The X-Files Lexicon's Exclusive Interview with John S. Bartley
Conducted by Matt Allair (02/26/2008)
The name, John S. Bartley, may not be immediately familiar to X-Files fans, yet he played a pivotal role in the visual look of the series over the first four seasons. Fans will often cite the feature film quality look for the early seasons, not understanding, or forgetting it was a combination of immense talent, circumstance, and serendipity that resulted in that distinct look. John S. Bartley was already a highly respected Director of Photography and Cinema photographer when he started working on The X-Files. He originated from New Zealand, moving up the ranks as a gaffer and Cinema photographer while working alongside such innovative Cinema photographers as Sven Nykvist, and Tak Fujimoto, up to the time he took on the challenge of helming the cameras for The X-Files.
The role of the Director of Photography is probably as vital a role for a television series or a feature, as is the role for a director, writer, actor, producer or visual effects technician, if not more so. Often, this role seems to be taken for granted by the public, in part due to the fact that if a director of photography's work is seamless, then the audience should not notice it. The lush greens of the locations and landscapes of Vancouver, the well placed shadows and light that framed every shot or sequence, the non-Hollywood realism in how the actors were photographed, as well as avoiding some of the clichés often used by your pedestrian cinema photographer when dealing with the horror or Science Fiction genre, to a degree, John S. Bartley should be credited for his role in the series. The facts being that he laid down the foundation and a blueprint for how the X-Files should look.
I'd long wanted to conduct this interview, due to my tremendous respect for his work. The possibility of this opportunity began in mid December of 2007. And may have had something to do again with the WGA strike and the shutdown of numerous productions, including the series Mr. Bartley is helming, Lost. During our conversation, I found Mr. Bartley to be very forthright, and unpretentious, sincere and patient, thoughtful and pragmatic. At the beginning of this interview, there was a technical problem and Mr. Bartley's response wasn't recorded for transcription. He was very patient and gracious enough to respond once again. He admitted to reading Peter Jackson's biography as of recent with great admiration, as well as expressing a desire to return to his native home of New Zealand. The interview proceeded as follows...
Matt Allair: You hail from Wellington, New Zealand. It seems that there have been some very distinct filmmakers from such locations as New Zealand and Canada. Do you think because the film industries in those countries seem relatively young, there's more of a willingness to take risks, compared to the established industries in Europe and America? Are you proud and pleased by the recognition of New Zealand filmmakers?
John Bartley: Yeah I am. I think it's funny, you know? The industry actually in New Zealand has been going for quite awhile. Quite a few New Zealand films out there. There used to be a film studio in Wellington back in 1916, or something like that*. It was a healthy industry for years, but you know, it's only recently that it's really--you know--made the headlines, kind of thing. Anyway, it's a bit like Hawaii in some ways; there's a lot of movies and series done in Hawaii, but no one really knows that much about them. You say something about filming in Hawaii and they automatically think of Magnum P.I. or Hawaii Five-O, and that's about it. Because that's what it's known for, but there's a lot of stuff that happens in Hawaii. Same as what's happened in New Zealand that people don't know about here.
Matt: You mentioned you were reading the biography of Peter Jackson?
John: Yeah, yeah. Funny, but my cousin who lives in Napier, she gave me it about a year ago, and I sort of see it sitting there--I [was] just looking at it. I was just up there for awhile and I should read that. I think I might make some time for a trip back to New Zealand--I'm not sure.
Matt: When you saw the Pilot for The X-Files, did you sense there was something special about Chris Carter's concept for the show? Could you sense any potential longevity?
(At this point, X-Files Alumni David Nutter gives him a call that he had to return.)
John: I thought the concept was really good, I didn't know--I didn't think it was going to be any more than twelve episodes, and I just thought "Oh, here's twelve episodes. This is going to be good. We'll do this and move on," you know, and then twelve episodes turned into twenty-four, and then it just kept going.
Matt: When you came on to the show after the Pilot was filmed, were you mostly following what Thomas Del Ruth had established?
Matt: Did Chris Carter sit down with you and reference the look of certain films, painters, or photographers, as far as what he was looking for?
John: No, it just evolved. It evolved, and I'm not sure why. I think I was given carte blanch to do whatever I wanted. I know that in post, Chris probably made things a little darker sometimes, and I know the color timer told me that, and I think that generally he just said, "Go ahead do what you want," which doesn't happen much these days.
Matt: You've commented that whenever you were shooting a mythology episode, you'd use a darker film stock like 5293, and a lot of smoke.
John: You know, I would say we used smoke when we had the opportunity. You use smoke sometimes. If you can't control the environment to keep the smoke in the room or the area, you can't do it, right? But if you can't fill the room up or the building up, it just looks like the place is on fire. It has to be a location where you can do that.
Matt: I wanted to ask about your approach to daytime exteriors. The Vancouver locations had such a distinct, rich look on the show. What film stock, filters and lens do you recall using at the time for the exteriors?
John: You know, I don't think we used very much in the way of filters. You know, in the wintertime there it doesn't get very bright during the day. Sometimes you think, "God, it's never [going] to come more above 2.8,"** which you'd like a little more, maybe up a little brighter, but basically an overcast day is an overcast day. That did give the show its look. It really helped out. If there had been blue sky and sunshine all the time, it wouldn't have had the same effect. We always had the summer off--the summer is hiatus time--with the good weather I always used to joke about, you know? The time you got off, which is like two months, the weather was best in Vancouver. Why would you want to go anywhere else? We worked all through the winter, which was pretty miserable, some of those winters.
Matt: Aside from watering pavements and sidewalks for visual effect, as well as the use of smoke, would you be willing to divulge any other favorite day or night lighting techniques you loved using while working on The X-Files?
John: I think that in particular to what it was, I think the best thing was just being able to make out what you were looking at. As I have said many times and other people have said, sometimes it's not what you don't see is scarier than what you do see. I believe in darkness and hiding things and what it's you insinuate is going to happen. It's interesting to watch horror movies these days 'cause that's what a lot of guys do: they don't really show you too much, and you don't want to see too much.
Matt: The X-Files had such a distinct cinematic visual flare. I was wondering which cinema photographers had an influence on the look of The X-Files. I was hoping to throw some names out and get your response.
John: I saw your list of DP's. I thought that was kind of cute actually. Let's go through them then.
Matt: Gregg Toland?
John: I always loved his work. It's always great stuff. So lucky to be able to do the things he was able to do.
Matt: Stanley Cortez?
John: I can't quite remember too much of Stanley Cortez. A great cinema photographer, that's all.
Matt: Sven Nykvist?
John: It's interesting, I worked on two movies that Sven did. I gaffed with him and he did have a big effect on me. I loved his lighting style for big areas, his ability to use big soft lights. He was a very interesting guy to work for.
Matt: Tak Fujimoto?
John: I gaffed a movie with Tak too and I really like Tak's work. He's an interesting guy.
Matt: Were there any other cinema photographers who did influence the visual style for The X-Files?
John: The first year of The X-Files, the budgets weren't very high; a lot of times our staff's sets just didn't finish. (Laughs) They built the sets and it wasn't finished and we just didn't have the money to finish up the end of the hallway, or the time. We used to joke about a lot of the sets, you know? When you walked down them, the paint was still wet, and the crews, the paint would get all over their jackets. That happened more times than not. Sometimes, some of the locations, like some of the sets, the mental hospital when we were in Vancouver--that place is always damp, you know, and it's very hard to heat it up because there's no heating in the building. We used to bring in gas heaters which made it damper, so things just don't dry--the paint doesn't dry. So, it was always damp. I think the best thing that helped X-Files out and me was [the] paint. I wouldn't call it shiny paint, but paint with a fleck in it that kicks off walls and things like that. It's very hard to do because sometimes you have to lay two or three coats of paint on a wall, and it's expensive. If you go to a production manager now and say, "Okay, we've got this set and we have to paint it three times," she or he will say, "Do you really have to do that? It's a lot of money," and you go, "Well, to get the effect you want, this is what you have to do." If you're the production designer that comes up with the set, they will give you that shiny paint and it picks up all the stuff like that. It really helps with the look of the show.
Matt: Let's talk about your process. When you receive a script, how quickly do you begin making technical notes? Do you read through and absorb the story before proceeding to the next step?
John: You know, I'm kinda lucky that I can read a script, and I can recall [it]. A lot of it stays in my memory, a lot of things don't, but a script that stays,...If somebody says something to me about a particular scene it comes right back, you know? But, I'm very lucky that I have a gaffer and a key grip, and the gaffer will sit down that I worked with quite a bit. He's not so much a gaffer, but a crew member, and X-Files was his first gaffing job. I put him together with a key grip who been around for quite awhile, and had a lot of experience and [was] very production savvy. So they would go on set and say, "John wants to see this, this is what he wants to see," and the gaffer would come back to the studio in where ever we were shooting, and he'd have location pictures for me and we'd go through them. Meanwhile, while they're out there scouting, I'd try to read the script during breaks in shooting.
Matt: Do you see any parallels between the work you're doing on Lost, either technically or thematically, and the work that was done on The X-Files?
John: No. I don't (think there) is at all. Sometimes, you know, Lost is more of a daytime show than a nighttime show. On Lost we don't use any smoke at all. We shoot a lot more, and probably do a lot more close-ups.
Matt: Considering that this industry is such a collaborative one, when you are working on a film or a series, does the role between the director and the director of photography ever blur? For example, have you ever offered input to an actor? Or do you leave the performance aspect strictly for the director to focus on?
John: You know, I don't like to cross the boundaries with the actors and the director, and I will ask the director if he minds if I can go and talk to them. I believe that there's a certain way to deal with things like that. If you start telling the actors what to do and it conflicts with what the director's thinking, it's not good. It doesn't help the relationship, you know? But I will go to an actor, usually after I mentioned it to the director, saying, "You know, it would really help if you turned over your left shoulder, rather than over your right shoulder." But generally, when it's a collaborative effort, I would say to the director it would really help, sometimes it's better for the director to say something to the actor, or sometimes the camera operator will say something to the actor. It's a collaborative effort.
Matt: Based on your past work, you consistently seem intent on serving the story; considering that, have you ever had any desire to write or direct your own project?
John: Not really, I have had people who have wanted me to direct, and I've avoided that. I still think that I have a lot to learn about cinema photography, and I'd rather just work in that area. I don't really want to change now. Even to direct like one episode or something, it's not really worth taking a job away from a director, and they're the guys who are going to hire me down the road.
Matt: You worked with Ronald Moore and David Eick on Tracy D'Arcy's Another Life; how was that experience? Have you followed what Moore and Eck have done with Battlestar: Galactica?
John: Not so much, but it was a good experience doing Another Life. I enjoyed that.
Matt: What feature film would you say you were most proud of being involved with?
John: (Laughs) You mean the list of horror movies? I think Disturbing Behavior was a good movie for me. It was tough to do, but it was a good director with David Nutter, who I worked with a lot on The X-Files. I think Disturbing Behavior was the most interesting. From a technical point of view, Eight-Legged Freaks was an interesting show too, because that was a big CGI. It was interesting working with the producers on that movie.
Matt: I've noticed what can be described as an X-Files influence on many contemporary features and television. It must be gratifying to have been a part of that. Do many of your peers still comment about the influence of the show to you?
John: Yeah, it just won't go away. Not that I really want it to go away. It's interesting. I was just up in Vancouver. I was doing some second unit work on the X-Files movie which was kinda fun. I worked and Chris was there. I talked with Chris about doing the movie, but he already promised it to Bill Roe. Bill's doing the movie and it's tough going. I did it with him the other night. He's having a hard time with that. But I was talking with the second unit, and Chris sort of insisted [on] people like--on the second unit--[on] people like Tom Braidwood, who's the first AD I worked with***. We had a scene we were doing with David Duchovny, and I walked on the set and David looked at Tom and David looked at me and said, "Now I know it's Déjá vu." (Laughs) So it was fun to do that week of work, you know?
Matt: That's great. I went to the Wonder Con convention and I saw some of the teaser footage. It had a really terrific look to it.
John: Yeah, that's good.
Matt: Are there any specific individuals you are close to from your years of working on The X-Files?
John: The guy who is the gaffer on the movie now and gaffed for me was David Takell and David Iberson, and we talk a lot. Who else is there? David Nutter who is the director. I talked to David just as you and I started talking. He'll call. Who else? I see people who keep in touch, or they keep in touch with me one way or another.
Matt: Of the many seasons you worked on The X-Files, are there any particular favorite episodes or episode you have the most fondest memories of in hindsight?
John: I would say Grotesque was partly still one of my favorite episodes. I think it's because I shot most of it with some of the other episodes we had second unit doing stuff, you know? Grotesque was the most interesting. It was my entry into the Emmy's which is what it won for, and it was an easy entry because it's hard to find an episode that you have shot alone.
Matt: As an artist, what inspires you visually or thematically, either in nature or life, in your on-going development as a craftsman?
John: Well, (sigh) I just see a lot of good pictures, images floating up, just going for a walk in the evening and seeing the sunset, after the sunset--things like that, you know? Just seeing the sky. Have you seen the film Jesse James****?
Matt: That's a very good film, yes. I was really impressed with that.
John: I haven't seen something like that in a long time and I was very impressed by that. I think that's a great piece of work, that one. I love the images. I thought that was a really great movie.
Matt: I don't want to hold you up. Thank you again for this opportunity. (After an offer by Mr. Bartley, to contact him again, if needed.)
John: Okay, thanks.
Special thank you must go to John's agent, Ann Murtha, for arranging my direct contact with Mr. Bartley. Happenstance is another byproduct of working in series television. While it is indeed true there can be meticulous planning in the execution of a feature film. Often in series television, the resources can be so limited that happenstance can play a role. Director Ethan Cohen recently was quoted as saying that directing is like love making, you can't really tell how others do it, you only know how you do it. That can also apply to the methods of a cinema photographer as well. Each project, each show, has it's own unique set of demands. I found Mr. Bartley to be gracious in his interview. Especially considering that he was calling from a different time zone, Hawaii, which meant I was speaking to him from the early hour of 8:00 AM, it was indeed gracious of him to take the time.
We look forward to see what Mr. Bartley has in store with his future projects, as his legacy has already been cemented, in part, from his work on The X-Files.
* John's comments are probably in reference to the origins of the New Zealand industry. The first phase of New Zealand's industry started in 1913 with three films directed by Gaston Melies. The next phase of the industry was triggered with the establishment of the National Film Unit in 1941. The current phase of the revitalized industry was triggered in the mid seventies.
** 2.8 is a reference to a light meter reading. It is also an aperture setting on a film or video camera. Low light, due to overcast weather with an exterior, will require the aperture lens to opened up to let more light in so images will read well on film. On another note, in basic biology, the pupil of an eye acts exactly the same as a camera lens aperture, opening up with less light, and closing with more light.
*** To clarify, he was probably referring to Chris Carter insisting that members of the production crew who worked on the series during the Vancouver years were hired back to work on the new X-Files feature, currently finishing in Vancouver.
**** In reference to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which was directed by Andrew Dominik. The director of Photography was Roger Deakins.
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