The British cinematographer discusses his career and the club he founded to promote excellence in his field.
After studying sculpture at art school, John de Borman set his sights on becoming a cinematographer. After sharpening his skills on commercials and music videos with artists like Madonna, Billy Idol and Prince he entered the world of feature films. He has since shot a wide variety of films including Small Faces, Hideous Kinky, The Full Monty, An Education and Made in Dagenham. He is also the President of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) and sat down with LWLies recently to discuss his career and his work promoting excellence in British cinematography.
LWLies: What initially made you decide to be a cinematographer and where did you learn cinematography?
De Borman: Well, I didn’t really go to film school or anything like that. In fact, I went to art school and studied sculpture. However, during my sculpture days, and just from an early age, I did a lot of filming at home and home movies, things like that. I also embraced photography and I was a photographer’s assistant during my holidays. Feature films were something I thought of from a very early age and wanted to get involved in. Cinematography seemed to be my key for doing just that.
Did you take cinematography courses, or were you more self-taught?
I was more self-taught. So I didn’t really go through the usual schooling routes at all. I just had to start at the bottom and work my way up.
What sort of topics did you photograph that influenced and informed your later style?
Well, it was during that period where experimentation in pop music videos and commercials, especially pop music videos, was very much at the fore, so it did give an advantage to young cinematographers, who were free to experiment and try things out. I had a friend who started a company called Limelight that became very big and eventually I got to shoot things with Madonna and Prince and such stars. So I cut my teeth on experimentation in music videos in the way people do nowadays using digital camera technology, where they can tell stories easily and without any large looming studio telling them what to do. There were a lot of very creative directors in those days just trying to do everything possible. That influenced me a great deal because I learned things through hands-on experimentation. My art school days also influenced me, because sculpture is the study of light on bodies, perspective and framing, so that went into a lot of the pop music videos.
Which pop music videos did you shoot?
I must have done hundreds. Madonna’s 'Like a Virgin' and Prince’s 'Sign o’ the Times' were famous ones. There are lots of stories from the Like a Virgin shoot, in particular we had problems with the lion on the steps of Venice, which got a bit frisky at one point and started running after Madonna. So that all became a bit of a kerfuffle!
Which cinematographers or filmmakers have influenced you?
The cinematographer Chris Menges and his simply wonderful palette of colour and compositions. Roger Deakins, certainly. They usually come from a documentary background, so they have a really interesting understanding of natural light and I think that influenced them and the way they shoot as well. Also cinematographers like Chris Doyle, who shot Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, which was a wonderful example of composition and style. Those are the cinematographers I really like. There are some Americans too such as Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis, the best really!
There are of course many new cinematographers establishing themselves now and it is part of my duty as the President of the BSC to promote the young and talented cinematographers as they are coming up. There is Robbie Ryan, for example, who the BSC are holding a Q&A with regarding the new adaptation of Wuthering Heights he has photographed. There are lots and I’m trying to find those who have gone under the net and haven’t been seen or talked about and promote them. Within the BSC we’re going to be doing three different blocks of study.
There is the Grand Masters series, containing true masters of their craft such as Roger Deakins, looking at what creates a classic and ask why it is some films endure as classics over many years and others just sink without a trace within a week. Contemplate what really makes a classic. Then there is the Studio series, looking at all the films cinematographers are shooting which are studio based, and then there is the Indie series, because these days we have new ways of making films because anybody with a camera, a little digital camera, can go out and make a film. It’s very different from when I started, it was much more complicated, because you had to develop it, you had to get an editor, you had to put the music on it – now we can do all those things at a computer.
What was your experience on Small Faces, a low-budget film that deserved a wider distribution?
The problem with small independent films is that they just don’t get wide distribution. I suppose it was the film that gave me my break. It won the Best New British Feature Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival and was up for a number of other awards, all sorts of things. I’d just come out of art school, I’d made some pop music videos, but now I wanted to make feature films, that’s all I was really interested in. I met Gillies MacKinnon and his brother Billy MacKinnon, who co-wrote Small Faces with him. It’s a semi-autobiographical film about gang warfare in Glasgow and it was the perfect vehicle for telling a story. It was all shot on Super-16 and very quickly in six weeks, but I felt that this was a film that could allow me to visualise and create the kind of images I wanted in order to tell a strong story. It was filmed speedily and with very little budget, we really had hardly any equipment at all and just had to figure it out. However, what we wanted to do was give it an authentic feel, give it a style. As with all period films it was a case of not over stylising, so that every quiff and every piece of costume draws attention to itself or every exterior shot has the right period car drive through it. You don’t want to over-egg the period, but you want to capture the atmosphere of the period. That’s the trick.
The Full Monty was an incredibly popular, successful film. Did you have any idea how successful and crucial for the British film industry it would be while you were making it?
No, it was very difficult to know that. The director Peter Cattaneo had seen Small Faces and liked what I had done on that and got me on to The Full Monty. Now, the story was an odd story, but very well told and you could feel that the characters were very well defined, but while we were filming it I was slightly embarrassed about explaining what I was doing. A story about unemployed men taking their clothes off! It was difficult to describe the kind of film it was really. It was 16 hour days, six-day weeks and an incredibly tough schedule. Because there were six main characters, if you had to do one close up you had to do six close ups and then probably a mid-shot and reverse as well. Cattaneo was very keen on covering everything. So while a scene was funny at the first moment of the day when we first started shooting the scene, by the end of the day we had done it about 150 times, from all different angles and it was no fun at all! The producers did a fantastic job of promoting the film, worked very hard, and it did incredibly well as everyone knows. I think it got under people’s skin. Sam Shepard, who I did Hamlet with, came up to me and said, “John, every man in that film The Full Monty has lived in my village.” I think that’s the key to that film. People recognise every character. You can be Japanese, you can be French or anywhere in the world and that story has resonance. I think that’s possibly what makes the difference between the films that work and those that don’t.
What was it like recreating London during the Swinging Sixties for An Education?
It was a dream for a cinematographer and I was lucky in a way because the director Lone Scherfig was Danish and she leant on me a lot because I had lived through the time and remembered it vividly. Again, it was a case of not over-creating and over-stylising but capturing the essence of the period and the innocence of the people in that period. The innocence of the Swinging 60s is embodied in the central character Jenny (Carey Mulligan).
Can you say a little about Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet, which you are going to be photographing in the autumn?
Yes, touch wood. Everything seems to be in place now. Well, I did a film called Last Chance Harvey with Dustin Hoffman and got on terribly well with him and Emma Thompson. I always said to Dustin that he should direct something. After all he has acted in probably 20 or so quintessential films and has had all that experience with many amazing directors. I had just been speaking to the producer of An Education
Finola Dwyer, who had this film Quartet and the director had just pulled out. So I said to her, why not have Dustin Hoffman direct it? It’s a contained piece; it’s in a house with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and a couple of others I can’t mention because they haven’t quite signed yet! It’s all about humanity and all the things Dustin would be brilliant at. Of course, BBC Films jumped at the chance. It’s developed from a documentary called Tosca’s Kiss about a real elderly home for retired opera singers founded by Giuseppe Verdi. It’s about their lives, their pasts and their aspirations. It’s about life as much as it is about death. It’s beautifully written by Ronald Harwood, a double Oscar winner who did The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
What are your favourite examples of your cinematography and another cinematographer’s work?
I think when it comes to someone else’s work, the aforementioned work of Chris Doyle on In the Mood for Love, I think as far as the pacing, the beauty and colour, is pretty hard to beat really. However, I often like films simply because of the emotion they arouse and not necessarily purely because of their imagery. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest grabbed me from an early age and still does, because it’s so powerful emotionally. Part of what we do is telling stories emotionally and that’s the thing that really gets to me on a personal level. In terms of my own work there are things in An Education I really like and I thought came out well. There is a particular scene in which I used cinematography, hopefully in a poetic way, when Jenny and David (Peter Sarsgaard) arrive and a black family is standing on the corner. The point of the scene is this young girl is questioning David, this man she is with. Who he is, what he does, just questioning his character really. And so we shot that through the window of the windscreen of the car, where we played with the focus, and we could always see her face looking at the reflection of David playing with this black family standing on the pavement. But then we would pull backwards and forwards and we always see her, sometimes out of and sometimes in focus, all through the reflection. So it’s a reflection reflecting what she is thinking. That went quite well for me.
When did you become the President of the BSC and what do you hope to achieve in the role?
When I first started the film industry was extremely unionised and you couldn’t become part of the film industry without making a film, but you couldn’t make a film without being part of the film industry. It was catch-22 and I had to do little low-budget films to get myself into it, and I believe the abused shouldn’t abuse, so I have been determined as of the end of last year to create a society that reflects the incredible talent of all our members and we have got some extraordinary talent. We want to promote past, current and future talent. I want every single person who loves films and wants to be involved in films to have the opportunity to meet cinematographers, production designers, producers and directors, because it truly is a collaborative process, no one person makes the film. It’s team collaboration.
With that in mind I and the BSC have opened up a new BSC CLUB, so that for £100 you can go to these events that tell you about all new technical innovations, going into great depth. We’re not just talking to students; we will be talking to people who are already cinematographers. We are then holding the master classes in which we will reflect on the work of grand masters like Roger Deakins, Peter Biziou and Chris Menges, all the best that we have and the process by which they made their films. For example, you will discover that The Shawshank Redemption, shot by Roger Deakins, was quite chaotic and the schedule was very tough. However, an extraordinary film was created that appears in many critics’ top ten. We are also going to run a class on Indie, reflecting on new films that are shot on anything and then we will run a class on films made in studios so that people can talk about what makes great filmmaking.
Has this opening of the doors of the BSC been prompted by the abolition of the UK Film Council and the heavy arts cuts?
No, I don’t think so. It’s more simply a movement toward making it seem less like a film industry and more of a film community. There is a fantastic cinematography festival in Poland, which everyone should go to, called Camerimage, which is held at the end of November/beginning of December and is where cinematographers, producers and directors from all over the world just turn up, show their films, have seminars, go to parties and chat in the pub and enjoy cinematography and reflect upon it. In a way, the BSC is trying to replicate the same kind of nurturing environment. We’re a culture that doesn’t really open up enough to each another. I’m half French and I just think, ‘Why not!’ Let’s talk about it and get involved. For someone like me who started off not knowing anybody this is a great way for people to meet each other and talk about the films that are being made now.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a cinematographer?
Just get on with it! It’s a passion and don’t do it unless it is a passion. If it’s just a case of making money and travelling a lot it’s not always going to happen. It’s very hard work and there is a huge amount of competition, so you have to be completely passionate. There are many types of cinematography and filmmaking you can do, so figure out what really fascinates you and then do your best to do as much of it as possible. We are now in the position that if you really want to make films and really want to make images it’s not that expensive and you can prove your talent much quicker than in my day. The whole digital revolution has helped enormously with this. You can use an inexpensive little DV camera, edit it there and then, create your own score on your computer and release it out on the internet. Access has much improved, so there’s no excuse. There’s no excuse for people with good stories to tell not to tell them.
To learn more about the BSC, the BSC Club and its events visit bscine.com