“I just feel like my films are back home where they belong,” Bruce Weber tells me in speaking of Film Forum’s fantastic retrospective of his work (beginning tonight). And as an legend of both photography and filmmaking for decades now, the iconic artist known for his stunning fashion photography and fascinating films, Weber’s work has been ingrained in our cultural landscape, his images seen everywhere from the pages of Vogue and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to Paris’ Museum of Modern Art and our most coveted cinema screens.
Last week, we took an evening to enjoy the melancholy and beautiful sounds of legendary Jazz musician and icon of cool Chet Baker. And for all the footage and recording of his work, there is perhaps no finer documentation and exploration into the heart of Baker than Bruce Weber’s remarkable black and white documentary Let’s Get Lost, which headlines Film Forum’s comprehensive retrospective. Created in 1988, the film came just after Weber’s directorial debut, Broken Noses, melding seamlessly into the world of the moving image after he’d achieved great acclaim for his controversial and expansive work as a photographer.
The Bruce Weber series also includes his romantic and fascinating Beauty Brothers (and other short films, videos, commercials, and works in progress), alongside his documentaries Chop Suey, Broken Noses, and A Letter to True. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bruce to dive into his creative process, chat about his work with everyone from Chet Baker to Elizabeth Taylor, and explore just what he loves about capturing moments on film.
Well, I saw Let’s Get Lost last week and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The new 35mm print is absolutely stunning. What first captured me about it was the contrast of the black and white. The blacks were so seamless and the whites so magical.
[ He chuckles]
Aesthetically, how did you want the film to feel?
Well, you know, I was very lucky in the cinematographer I had, Jeff Price. I met Jeff before I did Broken Noses, my first documentary. He had an apartment on Ludlow Street and he made some beautiful films about Ludlow Street, so it was kind of an incredible thing. We talked a lot about what we wanted—but when you talk about what you want, then what you do and what you get are always different things. So we were winging it, like you would as if you were making a project for school. So the films that I worked on with Jeff, and in fact all my films, came from a totally innocent place of a beginning. And that’s what I liked about making films and I still want to make films in that way. I’m working on a film right now on Robert Mitchum and it’s coming out that way.
Do you see film as a medium which allows you more freedom to play and explore your subjects? As a photographer you’re capturing one beautiful moment but in films you’re able to get the whole contour of a personality.
I think it was harder for me because I was a photographer—not for myself, but when I first showed my films at film festivals, people were really against them because I was a photographer. People said, “Well you’re a photographer, you can’t make films.” And I said, “Well I don’t know if I make films or take pictures, but we have a film camera, we’re shooting films and you can say what you want about it.” There’s all these rules and descriptions of things—
When there shouldn’t be.
Exactly. It would be like me saying to you: “Well are you a writer of fiction or nonficiton? Are you a writer of poetry or are you a journalist?” Of course you’re not, you’re all those things.
And as an artist you’re just exercising different parts of a muscle.
So do you see your films as extensions of your photographs and how does your eye as a photographer and a filmmaker play off one another?
I always start my films by taking photographs, but they’re also being filmed at the same time. And then we continue filming and I stop taking pictures. Then maybe two days later I start taking pictures again—I think it’s nice for the camera men to get involved with the person just like I do. I think any film you make is like a marriage, it’s pretty heavy-duty in that way. Sometimes the good outweighs the bad and vice versa. And you know, there’s a lot of pain in filmmaking, especially when you get close to a person. Not just with Chet but with Andy in Broken Noses, or with my dog True in a A Letter to True…that sounds crazy.
Broken Noses was your debut, coming before Let’s Get Lost, yet the beginning of the film says “For Chet Baker.”
Yeah, I took that film to Cannes that summer while we were filming Let’s Get Lost in Cannes. And when I began Broken Noses, before I even knew the other was going to happen, I wanted it to be for Chet Baker. I loved his music and I played it a lot in there.
What was it about him that first made you fall in love with his work and become enthralled in him as a person? For me his music has always represented my love for “beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” It’s so soothing and wonderful but so deeply melancholy and coming from this tortured person.
Well initially it’s that voice. I was crazy about his singing voice—and I loved how soft he played the trumpet. It came from a deep place. And he really didn’t study music, he learned it himself. He was very intuitive that way. This might help in understanding: his favorite spot was deep sea diving—which you can’t even imagine, right? So that’s Chet. And people would come up to me at film festivals and say things like: “Chet lived with us for six months and it was just crazy.” So I’d say, “What was he doing at your house?” and they’d say, “He was our baby sitter.” One time Chet said to me, “I want to go out to your place in Montana. I want to give up touring and recording, I don’t want to play anymore, I just want to work up there. And I’ll run your place.” We have little tiny ranch, it’s not very fancy. But I just saw an image of it burning down. And I said, “Chet, no. I don’t think that’s going to work out.” [impersonating Chet’s soft voice] “Aw man, why? It’ll be really beautiful, I’ll take care of it.” I could see us getting out there and all the few things we have in the house would been pawned, just like the people in the movie. But he was a lot of fun to be with and extremely seductive as a person. Sometimes there are men and women in the world who are great being kept. And I think he was a perfect person for that, he just didn’t pick a lot of the right people to keep him. But he was incredible. He was so much fun to be with, he spoke French really well, which he learned on his own.
And you really understand that from the film. You go back and forth from being so seduced and fascinated by him but then feeling betrayed.
Yeah, the way life is when you meet somebody that you’re crazy about that everyone tells you is not good for you. One time, it was in the summer, and I was in the Adirondacksmountains where I live, and Nan (my wife and producer of the film), we got a call fro the police department in San Jose. They said, “I just want to tell you, there’s a Mr. Chet Baker here and he caused a disturbance at the Number 6 Motel. He threw the TV through the window, so we came over and arrested him. And in his car there was drug paraphernalia in the trunk.” So I said I’d call him right back. I didn’t know, in those days, that you could really make bail with your credit card. So I was thinking, who do I know that’s around San Jose? I knew Diane, his girlfriend, didn’t have any money and she was eating at a pie shop and just hanging out there crying. So when I realized I could do it on my credit card, I called the police back and I said, here’s my credit card, I want to bail him out. And they said: “Stand in line.” So many other people had offered.
And you know, when you make these movies, like when I did Chop Suey, I wanted to take Peter and introduce him to a larger world than he knew in Wisconsin. And in the middle of filming, one morning he knocked on my door at the Chateau Marmont and he was crying. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning. And I said, Pete what’s wrong he said he, “My girl friend’s pregnant.” And he was about seventeen, and I said, “Well, did you tell your parents?” And he said he’d just told them and he cried and said, “What am I going to do?” And I told him that I thought he should do everything he could to keep the baby, but if he couldn’t, his parents are so great with kids maybe they’ll take it. And he now has this extraordinary life; he has three of the most beautiful children, he kept the baby, his wife is just amazing and he has this great life. And he’s probably even better looking than he was then. But he didn’t really have that bad boy quality about him. He really had a heart of gold. I really needed a break from dealing with the bad boy type of guy. And then little did I know that jumping into my next film with Robert Mitchum, I was right back there again where I started.
Photography is such a deeply personal medium, but do you enjoy making films and especially documentaries when you’re able to really spend time getting to know and understand a person or subject?
I don’t think I would have met 3/4ths of the people in my life if I hadn’t had a camera. I was really shy, I’ve always been really attracted to writers because they can sit in a room and write something and —
Create a whole world.
Yeah, and a relationship. As a photographer and a filmmaker, you have to be intimate with the person you’re working with, there has to be some kind of intimacy. I think writers have that too, or painters in a different way. Nina Simone once said—and I always thought this was like being on the road—she said, “When you’re on stage and everybody’s applauding you and telling you how wonderful you are and then the moment you go back to your hotel room you take off all your clothes and get into bed alone, it really does something to your head.” And so what it does to my head I try to put in my pictures and I try to not be afraid of it and to face up to it.
You’ve photographed so many famous people and models, but do you take pleasure in going to unknown places being able to really capture a moment in a way that a more editorial type of photography wouldn’t call for?
I don’t really photograph as many personalities as much as a lot of photographers. I don’t really enjoy the whole process of publicists and the whole thing and the unwillingness to make a picture. It’s very different in England and France where actors and actresses aren’t used to being photographed as much, so they’re willing to make a photograph. I have a photograph of Marlon Brando taken by Sid Avery—I’ve always loved this picture—and it’s of him as he’s moving into his house. And most actors would never event think to let you come by their house, let alone the day they’re moving in. And he’s there and they’re sweeping and he’s got an apron on and in another picture he’s unpacking boxes. It think they’re so great because you really understand him so much.
I just got back from Detroit; I loved my experiences there. I photographed a lot of people I just met on the street that just have normal jobs. That’s much more fun for me. I don’t really think like, “Oh I photographed this person, that’s going to make my photograph good.” I think about where was I when I took this picture, and was I able to go somewhere. Just like when you read a book.
And who you were when you took it.
Yes, and like you know, with Elizabeth Taylor, I got to be friends with her. I was crazy as a kid about her, really obsessed about her. One of the last pictures I did of her was with this bear named Bonkers that I really loved in LA. He was a really cool bear. I’d photographed him for Abercrombie & Fitch where he’s sitting in a field reading a book with a young guy—he was kind of a spectacular bear. So I had him in a picture with Elizabeth. And for the shoot, she was a couple hours late and we lost the light, so we had to light it. It’s not so easy lighting a bear, but then I also had to light her. So I was in the worst mood and I said, “Elizabeth, you are not the star of this photograph, Bonkers the bear is. And whatever the handler tells you to do, listen to him.” And she said, “Oh, I will!” And the bear leaned over and he was in a chair and she was in a chair because her legs were really bad, and he had his paws on the arm of her chair and she laid her hand down on top of him with her Burton and Taylor big diamond ring. And she just looked at this bear and you knew why she was so great all those years with animals back in the day—like Lassie and National Velvet. She was always calling me about these pictures—”Oh, can I have another one? Can I have another one?”—because she just loved that she was co-starring with a bear. And so I liked Elizabeth because she always made it fun to take pictures.
You said you admired writers, is literature something that inspires you?
Well, writers are very shy about being photographed. There’s a beautiful picture that I have in my collection taken of Francoise Sagan in a field at a table with her typewriter and all these cows around her. And she’s smoking a cigarette and she’s in jeans a just a white shirt and she has this funny little boy haircut and she just looks like, wow, what a life. It tells a story about a woman who was a great writer and had all this fame as a young writer and then she raced cars and really trying to catch the French sensibility of things And so I think about that picture a lot and I think about that kind of woman and I hope that someday, I don’t want to do a picture like that, but I really do love the idea that I can meet somebody like that. That’s exciting to me.
How does it feel to have a retrospective at Film Forum now and have to look back on that these films, some of which you made over 25 years ago and are now alive again.
It’s funny, Sofia Coppola and I were talking about this and laughing: you think once you make a film and you go through all the trials and tribulations with it, you think well okay, it’s on its own, it’s standing on its own two feet. Well, no. You’re always going to a festival, you’re always talking about it. You’re tied to it for the rest of your life, so you’d better like what you’ve done. It would be like you writing a book and not liking it. A lot of people talk to me about my films and say, “Oh, I didn’t like that one,” and I say, “Well, I don’t know, the film’s really important to me—not because it was a grand success or anything, but because it brings back a great memory of an experience that I had.” That’s the most important thing that I have from my films.
When I first made Broken Noses, I always dreamed that the movie theater that it would be in would be the Film Forum. And I called Karen Cooper and Bruce Goldstein and I said, “Look, I made this film called Broken Noses, it’s a little film I made out in Portland, Oregon about a guy that has a little boxing club for youngster kids.” And I said, “I know it’s not very commercial and I know nobody will come, but would you show my film?” And they did. So when we won a Documentary Association Award, no one was more happy than Bruce and Karen, because at least they knew more than five people would come to see it. So I just feel like my films are back home where they belong.
Do you have any particular memories of filming or photographing someone that will always stand out for you?
When I was in South Africa and I photographed Nelson Mandela that was really special for me—it would be anybody. But there is one thing…one time I was doing a fashion shoot and this young girl came by. She was a little heavy, and she had a beautiful face and broad shoulders. She didn’t fit into the clothes really well but she was so special. And I learned from this woman I used to work with, Julie Brit, about always getting behind the person you don’t think is going to work out instead of the top model. And this girl worked as a checkout cashier at a grocery store to earn money for college, and she knew she wasn’t right fitting in. I said to the hair and makeup hair, “This is going to be the star of the shoot if it kills me.” And we made her. I photographed her for six months. She did the most glorious pictures for me and I just adored photographing her. So I always remember that and always think about it a lot.