Dean Cundey (Part 1)
Dean Cundey, one of Hollywood's top cinematographers, was interviewed over the phone in 1997, shortly after his directorial debut on Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. This interview appeared in a different form in SFX issue 31.
Jump straight to Part 2 of this very long interview
Exactly what does a cinematographer do?
"I tend to explain it as: I'm the one who's sort of inbetween the science and the art of filming because I have to deal with all the photography, all the technical aspects of it, all the lighting, managing the crew, managing the various departments, co-ordinating all of them to implement the vision of the director. Using all of the visual aspects of the film-making, brought together by the photography. I photograph the scene and I work very closely, obviously, with the director to come up with the look, the mood, and then use all of the things at our command to create that."
Do you have a lot of input of your own into a film or are you largely interpreting what the director wants?
"It usually varies with the director. There are some directors who are very good with actors and characters and aren't really very interested as far as the actual visual look of the film. That is, I supply them. I would consult with the director, but a lot of it is then interpreting the script and interpreting the scenes as they are rehearsed by the director, interpreting the location or the set as designed by the production designer. It creates the look and the mood of various scenes and of the whole film. Then there are other directors who have a very strong idea of the look that they want for a particular scene or even for a particular shot. It becomes very much a collaborative effort all the time. But they will have more specific ideas. Do they want the scene dark or light? Where does the camera go? Should there be camera movement? That sort of thing. My job runs the gamut from being totally in control of creating the photographic image to one where I collaborate very much with the director."
How did you become a cinematographer?
"I've always been interested in visual storytelling, you might say, and interpreting things in visuals. In high school, I was interested in working in the high school theatrical productions. I was always interested in set design and scenics. As a matter of fact, my first inclination was to become a production designer in films, so in high school I had determined that I would go to college and study architecture so that could design the sets and environments of pictures. So I studied a little bit of architecture, but I went to UCLA film school, and when you're in film school you take a little bit of everything: editing, screenwriting, camera and so forth. One of the classes I took was taught by James Wong Howe, who was of course one of the legendary cinematographers of Hollywood, having started in the ‘20s and done a lot of very famous films. In taking the class from him , I realised that the cinematographer was probably the most dynamically involved with creating the visual storytelling aspect of the film. So I changed my focus to cinematography. Then when I graduated from the UCLA school I was fortunate in really starting to work immediately in films. Not as a cinematographer; I actually did a whole variety of roles, beginning with make-up, doing some special effects, doing some editing. All of which were great experiences as far as understanding people's skills and trades and the problems involved in a lot of different areas of film-making."
What was the first real film that you worked on?
"I started off doing a little bit of odds and ends of photography, doing various inserts and pick-up shots for low-budget action films. Then I shot a film that a friend of mine was production managing. it was called Trained to Kill. From that I went onto another film which was Where the Red Fern Grows, which was a famous children's book. The film was being directed by Norman Tokar who was a Disney director and it was my first experience working with a real director, seeing how an experienced director works. Then I did a whole variety of films. The one though that really turned the corner for me was Halloween. That began my collaboration with John Carpenter. In the film business, it's interesting that you can do a lot of interesting work or creative work, but once you get a film that everybody notices and recognises it gives you credibility. So Halloween and the Carpenter films were the things that gave me that credibility and allowed me to do other things."
The famous shot in Halloween is the opening one through the mask. That was quite innovative, wasn't it?
"Yes. John is a great visual storyteller, which was one of the reasons why I particularly enjoyed working with him, and it was one of the reasons why it was such a great experience for me in being able to use photography as a visual element of the film. Not just as a way to explore actors talking, but to really involve the audience. That opening shot was certainly one of those. John was looking for a shot that hadn't been seen or done before and would really involve the audience. That was the year that they had just developed the Steadicam. And John came to me and said, 'Do you think we could do the opening shot all as one Steadicam shot?' I said, 'Well, I don't know why not.' So we set it up. Actually it was quite tricky and elaborate to do, to light the entire interior of the house without being able to see any of the lights. To be able to create the mood of it just with overall lighting was very tricky so it took quite a bit of work. We rehearsed it and then I operated that shot and my camera operator Ray Stella operated it also. We would take turns because it was a very strenuous shot to wear the Steadicam and climb the stairs and move through the house, all of it trying to avoid seeing the lights and doing it all with exact timing. It was very innovative, particularly for its time, and certainly was one of the most significant moments in Halloween."
You also did Halloween II and Halloween III. That was different to the rest of the series.
"Yes, it was a departure. they were looking for a continuation of the theme, of the franchise, but they weren't sure they could sustain the theme of Michael Myers so John and Deborah wrote a completely different story for Halloween III."
My list has 41 films with you as cinematographer. Is that right?
"It could be more than that. I'd have to see the list."
An early obscurity was Creature from Black Lake. What was that?
"As far as I know, I don't even have a copy of it. I have a very small poster but that's the only thing I have that remains of it. But it was interesting. It was a low-budget film that was financed by an independent guy who had a chain of clothing stores in Louisiana and he decided that he wanted to be a producer. He raised some money and put together a script that was kind of interesting. I don't think it quite met its potential, but it was essentially a story of two young guys who are on a camping trip in Louisiana and run across this legendary bog creature. Sort of the bigfoot of the Bayou. It has Jack Elam and a few known faces so for me it was interesting to work with experienced actors. Yet it was also fun just creating a monster movie."
After that you did Satan's Cheerleaders.
"Ah yes. One of the films I refer to often when people read off my filmography and mention Jurassic Park and all those things: 'You forgot Satan's Cheerleaders.' That's another very low budget action film that disappeared into obscurity almost, although I do have a tape that I found in a video store."
"Yes. Rock and Roll High School is actually a pretty well known cult film in the US, but I don't think it's had too much exposure outside the USA. It still appears on midnight shows periodically. It was a film that Roger Corman produced."
It seems that everybody has worked with Corman.
"Yes, he is quite famous for having given a lot of people a start. Roger, besides giving some notable people - Martin Scorsese, Coppola - a start, certainly provided experience for a lot of people. Most of the technicians I work with have all worked on a Roger Corman film early in their careers. It was a great place to learn the real practical aspects of film-making after you came out of film school."
Without Warning was made by the same guy who did Satan's Cheerleaders.
"Yes, I did about five low budget films with Greydon Clark. I think he's still making films. He was very good at putting together a script, sometimes a one-sheet poster or promotional material, then pre-selling the distribution in order to raise the money to make the film. So we would do films which cost maybe 120 or 200,000 dollars. Actually for me that was some of my best practical experience of how to make a film on a schedule and a budget and still try to come up with something visually interesting and creative. Without Warning was a film which was ahead of its time. It was about an alien who came to Earth to do some hunting. It predated Predator by quite a while. The alien effects were designed initially by Rick Baker. It was one of his early efforts. Then when Rick had to do - I think it was King Kong - he turned it over to Greg Cannom who now is also quite well known for his make-up effects."
Again, it had a decent cast: Martin Landau and Jack Palance.
"One of the things that was also a valuable experience for me and interesting about these Greydon Clark films was that he would then, after raising the money, dedicate an adequate amount to getting a couple of recognisable and good actors. Usually he looked for actors who had a presence in foreign markets and were recognisable. It gave the film credibility, but also it was a good experience for me because I was able to see and watch skilled actors working."
Then you made a space spoof called Galaxina, which was quite different from your earlier work.
"That was a film that starred Dorothy Stratten just prior to her tragic death. It was an extremely low-budget film and the challenge was trying to create the sensation of a science fiction film based on a set that was made out of cardboard and paint. I actually enjoyed that, plus it was an interesting experience because the spaceship stuff was done as motion control and was one of my first experiences into shooting models and compositing."
As cinematographer, were you working on the effects sequences as well?
"Yes, we did a lit a little bit of everything, because there was never enough budget on those films to have two units or a complete visual effects unit. Often we would schedule so that at the end of the show we would pare down the unit to a smaller number of people and we would shoot the models and the miniatures or whatever."
The Fog is a classic and very atmospheric. Was there a lot of work involved in that?
"Yes, again it was a great experience because John Carpenter wanted to duplicate what he had done in Halloween - create a sense of terror and fear and so forth - without an overt display of blood. Halloween had done that so successfully; it was certainly a scary movie. The original premise involved people disappearing into this mysterious fog which we created with all kinds of techniques from on-set fog to miniature fog that we composited over backgrounds. The interesting part was that when the movie was previewed to audiences, they weren't afraid because as our heroes disappeared into the fog there was no sense of what happened to them. And of course, disappearing into fog is something that we ourselves can do any day and come out safe. So we went back and shot for about a week material that involved the ghosts and meat-hooks and a lot more explicit deaths. John's discovery was that unless there was a real sense of death and danger to your characters, the audience didn't empathise with the horror. He did it in a fairly stylised way, but it's certainly something that became evident in a lot of the films that followed in the genre. There was a lot more slashing and blood and explicit gore in other people's movies."
Nowadays everything has a sequel, but when you did Halloween II in 1981 that wasn't so common. Why was it felt that Halloween needed a sequel?
"I think it was a thing that John and Deborah were dubious about. For the same reason that Steven doesn't want to do a sequel to ET. There's that feeling of, 'Well, how can you top it? Will you diminish a potential classic by doing a sequel?' So at first they weren't going to do that, but I think the pressure from the producers was so great to do it because Halloween has always been touted as one of the most successful films at the box office, dollar-in for dollar-out. It had the highest returns. Even at the time, that was obvious. So the producers implored John and Deborah and probably made it worth their while financially to do a sequel."
Were you approached to do any Halloween films after number three?
"No, actually I wasn't. I guess because I had moved on to other projects I became forgotten."
You also did Escape from New York with John Carpenter, which was a very influential film.
"Yes, and again very innovative techniques and so forth. We were one of the first films to use the brand new very high speed lenses that Panavision had developed. And HMI lighting was just becoming practical."
What is that?
"HMI lighting is a pretty common light now. It is a very high output light that produces light the colour of daylight. So we use it quite a bit for night exteriors or lighting large areas. Because the light is pure, it reproduces daylight. It was a very sophisticated sort of light when we used it on Escape from New York. We gathered together this new technology - the very fast lenses and the HMI lighting - and went off to St Louis to an area of town where they were tearing down a lot of buildings and there was a lot of urban redevelopment being done. So the city of St Louis said we could do whatever we wanted to do with that part of town, so it became the set for the very stylish Escape from New York."
Have you seen any of the numerous Italian rip-offs of that movie?
"No, actually I haven't."
The other John Carpenter film you did was The Thing, which was very different to the original version.
"Actually for all of us it was our first venture into a major studio film. It was a Universal picture and it was John's first foray, I think, into dealing with a major studio. Again it was a great experience because we now had at our disposal all of the things that we couldn't afford before: large stages and a very experienced production designer; a lot more equipment and facilities. So it was a great introduction into mainstream Hollywood, using all of the techniques and so forth that we hadn't had available to us before."
Psycho II must have been pretty daunting, doing a sequel to one of the greatest movies of all time.
"Yes, actually it was a really really interesting experience because the producer on it, Hilton Green, had been the assistant director on the original Psycho. So he had a lot of interesting perspectives and anecdotes and so forth that related to the first one. One of the things that we wanted to do was faithfully recreate the feeling of the first one in the second one. It was fascinating because we ran the first film a couple of times. Then as the sets were constructed it was almost eerie in being able to walk around the interior of the house, the exterior of the house and all the places that had been icons of the first film, then to have Hilton Green tell us little stories about the making of the original one."
Then we come to Romancing the Stone which was part of a subgenre flourishing in the wake of the Indiana Jones movies.
"It was an action-adventure film of a very specific kind. It was my first experience with Bob Zemeckis, and it was logistically one of the most difficult films that I have ever worked on. We were working in Mexico during rainstorms and mudslides and so forth. Fortunately we had two very talented actors, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, so it was a lot of fun creating an action-adventure film with those actors."
After that was Warning Sign. I haven't seen this, but I have a review which says it's not much good, ‘though Cundey's cinematography manages to find new angles for a seemingly endless sequence of people desperately trying to get out of a laboratory.’ Would you go along with that?
"Yes, that was my concern, and I would guess the greatest challenge was that we were working in a set that was a lot of hallways and stainless steel doors and laboratory equipment. So for me, the greatest challenge was trying to keep it interesting within the limits of the confined facilities that we had."
Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Dean Cundey discusses Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park and Apollo 13