The man who shot Taxi Driver comes to town

by Mark Burger

Had he remained a cameraman, Michael Chapman’s place in Hollywood history would already be assured, given that his early films in that capacity included Klute (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975), all acknowledged classics.

Yet this was just the beginning for the industrious and creative Chapman, who made his feature debut as a cinematographer on Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973). For the next 35 years, with a detour into directing, he honed his craft in such acclaimed and popular films as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Waltz (1978) and Raging Bull (1980); The Fugitive (1993), Shoot to Kill (1988), Ghostbusters II (1989), The Lost Boys (1987), Scrooged (1988), Primal Fear (1996) and four with director Philip Kaufman, to name a few.

Having put to rest his Hollywood career following Bridge to Terabithia in 2007, Chapman has brought his considerable skills and knowledge to the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem, joining an illustrious faculty that includes filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, former producer and best-selling author Dale Pollock, noted cinematographer Tom Ackerman (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Beetlejuice) and actor/filmmaker Wayne Crawford (Jake Speed, Valley Girl).

UNCSA School of Filmmaking interim dean Susan Ruskin offered her thoughts: “Michael Chapman uses the camera and light as tools to express a vision for telling a story. He brings his deeply informed sensibility and a remarkable eye to his films and to the classroom.

Our students are honored and awed by his experience, and yet he talks about it as if it were as simple as turning on a light switch.”

In person, Chapman possesses a wonderfully sharp sense of humor. When asked about the difficulties of making Jaws, which have been endlessly detailed over the years, Chapman’s humor comes to the fore.

“It wasn’t easy, but it turned out all right, don’t you think?” He also has an endearing tendency to bury his head in his hands in mock embarrassment, particularly when one of his lesser films comes up in conversation.

But on the other end of the scale are his favorites, and although he says it’s impossible to be entirely objective, “Taxi Driver is the best thing I ever did. It’s the best movie I was ever involved with.”

The saga of deranged New York cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro, in an Oscar-nominated performance) remains as controversial and timely as ever. It was a movie that not only captured the zeitgeist, but prefigured it.

“I think that, 30 years from now, that’s what Marty Scorsese will be remembered for, Robert De Niro will be remembered for, [screenwriter] Paul Schrader will be remembered for…. That, and Raging Bull.”

If Chapman was surprised that Taxi Driver became a hit, he wasn’t surprised that Raging Bull, which starred Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta and is now regarded as perhaps the best film of the 1980s, didn’t.

“It’s a tough film,” he admits, “a dark film.” It was almost considered revolutionary that Scorsese and Chapman would shoot the film in black and white, but, “that was the era Marty and I came from — things were in black and white,” he says. “It worked.”

The film earned eight Oscar nominations (De Niro won Best Actor), including one for Chapman. “I thought I might have a chance [of winning],” he says, figuring his main competition would be Freddie Francis for The Elephant Man. “That was a good movie,” he says.

With a smile, Chapman muses whether academy voters might have confused the two films, both shot in black and white, both with animals in the titles, and neither likely to send audiences out with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.

The surprise winner was Geoffrey Unsworth for Roman Polanski’s screen adaptation of Tess, surprising because its studio, Columbia, had delayed opening the film in the US for over a year, likely due to Polanski’s notoriety and the studio’s own recent internal turmoil, which saw production head David Begelman forced to resign after embezzling funds. In the interim, Unsworth had died.

“Well, his rate didn’t go up,” Chapman quips.

Chapman takes a practical, even pragmatic, approach to the Academy Awards. He doesn’t downplay the prestige of a nomination, nor the impact on both profile and pay rate.

He points to his mentor and friend Gordon Willis, whom he freely admits is one of the great cinematographers of his time, if not all time, whose credits included The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), All the President’s Men (1976) and Annie Hall (1977). All four were nominated for Best Picture (three won), yet Willis wasn’t even nominated for any of them. He was later nominated for Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) and The Godfather Part III (1990), but it wasn’t until 2009 that he was finally presented with an honorary Oscar, which Chapman calls “a pat on the back.”

Chapman’s second nomination came in 1993 for The Fugitive. He was working overseas at the time, didn’t attend the ceremony, didn’t expect to win, and didn’t. (Janusz Kaminski won for Schindler’s List — which, ironically, was shot in black and white.)

Taxi Driver still ranks tops with Chapman for another reason: During the shoot he met production assistant Amy Jones, who would become his wife. She became a writer and director in her own right, and like many aspiring filmmakers got her big break with Roger Corman (so did Scorsese, for that matter).

Although Jones’ directorial debut Slumber Party Massacre (1982) was no critic’s darling, “it still has a following,” says a bemused Chapman.

The success of that film allowed Jones to write and direct the more personal Love Letters (1983), an adult drama that gave Jamie Lee Curtis one of her best early roles.

“That’s a very good little picture,” he says. “I think it’s one of the best things Amy has ever done.”

Although she directed four films, Jones found greater success as a screenwriter with Mystic Pizza (1988), Beethoven (1992), Indecent Proposal (1993) and The Relic (1997). She also received credit with original screenwriter Walter Hill for a lamentable 1994 remake of The Getaway, wherein Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger stepped in for Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.

“That wasn’t Amy’s fault,” Chapman points out, “and I don’t think it was Walter Hill’s, either!” For the many filmmakers he’s worked with, a particular favorite is Philip Kaufman. “He’s much under-appreciated as a director and just a good, good man. I was very sorry that he lost [his wife] Rose, and I haven’t seen the Hemingway film he did for HBO [Hemingway & Gellhorn] but I’m going to, and I’m so glad he’s still working.”

Their first collaboration was The White Dawn (1974), starring Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gossett Jr. as three whalers marooned in the Antarctic who form a tentative bond with the indigenous Inuit people, one that ends with a shattering and tragic misunderstanding. At the time it was made, the parallels to the Vietnam War were unmistakable. “It could be Iraq today,” Chapman observes.

It was a watershed moment for Chapman.

“My wife would say it’s because I’m a sucker for adventure, and I suppose that’s true.”

Despite the arduous location and despite Warren Oates — “who was… a character, let’s put it that way” — Chapman recalls thinking to himself “This is absolutely what I was meant to do with my life.”

Chapman and Kaufman’s next film was the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Unlike the original film, which was set in Smalltown, USA, this version saw the alien threat infect San Francisco. That so lively and diverse a city would become emotionless and malevolent “made it the perfect place for it,” Chapman says.

“That was fun. Donald Sutherland’s one of the good guys, and Leonard Nimoy — he’s another good guy.” It was also one of the few times that Chapman suspected they a hit on their hands. “You never can tell, but that one, yeah… we had a good feeling.”

On the DVD commentary, director Kaufman relates that the film was financed by United Artists, then owned by Transamerica, whose corporate headquarters were in San Francisco. The unmistakable sight of the Transamerica Building is seen throughout the film, jokingly referred to as “Pod Central” by cast and crew.

“Actually, they [the executives] didn’t mind,” Chapman smiles. “They liked what they were seeing. They liked what we were doing. They thought it was funny. So did we.”

Chapman and Kaufman reunited immediately thereafter for the 1979 adaptation of The Wanderers, which the studio, Orion, had no idea how to promote or release. Like The White Dawn, it found its admirers after the fact. “The Wanderers is marvelous,” Chapman says. “That was a lot of fun to do.”

Chapman and Kaufman’s final collaboration was Rising Sun (1993), an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestseller, but Chapman might well have done Kaufman’s 1983 adaptation of The Right Stuff had he not been making his own transition to directing. “Everybody should direct one movie to get it out of their system,” he says. “I did three.”

The first was All the Right Moves (1983), which gave Tom Cruise his first dramatic lead as a high school football star in an economically depressed Pennsylvania steel town. In Hollywood parlance, the film “did what it was supposed to do” — it was a financial and critical success, and boosted its young star’s career. In a roundabout way, it also boosted the career of co-star Craig T. Nelson (as Cruise’s hard-boiled coach). Not long after the film made its network premiere (to good ratings) on ABC, Nelson starred on the longrunning ABC sitcom “Coach,” for which he won an Emmy Award and in which he played a college football coach, this time for laughs.

“Yeah, maybe there’s a connection there… pretty sure there might be,” Chapman smiles. “He’s wonderful in the film.”

Chapman believes his first was his best.

“I’m pretty proud of it. It’s the film I set out to make in a lot of ways.”

If All the Right Moves had all the right moves, Chapman’s next directorial effort didn’t: The Clan of the Cave Bears (1986), an adaptation of the bestselling novel starring Daryl Hannah as a prehistoric woman and scripted by John Sayles. “That,” he sighs, “was a mistake.”

His third and final effort was “The Annihilator,” a TV pilot for an NBC series about a lone reporter (played by Mark Lindsay Chapman) who uncovers an insidious alien invasion. “It was there, it was a job, it was money,” he says.

Chapman has mostly enjoyed good relationships with directors, some of whom (Scorsese, Kaufman, Ivan Reitman and Carl Reiner) he’s worked with more than once.

Reiner’s 1982 comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid provided Chapman with the formidable, black-and-white challenge of matching Steve Martin with clips from classic thrillers featuring such legends as James Cagney, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and more. Audiences were expecting Steve Martin in “wild-and-crazyguy” mode, not a witty valentine to Hollywood film noir.

“A lot of the audience were young kids and they didn’t get it,” Chapman recalls. In a sense, “it was too good,” but its following too has grown over the years. The next year, Chapman reunited with Martin and Reiner on The Man With Two Brains which, as the title indicates, was wilder and crazier.

“Carl Reiner is, without a doubt, one of the funniest, brightest men I’ve ever met.”

Chapman also worked with several noteworthy screenwriters when they were beginning their directorial careers, including Robert Towne (Personal Best), Paul Schrader (Hardcore) and James Toback (Fingers).

“I think they’re all better writers than directors but they’re all very good writers,” says Chapman. “Robert Towne writes like an angel. To think, he did The Last Detail, Chinatown and Shampoo one right after the other. Gold, every one of them.” Towne was Oscar-nominated for all three and won for Chinatown.

Later in his career, Chapman’s experience became a lucrative commodity. Major studios would hire young, relatively inexperienced filmmakers who had made their mark on music videos or independent features but were new to the studio game. Enter a veteran cinematographer who had that experience.

“It’s never easy,” he says. In some cases, he simply lent a steady, supportive hand. In others, it was his job to “pick up the pieces.”

One of the latter examples (no names, please) was a murky serial-killer thriller released in 2000. Not only did the studio refuse to pre-screen it for critics — this critic gave it “no stars” in his review, incidentally — but one of the leading actors was vocal in his disdain for the end result (not undeservedly, Chapman notes). Yet it still managed to be the top-grossing film in its opening week.

Chapman buries his face in his hands. “See what I mean? You never can tell.”

Other films that he “godfathered” turned out more successfully. “That’s nice,” he says, but he’s unlikely to revisit them. “Probably not.”

In fact, he tends not to watch his films. “By and large, no,” he says. “If they’re good, especially no! I’ll sit there and think, ‘I should have put the camera over there,’ or, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ I second-guess myself.”

He recalls one instance when he was directing a film and agonizing over the cinematography. That it wasn’t his specific responsibility only compounded his frustration. He didn’t need to worry about it, yet couldn’t help doing so.

Chapman can also been seen in several of the films he’s worked on, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Last Detail (in which he’s billed as “taxi driver”!), Quick Change, Rising Sun and Shoot to Kill, in which he plays a panic-stricken bank manager opposite FBI agent Sidney Poitier, whom Chapman says “is just what you’d expect: a class act.”

Not only does it give him a perspective from in front of the camera, but being a member of the Screen Actors Guild is not without its benefits, either.

Chapman admits that filmmaking “has radically changed. The old way has disappeared.”

Although many of his later films (Evolution, Space Jam, Bridge to Terabithia) had extensive CGI visual effects, he never shot on digital film. “No one ever asked me,” he shrugs. “I would have liked to. There are inherent qualities to digital filmmaking. But I only ever shot film.”

Chapman appeared in the recent documentary Side by Side as one of many filmmakers (including Scorsese, George Lucas, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, etc.) who discuss and debate the rise to prevalence of digital filmmaking and digital projection. Is traditional film dead and gone? Chapman’s not sure, although he jokes, “Fifty years from now, I don’t think I’ll care.”

Chapman talks the past and teaches the past, but he doesn’t necessarily live there.

“I was in the right place at the right time several times,” he says. “I was in the racket a long, long time.”

Is there ever an urge to return to the business of show?

“Nah,” he says with a casual wave, “I don’t have the patience for it. I don’t have the stamina for it. I had my turn. Let’s see what the young people can do. It’s their turn.”

When it comes to those who inspired him as a young filmgoer, Chapman immediately ups his coolness quotient by citing not one, but two American masters: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. To him, that’s real movie magic — and he’s not joking.

“They were unique,” he says. “They way they moved, the rhythm they had. I think they were brilliant. For me, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is an important picture. I’ll watch it and I’m laughing like a kid again. It never fails. I even have a soft spot for Abbott and Costello Go to Mars — and they don’t even go to Mars, they go to Venus!” Looking back on his life in film, “I did what I was paid to do — operate in a big, vulgar, big, popular art form,” he says with a smile. “I was blessed to be a part of it. It was the great art form of the 20th century. Whether it’s the great art form of the 21st century, I don’t know. We’ll see.”