Bruce Weber on His Great Films and Best Friendships

They don’t make ‘em like Bruce Weber anymore. Famed mostly for his star-making fashion photographs for clients ranging from Calvin Klein and Vogue to Versace and Rolling Stone, the self-made legend has simultaneously spent decades doggedly capturing indelible, singular moments on film. His current project, a documentary about the great film-noir actor Robert Mitchum, has been 20 years in the making. Or is it 12? Point is, it’s been a while and it could be a while longer. But when it’s finished, it may very well be an opus like Let’s Get Lost, his remarkably touching, Oscar-nominated biopic centering on the loves and losses of the hard-living jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.

With a DVD anthology of his films just released, Weber took a breather in his Tribeca studio to speak candidly about his alternate career, his best friendships through the years (dogs and otherwise), his role in discovering several major Hollywood talents, and seeing something in Kim Kardashian, believe it or not.

Lee Carter: You’ve made a lot of Webersodes, but your last feature film was a while ago, wasn’t it?
Bruce Weber: It’s been a while. You know, I started this film on Bob Mitchum and then I kind of stopped for a long time because I started working on short films. I was also working on a film about a close friend of mine, Mrs. Winston Guest, or C.Z. Guest. When she got sick, I wanted to stay on her film because the idea of spending time with her was really great for me. I really adore her so much.

What is it about film that you try to bring to the audience? How is it different from photography?
Well, in a way, I always start my films by taking pictures. It’s an extension of taking a picture. When I first made my film Broken Noses, people would say I was just a photographer. And I’d say, Yeah, I know, and I want to make films like a photographer. I can’t make films any differently.

They’re long pictures. And they’re as much about a mood as a story.
I think so. I’m a great fan of [director] Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood was telling me that when he was working with him on those Fistful of Dollars westerns, he told Clint, “Let’s not say anything, let’s not do anything.” And when you think about it, there’s not a lot of things that happen in those movies, except he’s on the horse or he’s walking it around or he’s looking at people and they’re playing music. I think a film is an organic thing, just like taking pictures. One thing leads to another.

They’re conceptual in a way, almost Warholian. They capture a moment in time, without too much planning.
I really admire that. You know, I rented a house for a long time out on Montauk, [Warhol filmmaker] Paul Morrissey’s house. Nan [Bush] and I did. I loved living there. Paul and I would have long conversations about film. One time he came into the editing room when I was working on Let’s Get Lost and he said, “Why don’t you split the screen into four parts?” I thought my editors were going to push him out of the window, because that would have been so complicated, and not right for the film. But Paul has some really great ideas, and he’s a really talented filmmaker. He likes it when things aren’t perfect.

That’s a beautiful film, by the way, Let’s Get Lost. Really, really fantastic.
Thank you.

It was nominated, right?
Yeah, for an Academy Award [Best Documentary Feature, 1988], and it won the Venice Critics’ Prize a few years ago.

It’s such a beautiful film. And I didn’t know what a good-looking man he was, Chet Baker.
He looked a lot like James Dean. I once asked him if he ever met James Dean. He said maybe he came by the club one time. Chet wasn’t so good with other good-looking guys. He’d get a little competitive.

It’s clear in the film that you really got into the subject, which is a quality of a lot of your films. There’s an intimacy. Can you speak to that a little?
Well, you know, when you make a film, you get married to it. It’s a very intimate situation. I’ve done that with a photograph, too. Jessica Lange and I were talking about digital versus film. I still shoot film and so does she. I have no problem with the digital world. I think it’s good for everybody to have a camera. But she said she feels like when she’s not shooting film, she’s missing that intimacy. I will say, with film, there’s more of a chance that the pictures won’t come out. People always ask to see pictures right away, but photography is like Christmas. Sometimes you get what you really want, or sometimes you get a pencil set.

Or you can lose film completely.
I have this buddy, Paul Jasmin, and one time he was supposed to photograph Richard Gere. But he got to the studio and realized that he didn’t have any film in the camera and or any film with him. So he said, “Well, Richard, we don’t have any film, but let’s pretend like we do. I’ll come back and maybe we take the real thing.” So sometimes photography is a rehearsal.

You’re a well-documented animal lover, everything from dogs to elephants. Can you tell us about the role of animals in your work?
Well, I have six dogs — five Golden Retrievers and one rescue dog. All kinds of animals are really big in my life, not just to put them in pictures. I have a relationship to them and they bring me a lot of joy. I like bringing an animal into somebody’s life. Like Chet, for instance. Chet was great with animals, and Diane, his girlfriend, told me this great story. They were flying to Berlin, I think it was, and Chet had a lot of drug paraphernalia in his suitcase. They were in customs and a [drug-sniffing] German Shepherd went right to him. Chet went down on the floor, laid down with the dog, and was petting him and kissing him. After that the dog just walked away. The rest of the musicians’ mouths were wide open. That was the incredible seduction that Chet had with animals.

That could have been a disaster.
I know, I know.

I’m reminded of the Channing Tatum Webersode that you have on your site. It’s very sweet, his cuddling with a dog.
Channing’s a good guy and I did some of his first pictures when he first started. He said something really nice to me on that set. He said if I hadn’t booked him for Vogue a long time ago, he’d wouldn’t be acting today. He said he was ready to give it up. When I photographed him, he kept dancing in the frame. I told him he’s a really good dancer and he should take some classes and really try to be an actor, maybe make a musical. I’m really proud of him that he did so well for himself.

Now he’s a major star.
He deserves it. He’s a really good guy and he has a great wife.

Did you ever consider going down the Hollywood path? I know you’ve avoided it in the past.
I’m just happy if people like my films, that it connects them to something important in their life. That’s the most important thing for me. I remember the first Hollywood meeting I had many years ago, at the Chateau Marmont. They were trying to make a film out of a Tennessee Williams short story called One Arm. It’s a really great story. I had read the script the night before and I thought, hmmm, people don’t talk like this anymore, but who am I to say we need another writer in here to rewrite Tennessee Williams? He’s so brilliant and talented and I just love his writing! So I’m sitting there surrounded by six people I’d never met before and they asked what I would do with the film. I said, “Well, I was thinking about how people don’t talk like this anymore, so let’s go down to a theater in New Jersey and I’ll get some friends of mine. I could get Patti Smith and some other people to read for it. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers could play a character, and I know a guy who could play the central character, who becomes a hustler and he loses his girlfriend. They gasped and thought that was just terrible. I said I’ve just been photographing this young actor, Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s just starting out and he’s really great. They asked if he could handle a part like, would he be good for the box office. I said I didn’t know about that, but he’s right for the part, and that was the moment to get him. They left and I think they were so glad to get rid of me. I’ve had a lot of meetings, but I like working with my small group and making films that if they just get out, that’s enough for me. I’m fine with that.

Well, they’re kind of offbeat and they show a different side of things.
You know, with my first film, Broken Noses, people were really terrible to us at Cannes. They hated it. And then we won an International Documentary Association Award that same year. All of a sudden, all the studio executives who were just so terrible to us in Cannes were shocked. Probably we were more shocked that we got an award, truthfully. And now that I look at that film and I see all the mistakes that we made, I really love the innocence of it, the freedom of it. I hope I can always make a film that’s at least half as good as that one.

Have you kept in touch with those boys?
Sure. I speak to Andy [Minsker] every once in a while.

What’s become of him?
He got married because of the movie. A girl who’s a producer in London saw the film, fell in love with him, moved to Oregon, to Mt. Scott, where he lived. They had a baby, and then a couple years later they got a divorce. Andy remarried. I was just talking to his nephew, who said to me that the coach in the film had just passed away and they were really all very sad. So I’ve become very intimate with all these people. They don’t disappear from my life. I’m probably one of the few photographers who can look at a person and say, “Oh my god, I’ve been photographing you for 25 years!” But I like that. Someone like [male model] Jeff Aquilon, who, when I first photographed him for the SoHo Weekly News, was still captain of the water polo team at Pepperdine. Now he has four kids and lives in Santa Barbara. I see him every time I’m up there. It’s so great to see people blossom after you photograph them.

Let’s talk about the Robert Mitchum movie, Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast. Where does the title come from?
It’s the title from a Julie London song. I was in Norway working for W and because it was in the summer and the light lasts until, like, four in the morning, I couldn’t get to sleep. So I was listening to this radio station. The song came on and I thought it was so bomb. I love Julie London. I got to meet her years ago when I was still in school and I snuck into a club in New York. I was underage. I knew that Bob really liked her a lot so I thought it was a really nice combination. Bob is really an amazing guy. He’s a great actor and a good writer. And he had such an appreciation of women. Most of his friends were women. He didn’t have a lot of guy friends. He trusted us to make this film and I just want to do a good job.

Is it really twenty years in the making?
Well, a long time. It’s about twelve, fourteen years, maybe. I hope it’s not going to be twenty!

I hear you’ve been speaking to a lot of people.
Yes, we’re working on the interviews now.

And there was one part in the film where you got a bunch of people together to sing standards?
Yeah, we had Bob and we had, let’s see, Dr. John and Rickie Lee Jones and Marianne Faithfull.

Was Marianne the narrator in A Letter to True?
She was, and Julie Christie narrates something in there, too.

I didn’t realize Robert also made two records.
Two more came out maybe fifteen years ago, so there’s really four. The first one was a calypso album. He met these guys in Tobago when he was making Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. The second one was a country-western, and then he did this one that was a collection of little songs and poetry. And then there is this other one he did a couple years ago.

You also have a passion for song, obviously.

Where does it come from, that and your encyclopedic memory of singers?
As a kid I grew up listening to Broadway shows with my sister. She later went into the music business and worked with a lot of really great musicians. She worked with David Bowie for so long and Iggy Pop, and all those guys.

So you got to hang with David Bowie?
Yeah, I photographed David a couple times. It’s funny, I was thinking about him when Mr. Mandela died recently, because I photographed Iman and him with Mr. Mandela in South Africa about 15 years ago. It was for Vogue. It was a pretty crazy day but so rewarding and an amazing time for me.

What was your impression of Mr. Mandela?
I felt that there was just no anger in him and his sense of forgiveness was so strong. He lit up this garden we were in. It was kind of an overcast day. And he is so charming and friendly, which you felt when he shook your hand. My sitting with him was at five in the morning, so I got up and we made it just in time. He wanted us to shoot while he was working out. It was so weird, I thought, but I’m really proud of the picture because it was like a hidden moment. Mr. Mandela was the kind of person who you felt like, when he met you once he would remember your name forever. That’s the way I would describe him.

He did seem to transcend earthly concerns.
It was amazing to see Winnie and his new wife sitting there, and his whole family. It was really quite emotional for me because I spent some time in South Africa and I had really good experiences — and really bad. But his was one of the greatest experiences. I think about him a lot. I like photographing people at their beginnings and when they’re older. Everybody wants to photograph somebody at the height of their career. It’s not the best time to photograph somebody. They’ve kind of lost their hunger.

Have you photographed our president?
No, but I photographed his wife, Mrs. Obama.

What’s the ideal shoot for you? Is there somebody you haven’t shot yet that you’re dying to?
Well, it always starts with the person. Do I believe in the person, do I want to spend a day with him, or several? I don’t really care whether it’s fashion or it’s journalistic. I just like to know that I understand what I feel about that person. What’s really funny, what we photographers all talk about it, is that when you photograph a personality, they sometimes say to you that it was the most amazing experience and they give you their phone number. We laugh so hard because they say this to all the photographers, but they don’t mean it. And it’s sometimes the worst experience of the photographer’s career and the phone number wouldn’t work if you called it because maybe they left something behind.

Is there somebody who you thought you wouldn’t like but then you loved?
That’s a really good question. Well, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Kim Kardashian. I didn’t really watch her show very much, and I’d see these articles about her. But when I met her I was completely turned around. I just adored her. She’s so feminine and beautiful, and really great.

She’s misunderstood?
Totally. She’s such a great girl and so funny. I look at her in the way American actresses used to go to Europe to make films. I really feel like, if a lot of those filmmakers were still around, in France or Italy, they would put her in a film. I think she’s going to have a career like that. I have a friend, Pedro Almodovar, who I think should make a film with her. I think they’d make a great combination. I’ve known him for a long time. We’ve known each other since we both had films at the Miami Film Festival. 

You live in Miami now, is that correct?
I live in New York City and Miami, but I travel there in the winter. I got a place in Miami because our dogs need to go swimming.

Yes, you’re a nature guy. You need the outdoors.
While we’re talking here and freezing, they’re swimming in the ocean right now and having the time of their lives.