Any time there is a poll of the best cinematographers working today, the list will be half-full. By default of being a pop resource, any list of remarkable image-makers is usually missing out on the entire avant-garde film world.
Alas, in a perfect screening room, a list of great cinematographers working today will have Peter Hutton in the top ten. Nothing looks like his films. An utterly gorgeous mix of thoughtful framing, nuanced contrast and distinct subjects, Hutton’s images are at once breathtaking and poetic. With strong photography and never a single sound, his films pull off something even more unbelievable – they aren’t pretentious. He goes out with a camera and essentially makes diary movies. But it’s really about capturing incredible moments in a beautiful way. Whether it’s an extreme (a fire in Boston, cliffs in Iceland, a ship being built) or the seemingly mundane (ice on the Hudson, odes to painters), Hutton will make you sink in.
A longtime sailor, Hutton has traveled the world, making films in many cities and on the lost territory of the oceans in between. Hutton recently had a MOMA retrospective in 2008.
CINEMAD: Was there a flashpoint where you became interested in art film?
PETER HUTTON: For the first 10 years of my creative life I wasn’t making films, I was a painter as a teenager, then a sculptor. I was in L.A. for a summer in the mid-60s. I went to see one of Kenneth Anger’s experimental films on La Cienega. I then moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. I started seeing Harry Smith and Bruce Conner at the Straight Ashbury Film Society that Freuda Bartlett ran. I thought this was going to be huge! Everybody did! In some way a rival to commercial film culture, because the parameters were so blown open from traditional cinema. It’s interesting watching it over the last 40 years collapse into a pretty delicate little culture. It’s kind of kept alive by young people who are just discovering this work, who get really excited about it, and fortunately start writing about it. But it’s also kept alive by those who teach, the art schools who are, for the most part, employing a lot of people who are propagating it through showing their own and other people’s work. It’s a relatively modest yet a wonderful alternative to commercial film culture.
NEW YORK PORTRAIT, CHAPTER 1 (1978-79)
If you want to see it, you’re going to have to become involved with it.
I think that’s good though. One of the things that is important to me is the contrast between the accessibility of TV and commercial media that are being pushed at you. You really need to find stuff, you have to be curious, go out of your way. Like going to flea markets and finding great old books, photographs, paintings. You have to have that curiosity. There’s an element of satisfaction that comes with discovering something that wasn’t publicized or in front of commercial culture. I like the fact that there’s an obscurity to the culture. Maybe that’s good. Even if there is a sort of crossover with the mainstream, like Andy Warhol. Probably the most well known artist who did films, who had this huge public image within the culture.
Did your parents want you to take on another path?
Not at all. Actually my father had a little film society. He was a New Yorker that got displaced to Detroit, so he always had a sort of New York vibe. He wasn’t hugely sophisticated, but he loved theater, film and literature. He started a little film society with a friend of his and they used to show Jacque Tati’s films.He loved M. Hulot's Holiday (1953), PLAYTIME (1967), Mon Uncle (1958) and all of his films.
Actually, he got a letter from Tati at one point because he would rent these films so much. He was just an individual renting these 35mm prints in Detroit. Even Tati, given how precious he was, wasn’t that well known in this country. He was kind of obscure. Even though you could say Tati was progressively experimental my father wasn’t into super alternative stuff. He just liked culture. So that was good for me. He acted in the theater and did TV acting in Detroit.
As a graduate student I moved onto film, because I did performance work in the 60’s, where I started making little 8mm films of performances and realizing ‘Whoa! This is awesome’ because the films are 100 times more interesting than the performances. They were black and white, they were very abstract and you could manipulate the performances. The performances themselves were pretty amateur, I was just mimicking the phenomena of happenings that were going on by Alan Kaprow, Oldenberg, Red Grooms, etc.
Then I thought, ‘Well this is great, because I can just film things and that’ll be my art. I don’t need ideas anymore. I can just use my eyes and go around the world looking at things and it’ll be great.’ I kind of combined that with working on ships and traveling. In some ways it’s always been the same. Combining traveling, looking, filming. That takes care of itself in a way. Most filmmakers don’t always take their cameras with them when they travel. Today’s world, they do because they can bring tiny video cameras. I was always amazed at how people can bring these 16mm cameras with them when they went on trips to Europe. I’ll ask them if they took their camera and they’ll say, “No, I didn’t want a hassle with that.”
Did you study still photography?
No. Painting was my big deal. My uncle was an artist, Edward Plunkett, he knew a lot of NY artists including Marcel Duchamp and collected pop art. He was a great influence on me. My mother was also an amateur painter. When I was a kid, my father had kept a photo album as a merchant seaman. I loved looking at these photo albums filled with images of places he had gone when working on ships; India, China, Indonesia. They were just snapshots. Landscapes, seascapes, very amateur casual photographs. This was before TV, so it was a very cool place to zone out and imagine these places. When I started working on ships, I was so happy to be going to these places. It built up my appreciation for this sort of traveling.
I took photographs when I went to India, then after that I eventually learned film. In the 70’s, the last time I ever worked on a ship was in ’74, so there was a 10-year period from ’64 – ’74 where I intensely worked on ships. I paid my way through art school by working on ships. I went to sea for a semester, then to school for a semester, back and forth from sea to school.
That’s unique for an art star.
It was a good thing to do. When I was 16, my father told me ‘I know you might want to go to college, but you should really look into working on ships for at least a couple of years.’ It’s a pretty dicey world in many cases, so it’s rare that parents would go ahead and support you in that regard. I think for him it was the best thing he did in his life.
Was it that attitude that you’d grow up faster?
My father was a real romantic. I, in turn, grew to develop an appreciation for Romanticism. There’s a lot of poets, writers, a lot of people who worked as merchant seaman during the 1940’s and 50’s. I read a book by Kerouac, written when he was at Columbia University. He was actually a football player. It was cool getting a totally different perspective on who he was. He rode merchant ships for a while. I think it was all a part of that tradition of working while you were traveling to different countries, having the options to do that.
AT SEA (2007)
What were your duties?
In the days when I worked on ships, they were smaller. I almost always worked on the Deck gang. This is pre-containerization. I spent a summer on the Great lakes working on Ore boats then I saved money and moved to Honolulu from Detroit to catch real ocean going ships.
The first salt water ship I worked on was a freighter that was contracted to haul grain to India. We were giving the Indian government grain. This is about 1964. After arriving in Honolulu, I went to the SIU union hall and the dispatcher said, ‘Hey kid, you want to go to Calcutta?’ I was like a dream come true. I was used to going to places on the Great Lakes, Toledo, Ashtabula, Duluth – but Calcutta!! Finally I was really going somewhere.
A lot of the guys on the ships were loners. One of my best friends was an ex-con that had just gotten out of Oahu State Prison, a Portuguese guy. I never asked him why he was doing time. He was cool, a nice guy. He just needed a gig. The ship was leased from a company in Singapore, Liberty Navigation, by USAID to carry wheat to India during a famine. But the wheat had been held in the ship so long – the ship started in Tacoma, WA and sailed to Guam and broke down and was towed back to Honolulu. The original crew disembarked. They hired an entirely new crew when the boiler was repaired. By the time we got to India, a lot of the wheat had rotted inside the ship. They popped open the hatches to unload it and there was this huge stench. It was Conradian in a way. A deed of good will gone very bad.
We actually stayed in Calcutta for almost a month because we first dropped off a load in Madras, then headed up to Calcutta, discharged the remaining cargo. After we left, we ran over a huge buoy in Hooglie river (the AB on watch was drunk). It actually bent the propellers, so they had to tow us back to Kidderpore, the waterfront area of Calcutta. They filled the two forward holds of the ship with sea water to jack it up in the stern, to cut up the damaged part of the propeller off. Then when we headed west back to San Francisco they filled the last 2 holds with sea water to hold the stern down (smaller propeller). We went back and raked angles. It was weird.
Since we spent a month in Calcutta, most of the sailors moved off the ship and rented rooms and hotels. A lot of companies, when they would send the ship to India, they would contract Indians to paint the ship because the labor was so cheap at the time. While we were at port, there was about 300 men hanging off the edge of the ship with little hammers wacking on the hull. The racket was unbearable, you couldn’t even think! So we all moved off the ship into cheap hotels. It was great, I saw Calcutta and it changed my life. Being in that place at that time, exposed to a world unknown to me.
You were 18 or 19 then?
19. That in itself was an important experience for me. I never saw the world quite the same after that. It kind of busted me out of the typical, young, naïve, midwestern frame of mind. I quickly developed this passionate desire to travel more and to learn about what I was experiencing. I had a very limited understanding of the world. The sea makes you aware of a different velocity of time.
As a kid, I read a lot of Maritime books, Jack London, people like that, big adventures. Subsequently I read more of the classic stuff. There’s so much great literature about the sea. Visually, it’s fascinating because it’s without any parameters. It’s not the world that we know. It’s almost like traveling into outer space. I always thought that was perspective was great, particularly as someone who used to be a painter. It exposes you to this different atmosphere. You experience things that feel really unique. Even though there’s the tradition of Maritime painting. If you think of someone like Turner, his whole life was spent doing seascapes, paintings about ships and naval battles and nature referencing this incredible atmosphere.
When you work on ships, it’s a job so you get locked into it. But there’s a lot of downtime. You’re able to space out and look at the atmosphere of the sea. That in itself is amazing. The sense of time is really different because you’re traveling so slow. Sometimes on ships you’re dead in the water. They shut them down and work on the engine or something like that and you’re just out there floating. In the middle of nowhere.
One time in the middle of the Pacific, we stopped because they were working on the boiler on this grain ship. A whale came up and was scraping barnacles off the side. All the guys who were up forward were hanging over the front of the ship staring down at the sea. Here was this giant whale scraping barnacles off against the hull of the ship. Wow! Stuff like that was mind-boggling.
Sailing into storms, I’ve got a lot of stories of how visually intense it was. In the 70’s, when I was working on tankers, there was one night when we were sailing from Thailand to the Persian Gulf. We had just turned the corner around Sri Lanka in the Indian ocean and I was on watch. Which meant that I was right at the fore-peak of the ship, standing there. What a deckhand would do was look off in the horizon and look out for lights of other ships approaching. If you saw light, you’d ring a bell and report it to the bridge. There was also a phone there so you could call up and say there was a light about two points off the starboard or port bow up there. It was kind of an old system to keep the guy on the bridge who was steering the ship informed. Even though he couldn’t see it, he knew where to go with the radar.
TIME AND TIDE (2000)
One night I was out there, the moon was out, it was a summer night. It was warm, I was in a t-shirt. All of the sudden I felt it getting really cold. I started scrunching up a little bit. Then I realized it was getting darker. The moon went behind some clouds. Colder, darker, colder, darker. It was amazing! I felt like we were sailing into an inkwell.
I didn’t realize there were so many degrees of darkness. Pretty soon, you couldn’t see anything. We were sailing into a storm, which I wasn’t aware of. The clouds covered the moon and everything closed in on the ship. It started raining, the seas became very active. Then the officer on the bridge shined a light down on me, which meant that I should go up to the bridge. I turned around, and a wave came over the bow. The seas were starting to boil.
So I went to the bridge and I continued to watch this rainstorm. We were sailing into this storm. It was so beautiful as a visual moment. Something you could never film, because it was so dark. It was this experience of sailing into this murky, dark world. Eventually we punched through and it started getting lighter, warmer, the seas started calming down, it started getting warmer. I was like, ‘What an experience!’ As an artistic moment, it was really interesting, almost spiritual.
So you’re encountering stuff like that, which is awesome. Like going through a tornado, but without the vulnerability.
I don’t know if I mentioned this the other night, but the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve dealt into the history of it. I was reading in National Geographic about the Polynesians, because after spending so much time in Hawaii, you become interested in Polynesian culture. When they used to canoe across the Pacific, they’d go from Hawaii to Tahiti, to Bora Bora, whatever… on their oceanic migration.
They developed all these different systems of navigation. One was to study the color of clouds. They’d be in these large canoes studying clouds way off in the distance above the horizon, they were carefully looking at the clouds, If they saw a small hint of green, that meant that the cloud was over an island that was not yet visible because of the curvature of the earth. Who would have thought that was a reliable way to navigate? “Oh it’s a little green over there, 30 miles off.”
There’s a kind of culture of survival when you’re out at sea, where you have to develop a kind of visual acuity to know where you’re going, what’s happening. That’s always been a part of the Maritime culture; to be looking very carefully. One of the benefits aside from all the traveling is that you’re forced to look at things much more carefully. Particularly more at night. You’re out there in the darkness, you’re thinking ‘There’s nothing happening up here’, but night after night after night, you begin to see things that blow your mind. Pools of phosphorescent plankton under the sea that are exploding and illuminating. It was like hallucinating. Going through the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, it was like there were depth charges going off and there was light exploding under the surface of the ocean. Porpoises would streak through these pockets of plankton like underwater rockets. “Am I really seeing this?”
TIME AND TIDE (2000)
How does that change or affect your depth of field, especially when you start looking at things through a camera? Did you feel differently because water’s clear?
One of those great moments, I don’t know if you can even record that on film, the darkness. It was more about this idea that we can see a lot more than we can understand. Our eyes give us the capacity to see and process a lot of information. In today’s world, we don’t need to survive that way, so we don’t use our eyes that way. We tend not to spend hours looking at clouds, watching light move. People who were out in that world had to get engaged in a more intense visual level to figure things out.
For a filmmaker it was good, not so much for technical phenomena, more about ‘Ok, this is something I can do’ and just looking at the world in general. Looking more carefully at things, developing a greater appreciating the idea of looking.
There’s a visual passivity with a newer generation of filmmakers where things are fed to us through TV, media, entertainment, what have you. We don’t have to sit and look at stuff as much. Its all fed to you. That’s something I think that comes into play, especially as a painter. Looking at other painters and being fascinated by the way they looked at things and how they realized visual ideas. Those influences were invaluable. But it might come from some primal thing such as being on the ocean for a long period of time.
A lot of my early art teachers (at the university of Hawaii) were Chinese and Japanese. There ideas of looking at things were much more meditative, contemplative. Where you sort of give yourself to that thing you’re looking at. Whether it’s a rock garden, a brush painting, you’re kind of wandering into it visually.
I think a lot of Western art is more like shouting at you saying ‘Hey! I’m over here, look at me! I’m funny! I’m weird…’ Pop art, contemporary art, it’s trying to get your attention because there’s so much wacky shit going on.
Eastern art is much more quiet, subtle. It’s about you carving out some space to interact with that thing. That had a much bigger influence on me and how I make films. The pleasure I get just from looking at nature. The shadows, light, events, people, weather. There’s a kind of wonderful appreciation for light and dark. Very reductive. It’s not about the narrative or events occurring. It’s about the small details and time passing. You give your time to vision and it gives you a reward, it’s a discipline.
Did you ever feel contained by the camera frame? Or did painting help inform that?
That’s part of the whole art thing. You’re always referencing. Even in sculpture I always kept making things in a box. I would do big events, make big objects, steel welding, props, found objects and a whole vocabulary of sculptural objects in a relatively short period of time. I ended up making these Plexiglas boxes and then putting things inside, sort of architectural elements, making these miniature rooms.
In some ways these cubes were like the frame as 2D and 3D spaces. There was always a fascination with wanting to miniaturize ideas of the world. Film to me is still about space, time. It’s still about painting with the language of cinema. It’s a very reductive appreciation for some of the potential of cinema that was never realized aesthetically because it was so eclipsed by entertainment, narrative and telling stories that some of the core phenomena of what was happening spatially, the ambiguity of space. 2D and 3D that translation is still very interesting for me as an artist.
AT SEA (2007)
That stereoscopic effect goes way back to the earliest times of photography. You can achieve that 2D obviously when you’re on a ship.
Ken Jacobs, I appreciate what he’s doing with the nervous system, working with the apparatus, creating a shuttering effect, mixing in his own technological stuff. You begin to reference that early stuff and it’s amazing. It’s about depth, space and movement. He’ll take those old stereo-optic photographs and activate them into a way that translates into cinematic time. Fucking gorgeous. It’s a very simple thing that grows spatially.
When I started making films in the 60’s, I wanted to keep everything very simple and keep working. Cinema tends to be this additive thing, gets more complicated technologically. Just the logistics of cinema is not an easy enterprise for someone coming from an arts background. It’s very expensive and complicated logistically. I wanted to do it alone, keep it personal and private. Almost like making sketchbooks. The more I kept it simple the more I could work.
That’s hard. People fall so in love with cinema, it’s such a seductive culture. Then you go Fuck! I need some serious cheese to keep things going because you almost get into this competitive thing where I marvel that my students are making films that are in some way, they’re using the industry as a model to emulate. They’re walking around with these tiny little cameras by themselves and trying to do that. That’s great! It’s ambitious. But it’s also so unrealistic because, they’re lucky they’ve got $500 to make a film. All the narrative strategies they pursue tend to get compared to Hollywood stuff. Even the indie stuff that tends to cost $5 million, $14 million or $1 million, there’s something perverse about getting seduced into that big money game.
Every generation should subvert that tradition and say, ‘Wait, I can do this stuff with $150, a shitty camera’ and turns someone’s head around by doing something that’s so obvious nobody ever thought about. It’s not about the pyrotechnics, it’s about something else, being inventive with limitations.
There’s no real structure about how to make short films in most film schools, because you are referencing legendary directors who make studio-backed feature films. You need to learn the craft from the bottom up.
Now with the accessibility to digital cameras, editing, resources and everything, the whole apparatus of cinema has been thrust into a more democratic kind of mix. Everyone says ‘I can do this!’ They get their friends together and try, that’s great, but that’s so much easier said than done. The time that it takes to develop an eye, such as an cinematographer for example, is huge. You need to shoot a lot of film in order to understand that language.
Kids are just picking up cameras, there’s this whole lack of appreciation for practice. Just practicing your craft as a director, as a cameraman, as an editor. Learning to negotiate that tradition with some confidence, that only comes from experience.
I always say to my kids, ‘Listen, you can’t just pick up a violin and expect to function with it unless you know it inside out with your arm, your neck, your brain, your hands.’ It’s like that with everything and to think that film is different because it’s technologically easy is bullshit!
Do you show your students paintings at all?
I show them photography, and painting in all my classes,particularly whenI do a cinematography class. The first cameramen studied painting. Not super seriously, but they learned about lighting there.
What’s the first medium that dealt with light in a pictorial way? Painting! Rembrandt had the north light, Vermeer had this side lighting thing, there’s a lot to learn from these guys. The first generation of Hollywood cameramen used these strategies, realized how effectively they could be used in films.
Film is so logistically complicated that you can’t light everything like a painter. But at least you can see how that changes the space, how that sculpts the space and articulates depth. There’s a lot to learn from that.
When I do the cinematography class, we spend a lot of time looking at Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hopper and just talking about fundamentals. Where’s the light? Where’s the light coming from? What’s that doing to the space? But that’s film school 101, it should be. Then we look at photography, Cartier-Bresson, Aget, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus as well as a lot of contemporary work. Talking about the decisive moment and where things are in the frame, how your eye tracks things, try and give them a more complete and complex appreciation for making images.
They have to compound all that filmmaking with film history. So hopefully they can get it on that end as well through looking at Renoir, Tarkovsky, Ozu or whoever. We spend a lot of time opening up windows for these kids for the things they’re not finding in popular culture. When you look at KNOCKED UP (2007), or any of these popular movies, it’s not about the visuals, it’s a comedy. It’s like a TV sitcom in a way. They’re not about the craft of filmmaking.
Barely making it work in the editing.
Maybe that doesn’t even matter anymore. The convergence of entertainment, it’s always ironic for me to tune into the Academy Awards and everybody’s always talking about ‘artistic this’ and ‘artistic that’. I thought ‘what the hell are they talking about?’ You know? Is this really art? The high and the low of American culture…… its mind boggling.
Do you feel like you’re more an image-maker than a filmmaker?
Yeah. I don’t even tell people I’m a filmmaker. It suggests someone who tells stories with cinema, or putting together elaborate ideas through filmmaking. Mine are more like sketchbooks, keeping diaries and records of things that interest me. I hope that at some point in time they might be interesting things for people to look back on. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Picasso’s sketchbooks, they were so fascinating because they were not the big pieces, but they were the process of what contributed to the big pieces. They’re really interesting as sketchbooks. Even someone such as Leonardo’s sketchbooks, they’re so complex and mysterious. It’s the rough, funky, elegant, interesting insights on the process.
Ultimately, what’s great about film is the process of shooting all the time. I come from an arts background where you’d go to the studio all day to work. You’d learn a lot from that repetition of trying to solve all these problems.
Film in this day and age, kids who go to art school remain very conceptual. They’re always sitting around waiting for the big idea. Where as they should be practicing more. Especially with digital, where you can go out and shoot for 12 hours. You can erase it, tape over it, if nothing comes out of it…no big deal. The idea of actually practicing the craft, of collecting images, developing your eye. I’m amazed that people don’t appreciate how important that is to develop a more active relationship to practice.
It gets back to the violin metaphor. Practice, practice, practice and the camera becomes your eye and not so much this complicated technological thing to mediate to get an image. The whole process becomes forward, you can be spontaneous the way any good photographer can knock off a shot without having to take a reading or setting everything up.
That kind of fluidity is important to me. You can capture things that are just occurring under short notice. There can be a revelation. It would be like living in a city, turning a corner and BAM! There’s this thing on fire, you can be there with a camera and grab it. Truth is so much stranger than fiction. There should be these narrative crews lurching around these environments, you know ‘ACTION!’ Cars going through an intersection and a pedestrian is trapped in the middle of the street. That’s better than most of the shit they cook up in Hollywood anyway.
How is distribution going for you?
It’s ok. I have a distributor in Germany and Canyon Cinema. It gets the work out to this small artistic community. But it’s a big problem. It’s something interesting that Gene Youngblood talks about in Expanded Cinema. He was thinking about that back in the 60’s. Alternative cinema needs a really good distribution system. Nobody anticipated the Internet back then. There were a lot of interesting people thinking about technology back then. He sort of had his hand on the zeitgeist.
The co-ops were the main source of alternative experimental cinema. It was effective to some extent, but it was the format of 16mm and how you get that seen by people as there weren’t that many theaters showing films on 16mm projectors. It’s always been an issue. With film, I always do as much as I can with the resources that I have. Clearly with the Internet and DVDs all suggest a whole other level. The problem with the people of my generation is that you get adjusted to your medium and acclimated to good projection and having enough room, blah blah blah.
There’s a lot lost when you have to compensate for the size of a TV screen or the window on the Internet. It’s better to keep your work within the context of the theater where people go and sit down and actually see the work. They have a commitment to experience it, whereas everything else seems less formal and less engaging via the internet.
If video projection could only catch up to film projection - it’s gotten so much better, but it’s not all the way. It’s starting to become more affordable to buy a projector for your house. At least then you could start to get a little closer.
It’s getting there, they’ll figure it all out within the next 4 or 5 years. Every year the competition between the film image and the digital image becomes less obvious. Not the competition, but sometimes I can’t tell the difference, and I’ve been shooting film for 30 years!
Have you tried shooting on video at all?
I’ve shot on HD, every format. Usually for other people who’ve seen my films. I’ve shot features and documentaries. It’s fun to work that way because people are typically looking for a different eye or a different perspective.
Does that give you a lot of freedom?
Yes. I don’t do a lot, if it seems like a good situation I’ll go for it. The last thing I work on was Albert Maysles who called me. He was doing a big documentary on Christo - the “Gates” project in Central park. He gave me this huge HD camera, the size of a Samsonite suitcase. My wife and I drove around in a golf cart for a week in the winter tripping out on these gates with the orange fabric.We had a ball. He loved it too. No one else was looking at it the same way we were.
I shot a couple of features. One was fairly successful and won a prize at Sundance [NO PICNIC, 1987, won Best Cinematography], the other never got distributed (titled ERRIE). It’s a challenge to work in that system because you’re working against the clock. You have a lot of limitations you have to resolve. I’m not really suited for it but it was fun to do. I never learned film in a practical way when I was young. I just bought a camera, figured it out and started shooting. I didn’t have the confidence or thought I could make money doing that. I greatly admire filmmakers who can survive narrative film culture, it’s a beast.
One time this director in New York saw a poster for a film program and there was a little postage stamp sized image from one of my films. Based on that little image, he called me up asking if I wanted to shoot a feature. I had a really good assistant; Mike Spiller, who ended up going on to be a successful DP. He was really sharp. It helps when you have a good support staff. Really all they want is your eye. The DP frames it up and you’re not solving a thousand technical issues. If you have a good gaffer and AC then it makes your job really fun.
Are you shooting on a Bolex?
I have an old Arri-S.
So you can still do a long shot, but the roll is going to run out.
I like that, I think that’s ok. I think one of the best thing about filmmaking is running out of film. It gets you to change your point of view and mix it up a bit more. With the HD thing, you can do a shot for 2 or 8 hours. You don’t want to kill the edit of it with infinite variations of the same thing. I asked Albert when we were done shooting the Gates project how much material we had. HBO wanted an hour cut.
He said ‘Right now, we’ve got about 600 hours.’
I just thought ‘Oh my God, the poor editor…’
How much footage do you usually shoot and not use?
I tend to shoot 2:1 ratio. Sometimes 3:1. 4:1 is the most extravagant because I can’t afford it. The films aren’t about perfection, they’re about trying to get a hold of something and giving it some credibility and quality. Almost everything I shoot looks reasonably good, it’s just that sometimes you’re always trying for something different. ‘Well, maybe I’ll shoot it here, maybe there, in this light or in that shadow…’ You’re constantly pushing the envelope a little bit just to see.
In film, I’m never 100% sure of how it’s going to come out. Even after 30 years I can’t nail it, but you don’t care about that. I’m always trying to give the images a little edge so that they look different from the average thing.
For the most part, there’s not an audience for what I do. You sort of work with what you’re happy with and throw the rest out. You hope that people can learn from it or have some sort of appreciation for it. It’s a challenge to keep it a personal thing.
You won’t die if it doesn’t work, but you want it to be accepted, as you want to contribute something to the audience. You’re invested in it. It’s not any different form writing or painting, you just want to define yourself in a stylistic way and hope that it reflects well as a different variation on a the visual tradition of cinema.
It’s like being a poet. You’re never going to get the attention a novelist would get, but there might be something there for someone who’s interested.
LANDSCAPE FOR MANON (1986-87)
Do you get frustrated working in the lab?
A little bit. I’m colorblind so that doesn’t help. I’m always having miscommunications with the lab.
Are you completely colorblind?
No, I just can’t see different values of colors. Brown things turn out that they’re green.
The grays are blues, a metaphor for my soul. (laughs)
I came to film during a time when everybody was doing color. In the 60’s a lot of people were into this psychedelic thing even though there’s a lot of great work done in black and white coming from Europe and Japan. For me, going to San Francisco, I was coming with some Eastern sensibilities. I wanted to keep things simple, reduced it down to a very primary language and see how that suits me. I never felt that I had to dabble into the color thing.
In AT SEA you have a lot of land shots, or at least of the modern docks loading the ships. Did it feel less personal, less human, than earlier days of shipping?
As a former merchant seaman, all these shots of hundreds of men on the ship taking off the cargo, it brings me back to this time in my life when all these fascinating images engulfed me. Confronting a sense of the world and sensing how different the world was.
There’s something about going back into time. It’s so important to show people that this is what happens when you end up with these modern things. We’re in this twilight zone where you make this hugely sophisticated structure, send it out into the world and it ends up being taken apart by someone’s hands. To make that connection is really interesting even though ironically that’s the first part of the film. The film starts in the future and ends on this timeless seascape that looks pre-industrial.
It’s fascinating to watch all these insane cranes and technological advances that build the thing in the first place. Is there a math to your shots?
No. I load in100 ft. roll. I’m not looking to prove something in a structural way. The velocity of life is so much faster, much more kinetic. The way we process information, the way we’re exposed to information. It’s like looking at a trailer of a film BAM BAM BAM BAM! The whole film in 30 seconds, it’s astounding that you can put it all together that way.
It’s good to go against the grain and stretch things out. It’s not like a lot of people want to go backwards in terms of how they process information. But there’s something to look at and if they can reference a way of looking and it’s interesting to them, than I think it can be pleasurable. If you can combine that with an idea, there’s some potential there.
The next film takes place in a steel mill in Detroit where I grew up. I hope this works out. I’m applying for some money to do it. I don’t even know what that’s about. It’s like revisiting Vertov, you know, Enthusiasm. Maybe it’s been done, but it’s trying to do it with a different velocity.
With more people? More faces?
Maybe, if they’ll allow me to do that. I want to have some kind of official access so I can space out. It’s kind of like a heaven and hell environment. Beautiful graphically, as this intense industry. It’s hellish as an environment. If I can even get in the door, I don’t know if I can. This landscape is posted with these huge signs NO PHOTOGRAPHY!
The post 9/11 world is a nightmare for people like me because we’re drawn toward these forbidden environments because of their implications. People are hugely paranoid by industry and who’s checking industry out.
I’ll try and do something and hopefully the public relations people will listen. I’ll say, ‘I grew up there and I want to support this working class industry.’ It’s a kind of metaphor for my work as a filmmaker, its out of sync with the contemporary world but yet timeless and mysterious.
At publication time, Mr. Hutton reports: The Detroit film is still in the conceptual mode but I'm going to Ethiopia this Jan 2010 to shoot in the Dallol Depression, a vast salt flats where the Afar tribe mines salt.