This article was originally published in IF Magazine #132 (June 2010).
When I was going to do Driving Miss Daisy, I offered it to Don McAlpine, but he turned it down. And then I offered it to Russell Boyd but he was doing something else. And then I remembered Peter and I thought ‘Hang on, I like that bloke Peter James’ and said ‘Do you want to come over here and shoot this low-budget film?’ And he did. That was the first.
I did enjoy working with him but we never thought it was anything special. In fact, when we finished the film they were planning not to release it.
We had very similar ideas on lighting and he had tremendously good taste – his lighting was always exqusite. Also, the thing I liked about him (and for that matter Don McAlpine) was that he would vary his style to suit the subject matter, which a lot of cameramen don’t do – they shoot everything in the same style. With Peter, all the films we’ve done all look completely different because he’ll sit down and say ‘What’s it all about and what sort of look do we want?’ And then we’ll work it out between us and then go for that. That’s a great quality.
You’ve got the kind of romanticism of something like Bride of the Wind, the film about Alma Mahler – which has been seen by absolutely nobody – and you’ve got things like most of Mao’s Last Dancer, which looked pretty realistic. That was the eleventh film we’ve done and I knew he’d do a great job. He’s tremendously technically up-to-date – he can handle anything. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, he’ll cope with it.
Like when we had to shoot the scene on the Great Wall. We’d had weeks of good weather and the day we had to do the Great Wall it was absolutely horrible: it was freezing cold and there was a wind blowing and it was just ghastly. And he said ‘We’ll shoot it anyway’. It still looked good but it was tough.
Mao’s was pretty demanding because there was a lot of elaborate Chinese stuff and although it was a fairly long shoot by normal standards it was pretty tight for an elaborate film. Then we had to come back to Sydney to do all these complicated dance sequences. So we had to light all that. Then you’ve got the added problem that ballet dancers can’t dance forever – they can only do it a couple of times and we had to make sure we got these things pretty effectively, pretty quickly. Probably the hardest [film] physically was Black Robe. It was 30 below zero day-in, day-out and only a few hours of daylight.
He’s very agreeable to work with – he’ll try anything. I came up with some idea with Mao’s Last Dancer and I said ‘Peter can we do so and so’ – it was something quite complicated. And he looked at me and said ‘We can do anything.’ And I thought that’s the sort of cameraman I like.
We met on a chicken farm in Kellyville for a Bank of NSW commercial and that was the first work we did together. He wanted me to do a film in America, and I was going to do … an Adams/Packer production – that goes back a long way – and they were making We of the Never Never at the time and it fell over.
It cost more money and therefore our film got cancelled – it was a big saga about the Jews travelling across Europe … it was a massive picture. But it never got made so I rang Bruce up and said ‘Have you got a cameraman for that film you just started’. He had got a guy and ‘oh dear’ … I was very upset about that.
Then we were going to do Total Recall – a science-fiction movie that Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Sharon Stone eventually did. We were looking at doing it with Richard Gere and Dino De Laurentis and Dino went broke. Then we started on Driving Miss Daisy and they didn’t have any money. Dick Zanuck eventually went to Warner Bros and said we need two more million. And Warner Bros put in the last $2 million.
It was a lovely film and Dick Zanuck tried to show it to Warner Bros and they kept on saying ‘You can’t show it to us now, we’re too busy, the Summer films are all falling over’. He eventually went over with this film and before they’d finished the screening they’d ordered 5000 prints. It went out the following weekend and cleaned up. I think it was the best $2 million Warner Bros ever spent.
We’ve made 11 films together. Bruce still keeps on asking me to do his pictures. We get along very well. And I try to make each film different in some ways. Give it a different interpretation and a different look. The photography really has to be inspired by the script and then talking with the director about what your idea is of how the film should look.
Often locations dictate a lot of the script. Yogi [Bear] had pre-vis bits that were very limiting, had locations such as white-water rafting and skiing and forests had to make them look like the pre-vis. I’ve never worked so rigidly with pre-vis because working with Bruce he just goes away quietly and sits on a rock and changes it all.
He’d walk around the house of Miss Daisy’s and work out where the lines would be said, what room they would be said in. In Canada, with Black Robe, we left him in the wilderness for half a day and when we came back he was running down the street with blood running out of his head, belting himself with the script. He said ‘The black flies were biting me while I was working out the dialogue’. He just gets so into it.
So when you come to do it, all that work has been done – he’s just a joy to work with. Mr Johnson in Africa, in Nigeria [was one of the toughest shoots]. There was martial law. We’d come back from night shoots, because we were outside the curfew, and there’d be fires on the roads so we’d have to stop. They’d have these big logs across the road with big mettle spikes and nails sticking through it.
You’d have the window down because there was no air conditioning – it was still hot – and you’d wake up looking down the muzzle of an automatic gun. You didn’t know whether he was going to blow your head off or let you through. So that was a bit scary. I didn’t like the night shoots. And the food was terrible.
[With Mao’s Last Dancer] the China aspect was very difficult I must admit. Not knowing whether we might get thrown out [of the country] at any moment – it was like having a guillotine hanging over your head.
I was doing the grading at EFilm with Trish Carter and I said I haven’t seen this with the sound. So I rang Bruce up and said can I come over to the mix? The scene where the mum and dad are up on stage and most of us burst into tears. I said to Bruce ‘It doesn’t work’ [although] the cut is perfect. I was so upset when I read the script, I had to stop and go make a cup of tea.
He said ‘I know exactly what it is’. So the next time I went back he’d changed the music. What we had at that stage was a Western score, and he’d changed it to the Asian music and all the emotion of his childhood came flooding back with that scene. It was an absolute coup and that’s why he’s a great director.
James & Beresford – A Filmography
Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) – The inspirational true-life story of dancer Li Cunxin takes $15.44 million at the local box office, making it the highest-grossing film of the year and the twelfth biggest local film in history.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2002) – The TV film about the Mexican revolutionary was nominated for several Emmy Awards, including for outstanding cinematography, and won Antonio Banderas a Golden Globe for his performance in the lead role.
Bride of the Wind (2001) – A period drama based on the life of Alma Mahler, the wife of composer Gustav Mahler. It stars Sarah Wynter and Jonathan Pryce.
Double Jeopardy (1999) – The $US70 million Hollywood thriller, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd, goes on to take more than $US178 million at the worldwide box office.
Paradise Road (1997) – The film, about a group of women imprisoned in Sumatra during World War II, wins Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards (including two for Beresford) while James wins an ACS Golden Tripod for his work.
Last Dance (1996) – The film follows the story of Cindy Liggett, played by Sharon Stone, who is on death row some 12 years after she committed a double murder.
Silent Fall (1994) – The mystery film, starring Richard Dreyfuss, is about an autistic boy who is the only witness to a savage double murder.
Rich in Love (1993) – Teenager Lucille Odom is in her last year of high-school when mother leaves, forcing Lucille to take care of her father.
Black Robe (1991) – The film wins several AFI awards and James is named ACS cinematographer of the year for his work on the film. It tells the story of a 17th-century Jesuit priest and his young companion trekking through Quebec to find a mission in the dead of winter.
Mister Johnson (1990) – The tragicomic film, starring Pierce Brosnan and Edward Woodward, takes place in West Africa and is adapted from Joyce Cary’s novel about his experiences in the British civil service.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – The $US7 million film, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, grosses more than $US146 million and wins four Oscars.