You might be surprised to find that cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, a man with more than 100 film credits to his name, never formally studied his trade. Rather, Ballhaus learned by doing, slowly gaining a reputation as a significant cinema artist and working repeatedly with important directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese. In fact, the Germany-born DP’s latest project, The Departed, marks his seventh collaboration with Scorsese.
As he approaches his 50th anniversary in the movie business, Ballhaus sat down with MM for a candid discussion of his life’s work—from Beware of a Holy Whore to Something’s Gotta Give—giving plenty of insight into the fine art of writing with light.
Bob Fisher (MM): The Departed is an amazing film, and marks your seventh collaboration with Martin Scorsese. How far in advance did you know that he was considering that project, and what kind of preparation did you do with him?
Michael Ballhaus (MB): 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. 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.
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, too.
MM: How did you hook up with Martin Scorsese for the first time?
MB: 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 scene that he liked and called me. I couldn’t sleep for three nights after that conversation because I was so excited—I loved his pictures.
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—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).
MM: What was it like working with him for the first time?
MB: 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.
MM: Right after that you shot Death of a Salesman, based on Arthur Miller’s play, with John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman.
MB: I was friends with the director, Volker Schlöndorff, in Germany long before he came to America. We happened to bump into each other on Fifth 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 Loman 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 were a lot handheld shots, moving with the actors. Dustin said at one point, “You’re not a cameraman, you’re an actor.”
MM: You made more than a dozen films with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. What was your first meeting with Fassbinder like?
MB: He wasn’t very friendly. After a couple of days, I thought I better not unpack my luggage because I was 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.
MM: Something must have been right; you did more than a few films together.
MB: We worked on 15 pictures 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 them 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.
MM: You earned your first Oscar nomination for Broadcast News in 1987.
MB: 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.
MM: You got another Oscar nomination for The Fabulous Baker Boys, which was another totally different type of film set in a nightclub with a group of musicians.
MB: 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 had been dreaming about when he wrote the script.
MM: We’ll mention another memorable film: Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
MB: It was a perfect film for Marty, 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.
MM: You received a third Oscar nomination in 2003, for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
MB: 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 Cinecittà 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 1860s). 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 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.