On July 9, 2004, cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, 79, passed away. From his work with European masters such as Antonioni (Red Desert , among others) and Bertolucci (The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man ) to his longtime collaboration with Woody Allen, Di Palma was one of the legendary modern directors of photography. This piece is my attempt to pay tribute to him through a critical appreciation of his work with Allen and an interview with a man who worked closely with Di Palma on the Allen pictures, David Baron, who has worked in Woody Allen’s camera department since 1989′s Crimes and Misdemeanors and most recently served as First Assistant Camera on Allen’s forthcoming Melinda and Melinda (2004). He worked on eight separate occasions with Carlo.
The great director/cinematographer collaborations in film history include Orson Welles and Gregg Toland; Welles and Gary Graver; Allan Dwan and John Alton; Vincente Minnelli and Alton; Blake Edwards and Dick Bush; and, to my thinking, Woody Allen and Carlo Di Palma.
Through eleven films from 1986 to 1997 (the collaboration was interrupted briefly when Allen worked with legendary Swedish DP Sven Nykvist on three films in the late 1980s, Another Woman [1988)], Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Allen’s segment in the anthology film New York Stories [Allen, Martin Scorses and Francis Ford Coppola, 1989]), Di Palma fashioned with Allen an incredibly distinctive visual style which has, as David Baron observes below, by and large carried over into the films Allen has made since his association with Di Palma ended. The long, painstakingly blocked master shots for which Allen is famous arguably originated in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Di Palma’s first film with Allen following the director’s nearly ten-year-long partnership with Gordon Willis. Willis also favored master shots, but they were of a different variety than the masters Allen and Di Palma developed together over the course of their collaboration. In the Allen/Willis films, the masters had an “objective” feel, remaining usually stationary and eschewing zooming or complex tracking moves. Allen remained partial to masters in the Di Palma years, but with Di Palma the camera moves, often panning or zooming within a shot, in doing so emphasising particular aspects of a scene without resorting to cutting. This lends the films a feel of seamlessness, an ease with which Allen is able to move from moment to moment, character to character. In Everyone Says I Love You (1996), a brilliant musical, moments of comedy or drama transform into moments of song without so much as a cut. A cut would be, to paraphrase Otto Preminger speaking to Peter Bogdanovich, an interruption.
That’s not to say that the films themselves aren’t diverse. While remaining true to some of the basic stylistic tenets outlined above, Allen and Di Palma experimented continually throughout their collaboration. 1992 is notable for seeing the release of two Allen films which look nothing like each other, as well as looking nothing like anything Allen had done before. Shadows and Fog returns the director to black-and-white, the preferred format of the Allen/Willis films, but retains the staging of the Allen/Di Palma films. The staging, as such, of Husbands and Wives is not atypical for Allen, again preferring to capture large chunks of scenes in extended takes, but the smooth pans of past are abandoned here for the jerky, handheld look of cinema verite; I have my reservations about this style, but one can’t fault Allen and Di Palma for attempting it, for branching out into heretofore unexplored stylistic territory (for Allen). To my thinking, they perfected in Manhattan Murder Mystery, released a year later, what they were attempting to achieve in Husbands: a freer, looser aesthetic which places greater importance on performance than on visual design.
Di Palma’s own favourite of his films with Allen, though, was the stunning September (1987). Whatever flaws it may have on a screenplay level are more than compensated by the film’s breathtaking use of space. It is telling of just how cinematically rich September is that Di Palma selected it as his favourite despite the fact that it is, theoretically, one of the most “stage-bound” of Allen’s films, set entirely in one country house in the summer. But as with such stage adaptations as Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue (1953), Robert Mulligan’s Same Time, Next Year (1978), or Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off…(1992), Allen and Di Palma don’t let a confined location hamper their cinematic inventiveness. In this restricted space, characters enter and exit frame, occupy foreground and background, talking and sparring with each other. In one amazing shot – exemplifying the Allen/Di Palma aesthetic – Howard (Denholm Elliott) and Stephanie (Dianne Weist) talk over a casual game of pool. The shot begins on Stephanie, in medium close-up, but in due turn pans to Howard, in tight close-up, as he negotiates his way around the table. As the scene continues, the camera intricately follows their movements, transitioning from Howard to Stephanie and back again with utmost ease, until it finally ends on another medium close-up of Stephanie.
My own favourite of the Allen/Di Palma films, however, is Radio Days (1987), a film which looks back to another time in a spirit of warm, but deeply felt nostalgia. As such, it aligns itself with such movies as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950), John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1953), Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Blake Edwards’ Darling Lili (1970), among others. Nostalgia isn’t the only thing going on in these masterworks, to state the obvious, but one thing which unites them is, in fact, a fond recollection of days gone by. It seems to me not unreasonable to suggest that filmmakers are often at their greatest when they are creating in a “mood” of nostalgia.
In Allen’s case, though, the memories appear to be entirely firsthand: his evocation of World War II-era Rockaway, New York feels as close to uninhibited autobiography as anything the director has ever done. Visually, Allen and Di Palma fashioned a beautiful looking movie intoxicated with the look and style and feel of the era being depicted. It’s an episodic film, a series of memories punctuated by period songs (and written with specific songs in mind.) Each episode is perfectly realised. The fog-drenched sequence in which Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” is broadcast is a tour de force, as is the visual tour of the families’ favourite radio programs. The montage of shots of people listening to a real-life radio drama unfolding (a young girl trapped in a well) is particularly eloquent, people gathered around the radio in humbled silence, in their homes, at their kitchen tables, in restaurants and in bars. But what puts Radio Days over the edge into the realm of greatness are two shots which essentially summarise the nostalgia evoked elsewhere in the writing and acting. The first shot occurs very early in the film. As the camera slowly and gracefully zooms back from a tight close-up of stormy waves to the rain-drenched street where Allen’s character grew up, it’s as if we’re transported to the time of his dreams, his memories.
The second shot is the picture’s very last one. The setting is the rooftop above a swank club where high society partygoers have gathered to ring in the New Year. Moments after they do so, snow begins to fall. As the group exits down the stairs, the camera pans slowly to an automated top hat (part of some flashy neon sign advertising the club) raising and falling in the background. Allen speaks on the narration, in words as expressive and sincere as anything he’s ever spoken:
I never forgot that New Year’s Eve, when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in, and I’ve never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we used to hear on the radio, although the truth is with the passing of each New Year’s Eve, those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.
The top hat falls for conceivably the last time as he speaks those last words. The picture cuts to black.
Yes, it may be true that his memories of those radio days do grow dimmer with each passing New Year’s Eve. But as long as Woody Allen’s films with Carlo Di Palma are seen, the memory of what they achieved will never grow dim.
I spoke with David Baron on July 23, 2004 by telephone.
Peter Tonguette: How many films did you work with Carlo on? By my count, there are six: Shadows and Fog, Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the TV movie Don’t Drink the Water (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You, and Deconstructing Harry (1997). Is that it?
David Baron: Yeah, those are films where I worked on the entire film. I did do a couple of days on Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, but nothing worth noting really.
PT: And Shadows and Fog was the first one you worked with Carlo on?
PT: What was your job at that point?
DB: At that time, I had just gotten into the union and that was my second job. I believe I was a camera trainee, which is a position that doesn’t really exist anymore. Essentially, it’s working as a film loader, but the union called it a “trainee” position, which means that they can pay you less and you’re supposed to be apprenticing. My first actual job was Regarding Henry (Mike Nichols, 1991) and then Shadows and Fog came up right after that.
PT: And during the course of these six films with Carlo, you became Second Assistant Camera.
DB: Yeah, I never got to First for him, unfortunately. I would have liked to – I came close because he was supposed to do Anything Else (2003). It was originally going to be Carlo. He came into New York to start the picture and he was location scouting. I believe he was not feeling very well and, as procedure, they had to do an insurance physical, or whatever they do to get insurance for the key people on the crew, and there was some problem with the insurance or the physical. He wasn’t able to complete the picture, so that’s when Darius [Khondji] came aboard.
PT: So he didn’t really retire after Deconstructing Harry?
DB: Well, as far as I know, he didn’t shoot any other features after that. He went back to Italy and his health was not great, so I don’t know if he was up for working or not, but when the opportunity came up to do this movie, he said, “Yes”, and he wanted to do it very much. Again, he wasn’t able to complete – he didn’t actually get to start shooting the movie. He never got that far, never got past scouting, I think was it. I never even saw him when he came in, to be honest. We never had a chance, really. I heard he was very unhappy about being sent home early.
PT: What was your working relationship like? I imagine it must have changed as you progressed from camera trainee to Second AC.
DB: Well, not really. I’m basically there to assist Carlo with whatever that might entail. He loved to drink tea. [Laughs] Plenty of tea, hot tea. And whatever else he needs personally or for work as well. He was a very simple cameraman, very minimal equipment, and not into a lot of technology or toys, as we say. So he was very straightforward to work for.
PT: Easy to work with?
DB: Yeah, I would say he was easy to work with. Now English was not his first language, so whenever you have somebody in charge who’s English is not… [Laughs] His English was good, but it was not great, and he could sometimes have trouble communicating. But we managed to get the job done in the long run. And it’s actually to his credit that he could come in and work with everyone on a feature film not having a command of the English language, and still get what was going on and be on top of that, especially with all of the changes that are involved in a Woody Allen film. For Shadows and Fog, we shot five endings, and maybe more. I can’t even remember. But Carlo was able to stay on top of everything.
PT: How would you contrast his style of photography to some of Woody Allen’s other cinematographers?
DB: Well, I never got to work with Gordon Willis with Woody Allen, but I just know from talking to people that I think Gordon was more…with Gordon, each shot was kind of like a static painting. He was more into prime lenses and using a locked-off camera, and each shot was perfectly composed and it was very beautiful. I think when Carlo came in, he introduced Woody to moving the camera a lot more, dollying a lot, and also Carlo loved to use the zoom lens, and that was pretty much the only lens that he used. Every shot would incorporate some kind of dolly and a zoom. Usually the zoom was hidden – not like ’70s style where they were proud of this new technology and would actually zoom-in on camera blatantly – he would typically bury the zoom in a pan or a dolly move so you wouldn’t necessarily notice it. But if you study those shots, the field size is always changing, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not. So he could incorporate sometimes a whole scene into one shot if it was possible. It was like a ballet almost, and I think that was mostly Carlo’s influence and that’s something that Woody still tries to do today no matter who the cameraman is.
PT: It sounds as though he had a pretty big impact on what we think of as the look of a Woody Allen film, even today.
DB: I would say so. And also another thing is that warm interior look where everything’s kind of golden looking in the interior, I think that was also Carlo’s doing. He achieved that not with lens filtration, because from what I can recall I don’t remember Carlo using any filters at all really. He would color the lighting actually. He would warm up the lighting, and also in the lab they would warm up the image with the printer lights.
PT: Did he take a lot of time to light a set? Was he one of those cinematographers who takes all afternoon?
DB: He did take a lot of time, yeah, but not because he was abusive at taking too much time. Woody would have no problem with Carlo lighting for two or three hours. And that’s because of the way they were working; you could afford to take that much time. On most features, you don’t have that luxury of spending three hours lighting a master shot. However, most of Woody’s scenes were done in one shot, and there was no coverage. As long as they completed the three pages of script that were scheduled to be photographed that day, everyone was happy. So Carlo would often light maybe three or four hours, sometimes the whole morning, and we wouldn’t even shoot until after lunch, which is not typical on other movies. He’d still make the day’s work.
PT: Is there a film that Carlo shot for Woody that impresses you from a photographic/visual perspective, or one that stands out as a favourite?
DB: I would probably say Everyone Says I Love You. That and probably Shadows and Fog, for the black-and-white work. I think that was the only black-and-white film that Carlo did for Woody unless I’m forgetting one. Everyone Says I Love You I enjoy because every season is represented. Although most of the movie was filmed during the summer, there’s also beautiful shots of winter, spring, and fall. It looks great. Also the musical numbers, a lot of them are staged in one shot, particularly the hospital dance number is pretty clever the way it makes use of the location and the way Carlo photographed it I thought was great.
PT: It’s incredibly intricate.
DB: There’s not one cut in that sequence. Once the song starts, I believe it’s all one shot. So he definitely was up to the task.
A lot of the films that Carlo did had some complicated stuff in them visual effects-wise. Alice (1990) had a lot of visual effects in it, and we had a whole sequence in Shadows and Fog with the mirror at the end, where Woody jumps into the mirror. There were a few different versions of that, so forgive me if I don’t remember exactly what the final sequence wound up being, but there was some green screen involved. We had to shoot that in color to do that whole sequence, so it became kind of complicated. Another example is the out-of-focus Robin Williams in Deconstructing Harry. These effects were completed in post-production.
PT: You mentioned the green screen shots in Shadows and Fog. Did you find him adept at visual effects?
DB: It wasn’t really his forte. If you physically turn on a light it’s very tangible what the result is, but to pre-visualise how a special effect might work is another thing entirely. Carlo was more about feeling then technicalities. But at times like that we would obviously have somebody there from ILM or whichever house was doing the effects work to be on set to consult with him. He was open to that. All these effects shots were done without nearly the amount of money that, say, George Lucas, would have budgeted for such things. It was always sort of “makeshift” with Woody’s movies, but Carlo always did whatever he could to make it work. He always rolled with the punches.
PT: Is there any one lesson you felt you learned from him? Since you started out with him in some ways and worked with him for a number of films after that, looking back are is there any lesson, or lessons, you felt you learned from him?
DB: Well, I would say that the biggest lesson I learned is that a master shot doesn’t have to be boring. It can be a beautiful shot that works for the entire scene without any additional cuts if necessary. You don’t have to put fifty cuts into a scene to make it exciting or dramatic. If you know how to stage it – and to Woody’s credit as well, he knows how to stage a scene – you can get away with doing a whole scene in one shot, and making it just as interesting.
PT: Do you have any favourite memories of Carlo?
DB: That’s kind of a tough question because Carlo was usually all about the work. He wasn’t the type of guy that hung around chatting it up with the crew. I didn’t know much about his personal life, to be honest. He was very professional, very concentrated, and he expected everyone else to be the same. He didn’t like it if people digressed into discussing last night’s game or politics while he was trying to light. He was very work-oriented, and I respect that. But he was also personable as well when it was appropriate. If we happened to be shooting during the holidays, his wife would come into New York, and they would always have a nice Christmas gift for everybody on the crew. He didn’t forget anybody. I just remember he was kind, but he was also never distracted from the work he had to do.