Mark Molesworth is a filmmaker and cinematographer. His latest project as Director of Photography is Basquiat: Rage to Riches, a BBC Studios production directed and produced by David Shulman. The documentary won the BAFTA for Specialist Factual programme in 2018 and is now available to watch for free through American Masters and PBS.
Mark is the cinematographer of feature documentaries including Silk Road: Drugs, Death and the Dark Web, Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, and Dick Smith Make Up Artist, for which he won the CINE Golden Eagle. In 1984, he was awarded an International Monitor Award for his cinematography work on the BBC’s Street the Beat. He and his wife, producer/director Donna Bertaccini, co-own and operate Molesworth Enterprises, Inc. a film and television production company based in New York City. Their company caters to a world wide clientele.
Following the sold-out U.S. Premiere of Rage to Riches at the Brooklyn Museum last month, Mark Molesworth spoke with Sean L. Malin of CineMalin about working with cameras for more than forty years, discovering Basquiat’s art, and the experience of filming in New York on September 11th. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sean L. Malin: Before David Shulman called you up to work on Basquiat, you had never heard of Basquiat ever?
Mark Molesworth: I had never, no. And I’m a pretty big fan of art! But I never knew about this guy.
SLM: I’m surprised because you’re a New York dude, you have worked in that scene for so many years. In the film, his [friends] talk about how influential he was in the Pop Art wave, friends with Andy Warhol and those guys…
MM: I know, right? I filmed a documentary years ago for the BBC about [artist Arshile] Gorky. That was challenging – I didn’t really understand his art, even though I was supposed to relate to it somehow. But then I started to appreciate it a little bit. That was eye-opening for me.
SLM: Did you learn a lot about art in college? Where did you go?
MM: I went to NYU film school. I was a still photographer in high school and I loved taking photographs. So I let my teachers know I wanted to get into cinematography, maybe as a career. My professors at prep school thought I was nuts. But my parents realized I had a love for it and never hassled me about it. Maybe that’s because my mom owned an art gallery on Madison Avenue in NYC for many years. She appreciated artists of all sorts.
SLM: When you were there, you would have been just behind or right in front of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers.
SLM: Did you hang out with those people?
MM: Not those guys specifically, no. The program was riddled with talented filmmakers and creatives of one sort or another. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s editor Sally Menke was a good friend. In fact, she and her husband, the director Dean Parisot, introduced my wife and I. I’ve always owed them big time thanks for that one.
SLM: That was such a powerful moment in New York and I can see why you and those guys would want to make movies there. Did you get work as a cinematographer while you were in college that made you think, “Oh, maybe I actually can do this professionally”?
MM: I did. Early on, I did this film with David Smith, whose father was Dick Smith, a famous make-up artist. His credits include Little Big Man, The Godfather and The Exorcist. Over the course of filming we interviewed Dustin Hoffman about the makeup techniques that Dick used on him for Little Big Man.
SLM: He’s legendary.
MM: Exactly, and it was great fun. We went behind the scenes of a TV show with him, which was fantastic for us at the time. I thought it was a really well done film. David and I actually won CINE Golden Eagles for the film.
SLM: That’s all well and good, but when was the first time you got a call where you were offered serious money, like what then seemed like a fortune but we would now cynically look back on and say, “I can’t believe you were paid so little”?
MM: *Laughs* I started out very humbly. When I first started working in production, I was producing for commercials. It was good money and I got to hire all my friends occasionally. That was not what I wanted to be doing, though – worrying about what the vegetarian make-up artist was going to have for lunch – and I got so sick of that.
The first job I shot was something for the BBC. I started doing whatever I could for them. They hired me in 1980 after Sadat got murdered in Egypt. I was in New York at the time trying to get work with them as a cameraman or cinematographer. They were just getting into video, and I’d only been shooting film previous to that, so I said to myself, “I’m going to try to get into video, too. I think that might be a good way to go.”
I actually called their office, and they had not hired anyone to come in and shoot video for them yet. They told me to go uptown because the head of the BBC office was there and wanted to do an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski about Sadat. And we got a great interview. That was the beginning of my relationship with them, and eventually they offered me and my business a very lucrative annual contract.
SLM: In talking about the death of Sadat, it brings up one of the more spectacular facts about you, which is that you have spent a large part of your life covering major world news, especially tragedies or traumas in the international narrative. Not just Sadat, but the Falklands, or, of course, 9/11. That is the first thing I think about when considering your work, actually. Because you were shooting in New York that day.
MM: Yeah, I lost a buddy I played softball with every Sunday. 9/11 was horrible. You are right that I cut my teeth on current events and news. I have covered a lot of campaign trails and presidential conventions. I’ve been the Director of Photography on at least six Presidential interviews, including Nixon after his retirement. Most were at the White House or Camp David. Back to 9/11 – don’t enjoy filming sudden disasters. It is traumatizing.
SLM: It is hard when you have a family. That is the kind of thing that camerapeople tend to bring home with them.
MM: That’s true. But I have been fortunate. I never had to cover a war. The closest I ever came was when I went to Haiti with Peter Jennings before we invaded it. At one point down there, we stopped to get our food, and somebody stopped us with a rifle like, “What are you doing here?” We were okay, but it was very strange.
MM: The most interesting and satisfying work has always been the documentary films I’ve helmed. At NYU, I enjoyed doing them. Documentaries were always a better fit for me. I’ve DP’d a wide variety of episodes for BBC’s flagship shows like Panorama, who I still work with to this day. That is a great show. They do really important pieces on the U.S. I’ve also often filmed for all the BBC science series and one-off science documentaries. They also have an equivalent show to Nova called Horizon.
I’ve worked on all those shows often, and have traveled all over the place for them. I’ve shot on Easter Island for The Mystery of Easter Island, and in Peru, Brazil, Cuba, and Guatemala over the years as their Director of Photography. Those kinds of shoots – archaeological-type shoots – are my favorites because, photographically, cinematically, it is challenging to make those work well. But when they do, and folks are thrilled with your work, and they keep hiring you, you know you are appreciated. That’s incredibly validating.
SLM: In places like Peru or on Easter Island, are there infrastructural problems, where getting access to a fellow crew member or having your camera break down or something will mean that you are shit-out-of-luck?
MM: That is possible – if your camera goes down, you are absolutely screwed. It can happen. I was on a Navy Destroyer south of the Bahamas for a Discovery Channel show called Extreme Machines – we had to fly on a helicopter to get onto the boat – and my camera did crap out on me. So I had to go to the Engineering Room to work on it. We got it to work, which was great because we had no options. It would have been bad. But we got the job done.
SLM: Your resume – or your IMDB page at least – is extremely eclectic. How many of the myriad projects you’ve worked on since you first shot Dick Smith 40-something years ago have you leaped at the chance to tackle, and how many of them are, “I need to feed my family and this is how I do it. One for me, one for them”?
MM: It’s always been a combination. I try to do a lot of art stuff for the BBC, etc., because I love the arts. I used to film often for the Gagosian Gallery as a client, and as a result, I was able to work with a variety of world-renowned artists. I thoroughly enjoyed working on Basquiat, despite it being hard work. We didn’t have a sound man, and we were going all over the city. I was really happy to do it all though because I really enjoyed it and have always respected David’s vision for his films. He worked hard to lock me in for the film because I had some conflicts, but in the end I made some schedule changes so that I would be available for his filming dates. I’m glad I did. The film beat out David Attenborough’s entry for a BAFTA and is having screenings all over the place.
SLM: Basquiat is airing as an American Masters entry but it was originally made for the BBC. Was that your connection to the project?
MM: My connection to the project was that David emailed me during pre-production and said, “I have this film I’m making and I want you as the DP.” No, I didn’t have anything to do with American Masters coming on board, that was all the BBC and [producer/director] David Shulman. I actually just saw David four days ago because we were shooting something in the Cloisters for a new film he’s doing for BBC Arts with Fab Five Freddy. This was a case where it got picked up for broadcast by PBS and they didn’t change the film at all. Usually they add a journalist or change some things around. But I think it’s great because now Americans can see the film in its original form, too.
SLM: I watched it for free online, actually, which was pretty nice.
MM: I was just watching it, too, and it’s a really good copy. It looks really good.
SLM: The version online really highlights the amazing use of color in the film, which is so instrumental to Basquiat’s work. To have the colors of his life and his work in New York in the 1980’s is so essential to him, and to the consistency and quality of the film itself.
MM: Oh my god…I was in New York then and it was pretty rough. But it was so much cheaper then.
SLM: One of Basquiat’s friends in the film mentions that he lived there for $80 a month. But in the other film from this year about Basquiat, Boom for Real, Sara Driver – the filmmaker – says that New York was a war zone at that time. Then you hear Jean-Michel himself say the same thing in this movie. Was that your experience, too?
MM: I did not feel that way, but I did have my motorcycle stolen from in front of my apartment, so in that sense it was challenging. And I had my apartment broken into once. *Laughs* But I didn’t really notice that. I was at NYU for part of that time and I loved it. Everyone had a brownstone apartment and SoHo was affordable. Watching the film brought me back to that time. Then Giuliani came in later with ‘Zero Tolerance’, and it got a little safer. Even so, I wouldn’t have gone into the Bronx at that time because it could be dangerous.
SLM: Did you ever see the Samo graffiti on the walls in the ‘70s or ‘80s that you can remember?
MM: No, no, I can’t remember any of it. My wife remembers SAMO all over the place where she lived downtown. But he is so good! The work is amazing. Hopefully his sisters are doing well now.
SLM: This is not the first time you’ve worked with David Shulman, and as you just said, you are now working on another project with him again. Over the four decades you’ve been working, I imagine you have formed some strong relationships with a few directors. And you’ve done a little directing yourself, correct?
MM: Correct. If a client needs me to, I’m always game to direct. Being a Director of Photography all these years has given me a clear vision of how to cover the client for their filming requirements even if at times they can not be present for the filming. I very rarely work off of storyboards. I’m often hired to come in as the cinematographer/director, scope the environment (sometimes I have a scout day), and make the best photographic and lighting decisions. It’s the job of a documentary DP.
SLM: Do you like other directors?
MM: Directors are great. David, for example, has a really great eye. He will sometimes give me a, “Let’s try this”, and it’s not like I’m gonna go, “Hey, fuck you, I didn’t think about that”. But then I try it and it is a really great idea. He’s an artist in his own right. In fact, one of the guys we interview in the film recognized him from being in that scene 20 years earlier in New York.
SLM: Didn’t David also shoot some of the footage?
MM: He definitely did – anything that has everything in focus and nothing out of focus, he pretty much shot with the camera he had. It’s not a great camera. *Laughs*
SLM: Some of the imagery in Rage to Riches is unusually beautiful for a biographical documentary. The deep-focus shots of, say, [gallerist] Mary Boone sitting in front of her book case in tight close with perfect, crisp clarity – I love Citizen Kane-style shots like that. They are so dramatic.
MM: We had some very good people on that shoot. A lot of people who made contributions to it were big in the art world, too, which was cool. It was great to get to shoot the Caravaggio room.
SLM: One of the risks with a movie like this being distributed on American Masters is that it only gets exposed to a certain kind of privileged audience. So you are all lucky that it had the chance to travel internationally and screen elsewhere before it lands on PBS, so it could develop an audience a little more widely. Besides the BAFTA win, what has the reaction been like as it’s screened over the last year or so?
MM: The show that aired it on the BBC has an artsy crowd but also a crossover audience. So while you may be right about who watches American Masters, people are now going to get to see this film who haven’t seen Basquiat’s stuff before. In my eyes, anyone who watches it will say, “That is amazing art”. It is just phenomenal work; and you can just tell that there was something about him. People who know even less about him than I do are going to go, “Wow, this guy’s amazing”, for sure.