Sunday, April 27, 2008
USA Film Fest tribute to cinematographer William A. Fraker
Roman Polanski's classic horror film still creeps us out after all these years.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Well, actually, it wasn't - but it should have been, because on the evening of Thursday, April 24, a crowd of cineasts gathered at the Angelika in true devotee fashion to take in a screening of Roman Polanski's great and creepy Satanic cult classic, Rosemary's Baby (1968), followed by the USA Film Festival's tribute to cinematographer William A. Fraker. (Any guy who uses his middle initial is already a step ahead of the game in my estimation.)
First off, we were treated to a compilation video of clips from Fraker's most memorable movies, including - in addition to the nightmarish Polanski piece - Paint Your Wagon, The President's Analyst, Bullitt, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Heaven Can Wait, 1941, WarGames, The Freshman, Honeymoon in Vegas and Tombstone. I'd call that a pretty impressive resume.
With introductory comments (and after-show Q/A moderation) provided by writer Bob Fisher, the audience settled in for 136 minutes of edgy, off-putting cinematic tension and accumulating unease courtesy of Mr. Polanski (who could not, alas, attend) - culminating in the familiar revelation of the true identity of Rosemary's baby's father. It was a great opportunity to see a clean print of a milestone movie on a big theater screen.
BUT there was more to come, in the form of pearls of wisdom from Bill Fraker's (approximately) 50 years of filmmaking experience. He conversed with Bob and answered questions from the audience for well over 45 minutes following the two hour-plus movie, demonstrating a stamina beyond that of many of his fans and listeners; what came across quite clearly was his passion for the calling that has been his life's work.
Segmented for your listening convenience into nine parts (including the introductory remarks by Mr. Fisher, made prior to the film screening), here are audio files of the William Fraker conversation and audience Q/A. Rated "CT" for cinemaphile trivia.
Here are content notes on the individual segments:
1. Introductory comments by writer Bob Fisher
2. Has Rosemary's Baby stood the test of time?; origin & meaning of the word, "cinematography"; why did Fraker become a cinematographer?
3. Fraker's early years in the biz; focus puller is the toughest job on the camera crew; how he got the Rosemary's Baby gig; producer William Castle's cameo appearance in the movie; filming of interiors was all done at Paramount's Hollywood studios; and the vertiginous camera placement for the film's establishing shot overlooking the Dakota.
4. Getting to know Roman Polanski; Fraker's course of instruction at USC; how the apartment itself is made to become a character in the film; teaser question about who Rosemary's baby later grew up to be.
5. Polanski used only one camera and two wide angle lenses for the entire production; Roman and lens formulas/calculations; Fraker and Polanski got along famously, spent a lot of time together (weekends, dinners); how the relationship btwn. cinematographer and director can be like a marriage.
6. Audience questions begin, with queries about storyboards; long takes; and a Mia Farrow/Frank Sinatra divorce anecdote.
7. Mia started out in the film wearing a wig, which she shed for the Vidal Sassoon look essayed later in the film; Fraker had a reputation for being able to "light women" (thus the gig with Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait); and technical lens and lighting issues.
8. Use of extreme close-ups and how that must perforce require a special relationship with the actors; Roman Polanski's genius sense of timing and knowing how long he can hang before the cut; the tension of attending film previews; filming the chase scene in Bullitt (the 140 mph camera car, Steve McQueen's stunt driving, the acumen and professionalism of the driver who performed the final spinout scene and how the Bullitt chase scene compares to the one in The French Connection).
9. Tombstone, George Cosmatos and The Guns of Navaronne; for the last three weeks of filming Tombstone, Cosmatos and Fraker weren't speaking to each other; the restorative powers of Chivas Regal; working with Spielberg early in that director's career; Speilberg's protracted absence from the set while filming Close Encounters (and his very acceptable excuse); "I just remember the good things about the films - the bad things I forget about."; and Fraker picks his favorite films.