Robbie Muller: Very hard white light can also be very romantic. It is all about the moment you choose to use it. Everything has its opposite contrasting way. Because people generally find, at crime films, a lot of the action must take place at night in obscurity. But it is also possible - perhaps an assassination in the full daylight is, however, much more terrifying. And you have to change such things as a d.o.p. You have to discover them. You have to ask questions like that to your director. Although, your observations have to be intelligent, of course. You can’t just throw some observations into the wild without arguments why to use those observations.
Above: Paris, Texas
The voice of Robbie sounds through an intercom: "….Yes?" It’s a rainy spring day in Amsterdam. I close my Brompton and enter into al long hallway. From a staircase at the end of the hallway I see a shadow moving down the wall and then Robbie appears, with a friendly looking face. And with his characteristic ponytail. He’s older then most people probably remember him from pictures together with Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, Neil Young, Wim Wenders, Nastassja kinski, Lars von Trier, Arri's and DV cameras. Even the cameraman does not escape its raw material: Time. On some small stairs up - past the kitchen into a room en-suite: "... we are just finishing our meals". With his wife (at the head of the table) and his son (Jim), Robbie eats a slice of bread with fried eggs. From the large window in the living room is a nice view over the Prinsengracht. The daylight fills the chamber with a gentle spring atmosphere.
Robbie and its family - on the other side of the chamber - catch it slightly of the windows on the garden side of the house. The atmosphere in house has been charged with the agitation concerning a travel to Indonesia. The country of Robbie's youth. Vaccination papers lie on the booklet of a desk. This is the moment and the setting for a conversation with Robby Müller. A conversation, loosely structured around my admiration for Robbie’s traditional treatment of lighting mini DV. But also about knowing ‘the substance’, listening to the director and learning to rely on your intuition.
In the very beginning of your career, when you started lighting scenes, were you just happy that you lit the scene in a technically right way, and was the playing with light to create real atmospheres something you developed later in you’re career?
Yes, for a little while, however. But after my first film with Wim Wenders I had, however, the feeling, still black and white then, that it loosened up a little, that I was above the substance, so to say. To use your own insights. And to accomplish that you can have some extraordinary film experiences. For me, seeing 8 ½ was very important. What that cameraman did there (Gianni di Venanzo) in a tunnel! Really breathtaking! You could totally understand the way he introduced Claudia Cardinale in that film. A fantastic moment. Nicely done. Carried by light. Everything fits at the appropriate moment in the film, the correct aspect, You’re going to appreciate this more and more along the way.
Above: Otto E Mezzo
I loathe violence. The only feeling if I see that, is to walk away, you know. I can find no glorification in violence. I cannot enjoy a shoot-down. Despite the fact that it can be done very well. Other people, however, can appreciate this because they disconnect what they see from what it means to die and then say: it is all but a fairy tale. But everyone can see it! They show it to children. I’m not a proponent to that. I try, however, if I read a new script- without preoccupations I start to read it. When I give up after 2 1/2 pages, I know: generally this won’t work for me. But if I read to the end in an hour and a half and I ideas immediately begin to emerge… yes, then it fits.
What kind of ideas emerge - can that be an idea concerning compositions, or concerning the use of colour?
Yes, it has to do with everything. The absence of colour can be a stronger factor than the presence of colour. Therefore a million things cross your mind and you oppress half of it you do something with the other half. For example with Lars von Trier I never had a problem. Generally, the things we chose for, were very logical. It was enough if you read the script well…
Nowadays it’s all digital, though. What strikes me in a film like ' 24 hour party people' is that you must have done a lot to make a ‘descent’ look. What was you’re approach to this project?
For the first time I could see my results on camera. A ‘video-juggler’ at ‘Dancer in the Dark' once told me: What you see is what you’ll get. It is, however, strange to work this way. It is a good indication. Each day the location was totally different from the other. And we moved and walked a lot. Walking through the set…. But with digital camera’s you have to work on you’re lighting just as much as with film. Where there is that one advantage that people have got used to burned out windows because of homevideo's. Those things are not annoying any more. Very rarely you have to be able to see the exterior in an interior shot. Sometimes you had, however, to make a wide shot- people from the outside coming in - and you had to play with the lights to make that work. You could not change your diaphragm during shooting. If you did that, a disturbing pressure occurred.
You’ve operated this film ' 24 Hour' yourself, didn’t you?
Yes. 60 per cent. We had to shoot parallel, I cannot be everywhere at the same time. Because it was a partial improvised film you had to hold the camera for a long time each take. I thought: This is too much for me. So we brought in another operator- a second Unit which from time to time could take over.
What I found notable about that film was how splendid it all looked, whereas that film was shot with a rather simple camera - a PD150 I believe?
What interests me is how you have used you’re craftsmanship and experience with shooting on celluloid to achieve this great look for this film shot on DVCAM, with all its technical restrictions?
There of course splendidly expensive machines- but used for commercials over here- but then can you also pump it up…
With contemporary film stock you can see that if you (accidentally) light 3 stops over, you’ll be able to do a lot with it in postproduction. But with DV it’s more like with traditional film stocks, where you’ve have started with - and with that blown out windows in the background- but in that film ' 24hour' there are no blown out windows!
No – it was mainly night in that film…
Yes, that’s true – but I can remember a beautiful shot of a red post delivery van that comes driving over a hill and the postman steps out of the car. It looks very beautiful. Did you just tell the director: we can only shoot this on this particular moment... or how do you do that to get such a result?
Oftentimes we didn’t have the possibilities- we just had to go with it- and the weather was just like in the Netherlands- every minute changing… When you shoot in an organic way such weather changes are not that important anymore- because you know, you will go on. Often, when the weather doesn’t play a main role in the scene, you’re not going to make big fuzz about it. When it does play a role you’re going to show the textures- when it does rain, and it is an element in the story. You can also choose to shoot the scene in a corner and do the dialog here. And oftentimes, we shot scenes indoors.
With such an exterior, could you tell production in advance what the correct moment was to shoot such a scene or was it just that they said, it’s ready and now we’re going to shoot?
Yes, there was a shooting schedule more or less. And we were very flexible in this schedule. The weather there was a bit better then over here in Amsterdam, but if there were certain scenes we had to re-shoot and the weather predictions weren’t that good, we told production to hold-off the re-shoot for that day. And then the damage of a day of waiting and all – that last minute rescheduling was all possible. It wasn’t the case that at each rescheduling immediately all hotels had to be rebooked. Everyone was there nevertheless. And then… under the circumstances you try simply by means of your own experience, to get everything on time and in the right way.
Do you consider yourself as a technically skilled cameraman?
No, I know just the most necessary.
What do you know, however, - when you start a project like that, how do you research the techniques of MiniDV?
Well, the thing is: in fact you have to test it yourself, every time. And also you have to know what the process of the film is. Does it become film-film, a negative, or does it remain on video? I once had a very long correspondence with a boy from LA, who wanted to shoot a movie, but he did only have a very small budget. I advised them to shoot on a particular video format. The producer was immediately in favour of it, but the shooting never took place. Life goes fast, you know. He had to take another job and then forgets about the project. We have examined all cameras on paper, so the Canon, Panasonic, Sony - it did concern HD then- and I told the boys HD was still in so unclear, we don’t know how to get a widescreen there and a full screen there. Therefore they had to frame in advance - too much fuzz. I came to the conclusion - I read all those endless reviews, furthermore you must nevertheless trust your own eye – that it was too complicated. Because each time we made a decision he said: Yes, a new camera has been discovered. And this went on and on the whole year. At a given moment I was a little fed up with it and simply said: Panasonic 100 x and that’s it. It’s a beautiful camera, looks analogically, it’s no HD. But yes, they have become a little more photosensitive, these DV camera’s, I don’t know the last developments. But I know one thing for sure: The right camera isn’t developed yet. I wonder if it will be HD. Because I like what I see, but it’s very, almost German, precise. It reminds me of the Zeiss lenses we used to have. So hard. And what is in focus, is very sharp and what is not, is totally soft. There is no gradual transition. With HD, if you light it the wrong way, it will all look like an office bookshop version, where everything is too perfect.
Above: Paris, Texas
Still talking about technique, because if you’re used to shooting on 35mm or 16mm and what you can do with that, don’t you feel like loosing ‘the magic’ when shooting on MiniDV, Like Haskel Wexler just said a little while ago?
No, I don’t think so. It still concerns other people, other directors, other actors, other story’s and they’ve have asked you to come up with something that is appropriate for the story. Not something that is appropriate for our film feeling – which I always found to be a stupid thing. And then they have all these cameras, Sony 24P, which I didn’t understand at all. It should give you a ‘film look’. I can’t do anything with that. They did everything to get the film look. I said, boys this is the same as comparing a spoon with a fork - which has been intended for other aims, the fork. If you continue to eat soup, you must take a spoon. I was a bit too straightforward¨ - I found it stupidly annoying. I sometimes got e-mail from people from an American film school: ' I had a question, listen; I have got a film that has to become black & white, what’s the best method to do this? ‘I said: use black & white stock of course. Because why would you bend colour to make it black & white? You can lean on the complete expertise of hundreds – well yes, very long… People who have invented the black & white.
The separation of objects, characters from the background by means of contrast? Then you hear from more traditional camera people, however, that they have never released their black & white technique with regard to lighting when the colour material came. Vilmos Zsigmond and a number of other people which in fact still work like that. But there are also people who say: in fact, the craft of lighting for black & white has simply disappeared, it exists no longer. But do you still know something about it?
I’ve had a long black & white education. In the Netherlands, in photography – I developed my negatives myself. Therefore I know, however, what pushing means and more things like that. And then you discover very strange things. Because with that film ' Dead man' of Jim Jarmusch we wanted 'super black and white'. We ordered that at Illford. These are the friendliest people in the black & white business. We have experimented… but it was not appropriate, the film didn’t fit in the camera: another perforation. We had to return the complete mess. And then we got some leftovers black & white. And because it was not enough Kodak has produced a stock for our film. Double X, never shoot on it. It has been made originally for TV and offices; I thought it was completely uninteresting material, very grey-ish. And then they made that double X for us. And normally it was- I don’t know - 250 asa. Then suddenly it was 400 asa! Our film had been over-exposed heavily. And I thought: This is not working¨. No laboratory assistant could tell us what it could be. We have sent a lot of tests. I had to expose the negative very low, to give less light. That was very annoying, because where we had enormous contrasts - sun and black clouds. We needed something with more contrast to catch it – because now we had to just take risks in the exposure.
Above: Dead Man
Above: Down by law
And later - much later I have got an extremely interesting answer on my question from a German laboratory. ‘Yes, typical’, that man said, a real old guy in the profession, ' it’s always like that when a negative is not stored long enough. – It needs time to grow. It is much too sensitive for that. And you must simply wait. Just like an apple grows. And then the good proportions arise. Well, nobody could tell me that! Then, long time after the film, someone told me. At Kodak they didn’t have a clue. Nobody came to that idea. All those people - all those black & white people are dead! They are all young guys now and black & white is in their idea nevertheless of a lower order.
It wasn’t that interesting anymore in commercial way.
No, no, no. It becomes commercially interestingly by sudden hypes. Such as 8mm film at MTV. Although these things were very nice. But people only saw the mess and the grain and the focus and such. But they didn’t see what they got extra - as it happens, something that came from themselves. From the cameraman himself. Because that is frequently overlooked. To make well recognizable work with less apparatus. Although frequently said - the right and big question - with such a simple box, where is the secret? Then I Thought about that: It’s about how you treat it! What your subject is and how you film it - how you treat it and - you are not going to make shots that demand a high level of sharpness- you adjust yourself. That’s what I have done with DV. You can bring back the light in the window slightly but then you must use ND-filters just like when shooting on film. And that is expensive. In the Netherlands I have got used to work without them. The Netherlands is the only country where I have enormously saved on light budget, but was never thanked for it. Because they don't see it. You are only interesting to be used as the living proof for other camera people that they also have to work that way. But the fact that it changes for every project – they don’t realise that. They only see it when they have a costume film - then they want to spend.
Do you say in fact that the style that originates from a cameraman comes from how he handles the restrictions?
Yes, I most certainly believe that.
And is it then true that if there are no restrictions, you cannot lay your individuality in there as a cameraman?
This extreme way, I don’t know. But it happens. In Hollywood have you every piece of equipment on your cell phone. – You only have to make one call and it’s there. Sometimes it makes it easier if you think first. I find it terrible that because I need a light over there, I have to send a light technician on to the roof to aim a 12K at me. Then I think: God, what lot of work! And is it worth it? Is it really worth it? That extra effort. If it is really worth it: no problem. But, I will never do it simply because it is nice, because it looks ‘good’ or something like that.
Above: Paris, Texas
Do you consider yourself as a co-author of the films you work on?
Yes in a certain way, however. I was always very faithful to the story. I did not go for my own victory. That my work would be good - my name would be on the credits. If that is, however, the case because of good photography, then the people has chosen that, they’ve asked me for this reason. And perhaps I made a mistake or perhaps they appreciated it very much. I have never fooled a director. I have told them what I thought. Yes, and because of that attitude concerning the film substance you are automatically more involved - it is also your… I do not want idealise it, but, everyone likes it of course when a scene and a film have success. I never had to ask for attention - I have had luck. I have always been spoiled. There’s something else that explains that. Your honesty to other people. Real honesty, which contributes enormously to the fact that you are able to make good decisions. If you think about what a scene needs in an honest way and there is a possibility to do it in another way - with a large projector by the trees, for example - but that is too crazy, then you leave it like that. You must not choose for your own glory, you also must count into effect the set your on. I believe that I would have done everything the same, but that I became famous helped a lot, I guess. If you’re looking for work, need work. But I have had luck that I never had to look for work- never of my life have I looked for work. Never! Never! But there is another explanation for that: I have another priority. I did not need to have a luxuriously Porsche. I didn’t need to have all the expensive things. If I can make a living, if can eat, read my books, then I am satisfied. And everything that’s extra, I’ll take along. I’ve never been obsessed with my career and people notice that.
And somewhere in there it is nevertheless also art to put those small observations concerning light and shade at work in such an enormous apparatus where 140 people and perhaps 20 freight carriages are standing by- then you have to do you something – do you consider such an enormous circus as a kind of a joke?
I think it was all a little exaggerated in America. And because I’m lazy in principle, I see those people lugging lamps and then –You notice some things: We have to do that differently – but they weren’t thinking along the same lines as I did - I thought; will this ever change? But at a certain moment it did change, I assume. I always watched the Light that was given to me very carefully. Trying to listen carefully to the director- what are his intentions? Because as lot of things cost an enormously amount of work. A simple example: you want wide shots of a city in shimmering daylight and you are too late. When it’s night already then, you’re not going to light the whole city. Therefore you start something before shimmering, so that you first work with the half-light. That only succeeds if see it coming – If you’re able to plan that.I once did a scene - it was for one of my first films in America – someone had to make a phone call in a phone boot. And then we were moved to another location - and I wasn’t allowed to drive ahead. I thought: 'oh, well, this is an easy one, do it fast and good.' It was only one line. But no, firstly Hollywood was completely rebuilt for us, with all those expensive lights and stuff. And in the background we had seen the city. We were on time but the rest of the crew wasn’t. And then I said: ' … now the moment has gone. If you grant me freedom and let me drive ahead - then it would have been done already.' Yes it is true- you have to deal with a lot of people there. Without knowing it you frequently offend other people. Especially in the union system. Then someone had a nice job and didn’t like it if you were doing his job - then you have a long discussion that costs a lot of time. And it’s not about him, but the sky is changing in the meantime! How many times we had a forced lunch break exactly at 1 o'clock whereas the sky was splendid at that moment. Then I think: ' boys we cannot do that! ‘And it is not necessary: 'you go eat, give me the assistant and the director and the camera.' But I was never allowed to do that. Therefore we had to sit and eat whereas the sky was changing and the complete weather changed during lunch break. You’re always thinking ahead. Always look ahead – that’s experience - you hear from the director how it will be - and then you think, it will be dark scenes for sure – and you take that into account. There are a lot of things you can take into account. You can already think about these things in advance, how you will make the scene dark, for example. The more experience you have, the more you know. In fact it is simply a question of thinking logically. The older you become the more experience you have you in your profession. But for most people it’s unthinkable that they’ll ask you to freewheel with your fantasy. When money comes into play, will change everything and are going to work in a ‘serious’ way, you know. Then it takes more time – that’s what I find very annoying with making features films – and I began to hate that more and more. All the rules and regulations you had to stick to. And in that I found Lars von Trier. He said once: minimum crew! Script girl gone, and he has to go as well, and that man can do a lot, but he talks too much; so, leave, for a little while! He said these things during the whole filming process! What I liked so much - he had a specific idea! You must, however, have an idea. And then you start to remove the obstacles in front of you that are preventing you from creating the idea. Therefore; no need for a script girl, don’t have one! As little as possible crew.
So it was simply a delight to work with him?
Yes. He is logical thinking human being. If he saw that a sound engineer was busy building his sound set in a dolly track dolly track he would immediately say: We are going to make a travel shot! So, better move your equipment and that kind of remarks. It is also His and Thomas Winterbergs idea of making Dogma movies. It is actually a wink to our industry. Dogma films are never fun, because you really have to work hard to get a result. You could not use props which you brought to the set - a kind of self discipline. And I have always considered it a wink to the film industry. Many people have taken it into account made Dogma films. I have even heard that Steven Spielberg was interested in making a dogma film! Which I believe little in, because his idea of a dogma film is a small truck, whereas we used entirely nothing! ‘That’s how you get thrown back to your own ideas. And they really came from your own mind. And when they were not correct, the crew was so small, they were commented on very fast, I assume. I’ve not been involved with the later Dogma films, but I can understand very well how it will be, because that’s the way I started. We had nothing. I was not frightened to shoot a complete film with one lamp. Or no light at all. As people dare to do it and take the consequences of it, they will go into the light.
Above: Dancer in the Dark
It is important to shoot in a professional manner¨. Because there is way too much talking on the set. Lars could finish that in 1 second. Not unfriendly but a little sarcastic, though. And it keeps everyone focused. And you don’t make stupid remarks yourself, because you have seen that it annoys him. And he works in a very flexible way: ' what are we going to do? 'Well, show me something’ I’ve never experienced that with a director, 'they want to have everything under control, right!
Who did he say that to?
It seems that Francois Truffaut also had that. He was always open for what everyone in its surroundings said.
Yes – although I’m not certain, but I can imagine that - because his films breathes that environment!
But perhaps you had this attitude to people in your own crew?
Yes. It is just like with children, as if they are children, if you take them serious they will grow. And if it is ok for them to make remarks, and you have a serious response and don’t feel attacked, you open up a whole scale of things. If an assistant has an objection – I think, however - the keep thins efficient it must be something significant. Otherwise he can think about it himself. It was very nice - Frans Weisz which had a complete crew of old buddies - everyone was able to speak up and nobody would keep his mouth shut. That was very confusing! There are also people, cameramen, who find it delicious to put down large speaker boxes on the set to play Bach! Well, I find that nonsense! I find it nice to listen to, but then I want nothing on my mind, I really want to be able to listen! In my experience it means that you understand other people less well because of that noise! So I turn it off. You can laugh at work can – but it must not affect the film you’re making in a bad way. It is all very obvious, actually - all very obvious things. You can exclude certain things by logic. That saves an enormous amount of time, literally. Yes. I believe it is all about life experience. Who you are. And that’s who you are with or without film!In the early days – when I started my career- most cameramen were pretty arrogant. They didn't talked to you. I would have liked it so much to speak with them. But I never have! And now at Camerimage almost everyone you want to see or speak to is there. Storaro - whoever - is there and you can speak to them if you want to. Yes, the feeling stays… Teacher and student, actually I have always remained a student… like everyone.
Imagine you’re here in this room with director Lars von Trier – where do you start – are you thinking like: well this is ok such as it is and we are just going to shoot it? How do you do it, in a way that he has the opportunity to do his scene?
Yes, then I start with saying – I’m assuming that we have no light therefore, we did that before - than I start to talk with him: ' Lars we could do that, but in that corner, if you really want to shoot it there, I have to light it a little bit. But if we can do it next to that corner I don’t need any superficial light'. And he understood the idea of light very well. And that makes it very easy –to work with a director who knows the ground rules. And he knew them, however.
And he was also an operator - he held the camera himself…
What I’m looking for here, is that by seeing a film like ' 24 hour' I get the feeling that lighting for MiniDV really is a craft. That it relates back to what you’ve learned in the early days. Traditional Lighting…
That complete change for me started with Lars von Trier - first ' Breaking the waves' and then we already had all hand held camerawork. And then came ' Dancer in the dark' - shot with the Sony PD 100. But I had a great group of supporting people. A video guy who was fantastic. And he taught me a lot about video camera’s concerning exposure and lighting. We did scenes with songs with a playback. Those lasted 7 minutes. And then he wanted to put 100 camera's in the landscape and on the train, everywhere they will be, therefore - and if we were doing another setup I calculated: 100 camera’s, if you are very fast and you run 100 meters back and forth in a minute you have… that times 100 plus the 7 minutes of the song, that is 107 minutes per setup. He knew there so much about it. He had an oscillograph, which noted down the exposure, and then you could see how far you could go, till when you can reproduce it- how low you could go in your exposure. And then we chose a stop for the complete day. When the sunlight came through it was possible to shoot but also in the shade. So every time you could,… in one day you did things that normally cost several days. In one take you had a whole song of 7 minutes! Actual times hundred, is 700 minutes. Moreover they were then much further in Denmark with DV transfer to negative then over here- because there wasn’t that much staff here. I also had bad experiences here, in advance.
I shot on Fuji stock for Dutch director Frans Weisz and all the rushes were orange - totally orange. Nobody noticed, but me. So I called the lab. I said: Why is it so orange? Yes the way Fuji looks. A terrible lie. Until however… then I got the rushes with less orange, because they claimed at high and at low that it was the Fuji stock. It was a dirty lie. When I was at the colour correction process, the colourist said: oh, that’s where the light comes from. You should see that immediately by looking at the picture? Did he try to remove the green where there were only neon light tubes? Why does it have to look pink, when your intention is to make it green- green light? Everything went wrong, really everything. Then I said: you know what, first begin to darken it all a little. Then the pieces of the puzzle will drop into each other eventually. You know where to pay attention to. Then we found out that that man was not at all able to provide us with good rushes which were necessary to judge exposure and so on - he totally screwed us there. I totally worked in the blind. Therefore I had little faith in Cinetone - they almost literally chopped my head off. If this had happened in America my head would have been in the sand, because of the lab.
If I for example look at that film Barfly - and then that street, those exteriors, it gives you the feeling that because that stock- can’t remember exactly the date- wasn’t that sensitive, so you could not really shoot with existing lights.In that respect it’s an advantage because the slow film stock performs better when catching contrasts between interior and exterior.
Can you recall the first sequence of the film, where you have that sequence of concerning the nightlife in the city? And then there is the introduction of the bar where the main character often spends his time and later in the story meets Faye Dunnaway- What was your approach for this sequence: Do you work like you see something and you feel something and you translate that feeling into something that you can catch on film?
With reading script and getting the other information, the feeling you get from the director you begin to realise what you’re doing. In the hot Los Angeles, burning sun –you’ve to make the inside acceptable and nevertheless see what happens outside. You take things like that into account, beforehand. It was very hard to put so much light into the location, because it was really on the edges of the location. And the scenes also demanded a particular sort of light. I immediately ordered these big towers- with a reflection screen- with 12K reflecting into the location. Never direct, right.
Are you still the small boy whom like here in the Netherlands or in Germany, wants to shoot without light - are you the same over there - also at a larger production like ' To Live and Die in L.A’, from Friedkin?
Yes. If I had suddenly said during this multi million film: ' boys can we use some light here or I want to have it dark here – then they liked it in a second. But the most difficult thing is to get the team along, because they are all tied to a certain way of thinking and working. So if you’re filming on a street corner and you want to film a passing car- just that- an enormous amount of equipment arrives. Script truck and genie’s, and there all in the way, cause they take an enormous amount of space. I have literally experienced such a situation. At a given moment we were a little later than the rest and at a given moment I thought: strange, in this street cars don’t glows! The script man had matted all these cars with dulling spray! No reflections whatsoever with.
And someone came to the idea that that was necessary?
Yes, he himself perhaps – I don’t know! Some sort of robots. They cannot work differently.
What did you do then?
How do you tell them – you also want to finish the movie, you don’t want to become unpopular.….
Well - I am very careful; I don’t want to offend anyone. But this was unnecessary, if you think about it. Cars here have reflections! Most cars glow! Almost all cars glow! All cars glow! Why would you want to take that away? That has gone too far. It asks too much attention. And from now on they only use the dulling spray when I ask for it. First ask me whether we’re going to do this- no discussion. Keep them short! That’s the way you’ve put that? Yes. I have not become impetuous, but they must hear simple directives.
You obviously work, however, for a director and of course also for a producer - and at that time you probably watched the rushes at the end of the day. Then it was of course relentlessly assessed if they were satisfied concerning what you had done or not. How did you judge yourself concerning the wishes of the director and the producer?
Well yes - I have never really had a negative comment. But concerning that I’ve always told my students - if I had them in a workshop: ' … the case is, if you look at the rushes, and everyone applauds for the rushes because they think they are beautiful, if you don’t like them yourself then they are not right. Because the other one approves of it very fast, He sees the sun going under and it looks very warm. You didn’t have to do anything for that, you’ll always succeed. But there were also more difficult things. With Friedkin, That was some real good photographing. Because he could listen very well. Then there was a complicated shot, with a car. It drives over a big terrain and into a hangar. And with a crane, going down. And then I said: ' … well, why we would make separate shots? He can come driving into the hangar and I can simply follow him with the crane... .’ And then I said: ' … theoretically there are 3 possibilities. The twilight is very short. Do a shot in twilight with exactly the right light. Do one before that slightly overexposed, and one afterwards, that will just fit. So you have 20 minutes for 3 shots. He got that, then he organised everything strictly this way for the complete situation. And then we immediately did the first shot and then got it all in time. But you need people that can react. A director that motivates its team and especially actors. Because actors are frequently a little bit… too…, too…, much… it’s too fast for them. ‘It is necessary, it must be and this is the way we do it. '
Do you look in a film or in a scene or maybe even in a shot for a sort of ‘ground’ emotion wherefrom acting or conflict originates?
No, I cannot say that. Generally the scenario has been constructed this way that the peak is in there. A good scenario.
Because you create several environments - is the way you work with that really pure intuitively?
Generally yes. You have to learn to rely on your instinct.
Above: Paris, Texas
Paris, Texas with Wim Wenders In ' Paris, Texas' there is that scene with Travis, the protagonist, at his brothers’ home sitting to the table with his brother, sister-in-law and their son. They have a dialogue with each other, after watching some super 8 films with each other. What strikes me in that scene is how you use at hard and soft light - the combination - I remember the shot in which you see the sister-in-law with the kitchen on the background. The light that gives this women her character, comes from the kitchen, green neon light - and that brother has been influenced the most by the hard light on the luxaflex behind him, and Travis again in a different way, dark. My point here is this: you have four characters sitting to a table and they all have their own character in terms of light and colour.
I think there are a lot of things you do- from a feeling – without thinking it through. There are big mistakes - but complete mess-ups you will not make. That you light someone green, whereas it is not the correct moment. You will correct that automatically with the story. But I cannot remember lighting them all differently.
For me the scene is very effective - every character has another contrast and atmosphere. I can imagine you don’t really think it through, but rather work on a feeling. But I find it interesting how you learn to have total trust in your intuition in a process where 40 people run around you: how you can continue doing that on set? That you remain that relaxed that you’re still able to really see?
It is a matter of organisation. Everyone around you also has to be a bit organised. That’s also true for the director. One time in the Netherlands on a Dutch film the director left his script in the shot and when I said something about it, I was yelled at. And then I said: how is it possible that you’re having a meeting at that table, that is in the shot and that I’m trying to light here? They shouted at me. That’s why I didn’t want to work here anymore.
Was there a difference with Wim Wenders - when you did ' Paris Texas' ?
Yes, it was the beginning of our careers. He was a different guy. He doesn’t talk bullshit so much. That can be very unpleasant. And he dared to admit that he was wrong at a given moment - if he had lost.
He was honest?
Did you reflect a lot about the magic of film, concerning what a camera is and such – things like that?
Sometimes, from time to time, however… because of your interest in photography and photographs of other people.
What’s the most important difference between a good shot and a bad shot?
A good cameraman. I don’t know if that makes it worse, but it’s better if you know the ‘substance’ well and know were your general priorities are. For instance, I don’t think of money in the first place - what you will earn with this shot and you’re not going to involve things in your decision-making that have nothing to do with the story. Therefore, the more honest you are, the better. It’s the same with telling lies…the truth will always hunt you down.
Yes - and with film, you often can see the circumstances among which something is made in some unexpressed manner in the material.
Yes - for this reason I believe that films that are made very fast have standard things. Such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). Because there is very little time, they work according to a fixed groundwork... Therefore you get more and more uniform shots - the same close ups, because it becomes a professional language between those people - and once you know you’re in a certain soap you know what is meant. There is no time to have discussions about it. Because now with film of 60 minutes, you’ve got 16 days to shoot and for a movie of 90 minutes 19 days! A lot quicker than a few years ago. And because of that you lose creativeness. It becomes more and more uniform - at such a speed it isn’t possible to think of groundbreaking things.
And with Lars von Trier?
We did not shoot in a very high pace. ‘Dancer in the dark' was shot in at least 10 weeks. And a heap of money. We had nevertheless a good budget.....
If you look through a camera, are you aware of the fact that you sometimes look for something that isn’t there and that’s why you look again, and again, and again…
It’s experience with shooting. Some things have become rut. You do not have make it a bad rut - some things that are routine are easier to do quickly - but only if they are not of substantial importance. The older you get, the easier it gets. It’s especially important to realise what really matters, to do only what really is worth doing. You cannot work a day for a small stunt, when it means too little to the film. But they do want the value of some locations - which in itself are worth a lot of money for a producer and he wants to put a lot of money in there- therefore it would for example be crazy if we would arrive at a castle that he rented for a lot of money and we wouldn’t make the maximum amount of shots. And with each shot involve the location in it. Those are other priorities…
Above: The American Friend
I sometimes notice that the intervention of the producer goes that way far that for example all equipment has already been ordered in a ' package deal' with a rental house and everything have been filled in already this far that you as a cameraman can’t simply be responsible for your work.
Then I say: if you give me this, than that will be your results. If you can live with that-ok. But I cannot make it better. They always get the joker from me! If he thinks it’s ok, then I can do it, it’s not such a nice tripod but, in other words: It looks fucked up, but if you really think it’s worth it? Then I have to involve the director: If you do it like you’re planning to do it, you you’re taking away certain possibilities from me. It is theoretically possible and that will be the result. If he says: no I do not want that in any case, we’re going to do it differently.
If you the meet the director - do you want to have the feeling that it’s ok already at the first meeting?
Well, no - nobody is behaving normal at the first meeting.
© 2008 all rights reserved by Bart van Broekhoven / NSC
All images are property of and © by their owners, are all taken from trailers, publicity stills and as framegrabs from DVD and serve the purpose to illustrate some of the stories as told by the cinematographer Robby Müller, who lit and composed all these images - with the exception of the publicity stills taken from 'Otto E Mezzo', the 1963 Fellini film that Robby Müller talks about. Translated from Dutch by Joris Kerbosch.