In the late 1970s I attended a ‘rough cut’ screening of a new children’s film, which the publisher I worked for was considering. It was the first feature from a young director who had also written the screenplay.
Cut to a Soho screening room. Enter a blue-jeaned, leather-jacketed David Puttnam, followed by Alan Parker. The film was Bugsy Malone and I was spellbound, most of all by the cinematography. It was by Michael Seresin.
Seresin went on to shoot eight more Parker features. So distinctive was his approach that it was termed ‘Lumiere Anglais’ and helped change the face of cinema.
For Seresin it started in his native New Zealand, where his mother would take him to the local cinema. Due to a change in programme they inadvertently saw Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Young Seresin was smitten. The Orson Wells character was called Harry, the same as Seresin’s absent father. In the dark he fantasised over the prospect of his father being a spy.
The film was dramatically lit by Robert Kraskerand. I suggest to Seresin that it must have had a subliminal effect on his destiny. ‘I never thought about that. Maybe you’re right,’ he shrugs. Later, at university, he organised film clubs showing the latest European releases. Eventually, his elusive father stepped in to give much-needed guidance. Seresin ended up working for a small documentary production company. He quickly rose from gofer to assistant cameraman to director.
As with many Antipodeans, the lure of travel took hold. Seresin found himself in Italy, where he did very little, but loved every minute. A good-looking 20-something, he was cast to play in a feature. The film never materialised, but the taste of the cinema was with him again and he moved to London to try his luck.
The early 1960s still had the residue of post-war austerity. This bleakness, reflected in the many kitchen-sink dramas popular in British cinema, wasn’t to Seresin’s taste. He preferred the glamour of Continental cinema. He obtained a union card and one of the earliest films he worked on was The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. From there he joined Brooks Baker & Fulford, a stills photographer that had moved into commercials.
This enabled him to improve his craft and experiment with a new form of lighting. Table top set-ups were flooded with a powerful single-source light creating an intense naturalistic feel. He became friends with Parker – then a young copywriter at ad agency Collett Dickenson Pearce. Parker was hankering to become a director and persuaded Seresin to help him make test commercials in the basement of CDP, where the prototype for future commercials was being born. Parker was elevated to director and started his own production company. There followed a stream of award-winning work from the duo.
Parker’s trust in Seresin has spanned four decades and his most important films – Midnight Express, Birdy, Fame, Shoot the Moon, Angel Heart and Angela’s Ashes – have all been shot by Seresin.
As a director, Seresin has been confined to commercials, but he always brings a cinematic quality to the production. Renault’s Papa and Nicole series underlines his narrative style, sumptuously photographed, often using a long lens to create an intimate, graphic feel, very evident in his beautiful ‘Jacques de Florette’ Stella Artois commercial. A recent feature, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was a major stylistic departure for the series. Seresin created a far darker world than in the previous films.
Although still a big fan of shooting on film, Seresin is aware of the move to high definition and is making his first foray into the digital world. ‘I am not so concerned about what kit is behind the lens. It’s the lenses that count,’ he says. His latest feature is Hippy, Hippy, Shake, directed by Beeban Kidron until she quit last month. He is also about to start on Jump, a documentary about the pioneers of bungee jumping.