Wendy Light

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By sheer chance, the assistant technician in the Edinburgh College of Art film department happened to be in a bookshop in her native Brighton one day when she stumbled upon a reading by Oscar-winning cinematographer David Watkin, who had just published a limited-edition memoir under the title Why Is There Only One Word For Thesaurus? She picked up a copy, and that’s how I got to read this very rare book about one of my favourite film-makers.

Flash forward fifteen years or so, and Richard Lester generously lends me the second volume of that book, a greatly expanded rewrite, Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag? “He certainly had a gift for titles.”

The book includes more everything — more excursions into irrelevant but fascinating sidetracks on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Wilhelm Furtwangler and graffiti at Eton — more dazzling insights into the craft on filmmaking — more scandalous gossip and colourful character portraits. These are not really irrelevant at all as they add to the self-portrait of a man with interests outside of cinema. Not having to worry about his editor or his readership frees Watkin to simply write.

I was pleased to see that the second book was out of the closet. Watkin himself was too honest, I think, to ever seriously adopt a wooden shell around his sexuality, but as I remember the first book is deliberately obscure on this subject, though that didn’t stop the author including a chapter about how AIDS was undoubtedly manufactured in a lab to do exactly what it eventually did. Such hiding in plain sight is avoided in WCSAFH? and we get an ode to the virtues of rent boys and a gratifyingly frank discussion of the important men in DW’s life.

Also a glossary, which alternates between opinionated takes on various bits of film kit, and brilliant stuff like this ~

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX Often mistaken as an alternative to something, which it is not. Inside the box isn’t thinking.

And when John Wayne met Noel Coward ~

“Mr Coward, I’m John Wayne.”

Noel seized the outstretched hand and patted it reassuringly.

“Of course you are, dear boy, of course you are.”

Some of the best stuff is on CATCH 22, a gorgeous photographic job by Watkin, and a discomfiting experience for his American collaborators. Watkin was very British, but he also had his own personal way of shooting which didn’t correspond to any known school. Lester has called him a kind of primitive.

This seems as good a time as any to say that from the very beginning I have shot all my films for an audience of one, namely the director (though some of those may be surprised to hear it). It’s natural and I never thought about it — like a girl wishing to please a lover. If she is a sensible girl that does not mean doing everything the lover wants and there again, without needing to think about it, I was protected always by a deep respect for celluloid. Later on the phone Mike [Nichols, director] was telling us who strange he found the Brits. When contemplating my removal, he had asked Alan [McCabe, camera operator] how long it would take the crew to adjust to my replacement.

“No time at all — we’d all be on the plane with David.”

This was incomprehensible to Hollywood.

In fairness to Nichols, Watkin evidently drove him crazy: on the excellent commentary track he recorded with Steven Soderbergh, he reports Watkin creating such a forest of flags and lights for one scene that it became impossible to get the stand-ins out and the actors in. Still, Lester, a notoriously fast director liked Watkin because he could match his pace (and get beautiful and distinctive results).

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The book also explains one of CATCH 22’s most eye-popping special effects ~

Hungry Joe standing on a raft in the sea to photograph McWatt’s plane gets sliced up by the propeller, leaving only his legs standing. It may appear difficult but in fact there is a simple way to do it. A shield with two hand-grips at the back to cover the top half of the body, and covered on the outside with front projection material, could be held by the actor against a waist-band of make-up blood. With a brute positioned just above the camera on the shore the density of the shield could be matched to that of the sky behind it. The actor could then dance a jog for as long as required, provided he kept face-on to camera and fell off the raft backwards. It was safe and effective, its only drawback being that it was suggested by me. The special effects department had built a dummy that could be blown in half by an explosive charge and to my disbelief this method was insisted on. I have never seen anyone cut in half by an aeroplane but I do not believe that their demise would be attended by an orange flash and clouds of black smoke, whatever they’d had for breakfast. I said this with due modesty and diffidence but to no purpose, and several ludicrous attempts were made. Finally a hand from the disintegrating dummy got lodged in the tail-plane and the pilot nearly crashed into the sea. Only then, faute de mieux, was my idea adopted and within twenty minutes the shot was made that is in the film.

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(Actually, Nichols uses the exploding dummy in extreme long-shot, then cuts to Watkin’s effect, which is the amazing bit — the fact that the legs are clearly real and articulated sells the gag with horrific conviction.)

I told Lester something line producer David Brown once told me, that on his later films Watkin would have a return ticket to Brighton taped to the side of the camera. If anybody said anything he didn’t care for, he could simply point toward this, as if to say “I can leave whenever I like, you know.” We agreed that when you’re David Watkin, this is a perfectly reasonable position to take.

Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag?: v.2: The Second Volume of an Autobiography Mainly, But Not Entirely, About the Film Business: Vol 2

Catch-22

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7 Responses to “Wendy Light”

  1. WOW! I MUST ahold of those Watkins books. Knew nothing about him personally. He’s long been one of my very favorite DPs.

  2. I’ve tried finding copies for sale but without success — they were paid for by subscription and those who own copies treasure them!

  3. Watkins is just brilliant, and a fascinating character. I was recently struck by how, after winning his Oscar for Out of Africa, instead of accepting bigger, more prestigious projects he worked on some eccentric fantasy films: Gunbus, Murder on the Moon and Rusty Lemorande’s lost Journey to the Centre of the Earth (http://www.craveonline.com/film/articles/151174-journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth-the-lost-version)
    He really worked on what he liked

    Can you reveal anything more about your meeting with Richard Lester? Does he read Shadowplay? (hi Mr. Lester)

  4. He doesn’t use the internet more than he has to. “I scowl at the computer as I walk past it,” he told Soderbergh. I’ve been thinking of sending him a link though…

    Journey to the Center of the Earth was supposed to have featured Hermione Gingold but to Watkin’s sorrow she pulled out, broken-hearted, after being jilted by her toyboy lover.

    Watkin really seems to have not much cared for Hollywood work, but he liked New York. His favourite US director was Lumet, who shared his no-fuss approach. He was also keen on The Cabinet of Dr Ramirez, which he made with Peter Sellars, and which I must watch.

  5. Oh I recommend Ramirez. Very strange even by this place’s standards. I’m not quite sure what happened but it was very beautiful. And Joan Cusack in the lead

    Peter Gallagher talks about it’s strange making here
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/peter-gallagher,57490/

  6. Both books are supposedly available via amazon.co.uk at reasonable (less than £100) prices if you’re willing to tolerate tax-dodgers.

  7. Oh yeah! I should say that volume 2 contains the bulk of volume 1, greatly expanded. It’s more of a second edition than a second volume. That’s the one to go for.

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