Capturing the cameraman

Director Craig McCall talks about documenting groundbreaking cinematographer/director Jack Cardiff.

by Amber Wilkinson

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff was instrumental in creating some of the most memorable images on film from the past five decades - from the beautiful lighting of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, through to the likes of Rambo - and yet he could still walk through the crowds of Cannes without barely turning a head. But if his face was unknown to all but a few, his work has touched millions of cinephiles who, thanks to Scots filmmaker Craig McCall, can now learn more about both his legacy and get an insight into many of the legendary actors and actors he worked with.

Thirteen years in the making, Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff is an emotionally rewarding and thoroughly entertaining documentary of his work. And it has such a depth of affection and humanity running through it that it seems only fitting that it was borne not out of any sort of academic study, but through a chance encounter between McCall and the man himself.

"It wasn't through research or anything," says the Kilmarnock-born filmmaker. "I met Jack in a working situation. It was in the early Nineties and I was doing music videos and working in a big office - EMI used a whole floor that made music films. Jack came in to direct Vivaldi's Four Seasons. He came in and I was sitting at a desk with a small 16mm hand-crank camera - a small thing called Bolex - and started chatting to me.

Marlene Dietrich and Jack Cardiff onset
Marlene Dietrich and Jack Cardiff onset

"He was frustrated, he had just heard that it had started snowing in Venice and he wanted to get these shots of Venice covered in snow, which is very rare. He borrowed the camera and shot of to Venice - he drove - and got the images. His enthusiasm and his curiosity with things was just so amazing - he was in his eighties by then but it was like talking to a 21-year-old. So that's how I met him. He came back and I crossed paths with him again and he started telling stories. This is one of the only people I've met who could talk about Marlene Dietrich and Sylvester Stallone in the same sentence."

Cardiff's enthusiasm shines out in the resulting documentary, which shows how his passion for filmmaking remained undiminshed right through his life. It seems McCall must have had to share at least some of that passion to pour so much of his energy into getting his own filim made, a journey that saw him make a shorter film about the man - Painting With Light - along the way.

"Because I began filming in the late Nineties off an on for two or three years to get most of the interviews, there were DVDs released of Jack's films and because I hadn't finished this main film I made the short film, which has got Jack, Martin Scorsese and other people just talking about his work on Black Narcissus. That film was a turning point, it was the second feature film he made and it really introduced him to the world. So there's a 25 minute film out there, if you get the Criterion version of the film. But I did that just to get something done and out there while I was working on this big film. In that case, I didn't have to worry about the rights, because it was taken care of, whereas in this film we go through 20 or 30 films.

Cardiff talking to McCall about his work
Cardiff talking to McCall about his work

"As a small independent, it's a David and Goliath situation taking on all the studios to get the clips. The plus side is, after all of these years of starting and stopping and funding difficulties is that several of these films have now been restored to stunning levels so I've been able to include all three Powell/Pressburger films, including the amazing Red Shoes restoration that Martin Scorsese oversaw."

Although 13 years sounds like an eternity, McCall says that, in many ways, it meant that the film ultimately had a slightly easier ride due to a "shift in mentality" from some of the big studios, who began to realise that a good documentary about a filmmaker can create interest in back catalogue titles that people might otherwise not consider adding to their collections.

"In the States, they call it a spike and because you can just go online and get a film from Netflix, LoveFilm or download, it's much immediate, you don't even have to walk down to Blockbuster," says McCall. "With downloads I think there's actually a noticeable upswing in interest. It's not shifting millions, but everything is important and so if another 1000 people go out and watch A Matter Of Life And Death or 500 people watch Black Narcissus, it's important. So the studios haven't hugged everybody making documentaries about filmmaking but I think there's a more positive attitude to what's going on. It's still an expensive exercise and they want to make sure that the clips are being used in a proper context but I'd say the winds have shifted more in our favour for making films like this."

A portrait of Marilyn Monroe taken by Cardiff <em>(c) Jack Cardiff</em>
A portrait of Marilyn Monroe taken by Cardiff (c) Jack Cardiff

Director Martin Scorsese - who is interviewed extensively for the documentary - talks about Jack with great affection. He says: “You begin to realise he is using the lens like brushstrokes, it becomes like a moving painting." It is this idea of "moving pictures" that McCall draws on to show how Cardiff was influenced by classic painters in much of what he created.

"He was painting all the time up until the last year of his life," says McCall. "If he wasn't working, he was painting. So, those little interactions, slightly trick shots, in a way, they came out of it. I thought it was interesting. Also, one of the interviews - the one where he is painting - is the last one I did, after I'd talked to everybody else. I always wanted to interview Jack, go and interview everyone else and then go back to him.

"These are the things you can't really do with a TV commission unless you've got a large amount of time and money. The one thing about being an independent filmmaker is you don't have all the money in the world, but you do have a bit of time and you should use it to try to tell the best story you can. So I always wanted to return to Jack and, if anyone had said anything, to pick up on that and that painting sequence was probably one of the last set ups you did. I filmed Jack off and on for three years basically. I kept popping down and filming him on locations, a lot of him we didn't need, but the footage that you see of Jack in Ealing in 2005 is great because it just represented how long he was still working - he was 91 when he was shooting that."

Craig McCall chats to Lauren Bacall <em>(c) Modus Operandii Films</em>
Craig McCall chats to Lauren Bacall (c) Modus Operandii Films

Cardiff's career is so wide in scope, in fact, that it would be almost impossible to document every last square inch of it in an 86-minute runtime, but McCall isn't too worried about that. He had clear ideas of what he wanted to do from the outset and stuck to his guns - including a decision to focus on Cardiff's work rather than his homelife.

"I decided his private life wasn't really a component of telling the story," he says. "If he'd perhaps married an actress or someone in the film business and it had crossed over and had an impact... But you have to take a line and, from day one, I took several. One, I didn't want to cover someone who had already gone, so it's not a posthumous documentary, two, no voiceover - so that meant I had to get a range of people from across the decades, some famous, some not so famous, to tell the story, and three, because there were so many things that Jack did visually, I didn't think that there was anything from his private life that would actually help tell the story. So I just went down those lines.

"It wasn't as though I just dealt with one period of his life. There was so much going on anyway and you have to compress all these things, or choose one slice or one story that reflects a whole story. Of course, some bits are chronological and there are other places where we just stop and say, right, let's examine this one piece, and other bits are just put together, like his actress portraits sections, which ends with stories about Marilyn Monroe.

Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth with Technicolor camera
Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth with Technicolor camera

"I think a lot people make things that are, if not too long, they think it's important to keep everthing in and it actually kills the story - you have to tell the story. Someone else could make a different story about Jack. It's a bit like when you see biography or films on someone that there have been 10 films about, such as Salvador Dali or someone like that. You know, five of them aren't very good, three of the are good and two of them are outstanding - but they take a certain tack. With Jack, there probably is not going to be another documentary on him, so it's a slightly weirder pressure. It's not like I'm doing another Marilyn Monroe and I'm saying, I've seen all the other ones and they haven't dealt with it this way, with Jack, it is a responsibility. A lot of people will watch this - or read his book - and that will be their reference point."

McCall had no shortage of volunteers when it came to asking people who had worked with Cardiff to talk about working with them.

Logistically, it's difficult because you have to go to different places around the world," says McCall "But in terms of them wanting to do it for Jack - not a problem. We got everybody we asked for, except for people who were in Australia, which was too expensive for us, and a couple of people who were ill. Ernest Borgnine, for example, wanted to do it but he'd been very ill. You were dealing with people who are octogenarians, so there's a whole health issue plus where they are in the world.

"But when we did our first run of interviews in the States, Kirk Douglas had just had his stroke so we took him off our list and that was fine. But then we got a call a few months later, saying: 'Are you still filming. I want to do it.' And that was Kirk Douglas. It's just a testimony to the affection and the love towards Jack. I think that was the first interview that he did after the stroke. It just shows you how important he felt it was to say something about Jack. He doesn't do that all the time, so it really stands out. And it took a while to get Martin Scorsese just because he's a very busy man but it was very important to get him in so that he could kind of pass the baton on of Jack's story. You know who he is and it's kind of an endorsement thing, and it is important and it does help because he can relate things from his films that he took from Jack's films and I think that's very important."

Moira Shearer in the newly restored The Red Shoes
Moira Shearer in the newly restored The Red Shoes

Although Cardiff sadly didn't get to see the film reach the cinema before his death, in April 2009, at the impressive age of 94, he did get a chance to see a slightly longer cut.

"I had a 90 minute edit," says McCall. "He watched it. In Los Angeles we showed it to him and Dick Fleischer and we showed it a couple of times to students and small gatherings. So Jack had seen it and seen people react to it and I think he really liked the fact that people laughed and enjoyed and found it quite humourous. So he saw the 90-minute version with audiences and, in that way I'm very happy, I'd have been a lot sadder if he hadn't seen it in that context."

As for what's next, McCall hasn't settled on a subject yet, but he has a few ideas up his sleeve.

"In one way I'd like to do the inverse - someone who's really well known and cast a light on them in a different way," he says "Someone like Sean Connery or Michael Caine - so, another British subject matter, but someone who everyone thinks they know about, and peel the onion back the other way."

If this portrait of one man and his creative passion is anything to go by, McCall's next film will be worth looking out for, whoever he chooses to celebrate.

Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff is showing at selected cinemas across the UK, including Glasgow Film Theatre, where Craig McCall will take part in a Q&A after the screening on Sunday June 6. The film will be released on DVD by Optimum Releasing on July 19.

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