AC: Sidney, a lot of people get confused about the exact role of a director of photography. Just briefly could you explain just what it is that you do?
SB: People ask me that all the time! In fact most of them donÚt even know what the job is called. IÚve been called everything from a cinephotographerÚ to a director on photographyÚ. The job is called director of photography or some people prefer to be called a cinematographer. Some people use the abbreviation D.O.P which I personally hate. IÚm not a dopÚ.
Anyway to answer your question, IÚm responsible for the overall look of the filmed image. I choose the lenses, the film stock and I decide how a scene will be lit. I also choose the framing of a shot. If a director asks for a close up, I give them a close up. If they ask for a wide shot, I give them a wide shot. If they ask me to hurry up because itÚs taking too long to set up a shot, then I give them a thick ear. ItÚs that simple.
AC: Just how much difference can a seemingly small change make to the finished film? Changing the film stock for example?
SB: Oh it can make a huge difference. Different film stocks react to light and colour in different ways. They may require lighting differently and they will have differing amounts of grain on the final image. An easy way to think of it is to compare it to paint. You can choose to paint with watercolours, acrylics or oil paint. TheyÚre all paints but they work in different ways and each will look distinctively different from each other in the final painting. But you canÚt use them together or it just makes a mess.
AC: Yes that does make it simple. IÚm surprised that you donÚt do more interviews.
SB: Well I donÚt really like talking about myself very much. That and in every single interview IÚve ever done all they ever want to talk about is what it was like to work with Stanley Kubrick.
AC: Ahâ So you donÚt like talking about that do you?
SB: Well I have done other things havenÚt I?
AC: Yes. Obviously.
SB: You just want me to talk about Kubrick donÚt you?
AC: Er, well I suppose so.
SB: Well do you or not?
AC: Yes. Sorry.
SB: All right. How many questions have you got about Kubrick?
AC: Just a couple.
SB: Go on then.
AC: You worked on 2001: A Space OdysseyÚ. That must have been technically very challenging.
SB: Oh good lord, yes. The main problem was that we had to invent most of the things we did from scratch. At the time nobody had any idea what weightlessness actually looked like. So we had to invent ways to film things that no one had ever seen. We tried all sorts of methods to try and simulate it. One idea was to get people to jump on a trampoline and film them in slow motion. That ultimately didnÚt work because we kept getting the trampoline in shot. Plus it looked rubbish to be honest. They just looked like they were jumping very slowly.
The next idea was to put us into a military transporter jet that would climb to 75,000 feet and then dive towards the ground at great speed. That gives you around four or five minutes of real weightlessness. The air force have a nickname for the plane Þ ìThe Vomit Cometî. We shot some tests but it made us so ill that we had to abandon the idea. IÚll never forget Stanley wiping his beard clean and asking, ìDid I get sick on the lens Sidney?î
The next thing we tried was the effect that you actually see in the finished film. It was very simple. We just hung people off the studio ceiling and filmed them from directly underneath. When the ceiling was painted black it looked just like they were hanging in space. In fact the cast spent so long hanging off these ropes that at one point Keir Dullea got a bit frustrated and shouted, ìWhat am I an actor or a yo-yo?î. To which Stanley quickly shot back, ìActually Keir, I always thought you were a bit of bothî.
AC: One of the most infamous sequences in the film is the so-called StargateÚ sequence at the end. Did you have much involvement in that?
SB: No. That was very much Douglas TrumbullÚs baby. He used to spend hours in a little studio working with rostrum cameras and chemical baths. He would drop chemicals into the bath and film the results at high speeds just to see what happened. He accumulated hundreds of hours worth of footage. What you see on screen is a fraction of what he filmed. I once asked him where he got the inspiration for the fantastic images that he was shooting. He just took a drag on one of these funny, little herbal cigarettes he used to smoke and said, ìI donÚt know manî. He was always smoking those things. He used to roll them himself.
AC: The next time you and Kubrick worked together was on Barry LyndonÚ. Was that a very different experience?
SB: Oh completely! You see Stan had got this idea into his head that he wanted to shoot the whole thing using only natural light. Now these days thatÚs easy. But in 1973 it was a completely nightmare. The film was set in the 16th century so the only form of interior light was from candles. Now they give out an extremely low light compared to the film lights that we were shooting on. Eventually I got NASA to let us borrow a 70mm lens that we could bolt on to the front of the movie camera in a desperate attempt to get as much light onto the film as possible. Even then we had to cheat and use a lot more candles then they would have at the time.
But that was a picnic compared to one scene we had to shoot. Stan wanted a scene shot at night outdoors. I took a reading and said, ìLook Stanley, I canÚt get a reading. ItÚs far too dark. ThereÚs no moonlight. ItÚs obscured by cloud.î He looked up and said, ìIÚll make some telephone callsî He promptly disappeared and within half an hour the cloud had gone. I mean completely vanished. It was incredible. I asked him who he called but he would never tell me. There was a rumour on set that he had a direct telephone line to God. Actually there was another rumour that the line was actually for God to call him.
There was another exterior we tried to shootÎ - again it was at night. We were in a wood and the trees were blotting out the moonlight. I said to Stan, ìAny ideas?î He thought for a minute and then said, ìFireflies.î
ìWhat?î I asked.
ìWeÚll use fireflies to light the sceneî
So we had these fine net bags filled with hundreds of thousands of fireflies to illuminate the scene. I had to use a filter to compensate for the slightly green cast they gave off but otherwise it was fine. That was why Stanley was a genius. He was thinking on an entirely different level.
AC: A lot of the stories about Stanley Kubrick paint him as a very cold, almost emotionless figure. Was he really like that?
SB: Oh no. He had a very well developed sense of humour. In fact I remember him and Jack Nicholson telling each other knock knock jokes on the set of The ShiningÚ. Jack collects knock knock jokes. Did you know that? He writes them down in a book.
Stanley loved spreading the myth about himself. He thought it was hilarious. He once hired a look-a-like to go around and do eccentric things in public. He got him to go to the local Marks and Spencer and buy 25 identical grey anoraks. When they asked him why he needed so many the guy was supposed to reply, ìSo IÚll have one for every day of the week.î Then he went to the food department and bought 52 chicken sandwiches.
Stanley used to write a lot as well. Do you remember Citizen SmithÚ? Stanley wrote that under an assumed name. It shows one man powerless against a system he cannot understand or control. ItÚs classic Kubrick. He even wears a peculiar hat much like the Droogs in A Clockwork OrangeÚ.
AC: What about the stories that weÚve all heard about the way he would sometimes do 70 plus takes of a shot. How much truth is there to that rumour?
SB: Oh thatÚs true. He used to want to push actors to do their very best. He used to say, ìMost films are like a jog in the park. This will be like a ten-mile hike in full combat gear. YouÚre going to work and you are going to sweat.î That last line got used in the pilot episode of the FameÚ TV series, which Stanley did an uncredited rewrite on. It was so popular they used it in the title sequence. He was a very big fan of musicals. He used to watch The Rocky Horror Picture ShowÚ at least once a week. He knew all the words to the TimewarpÚ.
AC: Finally, do you think that Stanley would approve of Steven Spielberg making his unmade project AIÚ?
SB: Oh I know that he does.
AC: How exactly?
SB: Well Spielberg had a medium on the set at all times. Any time he was unsure about something then theyÚd hold a script sance and see what Stanley thought about it. Even then he didnÚt stop joking. Once Steven asked him how he thought it was going. Stan sent back a spirit message. Know what it said?
AC: No. What?
SB: He said, ìYouÚll be the death of me. Love Stanî
AC: Sydney Banderfield Þ thank you very much.