This is my second commission for the British Academy Of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA). Janette Dalley, BAFTA’s director of photography since 2007, is heavily into a deep, long term project to make the Academy’s photographic archive the go to source for imagery of the British film and television industries. This commission is another small step on the road to her long term photographic ambitions for the organisation.
This year’s theme for the film awards brochure portfolio was ‘Women In Film’. The call came from Janette sometime back in September and the project started with a meeting at her office. Toby Weidmann, editor of the awards brochure, and various others had put together a list ofwomen that he wanted to approach for the project and then it was over to Janette to make the calls.
Our final list was as follows:
Amma Assante – director; Brenda Blethyn – actress; Christine Langan – head of BBC Films; Gugu Mbatha-Raw – actress; Jane Goldman – screenwriter/producer; Lone Scherfig – director; Sam Taylor Johnson – director; Sandy Powell – costume designer; Thelma Schoonmaker – editor.
The last project I did for BAFTA had been entirely studio based. For this one, of course, I wanted to get out of the studio and into the big wide world. I was alsoadamant that I wanted to photograph all of these women as they were on any normal day, no styling, no sets, nothing too overblown. I also wanted to make each of them appear as if they were fulfilling a role in their own little private movie. This meant no eye contact with the camera and, with one or two exceptions, I stuck to this rule throughout my final selections.
Janette and Toby are great collaborators in that once they hand over a subject to me they let me do it however I like, with barely a question on concept/location or idea. They trust all the photographers they work with implicitly and off we go to play around in our sandpits. As the project progressed I would occasionally send Janette a rough low res file of a frame here or there that I liked, but apart from that I waited until the end of the whole thing before submitting my final choices. All in, a dream of a thing to do, photographing people whose talents are unquestionable, people who like pictures and imagery. People who get it. I don’t think one of them lasted more than an hour. Dreamsville.
In chronological order then, here they are.
Sam Taylor Johnson
Sam Taylor Johnson was the first woman I had to photograph and what I saw in my head before I flew to LA was a pick up truck. I got hold of this fabulous 1971 Ford modelfrom a friend in LA. He lives up in the Hollywood Hills in a house with a view to die for and this lives in his garage. Sam came up to the house, we chatted for a little bit and then went outside to start taking pictures. It was also on this first shoot that I set another rule for myself: no direct light ever. Everything had to be bounced or reflected and where possible only natural or available light was to be used. These pictures were all shot with only available light, the sun coming from behind the car and bouncing off ahuge pieceof the Hollywood film industry’s gift to the world, the shiny board.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a British actress and has been nominated for this year’s BAFTA rising star award. This was the second shoot in Los Angeles and for this I got hold of a 1989 Porsche 911 and took it up to the top of one of the Hollywood Hills where the view over the City of Angels will take your breath away. I wanted the picture to feel like it could be a scene at the end of a big 80s buddy buddy cop movie. Reveal, betrayal, confrontation, conclusion. Try it at dusk as the sun goes down and the twinkling lights of the city start to illuminate the long, long arrow straight streets. Unfortunately for me my call time with Gugu was 1pm, the worst time in the whole day to photograph anybody because of the harsh, hard, severe position of the sun at its highest point in the sky. However, the sun was at least behind Gugu and could backlight her fabulous hair. Again my assistant handheld the big shiny board and bounced the sunback into her from various positions. This was the quickest shoot of all. She had comefrom filming in Pittsburgh to do this and an interview,beforeturning right round to head straight back. We did the whole thing in half an hour.
Sandy Powellis a costume designer. She’s worked on’The Crying Game’, ‘Far From Heaven’, ‘Gangs of New York’, ‘Shutter Island’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, ‘The Departed’ and ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. She has worked on almost everything Martin Scorcese has made since ‘Gangs Of New York’ in 2002.She has also won 3Oscars for bestcostume design: ‘Shakespeare in Love’, ‘The Aviator’ & ‘The Young Victoria’. We met in the bar at BAFTA’s Piccadilly HQ and took a short walk down to the churchyard at St James’s next door.It’s all red and green.
Brenda Blethyn isone of those great British actresses who, it seems, has been around and in our national consciousness forever. However, when I looked at the list of films she’s been in I realised that it wasn’t until her role as Cynthia in Mike Leigh’s ‘Secrets & Lies’ (1996) that she really began to shine. For this shoot I had to meet her at The Savoy Hotel and as it was a beautiful, crisp, clear winter’s day I was dying to photograph her outside in the morning light. This picture was taken round the back of The Savoy, just along from where Bob Dylan filmed the ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’shortin 1965, with the hard sun bouncing off nearby windows and glass which created this gorgeous lighting sweet spot. I showed her this frame on the back of the camera and said, “Expect a call from the James Bond people, they need a new ‘M’ and you should be it.”
Christine Langan is the head of BBC Films and was the executive producer on’The Queen’, ‘The Damned United, ‘In The Loop’, ‘Fish Tank’, ‘Made In Dagenham’, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ and ‘Saving Mr Banks’, among many others. From the moment her name first appeared on the list I had a picture in my head of her in the back of a taxi. In the real life version of this image my assistant, Anna, is lying unseen on the floor of the cab pointing a giant battery powered light into some reflective gold fabric which is bouncing back that lovely glowing light into Christine’s face.
Later on that day it was back to The Savoy for this shoot with former child actress, now screenwriter and director Amma Assante, whose recent film ‘Belle’ was inspired by a late 18th century painting. She is just beginning work on her new movie, ‘Unforgettable’, starring Kate Hudson and Kerry Washington. This was shot in the Beaufort Bar at the hotel. I stuck to my rule about using only reflected light but also threw in a light from behind to create flare and atmosphere.
Lone Scherfig is a Danish director. She made her name with the Dogme 95 film, ‘Italian For Beginners’ in 2000. In 2009 she directed, ‘An Education’,Nick Hornby’sscreen adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir about growing up as a teenager in the late 50s/early 60s suburbs of London. I thought that film used colour in a very clever and evocative way but couldn’t work out how. When I mentioned this to her she smiled in a lovely, satisfied, slightly proud wayand then told me that all traces of the colour yellow were removed from the film, so that it skewed towards a bluer/pinker tonal range. Literally rose tinted. A beautiful, joyous film making fact, just so much fun to talk to about film making and full of little tips and bits of advice. As she got more into being photographed, I told her that she had a bit of the Hitchcock heroine about her and she obligingly started to channel Tippi Hedren outside on the quiet side streets of Whitehall, with all that Portland stone around us to light the place up.
Jane Goldman started out as a journalist before moving into the film game with her screenwriting work on ‘Stardust’, Kick-Ass’ and ‘X-Men: First Class’. I had a clear idea for my portrait of Jane that it should take place in Soho after dark. In my mind she is an urban person of the night, so we arranged to meet at BAFTA in the late winter’s afternoon and walk down tothat den of filth, avarice and lust a few hundred yards to the east. I had imagined her bathed in a confluence of neon, concrete and ambiguity but my plans were scuppered by the foulest weather imaginable. Now I was stuck. Think, who do I know in Soho that owns a business we can use as a shelter and base until the grimness subsides? Of course, Russell Norman, the restaurant king of Soho with his grimy yet gorgeous places, Polpo, Spuntino and Polpetto. A call to his office and 15 minutes later we are cleared to head down to Spuntino on Rupert Street in the heart of the dirty book warrenaround Brewer Street. On arrival Russell was waiting with Prosecco and fresh dishes to graze on while we set up. The pictures we did that evening are some of my favourites for the way we took advantage of the incredible low but enveloping light sources from inside and outside the restaurant. Rating the camera at ISO1600 gave me an exposure of 1/60s at F2.8 which is a bit of a tightrope walk but so indescribably intoxicating if you, the photographer, can hold all the elements together: stillness, focus, composition etc. All those Edison lightbulbs that hang around the bar are impossible to reproduce with higher powered lighting, so I decided to again use my battery powered LEDs pushed into a lot of very shiny gold cloth in order to give Jane that golden glow that I love so much. I wanted Janeto feel adoredand revered by the camera, to be able to relax into the shoot. I got the impression that a lot of Jane is below the surface and I had to chip away at her awhile to try and bring that out. She didn’t seem to mind though as I prattled on in my usual way, talking rubbish, making strange misunderstood references and all the time looking for that little spark in the eyes.
Thelma Schoonmaker is one of the great American film editors of the post war period. She has worked with Martin Scorcese since 1967 and edited allof his films from ‘Raging Bull’ onwards. She has been nominated for an editingOscar seven times and won the award three times for ‘Raging Bull’, ‘The Aviator’ and ‘The Departed’. Her first major project was the work she did editing the ‘Woodstock’ documentary by Michael Wadleigh and was the film that earned her her firstOscar nomination in 1971. In 1984 she married the British director Michael Powell (‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘Peeping Tom’) and since his death in 1990 has dedicated herself to preserving his films and ensuring his legacy. I photographed her in her edit suite on W57th Street in New York City on a cold December afternoon. She didn’t want to go outside and I didn’t want to try and make her, so we did the picture in her screening room. All the time I asked her about this scene and that scene from all those great movies she put together and saw before any of us ever did. She even let me sit in Marty’s chair, the chair he sits in while she’s cutting for him. It was a big old tan coloured leather reclining chair but with all sorts of editing controls built into the arms, forward and rewind knobs.This is perhaps my favourite quote of Thelma’s: when asked how it was that such a nice lady could edit Scorsese’s violent gangster pictures, shereplied with a smile, “Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.”