A Conversation With Michael Ballhaus, ASC
November 20, 2006
We understand that you were born in Berlin and raised in the Bavarian region of Germany, and that your parents were in show business. Tell us about that.
My mother was an actress and my father was an actor in the theater. My uncle, Carl Ballhaus, was both a stage and film actor who was well known. My parents founded a theater company in 1945 when I was about 10 years old. About two years later, they moved to an old, run down castle that had very cheap rent. It had a stage and enough rooms for 20 actors. It was in a small town in Bavaria. I saw every play many times, and got to know many of them by heart. I wanted to be an actor, but my parents said that I had to concentrate on finishing school. I remember getting mad at them.
When did you get interested in photography?
I started taking pictures with a little box camera when I was 15. My parents decided to buy me a better camera, so I could photograph the actors and the actresses. I had a little lab and developed my own pictures. I had a great childhood.
Were you still thinking about a life in the theater?
I still wanted to be an actor, but I was also thinking about being a photographer. When I was 17 or 18, I had my first encounter with movies when I visited a set where Max Ophüls was directing Lola Montès. He was friends with my parents. I was there for about a week. It was a revelation for me. The cinematographer was Christian Matras from France, who didn’t speak German. He was working with a gaffer from Bavaria who didn’t speak a word of French. I watched them work together and communicate. It was like magic. I realized later in my life how important that experience was for me. I learned how hard the job of an actor is, and why they need a lot of love and respect. That experience helped me a lot later. An actor has to be totally relaxed to open up his heart to the audience. I try to provide that atmosphere.
Were there any other early cultural influences in your boyhood?
I met some wonderful conductors through my parents. I still think that being a conductor must be the second most wonderful job in the world. Working with music all your life would be fantastic. I was born with a love for music.
What did you do after graduating from high school?
I worked for a still photographer for a few years. It was like going to school. He was the top photographer in town. He took pictures of everything from weddings to architecture. I expected to be sweeping floors, but on the first day, he gave me a Rolleiflex camera and sent me out to take pictures of a wedding. He treated me like a partner. After a while, I got a job as an assistant on a documentary that was being made about Greece by a well-known director. I did that for about three months. I was a very bad assistant, because I was much more interested in finding the right images. I always told him what I would do if I was directing, and he didn’t like that very much.
We assume you didn’t do another documentary with him.
My next job was at a television station in Baden Baden, Germany. I operated a live electronic camera for a couple of years. One day Peter Lilienthal, a new director at the station, asked if I was related to the actor Carl Ballhaus. We made television movies together for three or four years. I was on the payroll, working everyday, and shooting three or four films a year.
So, you never had a cinematography mentor?
I never had a teacher. I watched the guys light when I was operating those big electronic cameras. I learned everything else by doing it. I also saw a lot of movies. I saw some films 10 to 15 times. My heroes were the French and Italian directors and cinematographers who were experimenting with film noir at the time (the early 1960s). Later, I learned a lot from Sven Nykvist (ASC) by watching his films. I saw every movie that he shot. I learned so much from just watching how he photographed faces and eyes. I have watched his Bergman movies many times. They are fantastic.
How about your still photography? Was that useful experience?
I learned a lot about composition. I still love still photography.
Why did you leave the television station?
I was offered a chance to teach at a new film school that opened in Berlin. I had a great time. We watched, spoke about, and analyzed a lot of classic movies that I had never seen before. I might have learned more than the students. I was also working as a freelance cinematographer. I went to Ireland to shoot a documentary. One night I got a phone call from Ulli Lommel who was in Spain. Ulli was an actor and producer, whom I became friendly with while we worked together on a couple of films. He asked if I was interested in working with (R.W.) Fassbinder on a film called Whity (in 1971). Ulli told me that I would have to be there in two days. I had two of my students from the film school with me. They finished the documentary, and I flew to Spain to meet Fassbinder.
What was your first meeting with Fassbinder like?
He wasn’t very friendly. After a couple of days, I thought I better not unpack my luggage because I am going to get fired soon. He was yelling at the producer to fire me, but we slowly became a little closer and more friendly, though he never said that he liked what I was doing. There was always this little game going on between us.
Something must have been right. You did more than a few films together.
We worked on 15 pictures (e.g. The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Stationmaster’s Wife, Fox and His Friends and Martha) during the next nine years. It was a challenging relationship that pushed me to raise the level of creativity and the flow of ideas. Many years later, I learned from a producer that Fassbinder would rave about my work when he spoke with other people. He would tell him that I was a genius, and that I could do wonderful things. He told the producer whom I just mentioned about one very complicated shot that we did. He said that when he saw it in dailies, he thought it was perfect, but I remember him walking out of the screening room without saying a word.
In your experience, what made him a great director?
First of all, he had great visual ideas. Rather than just photographing dialog, he wanted to tell stories with images. We would talk about that all the time. He would say that he wanted to do a wide shot in a scene, because he wanted the audience to see the relationship between two people and how they were reacting to each other. He also liked stories that had messages for the audience. It was never just about entertainment. He was also great with actors, and very precise in what he told them. He could motivate people to do things, and let’s not forget he was also a great writer.
How did your relationship with him evolve over time?
The more we worked together, the more we became partners. He knew that I always had ideas about how to photograph scenes. When I read the script for a scene, I saw images in my head. I’d ask myself: Is this a close-up or a wide shot? How should it start? What is the mood? He knew that I was always thinking about how to block scenes. After a while, whenever we started a new scene, he would come on the set, look around and ask how I thought we should do it. I would explain my ideas. He would think about them, and then he always topped my ideas. He was always trying to find something that was impossible for me to do, and I was always finding ways to do it.
Do you have any other memories to share about that relationship?
Fassbinder liked to work very fast. Most of the time, we had 20 to 24 days to shoot very ambitious movies. He was always pushing me to be prepared and to work very fast. We were always working with very little money, so he only shot what he needed. Our dailies were almost rough cuts of the movie because he always knew how he planned to edit shots together. I already knew the rhythm of the scene when I was shooting. I learned a lot about the importance of having that rhythm from Fassbinder. We made our movies with about 20 people, including the actors, a camera assistant, a sound guy, makeup person, script supervisor, producer, a gaffer and a grip. That taught me a lot about the importance of teamwork. I always ask my gaffer, key grip and operator for their opinions and ideas. They want to be part of the creative process, and I love that feeling. I always encourage people on my crew to tell me if they have a better idea.
The first movie that you shot in the United States was Dear Mr. Wonderful. That was in 1982. Can you share some memories about that film?
Peter Lilienthal was the director. We shot Dear Mr. Wonderful in New York with German money. There were only four of us from Germany. Joe Pesci was the star. My gaffer was Stefan Czapsky (ASC), who has become a big time cinematographer. Mo Flam was the best boy. He is also a very good cinematographer today. A lot of the people who worked on that film came from the NYU film school. I learned a lot about America while we were making that film. One of the people whom I met was the production designer, Jeffrey Townsend. Later, when he got an offer to work on a film with John Sayles, he showed him some of my dailies from Dear Mr. Wonderful. John gave me the script to read. I told him I loved it, and he offered me an opportunity to shoot Baby It’s You. I was nervous, but after a week, I felt like the crew and John were my brothers. He would start a sentence, and I would finish it.
Did you find differences in aesthetic tastes in Germany and New York?
In the beginning I looked at composition and other things a little differently. Baby It’s You was the first time I used a Steadicam. I was lucky. Garrett Brown was the operator. We also had a crane. We didn’t have budgets for those technologies in Germany. It opened a new world.
How did you hook up with Martin Scorsese for the first time?
Marty looked at a movie I had shot because he was considering one of the actors for a role in The Last Temptation of Christ. He saw something I did in that film in a very sensual dance scenes that he liked. He called me for the first time while I was shooting a movie in Portugal. I couldn’t sleep for three nights after that conversation because I was so excited. I loved his pictures. We got along great starting with our first conversation. A couple of weeks later I went to Israel with him to scout locations for The Last Temptation of Christ. A couple of days after I got back to Germany, I got a call saying they were pulling the plug on the film. I felt like I fell from heaven very hard down to Earth. It was like the end of the world. Two years later (producer) Amy Robinson contacted me about a low-budget movie that she was doing with Marty. I read the script and saw that it called for making 600 shots in 40 nights in downtown Manhattan. That was about 16 shots a night. I met with Marty and told him I had some ideas about shooting directions and lighting. The film was After Hours (in 1985).
What was it like working with him for the first time?
Once we started shooting, Marty was on the set the entire time. He was never in his trailer. We talked a bit, but he didn’t have to describe a lot, because I had his shot list and I knew the script. I knew how to translate his vision into images.
Right after that you shot a classic television movie called Death of a Salesman, based on Arthur Miller’s play with Dustin Hoffman in the lead.
I was friends with the director, Volker Schlöndorff, in Germany long before he came to America. We happened to bump into each other on 5th Avenue in New York City and stopped to talk. He told me that he was going to direct Death of a Salesman with Dustin. I told him that I knew the play by heart, because my dad had played Willy Lohman on the stage. I saw the play at least 30 times and knew every line. He immediately asked if I would shoot it for him. I liked Dustin the first moment we met. I can’t explain why, but we shared a mutual feeling for each other. Dustin had played the role between 50 and 100 times on stage, and Arthur Miller was sitting on the set while we were shooting. It wasn’t easy for Volker. I tried to help him by loosening things up a bit, and also made some suggestions. There was a lot handheld shots moving with the actors. Dustin said at one point, you’re not a cameraman, you’re an actor.
You earned your first Oscar nomination for Broadcast News in 1987.
I remember my first meeting with (director) Jim Brooks in his apartment in New York. The script that he gave me was around 150 pages. I thought it was a wonderful story about reality and truth, and I liked the characters. Our research included watching people work at CBS television operations centers in Washington and New York. It was a warm, friendly environment. People spent so much time at work, it was like their second home. I watched their faces and reactions to the chaos that was going on around them. Jim didn’t block scenes until he rehearsed with the actors and saw what they did and how they reacted to each other. That was a different way of thinking for me. Almost everything was shot on an office set with fluorescent lighting. We pre-lit and used a little eyelight and backlight. That was also new for me.
Have you reached a point where there are no surprises?
You never stop learning. I’m still learning everyday on every picture.
You did a totally different type of film with Peter Yates the next year. The House on Carroll Street was a period film set in the early 1950s with a political theme.
That was another great experience, because Peter Yates is a wonderful director. He was particularly great with the actors, which was important on this film.
You got another Oscar nomination for The Fabulous Baker Boys. That was another totally different type of film set in a nightclub with a group of musicians.
Another film that I was supposed to shoot got delayed, and my agent gave me a script by a writer who was a first-time director. He said it was a small movie with an $8 million budget. I fell in love with the story when I read the first page. I flew from New York to Los Angeles to meet the producer, Mark Rosenberg. He had me talk with Steve Kloves, the director. Steve had written the script for Racing with the Moon, another film I shot. I told him that I loved the script for The Fabulous Baker Boys. I loved the wonderful characters. I started telling him about the atmosphere I envisioned for the club. After about a half hour, Steve said that’s what he was dreaming about when he wrote the script. We had a great cast, Jeff Bridges, his brother [Beau Bridges] and Michelle Pfeiffer. I shot a lot of tests of Michelle’s face, and decided to use a little more direct light than what was usual for her. I also made her light a little harder and harsher, because it was right for the character that she played. The story defined the lighting. The early scenes were set in dark, dingy bars. The lighting and look became brighter and more glamorous later in the film when they are performing in a big, posh ballroom. We had the camera on a Louma crane. I remember a scene where the camera dipped down behind the Baker Boys and Michelle and showed them in silhouette looking at the huge audience of adoring fans. My lights were all hidden in alcoves on the floor. I worked very closely with Jeffrey Townsend, who was the production designer, on that set.
We’ll mention another memorable film, Goodfellas, in 1990.
It was a perfect film for Marty (Scorsese), because he grew up in Little Italy in New York. He knew every detail right down to costumes. It was a wonderful script with great actors, but it was a hard movie to shoot. I went home depressed some nights, because people in the story were killed that day; but when we finished I realized that Marty had created a masterpiece. I think it’s one of his best films.
What do you think made it a masterpiece?
Marty knows so much about that world and the people who inhabit it that the film is authentic down to the smallest detail. Everything about it is right, including the music. He had the score ready the first day we started shooting. Sometimes he played the music for us while we were shooting scenes. He also had great visual ideas. You can feel the tension coming off the screen when you watch the film.
You shot a number of incredibility diverse films during the early 1990s, including Postcards from the Edge, The Mambo King, Dracula, Quiz Show and The Age of Innocence to name just a few. Can you share some more memories?
Postcards from the Edge was based on Carrie Fisher’s book about her life. Her mother was Debbie Reynolds and her father was Eddie Fisher. It was my first real Hollywood film shot on stages at a studio. The director was Mike Nichols, and the stars included Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman, Dennis Quaid and Shirley MacLaine. Shirley played the mother, Debbie Reynolds, and Meryl played Carrie Fisher. It was interesting because they needed totally different lighting. When we had two shots, I used softer light on Meryl than Shirley who needed more direct light. Every face is different, and your lighting also depends on the parts that the actors are playing and the environments. I worked with some other great directors, Robert Redford on Quiz Show, Marty (Scorsese) on The Age of Innocence and Francis Coppola on Dracula, all within about a one year.
They were all distinctly different films. Tell us a bit about Dracula.
The role model that Francis (Coppola) used for Dracula was Nosferatu, the old (F.W.) Murnau vampire movie (1922). Francis had wonderful visual ideas. He wanted to do as much as possible in the camera rather than with CGI or visual effects. I think the budget was $20 million, but the studio said that anything that goes over budget would come out of Francis’ own pocket. Every morning we met in his office. He explained the scenes to me and his ideas. It was like being in heaven for me. I made a shot list and tried my best to integrate all of the fantasy that he imagined. Francis made any changes he wanted and gave it to the storyboard artist. After that, it was like shooting the film by heart. I would watch him rehearse with the actors and figure out the angles we wanted the audience to see. We finished the movie on time and on budget.
Honestly, we would love to talk about all of your films, but there are more than 100, so we have to narrow the list down. How about Air Force One (1997).
Air Force One was my second movie with Wolfgang Petersen. We have known each other since around 1968. Wolfgang is another wonderful director who was also fun to work with. Even if something went wrong, he had a smile on his face.
There are more memorable films that are amazingly diverse, including Primary Colors, Wild Wild West, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and you earned both an Oscar nomination and an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nomination for another film with Marty Scorcese in 2003 for Gangs of New York. Tell us a bit about that film.
Gangs of New York was a dream project for a couple of reasons. One reason was that we shot almost 99 percent of that film at Cinecitta Studios in Rome on sets built by Dante Ferretti. He is a production designer, but I think of him as a genius. Dante re-created the neighborhoods in New York during the period when the story happened (the 1840s through the ‘60s). We also had great actors, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz. We began shooting in late July and finished the next year in April, so I had all the seasons—fall, winter, spring and summer—for exterior shots. I brought my key crew people, and the Italian crew was great. We never worked more than 10-hour days. My son Florian was there for many weeks shooting second unit. That was also wonderful for me.
I had a conversation with Marty (Scorsese) about his intentions, but there were never any discussions about lighting or which lenses I should use. He trusted me to translate his ideas into images. That’s what makes our relationship so wonderful. I watched him rehearse and knew exactly what he wanted. There was always a lot of atmosphere in the air. We had smoke in almost every scene. There were fires burning all the time, and the camera was moving on every shot. Sometimes they were just little sideways moves with a handheld camera, but the camera was always in motion.
Are advances in technology affecting the art of cinematography?
In Dracula, we did a shot on a Titan crane with a 1920s hand-cranked camera that let me control the frame rate. It was an amazing experience, but new technology can make it easier to do some things. The new master prime lenses from Zeiss and ARRI open up to T1.3, and the new films are incredible. You can underexpose (KODAK VISION2 ) 5218 (500T film) one and even two stops, and it is still not too grainy. When you combine that with the new lenses, you can record anything you can see with your eyes on the darkest night. The new ARRICAM (camera) is quiet and lightweight. You can put it on a Steadicam and go places where cameras haven’t gone before.
The Departed is another amazing film that you made with Martin Scorsese. That was your seventh collaboration with him. How far in advance did you know that he was considering that project, and what kind of preparation did you do with him?
Our first conversation about The Departed was about six months prior to the beginning of production. It was based on a film (Infernal Affairs) that was made in Hong Kong a couple of years ago. I thought from the beginning that this was going to be an interesting project. I was very excited about it. Marty refused to see the earlier film, because he didn’t want us influenced by it. He wanted to do his own character-driven movie. At one point, he planned to do it in black and white, but the studio wouldn’t agree. We spoke about doing a DI (digital intermediate) and desaturating and changing colors a bit and making some scenes colder with a little more contrast. Marty gave me some DVDs of T-Men and Raw Deal to watch. They are black-and-white movies from the late 1940s, made by a very good director (Anthony Mann) and a brilliant cinematographer (John Alton, ASC). They looked fantastic. He also gave me some films from Korea and Japan to look at. He wanted to push the envelope, while keeping in mind we were working with major movie stars Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, on a $100 million Hollywood movie. Our schedule was pushed forward by about a half a year because of the actors’ schedules, so Marty didn’t have as much time as he wanted in preparation. We also only had Jack for five weeks, so we had to squeeze all of his scenes into that period. That was very hard for Marty, because he loves to shoot in sequence. Mark Wahlberg had to leave a little bit early because he had another movie.
Can you share a little more information about the color palette?
The film has very specific looks for different scenes. There are a lot of scenes with faded colors, but there are also some very colorful scenes. For instance, Leonardo’s character has a love interest. They have love scenes that have a warm touch with beautiful warm light. Other scenes are very cold that are almost black and white.
Was that done in DI?
Mainly, it was the lighting and cinematography. We did a couple of little things in DI with Stefan Nakamura, a wonderful timer at Technicolor, but, it was only two days. We desaturated and changed colors. Sometimes we made a shot a little grainier or raised the contrast a little bit. Sometimes we made a background a little brighter.
Was The Departed filmed at practical locations, on stages, or both?
The police department was on a stage in an Armory in Williamsburg (New York). It was a great set. The production designer, Kristi Zea, did a very good job. We shot most exteriors at great locations in Boston, where the movie takes place. The shootout near the end was filmed in an amazing location. It was the interior of a building in a shipyard, which was as big as four football fields, and around 100 feet high. We also had some great locations in New York. We shot on the stage for the first six weeks, went on location, and then went on a stage with some sets for small offices and other rooms.
What were the great locations in Boston?
They were mainly exteriors on the rooftop of a highrise building where you can see all of Boston, city streets, the subway and a park. We also filmed a wonderful sequence in the Chinatown district where Leonardo DiCaprio is following Matt Damon to find out who is the rat in the system. It was a night sequence. Jack Nicholson’s apartment was at a location in Boston. It was a beautiful luxurious apartment, which we redressed. It had a great view of the ocean.
Did Martin Scorsese work with storyboards or was it more spontaneous?
It wasn’t storyboarded, but we were well prepared. We knew the shots we wanted, and we finished on time every day. Marty had to recast one actor after shooting with him for five days. We re-did those scenes with a new actor in two days. I’d watch rehearsals, and very quickly decide how to prelight. But, spontaneous things did happen. We had a big scene where Jack (Nicholson) was originally standing, and he decided that it would be better to be seated. That’s why we watched rehearsals before we lit.
Was your lighting motivated by reality or was it more interpretive?
It depended on the scene. Sometimes it was realistic, and other times we wanted more dramatic lighting. Like I said before, I’m always learning.
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