Cinematographer Peter James on his Cult Movie Career

Peter James (1947-) was born in Sydney. Suffering from dyslexia in an era which didn’t understand the disorder, he was interested in photography from a young age. He began an apprenticeship to become a cinematographer at age fifteen before he joined the Commonwealth Film Unit where he met such people as Peter Weir, Donald Crombie and Arch Nicholson among others. One of the first movies he worked on as a camera operator was The Cars that Ate Paris (1974). His first cinematographer’s job was on Avengers of the Reef (1973) which he described as ‘a nightmare’ as a cyclone hit during production and scenes were shot in a Travelodge hotel room. After Inn of the Damned (1975) he was awarded for his work as a cinematographer on Caddie (1976). Other Aussie films followed with The Irishman (1978), The Killing of Angel Street (1981), The Wild Duck (1984) and The Right-Hand Man (1987). Then came a long association with director Bruce Beresford beginning with Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and a dozen other movies including Peter’s favourite Black Robe (1991). He also worked on Meet the Parents (2000) and The Pacifier (2005).

Cinematographer Peter James worked extensively with Bruce Beresford
Avengers of the Reef (1973)

When did you fall in love with the movies? What are your earliest memories of the movies?

Really, when I first started working. I had a cousin Jon Cleary (1917-2010 heart problems) the author of about 50 novels and he had a film made called The Sundowners (1960). That was a big deal in those days back in the 1960s. He knew some people at a studio and they came to the theatre one night and they said: ‘What is Peter going to do – he can’t read, write or add up?’ … you know, dyslexia hadn’t been invented and, um, so they didn’t know what to do with me … and so they said: ‘What’s he do?’ and they said: ‘He just takes photos with his box Brownie all the time and stacks the furniture up to get high angles and things.’

And he said: ‘Maybe he could be a cinematographer’ and mum and dad said: ‘What’s a cinematographer?’ … and he said: ‘People have a job like that’ and he got me an interview with a studio called Supreme Sound Studios which was a very tiny sort of ‘Mom and Pop’ studio… They did everything like sound and processing. It was a one-stop shop really and they were in Paddington in Sydney near the women’s hospital. They asked me to stay on after a few weeks and I stayed on for five years… When I came home from my first day’s work at the studio, mum was tucking me into bed and I was only fifteen and she said: ‘How was that darling, did you enjoy it?’ and I said: ‘Oh, I loved it’ and I said: ‘I want to win the Academy Award for photography’ (laughs) … so I was in love with it.

Author Jon Cleary
The Sundowners (1960)
An Arriflex of the type Peter first worked with

What was the first camera you got your hands on?

I think it was an Arriflex-IIA … It was an electric one, a battery operated one and that was like the ‘go to’ camera. It was a very basic camera. It was a combat camera during World War Two and Arriflex went on to make the Alexa and other wonderful things. I was fifteen… I wasn’t really able to touch a camera really until after the five years on my apprenticeship.

I filmed mainly commercials and occasional trade documentaries nearly always on 35mm and I was also put in the animation department which was an area I didn’t know anything about … that was a steep learning curve …

Your dyslexia … does it affect your ability to watch movies?

Reading subtitles is a nightmare. Foreign films are very difficult.

Back when you were fifteen and getting tucked into bed and the period of your apprenticeship, were there any movies that you wanted to emulate?

At that stage, I can’t remember anything I’d seen. It was only really later on, you know Lawrence of Arabia (1962), films like that really impressed me since I was really into photographs and photographing things. I realised how great film could look with something like that – that was a big eye-opener.

The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) trailer
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) poster
Alternate poster title

Let’s jump to The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) on which you were a camera operator…. What can you tell me about that one? …. It must have had one of the first Panavision cameras in Australia? …

Yes, that was when Panavision had arrived in Sydney … they were a part of Samuelson’s which was an English company of a couple of cinematographers … they were three brothers and they had this company and they first represented Panavision … that was a fantastic camera, it was a PDSR, it was a great big, a blimp camera … big but basically a Mitchell camera. It took two guys to lift it up, it was very heavy.

And you only had the one?

Yep. Only the one of them.

American director Haskell Wexler with a blimp style camera
The armadillo car in The Cars that Ate Paris (1974)
Director Peter Weir in the 1980s

What can you tell me of the shoot?

I was the third camera operator and John McLean (1939-) was the director of photography and I’d worked for John on some commercials and other things in Sydney and they asked me if I wanted to operate (and they flew me up too) and I said: ‘You’ve already got people’ and they said: ‘We’re getting rid of them, we fired a couple of guys’ and it was an anamorphic and I’d never operated an anamorphic … I had never operated a film before! And so, they flew me up to Bathurst where they were making the film at Sofala and then at night time they’d throw me out of this set and the whole main street of Sofala was like a battleground with all these cars. There was this VW dressed as an armadillo racing up and down and the scene had it impale somebody on a spike on the bonnet of this thing… and it was the first introduction to this filming… I was just about throwing up…. I couldn’t eat for a week. It was just so tense and I was just so stressed out… and John Meillon (1934-89 cirrhosis) and all these stars were there and it was terrible and a real shock to the system.

How many nights did it take to film that climax?

Before they began filming I, before I got there… I think it was four of five nights…. It was quite a big deal… They built a lot of stuff and I was scared about the whole production… Trying to concentrate on photography, the whole thing properly taking in what was happening around you, it was incredibly complex … For me it was a biggest thing I’d ever seen.

Another poster
Well-known alcoholic actor John Meillon

Was John Meillon sober?

Well, John would drink a six pack of cans on the way from Bathurst to Sofala… I couldn’t believe it – every morning – and he didn’t seem to be any the worse for wear … You know, he still remembered his lines and did the job and seemed to do okay. But boy, he went through a lot of Fosters.

Was director Peter Weir confident?

That was one of Pete’s (1944-) early ones. I had worked with Pete at Film Australia (formerly the Commonwealth Film Unit) and we did Department of the Interior films for the federal government – Donald Crombie worked there, Arch Nicholson (1941-1990 motor neurone disease), you know all the good and up-and-coming filmmakers. We made all sorts of films there. It was a wonderful training ground for filmmakers – Dean Semler, Tony Buckley…

B-grade horror Inn of the Damned (1975) trailer
Inn of the Damned (1975) VHS artwork
Inn of the Damned (1975) poster

You did a horror movie which impressed me on late night tv as a kid called Inn of the Damned (1975) …

I worked as a camera operator on that for Brian Probyn (1920-82), who was a wonderful English cinematographer – he did Poor Cow (1967) and Downhill Racer (1969) and he also did The Mango Tree (1977) out here. He taught me everything I know about colour – he was a painter as well and we became friends and he was a very good teacher… He taught at the film school for a little bit but he was an excellent teacher, he didn’t overcrowd you, he let you think a lot and arrive at your own conclusions and I admired that…

He helped you indulge your own genius….

Exactly, exactly… and we would have incredible conversations about colour and depth perceptions – with one lens how you could create depth and illusion… It was an ongoing master class. The entire film (Inn of the Damned) was discussing these finer points of filmmaking and it taught me how to deal with directors and people like that… How to think.

Cinematographer Brian Probyn
Probyn worked on Poor Cow (1967)
… and Badlands (1973)

So, it was a formative film for you?

It was. I was ready for that. It was one of the last films before I did Caddie (1976) …

How was director Terry Bourke (1940-2002) during Inn of the Damned?

Oh, manic. Terry was manic. He’d be up early in the morning … He’d be typing away all night and he’d be drinking a slab of TAB diet cola… He’d drink of box of 24 of them overnight and he’d be on the typewriter and have the pages for the next day. He’d give it to the script girl Lyn McEncroe (1937-) … She would then type it on carbon paper so people got copies – so the actors got a fresh script every day, three or four pages every day and we’d go on and shoot it. It was chaotic, totally the wrong way to make a film. It was absolutely stupid.

Dame Judith Anderson (1897-1992) starred in that one… How was she to work with?

She was gorgeous. She was very sweet to me. We had a scene to do where she had to fire a double-barrelled shotgun at the camera and I was behind the camera and she was terribly nervous: ‘Dear boy, I can’t possibly pull the trigger with you standing there.’ So, they got cheap supply wood and all these things for me to hide behind not to get shot… It was really quite exciting: she pulled the trigger and all this stuff splattered into the plywood and she gave the appropriate shocked reaction and when they called cut and all the smoke’s clearing, she said: ‘Are you okay back there?’ She was very sweet and very nice and I didn’t really know who she was … she was a big star.

Terry Bourke is on the left
Dame Judith Anderson was born in Adelaide and co-starred in HItchcock’s Rebecca (1940)
Dame Judith Anderson

You went on to make lush countryside period pieces… You seem great at those.

I had a rash of period films which had no electricity… There were all these candles, fires and lamps which was pretty cool. I love doing that sort of stuff. It was my kind of photography, it’s really enjoyable.

What makes you say that?

It’s more challenging. It’s a lot harder to get right… In the old days on film, it was far more difficult because cameras were not as flexible. One of those was The Wild Duck (1993) with Liv Ullmann (1938-) and Jeremy Irons (1948-) … Liv Ullmann’s acting is one of the 21 greatest privileges I’ve had in my life. She was such a good actress, what a star.

We’ll talk about the Right-Hand Man (1987) … How were you attached to that one?

Well Di (Drew) asked me to do it. Producer Basil Appleby I knew from the film school and we were once again in Bathurst with that beautiful house – Abercrombie House – a perfect location for a film about surrogacy and continuing the line.

I understand Di gave you a brief about making the film like a Gainsborough painting…

Yes, we discussed all that stuff and really when watching it last night it really did feel English. It had that sort of quality… It was really my best photography for many years until I did Black Robe (1991) … I hadn’t done anything as beautiful as that. It’s a little bit dated in some ways but looking at the performances … Arthur Dignam always puts in a fantastic performance and Catherine McClements, she’s just straight out of NIDA, and I think she did a wonderful job, she came across in the film very well too, I thought.

The Right Hand Man (1987) poster
Caddie (1976) lobby card
The Irishman (1978) poster

Looking at it again, it brought back the memory of near the end of the film where there is a scene with Hugo (Weaving) and Rupert (Everett) in the high-flyer cart and they hug and Hugo gets off and hands him the reins and Rupert goes to commit suicide… and me and Di think we need shots of Rupert riding the flyer… riding and seeing the look of his face and throwing the reins then cut to the wide-shot of the horses running away and the carriage tipped and he’s dead… and that’s the grandly cinematic way of doing things and Rupert says: ‘I can’t do this’ and I had people with wind, dust and all sorts of stuff flying up into his face to give the feeling he’s in the carriage the same way as we did several other shots… But he was really struggling doing it and I went over and was really trying to get him to do it… He said: ‘Oh, I feel stupid’ … and I had my exposure meter on and said: ‘I need to take an exposure… and it’s you that’s stopping this… It’s all a matter of you believing you can do it and you can get in and make it believable.’ Anyway, he had a terrible time. Obviously, it didn’t work because in the final cut there’s no sign of Rupert doing it… Just a shot of the horses running away.

The Wild Duck (1984) poster
Black Robe (1991)

Was the giant stagecoach the Leviathan deadly?

Oh, totally. The moment that they took it to the road, I was terrified and had my five cameras which I had clad all over the place and I had to get them going or running, sometimes two cameras at the same time… It was a very dangerous kit, it was awful… And I think Grahame Ware was the horse-master and to get twelve of them to gallop was quite an extraordinary feat of horsemanship to do that. I couldn’t believe what they were doing. Those horse guys were unbelievable the safety guys.

Did you actually ride the thing?

Yes. There’s a camera angle there under the horses from the driver’s seat…. I couldn’t remember doing that shot …. Maybe the second unit did it… but it’s a great shot.

One director you’ve worked with a great deal is Bruce Beresford. How did you get acquainted?

We first met in a chicken battery shed in Kellyville for a Bank of New South Wales commercial. I had always admired Bruce’s work and he asked me to do Tender Mercies (1983) but I was about to do a film called the Dunera Boys (tv mini-series 1985) which was a Phillip Adams-Kerry Packer Production and which was a disaster… Anyway, that fell through and as a result, I rang Bruce back and said: ‘I’m free to do it’ and he said: ‘Sorry, I’ve got Russell Boyd doing it.’ I was really upset about that. It was my only chance to work with him and it fell through… and the next time he asked me to do Total Recall for Dino Di Laurentiis and he’d booked the studios at the Gold Coast but that fell through…

What was the first film you did with Bruce?

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) poster
Peter James with director Bruce Beresford (right)
Mister Johnson (1991)

It won many Oscars and yet you and Bruce missed out…

Billy Crystal said at the awards: ‘It must have been the film which directed itself.’ I don’t know what happened with that, it was very strange. Both the actors were nominated and it got so many craft awards. We had just finished a film in Africa called Mister Johnson (1991) and we got back to London and were watching rushes at Wardour St and the Warner Bros. people said come down and have a glass of champagne, we’re watching the awards… and they’re dressing up in their tuxedoes, evening dresses and with champagne and smoked salmon everywhere and they gave us champagne and watched Miss Daisy win her Oscar and went back to watching the dailies… Bruce and I ended up making thirteen films together.

Was it that you were a job lot the pair of you?

He just liked… I’m the type of cinematographer that when I read a script I kind of have to think of a new way to photograph it… Each one is different and I don’t want to do the same sort of thing as the last one. I think it’s very important you find a new way to treat it… Some cinematographers you know who’s filmed them because the lighting looks exactly the same as any other film they’ve done. It’s always like a signature thing… And I think why doesn’t the lighting reflect the script? You know it’s all about script and you’ve got to make it and let the script come to life and not make the script into your style of working… So, every film I’ve done I’ve tried to, you know, come up with a different photographic style and make it work, which is great fun. I love that.

Rich in Love (1992)
Alive (1993) lobby card
Silent Fall (1994) poster

And the best film you’ve done?

I think that Black Robe is the best-looking film. I’ve done a lot of work with Herbert Pinter (ed. often a production designer for Peter Weir) and… he’s a very good production designer. Herbert’s very ‘hands on’ and under a very terrible situation in Quebec he built this Indian palisades and villages… He builds two major villages plus he builds Quebec which was a huge deal to do… God knows the number of trees we went through to make it. The research they did was unbelievable and the research for the Indians was spectacular … (ed. this went down to the detail of the type of parchments they used to record the building of the colony and the type of make-up the Indians used just to mention a couple of things) …

Black Robe (1993) trailer
Classic moments Peter captured in Black Robe (1991)
More haunting imagery from Black Robe (1991)
One of many of Peter James’ essays … Black Robe (1991)

We could talk a lot more about Black Robe… But I’d like to ask about The Thing Called Love (1993). I understand director Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022 Parkinson’s disease) was, er, interesting….

Yes, Peter, what a character, God bless him. He’s not with us, now. I loved his early films The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973). He did interesting films while he was with his partner Polly Platt (1939-2011 motor neurone disease) and I thought those films were brilliant. With this film he came to me with what I thought was like a modern version of Last Picture Show in a way and I wanted to make it and photograph it documentary style… It’s about River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis and Dermot Mulroney and Sandy Bullock – she’s wonderful – and if you’re into country music, there was Nashville and a band and it was a sweet kind of love story.

Apparently, the French love this film, but the French also love Jerry Lewis, I don’t know what that says… but anyway. Peter became stranger and stranger as the film went on… In the end, he wasn’t talking to the producers, he’d only talk to the actors through myself. He wouldn’t talk to the assistant director. I said: ‘Oh, Peter you’ve got to talk to these people, they’re trying to help you make a film. They’re really working hard to help you get what you want.’ … So, they’d all come to me and ask: ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What’s he want?’ and all that sort of stuff. And I’m there: ‘It’s too hard.’

Peter Bogdanovich and Polly Platt in the 1970s
The Thing Called Love (1993) poster
Actor River Phoenix in The Thing Called Love (1993)

It was time for the actors to do a ‘pick up’ (ed. a short reshoot or additional photography) and which needed to start on a certain word here… And Peter’s there: ‘Start on that word’ and I’m there: ‘Peter, you can’t start them on a word in the middle of a sentence… You don’t start them where they need to be used because they take a big breath on that word… and it’s not going to be in the flow of that dialogue or how you’re going to talk or have a conversation.’ And he said: ‘What can I do?’ And I said: ‘How about I get a chair for you and put you beneath the lens. You can hold up your hand and start it earlier and they’ll use it, the studio will use it… They won’t use it if you put your hand in front of the lens… Drop your hand just below the point you want to use it.’ And he loved that. He thought it was ingenious … and so we set him up there with his special bottle of water and his box of toothpicks… He broke toothpicks all day long and the prop man had to pick up all the toothpicks and he directed that way.

One day we had three cameras and the extras and he turned up hours late and we were shooting at Paramount studios and I’m there: ‘Oh, my goodness, we’re not going to make our day. We’ve got the three cameras to get all the coverage.’ And when he arrived, he only wanted to use a 28mm lens, so it was very restrictive. I wanted to shoot stuff on long lenses and wide angled lenses and you know, tell the story in the most interesting way possible… Anyway, it turns out he loves Orson Welles and John Ford and Ford used these lenses…

The Thing Called Love (1993) trailer
Director John Ford (right)
Orson Welles

Did you finish on time and on budget?

We went over, not by a lot. It was a very difficult film to make. He just wouldn’t talk to anybody.

What do you put that down to?

Insecurity in a way. He wasn’t a nasty person really. He was just insecure.

Was River Phoenix on drugs?

Well, yes, he was. You knew he was on something. He was the sweetest boy. He was an absolute darling boy. He was a very nice kid, you know, sweet nature.

The camera loves me: Beautiful Liv Ullmann
Cate Blanchett in Paradise Road (1997)
The extremely talented Peter James

I don’t know how you would describe it, but do certain actors have a certain essence for the camera?

When the camera loves the actor? I think Liv Ullmann had a quality and Cate Blanchett has it. Morgan Freeman has it. They’re lucky, you can’t quite put your finger on it or you’d be able to teach people to do it, to do the same thing. Cate… when we had Cate in Paradise Road (1997), she was like a chameleon… She becomes anything she puts her mind to, she is just a brilliant actress. I was so impressed with her. I went up to her during the filming and said: ‘Cate, we’ve got a choir here with 30 people, many of them very famous stars and the only person I’m looking at is you.’ I said: ‘I don’t know what it is, but you’ve got this charisma that comes across and the camera adores.’ And she came back and said: ‘Don’t be so silly, I’m really not that good.’ And I said: ‘You are, you’re going to be a big star and I said: ‘You really are a wonderful actress.’

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