By the time he died at 86 on May 31, William A. Fraker had long since been known as an avuncular eminence gris among American cinematographers. An enthusiastic, white-bearded sage, he was a multi-term president of the American Society of Cinematographers, had taught for years at his alma mater, USC, and loved to expound on film technique, its history and foremost exponents.
All the same, the man behind the camera on “Bullitt,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The President’s Analyst,” “Rancho Deluxe,” “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” “1941,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “American Hot Wax,” “War Games” and many more was, from my point of view, a member of the middle generation of Hollywood cinematographers along with Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs, one who had to wait until he was over 40 to break into features because of the stranglehold the Hollywood old-timers had on the unions until the mid-1960s but was more than a generation older than those who emerged shortly thereafter.
Fraker had to bide his time in television in the 1950s (on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” among others shows) and early 1960s, notably on “The Outer Limits,” as Hall’s camera operator. It was a five-year collaboration that continued on two of Hall’s first big screen jobs, “Morituri” and “The Professionals,” whereupon Fraker got to step up to d.p. status on Curtis Harrington’s “Games” in 1967.
I interviewed Fraker in 1991 for the documentary “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography” and, as with many of the colleagues, he was quite expansive, full of opinions about his illustrious Hollywood predecessors and contemporaries, laudatory about his (good) directors and ever-ready with anecdotes about his experiences. Following are a few tidbits drawn from the full transcript of my conversation with the man, just a couple of which were we able to include in the finished film.
“I enjoy going onto a stage that’s absolutely black and then striking the first light and saying, ‘Okay, here we go.’ You know, that really turns me on personally. I’m not a great exterior man, like some people are. I don’t relate to the exteriors as much as I do the interiors. Because I think it’s much more interesting on your whole approach to what you want to make…what you first think about when you first read that screenplay.”
“The motion picture started with a bunch of young people. Only young people were dumb enough to get into that business at that time. And therefore, as the business grew, they grew with it. You had young people who were 18-20 years old, and people who owned cameras became cameramen. So therefore in 1930, 1940, they were still 35 years old–they were young. And so they formed a union, they negotiated with the studios and went on to develop their craft. Now younger people want to come in–I happened to be one of them–and there is no room. There was only so much work and the unions were full at that time. I took me 13 years from the day I got out of World War II until I got into the union…. I know one cameraman who worked at MGM 19 years as an assistant cameraman and ten years as an operator before he got a chance to become a first cameraman.”
“I didn’t consider myself a rebel and think of doing something a new way. I wanted to copy and assimilate what I saw on the screen by the giants and by the masters. And to this day I’m still in reverence of all those people–Charlie Lang and Stanley Cortez and Ted McCord and Arthur Miller and Hal Moore and Leon Shamroy and Milton Krasner. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to do what they did.”
“Connie Hall was innovative and very daring, but always extremely solid. He had something that very few cameramen have–he’s got, I think, exquisite taste. And he can make that balance between black and white, color, day, night, and he just looks at it and has that innate ability to do that. It’s a gift he has.”
On Roman Polanski and “Rosemary’s Baby”: “I met Roman through Dick Sylbert, who was the art director. …I fell in love with Roman and I really, to this day, feel that he’s a major, major–he’s a genius. And really knows his craft and really knows how to make motion pictures. It’s sad that the situation is the way it is because he should be in Hollywood, he should really be in Hollywood making motion pictures. Because that’s his whole life…. We shot the whole picture with two lenses, an 18mm and a 25mm lens. Roman’s the one that taught me about the nodal point of the lens, the direct center of the lens…and that’s what I still use today. I always put the stars just above the nodal, so that when you sit down in a theater and you look up at that screen, it gives them just a little bit more power. If you drop the nodal just a little bit lower, they become a little bit more dominant…they just get that little added dimension which really, really, really works. It works beautifully. Roman Polanski. Genius. You have to just watch and learn.”
“I can remember 15, 20 years ago, being asked to go to Australia to teach people cinematography. I almost went there but I’m glad I didn’t because they more or less created their own style out there. That’s the beautiful thing about them, they’ve brought it to Hollywood and it gives Hollywood a little different direction, it broadens the scope of Hollywood. I’ve always been for an international society of cinematographers. I think that’s what should really happen and that’s where the world is today anyway with computer systems and what’s happening all over the world….I think that there’s a place for all of us to get together and work together. Those styles–it’s like a mixed marriage. It develops something new. Something else comes out of all that and I’m for that kind of thing. I think we need that type of infiltration of the foreign element into Hollywood, because Hollywood can become very, very stagnant and self-indulging….If you give the same look to everything that you do, after a while everybody’s bored and you become stagnant. You can’t do that. You’ve got to search and reach in order to get to what you’re trying to do.”