In 1984, between shooting Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Semler shot Razorback, a thriller about a giant pig that terrorizes an Outback town. It became a cult hit and brought the cinematographer his first Australian Film Institute Award.
The open-water thriller Dead Calm (1989) reunited him with both Noyce, who directed, and Miller, who produced the project and directed second unit. During the shoot, Miller told Semler he had just bought the rights to a book called The Sheep Pig (a.k.a. Babe, the Gallant Pig), and that he thought Semler was well suited to develop and direct it for the screen. Many months later, the two got together in Los Angeles, where they hammered out the first draft of the script. Animatronics and computer graphics weren’t advanced enough to make the movie at that time, however.
The two friends were working on the script when, according to Miller, “one day, apropos of nothing, Dean’s wife, Annie, said, ‘Indians. Dean has to make a film about Indians.’ Within a year, Dean was making Dances with Wolves! But he always kept an eye on Babe, calling me periodically to find out where the project stood.” Ultimately, Babe was directed by Miller and shot by Andrew Lesnie, ASC, ACS, but one of Semler’s fondest memories is his “thanks to” credit on the picture.
Semler is largely self-taught, but he says he learned a great deal from gaffers, directors and other collaborators he met along the way. He considers Russell Boyd, ASC, ACS his mentor, although the two have never worked together. “Russell paved the way for all of us,” he declares. Boyd observes, “Dean is a very straight-up-and-down guy and very honest. He is gregarious and innovative. He has a great sense of humor, and he doesn’t bullshit. He won’t flatter anybody.”
In an e-mail to AC, Jolie echoes Boyd’s comment: “I don’t think Dean is capable of a lie. If he thinks something is crap, he’ll tell you.” She says he also provided valuable emotional support on set. “Many times, in the middle of a difficult scene, I would look over at Dean, and he would smile and nod as if to say, ‘Go on, you’re doing just fine. I’ve got your back.’ And he always did.”
Semler worked with Ed Harris on the Western drama Appaloosa (2008), the actor’s second film as a director. “Dean is a real trooper, a hard worker and just a lot of fun,” says Harris. “It was a tough shoot.”
So was Gibson’s Apocalypto (AC Jan. ’07), which was shot in the jungles of Mexico. Though Semler is enthusiastic about every project he works on, he confesses that Apocalypto was “probably my most enjoyable film ever. I loved where it was and what it was. I was shooting on the [Panavision] Genesis and could see dailies at the end of every day and know we had it in the can.” Gibson recalls with a laugh, “Dean was like a kid in a candy store. He has been at this game a long time, and to still have that childlike enthusiasm is fantastic — and it’s infectious!”
Semler’s only major complaint about digital is, “You have to sit in that bloody little black [DIT] tent. I hate it, but that’s the price you have to pay.”
Andrew Rowlands, SOC, the A-camera operator on Apocalypto, recalls an occasion when Semler wanted to keep shooting after the sun had set: “Dean was in the DIT tent, and over headphones, I told him, ‘It’s awfully dark out here.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. Keep shooting.’ After a few minutes, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, so I tried again. ‘Dean, it’s really dark out here.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just bloody shoot!’ Ten minutes later, he comes out of the tent and says, ‘Holy shit, it’s dark out here!’”
Though he has embraced digital cinematography — he shot his latest feature, the 2014 release Maleficent, on the Arri Alexa — Semler still loves film. Recently, he was sitting in a screening room at Deluxe Laboratories in Hollywood with Beverly Wood, an ASC associate and the executive vice president of technical services and customer relations at Deluxe and EFilm. “We could hear the projector purring through the wall,” he says. “It’s going to be a sad day when we don’t hear that anymore.”
A self-professed “Panavision man,” Semler has counted Bob Harvey, the company’s senior vice president of worldwide sales, among his friends and colleagues since Young Guns (1998). “Dean is the best there is,” maintains Harvey. “Nobody has to panic over anything when he is there because they know he will take care of them. It’s an honor to be considered one of his friends.”
Semler is always conscious of the budget, making him a production manager’s dream. “He never asks for anything unless he can really use it,” says producer/production manager James Brubaker, who has made several films with Semler.
Noyce, who reteamed with Semler on the thriller The Bone Collector (1999), notes that Semler is always sensitive to the director’s needs in the editing room. “He knows exactly how to get all the shots that will allow me to cut a sequence into a fluid reality. That goes back to his documentary training.”
Semler’s crew clearly worships him. “He has the patience of Job,” claims gaffer Jim Gilson, a longtime collaborator. “Once you work with him, you inevitably compare everybody else to him. It’s unavoidable.” According to Rowlands, “The first week of a shoot, Dean learns everybody’s names on set — not just the electricians’ and camera crew’s names, but everybody’s.”
Camera operator Mark Goellnicht cites Semler’s “youthfulness and vitality,” noting, “You’d think every film was his first film; he still has that excitement in him. And he’s so supportive. He’ll make you feel relaxed no matter how difficult the shot.” With a laugh, he adds, “He also gives a bloody good hug.”
Key grip William “Bear” Paul recalls one of Semler’s improvisations while shooting the comedy Bruce Almighty (2003): “In one scene, a dog is sitting on a toilet reading a newspaper, and Jennifer Aniston had to open the bathroom door and look surprised. We did several takes, and then Dean had an idea for the next one: he asked me to sit on the toilet with my pants down to my ankles. Nothing was exposed, mind you, but, boy, was Jennifer surprised when she opened that door!”
Miller thinks there is a quality in Australian culture that helps explain Semler’s disposition and approach: “Australians are very resourceful; they can do a lot with very little. They are also very strong team players and look out for one another. It’s that hardy, rural ethos, what we call ‘the digger spirit.’”
One thing that impressed Costner on both Dances with Wolves and Waterworld (AC Aug. ’95) was that “Dean isn’t boastful, and he never lets his ego get in the way. I got lucky with him because in addition to being a great cinematographer, he is a really good man. There are a lot of talented assholes out there. The thing that really matters in life is what kind of person you are.