The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

Q&A With Caleb Deschanel, ASC

November 2, 2009

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Philadelphia. My family moved to Annapolis when I was 11 years old. We lived there until I went to college.
What was your first experience with photography?

I got a Brownie Hawkeye as a gift on my 11th birthday. I didn’t ask for a camera and didn’t particularly want one. I enjoyed taking photographs, but I never really thought much about any of the pictures I took until we got a family dog. It was just a puppy. We were using a big cardboard box as a doghouse. I remember taking a picture of the puppy and dog house. When that photo came back, I remember thinking that it was better than the other pictures I had taken. That inspired me to take more photographs and to try to figure out why some were better than others.

Where did you go to college?

I studied at Johns Hopkins University.
Were you still a photography hobbyist at that stage of your life?

I took pictures for the college newspaper and yearbook. My brother-in-law knew a photographer in New York. His name was George Pickow. I thought it would be really great to get a summer job with him. I called him but I was just 17 years old, and I was embarrassed about asking for a job. Finally, he asked me if I wanted a job. He hired me to come to New York to be his assistant but soon I started to take still photographs for everything from catalogs to record album covers.
Let’s backtrack for a minute. Did you enroll at Johns Hopkins because you were interested in a career in medicine? If so, what was your inspiration?

There were doctors in my mother’s family for generations, including her father. I was really good at science and math and loved analytic geometry, calculus, chemistry and physics. When I was a kid I used to build toy rockets and mixed chemicals for fuel. There used to be a 6:30 a.m. television program called Continental Classroom that taught chemistry and physics. My father and I would both get up early to watch that show. I did all the calculations with his help. It was really fascinating, but in college, chemistry was suddenly like studying quantum mechanics.
What steered you in a different direction than medicine and chemistry?

My friends were mainly creative people who were interested in things like the history of art and writing, including Matt Robbins and Walter Murch who were a year ahead of me at Hopkins.
We recall hearing a story about how a picture of Stanley Kubrick in the student newspaper influenced your thinking about becoming a filmmaker.

There was a picture of Stanley Kubrick when he was working on
Dr. Strangelove. He was holding an Arriflex camera with a zoom lens on his shoulder. I saw it in some publicity that came into the Hopkins newsletter office about the film and I remember thinking that I would like to do whatever he’s doing. And I had no idea what that was. It just looked exciting. But the truth is I had no ambition to make Hollywood movies, because I didn’t particularly like them.
What put you on that path?

I had a professor Richard Macksey who taught literature and history. He and another teacher helped organized film showings at Hopkins of French New Wave films, Italian Cinema, and Bergman. I remember thinking that maybe I could make that kind of film. Walter Murch and Matt Robbins graduated a year ahead of me and went on to the film studies program at the University of Southern California (USC). They encouraged me to apply to USC, and I did. Because of my background in stills, I started shooting student films right away.

What did you do after graduating from USC?

I went on to AFI as a cinematography fellow. If I am remembering correctly, there were only around 15 students in our class, and I was the only cinematographer.
Who were some of your mentors?

Haskell Wexler (ASC) was sort of an unofficial mentor. Walter met him through Cal Bernstein, who was Haskell’s partner. He introduced me. I have vivid memories of both Haskell and Gordon Willis (ASC) sounding off about us ‘young guys’ not knowing anything about cinematography because we had never shot black-and-white film. I had shot a lot of stills in black and white but never a movie. I got a grant to produce, direct and shoot a short film called Trains in black and white. Haskell loaned me his black-and-white filters. I really learned a lot from doing that film, including the extent to which you have to separate images with contrast rather than just colors. There were shots that I really loved when I was shooting it, such as one with the train leaving the station in the fog. But what made it interesting was the grey of everything in the fog and the red light at the rear. This did not work in black and white. That film made me think about what I wanted to do with my life.
How did you meet Gordon Willis?

I applied for an internship from the AFI. I wanted to do it with Gordon Willis. This was before he shot The Godfather, but I had seen his work and thought it was really terrific. The folks at AFI said, ‘No, we don’t know who he is.’ When I persisted, they reneged on the internship, but I was making some money shooting educational films, so I did it on my own. My sister and brother-in-law lived in New Jersey. He was a record producer. He had an apartment in New York that he used when he was in the city that had a Murphy bed in it. That gave me a free place to stay during the time I spent with Gordon.
What did you learn during your internship?

One of the big things that I learned was that Gordon always used light to create separation of images even if it was a color film. If you really look at his films, you’ll see people who are lit against dark backgrounds. They suddenly go in the shadow when they walk and the background lights up. If you think about it, you realize that he is creating a three-dimensional effect by using contrast and lighting.
How did you meet Carroll Ballard?

I was living in Venice (in Los Angeles). Carroll lived across the alley from me, and Ron Dexter (ASC ) lived next door. Ron had gone to UCLA with Carroll. Ron got me started shooting commercials. Carroll and I were also working for the same educational film producer. Carroll was going to produce a short film called Rodeo. He had heard about me and asked me to come work with Steve Burum (ASC) who was the main DP. I ended up shooting a lot of that film. I guess Carroll liked my eye. I did a couple of other short films with him, and then he asked me to shoot The Black Stallion. That was my first feature film.
That was in 1979. Share a memory about that experience.

Carroll and I were both convinced we were going to be fired from the beginning, because neither of us had worked on a feature length movie. We started shooting in Toronto where the crews were used to buttoned-down television schedules and not used to the way Carroll worked which was much loser. I don’t think they thought Carroll was a very good filmmaker. We finished shooting the rest of the film in Italy with a very small crew, mainly with one camera filming the horse and the kid (except for the shipwreck at Cinecitta).
You followed The Black Stallion with Being There with Hal Ashby directing and a magnificent cast, including Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. You earned your first Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff in 1983. It was a wonderful drama about NASA and the astronauts. Your next project was The Escape Artist, which you directed. Why did you decide to try directing?

I’ve always directed, including student films at USC. I like going back and forth between directing and cinematography because you get to see filmmaking from different perspectives.
What appeals to you about directing?

First of all I love working with actors. I really like thinking about performances and talking to them. I also like thinking about storytelling from an overall perspective. I like conceptualizing about how we are going to tell the story both visually and in terms of performances and everything else that goes into directing. One of the things that I learned from Gordon is that cinematographers have to be really good at conceptualizing the visual style of a movie, and the director must conceptualize how he’s going to tell the story. The magic happens when a cinematographer develops and executes a visual style that compliments the director’s vision for the story.
Around 1994, you organized Dark Light Pictures, a commercial production company. By then, you had shot Being There, The Right Stuff and you earned your second Oscar nomination for The Natural, in addition to directing another film and episodes of a television series. What motivated you to start a commercial production company, and what have you learned from that experience?

I stopped shooting features when my kids became too old to take them out of school and take them on location. So I stopped shooting features for eight years. Commercials gave me an opportunity to use a lot of different tools and techniques. We were doing color correction and things like that in telecine suites long before there were DIs on movies. Directing and shooting 30-second commercials also gives you the discipline to concentrate on what’s really important to telling the story. And they only took me away from home for short periods of time.
We are just going to mention a few of your other films and see what memories they evoke. Can you tell us about Being There?

Being There was my first Hollywood movie. It was a wonderful experience from every point of view. I felt from the beginning that we were making a really special film. Peter Sellers was terrific and funny all the time, Hal Ashby was a wonderful director, and I thought that I had the best crew that there ever was.
We mentioned that you earned your second consecutive Oscar nomination for The Natural in 1985. Will you share a memory from that film?

It was about baseball, our national sport. It was a wonderful film to work on with a great director, Barry Levinson.
Was Anna and the King a different experience?

It was a totally different experience shooting a period movie set in Siam during the 1860s. The original version was shot in CinemaScope format by Leon Shamroy (ASC) during the 1950s. We were going to shoot in Thailand, where some of the original locations still existed, but Thailand still had a king, and didn’t like a story that treats him as human. We went to Malaysia instead — right next door, so similar scenery, different culture — where they designed and built sets recreating Siam in the 1860s. Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat were absolutely great in the roles of Anna and the king. They made you care about and empathize with their characters. You felt like you knew them by the end of the picture. Isn’t that what filmmaking is about?
You shot the Oscar nominated The Patriot a year later, right?

I loved working on The Patriot. I loved helping to tell a story that took place when the Revolutionary War was being fought. I enjoyed collaborating with (director) Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson was terrific in the leading role. We didn’t want to glamorize the war. We wanted audiences to feel and understand what it was like to be there in 1776. Every minute of each scene had a purpose.
You earned your fifth Oscar nomination for The Passion of the Christ, which was directed by Mel Gibson. Can you share a memory?

I studied a lot of art history in college. I love the way Caravaggio used light in his paintings. Mel produced the film in Aramaic and Latin so it freed him to cast great actors from Romania, Poland, Italy, France, North Africa and other places who you would never cast in an English language film. Every actor had to learn a dead language in order to be in the movie. I thought it was a brilliant idea. It created a feeling of reality that would not have been the same in an English language film.
This is a different topic. Have you heard or read the Academy’s Digital Dilemma report which sums up a two-year study comparing film and digital archiving?

I have, and one of the things that strikes me is that negatives from films that the Lumière brothers produced in France during the 1890s are still around, but people who took digital photographs of their kids five years ago can sometimes no longer recover them. Digital technology has been a quantum leap forward in film restoration technology, but I wonder if today’s digital movies will be around for tomorrow’s audiences.
We are changing the topic again. What role do you think movies play? Are they just entertainment or something more than that?

I didn’t get involved in filmmaking just because it is entertainment. I think that movies at their best can inspire us to be better human beings.
This isn’t an easy question, but we will ask it anyhow. If you could go back in time and pick out a deceased or older director to work with who would it be?

You are right. That isn’t an easy question. I would have loved to work with (French director) Jean Renoir. He had a great understanding of the foibles of humanity and a wonderful sense of humor about the failings of mankind.
How do you respond when aspiring cinematographers ask you for advice?

I tell them to look at visual images as much as they can, whether it’s paintings, photographs or movies, and shoot as much as they can. I am still learning every time I shoot a frame of film. When I’m not learning, I will know that it’s time to quit.