From Shadows and Mexican Skies: An Interview with Gabriel Figueroa

Walter Rippel y Laura WaddingtonEl Amante Cine, Ano II no 12, Febrero 1993, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This interview was conducted with Gabriel Figueroa during his trip to New York for “Master of Shadows: A Tribute to Gabriel Figueroa,” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in September and October 1992. It took place in English and was later translated into Spanish by Walter Rippel (who also added the introductory notes). The original English recording being lost, I have translated the Spanish rendition that was published in El Amante Cinema, Buenos Aires, in February 1993 back into English. (LW)


Born in Mexico City in 1907, Gabriel Figueroa has photographed more than 250 films. Amidst his vast body of work, we recall: ‘The Fugitive’ (by John Ford); ‘Los olvidados’, ‘Nazarin’ and ‘The Exterminating Angel’ (by Luis Bunuel); ‘The Night of the Iguana’ and ‘Under the Volcano’ by John Huston) and the wonderful series of films made in the 1940s alongside Mexican director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández: Flor silvestre, María Candelaria, La perla, Enamorada, Río Escondido, Salón México.

We interviewed Gabriel Figueroa in New York, where he is attending the tribute organised in his honour by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Mexican Film Institute.

He is a small man, a passionate conversationalist. “I miss black and white cinema. It has an intrinsic artistry to it and is more powerful. One could produce volume and fullness in the image. When you film in colour, the colours themselves create the contrast, the separation of space. Let me tell you: Picasso wouldn’t have achieved a similar social and artistic impact with ‘Guernica’ had he used colour. I myself got used to photographing in black and white, creating murals with light…”

You make “living murals” and “his images travel the entire world” declared one of the Mexican muralists (Diego Rivera) about your cinematographic work

Oh yes! They (the Mexican muralists) are great friends of mine and have greatly influenced my work. From Orozco, I took black and white; from Rivera, colour and composition; and curvilinear perspective from Siqueiros. Of course, I’ve had other influences: German expressionism, Eisenstein, the intensity of Goya’s figues, the depth of focus of Gregg Toland (the director of photography of Citizen Kane).

Among your peers, is there anyone who has influenced or particularly impressed you?

In Mexico, we have one, Angel Godet (?), who is quite good. And Bergman’s cinematographer, what’s his name? Sven Niwisky? (laughs and jokes about never being able to pronounce the name)


That’s right. He is fantastic. I heard that when he filmed the story based on a novel by Proust (Swann in Love), he first studied the changes of light in the location for an entire year. The transposition of Proust’s words into his own images – an extremely challenging task for us cinematographers – was brilliant.

While we are abording the theme of literature and film adaptations, you have said that the biggest problem with Mexican cinema is the lack of good writers.

In Mexico, we lack good screenwriters. And if one wants to buy the rights to a work by (say) Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa or García Márquez, they ask for a million dollars. Who, in Mexican cinema, can come up with such a fortune?”

Have you written any screenplays yourself?

I have only written a synopsis. The title is Old Havana. It’s about the life of a close friend of Batista and the political changes in Cuba. I have entrusted several screenwriters with the writing of the script, but it remains unfinished.

You chose the stories that you work on as a cinematoprapher very carefully.

That’s because without a good script, there can’t be a good film. Let me tell you about my experience with John Steinbeck. In 1950, he came to Mexico with Elia Kazan to show me his script for Viva Zapata. I read it and I didn’t like it. It was like a sort of Viva Villa!. It didn’t explain any of the reasons that drove Zapata to take up arms. I was with them for three days, and on the third day, I told Steinbeck: ‘You’re making a mistake. You don’t show why Zapata fought. And that scene which contains the verses, what? Zapata and poetry? You should remove that scene from the film.’ Then, Kazan called me and said: ‘You have the nerve to argue with Steinbeck?’ ‘Look, one thing’s for sure, I know more about Zapata than Steinbeck does,’ I replied, Eventually, they had another screenwriter do a rewrite. It was much better but still it didn’t convince me. I decided not to shoot the film.

On the other hand, you liked the adaptation made of Graham Greene’s novel (The Power and the Glory) for The Fugitive, directed by John Ford?

Yes, the script was good. But I think something was lacking: the character of the priest (Henry Fonda) should have been portrayed as an alcoholic. It is very clear in the original novel but it doesn’t come across in the film.

What was your collaboration with John Ford like?

“Ford realised that my way of working wasn’t what he was used to in Hollywood: once the director had chosen the camera position, I would come up with the composition and lighting that I felt the shot required, and then await the director’s approval. Ford found this approach (which Emilio Fernández had always used) interesting and adopted it. But it wasn’t like that with Buñuel. He knew exactly what he wanted in every shot. I just defended my craft in the lighting. On this point, neither the director nor anyone else can interfere. In every film that I’vee shot, I’ve always been the master of the light.”

Did you feel that Buñuel’s approach limited you?

Not at all. I greatly respected Buñuel, he was extremely intelligent. I remember during the filming of Los olvidados, he gives me a camera position, I compose the image and ask him to approve it. He looks through the viewfinder and says to me: ‘That’s a beautiful landscape, Gabriel. But I have a better suggestion: why don’t we turn the camera around 180 degrees and film those dirty geese flapping their wings in the mud?’ (laughs).

I understand that your collaboration with John Huston wasn’t as serendipitous…

During the filming of Under the Volcano, Huston could only move around in a wheelchair. So he made the decision to shoot the entire film with the Steadicam system, which was a big mistake. It’s like when using a zoom, you shouldn’t abuse it. Also we had a camera operator; I wasn’t handling the camera, so I lost control of the photography. My only defence was the lighting. On another occasion, Huston asked me to work for him on a film about impressionism (Moulin Rouge), but I declined. I didn’t feel capable of shooting an entirely “out of focus” film – my style is expressionist. With time, I realised my decision was right. Huston carried out countless tests to achieve an impressionist atmosphere but he only succeeded in one sequence of the film: the can-can dance. As for Night of the Iguana, it’s a good film and an excellent adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ work. However, I only feel 30% responsible for the film’s cinematography because it was Huston who decided on the composition of the majority of the shots. Curiously, it was the only film for which I ever received a nomination for an Academy Award, in Hollywood. Huston also asked me to photograph Prizzi’s Honor, but unfortunately I was denied the papers to work in the United States.

(Referring to his retirement, Figueroa explains that it was in part due to fatigue and partly due to disillusionment. “The scripts that they offered me didn’t interest me. They proposed to me to shoot Rambo 2, but I declined.”)

One last question: You were the Secretary-General of a division of the Union of Cinema Production Workers in Mexico, in the 1940s, I believe? What relationship has cinema had with politics in your life?

I never let politics interfere with my work. I don’t belong to, nor have ever belonged to, any political party, either inside or outside of Mexico. I was in the Union because the Central de Trabajadores Mexicanos (C.T.M.), to which we all belonged and from which we separated, was managed by a bunch of gangsters, and it was absolutely vital to fight against them. I also participated in demonstrations where students or workers were demanding fair rights. During the miners’ strike in Coahuila, which we lost, I contributed money and ideas. I was anti-Franco to the point of refusing to shoot any movies in Spain. With one such opportunity, the Mexican director Roberto Gavaldón sent me the following telegram: “Good script, with Dolores Del Río and Jean Gabin. To be shot in Madrid. I’ll direct. Whatever terms you want to shoot the movie.” So, I replied, “When it comes to good friends and good stories, I have no objections. As for filming in Spain, I only have one condition: get Franco off the throne!”

Interview: Wa1ter Rippel y Laura Waddington
Translation into Spanish: Wa1ter Rippel 3 de noviembre de 1992
Translation back to English: Laura Waddington

English version of interview published in Spanish in El Amante Cine, Ano II no 12, Febrero 1993, Buenos Aires, Argentina