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‘Rumble Fish’ Turns 40: Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum on Getting Matt Dillon to Hit His Marks

Camerimage 2022: Burum, the recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, looked back at his newly restored 1983 classic

Francis Ford Coppola is known for big swings throughout his career, but one of his biggest was filming the adaptations of S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” back-to-back and releasing them both in 1983 only months apart. The two movies’ filmmaking styles could not possibly be more different, with the lush Technicolor palette of “The Outsiders” giving way to the shadowy, moody black-and-white of “Rumble Fish,” a film so stylish in its look that it became a prototype for indies in years to come.

This is thanks to cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the international cinematography festival EnergaCamerimage in Poland. Burum was on hand after a retrospective screening of “Rumble Fish,” one of many of his films screened throughout festival. (Others range from “St. Elmo’s Fire” to “The Untouchables” to “Hoffa;” he received an Oscar nomination for the latter.) The 82 year-old lenser, best known for his collaborations with the people he calls “the three Italians” (Brian De Palma, Francis Coppola, Danny DeVito), was on hand to chat about the legacy of “Rumble Fish” and why it was a massive gamble in 1983.

“We had just two weeks to prepare the picture,” says Burum. “We finished shooting “The Outsiders” and Francis asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Francis, I’d like to do it in black-and-white’ because it’s probably my only chance in my career to shoot a black and white picture. Because in those days, black-and-white was not happening anymore. And he said, ‘Me too’.”

Matt Dillon (right) in “Rumble Fish” (Criterion Collection)

“Rumble Fish” was shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 60 days (where “Outsiders” was also shot), except this time in real locations with no fancy soundstages and accomplished mostly in night shoots, with a powerhouse cast of expert brooders including Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits, Chris Penn, Vincent Spano, Laurence Fishburne, Diana Scarwid and two notable holdovers from “The Outsiders,” Matt Dillon and Diane Lane. (There’s even a young Sofia Coppola, billed in the end credits as, merely, “Domino.”)

Working with the youthful cast of soon-to-be-stars was a terrific experience, even if the film’s magnetic lead had a little difficulty hitting his marks early on. “When we did ‘Outsiders,’ we had a cast not that experienced except for Ralph Macchio, who’d done a lot of television, and he was like an anchor. And one of the problems — they didn’t know how to hit their marks. Matt Dillon was particularly bad at hitting his mark, when he hit his mark at all. I said, ‘Matt, do what Spencer Tracy always used to do where you walk in, look at your mark, and just keep looking at your mark where you get yourself situated, then look up. And this is going to give you a little bit of you know, mystery, like you’re thinking about something.’ Look at any Spencer Tracy picture. I mean, you always have that because he couldn’t hit the mark. By the time we got to ‘Rumble Fish,’ they were all in pretty good shape.”

Nicolas Cage, Vincent Spano, Dillon and Chris Penn in “Rumble Fish” (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Anyone who particularly excelled in this arena in his long career? “I did two pictures with Jack Nicholson (“Hoffa” and “Man Trouble”). He was amazing. He can do anything. Even when actors were out of position, he would kind of herd them into the right situation.”

And while black-and-white films are roaring back nowadays (“Mank”, “Passing”, “Belfast”), it was a different story in the early 1980s. “There weren’t very many labs then that developed black and white,” says Burum, who noted that the print screened was the one he supervised and developed with The Criterion Collection for their recent restoration (available now). “The best black-and-white lab was in Paris. But we didn’t have enough money to fly in dailies back and forth. So the second best was an outfit in New York. And they did a good job of developing the negative, the big problem was getting good prints. This [Camerimage version] is what it should look like.”