Titanic’s Cinematographer Russell Carpenter

Rush hour at the Hamburger Hamlet on Hollywood Boulevard.
On a street crammed with tourists, nobody seems to notice a brand
new Academy Award winner slip through the doors. Russell Carpenter,
the tall, lanky, Oscar-winning cinematographer of Titanic, has
come to dinner to discuss the movie and his future. No face lifts
or butt tucks for this guy. Being humble has kept him young and
his clear eyes keep contact with me throughout the interview. Carpenter
only looks away to reflect, but never out the window at the gigantic
Titanic billboard that drifts above the star-strewn sidewalk in
front of the Mann Chinese Theater.

Christopher Zack (CZ): James Cameron originally
started shooting Titanic with a different DP. How did you end up
getting the job?

Russell Carpenter (RC): I was involved in
another project at the time and I got an exploratory phone call
from John Landau, who basically said that things weren’t
going well on the set. Evidently there was a lot of tension and
a lot of difference in working style between Jim (Cameron) and
Caleb (Deschanel) and he didn’t know how long things were
gonna go before one person or the other said he’d had it.
Landau asked what I was doing, and I told him I was involved
in a shoot. With the help of my wife, who was instrumental in
putting this all together, I arranged a situation where I could
exit the film I was on if I could bring another director of photography
on. I can’t thank the director and the producer of that
film enough because they said, “This is a wonderful opportunity.” It
was such a great gift they gave me because the studio could have
said, “No way.” I was able to exit the previous film
and I had two weeks to get ready for Titanic. I had an advantage
because, at one point, I was the front runner for the job, so
I had been thinking about what I would do.

CZ: How did you prepare for Titanic in those
two weeks before shooting commenced?

RC: I had done some research, but in the two
weeks that I had, I looked at the films that I liked – Heaven’s
Gate, Howard’s End, The Natural. There is something in those
films that I really like and I thought I could bring a bit of it
to Titanic. Then I looked at the American impressionists and I
looked at (portrait painter) John Singer Sargent’s work. That
was very influential in terms of how I felt the interiors should
look for Titanic. The first thing I did is that I went to the art
department to research the drawings that they had done. I also
went to the visual effects department because the effects were
so complex and everything had to be budgeted ahead of time. This
gave me a very good idea of what Jim’s concept was. Aesthetically,
we had very little time to talk. And what we really arrived at
aesthetically came out of the makeup tests that I did a few days
prior to the start of production.

CZ: On a project of this magnitude, personal
ideas of what will end up on the screen can be drastically different.
Did James Cameron’s initial vision for Titanic match your
own?

RC: Luckily, mercifully, there wasn’t
a huge difference. Also with Jim, if he doesn’t like something,
he’ll tell you right away. He’ll tell you, “That
stinks – that’s not what I had in mind.” And I’ll
say, “well let’s look at it this way.”

CZ: You’ve worked with Cameron before,
on True Lies. How is working with James Cameron different than
working with other directors you’ve done pictures with?

RC: I’ve worked with all sorts of different
directors; on one end of the spectrum there’s the writer/director
who knows virtually nothing about technique, where cameras go and
so forth. That’s one end. The other end of the spectrum, working
with Jim, is that he knows a lot about everything. He knows a lot
about photography, lighting, set construction, engineering. He’s
going to have very strong opinions about what everybody’s
doing. You just have to get used to that. The trade-off is that
you are probably working in one of the most challenging environments
you can work in.

CZ: Being a proficient technical director,
what kind of freedom does Cameron allow you in manipulating the
cameras?

RC: Jim will set the cameras. And I will say, “I
think there’s another opportunity to put another camera over
here.” And Jim will say “Yeah, why don’t you try
that.” But he’s definitely going to block the cameras,
set positions. He’ll have very strong opinions about lenses.
That’s part of the territory that you’re not going to
run into with many directors. The big thing with Jim is that he’s
going to ask for the world. He’s going to want everything
and he’s going to want it as good as you can possibly give
it to him. And sometimes those demands come without as much warning
as you want, but you just have to deal with that pressure and do
the best you can even though Jim’s going to be ready to go
before you can physically get there. But that’s just part
of it. Even with some of the trying circumstances you get into
during the day, you feel like, “Wow!” “There was
a great shot!” I’d rather have it that way than just
be easy.

CZ: Do you have any plans to work together
again in the near future?

RC: Nothing right now. I don’t think
there’s anything written.

CZ: You’ve said that you want to work
on smaller films, possibly independent features?

RC: After Titanic, I did a film called The
Negotiator, which was basically a hostage situation movie with
Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Spacey. What attracted me to that
project was a director that I liked and the challenge of seeing
if I could make something interesting that basically happens in
two rooms. I’m reading scripts now that are very character
motivated and they’re more about the extremes in human behavior
– how good people can be and how bad people can be. And the drama
happens more within the arena of the person’s face. That’s
really exciting to me. Nothing that I’m reading involves blowing
anything up or city blocks toppling over. What was so exciting
to me about Titanic is that I was able to do a period piece. With
a background in science fiction, action, and horror pictures and
all the way up the food chain, that was really an exciting opportunity.

CZ: What current cinematographers have really
caught your eye?

RC: I learn from everybody. Almost anybody,
on a given day, is capable of doing something totally brilliant.
I’ll go see these small films, and there will be a section
in there that just blows me away! I’m always learning from
whoever’s out there. The guy who shot Like Water for Chocolate,
Steven Bernsein, for instance.

CZ: Starting with your public television days,
who are some of the DP’s that have really inspired you and
helped lead you to where you are today, aesthetically?

RC: In terms of mentors, for me, the top of
the list is Storaro. He turned everybody around. He said, “This
is what’s possible to do with lighting.” One of the most
inventive people that I’ve ever seen is Conrad Hall. I also
admire Jordan Cronenweth, Haskell Wexler, Caleb Deschanel, Owen
Roizman, Allen Daviau.

CZ: You mentioned painters before as well?

RC: In terms of painters: Caravaggio, Vermeer.
In terms of impact and fun of cinema: Godzilla, King Kong, Rodan.
As a kid, I loved that stuff because it was fun. I think Titanic,
absurdly, is a synthesis of those two sensibilities in me.

CZ: What words of wisdom do you have for DP’s
not yet quite established?

RC: They should do whatever they can to get
a reel. A reel that shows what they can do, a dynamic style. If
they’ve got a great style, that will be their first and most
important selling card. They should learn to work at speed, because
on low-budget things you have to learn how to come up with an effective
style under less than considerable conditions. The other thing,
and I can’t stress this enough, is, that even though conditions
are pretty bad and because of budgets people have to rush, you
need to still to be as civil as you can to people because it really
is about who you know. Word of mouth about people is tremendously
important. Try hard to be as civil as you can.

CZ: How have things changed for you since
you won that bald golden man, the ultimate success as a moviemaker?

RC: I don’t see it as the be all, end
all. I actually liked the photography of some of the other nominees
better. MM

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