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 werent
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 didnt know how long things were
gonna go before one person or the other said hed 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 cant 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 – Heavens
Gate, Howards 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 Sargents 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 Jims 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 Camerons initial vision for Titanic match your
RC: Luckily, mercifully, there wasnt
a huge difference. Also with Jim, if he doesnt like something,
hell tell you right away. Hell tell you, That
stinks – thats not what I had in mind. And Ill
say, well lets look at it this way.
CZ: Youve worked with Cameron before,
on True Lies. How is working with James Cameron different than
working with other directors youve done pictures with?
RC: Ive worked with all sorts of different
directors; on one end of the spectrum theres the writer/director
who knows virtually nothing about technique, where cameras go and
so forth. Thats 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. Hes
going to have very strong opinions about what everybodys
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
RC: Jim will set the cameras. And I will say, I
think theres another opportunity to put another camera over
here. And Jim will say Yeah, why dont you try
that. But hes definitely going to block the cameras,
set positions. Hell have very strong opinions about lenses.
Thats part of the territory that youre not going to
run into with many directors. The big thing with Jim is that hes
going to ask for the world. Hes going to want everything
and hes 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 Jims going to be ready to go
before you can physically get there. But thats 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! Id rather have it that way than just
CZ: Do you have any plans to work together
again in the near future?
RC: Nothing right now. I dont think
theres anything written.
CZ: Youve 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. Im reading scripts now that are very character
motivated and theyre 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 persons face. Thats
really exciting to me. Nothing that Im 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.
Ill go see these small films, and there will be a section
in there that just blows me away! Im always learning from
whoevers 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 DPs 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 whats possible to do with lighting. One of the most
inventive people that Ive 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 DPs
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
theyve 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 cant 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 dont see it as the be all, end
all. I actually liked the photography of some of the other nominees