John Davey

October 14, 1986
London, England
       John Davey, born in 1947, studied medicine in Wales before turning to the study of cinematography in Cardiff. In the late 1960s, Davey relocated to London where he trained with the NCB (The National Coal Board) film unit and joined the film union, ACTT. His credits include promos for entertainers (such as Nick Heyward, Elvis Costello, and Wings); commercials (for BMW, Royal Mail, and the Daily Mirror); news documentaries for British and United States television networks; documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, and various NGOs; ethnographic films; and dramas for television and theatrical distribution. Much of Davey’s work takes him away from his native Britain; he has filmed in more than one hundred countries. A second-generation associate of Allan King Films, Davey began his collaboration with Frederick Wiseman on Manoeuvre (1980) and continued as Wiseman’s cinematographer on every Wiseman documentary, through City Hall (2020). Scheduling conflicts made it impossible for Davey to serve as cinematographer on Wiseman’s Menus Plaisirs—Les Troisgros (2023), a documentary about a Michelin three-star restaurant in Ouches, France. In an interview with Shawn Glinis and Arlin Golden of the Wiseman Podcast (May 18, 2023), Davey described the situation as “one of the biggest dilemmas” of his life and a “traumatic” decision for both men. Davey suggested that Wiseman use Jim Bishop, who had been Davey’s camera assistant on documentaries for fifteen years, a suggestion accepted by Wiseman. Davey assured Glinis and Golden that he and Wiseman had not “fallen out,” and were talking about collaborating on another project.
       In shooting thirty-three films over four decades with Wiseman, Davey was involved in Wiseman’s transition from black and white to color, and then from 16mm to digital filmmaking.
       Davey had just returned from shooting a film on Ethiopian refugees in the Sudan when we interviewed him in London on October 14, 1986.
Question:    The Store [1983] was the first Wiseman documentary you shot in color, wasn’t it? Which brings up a whole set of problems when you’re shooting on fast stock and moving around a place that one hasn’t worked out before. I mean, that’s the whole essence of the cameraman’s problem. You never know where you’re going to be one minute to the next. So that makes black-and-white shooting a lot easier technically?
Davey:    Yeah, that’s right.
Question:    How did you deal with color problems in The Store, with all the color-balance problems?
Davey:    There was daylight; there was tungsten; there was fluorescent—different types of fluorescent light—and what I tried to do was to separate the rolls. In other words, I tried not to include—it was virtually impossible—but I tried as little as possible to include several types of lighting on the same roll of film and I shot a couple of tests that I sent to the labs, the main branch, of rushes coming in, and they looked at the material and gave me their comments. I talked to them a lot about the color.
Question:    Did you continue to use DuArt?
Davey:    Yes, DuArt.
Question:    So it was the development of the color negative that they made some of the corrections to bring back the—
Davey:    Mostly printing, I think, in the end. It was the new Eastman color film that had just come out at that time, which is 400 ASA, so that allowed a lot of—in fact, it was quite nicely lit, the store. I’d sort of nip in, you know, and I’d sort of tweak a few lights and—you just try. It’s very, very difficult to explain what we do, because so much of it comes instinctively. When you see a shot and you see if somebody’s not lit, you maneuver yourself into a position where they’re silhouetted against the light area in the background, so you can see what’s going on and these things become very instinctive and automatic. It’s very difficult, though. It’s very, very difficult, because I have a light meter here and I’m filming and at the same time bringing the light meter up and looking and just thinking.
I mean, a lot of it I can judge fairly well just looking through the lens and seeing the brightness of the image and closing the iris down and, as a matter of fact, I had this job that I’ve just done in Sudan—the first day’s filming I knew there was something wrong with the camera, very difficult to pinpoint. And, in fact, in transit, the iris had become damaged, and it wasn’t closing down all the way. By looking through the camera you can see whether something is bright sunshine and it was too bright and it was about a stop or two out and, luckily, I noticed, so after that I had to shoot the rest of the film just using neutral density, and that kind of thing.
Question:    Did you use your own camera?
Davey:    Well, I’m a partner of AKA, so I use the same camera always, the Arriflex. Although the first film I did with Fred Wiseman, which was Manoeuvre [1980], that was on the Éclair, which was a good camera in those days, but terribly bulky when you’re sitting on a tank for four weeks. Manoeuvre was my first introduction to working with Wiseman.
Question:    Had you seen some of the other Wiseman films?
Davey:    I’d seen a couple of the other films at the London Film Festival, yes. And Bill Brayne is a friend and colleague of mine. It was through him that I got my introduction to Fred.
Question:    How did that come about? Could you tell us how you were recruited and briefed?
Davey:    He didn’t brief me at all. In fact—first of all, the way that I got it, the reason I got it was being recommended by Bill Brayne and also, perhaps, he’d seen some of my films, because I’ve shot a number of documentaries that have been shown on PBS, as well as having worked on other documentaries for NBC, CBS, ABC. I’d done a lot of anthropological documentaries and that type of thing, so I guess he thought I’d be a good one to try out.
Question:    You would describe his work as anthropological?
Davey:    No, no, I’m just talking about the type of approach. No, no, they’re documentaries.
Question:    It would be interesting to hear your sense of how your camera work for Fred differs from the kind of shooting you would do for anthropological work.
Davey:    Well, not a lot, really, because you have to have the same approach in that you’re observing and that’s the whole idea. You know, it’s a little bit like sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and you look around. You see people and you look at their eyes and see what they’re fiddling with and you listen to the conversation between the receptionist and the patient and it’s a bit like that. Ninety-eight percent of his films are handheld, so there’s no tripod. You keep the equipment down to a minimum.
Obviously, people are going to be aware of you, sitting there with a camera on your shoulder, but you try and cut down this element as much as possible. It’s the same as not having lighting and not jumping up and taking light meter readings in front of their faces at all. I use a spot meter a lot. And not having too much direct eye contact and just sitting around and letting—. It depends on who you’re filming, but it’s amazing how quickly people become oblivious to your being there, if you’ve been sitting around for a long time and they know you’re there and maybe you chat for awhile and sort of put them at ease, but, you know, instead of jumping up and saying, “Hold it a minute. We want to get a reverse angle.”
Nothing is ever, ever set up and that’s one of the reasons I like working with Wiseman. I’ve shot dozens and dozens of documentaries, and I think working on Wiseman’s films is the nearest to the truth that one can ever get. Who knows what the truth is anyway? You just go along, and you try as hard as possible to record what’s going on. And it’s fascinating, particularly for an Englishman. That’s the other thing, I mean, initially I found it quite difficult, not difficult, but my approach was slightly different, having filmed Europeans and Asians, Africans.
Question:    In what way?
Davey:    You have to hold back, and you shoot from afar. But with Americans, with North Americans, it’s a lot easier.
Question:    To get close?
Davey:    Yeah, they’re less conscious or they become less conscious quicker than other people who are very self-conscious and you can always, always tell when you’re filming someone whether they’re saying it for the benefit of the camera and they’re going to play a role.
Question:    You feel you can?
Davey:    Oh, God, yeah. Every time, every time. It’s a strange phenomenon, but you can just detect that element in their behavior.
Question:    And you just stop shooting when you feel that, or do you say something later to Fred that you had that feeling? How do you handle that?
Davey:    No, we hardly say anything at all. If I become aware of people playing up to the camera or reacting in an unnatural way, we just quietly turn off, until it gets right. You might shoot that footage, but, you know, we’ll have a discussion afterwards. You say, you were talking earlier about the brief—what brief did he give me? I mean, he didn’t really give me a brief. What we did, in fact, was to shoot and then we’d look at the rushes and we’d comment on what we were getting, whether we were getting the type of material he wanted. This was with all the films, really. We do the same things with all the films. We shoot—we start shooting the first day usually, send the rushes off to New York to get developed and get them back and look at them. Luckily, I’ve got on quite well with him and we’ve never had any problems from a technical point of view. I guess we’re sort of in the same sympathy with each other as far as the way that you can film something. With a lot of tv companies, they want you to stay on the person who’s talking all the time. But with Fred, I mean, if he was filming our conversation, it might well be that he’d be watching your reactions, as well as recording my voice, but recording your reactions as to what I’m saying and that’s fine with me and that’s what I enjoy doing. Most of the takes are ten-minutes long, a roll. And then another one goes on.
Question:    Does he let you then make your decisions or does he give you hand signals about when to go in tight or—
Davey:    No, never. He never gives—
Question:    You decide that yourself?
Davey:    Yes, yes, always. He’s aware of what I’m shooting as well as being involved in recording sound, as well as being involved in what people say and what’s going on. He’s watching me as well and as long as we’re in sympathy with each other and it’s going well—. If I’m not aware of something that’s happening behind me or on the other side of the room, he’ll sort of— [Davey rolls his eyes and gestures with his head, as if to say, “Over there”]. It’s really eye contact. You say very few words when you’re shooting. In fact, practically nothing at all and that’s fine with me.
Question:    When you’re viewing the rushes, do you talk primarily about technical matters?
Davey:    No—
Question:    Or are you also noticing themes that you—
Davey:    Oh, yes, we notice things that we didn’t notice when we were shooting, as well. It’s always a great surprise when you watch rushes. I’m obviously very aware of the technical aspects of the shooting as well as the content and a lot of situations that I’ve filmed have been very, very dark and I’ve been worried whether they’ll come out and I’ll tell Fred this and say, “I’m terrified.” Every technician wants his films to be perfectly exposed and I say, “It’s not going to be any good; it won’t be any good” and he’ll say, “Let’s just give it a go and see what it’s like and try,” and we’ll try and, you can see, from a technical point of view, it’s not very good at all, but he’ll just say, “That’s fantastic. That’s great. What’s the problem with that?” He gives a great deal of encouragement and is very enthusiastic. He’s filled with enthusiasm all the time and he’s quite manic about his—manic may be an unkind word, but I don’t mean it to be unkind, but—. Of course, he only goes out filming once a year on his films, so he’s very enthusiastic naturally, while I might have got back just a week before from Khartoum. He spends a lot of time in the cutting room, and I think a lot of time is spent raising money. A great deal of time is spent raising the money to make the films.
Question:    Have you ever had an input in the editing?
Davey:    No, no.
Question:    Does the editing style change your camerawork? Manoeuvre is nearer than some of the other films to narrative film because you’re following a group of people, and there’s a time line going through it, of the people starting out in the States, flying over to Germany, going through war games, and so on, whereas with some of the films the chronology would make no particular difference say in Model [1980] or in The Store.
Davey:    That’s right; that’s right. Well, I guess with Manoeuvre Fred wanted to see where they came from and they came from Fort Polk in Louisiana and I guess it was a good way of getting to know the people as well, traveling with them. I mean, they didn’t know who we were, so we were very much part of the team and that’s the idea, is to become part of the furniture, if you like, so that they’re not aware that you’re in the way. There are all those shots of them sleeping. Every time they saw me, I had a camera on my shoulder. When they woke up in the morning, there I was with the camera.
Question:    It also means, from a camera point of view, doesn’t it, that you have to provide Fred, in his role as editor, with the kinds of materials to keep coming back to particular people, so that the time line isn’t destroyed as it goes through, so that you have to keep in mind, you know, “here I need shots of this face or this face or this face” as they come into the story, so that we don’t lose that person for 40 minutes during the rest of the film. Is that part of the shooting?
Davey:    No. I mean, these things happen by chance. You can’t work out beforehand whether somebody’s going to be a major star in the film. It might well be that their personality shines later on, and they’re always involved in things while you’re filming, but you don’t begin with knowing that. It’s just really, just purely observational and nothing, nothing preconceived is worked out at all.
Question:    When you shot Model, did Wiseman decide at that time that Apples [model Appolonia Van Ravenstein] was going to be in Seraphita’s Diary [1982]? Would you talk a little about the connection between Model and Seraphita’s Diary?
Davey:    The connection between Model and Seraphita’s Diary is, as you say, Appolonia Van Ravenstein, who was a person who was one of the models in the film and she was an interesting personality. She’d written a lot herself. She was interested in the arts, and she featured in a lot of the sequences that we filmed, although they weren’t all shown in the film. Obviously, Fred had built up a friendship with a number of the people whom he’d been working with at Zoli’s, including Zoli[1] himself, who’s dead now. He died a couple of years after the film was made. And, as you probably know, Fred has been involved with fiction as well as documentaries. He produced The Cool World and I believe he’s working in the theater now, isn’t he?
Question:    Are the films that you worked on released in the order that they were shot?
Davey:    I think Racetrack [shot in 1981; released in 1985] was shown a couple of years after it was shot. Well, in fact Seraphita’s Diary was his only release that year [1982], certainly at the London Film Festival anyway, I think. Yes, Racetrack was two or three years in the making. Well, he edited it and then became involved in other projects.
Question:    Watching Seraphita’s Diary, many of the diary episodes seem spontaneous. Were those scripted or did she just improvise?
Davey:    Oh, they were very spontaneous.
Question:    She improvised a lot of the diary passages?
Davey:    Yes, a lot of it was. I mean, there was a general theme, a general idea, but, yes, a lot of it was improvised. Quite a bit of it was improvised. There was a script before, but it changed radically as the film progressed.
Question:    And she had a lot to do with that?
Davey:    Oh, yes.
Question:    Did she have a lot of input?
Davey:    Oh, yes. Oh, yes, definitely. You should talk to Fred about all of this, really. I really don’t want to talk too much about Seraphita’s Diary. A friend of mine came with me to work on the film, David John, who’s a sound recordist and I think it’s the first time that Fred’s ever used a sound recorder.
Question:    So he didn’t do his own sound?
Davey:    No, no, it was impossible. I mean it was very, very hard. We used to work 20-hour stretches sometimes, once we started going, because the make-up took a long time. Sometimes six hours. Very elaborate costumes and make-up. We were shooting in fairly confined areas, confined spaces. It was a hard, hard job.
Question:    Can you tell us about the film stocks you used for the black-and-white films?
Davey:    I used 4-X and Plus-X. I used Plus-X and 4-X, the slow and the fast, the fine grain and the fast film.
Question:    Model looks very different. It frequently has a still photographic quality. Could you talk a bit about how you achieved that?
Davey:    I wanted to get as much contrast as possible. New York’s a great place to shoot black and white. It’s a black-and-white city, isn’t it? We had talked about shooting color, but at that time Kodak has only just brought out the fast color film and it was a problem in getting it started, so we decided to shoot in black and white. And it was great fun, very enjoyable, again a crazy schedule.
Model was when we were shooting a commercial that was being shot in the street. We were sort of the documentary crew, the poor relation, which was fine with us, because we just wanted to be in the background and to be ignored. And we shot for half a day and got a lot of very good material, and they just didn’t notice us at all. They completely ignored us and then someone recognized Fred and came up to me and said, “Is that Fred Wiseman?” and I said, “Yes, it is” and she sort of scurried off and told the director and the producer and their attitude completely changed, completely changed, because he was a well-known filmmaker. It was towards the end of the day anyway and we’d shot most of the material, but it was amazing. I mean, yeah, if they had hit upon him in the morning, “This is Fred Wiseman, the documentary maker. We want to film you,” it would have been completely different.
Question:    How did he handle setting up consent at the beginning of the shooting, so as not to tip his hand?
Davey:    Well, he met Zoli before we started shooting, a couple of months before, and then spent a day just sort of having a look around. He obviously had the idea—it’s the same with all the films he shoots. He has an idea, but he doesn’t go in and do in-depth research, as I’m sure you know. He just goes in. The research, really, is the shooting of the film. But he had permission to film the models and film on the premises at the agency where they do all the bookings and, where possible, to accompany the models on their assignments and each time, or most times anyway, the models went on an assignment, a “go see” or runway work or whatever, because there was the line of fashion shows going on. The booking agency would just say, “A documentary is being made about the models here. Do you mind—there’s a couple of guys—do you mind if they come along? They haven’t any lights; they won’t be in the way.” People say, “Fine, fine with us.” And they, it’s their own world anyway, so it was no problem.
Question:    How did it work with the Andy Warhol situation? Was that different?
Davey:    No, Andy Warhol just happened to be there.
Question:    He didn’t recognize Fred?
Davey:    Well, if he did, I mean he didn’t leap up and shake hands with him or anything like that. Again, it was low profile, and we were most of the time in the other room and Andy Warhol was watching what was going on on a monitor in another room and I just slipped in there. One time I was filming Andy Warhol and Andy Warhol was taking pictures of me, but that was really the only contact that we had. And that’s the best way.
Question:    Have you noticed big differences in an environment like that when people are so used to being photographed, models? You mentioned that Americans in general—
Davey:    They’re lots easier to film, yeah.
Question:    With the institute in Alabama, where you shot Deaf and Blind [1986][2], did you run into problems with parents?
Davey:    No, all the parents had been informed. Something I feel very strongly about is not infringing people’s rights and privacy, particularly when you’re dealing with blind people. We never crept into a room and started filming the blind kids, or the adults, because we filmed at the adult institute as well, without letting them know beforehand that there was a film crew around and that we would be filming during the daytime in a lot of the classrooms and a lot of the activities, and we both felt very strongly about people being aware.
Question:    So the parents were contacted, and then the children were also asked?
Davey:    Oh, yes, oh, yes. All the parents were asked. Oh, yes, everybody was asked. And when you’re filming with kids, like any kids, they become curious. The difference here was that with the blind kids I was getting their hands and letting them touch the camera and putting it on their shoulder, and trying, as best I could, to explain exactly how the camera worked and what a zoom lens was and where the film went and we rode around with them a bit and there were some kids who—we went to Talladega Raceway, which was, for me it was this amazing, amazing scene. And the kid sitting next to me was the drummer in the school band and he, I think he had been blind since birth and I was just trying to explain, just trying to describe my feelings, more than actually what was going on and saying, “We don’t have anything like this back at home.”
There was another situation where there was one kid from Birmingham who’d been at the Institute for a long time. He was about eighteen, nineteen, and he was totally deaf and blind, and I think one of the teachers had, through sign language on his hand, on the palm of his hand, had said there was an Englishman here. There was an Englishman as a cameraman, and he wanted to ask me questions: What was the name of the ship that I came over on and—he was a nice kid. It was an education to work with people like that. He wanted to know what type of car we had. I guess they get terribly institutionalized, and they get bused around and—what type of car did we have? We had a Chevrolet. And of the campus, there were lots of roads around the campus and I let him sit in the driver’s seat and started the car up and he felt the dashboard and felt the vibrations and we just slowly drove off and I was really driving, but he felt, felt the wheel. He was a nice kid. It was an education to work with people like that. It was nice to get on with the kids as well as that. I enjoy filming children anyway. I’ve got a 13-year-old son of my own.
Question:    Are you going to be continuing to work with Wiseman then?
Davey:    It’s up to him.
Question:    But you’d like to?
Davey:    Oh, yes, yes. I’ve worked on dozens of documentaries for the BBC, for British television companies, as well as American networks and I think his films get nearer to the truth than anything else I’ve ever worked on and whatever I’ve seen. I go to the British Film Theater and see the films for the first time—although I see rushes, that will be it. I don’t see rough cuts, unless I happen to be in Boston—and it really does sort of take me back and it reminds me of exactly how it was, and I’ve never had that feeling with any of the other films I’ve worked on.
Question:    In recent years, Wiseman’s films seem to have turned increasingly to cultural subjects, with fewer instances of institutions where people are blatantly victimizing one another. And your camerawork seems to be consistent with that. The camerawork in Model is so effective, partly because it refers to, but doesn’t buy into, a commercial look. That’s a very subtle thing, that you’re responsible for, that at the surface of that film it is aware of fashion photography. It’s not just plain old grainy documentary photography.
Davey:    Right, right.
Question:    And similarly in The Store, there’s a sense of moving through and looking at that store and sort of catching the glitter—
Davey:    Well, you’re influenced by your surroundings always when you come to shoot it and the way that I decide where I’m going to sit or stand or film in terms of framing, but, as I said before, it really is terribly instinctive. I don’t consciously go in and say, “Well, I’m going to make it look like this.”
Question:    Did you find yourself, after working on so many network documentaries, as you worked with Wiseman, taking longer takes, knowing that they might be used in a way that they wouldn’t on commercial television? One example that comes to mind in The Store is the singing birthday, the chicken scene. The scene changes in tone very much as the song continues. The very long take makes it possible to show this. If you had stopped the camera, the point of the scene could not have emerged later from the editor’s decision to run the whole scene, which gets a little less funny as it just keeps going.
Davey:    I know, embarrassing. Absolutely, absolutely. Well, it’s something we try to do all of the time. If people go out of the room, then we stop the camera running or if things are beginning to get repetitive or, I mean in an ideal world, it would be best to just turn the camera on in the morning and turn it off at nighttime and just disappear. But one tries to capture as much as possible any dialogue, as you say, as things develop. We didn’t know about that thing happening at all. Literally the telegram person walked in, and I could see that it was a singing telegram. It was lit, so we just sort of turned the camera on as the person walked in. We had no prior knowledge of the words or anything. It was quite funny to begin with, then it got perfectly embarrassing, but that’s just a personal opinion. I mean, you don’t turn the camera off because it’s embarrassing.
A number of reviews that I’ve read say that sometimes the films become a little bit academic or they’re too long, and boring. I mean there were parts of Model where there’s nothing much happening, but, you know, it’s reflecting what’s happening. Being a model is very tedious and very boring and it’s not sort of wonderful, glamorous Studio 54 every night. It’s monotonous; it’s boring. For the majority of models, it’s being turned down. There’s just a few that succeed. I’d done commercials before and I’d shot models before, but—you were saying earlier that I guess I know what it’s like, the model industry, but you don’t. You have no idea what it’s like. You have no idea the number of times that they don’t get the job and they’re turned away.
Question:    There’s a wonderful scene in Manoeuvre in which a man’s arguing with an umpire about the outcome and you keep the camera rolling and all they’re doing is repeating themselves. So much talk is just that way, but few filmmakers show it.
Davey:    Yeah, that’s right. That was something Fred did have to teach me, to keep running, because I’m so used to budget-conscious productions. That’s something I found difficult, because working on television productions, you become very aware of the budget and how much stock they have allocated to shoot and it’s terribly restricted. In Wiseman’s films you might shoot a lot of material the first week and not use any of it, because it doesn’t reflect the true picture of what’s going on and then week two or week three, then you really start to get the stuff. When people become relaxed, they become oblivious to your being there and then you can really report on what’s going on, and the truth.
But with other productions I’ve worked on, like this thing I’ve just done in the Sudan, it was a low, a very low budget production. Not much stock to shoot and it was difficult to go in and film people from an entirely different culture, let alone the problems of language. And, in fact, we filmed one meeting between—there were about 200 Sudanese men in this village who were talking about desertification, which is the subject of the film, and this meeting happens periodically, and we went there to film it and we filmed for about half an hour, so we shot three or four rolls of film and the interpreter came up to me later and said, “You know, they’ve just been welcoming you the first half hour, sort of welcoming the film crew from England.” So, of course, that was wasted.
Question:    At the beginning of Racetrack, there’s the birth of a foal and we actually never quite see the exact moment.
Davey:    That’s because I didn’t film it.
Question:    Ten and a half hours, it just finally got to be too much?
Davey:    No, it wasn’t that at all. The camera kept jamming and the battery kept going down. I was only able to shoot 20 feet at a time. There was something mechanically wrong with the camera. The magazine was losing its loop, so I’d put a magazine on, I’d shoot 20 feet and, of course, the birth of the foal, it’s over a long period. But when it pops out, it’s like a pea out of a pod. It happens very quickly. I’d shot rolls and rolls of this mare in labor, thinking it was going to pop out any minute and then, later, just as I turned around and changed one magazine to the other, I turned around and there it was. It’s always the case; it’s always the case. That’s why you should never turn the camera off, if there’s any likelihood of anything happening.
That’s the other thing, is that a lot of programs I’m working on now, they’re shown and that’s it. They go out on the telly, and you work, you know you hide yourself for three or four months in Afghanistan or here or wherever and then, you know, the credits come up at the end and that’s it and everyone’s forgotten about it. But at least with Fred’s films, they’re going to be around for a long time and people are going to look at them, hopefully, in the years to come and say, “Well, that’s what it was like at a racetrack in Belmont” or “That’s what it was like following a platoon of GIs on a NATO exercise.”
Perhaps initially there were a few things, matters of approach, that I found a little bit difficult—because, you know, being an Englishman—and one tends to stand back a little bit. You’ve got to be right there to get the material. But that might be a matter of personality as well.
Question:    Do you find Fred saying to you “More close-ups,” and that sort of thing? Is it moving in physically close or moving—
Davey:    No, no, not physically close, because we use a zoom lens and I now use a 15 to 1 zoom, or at least on the last couple of films I’ve done, I used a 15 to 1, 10mm to 150mm Angenieux. In a conversation between four people at that table over there I can go in and I can just film one of those people, sitting down there, and Fred might well be sitting over there, just recording the sound—. But I also use a Varokinetal 9 to 50, which is a fast lens and it’s very good quality and it means that I could film someone next to me in a car, very, very close, if necessary. With the Angenieux 10 to 150, you can’t really film anything closer than five or six feet without getting vignetting on the wide end of the lens, which means that you see a little circle around the edge of the frame.
Question:    He was asking you, “Get more close-ups” then? Did you have that sort of feeling?
Davey:    Not so much more close-ups as just sort of “hang in there.” I mean, it’s like with Manoeuvre, a slight embarrassment at an argument going on. I mean, my instinct as a person, as an individual, would be “how embarrassing” and look the other way, but, you know, we hung in there and they were completely oblivious, and they didn’t mind anyway being filmed. They were debating a point about whether this tank had been knocked out or not and I was just a few feet away and there were a lot of other people around as well. I don’t know if there are any other shots of cutaways of other people, but there were maybe a half dozen other people, sort of grinning and walking around. In fact, there was a branch in between me and the guys and there was a big gully and there was a tank on my left and I was desperately trying to be able to see these people and you could hear what they were talking about from a long way away. At the time, they weren’t aware of us. They were just concerned about their conversation. I didn’t say, “Oh, excuse me, before you carry on any further, do you mind if we film this?” because that always destroys it.
But there have perhaps been one or two instances where people have said, “Oh, were you filming me then? I discussed something that was rather private” and, if we had, then Fred would always, always respect people’s wishes and say, “We won’t use it.” We take the film out, take the film and tape out, and perhaps give it to them or just say, “This will not be used.” And he knows how I feel about these things, and I respect him anyway and there’s never any problem there, because there is no way that I’ve ever filmed a conversation or filmed people when they’re not aware of it or they wouldn’t want to be in the film and, as I said earlier, invading people’s privacy, particularly with the directional microphones and zoom lenses—. It’s happened once or twice with films that I’ve done with British companies. We’ve filmed something and I’ve felt it’s either been manipulated or taken advantage of people that perhaps are not aware of how something’s going to be portrayed and usually I just get my name taken off. That’s all you can do; just to get your name taken off the credits and say, “I’ll have nothing to do with this film.” But it’s only happened I think twice in fifteen years. You don’t shoot it, so you have ultimate control with the cameraman.
Yeah. I must say, at the end of most of the films that I work with him, I think, “God, I don’t need this. I’m getting too old for this.”
Question:    It must be exhausting.
Davey:    It is, physically and mentally, because you become so involved with the people. You don’t go back to the Hilton Hotel every night and you don’t have one in every five days off. If there’s something happening, you just get there and if it means getting up at four o’clock in the morning, then you do it. I have a completely different feeling working on Wiseman films than working on anything else. I have a lot of friends who I work with, a lot of friends who are film directors, and I work on their films, but it’s a strange, unique, difficult-to-put-your-finger-on-the-button feeling that I have, but—it’s very satisfying. It’s fascinating, interesting, rewarding.
Fred only makes approximately one film a year, so he’s very enthusiastic and very keen to shoot and that, really, I think is what he enjoys more than anything about his films. He obviously enjoys getting into the cutting room and looking at all the material, breaking it down, and I guess he gets slightly different views of what we’ve just done over the last four or five weeks, but there’s a great deal of fun and enjoyment and we were both brought up in entirely different cultures, Fred and myself, but we share the same jokes and sense of humor. We get a lot of fun, and they are fun, and very, very funny at times. We share a lot of private jokes amongst us, different things we’ve seen or different things that have happened.
Question:    One question an interviewer should ask is, for a professional cameraman, is the pay at a comparable level with other work that one does? Are there sacrifices that one makes to work with a Wiseman?
Davey:    Yes, I’m very satisfied with the financial reward I get from Wiseman films.
Question:    Are you ever surprised, when you see the final cut, at what has been kept and what left out, or what has been connected with what?
Davey:    I went to Boston earlier this year to see a rough cut of Deaf and Blind. Of course, there are four films now. Originally, the idea was just to make one movie about the whole campus, but it became so intriguing and so fascinating and also, to be fair to each school, to each college, it was much better to make a separate film about each one. This was decided in the editing. We were sort of joking, “This is going to be a six-hour movie,” because we were getting such a lot of interesting material and it was so fascinating, so interesting.
I make a habit of reading reviews and I’m always interested to see what other people think of his films, perhaps more than I do when I’ve been working for major networks, you know. I take a greater interest. And that’s the other thing that I like about the films is that you work on something and when you see it, you don’t say, “Well, that doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything, to how I remember it,” because there’s no narration, there’s no interviews, no commentary at all in his films. That’s why people say, “God, this is boring.” Well, it was boring at the time. I mean, it’s like the sequence in Model when Apollonia is bringing her leg up and down. In fact, the film’s not long enough to tell you exactly how boring and monotonous the whole exercise was. It just went on for hours and hours and hours.
So the only reaction that I have later is, “Well, why isn’t that sequence in?” and “Why isn’t that scene in?” And I say to Fred, “Why didn’t you include that? It was fascinating” and he says, “Well, I know. I have a terrible time deciding what to put in.” I mean he has rough cuts—ten hours. But very often there’ll be one sequence he doesn’t use, because it’s fairly similar to another sequence, perhaps we’ll have the same characters, but you just have to, or at least Fred has to, decide what is representative, in his mind anyway, truly representative of what goes on and you only come to that conclusion by looking, by putting them all together and looking at them all and saying, “Well, those three or four sequences represent the fifteen that we did as near as possible.” None of them are exactly the same. But, yes, perhaps at times I look at it more from a photographic point of view and there’ll be a sequence that I know technically I have captured much better than another one that perhaps he uses and that photographically I think it’s nice, nice steady shots, perfect exposure, perfect focus, interesting visuals, but he won’t use it at all.
Question:    There’s a shot in Racetrack in which you’re watching a woman walking a horse towards the camera and you watch both of them in a two-shot of the horse and the girl and it’s sort of like girl-watching. There are these two creatures moving gracefully towards the camera and as they get close, you pan to the left and you follow the horse and not the girl. And then, a moment later, as they walk a little further away, the girl comes back into the frame. It’s a wonderful piece of photography, because there’s a sense in which in most films what we do is watch girls go by.
Davey:    Yes, that’s right. Things like that do work out like that sometimes, I think. In some ways you have to exercise personal discipline, but in other ways it’s not a good idea, because, after all, you’re the audience. There’s no way when you’re filming that sort of thing that Fred can say, “Stay on the girl; stay on the horse.” It’s just instinctive and you follow one or the other. It’s the sitting-in-the-waiting-room sort of thing, isn’t it? And you just look around and you choose things to look at that are interesting. It’s enjoyable. I love doing it. I consider myself very lucky that I’m put in these positions where I’m able to have these interesting experiences.
Did you find it interesting talking to the other cameramen? Because I know Richard Leiterman vaguely and I know Bill Brayne, obviously, and we’re all different personalities. Bill Brayne directs now and doesn’t do any shooting at all, but I saw Hospital [1970] and I thought it was such an interesting film. And there’s one sequence where he’s in the room with the junkie, with the drug addict. “Oh, my God, I’m going to—.” I mean, the poor guy. I mean, I kind of know how he felt, but I laughed. I mean, it was so funny. The guy throws up on the floor and it’s right down there, whereas I know that I can’t—I don’t know where I would be, but I probably would have been out the door looking through the door at all this happening. I thought it was a wonderful piece of camerawork. Very, very good. And there again, I noticed, as a cameraman, a different approach with the way Bill shoots. He really is sort of standing in front of them and moving around, whereas being English, I tend to—the feeling that I have is that it’s going to affect people’s behavior, if you’re standing directly in front of them, pointing a camera at them, so I’ll be sort of over there, leaning against that pillar, just, you know, just casually filming. That’s the difference.
Question:    And that changes the tone a little bit.
Davey:    Oh, yeah. Of course it does, yes, yes. I mean, you’re there, it’s there staring you in the face, whereas I might be back a little bit shooting on the zoom lens, which gives a slight telephoto effect, so you’re not there in a big, wide cinemascope a foot away from a guy who’s throwing up.
Personally, I feel the Deaf and Blind series is going to be the most interesting that I’ve worked on in terms of the subject matter. I always feel the last one that I’ve just done is the best thing I’ve done. I always try to feel the film that I’m working on is going to be better than the previous one, but I really feel the footage, the material I got at that place was so incredible. It taught me a lot and it taught me a lot about—my nephew is blind and having worked at the school environment, to see the interaction, to see how they coped with the problems they had, made me so much more aware. I think we all tend to be, or at least I tended to be a little patronizing toward disabled people before, but you learn to treat them with much more respect. One boy, Jim Bob, was from Birmingham, and he sat in the car with me. He wanted to know the name of the ship that I came over on and what was the name of my wife and did I have any children.
At the blind school, they weren’t all totally blind. Some of them were partially sighted, but they knew that there was this English guy around and they were very good. We’ve got lots of sequences. They ignored us completely, but then when we finished filming, the blind teacher came up and said, “They want to ask you a few questions. Do you mind?” And I said, “Of course not.” And they wanted to know if I was around when the Beatles were around and had I seen any punk rockers and, apart from that, they were also asking about the political system that we have, our House of Parliament, and did I understand the American system? And, at that time, I think the primaries were going on, so politics were quite a big thing at that time and they wanted to know my opinions of the political system.



[1] Hungarian designer Zoltan “Zoli” Rendessy established Zoli Management, Inc. in New York City in 1971. Zoli’s modeling agency was the institution featured in Model.

[2] The material recorded at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in the fall of 1984 was eventually released as four separate films: Deaf, Blind, Multi-handicapped, and Work and Readjustment in 1986.

Suggested Citation: Benson, Thomas W., and Anderson, Carolyn. “John Davey.” Making Documentary Film: Frederick Wiseman and His Collaborators, Penn State Libraries Open Publishing, 2024, pp. 76-91.

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