Stephen H. Burum — The American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award winner earned an Oscar nomination for lensing his longtime collaborator Brian De Palma’s 1992 drama. Hoffa – EnergaCameraImage will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday at the closing ceremony of the Cinematography Fest in Toruń, Poland. In addition HoffaBarum’s credits include Untouchables, War of the Roses, St. Elmo’s Fire and 1996 Operation Impossible.
congratulations How does it feel to receive the EnergaCamerimage Lifetime Achievement Award?
The reason I accepted it was because I thought cinematographers needed promotion, especially with all the new digital stuff. [on-set] Monitors. While everyone has access to the image, people need to remember who is really in control. I’m not an awards person, but if I can use an award to raise the profile of the film and the cinematographer, that’s really interesting to me.
In addition to overseeing new productions, are you involved when your films are restored or remastered?
It depends. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. Sometimes I don’t even know when it’s happening, which is crazy because it doesn’t cost them anything to go out there and do it. What you don’t want to hear before you go into transfer is, ‘Okay, Steve, we’ve evened it out for you.’ And so you come to the scene where the time was, a beautiful orange sunset, and it’s all kind of flat [and not as intended].
[Cinematographers] We’re here to help you and we’ll probably save you money.
Early in your career, you shot the second unit Apocalypse now. What is most memorable?
I was originally brought in because I didn’t have enough footage of the helicopter attack. I did a lot of inserts and then they didn’t have the big structures, so I had to do all the structures. Well, I was in the army and shooting training films, and I shot a training film about helicopter attacks. So I technically knew how the army formed structures. There is a whole series of structures. It depends on what type of attack you are doing. So from that, I found a way to organize the helicopters. We all go out and we do what I call an assembly. We all get up in the air and we fly straight until everyone is in position. And then we’ll turn the right arm and that’s the rehearsal leg, so we’ll rehearse and make sure it’s right. Then we do another assembly leg and then we do a shooting leg and we shoot multiple helicopters in this great big square formation.
You have had very successful collaborations with several directors, including Brian De Palma. What makes for a successful collaboration with a director?
You have to remember, it’s never about you. It’s always about the image.
[Additionally] It’s important that you always back up the director and don’t go behind their back. Producers try to make you do that. Actors try to make you do that and you should have no part of it and shut it down immediately when it happens, because it sows conflict and it turns the picture.
So how did you and Brian work?
We have a very unusual working relationship. We never talked much. Neither of us are talkers. Typically in a movie he shows me what to do. He was showing me the platform and he said ‘How long?’ And I say ’45 minutes’. And about half an hour later when I put it all together he comes back and I tell him, I changed this and I changed that. And they were going ‘well’. If he didn’t like it, he would go ‘don’t do this’. It was a very pyramid type thing; We will make it work. And it was a very rare interaction.
When I went for the first interview, he said, ‘Let me tell you what I don’t like about cameramen.’ And I said, ‘Well, let me tell you that I don’t like the director.’ I said, ‘I don’t like directors who don’t direct. I am not getting enough money to do my work and director’s work.’ And he looks at me, he goes, ‘Good, you’re hired,’ and walks out the door. That was our first meeting.
He is a very calm person. A very intelligent person. Really, really subtle. My favorite thing with him, we used to do The untouchables (1987) and the Capone scenes with Bobby (DeNiro playing Al Capone). They do versions because Brian wanted a different kind of scene with Capone to balance the picture. So we do a version where they do a direct version. They do one where Capone yells and screams and one where he’s quiet. And so they have this great conversation where you have Brian on one side, Bobby on the other. It was great to see them.
Can you tell us about filming the scene? The untouchables On the steps of the railway station?
Originally in the script, the accountant gets on the train and the train takes off and the untouchables get into serial cars and chase the train until they finally stop the train. We had a good location for this and the whole fight was on the train. The train was stopped, people shot through the windows and all that stuff was going on. But Paramount is too expensive to do this, so it needs to be replaced.
The first idea Brian had was to do it on the front steps of the hospital [where in the story Eliot Ness’ wife had just had a child]. Brian always likes areas where actors have trouble moving around, because it slows down the action. So you can build suspense. But they couldn’t find it [the right location].
And at the train station, we have big steps. It was difficult for him to go up and down the stairs. And this is a limited area and there is nowhere to escape. So you have two aspects to yourself, it’s physically difficult, and you’re open, you’re just stuck. You have to slug it out. Then they had a baby carriage and a baby to help reverse the action, because it reflected the father. He just became a new father. And so they went to the child.
What do you think about cinematography education?
There are not enough people who are skilled in teaching cinematography. At ASC, we strive to help people who teach cinematography in colleges and high schools. We send out free magazines and we invite them to seminars and things like that.
ASC has always been about education. … so the skill set doesn’t die. And always the great thing with ASC is if you don’t know how to do something, you’re in a club, you go to an expert. Everyone was very good at sharing information. Most people I knew at ASC were happy to share because it was the only way to get through [knowledge].
My hope is that universities will reach out to ASC and allow ASC to contribute to the education process.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.