John Seale talks about his retirement with “Three Thousand Years of Longing”

In the second half of this two-part interview, cinematographer John Seale talks to Jackie Keast about his time in Hollywood, his filming style and writing with George Miller. Three thousand years of nostalgia.

We’re talking about the fact that the National Film and Sound Archive is putting on an exhibition about Australians and Hollywood. How did you come to work on Hollywood films; is it correct that you followed Peter Weir for Witness?

I worked with Peter Weir on a television series called kingdom of luke; I was a cameraman. When Peter came to do Picnic at the hanging rockI believe he said to Russell Boyd, “Would John Seale be a candidate to operate for you, because he did kingdom of luke for me?” I had also done the second unit on Hong Kong man for Russell. So they reached an agreement and I went on Picnic at the hanging rock.

We then talked to this debut of making the movie Gallipolibut then I turned off the lights and then Gallipoli only appeared a few years later. I was asked to operate on him again for Russell; I promised it a long time ago. Even if I had photographed a few films, a couple that worked very well, I preferred to go back. I loved working with these guys, and I wasn’t going to miss it. Someone said to me, “They won’t believe you’re a lighting cameraman if you go back to operations”. I said, “Look, I’ll only live once. This film will only be made once, and here I am. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it’s a film that I hold in very high esteem. I’m so glad I went back to do it.

It was not long after that Peter was asked to go to America to do, in the first place, Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford, but it fell apart financially and we left Central America to come back to Australia. I think it was only
six or eight weeks later, Peter was offered Witness and he called and said, “Look, I have another movie in America, and it’s going to happen real quick. Could you do it?” I canceled some commercials I had and went to America and shot Witness. We’ve all been nominated [for Oscars]. As they say over there, once you’re nominated, you never have to worry about work again.

What was that experience like, going to the States and then being on set with people like Harrison Ford?

Creepy. Absolutely terrifying. It’s that moment: you meet Indiana Jones.

I found it not only with Harrison in front of the camera, but also with an American team that was working on a slightly different system than what we were working on – all of that combined to make me waver a bit, as to whether I was doing everything right . But Peter straightened me up. He realized, being very astute, that I probably felt a bit lost because this was America. He turned around and said in one line, “Johnny, it’s an Australian movie. There are just a lot of people on it with a funny accent”. I thought “Done”. I’ve never had a problem since. This solved the problem for me and off we went. He then opened the door to America in general.

You continued to work with Peter. Tell me about the relationship you had with him.

I made six films with Peter, three as a cameraman for Russell Boyd and three in America as director of photography and operator when I had the right to do so; the unions were pretty tough there. It was a most enjoyable relationship. I hope I was able to help Peter with the making of the films. Certainly, I appreciated them very much and we got along. Later, my availability became inconvenient and schedules overlapped, which often happened in the industry. It separated us a bit. But otherwise, when you watch a good director work with good actors to make a good movie, damn it, it’s the most enjoyable thing you can have.

You had a similar long term relationship with Anthony Minghella and now George Miller. In terms of the director-DOP relationship, what are you looking for?

I’ve often thought over the years that a cameraman should only do three films with a director because you could get into a rut. I’ve read quotes from cameramen who say, “Oh, I know what he wants, I know what she wants, and I get in there and do it, and they’re happy.” I don’t think that’s fair. Every movie is different. There are different characters, people, geography, drama, etc. Each film should be treated completely differently from the others. Even a repetition, it should be somewhat different. Getting into a rut is wrong. I’ve always been wary of it.

But the directors with whom I made three films, they approached them as different films. So that helped me challenge that system of ruts. I really liked that, that there was a new challenge, even if it was the same director.

You are well known for using multiple cameras. How did you start this practice?

I remember the exact moment. It was sure rain man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. I realized that Tom and Dustin did improv and it made a better movie for it. i went to barry [Levinson] and said “We should film this on two cameras.” He looked up at me and he kind of said “Duh. Yes, logic. But you can’t because Hollywood doesn’t do two cameras, certainly not cross-camera”. I said, “Give me three minutes and I’ll have a camera installed.”

I had a lot of trouble in America with that, as usual, because they said I was doing TV for movies and they didn’t like it. I was using zoom lenses and they didn’t like it; they liked fixed lenses. I was using hydraulic heads instead of gear heads, and they didn’t like it. I had a lot of issues with my shooting style, and I didn’t care.
I thought, “No, I think that makes a better movie.”

We had another scene to do in the afternoon with Tom and Dustin, and we ran into each other. I thought, “That’s great.” The boys were ad libbing, they loved it. The editor loved it. Continuity loved it. It was real time, and I continued to shoot multiple cameras for the rest of my life.

George Miller tempted you out of retirement in 2015 to Mad Max Fury Road. How?

Well, I have to be honest, I wasn’t really retired. I thought about it strongly. I had finished The tourist. As much as I loved working with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, I wasn’t too enamored with the director, and I wasn’t happy that it was, in a way, my last film. I strongly thought about not working anymore. In fact, it was almost six or seven years before Doug Mitchell of Kennedy Miller Mitchell called and said, “Dean [Semler]’s had to leave the production amicably. Would you be interested?”

I had previously worked with George on Lorenzo’s Oil. I loved his cinematic spirit and the challenges he threw down. I knew it road of fury would be an iconic film. It was lovely and I really finished that one. I was now completely retired.

But then George spoke for road of fury to make a short ensemble film before the next one MadMax. Of course, I was excited and said, “Give me a call, George. We will have lunch. You will pay it. I thought he’d do it within two years, but something like seven years later he phoned and said, we’re moving on Three thousand years of nostalgia. I had promised. As I said, George has an extremely fertile mind. I knew anything would be very interesting.

I’m really glad I’m done Three thousand years of nostalgia. It will be a very interesting film to watch, analyze and criticize. It was wonderful to work with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba together. If you’re interested in working with actors, these two are just amazing. It’s a charming and quiet little film. It has nothing to do with a man named Max. It will be fascinating.

You didn’t want to shoot Furiosa?

I thought about it for a long time. The fact that I’ve made 60 weird movies and spent 55 years helping to make them, I honestly think that’s enough at this point. Tempting, seriously tempting, I decided long before it went into pre-production that no, I would Three thousand years of nostalgia the last.

Are you passionate about the next generation? Your children are also in the industry.

It’s very difficult because I can’t talk about film photography like I used to. Let’s go. And I can’t talk about the digital revolution because I really don’t know enough about it, even though I’ve made two films. I didn’t bother to dive into it because I’m not going to continue in it. [I knew] enough to do George’s movie and know that I could rely on the visual effects and the colorist to get what we wanted. I hope I have given them a good digital negative to work on.

So I can’t give digital lessons. All I can say at this point, I think, is the cameraman’s attitude towards the making of the film. It’s an attitude that takes into account your approach towards the actors, your approach towards the directors, the continuity, towards your cameramen and the camera towards the actors, giving them as much space as possible, things like that. You have to give them all their own airspace. You are not the master of this space.

Last question, and it’s very broad. But now that you’re retired, looking back, what are your career highlights?

A lot of people ask, “What was your favorite movie?” I used to be, before the retirement situation, being able to say, “Well, next one.” I feel like you put so much time and thought into each movie that you hoped it would be the best movie ever made. I tell the students, “You have to feel like it’s the best movie that’s ever been made and you’re here to help.”

When I look at all the movies and all the wonderful actors and directors, it’s very hard to tell that there’s a particular movie that’s the best or a particular moment. There are so many brilliant moments to help make a movie. There are hundreds, thousands, little moments. I just hope that over the years people have enjoyed these movies as much as I think we all enjoyed helping to make them.

Win the Oscar?

Well I thought there were other movies that were better made than The English Patient. I hate to say it, but I feel like sometimes the Oscars go to the heart-warming movie. It was a massively successful love story that I may have photographed relatively well; I thought my vote might have been helped by the fact that the movie was great.

There’s so many movies I’ve voted for over the years that have never been a box office movie, but they’re so beautifully shot, perfectly shot for this script, that have never come close to being nominated at the Oscars or be in the top five or whatever. I am very sad for that because they are beautifully painted, beautifully made. I think the photography has to match the film, not just be beautifully photographed, because life isn’t beautiful all the time. Life is raw and it has a reality. I think it’s the man who puts that reality into a movie that always gets my vote.

But it was a great commentary on a great crew, great director, and great cast. I thought that was a nice comment from the industry.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine February-March #204. Subscribe to the magazine here.