monitors that are across the soundstage and the director is now sitting there. But doesn’t this make the actors feel lonely?

The video village is a curse. The director suddenly has lost contact not just with the actor, which is now done on the radio secondhand with the AD. You lose contact with your camera. You’re mad not to use it but there’s a triangle between camera operator, me and the point of focus, which is the actor.

So I have to be physically there. I had a monitor on a light stand, which can move around easily. With that triangle you can move all the time whether you’re in a street or on a stage. I would never be too far away where I could not talk directly to the actor — and never too far away that I couldn’t talk directly to the cameraman.

How did you manage to get the intensity of the performances in your films? Clearly, you always worked closely and personally with your actors.

You retain the intimacy — it should be you, the director, and the actor, and the camera should be by your side. The video village pushes you away from the two most important elements in the film.

A lot of actors really don’t like it because disembodied voices are… to me the most precious thing is, if I watch an actor or actress do something and I say ‘Cut,’ the first thing they do, they should look at you. And you go, ‘Fantastic’ or you go, ‘Almost fantastic’ or you go, whatever — ‘Let’s take a break and we need to talk about it.’ If they’re not looking at you but looking at the AD or they’re looking at one another, your director ceases to be of help to them really.

Are you encouraged about the state of art film by the features in the main competition at Camerimage? The range of visions, from South Africa (“Blood and Glory”) to Vanuatu/Australia (“Tanna”), is impressive.

One of the reasons I try to do one festival a year as a jury member is mostly because I know that I will see a dozen films and two-thirds of them I probably would never get to see other than at a festival. Sometimes you can see a really bad film from a culture that you really don’t know or understand and it doesn’t matter how bad the film is. You enjoy it because you’re gaining other things from it.

If amazing films can only be seen at festivals, that doesn’t speak very well of the distribution and marketing system, does it?

It doesn’t. And I’m very suspicious of people who make films just for festivals. The most difficult film to make is a film that has creative integrity and reaches a wider audience. If you’re making a personal, intellectual, serious, art film that will only be seen at festivals, it’s okay, but it’s not really what cinema is supposed to be. Particularly if you’re making a political point. Because if you’re making a political point, you want to reach the biggest audience you can.

Having made relatively few films over your four decades as a director, is there a lesson for filmmakers starting out now about going slow and focusing on quality rather than output?

Because of the new technologies, younger filmmakers are being forced to make them much quicker. The editing process is so fast — we used to think nothing of working a month to a year to cut the film. That allows you time to think about what you’re doing. Now they have to be cut so fast because of the economies of things.

But can there be an advantage to putting out so many films so fast?

There’s an American phrase, which is a basketball phrase, I think: ‘hot hands.’ There were certain times when every single shot by Michael Jordan went in. In a game, you get the hot hand — you go to the guy with the hot hand. It’s the same in film, the same in music.

Bob Dylan did his three great albums in a very short period of time. The Beatles, the same. Filmmakers, I think, have a hot hand for a few years. So maybe it’s good to make a lot of films while you have that.

But I suppose we’re never going back to slow filmmaking, are we? At least for those with a budget in hand.

Which brings up the other point with the video village – there’s too many people sitting around looking at that image. Too many people with a point of view or an opinion. That’s the most dangerous thing of all because when you didn’t have that, I would say, ‘Cut.’ That’s it, guys. We’ve got it. I’m the one who says that. And no one else knows.

And now filmmakers are expected to even invite the audience to participate in the filmmaking as they do on crowdfunding platforms.

Yeah, crowdfunding. And certainly the whole Hollywood system where they have test screenings and pass around these cards with the audience. Then they go and re-edit based on those cards. In Los Angeles there’s a whole group of people who only go to those test screenings. They feel like they’re a studio executive!