SHOOTING THE ALIEN
Summer 1975, New Mexico. An English crew is filming a sci-fi movie. The main character is played by a very famous rockstar who is trying to stay away from drugs. The stills photographer is always on set, around where the action is, and sometimes he shoots away from the cameras, documenting literally everything with hundreds of pictures. Recently Taschen has published a remarkable book, with those photographs. The movie is The Man Who Fell To Earth by Nicholas Roeg. We had a chat with David James, a specialist in photography, who worked in a long list of amazing films. In this interview he shares memories about his job and about an alien named David Bowie!
Mr. James, you started your career in the ’60s, when you were really young. Was it always your aim to work on the set of a movie or was the fate to decide for you?
DJ: I took up photography at around 9 years old. MGM filmed outside my school, I was about 10. I loved watching the still photographer working on the set. I left school at the age of 15. It took a year to get into MGM, I was lucky enough to meet a man who worked in the still photolab.
You have worked in an incredible number of movies. Some are masterpieces, others blockbusters and again others cults. A few of them not really well-known. How do you usually decide in which to work? Several are fantasy and sci-fi movies. Have you maybe a preference for them?
DJ: Whenever possible I will research a project first, I usually start a discussion with the studio or the producer, but often a director or an actor will ask for you. My favorite subjects include war, musicals or action. The preference is always on the visual possibilities.
You usually collaborate with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, how important is, for your job, to work with these talents? Does it allow to share their vision or to obtain any benefits to work better?
DJ: Whoever you work with you want to share their vision, it’s their movie, not yours. You are there to provide images that get the public interested I seeing their movie.
Some of the films in which you worked are my favourite ones! Thinking about Highlander, Schindler’s List or the last two episodes of Star Wars… I would like to ask you if before those incredible movies were finished you could feel their magic and extraordinariness. I suppose it is not enough to go on a set and starts to take pictures…
DJ: Yes! There is always magic. You feel it throughout the filming process, every day on set is different, every movie has different challenges.
In 1975 you were the still photographer of TMWFTE, a member of the English crew. Was it the first time you met David? As an English, were you a fan?
DJ: Yes, it was the first time working with David and yes, I was a great fan. Space Oddity is still my favourite song.
Which techical equipment do you use?
DJ: In those days it would have been Canon, now its Fuji and Leica.
Which is the most vivid memory you have from those crazy days in New Mexico?
DJ: Being there!
Watching your incredible photos in the new publication by Taschen it seems that David had fun with some members, even if Candy Clark in an interview told me that he was concentrated but not particularly involved with the crew, outside the set. What was your impression about?
DJ: David mucked in with the rest of us. Film crews on location are like being in the circus, performers, crew, etc. All the same on the set, no one person makes a movie, David was as approachable as any others.
A funny thing is that during the working of the movie you took a lot of pics of David in bed, relaxing with different members of the crew: Nic, Candy, Linda DeVetta, Martin Samuel…
DJ: The bed featured in the movie and its always a good place to hang out on and have discussions.
There’s a lot of pics I’d like to ask you something about: Jerome Newton fishing on a little boat for example, or those ones where Nic, Candy and David are sitting in a wooden bench and laughing, holding in their hands a packet of Gitanes. Do you remember what were they talking about?
DJ: Well… I usually shoot without evesdropping!
I really love your photos because they are magnificent, but also because they extend, in a certain way, the narrative dimension of the movie and let discover us what happened around the set. There’s a serie of images of Candy, walking away from the hotel at the sunset… in the last one she is only a little solitary and distant silhouette, quite in the dark. A really poetic image. Is there maybe a story behind it?
DJ: We shot that at dawn in a little town called Artesia, New Mexico. It was a lovely spot, right on the rail track. My Motel was just down the road, the train used to wake me up at 3.00 in the morning. That pic reminds me of that place.
Being the main character of a movie was a new thing for David. At the time did you stay directly in touch with him and did he have any suggestions for the stills? Or were you completely free?
DJ: I was completely free, I used to meet up with David away from the set every few days, to show him my pictures. He was very easy to work with and seemed to be enjoying the experience.
David and the other actors were marvellous but it seems that was all in the lap of Roeg, the whole realization of the film. Am I right?
DJ: Of course, Nic was the captain of our ship. He was the guiding influence.
At the time you were the unit photographer, but on the set artists like Duffy and Schapiro also took pictures of David. Did you have any sort of interactions or problems with them? There’s a lovely picture by Duffy of David with Nic, and you with your camera on the background…
DJ: Never had any problems. A still photographer is often a one man department on a movie, nice to have someone to compare stories with occasionaly.
The 40th anniversary edition book published by Unstoppable Cards contains more images, and it is mostly focused on the people who allowed the realization of the movie. I talked to Massimo Moretti from Studiocanal and he told me you met him some years ago in London, at Pinnewood Studios, to edit the negatives. How was to watch again, after so many years, your shots?
DJ: Fascinating and bought back so many great memories.
You also worked in Yellowbeard (1983) by Mel Damski, in which David did a cameo. Did you meet him?
DJ: Of course, and we had fun reminiscing.
Did you meet David again later?
DJ: No, I wish I had but in the end, that’s the nature of the industry. You meet wonderful people, you may never meet again but they are in your life for ever.
You worked in so many movies and you had an incredible career, but in which film of the past you would like to have worked?
DJ: As you say, I have been fortunate to have worked on some all time classics. I think that Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, it would have been amazing to be on.
What is your next project?
DJ: Getting through today and waking up tomorrow!
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli
A great thank to Chris Duffy and to Massimo Moretti (from Studiocanal) for the pictures
Here you can read also our interview to Candy Clark, the co-star in TMWFTE.