Cinematographer Fred Murphy
Fred Murphy

While Fred Murphy may say it’s
by chance that he’s managed to escape the pigeonholing that so
many other cinematographers
have fallen prey to, it’s certainly not just the "luck of
the draw" that has brought him to his current position in
his profession. In the nearly 30 years he’s been working in the
industry, he’s stepped behind the camera on a wide variety of films,
from Eddie and the Cruisers and Hoosiers in his earlier
days to more recent films like October Sky and Auto Focus.

Having just seen the release of this fall’s horrorfest, Freddy
vs. Jason,
and fresh off the set of David Koepp’s Secret
starring Johnny Depp, Maria Bello and John Turturro,
Murphy spent some time discussing his career with MM. Here,
he talks straight about his desire to be challenged—and why all
DPs like their movies dark.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You mentioned
having just finished up a project. What was it that you were
working on?

Fred Murphy (FM): Yes, it’s a project
called Secret

MM: Oh, yes, the Stephen King story with Johnny Depp.
How did you get involved with that?

FM: Through the director, Dave Koepp, who I did another
movie for a few years ago, Stir of Echoes.

MM: From what I know of the story
it’s a very personal one—and very much a character-driven piece.
When you’re approaching a film like that, are there specific
things you try to do because
you know that the actors’ performances are going to be crucial
to the success of the film?

FM: I usually don’t think about it that
way. This film actually has a unique problem in that basically
it’s about one
person and a lot of it takes place in one location. So what you’re
thinking about is ‘How do I deal with that?’ in terms of time and
space, and how do I illustrate that. Usually I assume that whatever
I do, it’s going to be fine. (laughing) I’m really more
concerned with how I’m going to illustrate this and whether I understand
what’s going on in the story.

In a lot of ways, these kinds of movies are much more difficult
than movies with a huge amount of locations and characters. Because
they sort of answer their own questions to some degree, but this
kind of movie does not. You have to answer it.

MM: Was this the first time you had to work within that
sort of one character/one location structure?

FM:  I’ve actually never done anything
like this.

MM: You’ve done so many films now, do you feel that
it’s challenges like these that attract you to a project in the
first place?

FM: Yes! For me, the most important moment when you’re
deciding on a project is the first time you read it. When I read
it, I immediately look for something that I haven’t done too much,
number one. And number two, something that I feel I can bring something
to and is going to stretch me a little bit further.

MM: So you read scripts as a cinematographer,
not just a "reader"?

FM: Always! I mean, I read it simultaneously
as a DP and as a story. Again, the first time you read it is
always the most
important, so I sit down someplace quiet and try to read it not
on an airplane or in the back of a car or something. I read it
very carefully and I take notes about everything I think about.
Because usually, those ideas are the best ideas and they end up
in the movie—if you end up doing the movie! (laughing)

MM: In terms of difficulty, what would you say is the
most challenging film you’ve ever shot?

FM: Well, there are three kinds of difficulty: technical,
physical and aesthetic. I would say a movie I did a couple of years
ago called The Mothman Prophecies was the most difficult—not
so much aesthetically, but more physically and technically. It
was freezing cold all the time, it was night, it was snowing and
raining and, technically, involved a huge amount of complicated
ideas in the shooting. Aesthetically, it was actually terrific.
Somehow the director and I would have the right ideas continuously,
but the doing of it was much more difficult than I thought it was
going to be.

MM: Then at the same time, would you consider that your
most rewarding film in terms of the results of that work?

FM: I like the film, I think it’s very good. But I like
all the films I’ve worked on. There are some that I have special
memories of because of people that worked on them or events that
happened to me at the time, but in terms of the films themselves
I really like all of them.

MM: Looking through your filmography,
it’s really difficult to pin you down to one sort of genre
or type of film. Being “pigeonholed” is
something other cinematographers often complain about. How is
that you’ve managed to escape this?

FM: I think I’ve avoided that and I don’t know how. That
was more of the luck of the draw, so to speak, than any particular
plan on my part.

MM: Are there specific kinds of films
that you prefer working on—either aesthetically or technically?

FM: Basically, I like dark movies—but
all cameramen like dark movies! (laughing) You know, thrillers and gangster
films, I like those kinds of movies. Because, obviously, there’s
much more to do.

MM: Are there any kinds of films
that you feel you still have not yet gotten a chance to make
that you’d be very interested
in doing?  

FM: Oh, science fiction. I’d love to make a science fiction
picture. I’ve never done anything remotely science fiction.

MM: Working in so many different genres, how do you
prepare from one film to the next?
How do you shed what
you’ve spent the past several months learning and doing and start
fresh with a new project?  

FM: Actually, I don’t have that problem. I don’t mean that
to be facetious. When I finish something, I can usually take a
month or so off. So when I read a new thing I’m completely into
the new thing. Sometimes I’ll apply things that I learned on the
last movie.

MM: In the very early stages of a project, working with
the director and production designer, what are the most important
pieces of information you want to know?

FM: Well, the most basic thing to know
is: What do you want to do with the film? What do you want to
do with the story?
On the most basic level it’s about what kind of emotions you’re
interested in and how are you’re going to achieve that. Is the
camera going to be moving or is the camera going to be still? Is
it going to be this or is it going to be that? Is it going to be
handheld? What sort of place are we working in? What kind of ideas
for light are we looking for—grim, bright, dark, sunny? And then,
how are we going to marshal all of these elements through the whole
span of the movie to say something? You go through all these questions
and then eventually you stew it all down and come up with a series
of solutions.

MM: You just finished up Secret Window, so what’s
next for you?

FM: I don’t know, actually. The movie I was going to work
on disappeared, so I’ll probably work on commercials… and look
for a good movie!