CHRISTINA LESSA: As a young photographer, I had my list of favorites, Penn, Cartier Bresson, Newton and Weber. I always admired your still work….But then, I saw your films and I was in love. All of the things that I could relate to in the photos had come alive. The combination of sincerity, whimsy and a general love of life came bursting though in the films and was a direct parallel to what I was aspiring to in my own work. One can feel the sense of ease and comfort exuding from your subjects when in front of the lens. An ease that I know from experience comes from an empathy and an interest in whomever your working with that goes far beyond model. Its a human experience on a very intimate level if you get it right. You always seem to get it right and that’s why you are so inspiring. You translate a sense of joyful desire in you work….
BRUCE WEBER: When you pack your camera bags to go on a trip you can never really plan anything. Some days you feel like you need the sun and it’s raining. One day, as I was driving outside of London I called the great war photographer and journalist Don McCullin and said, “It’s pouring down rain and I am shooting with the lens wide open and the shutter speed at a 1/4.” He answered me, “Ah, that’s my favorite kind of light.” You see, it all depends on who you are and how you see the world. Even as a child I felt that I was an individual, and if I have to say something about my photographs–it’s that my individual way of seeing things is both upside down and right side up. All these nice things you say about my work make me feel quite shy and makes me want to hide behind my camera!
CHRISTINA LESSA: As a photographer, writer and filmmaker, and someone who has been misinterpreted repeatedly for your sensual portrayals of various obviously attractive subjects, you also seek out and capture the allure of the most simple, sometimes disregarded subjects…. Do you believe that beauty is something that evolves beyond taste, something that is much more involved?
BRUCE WEBER: The word beauty is a funny thing. If you go to your local magazine stand, you’ll see the word “beauty” splashed on about 50 covers. It’s a word that bounces back at you–then later, when you find yourself passing a store window and catch your reflection in the glass, you ask yourself, “What are they all talking about?” Beauty is a subjective thing, something that changes from moment to moment like the four seasons in a garden. The actress Ruth Gordon once told me that she went into Vivian Leigh’s dressing room after a show in London and it was filled with dead flowers. Ruth put her hands on her hips and said in a very demanding way, “Viv, why don’t you throw all these dead flowers out?” Vivian Leigh turned to her and gasped, “No, they’re beautiful!” So I am not the right person to ask about beauty. There are others who have far more clever answers about the subject.
CHRISTINA LESSA: The addition of your narration and /or musical scoring in the films adds a warmth to the subject that one just melts into while viewing. In A letter to True, and of course Lets Get Lost as well as Liberty City is like Paris to me, the combination of suffering and sheer bliss creates this incredibly desirable juxtaposition. There is an unstoppable beauty in your films because of the medium itself and at the end of each one I find myself wanting more. Will you ever consider more feature length films?
BRUCE WEBER: I really like the idea of doing a feature narrative film. I am looking at some stories now that interest me. When you make a film, it’s like getting engaged and then getting married for keeps. That’s why you’ve got to love the story and all of the characters, because you are all going to move in together for a very, very long time. In a feature film you are always asking the question “What is the film? Is it character or story driven?” All I know is that when I watch a John Ford movie I can close my eyes and imagine that my Grandfather is telling me that story at bedtime. I believe stories are created out of camaraderie and collaboration, and out of sheer love of what you want to say.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You have said so profoundly that being an image maker, one is always a student of life, you once remarked:
”You have to fight for your work – everybody has to. You have to be able to get knocked down and stand back up. You can’t let it stay on your shoulders. I see a lot of photographers who do their thing and put their soul in it and in the end it is all changed, but their name is still on it. I do what Dick Avedon told me once and I just go out on each job and take pictures for myself. I’ll photograph trees or if I meet a really handsome guy or girl I’ll take their picture, even if they’re not part of the set. I’m going to try to learn something. Even if a picture is not so good, at least I can go back to bed at night and think: “Wow, did I learn something today?”
Can you relate this to your film making process…..
BRUCE WEBER: Yes I can definitely relate this to my film making process. When one becomes a photographer and filmmaker it feels like you’ve just joined the Marines–like you are headed for boot camp immediately and you are not in good shape. I was lucky when I first started making films in that I had a good cameraman, Jeff Preiss, and an excellent producer Nan Bush. Nan kept our feet on the ground but always gave us the room to soar. What I’m really trying to say is that you are always going to be broken hearted by daydreaming. But, would you have it any other way? When Jeff, Nan, our film editor Phyllis Famiglietti and I had the very first screening our first film, Broken Noses, I only invited immediate family and close friends. Big mistake – don’t ever do that! After the screening people began arguing and yelling at each other, and we – the filmmakers – fell silent. People were saying things like, “I just don’t understand this film. It’s not a real documentary,” or, “What you really need is a good editor.” Jeff was crying and Phyllis wanted to sell her editing equipment and I just wanted to put a pillow over my head. But Nan was so encouraging and she got us all back to work making the film we wanted to make. When we were given the International Documentary Association Award that year for Broken Noses we thought the presenter, who was a friend, was playing a joke on us when he announced our names. But later at the reception for the winners and nominees, as I was talking to the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, people were shaking our hands and telling us what a good job we had done. It was a great moment for all of us as a family. We will never forget those lessons of fighting for what we believed in when making that film. You carry the memory of those battles with you every day and make sure that you always do the work that is best for you.
CHRISTINA LESSA: There is a lot of nostalgia in your films..do you work from a script or it is more improvisational, a conceptual experience?
BRUCE WEBER: I work both ways. I try to have ideas scripted but when you are making a documentary or a mood film you sometimes have to throw those things away. As I said before, you never know if it’s going to rain or shine or if the person in front of the lens will even want to appear in the film. My subjects have so often said to me “ I hope nobody sees this.” I think it’s funny because we are making a film that of course we want everyone to see. Sometimes when we’re filming someone will throw out a good idea and I always want to feel open to go with it. Sometimes we can work all day and it will feel like we got nothing. Months later you find yourself in the editing room watching that footage and all of the sudden it becomes important. And then, there’s a lot to say about what you thought about the shoot that day. So many times in Let’s Get Lost we felt we had nothing with Chet. We’d go back to the editing room and watching the film come alive through the light made all the difference in the world. It’s that quality of light that makes something become so real that was once so imaginary. For me it’s all the same.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Do you prefer filmmaking or photography?
BRUCE WEBER: I’ve been asked that question for about 30 years and I wish I could think of something better to say than that I like both but one is so connected to the other that they seem the same. I like to think of taking pictures and making films as going to school. By that I mean it helps me to learn more about my photographs by making a film and vice versa. Some days I wake up and I think “I wish I was making a film today.” And then you wonder if anyone will care about it. I was in Detroit a few years ago and we were filming a juvenile delinquent who had just gotten out of jail. We were making a short film about him – almost like a portrait. He was talking about his favorite cars and about a dog that he saved who later accidentally died. He was upset. Never did we think the film would go in that direction. A year later I heard that he was involved in an armed robbery and ended up in jail for 25 years. He was so young and had this second chance at life. He had the personality of a young James Cagney. I feel badly that he doesn’t have a copy of this film and the photographs we did of him in Detroit as a way to remember an innocent time and a way to give him the strength to go on.