American Gigolo

Richard Gere in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980)

As with many of his contemporaries, it was the directors
and films of the French New Wave that led cinematographer John Bailey
(The Kid Stays in the Picture, The Anniversary Party)
to his destiny. Straying from the path that his undergraduate studies
in chemistry and philosophy were taking him, Bailey opted to attend
USC’s graduate film school and has since built a career that would
make even most accomplished DPs very jealous. Under the photographic
tutelage of some of the industry’s best, including Néstor Almendros
and Vilmos Zsigmond, Bailey has worked on more than 50 features.

But while many DPs find a niche and stick with it,
it is the challenge of trying something new that keeps Bailey going:
from such Hollywood fare as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to indie breakthroughs like The Anniversary Party and
performance films such as Swimming to Cambodia to documentaries
like A Brief History of Time, Bailey’s filmography is anything
but boring. With his latest non-fiction entry, The Kid Stays
in the Picture
, in theaters now, Bailey took some time
to speak with MM about the future of film, why he’s always
shifting gears and how he finds his alternate reality.

Jennifer Wood (MM): What was it about the
films and directors of the French New Wave that made you change
the course of your education and career?

John Bailey (JB): When I was in high school
and had started college it was still the end of America’s obsession
with the “great American novel.” Everybody who wanted to be an artist
aspired to write the great American novel. What I sensed in the
French New Wave, which I was exposed to when I was a studying in
Austria, was a sense of freedom and spontaneity that caught me totally
off-guard. I found a sort of crazed new spirit happening-everywhere
really, but especially in the French New Wave-and somehow it just
spoke to me in terms of its energy and its sense of breaking loose.
And yet the themes it was dealing with were the same themes most
novelists were trying to deal with. It was the beginning of a lot
of experimentation in the literary form. Given my bent toward literature,
I just saw it as a new kind of writing.

When I entered film school at USC, I thought I would
get into an area of criticism or writing or film aesthetics and
history. When I took a beginning camera course, that changed my
whole perspective: I really saw the camera primarily as the writing

MM: Many people claim that the 1970s was
the last explosion of great cinema, with directors like Robert Altman,
Terrence Malick and Paul Schrader making their entries. Being part
of this group, do you agree?

JB: I think it was the last great concentrated sort of movement or kind of common-shared zeitgeist. I think there
are still tremendous numbers of interesting films being made, even
in this country, but it’s more diffused. Not that the French New
Wave was ever a movement, but it did have the nucleus of a lot of
those directors having come out of the Cahiers du Cinema,
so it was a kind of focal point. American cinema has never really
had that because of the hegemony and dominance of the studio system-even
today. Essentially, everybody works as an individual and then in
one way or another, through a film festival or relationship with
a studio, ends up being sucked into the system, whether you want
to or not.

One of the most interesting things I’ve ever read
was an essay that Phillip Lopate wrote called “Anticipation of La
Notte: The Heroic Age of Moviegoing” in one of his anthologies.
He was a student at Columbia in the early ’60s and started a cine
club where they would run films as they opened and this essay is
essentially about the anticipation and excitement of that next great
film that was going to open. He really gives a terrific sense of
what it was like to wait from week to week for the next big film
to happen, the way people used to wait for a new Saul Bellow novel.

MM: It’s unfathomable, now, to look back
on all the great films that were released in those years and think
that you could see so many of these “classic” films week after week.
It’s particularly disappointing when you see the films that people
anticipate today. There isn’t much substance.

JB: The terrible thing, of course, is as soon
as an interesting, off-beat talent emerges out of the independent
movement here, they’re sucked up by the studio and essentially neutralized.

MM: In this year alone, we saw Sam Raimi
and Peter Jackson-two cult directors who have been making small
films for years-release
Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings. Even Ang Lee is making The Hulk. There just doesn’t seem
to be any way around it.

JB: It’s very difficult to stay out of that;
the temptations are so great. Look at someone like Paul Schrader,
whose vision is sort of perversely alienated from anything that
might be considered studio mainstream. I just got back from Telluride,
where they honored him, but the downside is the terrible price he’s
had to pay the last 15 years with just increasingly more and more
problematic funding and more and more difficulty in getting his
films made and distributed.

MM: You’ve worked with Paul on five films:
what is it about him that makes you want to keep working with him;
that makes you go back for more?

JB: First of all, as different as Paul and
my views of the world might be, we always have these sort of shadow
personalities-or shadow aspects of our personalities. Paul certainly,
for me, represents the shadowy dark side of things for me. So whenever
I work with him, it’s an opportunity to descend into an alternate
reality and to experience that-sometimes more than I can bear. He
asked me to do Auto Focus and I read the script a number
of times but I wasn’t able to go there with him. I found it was
too difficult for me.

But now he’s got a fresh infusion-unfortunately, because
of John Frankenheimer’s death. He’s going to be doing the next Exorcist film. Whether anything happens with it or not in terms of box office,
it’s certainly going to give him more studio credibility I think
for the next film-and will hopefully make it a little easier for
him. I hope to keep making films with Paul because he is a unique
temperament. In an environment where so many of our films are either
conceived as cookie-cutter films-or by the time they go through
the studio preview process have become cookie-cutter films-it’s
extraordinary to be able to occasionally do a film with somebody
as unique and kind of dangerous as Paul. I’m always looking for
unusual things to do such as, even though it wasn’t wildly experimental,
a film like The Anniversary Party. That, both on a dramatic
and technical level, was a different kind of experience for me.

MM: That film was made in the Dogme style
that, though it is not an American movement, has really been embraced
here. Then again, even
The Anniversary Party would not have
gotten made if Jennifer Jason Leigh weren’t on board.

JB: That’s the problematic environment that
American films are made in. Because we have no official or quasi-official
government support, as a lot of other countries do, alternative
or independent or experimental filmmakers are really at the mercy
of whatever kind of odd funding they can find, which is obviously
very, very difficult. Whereas a lot of countries-in Europe and certainly
in Canada-have programs where they create an environment in which
offbeat films can be made.

MM: Going back to Auto Focus, you
said that you read the script but that you couldn’t “go there” with
Paul. Is there anything about a script that will immediately turn
you off to the project or won’t allow you to connect to the material?

JB: There are several issues that I’ve spent
most of my career, from the time I was an assistant, having to deal
with and one is gratuitous violence or incendiary violence that’s
only meant to inflame people and doesn’t have a dramatic or sociologically
responsible context. That’s always bothered me and has been the
strongest determining characteristic when I read a script. A kind
of parallel to that, of course, is violence oriented toward women
or misogynistic, violent material. I’ve always had trouble with
that and I try to avoid it as much as I can.

MM: What is the one thing in a script that
will make you say ‘yes’?

JB: The thing that I am always looking for-the
thing that attracts me the most and will make me say yes more than
anything else-is at least one intensely focused relationship, where
there’s something that stays between two people. It doesn’t matter
the genre, although I’m highly attracted to films that deal with
nuclear families in crisis like Ordinary People or The
Accidental Tourist
and, in an off way, even As Good as it
. But any film that has a relationship that kind
of jumps out at me and says ‘this has importance or urgency.’

MM: I’m thinking of In the Line of Fire as you say this, as I think the relationship between John Malkovich
and Clint Eastwood’s characters was really one of the more interesting
creations in recent film. Was that the main attraction to that film?

JB: Absolutely! In fact, when I met with Wolfgang
I told him that I was very intrigued by the political and visual
scale of the film. But to me the heart of the film-just like the
heart of Ordinary People, with the encounters between Judd
Hirsch and Tim Hutton, which are spaced all the way through the
film-was the series of phone conversations between John Malkovich
and Clint Eastwood. A kind of relationship develops and becomes
a “mano a mano” conflict about good and evil.

MM: You began working as a DP at a time
when an apprenticeship was the norm-something that, with the advent
of digital technology and the lower cost of moviemaking, has all
but disappeared. High school kids can go out and start shooting.
Do you think it would be helpful to the current state of film to
go back to having long-held apprenticeships?

JB: You know, I don’t have any real strong
sense about that because I chose the path I did and felt I learned
a lot from it. But the technology has evolved and it’s a lot simpler.
People can do that and so if they’re inclined to do that, great
for them. There are risks, of course: when you rise to a big enough
challenge and don’t have the background or the technical expertise
to [handle it] and you fall flat, it’s very hard to climb back up
because the level of judgement is so harsh. That’s the downside
to it. The upside is that I think you do have the ability to essentially
be a sort of wild child and redefine an ever-changing medium. That
aspect of it is great.

I certainly wouldn’t want to say that I think everybody
should follow the path that I took. One of the things that I did
get out of it was the socialization-and I needed it desperately,
because I was not the most socially interactive person in the world.
I was kind of quiet and introverted. What I got out of the apprenticeship
was the fly on the wall sort of thing. I was able, over a decade
of work, to watch a tremendous number of men and women on the firing
line and how they handled all of the defining crises that come up.
I was able to watch and learn. That kind of human experience of
how you deal with tension and crises and stress and communication
at all the levels is something you can’t learn from a manual-and
you can’t even learn by going out with a Sony PD150 or a Canon XL1
and shooting by yourself. So that aspect of it, for me, was really
crucial. I learned from some enormously sensitive and beautiful
artists, like Néstor Almendros, and I learned form some rather arrogant
guys who fell flat on their faces. I just kind of watched their
careers crash and burn in front of me. Not that I wished them ill,
but I took note! [laughing]

MM: So you’ve shot in digital?

JB: Yeah, I’ve done three projects. I’m doing
a kind of ongoing film with a critic/writer Shari Roman, who has
written a lot about the Dogme movement and who has made a short
film about Lars von Trier. She’s taken a book that she wrote, called Digital Babylon, and essentially is going to a lot of the
filmmakers that she talked about-Dogme filmmakers-and is doing a
video documentary on their work. I went with her last winter to
Sweden to film on the set of Lars Von Trier’s new movie. It was
the end of production, so Lars had already left, but we interviewed
[cinematographer] Anthony Dod Mantle, who is sort of the Raoul Coutard
of the movement, and is a dear friend of mine. We also interviewed
Mike Figgis in his studio in London and I went with just a Sony
PD150 and no crew. I mean, I had no lighting! I had to borrow a
light from Mike Figgis, in fact. [laughing] I just went with that
camera, and it was an amazing experience.

Last year I did a very interesting text that was
financed by Kodak: a side-by-side 35mm film/Sony 24p HD camera comparison
test that I did with two other cinematographers. Kodak produced a
22-minute, very well made film that essentially showed you the characteristics
of the two mediums side-by-side. And, of course, The Anniversary
, which we shot with a PAL DV Cam-it wasn’t Hi Def.