Stephen Goldblatt ASC BSC was born in South Africa, raised in England and currently lives in Mexico. At the age of 18 he started working as a photojournalist for the London LIFE magazine as part of the Sunday Times. He went on to work at London Look as Chief Photographer and Picture Editor. He discovered his interest in film while working on a special assignment for Lion Films at Shepperton Studios. It was this interest that motivated him to attend the RCA, graduating with an MA Film and Television in 1970.
He began his film career as a cameraman for documentaries and commercials. From 1972 to 1975, he worked shooting TV commercials for directors such as Tony Scott, Howard Guard, Brian Gibson and many others in the UK, USA and Europe. He made the transition to feature films in the mid-80s, quickly acquiring work with directors Tony Scott, Francis Coppola and Richard Donner. His work as a cinematographer includes Angels in America, Batman Forever and The Help, among many more. He counts two Academy Award nominations and three Emmy nominations among his accolades. In 2007 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the CamerImage Festival, the world’s preeminent cinematography festival.
You started off as a still photographer. What was the thing/moment that made you want to move over into film and television?
As an art form and entertainment, I lived for film in the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead from the age of 14 or so, and when I came into contact with real film makers in Shepperton and Pinewood Studios I knew that that was how I wanted to spend my life.
You were working whilst studying at the RCA. How did you balance the two?
I didn’t balance it all! I was learning how to shoot movies (I hoped) at the RCA film school whilst working on assignments in London and Germany and sometimes in Africa. I also had a full slate in our Studio on Pimlico Road. I didn’t sleep much at all but that’s what you should do when you are in your 20s. And 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s... I’m slowing down now and enjoying it.
During your time at the RCA many of your classmates also went on to huge success. Do you feel there were more opportunities then?
It was a special time to be in London, but the opportunities were much greater in the USA and that’s where all of us ended up one way or the other.
You took what is now a very famous collection of photos of The Beatles in 1968. You were both starting out your careers and they requested at the time an unknown photographer. Tell us about the shoot?
They requested the least known photographer in London and Jeremy Banks convinced Apple that I was a complete non-entity with a great eye. The famous Don McCullin was the lead photographer and I hung around and made some images behind his back which became very well known. All my colour work was lost or perhaps eaten by a donkey in the Press Office at Apple Corps, but that’s another (long) story.
As a teenager you were taken by the work of French cinematographer Raoul Coutard, known for his connection with the Nouvelle Vague period and his work with directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Do you feel that this style and era influenced you and your artistic choices as a cinematographer?
Very much. I shot a ‘Making Of’ documentary with Tony Scott in Israel soon after graduating from the RCA, where I met Coutard, and I envied his coolness under pressure and his impeccable wardrobe in the desert.
As a cinematographer you have often favoured work with the same filmmakers. Do you pick the film or the filmmaker?
The filmmaker. I couldn’t go wrong with Mike Nichols, Alan Pakula, Richard Donner, John Patrick Shanley and quite a few others. An exception was Tony Scott, who I loved as person but didn’t work with again as our shooting styles were so different. It preserved our friendship though, and I wish he had lived longer.
What noticeable differences have you seen throughout your career in the world of cinema?
Digital cinema has become the norm and it has great virtues which I enjoy, but simultaneously has lost much of the old disciplines on set which is a pity from my end of the camera.
With the growing technological changes in cinema – such as the use of partial CGI in The Irishman – have there been any major changes to how a cinematographer works?
Certainly, the advent of CGI and the Visual FX Supervisor has, on many projects, diminished the influence of the cinematographer and is one of the reasons I have avoided Marvel Movies, although I would have loved to have shot Guardians of the Galaxy, which I admire immensely.
Having been involved with some early films utilising CGI, Young Sherlock Holmes, did you foresee how far the usage of computer animation in film and cinema would go?
In truth, in short: NO.
Some of the films you have worked on could be classified as genre films: Outland (science fiction), The Hunger (horror) etc. Do you feel that the need to label films and other media can be detrimental to how audiences perceive and receive them?
Yes I do, but the marketing of films apparently needs this kind of shorthand and that’s not my game. I generally prefer so-called art-house movies, which don’t usually have big marketing budgets so I’m not complaining. Movies are best, I think, as entertainments, whether of the mind or the emotions, and there are many great projects which are packed with both incident and ‘art’.
Behind the glitz and the glamour of the movie industry there are artistic differences and egos. How do you deal with that, especially when you might be away from the comfort and haven of your own home and family?
If you can’t take the heat then kindly leave the kitchen. My home and family have often been experienced in my work and with my colleagues. I have been lucky, though, to have been married for many years to a wonderful woman who understands that side of me and I have learned how to turn down work and preserve and enjoy my life outside of movie making.
You were one of Sundance Institute’s 2020 Directors & Screenwriters Lab Fellows. What advice do you have for new filmmakers?
I have been privileged to be an Advisor at more than twenty Sundance Director’s Labs over the last 30 years. My advice to new Fellows is often to trust their crews and to trust the instincts that have led them to their projects in the first place. Why we make certain choices in film is sometimes a mystery and a very interesting one at that which needs to be recognised as a primary drive to motivate and complete a scene or an entire project. Yes, there must be (most often) a coherent script but within the shooting all of us need to embrace the unexpected moments and to see that a disaster or onerous difficulty can often lead to better work.
What is the most rewarding production you have worked on so far?
Angels in America for Mike Nichols, without hesitation.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
Hopefully sufficient financing will soon be completed for a movie to be shot in London this year on the life and times of Isabella Blow. Look her up. She was a fascinating person and virtually invented the persona of a ‘fashionista’. Otherwise, I’m mentoring a Mexican cinematographer, looking forward to the next Sundance Lab in June, and seriously contemplating an expedition to photograph some mysterious ruins outside Campeche in Mexico. Covid willing. And I’m wading through thousands of photographs that I’ve put aside for 30 years or more and making interesting discoveries.
Streaming versus cinema: what does the future hold for film?
Streaming home theatres will dominate in my opinion. Many movie theatres will close but showcase venues with great picture, sound and comfort will do very well in major cities.
"As an art form and entertainment, I lived for film in the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead from the age of 14 or so, and when I came into contact with real film makers in Shepperton and Pinewood Studios I knew that that was how I wanted to spend my life."Stephen Goldblatt