And we thought that Werner Herzog had it bad. Sure – having to deal with a monkey-throwing Klaus Kinski in the middle of a Peruvian rainforest is nobody’s idea of fun, but it still sounds better than being chased around a Burmese jungle for 18 months with a price on your head like Chris Menges. The monkey would probably disagree, though.
After having started his career as an assistant to his neighbour Allan Forbes, Chris Menges went on to cover international conflicts for the British TV series World in Action. In 1973, he went to Burma with Adrian Cowell to shoot The Opium Warlords. “We went there to make a film about the smuggling of opium” – says Menges during a short meeting with the festival audience. “We were cut off in the jungle by the Kuomintang. They had declared war on our group of the Shan State Army and we couldn’t get out. We couldn’t get home. That was a very difficult period for all of us. We put all our rushes and our dailies in caves in polystyrene boxes. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience but we had no option – we just couldn’t leave.” So there you go: guerrilla filmmaking at its purest.
Born on a farm in Herefordshire, in 1967 Menges established a long-lasting collaboration with a man some would consider even more frightening than the Kuomintang itself – Ken Loach. Promoted to cinematographer on Kes, over the years he has worked with some of the biggest British directors including Neil Jordan and Stephen Frears. “We just learnt from each other. I’ve had many, many teachers. We do read together, we do study. If we can meet we meet and talk. But I think in the end we are all mostly inspired by the circumstances, by the performance, by the script. So in that way the experience is much more individual.” As Terry Pratchett would say, Menges’ total obliviousness to all forms of danger somehow made danger so discouraged it gave up and went away. And then he landed… on ice planet Hoth.
After 5 months on Irvin Kershner’s epic sequel as a second-unit cinematographer he met Roland Joffé. For his work on The Killing Fields and The Mission Menges won two Academy Awards, one of which he was actually… forced to collect personally. In the case of the Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award, which he will receive on Saturday, it was probably the same. “On The Killing Fields, when I won an Oscar I didn’t go to Hollywood. I just thought it had nothing to do with me. And then on The Mission [producer] David Puttnam called me and said: You are not going for yourself – you are going for your crew. When he said that I had to go, because it’s never just the cameraman. It’s everybody around you who is making the magic happen.”
Drawing on his documentary experience, Menges could never stay away from difficult subjects – in his directorial debut A World Apart he focused on the apartheid system in South Africa in the 1960s. After that, he shot three more feature films before returning to cinematography in the 1990s (and scoring two more Oscar nods – for Michael Collins, shown during the festival as a part of his retrospective, and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader). Nevertheless, to most cinemagoers and Camerimage participants he still remains best known for the Robert de Niro starrer.
“I think it’s the score that you remember. Even when the film will fade away, that score will stay with us forever. Ennio Morricone is such a genius” – says Menges rather humbly. “The Mission was very well written, quite hard film to shoot. Working in a jungle is always telling on people’s faces. You have to environmentally protect the forest you are working in and it’s a little bit of a contradiction with a film crew. I remember the first time we took a route into the jungle – we managed to bring a large set of lights across the river and we went into the virgin forest. We set up a lamp and within minutes we disturbed humming birds and God knows what else. We didn’t want to do that again. It’s kind of like a responsibility, isn’t it?”
When asked if he had any advice for the young filmmakers, Menges hesitated. And then said with strong conviction: “Find a great story. A story that matters to you and that you have feelings about. Not a technical exercise, but something your heart really loves.” He surely got to tell quite a few of those. “It’s a question of knowing. Knowing the scene and what you are trying to achieve. Also knowing exactly where the sun would be at any given time, because I strongly believe that the sun will do the work for you if you can work with the sun.” Remember guys – tomorrow might rain, so just follow the sun. Paul McCartney would get it for sure.