John Seale talks retiring with ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’

John Seale on the set of 'Three Thousand Years of Longing'.

In the second half of this two-part interview, cinematographer John Seale speaks to Jackie Keast about his time in Hollywood, his shooting style and retiring with George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing.

We’re speaking by virtue of the fact that the National Film and Sound Archive is hosting an Australians and Hollywood exhibition. How did you transition onto working on Hollywood films; is it correct that you followed Peter Weir over for Witness?

I worked with Peter Weir on a TV series called Luke’s Kingdom; I was camera operator. When Peter came to do Picnic at Hanging Rock, I believe he said to Russell Boyd, “Would John Seale be a candidate for operating for you, because he did Luke’s Kingdom for me?” I had also done second unit on Man From Hong Kong for Russell. So they came to an agreement and I went onto Picnic at Hanging Rock.

We then talked in those early days about doing the film Gallipoli, but then I went off lighting and then Gallipoli didn’t come up until a couple of years later. I was still asked to operate on it for Russell; I’d promised it way back. Even though I’d photographed a couple of movies, a couple that did very well, I preferred to go back. I loved working with those guys, and I wasn’t going to miss out. Somebody said to me, “They won’t believe that you’re a lighting cameraman if you go back to operating”. I said, “Look, I’m only going to live once. That film will only be made once, and I’m on it.” It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it’s a film that I hold in very high regard. I’m so glad I went back to do it.

It was a short time later that Peter was asked to go to America to do, in the first instance, Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford, but that fell apart financially and we bailed out of Central America, came back to Australia. I think it was only
six or eight weeks later that Peter was offered Witness and he rang and said: “Look, I’ve got another movie in America, and it’ll happen very quickly. Could you do it?” I cancelled some commercials that I had and went over to America and shot Witness. We all got nominated [for Oscars]. As they say over there, once you’re nominated, you never have to worry about work again.

What was that experience like, going over to The States and then being on set with people like Harrison Ford?

Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. It’s that moment: You meet Indiana Jones.

I found it not only with Harrison in front of the camera, but also an American crew working a slightly different system to what we worked – all of that combined to wobble me a bit, about whether I was doing it all correctly. But Peter straightened me out. He realised, being very astute, that I was probably feeling a little bit out of my depth because it was America. He turned around, and in one line said: “Johnny, this is an Australian film. It just has a lot of people on it with a funny accent”. I thought “Done.” I’ve never had a problem since. That solved it for me and away we went. It then opened the door to America in general.

You continued to work with Peter. Tell me about the relationship that you had with him.

I did six films with Peter, three as a camera operator for Russell Boyd and three in America as director of photography and operator when I was allowed to; the unions were pretty tough over there. It was a most enjoyable relationship. I hope I was able to help Peter in the making of the films. Certainly, I enjoyed them thoroughly and we got on. Later my availability became awkward and schedules overlapped, which happened a lot in the industry. That separated us for a bit. But otherwise, when you watch a good director work with good actors to make a good film, by gosh, that’s the most enjoyable thing that you can have.

You had a similar long-term relationship with Anthony Minghella and now George Miller. In terms of the director-DOP relationship, what do you look for?

I’ve often felt over the years that a cameraman should only do three films with a director because you could fall into a rut. I have read quotes from cameramen who say, “Oh, I know what he wants, I know what she wants, and I just get in there and do it, and they’re happy”. I think that’s not right. Every film is different. It’s got different characters, people, geography, drama, emotional whatnot. Every film should be treated completely differently than any other. Even a repeat, it should be somehow different. Setting into a rut is wrong. I was always wary of that.

But the directors that I did do three films with, they approached them as different films. So that helped me defy this rut system. I enjoyed that thoroughly, that there was a new challenge, even though it was a same director.

You’re well known for using multiple cameras. How did you start with that practice?

I can remember the exact moment. It was on Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. I realised that Tom and Dustin were ad libbing and it was making a better film for it. I went to Barry [Levinson] and said “We should be cross-shooting this on two cameras.” He looked up at me and he kind of went “Duh. Yes, the logic. But you can’t do it because Hollywood doesn’t do two cameras, certainly doesn’t cross shoot”. I said, “Give me three minutes and I’ll have a camera set up.”

I got in a lot of trouble in America with it, as usual, because they said I was shooting TV for cinema and they didn’t like that. I was using zoom lenses and they didn’t like that; they liked prime lenses. I was using hydraulic heads instead of gear heads, and they didn’t like that. I got into a lot of trouble with my style of shooting, and I didn’t care.
I thought, “No, I think it’s making a better film.”

We had another scene to do in the afternoon with Tom and Dustin, and we cross shot. I thought, “This is great.” The boys were ad libbing, they loved it. The editor loved it. Continuity loved it. It was real time, and I just kept shooting multiple cameras then for the rest of my life.

George Miller tempted you out of retirement in 2015 for Mad Max Fury Road. How?

Well, I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t truly retired. I was thinking heavily about it. I had finished The Tourist. As much as I loved working with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, I wasn’t overly enamoured with the director, and I wasn’t happy with that, in a way, being my last film. I was thinking heavily of not working again. I did actually go nearly six or seven years before Doug Mitchell from Kennedy Miller Mitchell rang and said, “Dean [Semler]’s amicably had to leave the production. Would you be interested?”

I’d worked with George before on Lorenzo’s Oil. I loved his cinematic mind and the challenges he threw. I knew that Fury Road would be an iconic film. It was lovely and I really did finish on that one. I now was fully retired.

But then George talked on during Fury Road of doing a little ensemble film before the next Mad Max. Of course, I was fired up and I said, “Give me a ring, George. We’ll have lunch. You’ll pay for it.” I thought he’d do it within two years, but something like seven years later, he rang and said, we’re getting going on Three Thousand Years of Longing. I had promised it. As I’ve said, George has got an extremely fertile mind. I knew that whatever it was would be very interesting.

I’m really pleased that I finished up on Three Thousand Years of Longing. It’ll be a very interesting film for people to see, analyse and critique. It was beautiful to work with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba together. If you’re interested in working with actors, those two are just amazing. It’s a lovely, quiet little film. It’s got nothing to do with a man called Max at all. It’ll be fascinating.

You didn’t want to shoot Furiosa? 

I had a long think about it. The fact that I’ve done 60 odd films and spent 55 years to helping to make them, I honestly feel it’s enough at this stage. Tempting, seriously tempting as it is, I decided long before it got into pre- production that no, I would make Three Thousand Years of Longing the last one.

Are you passionate about the next generation? Your kids are in the industry as well.

It’s very difficult because I can’t talk now as I used to about photography on film. It’s gone. And I can’t talk about the digital revolution because I really don’t know enough about it, even though I’ve done two films. I haven’t bothered to sink into the depths of it because I’m not going to continue in it. [I knew] enough to make George’s film and to know that I could rely on visual effects and the colourist to get what we wanted. I hope I gave them a good digital negative to work on.

So I can’t lecture digital. All I can lecture at this stage, I feel, is the attitude of the cameraman towards the making of the film. It’s an attitude that takes in your approach to actors, your approach to directors, continuity, to your camera people and the camera to the actors, about giving them as much space as possible, things like that. You’ve got to give them all their own air space. You’re not the master of that space.

Last question, and it’s very broad. But now being properly retired, looking back, what stands out to you as the highlights of your career?

A lot of people ask, “What was your favourite film?” I used to, before the retirement situation, be able to say, “Well, the next one.” I feel you put so much thought and time into every film that you hoped it was going to be the best film ever made. I tell students “You’ve got to feel this is the best film that’s ever made and you’re there to help”.

When I look at all the films and all wonderful actors and directors, it’s very difficult to say there’s any particular film that’s the best one or any particular moment. There are so many brilliant moments in helping to make a film. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them, little moments. I just hope over the years that people have enjoyed those films as much as I think we all enjoyed helping to make them.

Winning the Oscar?

Well, I thought there was other films that were better done than The English Patient. I hate to say it, but I feel that sometimes the Oscars goes to the film that is heart-warming. That was a massively successful love story that I happened to maybe photograph comparatively well; I thought my vote might have been helped by the fact that the film was terrific.

There’s so many films that I’ve voted for over the years that have never been a box office film, but they’re so beautifully shot, perfectly shot for that script, that never got anywhere near being Oscar nominated or making the top five or whatever. I’m very sad for that because they’re beautifully painted, beautifully done. I think the photography should suit the film, not just be beautifully photographed, because life is not beautiful all the time. Life’s raw and it has a reality to it. I feel it’s the man who puts that reality into a film who always gets my vote.

But it was a great comment on a great crew, a great director and a great cast. I thought it was a lovely comment by the industry. 

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was originally published in IF Magazine Feb-March #204. Subscribe to the magazine here.