Long before every brand in the universe was commissioning short "fashion films," Bruce Weber—the fashion photographer (a title he proudly owns) who was as responsible as anyone you could name for defining the photo aesthetic of the eighties and nineties—was making feature-length films. They spoke to his ongoing obsessions and occasional inspirations—from the great jazzman Chet Baker (subject of Let's Get Lost) to his dog, True (star of A Letter to True). They eschewed traditional narrative and borrowed the cut-and-paste, imagistic style of an editorial come to life. Hence the title of his 2001 collection of vignettes, with cameos by Diana Vreeland and Robert Mitchum: Chop Suey.
The best-known of the Weber films—including Let's Get Lost, A Letter to True, Chop Suey, and Broken Noses, as well as a selection of his commercials and shorts—comes to Manhattan's Film Forum today, the beginning of a weeklong retrospective. Taken together, they attest to the breadth of Weber's fascinations, as well as the affection and youthful ardor that drives them. "I had this acting teacher in school," Weber said when we spoke this week, "and he said to me, 'Bruce, I don't know what this big fuss is about. One day, you can fall in love with a girl, and the next day you can fall in love with a guy, and the next day you can fall in love with a horse.' I've always had that approach to my photography. I was a really shy person, and I could never have had all the crushes of all the people and the things I always wanted to have if I didn't have a camera in my hand."
Bruce Weber's films screen November 15 through 21 at Film Forum, in New York City. Weber will appear, to introduce the films, on November 15 and 16. For more information, visit filmforum.org. The films included in the Film Forum series will be released on DVD as part of Bruce Weber: The Film Collection on December 3 ($49.99, amazon.com).
When you go back to your films, in some cases years after they were made, do they strike you differently now than they did at the time?
Well, you know, once you make a film, it kind of lives with you and it becomes a part of your family. This baby goes to college, gets married, or it lives with somebody—it has a crazy life all its own. And because of that, you see things in it about yourself that you maybe pushed to the back of the shelf a little bit; then it makes you laugh or makes you cry. But I'm really happy to see them again. I still make films the way I did when I did these—I'm just in the midst of another film, about Robert Mitchum, and I've been doing it for about ten years, on and off, when I could. And A Letter to True, it's a film about my dog. He passed away two years ago, and ever since then I haven't watched it in a theater. I miss him so much, I really want to see it in a theater now, you know?
Do you approach films differently based on the subject matter? Do you think about it differently, whether you're doing something about Chet Baker, say, or Robert Mitchum? Or do you bring the same process to each one?
I bring the same process to each one. It always starts with photography, because it's something that I feel very comfortable with. When I was making Broken Noses, the beginning of the film was all about haircuts the kids were getting, with Didier Malige. We were up in Portland, Oregon, in a place called Mount Scott, really an amazing place, the most beautiful roses all over the place. And we're first taking pictures, and Jeff Preiss is filming getting haircuts…that's sort of the way these things happen. It doesn't sound so orthodox, does it?
So it develops out of your working process, as it already happens. You find the films in what you're already doing?
Whatever I do, whether it's a film or photograph, they're the same to me, in a way. Filming is an extension of a photograph. Somebody once said to me at a film festival, "You're making your film like a photographer." And I said "Well, I am a photographer, and I'm really happy about that." They said, "Oh, but you're sort of a fashion photographer," and I said, "Yeah, but I'm really happy about that, too." I don't have any problem with that.
You have to understand, these were the days when no actress would ever think about fashion. And now, of course, they all want to be models, which isn't such a great idea.
Do you think that the person was saying that because your films aren't so narrative? Because they're more imagistic?
Yeah, I think so. You know, there's a wonderful screenwriting class by a guy called Robert McKee. He teaches it at Hunter, once a year. It's a whole weekend. It's like a marine boot camp for screenwriting and moviemaking. It talks about how the inciting incident has to happen within the first eight minutes of the film. And then I'll look at my film and go, "I don't even have an inciting incident!"
I just didn't ever want to go in [with] a plan. When I first started taking pictures, I would go and talk to an art director or designer. In those days, they had this thing called a storyboard. It'd be like, "Over here is this, and over here is that"—it was these drawings of what we were supposed to do. Once I was working for Ralph Lauren, shooting a lot of girls, and somebody from over there said to me, "You haven't done this picture," and pointed to a drawing. I said, "That drawing's so bad, I could never even consider trying to do a picture like it." I like to work from the gut. See what's around me, hopefully what's behind me—I always wish I had eyes behind me, because that's sometimes the best picture. You want to keep it alive a little bit.
When you think about film versus photography, one of the things that strikes me is that film is in some ways a less intimate medium. The photograph can be just you and the person. But built into film is the whole apparatus, all the people needed to make it, and then the gathering of people to see it. You've written quite beautifully in the past of how intimate it is to take a photograph. Do you think film is different from that?
That's such a good point you're talking about. I try in my filmmaking to keep that intimacy, even though there might be so many more people. I was just up in Santa Ynez, interviewing Bo Derek for the Robert Mitchum film, because she really loved Bob and she did a late movie with him. We hung with her dog, and we went out to see the horses, and then we kind of started. We didn't call, like, "Action!" I just look at my cameraman, and I look at my assistant director, and give a thumbs-up or a wave, and we kind of just start. They meet everybody in my crew, they talk to them. I try to keep that intimacy…I just want to keep a connection. That's really important to me. Even if it's a really frustrating one, I like to keep it, you know?
You've mentioned the Robert Mitchum film you've been working on, off and on, for about ten years. Is that the usual incubation period?
No. I was coming off of a film I had made on a friend of mine, C.Z. Guest, a great socialite, great person, incredible gardener, horsewoman, and a big friend. She had gotten sick, and I started Bob's film about the same time I started on C.Z. I got really involved in my C.Z. Guest film, and it was a really problematic film to work on. So I'd work on Bob's film for a day or two and go back to it six months later. It was a little bit schizophrenic, working like that, but I kind of loved it. At one point, I thought, Bob always liked blondes, and C.Z. was one of the most gorgeous blondes in the world, so maybe they should just be in the same film together, you know? And I can just get it all done! But I never did that.
Has the Guest film been finished?
No, it hasn't. I really feel that once I finish my Mitchum film, I'm going to finish it as a short.
I was actually interested to hear you use the word socialite, because I know some people object to that term. Do you?
I think C.Z. took pride in who she was, not so much how much money she had in the bank. The fact is that she had such an extraordinary life. She got married at Ernest Hemingway's house; her daughter Cornelia's godparents are the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She had that kind of life that you used to read about, which doesn't really exist too much anymore.
Why do you think that is?
I think that people like a common denominator. I always laugh with my friends at Italian Vogue, and especially at L'Uomo Vogue. I say, "I know you don't like my pictures of men," and they go, "What are you talking about? Yes we do!" I say, "No, no, you don't like them. You don't like the fact that I photograph really good-looking men. You like everybody to look not-so-good-looking."
When I first started, I photographed a lot of girls, a lot of women, who weren't so pencil-thin, who weren't top models. And so one day I could be with Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, and the next day, with a real girl, you know, who had hips and a chest, and it was fantastic. I just never limited my life or my scope or the way I saw things to a certain kind of person. I wanted to be open.
You've often said your work is inspired by innocence—which is open, in its way. But that innocence is often lost innocence.
When I met heroes of mine who were photographers, they were all kind of like children, in a way. Like Norman Parkinson—he dressed really kind of funny and wonderful and eccentric. Dick Avedon. Even Mr. Penn was like a very shy kid in art school. They all have this youthful thing. David Bailey is like a kid who's always getting in trouble, into fights…. I think people don't want to let characters happen anymore, and they don't want to let photographers and filmmakers be so childlike. I mean, they can't take that away from me, because I'm over 50, so they're not going to bother with me. But I encourage all the young guys that work for me as assistants, and a lot of the girls that work for me, [to be like that]. Sometimes one of the guys will come up to me and say, "Bruce, I have such a crush on that girl." I say, "Well, take a picture of her! She'll be with you forever!"
You wrote in T recently that it's a dying art to be a character. Is this what the film is trying to do, enshrine some of the characters and celebrate them?
I think so, definitely. I really adore characters. In my family, my mom and dad were characters, my grandparents were. Every Sunday night we'd go to painting class, and everybody was arguing and complaining about everything, and once we get to the painting class, we all embraced each other and we all were very supportive. "Oh, let me help you with that" or "Oh, that's beautiful, that flower you painted." I think that in the sense of creating, it's something you can have as a child and can continue with the rest of your life.