Filming at the Edge of the World: An Interview With Acclaimed Cinematographer Chris Menges

I recently had the chance to speak with Chris Menges about his newest project, "Waiting for the Barbarians." Menges’ insights into the art (and underlying politics) of filmmaking are a must-read for anyone looking to tell stories with film. 

Despite COVID’s chilling effect on cinema, Barbarians is receiving high praise:

Unflinchingly and sadistically violent, Guerra's film packs all the widescreen beauty of David Lean's epics... but with unbearable sadism at its core, as order breaks inexorably down. - Andrew Collins, Radio Times

'Waiting for the Barbarians' steadily accrues a grave, violent anger over encroaching systems of oppression that proves infectiously troubling and enraging... - Guy Lodge, Variety

Helping New Directors: Listening

Over his career, Menges has worked with both new and very experienced directors. Having won two Academy Awards (as well as countless other honors), I was curious whether there was anything he did to help novice directors on set. 

Being a good DP [Director of Photography] is about listening.

Menges explained that being a good DP is about listening. As a DP, you shouldn’t be overly concerned with being a technician. Those skills should be second nature. Instead, you should be driven by vision and a knack for getting on the same page as your director to build vision together. 

'The Raid on Tibet': Imperialism and Filmmaking

Having worked on so many esteemed films, including "Kes," "The Killing Fields," "The Mission," "The Boxer," and "The Reader," I wanted to know which projects best prepared him for his work on "Barbarians."

Instead of referencing his well-known narrative films, Menges started to relay stories about his work with documentarian Adrian Cowell and journalist George Patterson in the Himalaya. Cowell, Patterson, and Menges connected with Tibetan guerillas who were fighting the occupying Chinese forces. After crossing the Himalaya at 20,000 feet, Menges filmed the guerillas attacking a Chinese convoy. The CIA, who had been involved in supporting the guerillas but had tried to mute the open fighting, were furious that the filmmakers had succeeded in filming combat. Rumor has it that, given the rising shadow of China on the international stage, the local CIA station ordered the footage be secured at any cost. Thankfully, the footage was smuggled out and was used as part of the documentary: "Raid Into Tibet."

Menges explained that he never forgot the feeling of being at the edge of the world amongst people fighting against those threatening to dominate. This Derridean struggle between the center and the edge is the chief subject of "Barbarians."

Why Barbarians?

As an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, I wanted to know what differentiates projects for Menges, what attracts him to work on certain films. Not to put too fine a point on it: at 80, Menges could rest on his laurels, but he doesn’t.

Without skipping a beat, Menges told me that the underlying political or social commentary of any prospective project has always been important to his decisions. In this case, Barbarians is a searing indictment of colonial or imperial power. Given the power imbalances that currently exist around the world, Menges is adamant that we need to be passionate about this struggle. 

The Influence of Joseph Conrad

I’m a huge fan of both Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s film adaptation, "Apocalypse Now." While watching "Barbarians," it dawned on me that they might just be the opposite sides of the same coin. When I asked Menges about this, he explained that Conrad’s work was a huge influence on the film. Instead of Sheen’s assassin sailing down a river of madness, however, it seems that Mark Rylance’s Magistrate struggles to swim upriver against the terror of racial colonialism. Unlike Coppola’s DP, Storaro, who pushed darkness into the edges of every frame, Menges finds a way to help light seep into the darkness. I’m confident that these two films would make a fascinating double feature.

The Toughest Issues on Set

Given that "Barbarians" was shot in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, I wanted to know if Menges encountered any technical or logistical issues. 

Menges responded generally, explaining that:

It’s a funny thing being a DP. First, you may have the image in your head, but you have to be smart enough to pull it together. A film project is a thousand problems that you have to deal with. Every film is a competition between vision, schedule, and logistics... [Second], a film is always a collaboration of many people. 

Specifically, in the case of "Barbarians," Menges told me that the 37-day shooting schedule meant that the entire team had to be diligent. Typical understatement.

In terms of the actual shooting, Menges explained that there was no track around the fort where the film was shot. For Menges, this meant that it was hard to bring light to bear. Instead of using big banks of artificial light, he had to use much smaller lights, often resorting to candles. 

In a film full of stark landscapes and tight prison quarters, I was curious what the hardest shot of the film was for Menges. Menges felt that he was most challenged in the scene where the Magistrate tries to explain to the Barbarian girl what he wants. Menges expressed admiration for Rylance’s acting, explaining that Rylance was so good, that there was so much beauty in his expression and voice, that he felt an incredible amount of pressure to translate such an agonizing moment into something readable by the audience. 

For the most part, the film is shot with a very stable camera. However, there are certain moments mid-film where the camera starts to move about. This change creates a sense of dynamism, perhaps even a feeling that the situation is spinning out of control. 

Likewise, about mid-film, the power dynamic between Rylance and Johnny Depp, the interloper, changes dramatically. Despite both characters inhabiting the same building before and after the shift, the interiors feel different; they feel more confined, more claustrophobic.

I asked Menges about these two shifts in technique. He seemed pleased that his work translated the way he wanted it to. He told me that he and Crispian Sallis, the AD, worked hard to change the mood of the film around the mid-film hairpin. 

How To See the World Like Menges

Wrapping up the interview, I asked Menges if he had any tips for filmmakers looking to learn from his style. Always humble, Menges explained that he’s been fortunate enough in his career to film in real locations.

The photography is enriched, it is a living reality.

Menges advised that filmmakers should spend time imagining how the energy of the sun might enter a space. In the case of "Barbarians," the power of the sun outside contrasting with the diminished sunlight in the prison cell was critical to telling the story of colonial power. 

He suggested that filmmakers must always be aware of the light:

Think of green grass or blue sky, they give off unique reflections. 

A good filmmaker, according to Menges, will always be trying to recreate that.

Films can often be taken for granted as finished, tautological product. But each step of the way is a choice, each splash of light, each color reflection, each shadow: they are all choices. Investing the time and energy into making those choices is what separates great filmmakers.

As we closed out our conversation Menges was adamant that

Films are something you fight for.

All images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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Great article!
What a privilege to be able to speak with this genius!

Thanks Ted.
I certainly felt lucky getting 20 minutes of Menges time all to myself. He was incredibly humble and had so much to share!