Fred Elmes, who has gone on to a major career as a cinematographer, took over shooting Eraserhead after the original cameraman, Herb Cardwell, left the production during the first year.
December 10, 1981
(How did you get to meet David?)
How did I meet David? I met David at the American Film Institute. I was there as a fellow, as a new fellow, as a cinematographer, and I really didn’t have any films to shoot. There was a problem because there were older cameramen there who were doing all the films, that I didn’t have anything, and one of the instructors there –Tony Vellani – who has always, you know, thought very highly of David, put me in touch with David. What had happened was that the cinematographer, Herb Cardwell, who started ERASERHEAD – so Herb Cardwell had started the film and was unable to do any more and David needed someone to, you know, to replace him and I stepped in. And, you know, we talked about this commitment of, you know, a month or two of shooting which of course turned into, you know, several years of shooting. But that’s how it all came about. It came about through the American Film Institute because it was a film being done there at the time.
(Did you do any work with Herbert Cardwell?)
Yeah, we had a sort of transition period of, you know, several weeks of shooting where I helped out, and then Herb left.
(Was it difficult to continue something that had been going –)
Well, it wasn’t so difficult, because David has a real clear view of what he wanted. You know, he had no trouble saying, you know, what it should look like. And I had done enough work before that I knew how to get a certain look in, you know, with a black and white film. So it was a matter of carrying on the style that David had established pretty much.
(Is black and white more difficult than colour?)
Yeah, I think it is. Yeah, it relies more on lighting. I think in colour you have the advantage of the art direction. You know, the art direction fills in a lot because you have all this colour palette to play with, but in black and white the light is so important and – you know, not that it wasn’t art directed because it certainly was as well. But we did tests, you know. We photographed gray walls, painted different shades of gray, to see how, you know, how dark is what gray, or how dark is what kind of makeup or, you know, hairstyle – or this or that. We would shoot, you know, a piece of film and test it, see what we liked and then, you know, kind of go from there.
(There was a lot of experimentation?)
It was a lot of feeling our way, yeah, because David had not made this, you know, exactly this kind of film before. You know, we were both in sync as to what it should look like, but, you know, how to do it was a little bit new, you know, especially when it got into some of the effects. And we had a great time. We had made contacts with various key effects people at different studios, and David would come to me and say, “Well now, today, you know, we’re going to try to do this and we want it to look like this.” You know, “How do we get that?” And I’d say, “Well, gee, you know – I think we could get it by doing such and such.” And we’d try it and it would either work or not work. You know, then we’d go to somebody at the studio and say, “Well, you know, here we are making this film for no money, you know, at the American Film Institute, can you help us?” And they would. You know, they would give us little secrets and little tricks on how to do this and how to do that and how to save money doing it. And, you know, we would try these things and that’s how the film was made. It was a little trial and error, you know, every step of the way. We knew what we wanted and we stayed with it. It wouldn’t have taken four years if we hadn’t, you know, stayed with it.
(Were the effects sequences the last you did on it?)
Most of the effects were last, yeah, the mechanical and the optical effects.
(How long did it take to do things like the stop-motion, the little worm?)
Oh. Well, again, that’s the sort of thing that took – I think it probably took a day to shoot it, but it took, you know, another day to build it, you know, and another day to do the test on it. And, I mean, it – everything took longer. I think if we were a major studio, you know, you would build it in the morning, shoot a test in the afternoon, and photograph it the next day. With us everything took a bit longer because, you know, we didn’t have the money to just go out and do it. I mean, we had to work – we would rent special cameras to do pin-registered effects and things like that. And, you know, we had to rent it over the weekend because you could get two days for the price of one, you know, and that was the only way these things were feasible. We would build lots of things, you know, for weeks and then, you know, shoot it in two or three days because that’s the period of time we could afford to rent the camera for.
(What kind of set ups were there for – like the thing where you’re tracking along the surface of the planet?)
We did effects in every imaginable situation. Some of the miniatures, most of the miniatures, I guess, were done actually in my living room. I had – David and I had, were given an animation stand for a little while by, you know, someone who helped us, helped the production. And I had this – it was a horizontal job, it was twelve feet long and I had it set up in my living room. And we just – what we would do is, with like that surface of the planet, we would just build the effect, bring it into the living room, you know, mount a Mitchell camera – I think in that case it was sideways, it was actually shot sideways, you know, trucking along this thing. And then I think that shot actually took us about two hours to do because it was stop-framed. It was actually stop-framed. That’s another thing. We did tests. We did tests to do it another way – you know, we tried it in real time and we tried it in slow motion, and it didn’t work, you know, it just wasn’t what we were looking for, so we ended up doing it stop-frame, which fortunately we could do on this animation stand because it was rigged to time out things. But, you know, we didn’t know till we tried. And it all worked that way. You know, we just took it as we went along very much. But a lot of those miniatures were done in my living room. Some of them were done at David’s house. Some of them were done at the American Film Institute.
(Did you shoot the scene on the stage with the decapitation?)
(Was that a difficult set up? or was it fairly simple?)
Well, no, it was actually – it was difficult because we didn’t have – we didn’t quite have all the right tools. David had built this – that’s actually one of the earlier sets made, was this round stage platform. And it was built, you know, in an area at the AFI, and it just sat there for months and months and months until we could finally get around to shooting that scene. But we knew where everything was. We knew where all the black curtains were, you know, and we’d sort of made plans about how we would hang lights. But the problem was there was nothing up there to hang lights on – it was an exterior. So we had to build, you know, a scaffold. We took a big extension ladder, you know, that we borrowed from the AFI and, you know, suspended it in the area over the stage and started hanging lights on it – knowing that the only time we could shoot it would be at night. You know, after sunset and before sunrise was the only time, you know, that we could actually do it.
(This was outside?)
This was outside. So we had a situation, which we actually had several other times on the film, where the only place we could build something was out of doors, you know, therefore it had to be shot at night, you know, on that night schedule. And we had to call it quits, you know, at dawn. That was it. In fact, some of the times, you know, we had to stop – I mean, there was too much light, you know, from the sky to make the shot that we’d rehearsed. And it ended up that the first – the first shot in the film is the long trucking shot in, you know, on this planet, and it’s a massive set up. I mean, for our means at the time, it was like a thirty foot dolly on an Elmak with a crane arm and a Mitchell camera going, you know, high speed and a model that had to move and coordinate and the light – and this big black curtain, you know, twenty – it was like twenty feet high, sixty feet wide with stars in it. This was the sort of thing that we couldn’t – we needed a tremendous area to shoot it. We only had the weekend to do it because the only area available was in the gardeners’ set up down at the stables at the AFI, and they wouldn’t allow us in there during the day. You know, there was no way we could interrupt their schedule, so, you know, Friday at four when they left, we moved in and we hung the curtain and we put the dolly track up and, you know, started lighting it. And it took us the whole weekend to do, so that Monday morning at like three, we actually shot it, because it took all the time before that just to get it in place to do. And that happened, you know, time and time again. The only time we had to do it was over a weekend, and we had to work very quickly and then, you know, grab the shot, then clean up real fast so we disappeared by the time they came in at seven in the morning.
(So a lot of the effects are purely physical then?)
Most of the effects in the film are, yeah, are all done in the camera. I mean, they’re all real effects that were done at the time of principal photography. We thought about doing it, yeah, we thought about doing opticals and we decided that for the most part it was too expensive. I mean, it was really out of our ballpark money-wise, and also the quality that we got, you know, we found that we got when we did, you know, it real was better for us. I mean it was better to have those stars there, you know, at the time of the photography. You know, it was better to go out of our way to try to make a mechanical effect work rather than do it an optical later. Because the opticals – we lost control of the – you just never have as much control when you have to send it into the lab and work with them. I mean, not that they can’t do a good job. It’s just that it’s one more thing that’s taken out of your hands, whereas if you can take a little longer, you know, where you’re shooting it, it’s usually better. We found that, you know, what we lacked in monetary resource, we had in time. Because we could just take longer for the most part. We could take the time to build something right, you know, and we could shoot a test, and if it didn’t look right we’d go back to the drawing board and build it again. You know, and that worked in our favour because we, you know, we just did things the right way. So I think that in the end it really worked for us.
(It took so many years to make – were you involved in other things while that was going on?)
Yeah, yeah, I was. I had several other films that I shot, you know, during the time. For one, I was a fellow at the American Film Institute and I had, you know, several projects to do there. And I had some other commercial films. I was offered a film by John Cassavetes, so I shot a film called KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE during ERASERHEAD, during a little hiatus that we had, you know, I shot that. And Catherine Coulson, who was the camera assistant, came with me on the Cassavetes film. But I had to support myself in the meanwhile, you know. Unfortunately David could – I really admire David though. He had enough money to pay us, you know, for a long time, and he really wouldn’t – he said he couldn’t shoot without paying people. It just made him feel real bad. You know, we had a real comfortable situation at the AFI because we had a facility and the space to do it, and we had enough equipment from them and we had enough money in the budget to provide food. He provided meals and he provided, you know, kind of a stipend salary for everyone, which he felt was the only way to do it. And when the AFI finally could no longer finance the film, we stopped. I mean, we really, literally shut down for a year because the AFI couldn’t do it and David had no other source of money to fund the film. And when we started to shoot again, it was with the help of the AFI, it was with the help of some cameras and things, but not with the money. And David, you know, felt real badly that he had to ask us to work for nothing. And, you know, we agreed because we wanted to see it done, you know. Obviously no one was in it for the money. You know, we’d worked for a couple of years already for relatively nothing – the last year or two, you know, would be easy.
(Did you have any trouble starting up again after that long break?)
No, we didn’t. We didn’t because we talked about it a lot. It was like David and I were always in contact the whole time. You know, we didn’t know quite how it was going to be possible, you know – if we could get the right camera, you know, if we could get all the lights we needed, if we could get the space, you see, if AFI needed us to move. You know, I mean there were lots of “ifs”, but, you know, we talked about it all the time, so it was just kind of assumed that it would be finished. One way or the other the film was going to get finished. So, you know, one day we just started shooting again, and were able to do it. With all the same people. I mean, you know, everyone – all the regulars, you know, were available basically.
(How did it look in rushes? because so much of the effect comes with the sound. So how could you tell when things were right before the sound was added?)
Yeah, I know what you’re saying.
(Did you ever see rushes and have to scrap it all and go back and do it again?)
Yeah, occasionally. Occasionally we did. David has a very specific feel for what he wants and he pretty much knew if something was working or not working. Sometimes it was hard to tell when we were shooting it, but always on film we could tell whether, you know, whether an effect or a scene or a mood was right. So occasionally, you know, we did shoot things and then see them the next day and then shoot it again that night a little bit different. Just because the mood wasn’t right or because, you know, either for the acting or for the technical effect part. He really had a pretty clear view of what was necessary. I think that’s a real tribute to, you know, to know what you want going into it so clearly that you can make those decisions, you know, as you go.
(You sort of get that feeling just watching the films – no matter how weird they get, they’re still clearly done. Even THE GRANDMOTHER, which is more bizarre –)
Yes, it is. It is. I never forget when I – when David and I first met, we met one afternoon and there were, gee, I think there were like five people working on the film at that point – six people. And I went, you know, David came up and sort of – very typical warm handshake, you know – “Hi. How are you?” – and we chatted for a couple of minutes, then he took me in to see dailies. And they had selected a couple of reels of film that had already been shot to give me a feel of what was happening and to see if, you know, to see if I wanted to be involved as well as, you know, if they wanted to be involved with me. And they started with the real tame stuff – and, you know, it was Henry in his room, where Henry lives, and walking outside and so on. And then we got to the baby, which they saved for the end and, god, I didn’t know what to make of it. I just didn’t know what I was getting involved in. It was real strange. Because I was sitting in the darkened theatre with these six people who I didn’t know, you know, I mean it was an intimidating situation – and then see some of these real powerful images on the screen, you know, without sound makes no difference, you know. It’s just bizarre, but it’s captivating at the same time. I mean something in it appealed to a sense of – I don’t know – a sense of wonder in me, is what got me hooked. I really was hooked, you know, right from the beginning, you know, before I went down to the set, you know, before I helped shoot anything. You know, just talking to David, and meeting the people involved, and seeing what he’d done so far was enough to, you know, kind of get me going. And that was it, you know, I was in. And it worked. I mean, you know, three or four years.
(What sort of work had you done before that? before you went to the AFI?)
I went to – I’ve always enjoyed photography, and I started talking pictures in highschool – still pictures. I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology and – I went to RIT and studied mainly still photography and then got interested in films. RIT is a school in Rochester, New York. I’m from New Jersey actually. So Rochester wasn’t too big a move. Then I went to NYU, to graduate film school, and studied there, and that was – that’s what confirmed that I really wanted to go into films and that I wanted to shoot films. And I had a teacher there who was a cinematographer. I worked as a – I mean through a stroke of luck I became his teaching assistant on my first day of classes. He said, “You went to Rochester. You know about Kodak. You will be my teaching assistant.” He was a big Czechoslovakian cameraman, Dieter Botka (?) – he’s a wonderful man. And I learned so much from him. You know, I learned firsthand about, you know, shooting feature films because the guy had shot thirty feature films in Czechoslovakia. And even though he hadn’t made any in this country yet, you know, he was going to and he was talented. So I got a good start at NYU and, you know, was a student there, shot things on the side, you know – mostly documentary things, a little bit of dramatic things, a little bit as a camera assistant occasionally. And stayed in New York for a couple of years afterward. And then decided that California was the place I should probably go. And having never been here, you know, drove out one summer to look around, you know, and thought the AFI would be a good excuse to come to California to be a student again and not – chuck the responsibilities and live in a safe environment. So that’s how I got into AFI. I mean, I just applied and they liked me and it seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was. It was a great introduction to California. It was a real good way to come here and, you know, kind of learn the ropes of the film business. Because I had, you know, at AFI, I had to work to support myself. You know, I mean I did everything from, you know, xeroxing at the American Film Institute to being a projectionist to, you know, shooting films. And, you know, in fact last year they called me back to shoot a promo for them – Charlton Heston saying, you know, “We’re moving to a new campus. We need your dollars.” You know, “Send us money.” Which was a kick. It was fun. It was fun to go back. It was fun to be there. That’s kind of how I got there.
(Do you have any preference between black and white and colour? David is extremely strong about black and white.)
Yeah, David is. I learned a lot from David. Because I had done black and white films as student films, and always kind of looked down on it because I think we shot in black and white because we couldn’t afford colour mostly. That’s the way I looked at it. And I think with David I learned to really appreciate all the possibilities, you know, of black and white. Now, I’ve gone on and have shot some other things in black and white that I’m real happy with, that have been dramatic films, sort of dramatic films. So, I don’t know. I think that you really have to go by what the story calls for. And black and white, you know, was right for ERASERHEAD. I don’t know that black and white’s right for everything. I think that what’s – I don’t know, I think you really have to decide, you know, by the story. That’s the most important thing.
(Do you have any interest in doing anything other than being a cinematographer? to direct or –)
I – no, actually directing doesn’t appeal to me quite that much. I really get a kick out of shooting films. I really get a kick out of creating images and creating moods and telling a story, you know, visually, telling a story through, you know, using the tools, the things that I’ve learned. I think that producing appeals to me because I’ve done a little bit of that. I’ve produced some short films and I’ve produced some short plays, and I would consider that, you know, a creative thing, and that I would like to go into or at least have as something that I do sometimes, more than directing. Rather producing, I think.
(Did you have any problems on ERASERHEAD with the quality? I mean, did you ever find that something that had worked well had gone bad in the lab?)
Well, you mean things out of our control?
(Scratches, or problems with the developing.)
We had – I think we had all – we sort of suffered all the typical problems that any production goes through. The added burden of black and white caused us some trouble in that when we were shooting the principal part of it, fortunately it was at a time when – I think it was Peter Bogdanovich was shooting a black and white film in Los Angeles, so the lab – CFI was the lab – was processing black and white every day, and they had pretty tight controls on things. After, you know, that black and white film was shut down, there was less need to do, you know, to do black and white work in town because everything really was in colour, so we started to have little problems. They switched over to developing black and white twice a week which means that the machines weren’t always run and they weren’t always, you know, in great shape. So we suffered, you know, little problems because of that. It was really a matter of staying in contact with them, and communicating, and saying, “Look, you know, I don’t care if you only develop it twice a week. It better be good on those days.” You know, it’s a matter of letting them know that you know what you’re doing. That, you know, that they’re not going to, you know, to pull anything on you. Because I think they try, they try to do that. They try to get by with as little as possible. And unless you call them on it, and establish that from the beginning, you know, you’re off to a bad start. So we did. We stayed close with them, you know, and we developed good relationships with a couple people, you know, who became our key liasons at the lab. And for the most part, you know, we did pretty well, I think. We suffered, you know, problems with cameras – that big shot, that opening shot where we dolly in on the planet, you know, that we set up over the weekend, the first time we shot it and viewed the dailies, you know, the next afternoon, we found out that the camera was bad, and that we had a very strange flickering, due to something wrong with the highspeed camera. And we had to reshoot it. So it meant, you know, after having torn it all down, it meant taking it all out and putting it back up again on the next weekend, you know. And going to the camera house and saying, “Look, there’s something wrong with the camera. We need it again, you know, we need a good one.” You know, regardless of the money we spent already, trying to do this. So we had problems with that. You know, all those little problems we suffered, I’m afraid. And at the time they were really earth-shattering because we didn’t always have the money to reshoot something, you know, and we hadn’t had the years of experience to know exactly what it was that went wrong. So it was sort of a trial and error to find out what was the problem, and then to solve it before we reshot. So it was a little more trying then than I think it would be now. We never expected it – well, we thought it was a real long shot is what it amounted to, and we worked on it because we wanted the film to get done, we wanted it to be done right, and we knew – you know, we respected David and knew that he was going to do it right. I mean, if it was going to be done at all, it was going to be done the right way. And, you know, I for one really appreciated that. But I never thought that it would find a wide audience. Well, I guess it hasn’t found a wide audience. But it certainly has become something of a classic at least. It was shown – it was a funny thing. We showed it at the AFI, the premiere performance at the American Film Institute, which was mostly cast and crew and friends and, boy, the theatre was so quiet after the screening, it was a little bit spooky, you know, and no one knew quite what to say, you know. It was really completely different. I mean, no one had seen it first of all, except for the couple of close people, nobody had seen the whole movie together. And it was, you know, sort of different than I think anyone had imagined it to be. It was really a shock. And it is – it does take your breath away at the end, you know, and it’s hard to know how to respond to it. Which I think depressed David a bit, because he was kind of expecting, you know, some responses. He didn’t get much right at the beginning and then it was accepted at Filmex, which was really the first break. I mean, that was the thing that made, that, you know, made it possible for the film to start to have an audience, because through Filmex a distributor saw it and liked it. And Filmex is a good calling card when it comes to promoting the film. So –
(Did you ever, while you were making it, think what it was about?)
Yeah, I wondered. I wondered what it was about. It wasn’t until pretty near the end of shooting that David came out and told us what some of the imagery was and told us, you know, specifically where things came from. Which made it of course all that much more personal for us because, you know, we sort of knew these little secrets involved in the film. But it was – see, there was no shooting script per se in the traditional filmic sense. David had it all – I mean, he had it all in his head and he could tell you what happened in any scene, he knew what dialogue was, and he knew – I mean, he could draw you a picture of any scene. You know, that was all very very clear to him and he had no trouble communicating it, but what didn’t happen too often was, you know, to have it laid out in front of us. You know, we kind of took it a step at a time, and let the whole – let the process, you know, be part of the evolution of the actual film. It was a real growing process. I think it was, you know, it was for me and I think it was for David too, to go through that, you know, kind of artistic unfolding of an idea over a period of time like that. Because it’s something that David, you know, lived with, you know, for that many years. I mean, I went home and I did other jobs. And I, you know, supported myself, you know, shooting films but David, you know, kind of lived, ate, and drank this film and kind of, you know, supported himself by delivering the Wall Street Journal, you know, sometimes, or doing this or that.
(Did you ever wonder what the things did mean? or could you work over that period of time and just accept the physical elements that you were shooting?)
I wondered. I wondered what it meant and I would talk to David about it and he would give me little clues as to what it meant, or how this related to that. And he gave me just enough to go – he gave me enough to keep me involved, and to keep me hooked with it. You know, it was fascinating work and I felt confident that David was a talented person, that this would all, you know, not be for nought and, you know, the film would disappear after we’d shot it. I really felt confident that it would be completed in one way or the other. And it – you know, and David just had an ability to keep us involved, just kept us, you know, just kept us going on.
(How do you feel about the film now? all these years later.)
Well, I like the film. I like the film a lot. I really think that it’s a brilliant work and the imagery that he’s created, not just in a visual sense but in a, you know, sort of an encompassing mood, is a really unique quality, and I don’t see that in a lot of films. And I think that David’s outlook on life and society is, you know, is also buried in there somewhere and I like that. I mean, I like the way he thinks about that, so it appeals to me. But I’m kind of prejudiced, so you shouldn’t be asking me.
(Do you think you’ll work together again some time?)
I think we will. I think we will. It’s hard to say when. You know, it was much easier for me to get the job on ERASERHEAD than it would be for me to get a job with him now. Just because of the other forces involved in the films that he’s making, both financial and, you know, all the way down the line. There’s many other people involved so the decision isn’t always explicitly in his hands. But he’s expressed an interest in working with me and, you know, we’re talking about films now, talking about DUNE now. So I hope that it’ll be possible. I know somewhere down the line it will be. I would like it to be on this one.
(The project interests you?)
Yeah. Yeah, DUNE interests me a lot. I like science fiction and it’s a story that’s always fascinated me – and being real intrigued by trying to create a different world like that and, you know, think about how you would approach that visually and how you would, you know, create a world where the sky was black and the horizon was yellow and how, you know, they have different kinds of lights and they have different kinds of situations on this desert planet. So it’s fascinating. It’s always fascinated me. And I hope it’s possible. It remains to be seen.
(It could wind up taking longer to make than ERASERHEAD. Had you ever worked with any of the other people in ERASERHEAD at all before doing the film?)
No. No, I never met anyone on the cast or crew before – it was a real, completely new experience.
(Have you done anything with any of them since?)
Most of them, yes. Actually, I’ve worked with almost everybody, you know, on various projects again. It’s been – they’ve really been friendships that have lasted, you know, all the way down the line. The woman who was the camera assistant on ERASERHEAD, Catherine Coulson, is someone who I work with, you know, fairly often now as an assistant. And since we’ve, you know, both gotten into the union we’ve been able to work, you know, work together again on union films. So it really is on-going, it’s a real treat, you know, to have that. Because it doesn’t always happen. I mean, that’s one of the things that was special about ERASERHEAD, is that it was a special group of people who were all interested in seeing the film made. You know, it wasn’t a job for anyone. You know, it was a real labour of love and we all wanted to be there. Which is real different than most films today, unfortunately. And I mean that’s not always possible, that, you know, the man who builds the set or pulls the cable can love to see the film made, but still there has to be some happy medium for me at least. I would feel better about that.
(It’s certainly made my interviewing a lot easier – everybody seems happy to talk about it.)
(Are you working on anything right now?)
Right now, I work – I’ve been working as a camera operator on STAR TREK II – STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.
(I didn’t know they were actually filming that –)
Yeah, it started a couple of weeks ago and it was fun. It’s sort of on-going and I don’t do it every day.
(Who’s doing it?)
It’s being done by Paramount Studios, and it’s being done, you know, by the same people who made the TV show.
I don’t remember his name. It’s a fellow who has been a writer for years and wrote The Seven-Percent Solution.
Nicholas Meyer. A wonderful fellow. I just fell in love with him when I met him. He’s just wonderful, wonderful sense of humour. A great guy to be with, to be around. It makes it real easy. And it was a real treat to be, you know, on the bridge of the Enterprise, you know, and see all those familiar faces from the TV show, you know. It was like a real deja vu to see – everybody’s back. It’s great.
(Are you interested in getting into more effects type photography, or do you prefer the soundstage?)
Well, I’ll tell you. I really like effects a lot, and I find it intriguing. But what I find best about it is that you can make magic, you can make something happen – you can make almost anything happen, you know, in movies. You can, you know, pull strings and do this and do that. And it’s not so important to me to know how to do it, it’s just important to know that it can be done, and if you can use this or that or the other special effect to make something more convincing, you know, to make a character more convincing, or to make a story point then, you know, I think anything’s fair, you should just go for it and use it. I really hate to see effects used for the sake of effects. You know, that bothers me a lot and I’d, you know, sort of rather steer clear of that. So I have, you know, since spent some time with special effects and kind of gotten good with certain things and know, you know, what’s involved in photographing them and how the opticals work and how the laboratory treats it and feel pretty comfortable with, you know, knowledge on one level at least. I have a grasp of what’s possible. But as far as, you know, as far as learning it further and, you know, working for an effects house or working sort of – specializing, I’d rather not. I’d really rather, you know, be someone who photographs the film in the best way possible, you know, what’s right for the story and, you know, use my creative talent as sort of a way to interpret the story, but not get hung up on, you know, an effect or, you know, a particular way of doing something. And I think that’s important, I think that’s really important. I think that’s a quality that David has too. I think that he – I mean, ERASERHEAD required certain things, it required certain kinds of moods being created to, you know, to convey a thought, and we found a way to do it that was best for that film. But, I mean, ELEPHANT MAN was a film that he treated differently. I mean, it’s really, you know, rather straightforward and traditional in its approach, and it isn’t tricky, except there’s a couple of dreams in it. But it’s not – I don’t think it calls on the photography the same way ERASERHEAD did. So I think that David sort of has the ability to differentiate, you know, and use what’s necessary for the story. And I think DUNE will be the same way. I mean, from the little we’ve talked about the story and how he feels about approaching it, you know, I think that he’ll really – he’ll bring, you know, his stamp to it, it’ll definitely be a Lynch film by design. I mean, even bigger than by direction, but by entire design it will be David’s film. But it will still be the story that Frank Herbert wrote, you know, it’s still DUNE. And I think that’s a really unique quality. It’s so easy to get hung up on one way of doing things, to sort of find a formula that works for you and stamp them out. You know, find something that’s popular and do a whole bunch of them and make your mark that way without any regard for what it is you’re doing, you know, what it is you’re photographing or what is your – what story, you know, what the guy in the story is doing. You know, I think that it’s real important to differentiate. It’s a real rare quality to be able to differentiate between this story and that story, and this one requires an approach that’s different than that one. And then be able to, you know, to do them differently. But I would hope that I could bring that to, you know, films in the future. I mean, I think certainly working with John Cassavetes was real different than working with David Lynch. I mean, David is someone who’s very controlled and very concise and has, you know, minutely specific ideas about the way something should look or something should be, you know, down to the “t”. And with John Cassavetes, it’s a little bit the opposite. I mean, it’s a little bit the exact reverse, though the ends are the same. I mean, you know, John makes films that he – he makes the films that he’s good at making. I mean, he makes films that are moving – and certainly, you know, they move me a lot – but he does it in such a different way than David. It’s amazing. I know – it’s funny, in ERASERHEAD, I had one of the first days that I was there on the set and, you know, on the job, and the crew had been, you know, working on this set for a couple, you know, a month or two before me, and kind of knew – there were sort of ground rules. I mean, everybody knew where everything was and what everything was and how David worked. And I was the new kid and I didn’t know how David worked or what – kind of what to do or what not to do. So I kind of went into it the way I normally would when I photograph things, which is to sort of in a very quiet way take charge of what needs to be done. And to do it, you know, do it myself. And in the case of ERASERHEAD, you know, really do it myself because there was nobody else to say, you know, to tell to do it. So I remember on the – we were doing some closeup or something, the baby I guess it was, and I went and, you know, David had looked through the camera and lined it up and this was, you know, it was all ready to go, and we’d adjusted the lights and I went over to the table and I moved this little prop over so that it was not hidden so much by something else. And Catherine, who was the assistant, turned to me and said, “Fred, we don’t move things on that table.” And I said, “Well, look, you know, it’s just that it was blocked and I wanted to see it more clearly.” And she said, “Well, David has never moved anything on the table.” “Oh, well I’d better go and put it back then.” Heaven forbid David should see. I was meddling. It certainly wasn’t my intention. But it was real funny being thrust into that world, and kind of sink or swim. And we did – it was one of those situations where David was on a night schedule because of – well, partly because a lot of it had to be shot at night and partly because he enjoyed working at night better. But I would, you know, be up at AFI all day, you know, working or doing things around the classes or working on other films, and then at five-thirty we’d watch dailies from the night before and then go down and start shooting, and shoot until three or four in the morning, you know. Sometimes later. And then I’d get up, you know, at eight or nine and go to AFI or go to whatever other job I had. And everyone did this. I mean, everyone had at least one other job, you know, during the majority of the time we were shooting. And we just, you know, we just maintained, I mean, we just – just became a way of life. I used to live out in Topanga at the time and I got – sort of put the car on automatic pilot going back, you know, because there was no way I could manouever the hill by myself. It was a great time. I really – I look back on it real fondly. It was a lot of work, you know, we really did work hard. I mean, I look back at diaries that I kept, you know, over the years and I really – I don’t know when I slept sometimes. I mean, I used to work on something during the day and work on ERASERHEAD all night, then, you know, meet my friends and go horseback riding at seven on Saturday morning, you know, and I don’t know quite how I did that. But it was a real good time, you know, and it was real fulfilling in a certain sense to be working, to be that immersed in a film project, because I came to California to get involved in films and I had looked at the AFI as sort of the answer to kind of fulfill the dreams instantly. And it wasn’t working out at first. I mean, there was nothing for me to do there. It wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be. And then ERASERHEAD came along and kind of filled in a gap where I could – you know, I mean, I was shooting a film and I – I didn’t know kind of what film it was for a long time, and I didn’t know if anyone would ever see it. And I didn’t know – there were a lot of unknowns, but I was involved. I mean, I was really involved in it and I, you know, I had responsibilities and I learned a lot about the laboratory and I learned about new equipment and, you know, we explored new things together, which was real fulfilling. You know, and then I – in an artistic sense, I was creating something. Which for me is real important, you know, to have happen. It’s important to be, you know, working on something. And because of the sustained nature of the project, it was, I mean, it was something that David and I could just talk about for years. You know, we used to live, you know, a block from each other, so we would, you know, go over and have coffee wherever in the afternoon, and even in the time when we weren’t shooting, we were planning. I mean, you know, we would have so many napkins and place mats that have, you know, block diagrams and little storyboards written on them as to how, how we were going to do effects and what we would have to build in order to do the effect, you know, and where we were going to get all this equipment from for free, you know, and how long it was going to take. I mean, we really had that planned out and gone over so many times.
(I guess you’ve never worked on anything quite that way, besides ERASERHEAD.)
Not – no, nothing like that. Well, partly obviously because of the length of time involved in the production. Partly because of the nature of the project. It was, you know, it called for so many special things that – and every one had to be thought out somewhat. You know, every setup required a certain – a certain new thing. Every effect or every scene required, you know, pre-thinking it. And partly because David’s so meticulous. I mean, David really, you know, requires that. He sort of – you really have to know what you’re going to do in a situation because he does. I mean, he’s sort of done the homework ahead of time and he knows what he wants and looks to me, as the cinematographer, to, you know, to be able to provide, you know, a certain, you know, feeling. Which is real challenging. I mean, it was great. It was real wonderful to be involved – and to be involved with someone who was so – I don’t know, so undemanding. I mean, in a personal sense, you know. I mean, the work was demanding and we certainly, you know, worked long and hard, but there was no ego involved. And all these things that are the trappings that I find in a lot of, you know, commercial Hollywood productions were completely missing from, you know, from that whole film. I mean, it was real nice to be in that situation.
(Can you think of any more anecdotes about the shooting?)
No. I can’t think of anything right now. Let’s see. We had some – actually, there were so many funny things. All these things are funny in retrospect because at the time they were – they were horrible. I mean, they were horrendous problems. Some of the production problems where we had – something we were shooting outdoors – oh, I know. We were shooting the stage, the Lady in the Radiator and the stage. We had – we had the oddest schedule because I would – I would be working all day, Catherine would be working all day, and David would be sleeping all day. And then we’d kind of converge at five-thirty or six o’clock on the set and start, you know, to shoot as soon as it was dark, so I’d be lighting then we’d start to shoot. But the problem was that the woman had to wear makeup. I mean, it was quite a makeup job, quite an event. And it took a couple of hours to get her set. So we’d, you know, we’d really rush to get into it, and get lit, and start shooting it as soon as it got dark. But then David was on this schedule where he had to deliver the Wall Street Journal and it was a night job. I mean, it was a job that – I don’t know what time other people did it, but I know that – it seems to me David would leave around twelve-thirty or so, you know, in the morning, for a couple of hours. You know, and then we’d – sort of like, it was time to take a break, you know, we ate and, you know, kind of held the fort or changed lighting for a new setup, while David went out, picked up the papers, folded them and through the whole paper route, and then came back around three-thirty and we would get a few more shots in before dawn. And this went on for a few days; I don’t know quite how we did it when I look back on it. I know occasionally the Wall Street Journal didn’t get delivered. Once in a while there were some complaints. But the movie got done.
(Who did things – do you know who did things like Henry’s rubber head and so on?)
Oh, these were all – David built everything. David built everything, you know, right from the beginning. And he had – I still don’t know quite how he learned about all these things. I mean, some of it came out of the former films and some of it came out of his kind of inquisitiveness and, you know, want to tinker and learn about building things, because that always intrigued him. But David built it all and it was allA– most of the props were built before we actually started shooting, the baby and the – you know, I mean, all the properties and things, you know, were built early on. I don’t know if David wants – did David talk to you about building the baby?
(No. He doesn’t want to talk about it.)
That’s something that we really shouldn’t talk about at all. But, you know, David built everything and, in fact, the sets as well because the whole film was done on sets. There’s I think one practical location that’s in the film for, you know, a minute. And the rest of it’s –
(The oil refinery thing?)
The oil refinery was, yeah, was a section of town not far from the AFI where, you know, that he found that we – he changed around a little bit, but basically it was – there are those couple of exterior locations, most of which don’t exist now any more. Unfortunately, the refinery, that little – it was like a holding area, is what it was – there was a pump there and some tanks and stuff, and it was defunct for years, and then it was finally, they took it down and put a new building up. And a couple of the scenes downtown that we, you know, we searched and, you know, found these areas that looked like nowhere in the world. You know, these industrial zones are pretty much gone now unfortunately.
(Was the outside of the X’s house, was – I mean, that was a set?)
No, that was a set. Yeah, we built that. That was another one of those things that we built starting at five o’clock on Friday – we started hauling in dirt. It was the craziest we’d ever tried, but we, I mean, hauled in dirt, you know, planted plants, built a sidewalk, built the facade of the house – I mean, the front, you know, the window, all pieces of sets, you know, tacked them up down at the stables where we were working. You know, and that was kind of all Friday night. Then all Saturday night we lit it and then Sunday morning we shot it and took it down again before the gardeners came in at seven o’clock in the morning. I can’t believe we did that. I still don’t believe we did that. Time and time again, we did these crazy things.
(It certainly paid off anyway.)
Yeah, I think – I think it was worth it. I think it was worth it. I mean, we certainly developed strong friendship binds, you know, ties.
(I guess you’d have to, working in a situation like that.)
And we’re all, you know, we’re all still close now, which is good. And, you know, we have a movie. I mean, a movie came out of all that. It was really a surprise when David told us, though, that, you know, that he had a distributor. The distributor, after seeing it at Filmex was really interested in showing the film and he was going to sign a contract with him. I mean, it was such a sort of dream come true, because none of us had ever imagined that, you know, that there would be an audience out there for it. I mean, not looking at it selfishly at all, just for David it was such, it was so nice to see him happy that it was all for some good, that people were, you know, actually going to see the film.
(Were you surprised when it did get an audience?)
Oh, yeah, yeah. Absolutely amazed, completely amazed. It was just, you know, we used to, you know, buy New York papers and find reviews for it, I mean, you know, we would go out and search for reviews and things, and see how people liked it and what the responses were. And we’d get reports from, you know, the distributor: well, it just opened in Cleveland, you know, it just opened here and it just opened there. It was just great. I mean, it was really wonderful to hear this for a film that, you know, as much as we wanted to see it done, we never felt would muster any wide audience. It was great. And we certainly never – I never imagined that there’d be any financial return. I mean, I certainly wasn’t in it for the money that I was being paid at the time. It was really maintenance money and most of it was free anyway. And then the last thing that David did when, you know, we started shooting again was, because he couldn’t pay us, he, you know, had offered us a percentage of the profit of the film – if and when it should ever make money. And, you know, for so many years it was just words on a piece of paper that, you know, we did and we accepted because we knew David felt strongly that he wanted to repay us, he wanted us to be reimbursed somewhat for our effort. But, you know, we were all certain that it was not possible for the film to make any substantial amount of money. So it is a surprise and a welcome one, a welcome surprise that, you know, there’s some money coming back in for it, to be profit participants in it. It’s nice.
(We were talking about effects – when the planet explodes, how was that handled? did you shoot that?)
We, yeah – that’s actually a real good one. We – this is another one of those effects that we didn’t know quite how we were going to do it. And, I know David – I mean, David knew, felt confident it could be done. And when he built that model of the planet, he had built the nose section without any structure behind it, so that it could pop out. Because he had planned – I mean, it was planned right from the beginning that, you know, that was going to happen and we were going to move through and in, into the blackness. And, you know, he had painted a white rim around it so that it would read right once it was broken away and it was all scored and, you know, we had to be very careful not to bump it ‘cause it would fall apart. But when it came time to shoot it, we still really hadn’t come up with a plan of how to pop it open because, you know, we couldn’t use – I mean, explosives were kind of out of the question ‘cause there was smoke and fire involved and that was not the effect at all. It just had to be this breaking up explosion. And we knew what it wanted to look like but not how to get it. So we – Jack Nance, who was the actor in the film, was somebody who, being around the whole time, helped build sets and helped, you know, helped with whatever needed to be done, you know, when he wasn’t in the scene. So, he and David came up with a plan to build a catapult. And they were going to take these lead weights and put them on a catapult, underneath the planet model, and on cue we were going to release it and these lead weights were going to spring out and explode. I mean, that was going to be the device to explode it. I said, “David, look –” you know, “I’m sitting there with the camera ten feet in front of this – do you want me to just stand there?” David said, “No. Well maybe we’d better build you something.” So we built this enormously elaborate shield where, you know, it was four by eight foot plywood boards with holes cut in them with plexiglass on them, because it was a special – it was the only three camera shot in the film. We had three cameras because we knew it could be done once, and we were going to get this shot no matter what happened. So, you know, we set up the cameras and they were high speed and they were running at different speeds so we could, you know, choose which one we wanted. And we had this special – you know, we had it lit in this special way so that we’d see all the pieces fly out and then they’d be all backlit and stuff. And the problem was that the catapult rig hadn’t really panned out. We talked about it a lot and we tried a little test shot and it just – I mean, the lead weights went about two feet and that was it, you know. And no one knew quite why they only went two feet, but the fact was it wasn’t going to happen. So, this was one of those situations where we’d shot, you know, a whole bunch of other stuff during the night and it was like five-thirty in the morning and the sun was coming up. And we had, you know, we had to get this thing to break apart, right, so we could shoot it because the gardeners were coming in a couple of hours and all this had to disappear. We had to be gone. So I – I don’t actually remember what happened. I only know that David, in a frenzy after finding the catapult wouldn’t work, you know, sort of threw the thing halfway across the driveway and picked up the weights and did it himself basically. So that shot is done, you know, with David under the planet, throwing the weights up through the nose and out at the camera.
(How come you don’t– I don’t recall, I mean –)
Oh no, you didn’t see it. You didn’t see any weights. I mean, it was – that was one of the miracles of it, the trajectory was such that you weren’t going to see those. All you were going to see was pieces. I mean, it was one of those things that worked out and, fortunately it did, because it would have been very very difficult to shoot that again.
(It was made out of clay, was it?)
Plaster. Well, no it was actually, it was actually fibreglass. It was fibreglass. It was – I’m pretty sure it was fibreglass. But David is wonderful with all those materials, with rubbers and fibreglass and plastic and plaster. You know, he has a wonderful technique for working with them. There were so many stories like that where, you know, we had to get – where we started building canopies over things to keep the daylight out so that we could get one more last shot in before, you know, it was too light to shoot. You know, and I still look at shots in the film and I think, “My god, that shot looks a little different,” and then I remember that actually there was – there was skylight, you know, everything was very subtly filled from the top by the skylight, you know, because it was like the last shot of the morning before we had to wrap it up. I don’t think anyone else would notice, but all of a sudden this comes back to me.
(In the opening of the film, when the Man in the Planet starts pulling levers there, how was the shot done with the thing which sort of comes out of Henry’s mouth? I mean, it’s obviously a composite, but –)
Yeah, that’s a super. That’s – I know – it’s a little hard for me. I’m not sure exactly what David wants to reveal. I feel a little –
(The shot is so well lined up –)
Yeah, it was – you know, that shot, plus a lot of shots, were done, were planned out so well in advance – I mean, it’s like, that’s one of the few opticals in the film, and we knew, you know, we knew exactly what we needed. And, I know in that one we shot a couple of tests because we couldn’t get Henry to float right. It was the hardest thing to get him to, you know, to sort of float in space. And we knew – we knew where he was going to go in the shot, we knew what the move was, and how long and everything about it. We just didn’t know how. And we shot it a couple different ways. And then ended up – ended up doing it in such a way that he was – he was not actually sideways when we shot him. He was sitting upright and the camera was sideways, and he was bobbing up and down and actually he was sitting on the dolly; we had locked the camera off and he sat on the dolly and we just dollied him back and forth, you know, against a black background. See, it’s him that’s moving and on the, you know –
(That’s a real background there, is it, like the stars behind him?)
No, that was – the stars were photographed with the planet. So it was – it was him against black. But so many things like that and the fetus, you know, coming out of his mouth and so on were lined up so carefully ahead of time – we would take, you know, we learned how to shoot one scene and take a clip of the scene and put it in the viewfinder of the camera and line up the camera, you know, like they did in the old days, to be sure it matched. Because, I mean, that was the way that we had to do it. And it just, you know, it wasn’t easy and it didn’t always happen the first time. But we eventually got there, you know. I mean, we used tricks – they’re not new tricks in the industry, but they were new to us at the time. You know, ways to like I said make people float or ways to – some things, it was easier if you turned the camera sideways or upside down even – we shot things upside down. We shot things oftentimes with the camera running forward and then printed backwards to make an effect happen, because that was the only way – I mean, it was – some things that defy gravity, you know, require special handling. You know, we had to figure out a way to do it and we, you know, being babes in the woods, you know, had to feel it out as we went along. I mean, we would call some old guy at the effects houses and they would sort of give us a clue and then we’d run back and, you know, try this out and it would work a little better and then we’d sort of make refinements and we’d shoot it again, and it would work, you know. But, I mean, it was all – it was all tricks that we learned as we went. I mean, no one gave us a book and said, you know, “Here’s how you make the fetus float.” Because, I mean, obviously there’s lots of different ways to do it, but for what we needed, you know, this way seemed to work and, you know, and we got it. But it was –
(So, you sort of rediscovered a lot of old techniques.)
Yeah, we did. We really did that. I mean, much as I – I did lots of research. I read books on how to do this and how to do that. But, you know, we still had to invent as we went along. We had to put this technique together with that technique, and gave it a try, you know.