The Legend of On Set Film Photography Murray Close Interviewed
Photographer Murray Close started his career with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining and went on to be a permanent presence on set with the greatest film directors of the last 35 years. Peter Silverton caught up with him in a north London pub to find the truth behind a life in film, Kubrick and Withnail and I.
Take 210,000 colour transparencies – plus or minus a thousand or two. Examine them one by one by one, carefully and closely. Study – and think about – the framing, lighting and colour balance. Check for any blurring or closed eyes. Think about how they’ll look blown up to billboard size. Take your time. You’ll need to. Now make an initial pick – 100 shots, say. Then cut your choices down to 30 – ‘the brown bag’ in movie jargon, the selection which will go to the studio executives. Then trim that down to six transparencies. And finally, to just one image – the iconic one.
That is the process by which Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film The Shining came to be known by that one, terrifying moment of Jack Nicholson’s wild, unshaven, grinning face – eyes sharp left – emerging through an axe-smashed door. And it’s how Murray Close learned to take a photograph. He chose that image, under Kubrick’s direction, at the age of 19. Selecting The Shining’s still publicity shots for Kubrick to approve was his first job in film – in which he became one of the world’s leading stills photographers. Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, three Harry Potters, a handful of Clive Barker horror flicks, Jurassic Park, Batman: the still images by which you know them were all taken by Murray Close. He worked on a bunch of Clint Eastwood movies, too. And Coneheads. And John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. Oh, and Withnail and I. He shot that movie as “a little filler between Revolution and Hope and Glory. They had no money so I couldn’t do every day. That’s why some scenes aren’t represented.”
It was Kubrick’s daughter Anya who got Murray into the game. Born in Toronto, raised and (lightly) educated in north London, Murray met her at Southgate Technical College – where they were both studying music. (She became an opera singer and died, young, last year.)
Anya introduced Murray to her mother Christiane, an artist, for whom he did some printing, which led to the film director himself, then just starting on The Shining. “I worked for Stanley for three years, doing everything from taking the dogs to the vet to getting the cars serviced – and taking photographs.” Film stills are invariably the work of unit photographers – Murray and his like, that is. Except on Kubrick’s movies. The director (of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus and A Clockwork Orange etc) started out as a photographer. He was a staffer on Look magazine at the end of the 1940s. His photographs were good, too – of city streets and lights, of Montgomery Clift drunk as an actor, legs spread on a hotel room floor. There was no way that a man of Kubrick’s dictatorial inclinations was going to allow anyone else to shoot his film’s promo pictures. “The famous stills from The Shining are stills from the film,” says Murray. “My job was to go through it frame by frame and pick them out.” Looking, looking, looking. Checking, checking, checking. Lesson after lesson in the fine-grained details of picture-making. “He was such a great photographer – I printed for him. The way I compose photographs with perspective and clean lines, I took that by osmosis from him. We’d argue all the time. He was convinced the only place the camera should be was the one where it was. My position was that stills photography was different. If I could have those days back, I’d have a thousand questions for him. The only reason he kept me around, though, was that I didn’t ask stupid questions. I wasn’t remotely interested in films.”
Thirty-five years later, Murray is a man shaped by film and its world. We meet near his house, in a Hampstead pub – just along the road from where Peter O’Toole used to live, a few hundred metres south of Ridley Scott’s London base. In 1990, Murray moved to Los Angeles, then “ran out of road there”. In 2001, he relocated to Prague but within a couple of years he was back in this north London epicentre of film-workers.
He is dressed in a couple of scarves, a day or two unshaven, brown jacket, lovely pale linen shirt – a little like someone from Withnail and I, perhaps. As we begin our afternoon, working our way slowly through his pictures – and some beers – a woman drifts by. “Murray,” she says. “Shirley Anne,” he says. It is the actress Shirley Anne Field – Albert Finney’s young girlfriend in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, biddable nurse to Michael Caine’s Alfie, Saeed Jaffrey’s English mistress in My Beautiful Laundrette.She is in search of something to settle an upset stomach, she tells him. Perhaps a glass of Fernet Branca. Which leads to reminiscences about a director they have both worked with whose solution to most things was a glass of Fernet Branca. Which leads to Tony. “Natasha Richardson’s father” as they agree to call him. Which in turn leads to another memory...
The film world is an all-encompassing one, as all-engrossing in its own way as the army. The phone rings – sometimes late at night, for a dawn start the next day in a different time zone. You pack.
You ship out for a tour of duty. You live an intense life of democratic camaraderie. As shooting finishes, you promise undying friendship to each other – easy to do, of course, when you might never run into them again. You pack. You head home. You wait for the phone to ring. “Any film I do, I’m there every day. It’s the only way to do it. You can’t just bowl up on Thursday morning at 10. They want to see you at seven in the morning every day, eating a bacon roll.
You have to develop a relationship – so they will trust you. Someone described it as being like war, endless hours of talking with brief interludes of excitement. When you’re chatting away, though, discussing how Arsenal are doing, you’re still always looking and checking it out. Out of one eye, you’re seeing how the leading lady is doing. You have to be an expert at half-conversations.
“It’s labour intensive. To get these shots you’ve got to be there. You can’t go off to the bookies. You’ll miss the moment. To get the real cream you’ve got to put the hours in.”
What’s the status of a stills photographer on set? “Pretty low. But I like that. Once you’re beyond the director, the producer and a couple of others, everyone’s equal. The make-up artist is as important as me or the guy bringing tea.”
How many pictures has he worked on? He just laughs. My tally makes it around the 60 mark. What’s working in movies like for your personal life? He laughs. And laughs. How many wives? “Only two.” I lost count of the girlfriends, though.
He arrived in the business at a time of almost revolutionary upheaval. The hold of the unions on film production was breaking. A new generation of directors was taking over. There were young Americans like Spielberg and Coppola, from film schools. And there were young Brits, often from the advertising industry – Hugh Hudson, David Puttnam etc. Stills photographers were no longer studio employees but freelancers – like Murray. “The glory years in my business.”
Though Kubrick tried to persuade him to become a movie editor, Murray was set on being a photographer. He took some good images on The Shining – colour of Jack Nicholson off-camera and engaging black and white of Kubrick himself laughing in the wreckage of the Elstree sets. “Stages one, three and four burnt down – by accident.” The lounge set is now a Tesco. The back lodge and the maze were where the Big Brother house was later built. Murray photographed punk bands – “to pick up girls”. He dropped out of college. He became a full-time stills photographer – barely in his twenties. He began with two Muppets movies. His first mainstream film shoot was Greystoke, Hugh Hudson’s version of the Tarzan story. His most recent film is the forthcoming Gulliver’s Travels, with Jack Black.
We talk about the movies he’s worked on and the actors he’s worked with. He describes Withnail and I as “basically a love story between two men, with no sex in it.” Is that why it’s had such a successful after-life? “I don’t know, but it never stops.” There was a show of his unseen backstage images in 2007. “They were not what Handmade – the production company – wanted at the time.” There was a calendar. There’s a new show, of silver gelatin prints. “The last time these will be shown. The end of Withnail for me.”
Hope and Glory was a difficult shoot. “One of the actors (Sarah Miles) didn’t want me to shoot takes and the other didn’t want me to shoot rehearsals.” Mike Leigh, he says, won’t allow the photographer to shoot an actual scene. He will only recreate it and pose it afterwards.
Dustin Hoffman? “A great clown. Loves an audience. A lot of actors are sensitive – you have to worry about the eye line. Dustin said: ‘I’m an actor, I’m acting.’”
Christopher Walken? “Won’t allow you to shoot when he’s working.” Filming in costume, that is, as opposed to rehearsing in his own clothes. This was, for a time at least, not unusual with actors.
When Murray started on Revolution – a famously tough location shoot – Al Pacino wouldn’t be photographed at all. After a couple of days, he changed his mind. “All negotiation,” says Murray. “It’s like being married.”
More than most photographic disciplines, being a stills photographer demands self-effacement. “You’re there to enhance, not make your own movie, not to create a fantastic image to hang on your wall. The movie is the core. You have to be sensitive to script, actors, what’s going on. You’ve got to keep quiet – low profile.
There’s no point being David Bailey or Annie Leibovitz.”
Every week or so during the shoot, the stills photographer will put together what Murray calls “brown nose prints” for the director – a selection of images to keep him happy. And, more important, to ensure access and support.
There is also, of course, the approval process. On film days, there would be up to eight sets of contact sheets. Now there’s an online system to ‘cancel’ shots. The essential problem is still the same, naturally – actors. “Some actors don’t have much idea of their own image. They look in the mirror and see Marilyn Monroe where it’s really Ena Sharples.” A reference of charming archaism – Ena Sharples was a bat of a character in the early years of Coronation Street.
“Diane Keaton was very difficult on The Little Drummer Girl and I don’t blame her – she wasn’t meant to be very glamorous in the film, but glamour was what the studio wanted in the images. Geena Davis was difficult, too, on Accidental Hero. The real problem, though, is when you have three lead actors in one scene and one looks fantastic, so the others cancel that picture.” And a different actor looks fantastic in another shot so that one gets cancelled, too.
“You really have to plead.” But, no, he won’t say who that trio of cancelling actors were.
How does he get his shots of scenes?
“Choreography,” he calls it. “You learn to dance. You move around with the guy with the bounce card. You hide in the background like you’re part of the wallpaper. The more you’re there, the more you’re ignored. I like to photograph without people realising I’m doing it.”
One big change over the years has been the increasing importance attached to backstage shots – images of the actors and crew between takes – rather than reproductions of the scenes from the movie. Since the early 1990s, these have become central to marketing a movie. “I get a kick out of shooting behind the scenes. It’s one of my great enjoyments. It’s also what the audience is interested in – what goes on behind the camera. These are the images magazines want to run – stuff you can write about, not just movie stills.”
One thing that hasn’t altered in all the time Murray has been in movies, though, is the basic technology which enables you to shoot silently, with an SLR camera. Sound blimps, they’re called. “Sound-proofed boxes which haven’t changed since I was working on the Muppets. The most unwieldy piece of equipment. They’re plastic with foam inside to silence the sound of the mirror. They aren’t good. With my Canon, I can do everything I want to 30 metres underwater. But I can’t with a blimp. Simply, not enough people buy them so they haven’t evolved.” Until five years ago, he was still using film.
For Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he had a ‘photographic department’. He and two colleagues in a digital lab in his house. “It was like working for Fords. The demands on the photographer that digital has created are huge. There’s no more shoving film in a jiffy bag, giving it to a driver and going to the pub. Your working day is far longer. You can shoot, shoot, shoot, but you’ve got to sit down and edit it. Also, you get tempted to mess around with files before uploading them.
“Still, digital is better than film – no question about it. In the old days, you lost control once you handed over the still. I can now grade and contrast a picture in relation to how the director of photography meant it to look. You can cut pictures out without anyone knowing. With film, every single one was numbered on the sprocket holes. And, because it’s cheaper to shoot and process, you’re not giving a third of your profit to a lab.”
DSLR cameras? “They still make noise. There is no getting around that. You can get point and shoot with a Canon – 9, 10 or 12 megapixels. But you can’t control focus without looking through the lens. Cinema is all about shallow depth of field.”
What about the new generation of video cameras? They’re silent. How about using them for stills work? “Video cameras are good enough to do car commercials, but they’re still not good enough for stills. I thought it would be wonderful for stills, but it’s not. I don’t like HD.
I don’t think it looks very nice. The technology has improved in leaps and bounds – but they still downgrade HD to make it look more like film.”
Has he ever wanted to make films of his own? “No. It’s all too big, too many people to deal with. Maybe I would have done it in the seventies and eighties, but now there are so many committees and quangos involved. I admire anyone who gets any film off the ground.” www.murrayclose.comWithnail and Me: The Encore — an exhibition featuring never-before-seen photographs by Murray Close from the set of Withnail and I — is on at the Proud Gallery Chelsea in London from 20 May to 20 June.
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