A Conversation With Allen Daviau, ASC
October 16, 2006
What sparked your original interest in filmmaking?
I was born in New Orleans and grew up in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 50s. I saw films in neighborhood theaters and my parents began taking me to downtown movie palaces when I was approximately 3 years old. When I was 12, I saw a demonstration of color television at a local appliance store. It was an NBC opera theater production of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio. It was absolutely stunning experience. I had to find out how it worked, so I went to my neighborhood public library the next day. After exhausting their resources, they referred me to the main library downtown. In high school, my good friend John Stachowiak knew someone connected with a TV show that was produced at NBC Studios in Burbank. We got into the control booth during a live show done with color cameras. I could see the impact of the lighting. That experience started me on a career of gate-crashing at different television and film studios. CBS TV City was one of the toughest. I’d wait for the coffee truck to pull in after 10 a.m. and walk to the back of the truck when the guard and other employees got their coffee. I’d slip into that crowd and walk into the studio with them. By the time I was 16, I had figured out how to talk my way past gate guards and get onto studio movie sets. One time, I watched Charles Lang Jr. (ASC) light a close-up of Shirley Booth for a film called The Matchmaker. It was fascinating. Another time, I got on a stage at Paramount, where Charlie was shooting the hacienda scene for One-Eyed Jacks. It was Marlon Brando’s debut as a director. I could see that Charlie was really enjoying himself. He would quietly talk with Brando about how things were working and what they could change. I thought that he must have the best job in the world. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be a cinematographer.
Were you able to get any practical experience at that stage?
I started doing lighting for stage plays in high school. That taught me how light enhances drama in real time. You are on that dimmer board making allowances when an actor changes their performance. If something goes longer or shorter, you’re making decisions to hold or cut the light, in part, depending upon the reactions of the audience. You have to be in total sync with the performers and you also have to understand how the set works. That’s when I learned how light can affect emotions and draw an audience into a story. I could tell the difference in applause and audience reactions when I missed.
What lessons did that experience teach you?
It really helped me appreciate actors. I learned that I had to understand what they were trying to achieve and figure out how to help them. I also learned about the importance of creating motif lighting for characters.
Did you do any photography during that period of your life?
I started taking still pictures when I was 14. I took pictures of everything in my world. I also enjoyed playing with the film in the darkroom.
What did you do after high school?
I visited the camera guild office and asked about becoming a member. They told me to forget about it, that I didn't belong there. I didn't have the grades for admission to UCLA, or the money for tuition at USC or NYU, so I found jobs in camera stores and still film labs. Around the time of my 20th birthday, my parents moved to Fresno, California. I was working the graveyard shift at a large consumer photo lab and got laid off. I wanted to save money to buy a 16 mm camera, so I asked my parents if I could live with them for a year. I wound up working in a film processing lab and a discount department store in Fresno six-and-a-half-days a week. I got to meet a lot of people who were interested in photography. I also got involved with the Fresno Community Theater and Civic Light Opera as a lighting designer. There were two radio stations engaged in a battle for audiences. I called one of those stations and told the general manager I was interested in the promotional end of the business. I said I could do still and motion picture photography, and I could light stage productions. Through him I got to speak with Ron Jacobs, the program director. We became good friends, and later, he got me my first job shooting a motion picture film.
How did that happen?
I went back to Los Angeles during the spring of 1964 and got a job in a camera store. Soon afterwards, Ron Jacobs became program director at KHJ, a rock 'n' roll radio station in Los Angeles. They asked him to handle a live music program on KHJ-TV that aired from 6-7 p.m. on Saturdays. He hired Peter Gardiner to produce the show. It was a live television show, but Peter was planning to use a lot of film. He was from New York, so he asked Ron to recommend a cinematographer. By then, I had saved enough money to buy a 16 mm Beaulieu camera and three Angenieux prime lenses. I was shooting short, promotional films for the radio station that ran on the Sam Riddle dance party on KHJ-TV. I showed that film to Peter, but it wasn't enough to convince him. Luckily that summer I had shot a 16 mm film for Nick Frangakis, who was a student at UCLA. It was a music video edited to Stravinsky's Symphony of the Psalms, the Laudaute. It was a very emotional piece that wound up running at the New York Film Festival. I showed it to Peter who told me to tell the camera store I was leaving to work for KHJ-TV. I had to take a pay cut. I was making $150 a week at the camera store, and the television job only paid $100 a week, but I was shooting and editing film.
In retrospect, in addition to the practical experience you gained as a cinematographer, what did you learn from that experience?
It gave me an appreciation for what editors do and what they need from cinematographers. We had an editing room located in the Sherman Grinberg Film Library upstairs from the best 16 mm lab in the city. It was called American Color Lab. I shot several three- to three-and-a-half minute spots for every program during the 13-week run of the show, including the initial promotion for The Monkees TV show. We called them rock 'n' roll promos. They were the same visual language as the music videos that were coming into use. Looking back, I learned some important lessons, including how to shoot film, work with a lab, edit a work print, and convince the TV engineers to show it the way it was meant to be seen.
What happened after the run of the show?
Peter formed a company called Charlatan Productions that created rock 'n' roll promo films for record companies. Our model was Richard Lester’s films, Hard Day's Night and Help. In those films, Lester invented the idea of visually interpreting music and lyrics. We shot films with The Animals, Jimi Hendrix, The Rascals and many others. I had my Beaulieu camera and one battery that I kept on trickle charge because I couldn't afford a second one. We were shooting with Ektachrome film rated for an exposure of 25 in tungsten light and 16 in daylight with an 85 filter on the lens. I also used some Ektachrome news film, which was rated for 125 in tungsten light, but not very often, because it was more expensive. We found a lab that would do post-flashing and pre-flashing that gave the news film a softer image, so we could intercut it with Ektachrome ECO film. We made about 40 prints of each promo, or whatever the record company ordered, and bicycled them to TV stations, usually in conjunction with a tour by the group or artist. A lot of local stations used the promos to do half-hour shows leading into Dick Clark’s Dance Party. They loved our films because it gave them something to put on the screen besides the same group of kids dancing. After a while, we began traveling to different cities to shoot our films. Once I made three trips to New York in eight days.
When did you start shooting other films?
Around 1967, I started shooting some commercials. The production office was still in the Grinberg Library. I met Ralph Burris who was the producer for a young man named Steven Spielberg. They were looking for a cinematographer to shoot a short 35 mm film. They visited me in our little editing room, and I showed them my rock 'n' roll films. Steven asked me a lot of questions. He had a great idea for a film about a European-style bicycle racing league in Los Angeles. Tony Bill was one of the stars. I told him I had only shot 35 mm once and didn’t really know the equipment. I introduced him to Serge Haginere, who had a lot of 35 mm experience. I was the B camera operator. I shot with a beat-up ARRI camera and a 1000 mm lens. We shot as the sun was rising on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They ran out of money, and never finished that film, but a year later Steven asked me to shoot Amblin.
Tell us a bit about your memories of Amblin.
It was an idyllic story about a boy and a girl who meet while hitchhiking in the desert. We shot in the Pearblossom (California) area for 10 straight days. It was July and about 105 degrees every day with no breeze. We started at sunrise and finished at sunset every day and made an amazing 26-minute film with no dialogue or sync sound. It was images, music and some sound effects. That was the film that got Steven his first contract directing for Universal Studios. He tried to bring me with him, but I couldn’t get into the camera guild. Sometimes I would help him steal scenes on weekends. That was in 1969.
What did you do next?
I started ringing doorbells at the commercial production companies. John Ury advised me to join NABET. My first national commercial was for Goodyear tires. I filmed the live-action footage at the end of an animatic spot that was made with still cameras. My second commercial was for Chrysler. That led to other work.
Did you try to do narrative films?
I shot my first low-budget feature in 1969. We had a $265,000 budget, some very good actors, and a wonderful production manager. The director was Richard Erdman, an actor you would recognize from films in the '40s, '50s and '60s. We shot it in Salt Lake City in 18 days. Half of the roles were people from the local community theater and everyone on the crew was under 30. The local actors let us use their homes for locations. It was a great experience, but the film only played on a few theaters in the Midwest and South.
What other kinds of other work were you doing during that period?
I was shooting 16 mm industrial films, and educational movies for the Franciscan Center in Los Angeles. I also worked on David Wolper documentaries for about a year and a half. It started when I got a call from Andy Babbish, the production manager I knew, who was on a CBS sports show called The Killy Challenge. This was during the winter of 1970. Jean-Claude Killy was going to be competing in a different skiing area every week. I got called in because one of the cameramen had gotten pneumonia, and Andy knew me from the low-budget feature in Salt Lake. I went to a surplus store and bought a parka, gloves and boots. Then, I flew to Denver. Every morning we would haul our equipment up to the top of a hill and set it up just in time to catch the skiers racing by. United Airlines also wanted to do a promotional film about Killy and the Western ski areas they serviced. I was shooting the sports documentary footage in the mornings. I would go off with Killy in the afternoons and film him in recreational areas, doing everything from swimming in an indoor pool to sledding. I shot an interesting feature documentary with a producer named Mel Ferber. We filmed everything from junkies shooting up and talking about shoplifting, to cops making arrests, and a botany professor at UCLA lecturing on the drugs people grow in their gardens. Unfortunately, the program never aired.
When did you get into the camera guild, and what was your first film?
I finally got onto the union roster at the end of 1978. The timing was perfect. Jerry Freedman was getting ready to direct a television movie. He took me to meet the producers at Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises. He told them, you have never heard of this guy, but he's going to do a great job for us. He's going to work very quickly, or I will shoot him. Abby Singer interviewed and hired me and made my deal to shoot The Boy Who Drank Too Much. We shot more than half of it in Madison, Wisconsin, where we used a small hockey stadium as a location. Later, I shot two other television films with Jerry. They were called Streets of L.A. with Joanne Woodward, and Legs about The Rockettes, the famous dancers at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan.
What was your first feature after you got into the union?
I shot a a small Western feature called Harry Tracy with (director) Billy Graham. That was in 1980. It starred Bruce Dern, Helen Shaver, Michael Gwynne and Gordon Lightfoot. It was a Canadian Film Development Corporation picture. Some of the best film that I've ever shot was in that picture.
How did you get to shoot E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?
Steven ran into Jerry Freedman who told him I was in the union. Steven called and asked me to shoot a sequence for the new edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was supposed to be in the Gobi Desert, but we shot it in Baker, California. He promised Columbia Pictures we would do it in two days. We got up at 4 a.m. and shot at sunrise. Right afterwards, he went to England to do Raiders of the Lost Ark. He had a film in development at Columbia that was going to be called Night Skies. It was a story about a farm family out in Oklahoma or Kansas. One day a spaceship comes out of the sky, lands and these strange creatures climb out. They cut the phone and power lines, slaughter farm animals and carry them onto the spaceship. A little boy is watching them through a window. An extraterrestrial comes up to the window and telepathically tells the boy, Don’t worry. I won't let them hurt you. With screenwriter Melissa Mathison, the concept for Night Skies turned into E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Kathy Kennedy was Steven's assistant at that time, and he basically threw her into deep end of the pool as producer. They took the idea to Universal Studios. When they asked Steven how much it was going to cost, he said $10 million. They agreed to finance the small-budget film and gave him the complete freedom that he wanted.
When did he ask you to shoot E.T.?
I was very lucky. Steven actually called my agent because he wanted to see another cinematographer’s reel. My agent sent him that reel, but he also suggested that he look at my work. I was shooting a commercial in Arizona, when my agent called and asked what I wanted to show Steven. I wanted to show him Harry Tracy, but it was being edited, so I picked The Boy Who Drank Too Much, because it had a lot of moody lighting and it was about kids, so he would watch it. My agent called in a favor and got the only print from a friend at CBS. He drove to Steven’s house on a Sunday afternoon and personally delivered the film. I had just gotten back from San Francisco, where I was shooting another commercial, when the phone rang at about seven that night. It was Steven. He said he was watching the third reel of my film, and asked if I wanted to read a script. Oh boy. I met him the next morning.
Tell us about the house where Eliot, the little boy, and E.T. meet.
They found the house they wanted at the end of a cul-de-sac in Sunland/Tujunga on the outskirts of Los Angeles. We played it as a low-key interior even in the daytime, so we could keep E.T. in the dark. That was Steven’s vision. The less the audience saw of E.T., the more they imagined. We had Venetian blinds in Elliot's room that allowed him to make the room dark for E.T. even in the daytime. The rest of the night exterior scenes were shot at the very end of the schedule near the Oregon border in Crescent City, California. It was a nice location with lots of Redwood trees.
E.T. seemed like a flesh and blood character.
There were several animatronic E.T.s. One model had arms attached. I think it was only in one scene at the end of the movie where he's reaching up with his arms and letting out that cry. The rest of the time, the arms were provided by a mime named Caprice Roth. She was amazing. Every time you see a shot of E.T. sitting at a table, she was lying on the ground underneath the animatronic with her arms in the air. She had a video monitor, so she could see E.T. and move her arms accordingly. There’s a scene where the kids are in Elliot’s room, and E.T. is sitting at a table. He is eating watermelon and gets a little piece on his lip. Caprice reached up and flicked it off. That gesture did more to make E.T. seem real than anything we could ever imagine. She was so believable that we forgot she was there. The main E.T. was mechanical. There were 11 people simultaneously operating him. They had to work in incredible unison.
Some important establishing scenes with E.T. were in a bedroom closet.
I remember telling (production designer) Jim Bissel and Steven I had a closet at home that had a window in it. That would give us a believable way to motivate light. I think it was Bissel who suggested making it a stained glass window with orange, yellow and white elements. That gave the light some colors. The other rooms were on the same stage, so we could shoot on all of those sets in continuity. E.T. was always back-lit. One of my favorite scenes is when he comes out of the closet and Elliot has got the shades drawn. He is showing him around the room, and E.T. is discovering this whole other world. I threw light on a fish tank and got a glow reflected from that into E.T.'s eyes. That set the pattern for motivating with the least amount of light I could put on him.
Do you have any other memories to share about E.T.?
Our only out of town scouting trip was to Crescent City, California, which is right on the Oregon border next to the Redwood forest. That’s where we shot the opening and the ending of E.T. We flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a commercial airliner. Eleanore King Kalmussat down next to me. She saw the script in my hand and said you must be working on a movie. We spoke for a while. She was the widow of Dr. Kalmus, the founder of Technicolor. Later, she sent me a note about E.T. and two copies of a book that she wrote about Dr. Kalmus. I took it as a good omen.
One of your next projects was Twilight Zone: The Movie.
I shot two of the four segments. The other two parts were filmed by John Hora (ASC) and Stevan Larner (ASC), so I was in very good company. I shot one segment directed by Steven Spielberg and the other with George Miller. In one segment, John Lithgow played a very nervous passenger who was looking out of the airplane window. He saw a creature on the wing and told the stewardess. Eventually he saw it again with its face pressed against the window. It was a scary scene because the airplane was in trouble, so we did a lot of bouncing around with the camera to amplify that feeling. There were only a few dolly shots. Everything else was handheld camera or Steadicam shots. Garrett Brown operated the Steadicam and John Toll (ASC) did the handheld shots.
One of your next films was The Falcon and the Snowman.
The director was John Schlesinger. He said at the beginning that he didn’t want the color red in the film. If a traffic light was red, we weren't going to shoot until it turned green. That affected everything from costumes to production design, and which determined how we lit and shot the film. That’s why you light—to set the mood.
Your second Oscar nomination was in 1985 for The Color Purple.
Steven was the director. It was Whoopi Goldberg's and Oprah Winfrey's first film performances. We shot interiors at Universal Studios, and went to North Carolina to shoot exterior and interior scenes on location. The cast was almost entirely black. I asked Michael Riva, the production designer, to make the walls as dark as he dared. We used arc lamps to drive tremendous amounts of light through plastic diffusers on the windows. We felt that helped to create the environment for the moods of interior scenes.
How about Empire of the Sun?
We shot that film just after China opened up and before Tiananmen Square. The Chinese were really happy to have Steven Spielberg doing a movie there. It was a period film seen through the eyes of an English boy who had spent his entire life in China. The story was set in Shanghai before and during World War II when the Japanese army occupied the city. Shanghai mostly looked just like it did in 1940. We shot for three weeks in China and the rest of the film was made in England and Spain.
You got another Oscar nomination for Avalon.
It took me two years to find another film that I really wanted to do after Empire of the Sun. I had met the producer, Mark Johnson, and Barry Levinson when they visited Steven (Spielberg) on the set of The Color Purple. It was a family story that Barry felt very deeply about. We shot at real locations except for one small stage. The vast majority of the modern day story was set from 1948 to around 1952. We had flashbacks to young Sam's coming to America in 1914, and other scenes in 1917, 1923, and one segment in the 1930s. We spoke about giving each period a visual motif to separate them. Most of the flashbacks occurred in what we would call silent film time. In 1980, I shot a commercial for a bank on some little Western town set. I had suggested shooting it at silent film speed, 16 frames per second and print every other frame twice to get 24 images per second. The director loved the idea, but the agency was concerned, and someone at an optical house talked them out of it. I remembered that idea when I was reading the script for Avalon. I shot one test at both 24 and 16 frames per second. We looked at the dailies in a local theater while we were scouting locations in Baltimore. I told Barry that I thought it would be a great way to shoot the flashbacks, and he agreed.
You got another Oscar nomination for Bugsy, which was directed by Barry Levinson. How about sharing a memory from that film?
I went almost directly from Avalon to Bugsy. It was about Bugsy Siegel, a real-life, big-time Mafia gangster set in the 1950s. The real Bugsy was like a movie star when I was growing up in Los Angeles. He was in the newspapers all the time. Warren Beatty played Bugsy. He and Barry envisioned an impressionistic 1940s and '50s look that grew out of the locations and sets on stages where we shot. Bugsy was the first film that I used a lot of hard light on. We felt that look was right for the period and the emotions of the story. I have a vivid memory of a scene where Bugsy was visiting a movie set for the first time. He was watching George Raft and Marlene Dietrich perform in Manpower. I used the stylized black-and-white lighting that was common when Manpower was shot. It was just one thread in the fabric of the film, but it helped to set the tone.
Tell us a story about one other memorable film of your choice.
I loved working on Fearless. It was a great experience for everyone. When Peter Weir directs a film, actors from around the world want to be in it. When you are on the set, you see why. Peter was there on the set with the actors talking about the story, the depth of their characters and their backgrounds. The actors adored him. There was a video village, but Peter stood right by the camera while we were shooting. When he said cut, the actors immediately looked at his face to see how he reacted to the performances. Every day was an adventure. He is a remarkable artist and a gentleman.
Can you share another memory about Fearless?
I noticed that there was perfect natural lighting for a partially dramatic scene in a small bedroom when the sun was at a high angle in-between two buildings. The sunlight coming through the window bounced off the carpet and lit the faces of the two characters. It was perfect. The problem was that the sun was only in that position for about 15 minutes. We rigged an 18 K HMI light on a crane outside the window, looking down at the right angle to bounce off the carpet in exactly the right spot.
What’s the scariest thing about being a cinematographer?
I think the scariest thing is handling a large night exterior for the first time. But, it’s a good thing to be frightened. In fact, you should be scared every day you go to work. There should be something that is daunting to you that you haven't eliminated all doubts about. There should be something that keeps you awake at night.
We want to ask you about Van Helsing, a modern day monster film that you shot a few years ago. Was that your first experience with digital intermediate technology?
My first experience with digital intermediate technology was actually on Fearless. We had a dramatic scene where Max (a main character) was asleep on an airplane. He was dreaming. We came in for a tight shot of his face, while the audience hears the sounds of the plane like it is struggling to survive. You can see rapid eye movements behind his clenched lids. For that isolated moment, you could see what was inside his mind. The problem was that when we saw the film, one of his ears was noticeably more orange than the rest of his face. Kodak had opened Cinesite, which was providing digital film restoration and visual effects services. I had them scan the frames of the close-ups of his face, isolate his ear and match the color to the rest of his face. Van Helsing was my first digital intermediate on an entire film.
What was your impression of the use of that technology?
It can be an extension of what we do as cinematographers. Sometimes, you can get nuances that you just can’t get in any other way. I’ll give you an example. I decided to frame a high angle shot, where it was impractical to flag a light off a building in the background. I knew that we could darken it in DI. That was important, because the eye automatically goes to the brightest part of the frame. There were other times when I chose not to put filters on camera lenses while we were shooting at very low light levels. That allowed me to use a deeper stop. I put final touches on the look in DI.
You have played a leadership role in representing cinematographers in discussions about the need to preserve films that are part of our cultural heritage. Then, you had an opportunity to re-visit your past a few years ago when you supervised the restoration of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. How about sharing your thoughts?
Universal Studios re-released E.T. and a DVD with extended content to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the original release of the film. The negative and other elements were in excellent condition, because of careful handling by the lab, and the foresight of the studio, which archived the film in an environmentally controlled vault. There was no color dye fading, shrinkage, deterioration or physical damage to any of the negative. I timed a new duplicate negative with scene-to-scene color correction with Bob Raring, who had timed the original film with me at Technicolor. The DVD has some behind the scenes material that had never been scene before. They were shot by John Toll (ASC). My favorite is an incredible shot with Steven (Spielberg) and John Williams at a piano working on the score.
You obviously believe it is important for cinematographers to be involved.
I do believe that it is important for cinematographers to supervise restoration projects. We’re not only bringing our memories … we are bringing our enthusiasm.
How do you find a balance between movies and commercial work?
I think commercials are in many ways the best friend of the cinematographer. It's a different medium that doesn’t give you the same satisfaction as following the arc of a wonderful script where you have to use every area of your brain. But, I have learned so many things by shooting commercials. I also get to work with a lot of different directors, and all of them want me to do something challenging and new. I have learned things shooting commercials that I’ve later used in films. I’ve mentioned a few examples. Commercials also give you the freedom to wait for the right film.
How do you know when a film is right for you?
You better believe in a film and the director before you commit to it, otherwise the passion isn’t going to be there. I have spent a lot of time waiting for films that never happened. There have been some disappointments, but I consider myself lucky, because I have had opportunities to work on so many successful projects with so many wonderful people.
If you could go back in time and work with any director, who would it be?
That’s an almost impossible question to answer, because there were so many great directors. Off the top of my head, I regret that I wasn’t working when Preston Sturges was directing. I would have loved to work with him.
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