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Stephen Burum on Creative Control, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Recording Brian DePalma’s Classic ‘Untouchables’ Train Station Sequence

Stephen H. Burum – an American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award recipient who earned an Oscar nomination for shooting his longtime collaborator Brian De Palma’s 1992 drama Hoffa — will receive the EnergaCamerimage Lifetime Achievement Award at the cinematography festival closing ceremony in Torun, Poland, on Saturday. In addition to Hoffainclude the credits of the Barum The untouchables, the war of the roses, St. Elmo’s Fire and that of 1996 Mission Impossible.

Congratulations. How does it feel to accept the EnergaCamerimage Lifetime Achievement Award?

The reason I accepted it was I thought cinematographers should be promoted, especially with all the new digital stuff and [on-set] monitor. Now that everyone has access to the image, people need to remember who is really in control. I’m not an award person, but if I can use the award to promote image and respect for cinematographers then I’m really interested in that.

In addition to checking for new productions, are you involved in that work when your films are restored or remastered?

It depends. Sometimes I am, sometimes not. Sometimes I don’t even know when it’s happening, which is crazy because it costs them nothing to let me go there and do it. What you don’t want to hear before you transfer is, “Well, Steve, we’ve got you covered.” And so you get to the scene that you had timed, a beautiful orange sunset, and it’s all kind of flat [and not as intended].

[Cinematographers] are here to help, and we’re probably going to save you money too.

Early in your career, you shot down the second unit Apocalypse now. What was most memorable?

I was originally transferred because they didn’t have enough footage of the helicopter attack. I did a lot of inserts and then they didn’t have the big formations, so I had to do all the formations. Well, I was in the military making training films, and I did a training photo about a helicopter strike. So technically I knew how the Army lays out the formations. There are a whole range of formations. It depends on what kind of attack you are doing. So from that I sort of found a way to organize the helicopters. We would all take off and we would do what I used to call the meeting. We would all take to the air and we would fly straight until we had everyone in position. And then we made a right turn, and that was the practice part, so we did the rehearsal and made sure it was right. Then we did another editing leg, and then we did the shooting leg, and we flew a lot of helicopters in this great big square formation.

You had very successful collaborations with a number of directors including Brian De Palma. What makes for a successful collaboration with a director?

You have to remember that it’s never about you. It’s always about the picture.

[Additionally] it’s important that you always get behind the director and never go behind their back. The producer is trying to get you to do this. The actors are trying to get you to do that, and you shouldn’t be a part of it and just shut it down immediately when it happens because all it does is create conflict and it just ruins the picture.

How did you and Brian work?

We had a very unusual working relationship. We never talked much. Neither of us are talkers. Usually he showed me what he wants to do in a movie. He’d show me the staging and he’d say, “How long?” And I would say “45 minutes.” And in about half an hour, when I got everything together, he came back in and I said to him, ‘I changed this and I changed that.’ And he would go ‘fine’. And if he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Why don’t you do this and this.” It was a very pyramidal thing; we would just fix it. And it was very scarce communication.

The first time I went in for an interview, he said, “Let me tell you what I don’t like about cameramen.” And I said, ‘Well, let me tell you what I don’t like about directors.’ I said, ‘I don’t like directors who don’t direct. I don’t get enough money to do my job and that of the director.’ And he looked at me, he said, ‘fine, you’re hired’ and walked out the door. That was our first meeting.

He’s a very quiet boy. A very smart guy. Really very sensitive. My favorite thing with him was that we were doing The Untouchables (1987) and the Capone scenes with Bobby (DeNiro, who played Al Capone). He did versions because Brian wanted a different kind of scene with Capone to balance the picture. So we would do a version where they would just do a regular version. They would do one where Capone yells and screams, and there would be one where he was silent. And so they would have this great conversation with Brian on one side and Bobby on the other. It was so much fun watching them.

Could you tell us about filming the scene in The untouchables on the steps of the train station?

Originally in the script, the accountant gets on the train and the train leaves and the Untouchables get into a series of cars and chase the train and finally they stop the train. We had a great location for this and the whole fight was on the train. The train was stopped, people were shooting through the windows and all that stuff was going on. But Paramount decided it was too expensive to do, so it had to be replaced.

The first idea Brian had was to do it on steps in front of a hospital instead [where in the story Eliot Ness’ wife had just had a child]. Brian always likes areas where it’s hard for the actors to move because that slows down the action. That way you could build up the tension. But they couldn’t find it [the right location].

And so at the train station we had the grand staircase. It was difficult for them to go up and down the stairs. And it is also a closed space and there is no escape. So you have two elements that work for you, it’s physically demanding, and you’re just out in the open, you’re just stuck. You have to fight it out. To help slow down the action, he had the pram and the baby, because they reflected the father. He had just become a new father. And so he went for the baby.

What do you think of film education?

There are not enough people who are skilled in teaching cinematography. At the ASC, we have tried to help the people who teach cinematography in colleges and high schools. We send free magazines and we invite them to seminars and things like that.

The ASC has always been about education. … so that the skills do not die. And the great thing always with the ASC was that if you didn’t know how to do something, you were in the club, you went to the person who was the expert. Everyone was very good at exchanging information. Most of the people I knew in the ASC were eager to share because it was the only way to pass it on [knowledge].

I hope that the universities will reach out to the ASC and enable the ASC to contribute to the educational process.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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