Michael Chapman and that legendary "Raging Bull" fight scene
We sit down with the cinematographer behind some of Scorsese's best films.
Cinema is a mechanical art, says Michael Chapman, when we meet in Bydgoszcz, Poland at Camerimage (the most important film festival dedicated to cinematographers). He lists Martin Scorsese, Ivan Reitman, and Philip Kaufman among his influences, so I feel a little dubious when he speaks about his craft in such matter-of-fact terms. But he really is one of those cinematographers who possess both an artistic vision and a technical knowledge about cinematography. He can name every camera in the world and every lens. Directors appreciate collaborating with him because he perfectly knows what’s possible or impossible to film with the equipment and locations they have. And he’s great at getting every last drop out of a scene. That’s what he did with Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, and Taxi Driver, films that he helped make into classics. In part thanks to him, we as moviegoers see New York City not just as a location, but as a character. He doesn’t regret that digital cameras are supplanting traditional ones, and he has no regrets about anything he’s shot (with the exception of maybe one thing in Taxi Driver).
Artur Zaborski: You have worked on so many great films! Is there one you like the most?
Michael Chapman: I think that Taxi Driver was the best movie I ever worked on. I'm not sure that I can say it's my best cinematography — it was only my third movie, I had only shot two others before it — but as a complete work, yes, it is certainly the movie I am most proud of. I don't know any other movies like it. I did work on all sorts of other movies, but Taxi Driver is far beyond me, it's just a kind of, I hate to say things like that but, a work of art. So yes, it's the one I'm proudest of.
Zaborski: Taxi Driver started your collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Tell me about it.
Chapman: I worked with Marty under different circumstances each time. Taxi Driver was a low budget film that had to be shot in New York, obviously, because [the city is] one of the most important characters in the movie. And in those days there were two unions, one in L.A. and one in New York, and you had to have New York people to be in the crew and a New York person to shoot it, and [the film] didn't have much money. So there were a couple of quite expensive cameramen in New York, but it couldn't be one of them. Marty apparently talked to a whole bunch of people, and myself among them, and we got along really well. We both talk fast like that.
Zaborski: I think he speaks faster than you.
Chapman: Me, too. (Laughs) We also were big fans of Jean Godard, and while I may not have been a better cameraman than many of the other people he talked to, he just suspected that I knew more about things going on in the movies, so he hired me. That was how I did Taxi Driver. The Last Waltz was another complicated situation. Originally, when it got out of hand it became huge, big, ten cameras, all that sort of thing. Originally he was going to use Lazlo Koufax, who had shot a movie for Marty, but Lazlo couldn't do it because he was busy doing another movie, so Marty called me. I was really the second choice because he couldn't get Lazlo. Raging Bull, which is the third one, I think he thought it was a very cranky theme of a movie to shoot and to shoot it black and white, and that I was the crankiest person he could find, so he hired me. He called me and said, "Should we do it in black and white?" and I said, “Yes”. He hired me for the right reasons. I got along well with him during shooting, partly because I shut up and did what he told me. We got along well and we made three really good movies, I must say. We did something right I guess. I don't have any great insight into Marty's complicated persona. You'd have to talk to him.
Zaborski: On a personal level, how has cinematography changed with time?
Chapman: Well, certainly cinematography has changed radically from the middle seventies when we shot Taxi Driver. As we all know, it's gone from film to digital and you need much fewer lights and everything is lighter and the acceptance of new styles has come about everywhere. Are they better or worse? I don't think that is a valid question in a way; they simply are different. If I was to set out now to paint an Italian Renaissance painting and I perhaps do it as brilliantly as Michelangelo or somebody else, would that be useful or would it be passé? Cinema is a mechanical art, absolutely a mechanical art. You use machines to do it and if the mechanics change then the art has to change. So, I think it's changing, not necessarily in a way that I appreciate, but what the hell do I know? It is simply changing and there is no sense getting on about it.
Zaborski: I’d like to hear you elaborate on this.
Chapman: Well, I don't see everything that is done now, but what I have against modern technology is that I don't think people are exploiting it to the fullest extent that it can be exploited. Constantly they are saying that looks just like film, but why should it look just like film? That's bullshit. Digital must have inherent qualities that have nothing to do with film and someone should get the hell out there and exploit them. The cinematographer should be a painter!
Zaborski: Is there a relation between photography and cinematography?
Chapman: Oh, they are radically different. Still photography is about stopping time; cinematography goes through time. It couldn't be more different. They just happen to use the same materials.
Zaborski: Do you have any favorite contemporary cinematographers who work in the modern, digital way?
Chapman: I don't go to the movies very often. I am a member of the Academy and I'm flooded with DVDs around this time of year, just hundreds of them stacked up. So, I don't really go see much, and because of that, I don't think I can say, “Oh, that's a great cameraman." I'm sure there are hundreds of them and there are wonderful cameramen, but I haven't seen that much —I kind of suspect that very good camera work is done in things like music videos. But I could be absolutely wrong because I haven't seen many music videos either. I've just been told.
Zaborski: What was the biggest challenge for you in your work?
Chapman: Lighting New York City, which was one of the main characters in Taxi Driver. We didn't have the time or the money to light New York City; we had to let it light itself, which meant that we had to radically take down the lights that were lighting our characters in the taxi in order that that amount of light would be the same in the background, and so that you could see New York City, and that was the overwhelming challenge, to do that. In the end it's what I've talked about many times: the mechanics of cinema often dictate your setting, almost as much as the other way around.
Zaborski: Why do you think Taxi Driver became such a big success?
Chapman: I don't know. “It's a very good movie.” Isn't that the simplest answer? It seemed new and it seemed to tell the truth, and if you can get away with telling the truth in movies, which is very rare, then people sort of like it. And it has continued on that way because we sort of told the truth. I don't have any other answer than that. You never know why things are going to be a hit in Hollywood.
Zaborski: Did you try to do help it seem new?
Chapman: I don't know if I was consciously trying to do that. I was trying to do what had to be done. I don't remember that. I probably thought about it a little because we were taking the lights down so much, but basically I was just trying to do it.
Zaborski: If you got the call, would you do a sequel, Taxi Driver 2?
Chapman: Well, if I went on a set, someone should hit me over the head and drag me off because I'm too old. But I don't agree. No, I would not, I don't think there is any reason in the world. Because there is a way in which Taxi Driver is a kind of urban legend or a folk tale. There is this strange figure riding out there in the night. He's kind of a werewolf. He is a werewolf. Even his hair changes when he goes, and maybe something was going to happen later on, but no, it's a one piece thing. You are never going to write a script as good as that again; there isn't any reason to.
Zaborski: But so many people would love to see it with your cinematography!
Chapman: Well, I hate to disappoint them, but they aren't going to do it. And I'm not going to get back into it. I’m eighty-two and I can't do the hours anymore, I just can't, absolutely can't. You don't have any idea—or maybe you do—but shooting a feature fourteen hours a day, six days a week, when you're eighty? It can't be done. That's cruelty. So, no Taxi Driver 2, not even “Uber Driver.” It was a onetime thing and New York is very different now. That was a specific time and place and we just grabbed that time and place. The New York of today would be very different. It's not the city I loved and the city I lived in. It's not nice. All the areas I loved and I lived in have become gentrified beyond belief. Uptown, which was a wonderful place to live in the fifties and sixties, is now completely different.
Zaborski: Is there anything you would have done differently in Taxi Driver?
Chapman: I don't think so; I think we pretty much hit it. Oh, I know what I would have done, one thing I would have done: the woman walking in silhouette in the window. I would have had her a little lower, so she didn't appear so high. It looked a little artificial. Other than that, I'm sure I would have tweaked little things here and there, but basically I think we did it pretty well.
Zaborski: How big was your crew on Taxi Driver?
Chapman: I don't know what big or small means to you, but we had four electricians, and four grips, and that's about it, and an operator, and the first and the second assistant cameraman, and me. It wasn't a huge crew, but it was the minimal amount that could get it done quickly.
Zaborski: How has you style changed since then?
Chapman: If you have a style that influences what you do no matter what you do you are making a bad mistake. It changes from film to film because the films change. They are different subjects, they have different amounts of money spent on them, they have different ends, and want to do different things. For instance, The Fugitive, that movie was a big splash. An expensive chase movie with big stars and all that sort of thing, so it's going to be lit in a way that's not really so realistic, but which hopefully looks realistic, and he's convincing most people that this is what it is and they, at the same time, are lifted or whatever by the fact that it is a good deal more jazzy and lit and everything than it would be if it were a documentary. You have to find what is appropriate for a movie, and you have to decide what that is and that may change depending on what you can do. Here is an example: Imagine that you were doing a big, luxurious romance movie starring Harrison Ford and Marilyn Monroe. There is a shot at the door of a bedroom. The figure comes and opens the door, you cut around, you are inside the door. And there is Harrison, looking past the camera with a look of kind of a love, not just lust but love. You cut around and it's Marilyn Monroe lying on a bed. Now, in this case, sure, you would want to make it lovely and beautiful and romantic. There would be lovely soft light coming in through the window. There would be a little backlighting from a candle. There would be all those things to make it beautiful, because that's the movie you are doing, and it needs that kind of lighting, and that kind of focus and attention. Now imagine you are doing a totally different movie, with young, unknown actors, again a man and a woman, and they are in the back of a taxi and they are having a furious fight. They are screaming and yelling at each other. Now, would you light it the same way? Of course not, you would do what is appropriate to what you are shooting.
Zaborski: Lastly, I must know how you shot the fight scene in Raging Bull.
The short answer to that question is that the fights in Raging Bull were enormously choreographed, shot by shot by shot. Much of the rest of the movie is very simple. He's sitting there, he's sitting there, the camera is panning back and forth, it's a two-shot, and that's about it, most of the time, and that was quite deliberate. But the fights are made like in opera and they are extremely carefully calibrated. We tried to make each fight a slightly different style and all the fighting is in twenty-four frames and each fight is extremely well choreographed and the shots are exactly what you see.