BY Linnda Durre
What do “Jurassic Park,” all three “Back to the Future” films, “Apollo 13”, “Romancing the Stone,” and “Halloween I and II”, plus two episodes of “The West Wing” have in common?
The correct answer is: Dean Cundey was the cinematographer for each one.
He was this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient from the American Society of Cinematographers and he’s been voted as one of Kodak’s 100 Best Cinematographers of All Time.
He credits his success to finding his interest and passion at an early age – in elementary through high school.
“There’s a book I’ve read entitled, Outliers by best selling author Malcolm Gladwell. It’s the story of how successful people came to be successful, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, famous scientists, actors, writers, and others. What they all had in common was that starting when they were young, they each invested about 10,000 hours in learning about what they were interested in and they had all begun teaching themselves.”
Gates as a high school student would skip school and go to the local college and they’d let him play with the computers there.
Lennon and McCartney were writing poems and songs, listening to records, and playing on their first guitars at an early age. When they met in high school at a town fair where Lennon’s first band was playing, it was destiny and the rest is history.
This is what Cundey probably feels about his own success when he says, “I started to immerse myself in everything that was about ‘putting on the show.’ I think that gave me the purpose of mind to really pursue my field which gave me information, networking, and how to improve my performance. I think that was what guided me to accomplish so much.”
One of his hobbies in elementary and junior high school was building small replicas of sets and watching movies, going with his pals.
“I remember fondly that my mother would drop me and my friends off at the local movie theater on a Saturday for the kids’ matinee where we were trusted to be on our own and behave. It was those days when you weren’t thought of as a bad parent and there weren’t the risks that we have today – fear of child molesters or kidnappers. It was a safer time. It was an all day event and the highlight of the week. We would see about ten cartoons, then a short film, like a nature film, and then a feature film, usually a Disney film, or an action adventure. Two of my favorites was ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ with Kirk Douglas and ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ with Kerwin Matthews.”
The latter film was full of cinematic tricks from the wizard of cinematography in the 1950’s and 60’s, Ray Harryhausen.
“While I enjoyed the characters, I was fascinated by the illusion that they created. How did they make us believe that it was happening? What was the magic behind this? As a kid, I was fascinated with magic and performing magic tricks. The movies were the largest magic trick you could imagine. I decided that was what I would like to do.”
When I was 10 to 12 years old, I started to investigate. When I was in high school, I subscribed to American Cinematographer Magazine, which pulled the curtain back and showed you how they did it. They went into detail about how they created it. I was invited to join the ASC in 1986.
Cundey was born in Alhambra, California, and in 1955, when he was about nine years old Disneyland opened, which was about a 45 minute drive away.
“I became immediately fascinated with everything there. They were dealing in four dimensions – including time as well. You could take a ride through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and take a cruise down the Jungle River. I always wanted to know, ‘How did they do that?’ I wanted to find out. Once you get tuned in to that, you get sensitive to information and people and things that relate to whatever your interest is. I think it’s called reticulate sensitivity.”
He attended UCLA Film School and was taught by the legendary DP, James Wong Howe (The Thin Man, Hud, Sweet Smell of Success), from whom he learned so much. After graduation, he worked on many non-union low budget films, including some with Roger Corman who gave first chances to Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, and Robert DeNiro, among others.
Cundey designed, built, and outfitted a customized van with cameras, equipment, and had a list of crew that he could call on immediately so he could increase his resume by being the go-to DP and ready in case of an emergency. “I would hire camera operators, gaffers, best boy, and they would hire whom they liked. So we had about 15 people that I was in charge of.”
“My interest is in the whole storytelling – not just painting with light or creating beautiful pictures, because beautiful pictures don’t always serve the interest of the film. I’m interested in how to use the camera and the image to draw people into the story, to create the mood and the emotional response of the audience. Part of that is the lighting; part of it is composition, camera movement, selection of lens, all the technical stuff that we deal with.”
Cundey was one of the first to use the camera as part of creating the mood in the film. Garrett Brown had been the biggest contributor to the development of the Steadicam and has many patents for it. Brown used this idea on “Rocky,” and “Bound for Glory” and then on so many other films.
“John [Carpenter] and I looked at the camera as a device to move the camera and move the audience to different places and times and to advance the use of the camera.” Cundey shot six films with John Carpenter, including Halloween I (1978), The Fog (1980), Halloween II (1981), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Cundey firmly believes that filmmaking is a team effort. “I think of that as being a validation of filmmaking really is – it is a huge collaboration. Successful films are ones that use the talents of a lot of people, exploit their best qualities and directors who can do that, foster that, and encourage that it is more of a team effort. You can be a really good artist with a canvas and your paints and go into your garage and work. We see so much great art done by one person. But in film, that is not true. If you’re going to be a successful director, you’re going to have to tap into the skills and the artistic abilities of your team.”
“I think working with guys like Bob Zemeckis, Spielberg, John Carpenter, and others - they value your contribution to their vision. They are good at eliciting the best from their team. Spielberg – he is an extremely good visual storyteller, one of the best. When he knows what he wants to do with the shot, he is willing to allow you to embellish it with lighting or a suggested camera move.”
“The crew is the first audience. They are the ones who are watching the movie and evaluating and judging. They are thinking to themselves, ‘Is that a plausible thing. Should the character do that? I don’t understand why the character is doing that.’ I think it’s short sighted of a director who doesn’t listen and pay attention to those opinions.”
“Some directors feel that their word is sacrosanct and that their vision for the film was the only one, to the point that they denigrate some of the actors, even though you might be working with some of the very best. I think it’s a sad circumstance that they shut out outside inspiration.”
Has he made contributions to the script?
“Yes, to indie films, quite a bit,” he answered. “But I think I’ve been able to influence and help most of the films I’ve worked on. Sometimes in small ways, other times in larger ones.”
Sometimes it’s helping the director with using the camera to tell the story and explain to the audience a particular moment.
Sometimes I work in the beginning, during the prep, with things like storyboards and staging action.
Cundey did six films with Bob Zemeckis, including, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” for which he was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography; and also “Back to the Future, 1, 2, and 3”, “Death Becomes Her”, and “Romancing the Stone.”
He did two films with Spielberg as director, “Jurassic Park,” and “Hook” and four more with Spielberg producing – “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and the three “Back to the Future” films.
How was making “Apollo 13” (1995)? How did he create the weightlessness effects? Did they work directly with NASA?
“Working with Ron Howard was a great experience. I consider him one of the top guys I’ve worked with. He’s an actor’s director. He left a lot of the technique of how to accomplish it up to me,” he remembers. “He understood the story. The challenge was to make it a real experience for the audience because we all know how it comes out. How do we get the audience to experience it with them? You have to keep it exciting because the audience knows how it ends. To analyze first what was our perception of the space events that we watched.”
“We’ve watched people walk on the moon and as a nation we’ve become sort of jaded. But people were not as riveted to other space trips as they were with Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon,” he said. “In those days, he and the other crew had a moving hand held camera, which is huge compared what we have in our iPhones today. People were seeing inside the space capsule and seeing people float in space. It was a challenge.”
“The weightlessness that they done for ‘Gravity’ wasn’t possible or feasible then. We tried putting people on wires and on blue screen, but we did it with illusion, guys on teeter-totters. We built the space capsule with a steel frame around it so we could rotate the capsule in any position and then we would rotate the camera in any position and shoot the shot upside down, so one of them could stand and we could rotate it and it looked like they were floating upside down. Like magicians, never use the same technique twice. Always keep the audience guessing.”
“I wanted to put a camera in the ‘vomit comet’ as it was called.
Ron Howard called NASA and said, ‘This is what we want to do…’ and NASA said, ‘No way! The liability, the insurance…the danger…’ I talked to the head of NASA and then a Senator, and after no change of heart on NASA’s part, I told Ron and he talked to Steven Spielberg and Steven said, ‘Let me call a friend.’ So Spielberg called Bill Clinton and Bill said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ The next day NASA called and said, ‘OK, but you’ll have to sign a waiver,’ which we did.”
One of the biggest challenges was making a set that would fit in the fuselage. “When Ron and the actors went to space camp, as part of their prep, I didn’t go. But we built a replica of the interior of the space module, and installed it in the aircraft.
So they shot it at 36,000 feet, and then dives to earth to get the weightless effect. Then they gradually come out of it and then they climb again to 36,000 feet to repeat it. They did it 12 times before lunch and 12 times after lunch. There was some nausea and vomiting involved, hence the nickname of the aircraft. They give you Dramamine for the nausea, but it makes you sleepy, and there is, after long term use, a side effect - lack of visual focus. So when Ron got back to his hotel room, he couldn’t see the script very well. And he called up and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we forgot to tell you: lack of visual focus is a side effect.’ I wish they had told them before they took it.”
“It was a lot of intricate work. I had them make a camera float with a long cable and counterbalance weights. Now the operator would use his fingertips. We used the teeter-totters. We had moving lights outside the capsule or the sun was rotating. Quite a bit of thought and technique that went into the process.”
What happened on all the “Back to the Future” films? I understood that Eric Stoltz was first signed to do the original “Back to the Future”.
Dean replied, “Eric was let go. Eric is a very good actor. We’ve seen some great things he’s done. Casting is everything and some movies work because the director and/or the producers recognized that that actor would make that character. I don’t think that Eric and Bob ever agreed from the beginning on Marty McFly as a character. Marty McFly is a charming, boyish, and somewhat naïve fellow who gets caught in extremely unusual circumstances. Bob felt that Marty was awestruck and incredulous because all this crazy stuff was happening to him. Eric thought that Marty was completely in command of his circumstance. After a couple of weeks, they were cutting the film, and Bob went to Steven and said that is wasn’t working. Steven said give him a little more time, and he did, but it still wasn’t right. So Eric was let go. He was in the film for about six weeks, so we essentially reshot the movie, except the scenes where Marty was not in the scenes, or the scenes with Doctor Emmett Brown,” played by the gifted Christopher Lloyd.
“Somewhere there is a partial version of “Back to the Future” with Eric Stoltz in it,” he added. “It’s a whole different movie and it’s a serious movie. I think it’s on YouTube.”
“The reshoot added about three million dollars ($3,000,000) to the budget. They worked out the shooting schedule with Michael since he was the first choice, but he wasn’t available because he was shooting “Family Ties”. So now that he was cast, Michael shot his TV series during the day and then he drove straight from that set to the film set and we shot from 6 PM to 6 AM.”
“We had him most of Monday, half a day Tuesday and Wednesday, in the evenings on Thursday, and then on Friday after midnight. So we’d do the night sequences at the mall and at Doc Brown’s. We shot at La Puente Mall because it had a big open area, and we had access to it all night. The town and the town square was the back lot of Universal.”
“It was quite a sacrifice for the crew and quite hard on them because they were shooting all night, then all day, their body’s Circadian rhythms are off, and then the crew had their kids’ soccer games on Saturday, but the crew did it all joyfully and they knew the movie was better. The fact that Michael is and was such a wonderful, charming, friendly, easy going person made it a great pleasure for us to work. He wasn’t haughty. He was always a down to earth kind of guy. One day we were riding in the limo. He said he never takes for granted one moment of what he does and who he is.”
Cundey has done many different genres – horror, dinosaur flicks, romance, action, adventure, drama, and thrillers. I wondered what he’d like to do that he hasn’t already done.
“I’d love to do a real musical. I grew up playing saxophone in high school and college and music is my second avocation. I’ve enjoyed musicals and musical theater. I’ve done musical sequences and indie films with much music in them, like ‘Camp Rock’, but I’d like to do a real musical.”
“They are few and far between these days. The musical is more suited to live venues – Broadway and London. ‘Chicago’ was a good interpretation of a stage musical to film. It’s hard to find an interest in that anymore. Music has changed. The contemporary musical of today is not the story telling like in the 1930’s to the 1960’s like with ‘Singing in the Rain’ or ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Music Man’. They take a hybrid approach to musicals nowadays. The music films are the dance films with break dancers in it. Those are urban, edgy films. But I wouldn’t mind doing one of those even.”
What else? “I’d like to do a pure Western – I’ve done Western sequences, like in ‘Back to the Future – Part 3’. There’s a pigeon holing that the studios do about a genre or a type of film. I remember after ‘Cutthroat Island.’ Years ago they said, ‘Nobody’s going to see a pirate movie.’ And you say, “Yeah, but they were bad pirate movies. But give them a good pirate movie like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ and then suddenly the audience goes.” Then they tend to over saturate the market with what’s popular. With either a Western or a musical, I think I have to wait for an opportunity.”
How does he get his projects – an agent, friends he’s worked with in the business, word of mouth?
“Agents can be very aggressive with an actor or a director. They hear of a script and they lobby for their client. In my case, the project is already underway, the director is developing it, they’ve had input on the script, it’s probably cast already, so they look to fill in the other creative areas, then I’m called in. It’s not the agent who got you the deal. The DP’s agent negotiates the contract. Most of the time, most of the people would come to me or to my agent and say, ‘Is he available?’ My agent is David Gersh of the Gersh Agency.”
Cundey’s most recent project is, “Walking with the Enemy” filmed in Romania, starring Ben Kingsley as Regent Miklos Horthy, president of Hungary during WW II. It is based on a true story of Elek Cohen, played by English actor Jonas Armstrong, known for “Robin Hood”, the TV series in England. Cohen is a Jewish freedom fighter who kills a Nazi trying to rape his girlfriend, dons his uniform, and disguises himself as an SS Nazi officer. Working with the Swiss delegation who knows him as a Jewish freedom fighter, they unite forces in order to free Jewish captives from being shipped to concentration camps. Shot in Romania and in Budapest and directed and produced by Mark Schmidt, who wanted to make a film about Cohen. Cohen lived in New York until he was 90.
“We started off with a four million dollar ($4,000,000) budget, which is relatively cheap, and then we added the romance of Elek and Hannah, and told the story through their characters.”
I had the pleasure of seeing this film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and it’s exciting to watch.
I asked Dean, “What was your favorite film that you worked on?”
“I’d have to say ‘Roger Rabbit’ was definitely one of my favorite movies because it was creative problem solving every day. We were doing the same that had been done for decades – combining animation with live action – but we were taking it to the next step and next level. How could we do what hadn’t been done? Disney gave us all of the guidelines and said, ‘Shoot a big wide shot and don’t move the camera because it’s hard for the animator to follow that and the lighting has to be even because we paint these flat cels, and on and on.’ So Bob and I looked at each other and basically said, ‘Well, those are the rules we’re going to break,’ and we deliberately tried to take the techniques to the next level.”
He continued, “I really enjoyed the working environment. We were in London for the better part of a year. The crew was great. It was a case of the right people at the right place at the right time that all came together for a very creative environment and involvement. We recognized that we were all doing something unique.”
What does he see as different from when he started out at UCLA film school in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to today?
“The times have changed in Hollywood as we all know. What’s the next distribution model? Cable? Live streaming? On people’s computers? The digital world is changing rapidly – every week and every month things are different. It’s an ongoing rush to make improvements. Film distribution is changing the same way – the DVD, then cable, then VOD, then Netflix, then whatever. I think it’s going to be a continuous flow of people and their expectations. People are used to getting things for free on the computer. So piracy is the challenge now. They think they’re going to get around it.”
“I watch some of these changes with great amusement and sadness. People watch something that I and many people took much time and painstaking work to get it right and they’re watching on their iPhone. It’s not a huge screen. So they are looking at the immediate content rather than the artistry. It’s a diversion, it’s entertainment, it’s not an artistic experience. It’s not a spiritual experience.”
“It’s having the desert as a character, for example, in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. People watching say, ‘What’s that?’ And you tell them, ‘Oh, those are camels’. So much is lost that way by just watching on an iPhone.”
“The tax credit and tax incentive has really damaged Hollywood as a center of production, because now these films are being made in Louisiana, the East, North Carolina, etc.”
Was he called to DP the new Jurassic World since he shot Jurassic Park?
“No. They’re getting ready to make the ‘Jurassic World’ in Hawaii, then they’re going to Louisiana to do the stage work, which normally would have been done in Hollywood. But if you take a hundred and fifty million dollar ($150,000,000) movie and you get back twenty five percent (25%) of it, there’s a big reason to go there.” John Schwartzman is the DP with Colin Treverrow directing of “Jurassic World.”
Dean is married to his second wife, and is the father from his first marriage of visual effects artist, Christopher Cundey, and his daughter is Michelle Cundey Morgan, wife of Christopher Morgan, screenwriter of the last four “Fast and Furious” movies.
One of Kodak’s Top 100 Cinematographers of All Time and the 2014 recipient of ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Dean Cundey is a living legend among DPs, with only more fantastic films to come from his exciting eyes and lenses. We can’t wait!
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