Interview with Baris Azman – ‘Dutch angle: Chas Gerretsen & Apocalypse Now’

Starting from the 70s, Dutch photographer Charles ‘Chas’ Gerretsn has worked as a war photographer in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Chile, giving the world some unforgettable shots. The most famous is the portrait of the dictator Pinochet. After moving to Hollywood in 1975 he started shooting for different studios until 1989, when Francis Ford Coppola asked him to report everything that happens on the set of his new movie in 1976. Baris Azman‘s documentary Dutch Angle: Chas Gerretsen & Apocalypse Now was released after KINO Rotterdam and the Nederlands Fotomuseum collaborated together. Now, the largely undiscovered work finally comes to light. 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Apocalypse Now, a masterpiece of cinema history. With this documentary about Chas Gerretsen and his work on the film set, you managed to bring another point of view on this overly-discussed film. How did you come up with the idea?
I’m a filmmaker myself. For the last three years I’ve been also working for KINO Rotterdam, and what they do is also showing a lot of classics, making their own programming, and for them I make the film trailers for their special programming – so we were working a lot together. They had a photo exhibition from a Rotterdam photographer who worked as an operator and those photos came from the Fotomuseum. So, the Fotomuseum team was the one that approached us saying they had pictures from this movie, saying that maybe I was interested in doing something with them. We had not seen those pictures before, hundreds of pictures, so we literally lost our minds. There was nothing online about it, we had to do something with it! We thought about a photo exhibition, but then we discovered that Chas Gerretsen was still alive, so we contacted him and he was interested in talking with us. We thought that if we were crazy about those pictures, than every other film fan would be as well. We knew this year would be the 40th anniversary and since Chas also wanted to get the story out, he said, “In May I’m gonna be in Holland for a few weeks, and then I’m going back to the Bahamas again, and you may never hear from me again.” The idea came up in March and in May we had to shoot it.

That was a real luck. How was it to have the chance of interviewing him?
At first we were all afraid, because he’s also a war photographer, but we treated him and his pictures with respect. He was very mellow with us, very easy to interview, plus he told us a lot of good stories about the set life.

Gerretsen’s great work comprehends war photo reports but also Hollywood film stars shootings. Why did you decide to focus specifically on his work for Apocalypse Now?
Most of his other works concern fashion photography and movie stars. Chas himself said that he photographed almost 400 movies but most of them show actors at home for glossy magazines. For him Apocalypse Now was one of the few movies where he could just hang out and do whatever he wanted. For the other movies he had to do  certain kinds of pictures that for him were less interesting, so with his work for Francis Ford Coppola we could see his really creative side.

In your documentary there is an interesting relationship between movies, photography and archives. Do you think there is an urge to use the archives to tell stories?
I think it is very important. I think that every film fan, cinephile, filmmaker or just people interested in these subjects are also interested in how everything is made, what it takes to make a movie, but also how important is to archive all these things in a very good way. For a long time Chas’ pictures were somewhere in the Tropics – maybe his ex wife or his ex girlfriend had the pictures in another boat – but fortunately now his photos are all safe in the archive at the Fotomuseum. If we don’t take care about archiving, all these things might disappear. As a filmmaker, I’ve always been interested in how things are made, so making something that falls into that category would be also very interesting.

And what are you next projects as a filmmaker?
I normally do fiction, I made a couple of shorts film that did well, but I’ve been working for ten years trying to make a feature film – so hopefully I’m going to work on that!

Interview by Bianca Ferrari