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Film proves a passport to another world

The pull of images watched in the dark pulled one director of photography into the industry. He tells THEO PANAYIDES how it can be compared to life in the circus


I imagine Phil Meheux on a film set. He’s marshalling his camera crew. He’s telling them to put a light here and a light there. He’s trying to be kind when somebody makes a mistake, not because he tolerates mistakes (he hates them, especially his own) but because “everybody needs to be encouraged” when making a movie. He’s dealing with everyday problems, and finding practical solutions. “The actor can’t stop in front of the camera when he’s driving a car,” he offers by way of illustration. “How do we get around that? What we do is put a big log in front of [the car], so he can’t go over it!… It’s like, if you can’t reach the top shelf you get a ladder. So it’s very practical in that sense, filmmaking.”

In between, I imagine him striding round the set, calling out to people as he passes, having a laugh and a bit of a banter. “What do you miss most about making films?” I ask (he’s now, he admits, semi-retired, or at least he’ll be 76 in September and hasn’t shot a feature in two years) – and he instantly replies: “The camaraderie”. Casino Royale, for instance (one of two James Bond films he made as director of photography, the other being GoldenEye) was a 118-day shoot, five- and six-day weeks; when the weekend came around, and you found yourself in Venice or some other glamorous location, you’d obviously meet up for lunch with the rest of the crew – and so “it becomes a family. And at the end of the movie, you’re still in touch. Send emails to each other, Christmas cards, whatever. So that was the real social driving force, shooting a movie.”

Phil is a down-to-earth person (I remark more than once on how calm and methodical he seems), but I get the sense he’d make a good drinking buddy. He’s tall and rather jug-eared, with a long face that gets quite expressive as we talk, goggling and grimacing when he’s telling a story. At one point, he springs to the defence of kids’ films, having made a couple himself: “[The studios] make more money from kids’ films than they do out of any other films, so why do people badmouth them?” – and suddenly he throws his head back in the style of the put-upon luvvie, hand to his forehead. “‘Because it’s not artistic! It’s not dramatic! It’s not Shakespeah!’,” he intones, with a dead-on imitation of a cut-glass accent.

Still, though: isn’t he bothered by the lack of kudos? Isn’t it slightly embarrassing when a colleague talks of some Bafta-winning film and Phil responds with ‘I was director of photography on The Smurfs and Beverly Hills Chihuahua’? “I find that people do denigrate children’s films and comedy films, yes,” he replies dryly – but clearly feels no need to apologise for his own involvement. For one thing, he’s made all kinds of movies; his very first feature, Black Joy in 1977, played in competition at the Cannes film festival. For another, as already mentioned, he’s a practical man – and the practical challenges involved in something like The Smurfs are considerable, having to gauge lighting and camera movement for objects which aren’t really there (the Smurfs, being animated, are added later). If the camera moves with them, how fast should it go? If they climb up on something, how fast are they climbing? Phil and his crew made little Smurf-sized models to get an idea, and of course technology helped: they now have “this gizmo” on Hollywood cartoons “which you put where the character is and it records, 360 degrees, all the light and where it is. And you put that into a computer, and the computer then works out how the animated character should look, to match the existing light”.

All this talk of computers brings up an awkward truth about the film business, viz. that it’s now very different to when he started out five decades ago. At one point I ask if he wishes he’d been born later (to take advantage of film schools, which didn’t exist when he was young), but he shakes his head firmly: “No, I wish I’d been born earlier!”. The 1940s and 50s were the heyday of filmmaking – Phil is a bit of a nostalgist, with an interest in film history and loads of books on classic Hollywood – before it got diluted first by television and now, inexorably, by digital cameras. “My job has a lot less respect now,” he admits wistfully. “Because when I was doing it, in the beginning, I was a magician”. Cameras were big unwieldy things, film (never video) was fragile, liable to be underexposed or destroyed altogether by unskilled hands. There were no monitors, so “you’d light something and people couldn’t see what you were doing” – then they watched the footage next morning and oohed and aahed, awestruck by what he’d created. It’s different now; everyone sees the shot before it’s shot and a digital camera will decide the exposure itself, “you can’t really go wrong. So there’s no magic left there now, in the visuals.”

‘Magic’ is an overused word, a clichéd Disney word. It’s a little bit trite to suggest that ‘the magic of the movies’ was what drew Phil Meheux to his chosen profession (the name, by the way, is Belgian, his Huguenot ancestors having moved to Britain in the 16th century). Yet there was something magical in those pre-TV days, albeit just in how remote and exotic that mostly black-and-white world appeared on the cinema screen; as a child, “I was quite a shy person, and I loved the idea of sitting in the dark – and if you go back into the beginnings of a lot of filmmakers they all say the same thing, that they just loved sitting there watching the images”. Phil’s family were solidly working-class: his dad was a driver for the British Admiralty, his mum worked as a shop assistant for extra money. “I wasn’t introduced to a lot of things that I had to discover for myself, like art and painting and music”. The notion of film as artistic endeavour would’ve been alien to 10-year-old Phil. Yet he also recalls watching a newsreel at the cinema that opened with a cameraman standing on the roof of a hatchback car – “and I thought, ‘Oooh, I’d like to be that man who stands on that car’. It really was as simple as that”.

Those two conflicting, or just complementary, impulses seem to have stayed with him throughout his career. On the one hand, a simple craving for the work itself, being ‘the man who stands on that car’. On the other, an attraction to something stranger and more mysterious, the ineffable pull of images watched in the dark.

On the one hand, his path into the industry was workmanlike. He left school at 16, took a job in the sales department of MGM, left for a job as projectionist in a preview theatre where he met some kindred spirits and made a few short films with his new friends. The films were amateur and mostly half-finished – but they helped him join a BBC training scheme as assistant cameraman, from where he slowly worked his way to director of photography. In a sense, it was just a job. “I didn’t really look at film as art,” he admits. “I just knew it was something I wanted to do, and something I had an aptitude for”. In another sense, however, it was much more than that: a passport to another world, the world of those glittering images.

Being in movies (especially then, when movies were precious and elaborate and couldn’t just be made by any kid with an iPhone) meant being part of a loosely-defined yet distinct community, a group of people – a group of artists, in fact – who were more nomadic, more free-spirited, sometimes more disreputable. I assume you meet all kinds in the film business? “Oh yes, you must mean crooks, cheats, liars, pimps, prostitutes and ballroom dancers!” replies Phil delightedly, with the air of a long-standing in-joke. “Yeah, it’s a huckster outfit,” he adds with some relish. “I mean, we’re like a travelling circus – and there’s always a snake-oil salesman somewhere in the mix. But below that, if you go to a circus, all the performers are hard-working, they train very hard, they care about how they perform.”

His own professionalism was in that vein, the stubborn work ethic of the tightrope walker who goes out on his tightrope every night, whatever the circumstances. He’s been on easy shoots where all went swimmingly and gruelling shoots where they worked for 24 hours at a stretch. On The Mask of Zorro, a whole day’s footage got scratched in the lab. On its sequel, The Legend of Zorro, a complicated party scene – Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones arguing while dancing – took three days to work out. He takes pride in being straightforward, an honest man among the crooks, cheats and snake-oil salesmen: “All my life I’ve hated ever letting somebody down, or making a mistake”.

There were sacrifices too, though it didn’t always seem that way. He never got tired of the hassle of film shoots, or the constant travel – “It’s always appealed, because that’s what I always wanted to do” – but it’s also true that he never married, or had children. “That’s partly to do with me, it’s not really the business’ fault,” muses Phil – but he also admits that “all the marriages I know in the business do stumble. And sometimes they fall apart, a lot”. It’s not like he’s been alone all his life (he’s now with a partner, living right in the centre of London), and maybe he did occasionally think about starting a family; “But you have to be into family, and bring your family up. All I wanted to do was make films.”

Friendships suffered too. There are only so many times that friends will invite you to dinner, only to be told you’ll be out of town on a film shoot, before they stop calling. Almost all his friends are from the film industry, and his life (even now, in semi-retirement) seems to revolve around that. He’ll meet up with old cameramen from his BBC days and is also on the board of the BSC, the British Society of Cinematographers, having served as its president for four years. He also gives seminars, shoots the occasional short film for free, and was here in Cyprus as president of the jury for Cyprus Film Days. What about hobbies? “That’s an odd point with me, because I don’t really have any. I enjoy cooking, which I’ve started to do recently” – though even that has a bit of a hidden agenda, being a way to keep his brain occupied and stave off the retirement blues he’s seen in fellow filmmakers. Cooking is a lot like making movies, he opines, being a case of getting disparate ingredients to work in harmony and also a task where planning is everything. “The creativity of filmmaking is about 10 per cent. The rest of it is just hard slog and pre-planning, and making sure you’ve covered every base.”

Spoken like a practical person, surely more technician than pretentious artist – though also more ‘magician’ than mere technician, intoxicated by the power of light to create those mysterious images you watch in the dark. What about his own personal dark side? Any vices? “I’m not going to tell you about some of my personal vices!” sputters Phil with a laugh. He enjoys a drink – “I’m a bit of a whisky aficionado” – but never during the day, not since the time in his younger days when he drank too much at lunch and fell asleep while operating the camera. (He really does hate making mistakes.) Mostly, however, he considers vices to be something unusual or unnatural, which is why he can honestly say he has no vices: “You know, I get cross if the train isn’t on time. I get cross at shop assistants who don’t know what they’re doing. But those are not vices. That’s just everyday life.”

I imagine Phil Meheux on the set of some $100 million blockbuster, giving that same unremarkable shrug as the usual circus unfolds around him. ‘That’s just everyday life,’ he tells his assistants, then turns his attention to the latest everyday problem to be solved. Did he ever have a really bad shoot during his 50-year career? Or at least a very bad day, or a very bad scene that refused to come together? He looks at me with a bright, slightly quizzical expression: “I don’t know really. I mean, I find it all quite – invigorating”. I guess work doesn’t have to be Shakespeah.

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