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Common sense, uncommon eye

Cinematographer Freddie Francis' `simple and beautiful' work gets a tribute at the Aero.

June 17, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

BRITISH cinematographer Freddie Francis, who died in March at 89, was an artist who used his camera as a paintbrush and celluloid as his canvas. An Oscar winner for 1960's "Sons and Lovers" and 1989's "Glory," Francis was a master of light and atmosphere.

Creating memorable images "wasn't a complicated thing for Freddie," says his good friend and collaborator David Lynch, the iconoclastic director. "It was common sense. It was always beautiful and always technically right on the money."

Friday at the Aero Theatre, the American Cinematheque pays homage to Francis with a double feature of films he shot for Lynch: 1980's atmospheric black-and-white "The Elephant Man" and 1999's exquisitely pastoral "The Straight Story." Lynch will introduce the screenings and discuss Francis.

Beginning his career as a young apprentice to a still photographer, Francis was a clapper boy in motion pictures by the time he was 17. "That's how they did it [in British cinema]," says Lynch. "They worked their way up."

After service in World War II, Francis returned to films as a camera operator and did second unit photography for John Huston's 1956 adaptation of "Moby Dick."

That same year, he became an official director of photography on "Hell in Korea" and soon was winning acclaim for his work on 1957's "Time Without Pity" and 1959's gritty drama "Room at the Top," for which Simone Signoret won a best actress Oscar.

Then he was chosen by cinematographer-turned-director Jack Cardiff to photograph "Sons and Lovers," the moody romantic drama based on D.H. Lawrence's first novel.

Two years later, Francis directed the horror film "Two and Two Make Six" and quickly found himself typecast in the genre. He even helmed Joan Crawford's final film, the 1970 camp classic "Trog."

"At a certain point, he said 'enough of that,' " says Lynch. And as fate would have it, Francis was eager to return to cinematography at the same time Lynch was in England starting production on "The Elephant Man." The two became fast friends.

"He was a great human being and a great friend," says Lynch. "Every time we worked together we had just a blast. He was a great guy to hang with."

Lynch says they never had complicated discussions about the cinematography for a certain scene. "With Freddie, you may have some talks about mood, but he understood [what you wanted] even before you started talking about it. It was always right on the money. He kept things simple and beautiful."

Lynch and Francis worked together four years after "Elephant Man" on the sci-fi epic "Dune." "There were eight sound stages filled twice over with sets," recalls Lynch. "Freddie said it was like shooting on location because the sets were so close to one another. It was a nightmare for him to get in the big lights to do it, but he did. There was no problem for Freddie."

Francis was in his 80s when he teamed with Lynch for the final time for "The Straight Story," a heartfelt drama based on a true story of a 73-yearold man (Richard Farnsworth) who travels from Iowa to Wisconsin on a lawnmower so he can mend fences with his invalid brother.

"Freddie told me, 'David, I really want to do this picture with you, but I don't think I can work the long hours,' " recalls Lynch. "Richard was [also] old. So I said, 'Freddie, no problem. We'll do eight-hour days and make it really nice.' We started with that in mind, but before you knew it Richard and Freddie were the last ones standing. They were working 12 to 14 hours a day. They were boogieing."



`Freddie Francis Memorial Tribute'

Where: American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Price: $7 to $10

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or go to

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