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An Interview with Dean Cundey

Dean Cundey is an Academy Award nominated cinematographer. From his early collaborations with John Carpenter, to his collaborations with acclaimed directors such as, Stephen Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard, Dean has shot iconic films such as The Thing, Halloween, Escape From New York, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the Back to The Future trilogy. I spoke with Dean about the blood test scene in The Thing, shooting the Back to The Future Trilogy, capturing the electric fence scene in Jurassic Park, and the shot that he is particularly proud of.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

Well I wanted to go into filmmaking and eventually cinematography since I was about 12 years old. I loved films. I loved the illusion that they created. The fact that a film could take an audience member on a journey you couldn’t go on in real life. I loved that aspect of it. I had decided by high-school that I wanted to go into film, so I went to UCLA Film School. When I graduated I was lucky enough to just begin working in small films doing all kinds of stuff. My first couple of films I was doing make-up, but I took any job I could get so that I could get experience working on the set and experience with the process and stuff. I always knew I had wanted to go into cinematography, so I paid special attention on set to the cinematographer and what they did and how they did it. It was an early process for me. I was lucky to be able to start working in film unlike a lot of my friends who had to find in-between jobs while they were looking for work. I think it was partly because I took any job I could get. As I explained to film students, take any job you can get. Don’t ask: ‘how much will you be paying me’, even work for free if you have to because it’s all about building a network of contacts. Always give 110%. Don't ever say, ‘the hours are too long, I have to go home now.’ You stick it out no matter what. You get the reputation of being team player and someone recommends you, or hires you on the next one.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who influenced you at the beginning?

I looked at a lot of films not so much by who it was, but by what it looked like. What was the lighting like, the camerawork and so forth? One guy who caught my attention early on was Conrad Hall. He made films that had a distinctive, cinematographic look to them. I favoured his kind of techniques, things like that. I looked at all kind of films and you realised that the look of a film is a collaboration of a lot of people, not just the director, but principally. But also cinematographer, actors, the set design, the prop people, the make-up people. All of them contribute something to the look of a film and to telling the story. I think I realised early on that it was really about how do you achieve the particular look for the film that it requires, or the director is looking for. I had a class with James Wong Howe when I was at UCLA, he was a very famous guy who started in the silent period and won two Academy Awards. We were fortunate to have him as he was retiring, to come to UCLA and teach. Really the practical aspects of cinematography, using lights and the camera. I looked at films he did, but also a lot of other films, especially early films were very much about the look and the creation, lighting and camerawork.

You shot five of John Carpenter’s films. How did the collaboration come about, and what’s the process like working with him?

He was a film student about the same time I was, but he was at USC (University of Southern California Film School). So we never met as film students, but when I started working I took any job I could get and I did about twelve or so little low budget action movies. They were films that were made for drive-in theatres, when we had them. So they just needed products. There was a market in those days for low budget films that were shot quickly and involved action and they were very visual. On about three of them I think, was the script supervisor Deborah Hill. One day she called me and she said she was going to be working with this other young filmmaker named John Carpenter and she thought that he and I would be a good team, and was I interested in meeting him? I said, of course. And we met. We seemed to get along.

They said they were going to make this movie called Halloween. He said he wanted to do something very visual with it and I said great because that’s what I enjoy. I had worked with some directors on these low budget films who thought of the camera as a way to record actors talking and then some action and something blows up. Without really involving the audience in the visuals and John said that’s what he wanted to do, to create visual storytelling. So we went off on this journey that was Halloween and I was really delighted when he wanted to use the camera in a really effective way. The film was not a success the first week it came out because it was brand new. Nobody had made a horror film like that, a thriller, a slasher movie as we demeaningly call them now. So the first week it didn’t do too well and they thought it was a failure, but the second week it did more business, third week more and we realised that the film had found an audience. It had caught on and it was going to be a success. So after that filmmaking sort of changed and we were proud to have been a part of that and the fact of visual storytelling on a budget.

The Thing was your fourth collaboration. Of course a lot of the film takes place in the dark, what was your approach to lighting the film?

I think that what I had been trying to do in some of the previous films was really do what had always been said about cinematography, that you are painting with light. You’re drawing the attention of the audience to particular things and emotional reactions. I was fortunate in that John would offer suggestions, but really let me light it the way I felt. As I look back I say, ‘yeah I made some interesting choices, why did I do that, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But in general the lighting and the camerawork served the storytelling and involved the audience. I think the fact that I was given a lot of leeway to find a lighting style and lighting techniques that I felt were right was really a great thing that he had allowed me to do.

I suppose that is what makes a good collaboration?

Yes I think it is. Collaboration is a respect for the other person’s skills, sensibilities, artistic concepts and all. The ability to shoot a shot or a scene in a way that both parties and as I said, all the parties involved in making a film, understand or feels that’s the way it should be. I think that working with John was one of those things. It certainly helped me to develop and I’d like to think that I helped him also. I had the pleasure of working on some of his most successful films.

During the blood test scene when Mac is trying to decipher who is The Thing there is a great moment when it’s suddenly revealed. How was this shot?

I know that John’s thought and my thought was that it was all about building that tension, building the suspense. Wondering, as MacReady is, who is The Thing, if one of them is The Thing? It was a case of shooting a lot of inserts and close-ups. A lot of it is made by the editing, that’s where another great collaborator in filmmaking is, the editor putting together, not only pieces that not only explain to the audience where you are, where you are standing, what you’re looking at, who you’re seeing and reacting to, but also the timing. How long do you hold on something? How do you establish a scene with a wide shot and a close-up, or a close-up and then the wide shot? Those kinds of decisions that the editor makes, with the director’s import of course. Those are the things that are important. So for the blood test scene it was a case of the right shot at the right time to tell the audience what they were supposed to be looking at and what they were supposed to be thinking or feeling.

I didn’t say anything for years, but I did point out recently that when it was decided who was The Thing, (we knew in advance of course because there was going to be a lot of special effects with leaping to the ceiling and all) that I didn’t use an eye light in the actor’s eyes. I kept them dark. Usually an eye light is a little white sparkle that gives light to the eyes and allows you as an audience to read the expression easier of what an actor is doing with his eyes. That’s where we see a lot of the character, by looking at the eyes and the mouth, so I kept the eyes dark to sort of give an uneasy feeling. It seemed to work. I think a lot of it is that the audience shouldn’t necessarily think about it, they should just feel it. The way the shots are done, what you’re looking at, when you’re looking at it, how wide are the shots. What’s the lighting like? Is it dark and moody, or bright and happy? I think that’s the tricky part about directing, but also cinematography is how do you tell the story with the visuals? How do you get the audience to just continue down the road of the movie and the story without stopping and saying: “look at that beautiful shot of that sunset.” You have to keep it moving unless you want the audience to stop and look at the beautiful sunset. Lighting and camerawork and all of that is important to be done so the audience only experiences and doesn’t really think about and ask questions. Questions like: “Why is it so dark, why can’t I see his face?”

You shot the Back to the Future Trilogy. How was the transition from horror to comedy? What’s the biggest difference between shooting the two?

Well after Halloween I did a couple more John Carpenter movies. It was obvious that people were calling me because they had horror films and I didn’t want to be typed. As much as it was nice to be working all the time, being invited to do the next horror film. I began to deliberately choose other kinds of movies, some straight action movies, a musical, romance, various things. I wanted to gain the experience in those kind of films. How do you do the visual storytelling of a comedy or adventure differently from a horror film? So I was delighted when I got a phone call to talk to Bob Zemeckis about a film he was going to make called Romancing The Stone. I met with him and he said he had liked, I think it was Escape From New York or something and wanted to know if I wanted to work on this action-adventure romantic comedy. I said of course.

We made the film. It’s ironic that when it was shown at 20th Century Fox, who had financed it, one of the head of production looked at it and said: ‘this is awful, this is a turkey. Let’s not even waste our money releasing it.’ Someone else said, ‘well at least it’s a film, we’ll release it.’ And it turned out to be the hit of that summer and so it made Bob Zemeckis’ talent obvious and it certainly helped me. As a result of that he was able to pull out of the bottom of the draw of his desk, figuratively speaking, an old script that he and Bob Gale had written, called Back to The Future. By the way the executives at Universal, when they saw the finished release they said: ‘Back to the Future? What a confusing title. Why don’t we call it Spaceman from Pluto?’ That was an actual suggestion. Spielberg pulled out and said,’ no, no, no. Back to the Future.’ It has become a part of popular culture now and successful trilogy of films. So my advice is don’t always rely on the studio executives who say, ‘Romancing the Stone is going to be a complete failure and Back to the Future is a stupid title.’

How difficult was it to maintain the look of the universe throughout the trilogy?

Well it was kind of fun. I’ve always believed in being sort of subtle. Don’t call attention to the photography. Just make it part of the storytelling. Back to The Future I was kind of subtle. The contemporary period, the present day if you will, I said it should just look normal and maybe a little cooler than going back. That was done with a little warmer look, warmer lights. We color timed it a little warmer, so it was subtle between the two periods. The lighting paid attention to the period feeling, and what were the sources of light in those days? That kind of thing.

We just followed that through with Back to The Future II. The future, that became a feeling of darker and grittier and very much cooler, so that there was contrast between the past and the future and the present. Then when we went to the Old West we tried to emulate a sense of reality for the lighting and what the look was like, that it was natural and not artificially lit. Also we wanted to pay homage to many of the Western films that had been made since the silent days, but certainly in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Peoples understanding and sensibilities of the Old West I think are more about the old movies they’ve seen than whether they’ve actually read history books or seen historical photos or whatever. We wanted to pay tribute to those old Western movies, but do it in a way the audience felt that there was Marty and Doc who were part of the present as the audience would know it, how had gone back and so they bring with them, sort of the sensibilities of the modern audience. So it was an interesting way to try to tell the story, mixing time periods and lighting styles, and everything.

You were nominated for an Academy Award for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. What were the challenges you faced around mixing and matching real life cinematography around cgi, animation and animatronics?

Well there were a couple of challenges. London is one of my favourite cities in the world. Having worked with a new film culture, a British crew, was a great deal. I enjoyed it and that pleasure shows up in the movie. When you are enjoying yourself it doesn’t matter how hard the job is you still do it, as opposed to saying well there must be a quicker, easier way to do this. I think part of making it was the fact we were all so pleased to be working in the British system, but also the fact that we were doing stuff that hadn’t been done that way before. They’d been making animation, live-action composite films since the silent days. Disney’s first film was Alice in Cartoonland which was a live-action girl in a cartoon world. It’s not like it was a brand new technique. But the way we accomplished it was different, was much more complex, much more adventurous, much more experimental. So that kept our attention, also the fact that we were trying to do more than what had been done before in a way that it hadn’t been done before. That I think was a very much contributing aspect of why Roger ended up looking the way it did and why it has been accepted. When we first did that and it came out people said, ‘oh live-action, animation.’ So now every cereal commercial and little films all had animation live action composite. It’s easy for a contemporary audience, contemporary people to say, ‘Roger Rabbit, that was one of those movies that had cartoons in them.’ And, of course, to overlook the fact that it was the movie that had cartoons in them and started a revolution in animation, live-action composite and storytelling.

You also shot Jurassic Park. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the electric fence scene. How was this scene shot?

We were shooting on the island of Kauai on Hawaii. There’s a particular area of Kauai that has a canyon, that looks like it’s a desert canyon, and is so completely different from the rest of the island that is covered with plants and jungle. Stephen thought it would make a very interesting background, so they built a short portion of the electric fence on the top of a ridge looking out over the canyon. We actually had a crane that would lift the camera, a camera crane. We just shot the pieces as if there really was an electric fence. And then for the big climax when he falls there was a bit of special effects with sparks and the top of the fence was built lower so the kid could fall into a pad. We had a stunt guy who fell much further. So once again it was putting together the little pieces. Stephen is one of the great visualizers. How to tell a story with the camera, which is why it was so much fun working on it and also on Hook. He knows how to use the camera, but he also respects you if you have embellishments to his ideas. I enjoyed working with him very much both those times and various other times I met him. He was the producer of course on the Back to the Future films. So he and I had a history of sorts.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that you are particularly proud of?

That’s very tough. You always try to make the next shot the one you’re the most proud of. In-between there are lots of other shots that are just necessary. I think that one shot, the opening of Halloween with the Steadicam that moves through the house and up the stairs that was really the first time that we, or anybody had done that. The Steadicam was brand new, it had been out for a year or so. People had been using it to do some kind of a moving shot, through a crowd or something like that. John really wanted to do something unique. He decided that the opening shot should be the point of view of someone mysterious. Who is this leading us through this place and this situation? I always look at that shot as being influential in the business of film telling.

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