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@U2: Interview With 'Rattle And Hum' Cinematographer Robert Brinkmann

@U2, October 28, 2018
By: Collin Souter

 

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the film U2: Rattle And Hum, I had the pleasure of speaking on the phone with one of the guys who was there for the whole thing: German-born cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, who shot all the black-and-white footage for the film. This was Brinkmann’s first experience as a cinematographer on what eventually became a Hollywood production. He was kind enough to share his memories of always being on call, what didn’t make the cut and his feelings on the film as a whole. Brinkmann – who also shot the videos for “One” (version # 3) and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” -- currently resides in Los Angeles. You can learn more about him on his website

You and (Rattle And Hum director) Phil Joanou went to school together and Rattle And Hum was pretty early in yours and Phil’s career. How did this film come about for you?

We made a film together in film school called Last Chance Dance.That was the film that somehow (Steven) Spielberg got to see and he literally plucked Phil out of film school and gave him a job at Amblin and gave him an Amazing Stories episode to direct, which at the time was the most expensive half-hour of television ever produced. (Phil) sort of had the dream of any film student and he was really sort of the “it” guy at the moment; he was a young, new talent and Spielberg wanted to be involved with him. Everyone wanted to be involved with him. And he was a big U2 fan and when he heard that U2 wanted to make a documentary, he moved to meet U2 and pitched himself to be the director. You know, he has a lot of energy and enthusiasm and can be very convincing and he convinced them. 

Were you a fan of the band as well?

To be frank, I really wasn’t. I knew some songs and I liked them, but I didn’t know much about them. So, when Phil called me and said he had this film he wanted me to shoot, I immediately went to Tower Records and bought every U2 album that they had and started listening to the songs. And then I was on a plane to Boston, I think, where I caught up with the tour and it started right away. It was incredible, because I was actually on the set shooting something else and Phil said, “I want you to fly out tomorrow.” And I said, “Uuhh, I’m finishing something else,” which was my first feature and we had three more days to shoot. So he said, “Fine, come in three days.” Three days later, I was on a plane and it didn’t stop. I was traveling with them and touring for the next three and a half months. 

Whose idea was it to film in 16mm B&W?

It was Phil’s and my idea. Part of it was sort of a given because at the time, there really were no digital cameras. In order to have a theatrical feature, you have to shoot in either 35mm or 16mm. So, for the documentary part of the feature, 35mm was prohibitive. We needed to be able to shoot for long amounts of time and we wanted to have zoom lenses on the camera so we can stand at the side of the room or in the corner and reach in with our lens to capture something. If you know anything about 35mm cameras, you have magazines that last 10 minutes. They’re pretty big and heavy and zoom lenses for 35mm cameras are gigantic. So, it’s not something you can hold on your shoulder all day long. So, we were pushed into 16mm, because it was the only way we could shoot 10 minutes and have zoom lenses at the same time. Otherwise, you’re looking at carrying 40-50 pounds on your shoulder all day long. 

And the black-and-white was a suggestion I made and Phil loved, because on a documentary, you have no control over the locations where you’re shooting. Wherever the band goes, that’s where you have to shoot, and a lot of the locations of stadiums aren’t very pretty. You have orange seats, blue seats, the back stage is painted in very garish colors. And we realized that the only way to make this feel coherent is to take the color out of it and make it black and white. It happened to go along with the vibe of the band because the Anton Corbijn photos for The Joshua Tree were all black-and-white, so it seemed like a choice that would fit the band and, at the same time, help us out. Unlike a feature film where you have an art department that paints everything the colors that you want, we just couldn’t do that because when we walk into a room, that’s what we have to shoot and the black-and-white helps. 

Following the band on tour must have been a roller coaster ride in the moment, but what were your initial impressions of shooting the documentary stuff?  

It’s funny, a lot of people say now, in retrospect, “Oh, wow, what a great job.” In the moment, it was a great job and a great opportunity, but I don’t know too many traditional Hollywood people who would have put up with it, because I got off the plane in Boston and started working and we were working around the clock. You know, we had cameras on our shoulders, sleeping in hotel lobbies, waiting for the band to come out and do something. There were no days off. Whenever anything was happening, we were ready and we would shoot. And it went on like that for months. And it was great, because to be 26 or 27 out of film school, you couldn’t hope for a better gig, it’s so much fun. It was a pretty intense draw, but it was an amazing time. 

It’s clear from watching the outtakes and the band’s recollection of filming R&H that they tended to shut down and be more guarded when the cameras started rolling. Did you have the sense, at the time, that the band felt unnerved by it all? That maybe they weren’t as ready to have cameras following them around at this point?

Well, I think you’re absolutely right. They weren’t quite comfortable with the idea and Phil used that. You remember, as the film opens, the first documentary footage is about exactly that, and showing how uncomfortable they are. But at the same time, it was the band that started the film! And it was this sort of push-and-pull. So, they, in fact, hired the film crew and they had been in charge of production until Paramount bought it from them. So, it was definitely their project, no doubt about it. But at the same time, they didn‘t want to help us make it any easier. They wouldn’t tell us what they were doing and they would try and avoid the cameras (laughs). We would be running after them saying, “Hey, we’re here to film you and you don’t want us?”

But they were very worried about appearing like they’re self-aggrandizing. They wanted to have this project, but they didn’t want to be seen as posing in any way.

And yet, they got accused of that.

They did, because I think they tried to control their image to a degree that actually wasn’t helpful. They wanted to project a certain aspect of themselves, so we go to Harlem and shoot with a choir, or we shoot with BB King. The things they love about America and the thing they want to associate themselves with, we captured that, but what was harder to capture -- and what we did capture ended up not being in the film -- were the real private moments. When you think about great rock and roll documentaries, my favorite of all time is (Martin Scorsese’s) The Last Waltz and it lives off of that. It lives off the fact that there’s no barrier. They’re just completely open and allowing the cameras to capture themselves and, to me, personally, that’s the biggest regret, that if they would just not worry about it and just let us shoot everything without any kind of rule. In the end, they still would have made a movie that would make them look good. I mean, we were fans. We didn’t want to do anything untowards, no matter what we would have shot. But they wanted to protect some aspect of themselves and, unfortunately, that barrier comes through in the film. 

There is an R&H outtake seen in the doc From The Sky Down of Bono backstage, clearly angry about how the show was going. Were there moments during the shoot that echoed that?

Yeah, there were. It wasn’t an angry moment, but the walk through Graceland, and all those gold records that Elvis had in the basement and here we are, following the biggest band in the world and they are being dwarfed by the hundreds and hundreds of gold records, from floor to ceiling, all the way down the hallway, and these guys are big! They’re a big band, but compared to Elvis, they’re not that big. And it’s a wonderful moment, one of my favorites of everything that we shot, but again, it took away from the mystique that they didn’t want to take away from, so it didn’t end up in the film. 

Were you there when Bono broke his arm and were there any debates or directives from the band about not including that footage in the final film? Do you wish something from that incident had made it into the film?

That actually happened between Phil hiring me and me getting out to the East Coast. Bono didn’t see and fell into one of the trap doors the guitar techs use. When I arrived, his arm was in a sling. I don’t think there was any footage of him actually falling, even though Phil had started shooting some 16mm documentary footage, but we certainly shot plenty with his arm in a sling. I think it wasn’t used, because it looks a little sad seeing Bono with his arm in a sling. Since there was plenty of other footage and nothing of note happened, it was an easy decision not to include the footage; it might not have been included even without the sling. I don’t think it was a bad decision. I guess you could have made more of an issue of it and humanized the band -- even a rock star can get hurt -- but Bono didn’t make much of it either. He wore the sling for a while and then was back rather quickly.

I’m guessing you and Phil had some long conversations away from the filming. How did you two think the film was coming along as it was being filmed? Did you have a sense of the shape of it at anytime?

Yeah, the film was planned as a concert film more than a documentary. From the beginning, it was clear that the biggest part of the film would be the biggest production, which would be the Tempe concert, shot in color by Jordan Cronenweth, who was one of the greatest cinematographers of all time -- he shot Blade Runner, he’s just a genius -- and the stage was the biggest rock ‘n’ roll stage at the time and it was a huge show. It was stunning. So that was going to be the biggest piece of the film. And then mixed in was going to be the documentary footage that we shot and maybe a little bit of the black-and-white concert as well. That was the game plan. 

But in the moment of shooting the documentary, we just shot as much as we could, shooting sometimes non-stop. At the end of the day when we were done shooting and we had to send the film cans back to New York, the stack was higher than me sometimes. We shot so much film. Phil was shooting a camera, I was shooting a camera and it was just “keep the mags coming and keep shooting.” We tried to shoot as much as we could, especially with the band not cooperating all the time. When we had something, we just rolled nonstop. That was in the moment, but we also knew… it was really going to be a concert and… mainly in color. That, of course, changed, because there are a couple technical reasons why the black-and-white concert ended up working better than the color and so everyone went in that direction. It just became a different film, in the end, than we thought. 

As someone who has made documentaries, I know it takes a certain amount of patience to keep rolling when nothing is happening, but of course, something might happen. Coming from filming features, did you find the moments of tedium challenging at all?

No, because it was challenging in that you want to do a good job. When there’s nothing happening and you’re not getting anything, then you feel like, “I’m not doing my job, I’m not capturing the magic.” But it didn’t bother me, because it was always an interesting situation of where we were. It was a good place to be and something could happen. Yes, we were bored sometimes, but like I said, Phil and I slept in hotel lobbies with cameras in our laps because something could happen And also, this was in the age before cell phones. So, we needed to be in contact with the band and their handlers in case they were going to go out and do something, but we couldn’t go away because what if they decide they’re going to go out and jam with some musician in Chicago? So, we had to always be reachable and this was before somebody could just text you or call your cell. We ended up not being able to go further than walkie-talkie range of wherever our producer was. Any moment, he could say, “Hey, come back, we’re going to shoot.” A city block, at most (laughs). 

And yet, there were exciting moments in the film that must have been fun to shoot. Or not? Tell me about the Point Depot Recording Sessions.

Yeah, that was amazing. That was after the tour. The band went back to Ireland and we decided to add this footage and the band knew that they wanted to write this song, but it hadn’t been written yet. So, we flew to Dublin and found this really wonderful location, this train depot that I don’t think exists anymore and everything was set up there. But now you’re trying to shoot the creative process and it’s not something you can really schedule. I remember distinctly being there. We had crew, we had cameras, the whole recording thing is set up and Bono is working on the song, but the process is not where he wants it to be, so we were literally sitting around for days and days and days (laughs) and nothing was happening. But when it did happen, we really did capture the process of it being written and recorded, but there were a few days where we were thinking, “Wow, what a waste of money, all of us here, all of us ready to go and there’s Bono lying on his stomach looking at a piece of paper and you’ve got nothing to shoot.”

So, what we see in the film, how many days before we got to that point?

It was three or four days and then it started coming together. We were filming the moment they recorded it. 

Whose idea was the spin-cam during “money, money, money…”?

That was Phil operating that camera. Phil was kind of a wild man, full of energy, so he just really got into that, and it worked with the music. It was fun. 

How about Graceland?

It’s funny because obviously everybody is aware of Elvis, but I didn’t really know much about him, so that was my first experience. I gotta say, for someone who wasn’t a fan, that was a really magical experience. It was really great to see evidence of what this guy had done and all the people that he’s touched. The impression he left on American culture. And seeing the house and seeing the artifacts, it was a lot more moving than I thought it would be. I always recommend to people that they should stop there. It’s really worth seeing, it’s quite something. 

And the San Francisco concert?

That was a lot of fun. Everybody was really excited about that, especially the band, because they love that kind of stuff. The concert was planned, of course, because we had to have the permits and the trucks and everything else. So, we knew, but it was announced on the radio shortly before and you can see from the footage the cause and effect. But again, at the time, they were the biggest band in the world and so there were a lot of fans and everyone was really excited. I loved it because you won’t get a better energy from a crowd than with something like that and they played great songs and it really became a thing in San Francisco that day. We only had three cameras that day. It was Phil, myself and a friend of mine named Doug Nichol, who happened to live up there and is a great cameraman. So, it was the three of us and right in the middle of it, when we had the songs we knew we wanted to shoot, I ran over to the airport and took off in a helicopter and shot the aerial footage. So, it was a lot of fun being in that helicopter and seeing that huge crowd in San Francisco from up above.

Sun Studios?

It’s an amazing place. You walk in there and you just sense the history of that place. We actually shot that after the train depot in Dublin. We had done the tour, then went to Ireland to shoot the recording of “Desire” and then went back to Memphis to Sun Studios to record some other songs. So, it was very much after the tour and with the idea that this would be part of the film. There were no dates coming up for the band, so it was a lot of fun and I don’t think they had ever been there before. (Editor's Note: According to other accounts, the band had visited in November 1987.) But again, the songs were written, so we just recorded the recording sessions and those are the actual recordings that ended up on the album. 

How was BB King?

He was amazing and the band, of course, were huge fans of him. It was funny, because we met him in Fort Worth, Texas, for the concert. That was the first time that the band met him. They were really excited he was coming and it was the first time I saw these rock stars who everybody gets excited about when they meet them. They were excited to meet BB King and they were just as giddy as their fans are to meet the band. And BB King was already a bit older and you can see in the footage, he moves a little bit slower. You don’t want to have him come up stairs that are too steep and in the back room, you want to have nice, comfortable seats. So, it was great to see Bono really concerned to make sure BB is comfortable and telling him what a big fan of his he is. 

Any other moments that stick out?

One of my favorite things that also didn’t end up in the movie was the band doing sound checks whenever they were in an arena or stadium. It was one of the most fun things for us to film because there was nobody around, no audience, just the band. And they would play their songs, which was fine, but then just for fun, they would play other people’s songs. So, they would play Jimi Hendrix or Springsteen or whoever they felt like. And we shot so much footage of this because even though they were in these big spaces, it felt very intimate. It was just them and whoever on the crew, doing sound or fixing lights for the show. So, it’s just them having fun. In my mind, there was always going to be a montage of all these soundchecks put together, maybe with some songs that aren’t U2 songs. And they play them in a way where they’re such great musicians, you’re like, “I wanna buy that album!” 

The truth is, it wasn’t about them, it wasn’t about their music, so I think that’s why it didn’t end up in the movie, but to me personally, those were the most fun experiences and the most fun footage. It was just wasn’t really on point for the film. 

What about the gospel recording for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”? Were you surprised or disappointed that the concert version didn’t make the final cut?

I think there’s so much concert footage in the film that, no, I don’t miss that. The setting in the church was more intimate and more interesting, because having the choir was a special U2 event, but it’s not part of the show normally. So, I think it was the better choice that Phil made to keep in the Harlem church and do it that way. 

The band often said that playing larger venues required a steep learning curve for them. As a novice documentary cinematographer at the time, what were some of the challenges in filming a concert?

Well, we talked earlier about what the plan was for the film and that half the film, if not more, would be the big, color concert. Part of the reason I got this job was Phil wanted me, of course, and we were friends, but to the band, they were like, “well it doesn’t matter who shoots the documentary stuff because we’re gonna have Jordan Cronenweth shoot the color stuff. That’s who we have to think about and whoever this other guy is doesn’t matter.” And my reward for doing the documentary stuff would be that I get to have this one black-and-white concert. But it didn’t end up in the final film this way because, here’s the thing about the color: The outdoor stage was huge. It was gigantic. It’s really difficult to capture that stage in camera, because the band is physically so separated. So, on one hand, you have Adam walking over to stage-left and so when you look at him on stage, he’s this little figure and then Bono is 150 feet away on the other side, or even further. So, if you go into a wide shot to try and get them both, they’re just tiny figures and if you go into a close-up, you only see him. It’s very difficult to come up with good compositions. 

On the indoor stage, you can set up the camera anywhere and basically get all four band members, which is much more interesting and much more fun. The size and scale of that outdoor stage is not really helping with photographing it and that’s what everybody realized, and we learned when we shot it that it’s very difficult to capture it in a lens. Now, you can still shoot it in wide shots and you have the lighting and it looks incredibly beautiful and you an get great close-ups, but what you can’t get is shots of Bono singing and Larry directly behind him and Adam and Edge on the sides all in one shot. But with our small, indoor stage, we could get them from the sides, from the back, from the front and have all these good compositions. There’s always a lot of stuff going on. 

Let’s talk about the concert stuff. Bono says that it looked like Raging Bull, a high compliment indeed. Was Scorsese’s movie any kind of influence? What were some other influences or inspirations?

Yeah, we definitely looked to other rock and roll documentaries. I can speak for Phil in that our favorite was The Last Waltz. Phil is a huge Scorsese fan anyway. And so that was definitely something we strived for and we would have been happy if the film came out like that. We looked at all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll documentaries. We looked at the Stones’ documentaries. We looked at Woodstock, which is great, but different from what we were doing. Stop Making Sense. Those were all on our minds and we were trying to make something that would live in that company, basically. 

I remember seeing the film years later at a midnight screening, projected on an IMAX screen here in Chicago. Of course, it didn’t fill the screen top to bottom, but the darker moments – “Exit,” “Silver and Gold” and “Bad,” in particular -- were especially striking in that you couldn’t see where the frame ended and so the images of the band made them appear like they were floating on the screen. Were you trying for that kind of effect, in having the blacks be really black? What other kinds of effects were you and Phil striving for?

We were definitely striving for really rich black-and-white. We’re both big fans of black-and-white films. We also weren’t afraid to let things get really dark. For instance, we did light the audience, but we didn’t want to see too much of the audience. We wanted to give you the experience of making it feel like you had the best seat in the house, basically. But it’s about the band and we definitely wanted the darker songs to have that darker feel. I think some of that has to do with the way that you see it, because I’ve seen it projected sometimes in theaters where the blacks just blend in together because the projection isn’t that great. There is some detail in the blacks, but it’s very, very dark and it’s definitely something that we wanted to have. For film students, it’s just kind of a cool look. 

Tell me about working with Jordan Cronenweth on the Arizona shoot. 

Well, he came in to film the color stuff and he’s a star as far as cinematographers go. So, it was very exciting for me to meet him and it was definitely his concert in Tempe. He was very kind enough to hire me or let me operate one of the cameras for that concert. There were a lot of cameras for that, about 14. He had also seen the footage of the concert that I had shot and he hired a lot of my friends and a lot of other young people who were not in the cinematographer’s union, who weren’t really Hollywood types or hadn’t done any big Hollywood movies, but had come from music videos, which was my background, too. And so, Jordan had seen our work and so his crew was mixed between his guys, who had done these big Hollywood movies and then several of my operators that I hired that came from the non-union indie world of music videos and low-budget features. 

Also, that concert was designed to be shot. I shot the concert in Denver, the black-and-white concert, but that was an actual show with a paying audience. If I did anything to influence the show, that would be a really big deal because this is a rock ‘n’ roll show and we were allowed to capture it. The Arizona show was designed to be filmed and they had a lot more freedom. They could place cameras wherever they wanted. They were selling tickets for reduced prices for that to get an audience, but if somebody’s experience of the show was diminished, it didn’t really matter because everybody knew that this was gonna be filmed and you have a cheap ticket, so you put up with that stuff. That was more of a film shoot and we captured an actual live U2 show. 

How involved, if at all, were you in the editing?

With the editing, that’s really the director, but I was around because Phil and I were friends. Spielberg gave Phil an editing room at Amblin on the Universal lot. I would come and hang out and we would look at the songs together. I would give him my input because I had been there for all of it. But it’s definitely the director who edits the film. I was around and it was fun, but some of the things Phil did to edit the film, nobody had really done before, in this way. For example, he had this set up where he had all these monitors and he would see what every camera shot at the same time, all running in sync. That was a really interesting way to edit because you’re looking at eight or even fourteen monitors, you can see very easily where you want to be. It’s sort of obvious when you put the images next to each other what grabs your attention and what, in that moment, isn’t the most interesting thing. 

What was your initial impression when you first saw the film? 

Well, it turned out to be more of a concert film than a rock and roll documentary and, to be honest, it was a little bit of a disappointment with that because, you know, I loved the band. I loved the things that we saw and I wish that we could have shared a little bit more of that with the audience and I think the audience would have liked it. But in the end, I don’t think that’s the route the band wanted to go. When Phil came on board, he didn’t come on board to do his film, he came on board to do their film and that’s what it became. As a concert film, I’m very proud of it. I love watching it because it just puts me back. And I’ve seen over a hundred of their shows and it’s just as fun as being on the stage or right against the stage. So, I think it’s a great concert film. As a rock ‘n’ roll documentary, like I said, I’m a little bit disappointed. I wish we could have documented more than we did.

Have you been happy with the transfers of the film on DVD, Blu-ray, etc.?

Yes, and it’s very unusual, but I’ve been involved in every single one of them, because the guy at Paramount (Manager of Video Operations, Garrett Smith), who is no longer there, he was in charge of all the transfers at Paramount. He’s one of the very few people at all the big studios who, not only would he give you whatever you needed to do a good job, but he also called you back when the film was transferred again or when it was transferred to Blu-ray. Every single time, he would call and say, “Hey, can you come in and do this? We want to make sure you’re happy with it.” There’s not another person or another studio that does that. So, I’ve been involved with all of them and always been able to do what I wanted. 

The first time -- and remember, I was 26 and this was my first big studio film -- and he would come in and say “here are all the elements, the negatives, the internegative, the blow-ups, the 16mm original…” He put me in a room and said, “call me when you’re done.” There was no “OK, you have a week or two weeks.” That’s really unheard of. After that, I tried all the elements. There were so many. The original negative, there was the 16mm blow-up to 35mm, a blown-up negative and then an interpositive to make the prints. He let me have all the elements to try and see what looked best. Every time, he would give me those and say, “Do your thing and let me know when you’re happy.”

Do you have any idea how the outtakes leaked? They’ve been around for decades. 

I don’t know either, because I do know that the film, the negatives, all that stuff is in storage. Once Phil had basically finished editing the film, they packed it all up in storage here in L.A. I thought about what we could do, now that it’s 30 years ago, maybe the band would be up for trying something a little different. We have the footage. So, I’d love to see a director’s cut of it. But I don’t know how anybody could have leaked it because, from what I know, after Phil had edited the film, no one I know of could have had access to the film, and if they did, they would have had to go through some trouble to get it, because not only do you have to get it from storage, but you have to dig it up, but it may be a 16mm negative, which you have to transfer before you can actually see it, all that kind of stuff. 

You also worked on Phil Joanou’s autobiographical film Entropy (in which Stephen Dorff plays a filmmaker hired to film a U2 concert).

Yeah, I worked on Entropy. I went to South Africa to shoot the PopMart Tour, down in Cape Town. It’s funny because [the film] really, truly is Phil’s life. The most fun part of that for me was, he asked me to shoot the film and I was in the middle of remodeling a house and I had a lot of other stuff going on and I just couldn’t do it because I would have had to go to New York to do it. So, I turned him down with a heavy heart, because, of course, I wanted to work with Phil, but I also wanted to film the U2 concert. So, he called me back and said, “I found a cinematographer, but I really want you to film the U2 footage. You know the band, you know how to work around the concerts.” So, I still got the plum part of that job. So, we went to South Africa and the film was shot in widescreen and that was the PopMart Tour. So, again, they had gone bigger on the stage and this was the biggest stage ever. It fit so perfectly into the widescreen aspect ratio. So, it was really fun to shoot in widescreen with that really big stage. It worked out really well. 

What would your advice be to a band or director attempting the same thing U2 tried with this film?

To me, what works is truth. To me, what makes The Last Waltz so brilliant is you get to see who these guys are. They’re not holding back and that makes it compelling. So, the more you let your guard down or get rid of the guard, the more meaningful and interesting the film is going to be. 

© @U2/Souter, 2018



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