The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

Typical Lindsay: Cameraman Chris Menges Remembers If…
Robert Barry , April 15th, 2018 13:17

Fifty years after it was first released, cameraman Chris Menges reflects on the shooting and lasting legacy of Lindsay Anderson's If…

“I remember going on a scout with Miroslav [Ondříček] and Lindsay [Anderson]," Chris Menges recalls, “to Cheltenham College, to the chapel. I remember walking in there and Lindsay was talking about the scenes we were going to shoot there, about religion and the importance of the symbolism, and Miroslav suddenly sat down on one of the pews looking really worried.”

“What’s the matter?” Lindsay asked.

“It’s so big! We can't afford to light this…!”

“Don’t worry,” said Lindsay, “we’ll shoot it in black and white.”

Menges pipes up: “Isn’t that going to look a bit weird?”

“No!” Lindsay said. “It’s art!”

“That,” Menges concludes, at the other end of a crackly phone line, “was typical Lindsay.”

If… was not the first feature film Chris Menges worked on. That was Ken Loach's Poor Cow, the previous year. Nor was it his greatest success. He won Oscars, in later years, for his work as cinematographer on The Killing Fields and The Mission. His directorial debut, A World Apart was screened at Cannes and won several major awards. But If…, he tells me now, fifty years after its release, “was a very important film for me.”

“Three or four months later, after I had finished on If…, Ken [Loach] asked me if I would photograph Kes for him. And Kes would be my first feature [as director of photography]. But the truth is that the man who taught me how to do the job was Miroslav Ondříček on If…."

The influence of the Czech New Wave – and in particular the work of Miloš Forman and his cinematographer – on the radical British cinema of the 1960s can hardly be overstated. Born in Prague and trained at the famous FAMU film School and Barrandov Studios, Miroslav Ondříček worked with Forman from his very first feature, Konkurs (‘Audition’) and they continued to work together through all of Forman’s greatest American-made films, Taking Off, Ragtime, right up to 1989’s Valmont.

In 1965, Lindsay Anderson had travelled to Prague to watch Forman and Ondříček shoot Loves of a Blonde. According to Menges, “He fell in love with that way of working. And I really think that he just completely loved Miloš Forman. That relationship was a blessing for Lindsay. It gave him a lot of confidence.”

In 1967, Anderson brought Ondříček to the UK for the first collaboration, The White Bus, starring Arthur Lowe as a Mayor, inexplicably riding a tourist bus around Manchester. The same year, Menges shot Poor Cow with Ken Loach, working as camera operator for director of photography, Brian Probyn. “Ken and I had seen Blonde in Love,” Menges recalls, “and when we were doing Poor Cow, we talked, between us, about how much we had enjoyed Miloš Forman’s film because of the dignity and how the story was told and how the camera was used. I was completely amazed.”

How did you first get involved with working on If…

I came back from the Amazon in 1968, from working with Cláudio and Orlando Villas-Bôas and Adrian Cowell, and I came back to London in early 1968 and I had been asked to work as Miroslav’s cameraman on If…. I was trained by a man called Allan Forbes. And he shot a film called March to Aldermarston[directed in 1959 by Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz]. So there was some kind of vague relationship. And then I had worked as a loader for Gavrik Losey in 1961 and he was the Production Manager on If…. So I think it as partly Gavrik and partly Lindsay who got me the job.

I, as a novice, was so lucky to have understudied Miroslav on this. Particularly because Ken and I had really admired his and Miloš Forman’s work on Blonde in Love. I had the wonderful chance to study under Miroslav on the making of If…, learning about the importance of structure and storytelling, the importance of being efficient, of planning. To him, planning was really important.

He always said that, under communism, the thing was, they were all full-time employees of the state, but the thing that was really, really expensive was the film. So they used to plan everything backwards to that there wasn’t a problem when they went to shoot. It was the negative that was the prohibitive thing at that time in Czechoslovakia, which I always thought was interesting.

When you talk about learning, from Ondříček, about dialogue, story – one might naively have though these were more the concerns of the director, the actors, perhaps the editor. So how do these translate specifically into camera technique?

Well, first of all, the light would be democratic, inasmuch as you as an artist or an actor, you didn’t have to hit a mark to make it work as a piece of storytelling. You were free – within reason, of course – to use the space to tell the story. And I think what I learnt from Miroslav, was that that kind of lighting, which is a very soft, [Raoul] Coutard style of lighting, although it may look simple, it allows the performance – and therefore the writing – to come to the fore.

If you can see the performance – and you have a good strong story, and hopefully a story with some political bite to it – the way to catch the story is to be actually rather observant, to encourage the performance to come to the camera, rather than the camera chasing the performance all over the place, which is obviously another way of working.

What was Lindsay Anderson like to work with on this film?

Lindsay had worked with Walter Lassally on three or four documentary films, and I think that If… was, if you can say, the crowning of the emperor. He just became more stubborn but also more sure, and also cheekily aggressive with the work. He and the writer and the actors, they were a team – a really good team. But he was definitely a driving force. Definitely.

You’d worked with him before on March to Aldermaston

Yes.

What was your first impression of him, when you first met him?

He seemed to be extremely articulate and he seemed to be really interested in good, hearty, gritty stories. If you go to work for a director who has got some commitment and excitement for the job, you might go to bed really, really exhausted. But, my god, you will feel that you did something, that in that day, you had helped create something important. That is the business.

How would you compare him to, say, Ken Loach, another politically motivated film-maker you worked with around the same time?

They’re made different by their class, really. Ken is more working class and Lindsay was the son of an army officer in India. A more aristocratic man than Ken. And so the politics and the presence are so different. They’re chalk and cheese. Completely different. You couldn’t even begin to compare them.

What about Malcolm McDowell? This was his first film. Could you see, looking down the lens, that this was an actor with a long career ahead of him?

With a presence, yes. And the relationship between Lindsay and Malcolm was quite complicated. I wouldn’t have always said it was smooth. I think he loved him, in a way.

If… has been one of my favourite films for a long time. Was there, likewise, an awareness on set that this was going to be something special?

You know, that question comes occasionally about all films. And the thing is, when you’re shooting and you’re concentrating on the shooting, if there are two or three scenes that completely captivate your imagination, you can almost be certain that you are working on something that’s good. So I think we know, in spite of the trials and tribulations, we knew that this was going to be a fine film.

And of course, its politics – we had major demonstrations in London, at Grosvenor Square. I remember photographing them at the same time. I remember Miroslav constantly in utter pain about what was happening in Prague, with the Soviet invasion, and the conversation about should he go home or should he stay in Britain and keep working on the film. It was all adding to the tension. But the script had something really important to say and was talking about something important.

What other memories spring to mind when you think back to the shooting of that film?

Under the stage area, where the boys had hidden the grenades and the Bren gun, there were four bottles. And in the bottles there were perfectly formed babies in formaldehyde. It had been dressed by the art department. And I said to Lindsay, I said, Lindsay, this isn’t right. And he looked at me and he said, you English! You’re so squeamish!

If… screens this weekend at the Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.