India Enchants John Bailey

By Pickle  December 2, 2019

Everybody talks about the colors of India. Colors are magnificent. But the texture is fascinating, says John Bailey, acclaimed American cinematographer, film director and former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Bailey along with wife Carol Littleton (Film Editor) was recently in Goa to attend the International Film Festival of India as head of International Jury for Competition films. In an exclusive interview with Pickle, he expresses his keenness to explore India to shoot a film

What has been your experience being at IFFI as head of International
Jury for Competition Films?

It is truly international. IFFI has Indian Panorama and Indian section, but international competition is truly international. Some festivals (in Europe and Asia) tend to highlight and have a narrow focus. IFFI’s competition films are from everywhere. The films that Jury honor will be films that have real substance to them.

We have 92 countries competing for the best foreign film in Oscar foreign language category? But only one film wins. Is that enough?

Every competition has some kind of guidelines. For an example, we have a competition for screenwriters called the Nicholl Fellowship. It’s a screenwriting fellowship. There is a cash prize worth $35,000 for five winners for their next screenplay. The rule is that you have to be an unproduced writer. You cannot have had a commercial screenplay made. Each year we get 7,500 to 8,000 entries. That’s a lot more than 92 for the international films for foreign film features.

The Academy has a pretty good way of dealing with the foreign language films. Every film is shown in one of the two Academy theatres. And the voting is not based on the number of people who see it, but the ratings that the audience gives. And, then, of the 10 films that make it to the shortlist seven are chosen by the general committee. A smaller executive committee picks three more films that they feel are artistically very important which the general committee might have overlooked. All 10 films are screened together in early January on weekends. And, anybody in the Academy can see them. We project them in New York, Los Angeles, and London. They can also stream them. The five nominated films are chosen that way.

Each country has its own submitting committee. The Academy tries to evaluate how fair those committees are. However there are challenges too. Filmmakers may say that the film that was submitted this year was made by the sister-in-law of the President of the country or the Cultural Minister. And, this is not our best film. We have a special meeting where we look at all of our challenges. And there are guidelines that most of the filmmakers have to come from the country of submission. You cannot have a film submitted by Morocco that was made by French people even if it was shot in Morocco.

How do you see streaming services taking over? Will the future be different for Oscars?

The only thing that will change is change itself. Change is constant. What the changes will be, we are yet to know. The Academy, just like film organizations, film distributors, audiences, is very uncertain right now. Change and uncertainty has been the history of motion pictures from the very beginning. Because unlike some of the other arts, which are made by smaller groups of people or painters, motion pictures involve lot of people and lot of money. Therefore, money and finance play a large role. That’s a given. As long as there is a change in shifting between art and commerce, we are going to have these challenges.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I can tell you this. A lot of people—I am not saying older conservative people, but some young people—feel that the essence of a motion picture is being seen in a dark room on a large screen with an audience; where you go some place and you surrender yourself to a collective experience. It is not you and your living room, coming and going, turning it on, hitting a pause button. You yield yourself and your life for the time and experience to surrender yourself to it. And, a lot of people feel, if we give that away, then we no longer are making motion pictures. Therefore, it is called the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts & Sciences, and not the Academy of Streaming Movies.

For instance, Netflix is buying several movie theatres. They have had to rent a Broadway live theatre to show Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’. It costs them a lot of money to retrofit a Broadway theatre. That’s crazy. They are trying to buy theatres and show their movies on larger screens. Studios like Disney and Paramount are starting their streaming platforms. So, if Paramount is making streaming content, I am not just talking about distribution. I am talking about creating original content. Then, what is a motion picture studio.

How did 2019 turn out for you?

Carol and I have traveled a lot. We have been to many countries. We were in India in May this year after we got an award at Cannes Film Festival — insignia of Officer des Arts et Letters (Officer In The Order Of Arts And Letters). We were in Telluride, Morelia International Film Festival; we went to Poland, Toru Film Festival, where they gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award. We flew directly from Warsaw to India (Goa), via Doha. We have to pack our suitcases for extreme weather. It was five degrees in Poland and 32 degrees in Goa.

What are your plans for 2020?

I want to continue to work as a director of photography. If I find a good screenplay and good director, I will do that. Otherwise, I would continue to write. I enjoy writing very much. I wanted to write a book on my life and reflections on how my life was defined by movies in five decades. I joined the Union in May 1969. I was a camera assistant for eight years and a camera operator for almost four years. And then, became a Director of Photography in 1978.

How has been your experience in India?

In some other countries where I go, where the country is small or the culture is contained, you feel like you know the country after you visit one or two places. But India is many countries in one. It has many cultures, many ethnicities of which I know only a very small part. We have been to Delhi in North, we were in Mumbai and Goa, but we have not even touched the South of India or East of India. There is a huge country left for us to explore. I will definitely come back, if someone asks me to.

Being in India is such an intense experience. We see so many people. There are so many things to see and hear. It is like having a very rich meal. The sense of culture and happenings is so intense for us because we are quite people back home.

You are a cinematographer. What does your eyes tell you when you see India? Will you do a film in India?

I would love to do a film in India. It is incredible. Everybody talks about the colors of India. Colors are magnificent. But the texture is fascinating. Older concreted buildings are abandoned, but not torn down. I live in a country, where as soon as something is old, they tear it down and put a new one up. Talking about color and contrast, we went to Agra and visited Taj Mahal. I was amazed at the texture of the walls and how smooth it was. People talk about light or color composition. These are all important. But to me as a cinematographer, texture and the light that reveal itself in motion picture creates a sense of depth.

As a cinematographer, is doing a web series same compared to doing a motion picture?

If you look at my credits, I have done only a few TV movies. Even as a camera assistant and operator, I have done only feature films. And, I cannot help or work to think as a feature cinematographer. I am very committed to anamorphic aspect ratio of 240, which in the 1990 was starting to die-off. It was not popular. But with the digital camera, almost every film that we have seen in this international competition has been shot in the 240 aspect ratio. Somehow, shooting in 240 says shooting feature films because TV and streaming is almost 185. So, if you want to really make a statement and say it is a motion picture, not a TV movie or a streaming movie you shoot in 240.

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