Thursday, 5 June 2008


Robert Brinkmann is one of Hollywood’s most talented and innovative cinematographers. In the eighties he formed his own company to produce music videos on which he was also director of photography (for prestigious artists like Celine Dion or Placido Domingo). In 1988 he contributed to the History of Rock music, working with director Phil Joanou on the rockumentary U2 : Rattle and Hum.

His filmography includes films directed by Ben Stiller, Michael Lehman or John McNaughton. Now Robert Brinkmann offers us his first movie as a director, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, a magnificent moment of pure cinema.

You were born in Germany. Could you please tell us a few words of your life before your arrival in the US ?

Robert Brinkmann : I have always wanted to get away and escape. As a young child, I developed a habit of going to the weekend movie matinees at one of the local theatres - I was too young to go in the evening - and watched japanese monster movies there every Sunday at 10:00. I guess you could say it was my church.

When I was 15, I moved out of my parents house and was old enough to go to the local revival house almost every day. I spent so much time there, that they offered me a job. As soon as I had finished school, I was on a plane to New York. I lived there for a year and saw an average of two films a day in the beautiful revival houses that were there back then.

At the time what were your favorite US and german movies ?

Robert Brinkmann : The first film, which made me realize that there was more to films than monsters, was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. I was 15 at the time and remember the moment I understood that there can be poetry in cinema. My favourite filmmaker back then was neither german nor american - I loved, and still do, everything that Roman Polanski did (and does.) I also adored the films of Werner Herzog, particularly Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Woyzeck, and Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road and Alice in the Cities.

At the University of Southern California you specialized in cinematography. Why were you attracted by this speciality ? Did you plan to become a director then ?

Robert Brinkmann : Like every film student entering film school, I wanted to be a director. Unfortunately, I am a lazy writer. The films I did make were very esoteric and hard for people to relate to, but they always looked good. Eventually I realized, that not every film student can be a director ; there have to be editors, sound mixers and cinematographers as well.

Can you please talk to us of your encounter with director Phil Joanou and how you worked on his student film ?

Robert Brinkmann : I had decided to become a cinematographer and knew that my final film would have to be my showpiece. The film I had originally planned to shoot for another friend of mine was not accepted by the faculty, and I didn’t have a final project to work on. Instead of taking just any available film, I decided to wait for a better script and talented director. I didn’t shoot a film that semester, but went to the screenings of all the upcoming directors, who would do a final project during the next one. Phil Joanou’s film stood out and I convinced him to let me be his cinematographer on The Last Chance Dance.

In 1985, you formed a company to produce music videos. Music videos were just at their beginning at the time. How did you feel their potential and the growing importance they would later have in the music industry ?

Robert Brinkmann : After shooting The Last Chance Dance, which prompted Steven Spielberg to give Phil an office at Amblin and back him as a director, I soon learned that any producer hiring young directors out of film school would then pair them up with the oldest, most experienced cinematographers they could find. There weren’t many opportunities for young cinematographers back then. Music Videos were a new field with low budgets and few restrictions, where innovation counted more than experience.

What did interest you with music videos from your esthetic and artistic point of view ?

They were short and could be completely different in style. It was a wonderful training ground for a whole new generation of filmmakers. Since not even music video producers hired cinematographers fresh out of film school, I started a production company and hired myself.

In the music industry you worked with a lot of important personnalities. As a director and producer of their videos what did you try to bring to their music ? What are your personal tastes in music ?

Robert Brinkmann :
I love music and I can appreciate almost anything, except Country and Western. There is a mystical relationship between moving pictures and music. Putting together pictures and music can enhance both. Of course, if you have amazing music, as in U2’s One, you can simply shoot a close up of Bono singing and it makes a good video. It is harder to make a good video out of a bad song, no matter how exciting the visuals.

In 1987 you make an important encounter. You are the cinematographer of Two Idiots in Hollywood, a movie directed by one of the most interesting american actors : Stephen Tobolowsky. The movie is reputed in some circles for its sense of satire.

Robert Brinkmann : I had met a great producer, Ginny Nugent, who was working with Stephen and suggested me to him. I think Stephen trusted her implicitly and hired me on the spot. The difficult aspect of this film was that it was supposed to be a bad film, i.e. it was meant to have been made by one of the characters in the film, who is, of course, not very good at making movies. Jack DeGovia, our very famous production designer, relished giving us the worst sets. The cinematography had to be of a similar nature. It was hard, but it is funny.

The same year you collaborate with Phil Joanou again on one of the milestones of the music documentary genre : U2 : Rattle and Hum. How did this project emerged ? How were you invited to work on the film ? Could you tell us about your participation in the preparation and in the shooting ?

Robert Brinkmann : Phil is a big fan of U2 and a very persuasive human being. He flew out to meet the band and convinced them to let him direct their documentary. He had tried to hire me on his first feature film, Three O’Clock High, but had been turned down by the studio. In this case, U2 was the studio (Paramount bought the film later) and let him hire whoever he wanted.

I was working with Stephen Tobolowsky on Two Idiots in Hollywood, when I received a call from Phil asking me to come and shoot Rattle and Hum. Two days later, when the shoot was finished, I was on a plane to Boston. There was no preparation whatsoever. I stepped out of the car that had picked my up from the airport, put a camera on my shoulder and started shooting...

Your first movie as a director, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party (2005) is one the purest moments of cinema ever. This wonderful documentary on the venerable art of storytelling use your friend, actor and director Stephen Tobolowsky, as a medium. Through the eye of your camera, we are invited at this home, along his guests at a birthday party, and we listen him telling us stories about his life and his rich and creative career.

We discussed of the movie with Stephen Tobolowsky but can you recall us shortly the genesis of this simple and beautiful idea ?

Robert Brinkmann : Stephen and I became friends during the shooting of Two Idiots in Hollywood. I remember being at a party of his and seeing him surrounded by nearly everyone there, telling a story. At that moment, I thought we should make a movie about him. I brought up the idea to him some time later, but it took us 15 years to finally do it. I had always insisted on painting this project on a big canvas and wanted to shoot 35mm film, which we couldn’t afford. Once HD technology had advanced to the point where it is now, I saw it as an alternative and we went ahead.

As a specialist in the art of devising a picture in order to produce an impact, an effect, or a tonality, how did you transform your camera into a servant to the magic of words ?

Robert Brinkmann : I knew that the key to the success of STBP was to stay out of Stephen’s way and let him connect with the audience. Nothing could be in between the film audience and the actor. I put the cameras and myself in the beginning and the end to show the audience the process and be totally honest, so that not even that bit of artifice would stand in the way.

I looked at the shoot as a concert shoot, much like Rattle and Hum. Stephen gave a performance, which had been structured and rehearsed before, and I had to capture it on the first try without interfering. That’s essentially what I did for U2.

What does fascinate you in the amazing way Stephen Tobolowsky is able to rivet us with his anecdotes ?

Robert Brinkmann : Stephen is a masterful storyteller, who understands structure, can improvise, and can act. When he tells a story, it’s like watching a movie in your head. That’s why 90 minutes of him never get boring. To this day, whenever I watch STBP, I feel I’ve watched a film with exotic locations, action, and lots of characters, because those are the things he talks about and they unfold in my mind like a film.

I like to quote Stephen Tobolowsky on this, who likes to say : « Audiences like special effects a lot less than they think and they like stories a lot more than they think ». I think the reaction to our movie proves him right.

In 1993 you worked as director of photography on 3 episodes of a very ambitious tv-series called Fallen Angels. What was the concept of the show and what were the visual demands of this concept ?

Robert Brinkmann : The show was an anthology series of film noir stories set in Hollywood in the 1930’s. It was a very ambitious undertaking, which turned out beautifully, but didn’t get noticed very much. Rick Heinrich, the famous production designer, created incredible sets. Stuart Cornfeld, the producer, brought in fantastic talent, and it was all done with very little money.

Who were the directors you worked with and how did you work with them and with the production ?

Robert Brinkmann : I worked with Agnieszka Holland, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Lehmann, and Jim McBride. It was a unique opportunity to work with famous film directors in a matter of weeks, whereas working with them on films would normally take many months and might not have happened at all. I consider this one of the greatest experiences I have had and am very proud of the results.

Let’s go back to Birthday and talk about the editing process. How did your partner Andrew Putschoegl and yourself (editors of the movie) conceive the « visual narration » of the movie ?

Robert Brinkmann : STBP was structured before we started to shoot. It starts out in the morning on a beach in Malibu, continues in Stephen’s kitchen, then in the back yard, then the guests arrive for the party in the living room and we finish outside at night. We wanted to break up the locations : outdoor - indoor - outdoor - indoor and day - night, so that there is a progression and natural arc. I felt that being in one location might be claustrophobic after a while. That is also the reason for the helicopter shots. I wanted the audience to feel that being in Stephen’s living room is a choice, and that we could cut to a helicopter shot any time it was needed.

How can you tell with pictures the story of a man who tells stories with his words ?

Robert Brinkmann : Since the overall structure was a given, the editing decisions were about which stories to keep and which ones to cut. We had over 4 hours of material. First we edited all the stories in a rough fashion, so we could judge how they work. Then we played with the structure and using different stories. Finally we fine-tuned the stories we ended up using and cut them internally for time.

We shot with two, sometimes three, cameras. Andy and I put the different cameras on different monitors and watched them in sync. When you do that, it is so obvious which angle is working, that it is very easy to cut. That is another thing I learned from Rattle and Hum. Phil Joanou cut the entire movie that way on a very expensive editing system. The difference now is that we can do it on an Apple computer at home.

As a director of photography, you worked with talented directors. What are the most important things you learned from them ? Among these things, which did you use for your own movie ?

Robert Brinkmann : I have had the privilege of working with some great directors. Roger Avary, Peter Bogdanovich, Agnieszka Holland, Reggie Hudlin, Liam Lynch, and Ben Stiller have all taught me a lot. I think most importantly, I learned to trust my vision and my actor.

Could you tell us some words about all the technical aspects of your movie ? Could Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party have been possible without the emergence of digital technology ?

Robert Brinkmann : I always wanted to shoot this film on 35mm. I was concerned, that a smaller canvas would give the film less weight and make it feel almost like a home movie. Unfortunately, it was cost prohibitive for a self financed film, and I was unlikely to get several hundred thousand dollars to film Stephen in his living room. I was very sceptical of the early HD technology, and it wasn’t until Sony came out with the F 900/3 upgrade, that I was satisfied with the look. Without the huge improvement in HD technology, it might have taken us another 15 years to finally do it.

Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party will certainly be considered retrospectively in the History of cinema, not only as a coup de maitre but also a breath of fresh air as your movie recalls us that stories are fundamentals to make a film truly entertaining .

Robert Brinkmann : If STBP is even a footnote in the History of cinema, our film will have received more attention than I thought. I thank you for your kind words.

What are your favorite stories in the movie ?

Robert Brinkmann : My favorite stories change all the time. Right now, I love the dolphin story in the beginning for its magic and for the fact that it hooks the audience. I also love the story of the stunt man, Dick, because it is so moving. The story of Joshua on the set of Mississippi Burning is another favourite, because that truly is film history.

What are your favorite movies and who are your favorite directors ?

Robert Brinkmann : My favorite (working) directors now are Michael Mann and Curtis Hanson. They are perfect craftsmen and manage to tell great stories in a way that mass audiences can relate to without compromising their vision. They are the closest to the great movies of the 70s, made by Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, Ashby, which made me want to get into film in the first place.

Do you keep an eye on the german movie industry ? The productions of Bernd Eichinger (CEO of Constantin) equal the budget and quality standards of those of Hollywood. Would you like to work on a german production as a director of photography or director ?

Robert Brinkmann : I would love to work as a DP on a German production (Mr. Eichinger, I hope you are reading this...) Though I have worked on commercials in many countries in Europe, including France, Italy, Ireland and England, I have never worked in Germany. I hope that I will one day be able to shoot a German film, whether a Bernd Eichinger production or a small independent doesn’t really matter.

What are your projects after the promotion of Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party ? Your movie is highly praised by those who have been given the privilege to watch it. Was it difficult for you to work on something completely different after such an experience ?

Robert Brinkmann : It wasn’t difficult to go back to my day job. I recently finished shooting Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, a movie with Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D. It was a great experience working with an immensely talented new director, Liam Lynch, who made a very original and funny film. When you have a chance to work on such a wonderful project, it is very satisfying to play any part in it.

I am also trying something completely new. Stephen Tobolowsky and I have decided to release STBP on DVD ourselves. We are in the process of forming a distribution company and preparing for the May 30th, 2006, release of Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party on Stephen Tobolowsky’s birthday (Needless to say, there will be a big party !) It is a new adventure for Stephen, Andy and myself, which we are very excited about, and a new chapter for STBP.

(Interview done in 2006)

No comments: