Lighting by Cundey

A talk with distinguished cinematographer Dean Cundey

Director Mark Schmidt (l) and Dean Cundey on the set of Walking with the Enemy
  • Director Mark Schmidt (l) and Dean Cundey on the set of Walking with the Enemy

With Dean Cundey comes a 24-carat-history of cinema. Forty years of irreproachable artistry and over eighty credits under his belt have earned the prolific cinematographer a place in the pantheon of contemporary shooters.

He followed his time spent in low budget exploitation quickies (Black Shampoo, Satan’s Cheerleader) with a stint at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School) before moving on to some of the biggest audience-pleasers of all time (Halloween, Back to the Future I-III, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and even Jurassic Park).

Prior to his latest release, Cundey had worked in just about every conceivable genre short of a combat picture; Walking with the Enemy is his first period war drama.

Scott Marks: Did you go to a lot of movies as a kid?

Dean Cundey: Sure. That was one of the things that sort of shaped my interest. Why I was 12-years-old or so, my mother would drop myself and two or three friends off at the local theater for the kid’s matinee. It was usually ten cartoons, one short film, and a kid-interesting feature. The one that struck me was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I got interested in the trickery — the harder-to-do aspect of film, not so much the characters. Kids today have to dress as Spider-man or whatever. I was interested in the techniques and so forth. That’s what really interested me in pursuing a career in film.

SM: So on Halloween, instead of dressing as Spider-man, you went as Ub Iwerks.

DC (Laughing): Yeah. Exactly. As a result, I went to UCLA film school and the rest is history, as the rest always is. It was an interesting period for film. The horror films starred giant crab monsters mutated by atomic energy. That was the big thing for that period.

SM: Do you remember what film you were watching when the neon sign blinked “CINEMATOGRAPHER” in your head and you realized this could be a good career choice?

DC: It was a gradual thing. I was really interested in the illusion of it all. One of the obvious things about the allusion was the environments: the sets, the locations and so on. I was interested at first in being a production designer. I used to build little sets out of cardboard. My father’s shirts came back from the cleaners in these shirt cardboards that were the perfect weight for building little sets and rooms. When I went to film school I decided that cinematography was what I was really interested in.

SM: Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s it was not unusual to find future superstars like Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Dean Cundey breaking their bones by beautifying retrograde schlock. What was it like working on such grindhouse staples as Black Shampoo, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks, and my personal favorite, Satan’s Cheerleaders?

DC (Laughing): Satan’s Cheerleaders is my joke film. When people ask what I’ve done, I’ll say, “Well, I did Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future, and I did Satan’s Cheerleaders.” They say, “I’ve seen all of them except the last one. What’s was that?” It’s always interesting to run into people who have seen it actually remember it.

Just yesterday I did a video interview for the Blu-ray rerelease of Without Warning. The film has long been unavailable. I was talking to producer/director Greydon Clark recently. He lives in Las Vegas and I was there for NAB. He was telling me that when they made it, the film was extremely well-received by audiences, but then was then sold to low budget distributor American International Pictures that did a lot of Corman movies and stuff. When Filmways took over A.I.P., they refused to release any more of their schlock and Without Warning suddenly went into limbo on the shelf.

It did very well in foreign markets but didn’t get a domestic release. It was sold to television, but they couldn’t convince anyone to release it on DVD. Somehow they rested it from the film vault or prison and did a nice DVD transfer. I watched the movie recently to refresh my memory and was surprised over the kind of quality it still has. Those night exteriors aren’t too bad.

It was the last film I did with Greydon in the low-budget exploitation days. At that point I had started working in studio pictures. It was the last one of the three week schedule, $150,000 budget films I did, kind of because Graydon had given me my start with Black Shampoo. I watched it and saw the progress I have made over a period of time based on working on those films. It’s sort of… I don’t know, it’s undefinable. That’s part of the experience that builds on your sensibilities. It was a case of learning from each film. I made mistakes that I learned from. It was also a case of watching other movies and asking what’s good about them. How did they do that, and how can I do that? It’s a case of paying attention to better quality stuff and trying to emulate it.

SM: You said Without Warning never got a commercial release, but I saw it twice when it first came out.

DC: They had a brief release, but when it went to A.I.P. for general release, they shelved it. There’s been a few, what would you say, retro screenings…

SM: No. I saw it twice when it opened, at Chicago’s Parkway and Portage Theatres.

DC: Really?

SM: Who can forget? It’s not often you get to see Jack Palance and Martin Landau being chased through the woods by an airborne latex personal pizza.

DC (Laughing): Every time I did one of those films I gave myself a challenge. How can I illuminate this room with only three lights? How can I make this night exterior look feasible when you have neither the money or time? It was always a way of finding a shortcut or some way to increase the production value with the assets that you had.

Dean Cundey (l) and John Carpenter (center) on the set of Halloween

Dean Cundey (l) and John Carpenter (center) on the set of Halloween

SM: Halloween was not the first film to use a Steadicam.

DC: There had been a couple of other films — Bound for Glory and I think Rocky — that used it for one shot. We used it on the opening shot in Halloween and continued to use it throughout the movie. It was the first movie to use it extensively as a narrative tool compared to just a onetime thing.

SM: Did you have any clue during production what an impact it would make on the genre and how influential, downright trendy, your camerawork would become?

DC: You always hope. And I think part of it is always approaching a film — no matter how small or how terrible the script was — as if you’re going to make an especially good film that will measure up to what the audience expects from studio films. I don’t think you ever really know. Halloween was sort of a resurrection of genre. Nobody had done slasher films before that. The classic ones were Frankenstein and Dracula. Then they disappeared for awhile and came back as giant crab monsters. It was always a science-fictiony thing.

SM: You’re forgetting one: Psycho.

DC: Yeah. Of course. We very consciously watched two or three Hitchcock films. It was necessary, especially on a low budget shoot because it was easy to do and didn’t require big sets and all that kind of stuff. They were personal films. Psycho was the perfect example of how to scare people with one guy and a knife.

Walking with the Enemy Official Trailer

SM: You’re at a point in your career where you could spend your days working with proven talent on mega-budget films, yet you’re still out there giving a first-time directors a break. How did you meet Mark Schmidt and eventually get involved with Walking with the Enemy?

DC: Oddly enough I got a phone call from my Canadian agent, Karen, who said this guy who loved Back to the Future who wanted to know if I was interested in working with him. He came over to the house with a couple of other guys, said they were making this movie, and handed me a script. His interest was in having someone help him with it, which I have always been interested in.

Recently I’ve gotten involved with small indie films like that. You can get more creatively involved especially with new directors who are open to collaboration compared to giant $150 million movies where you’re a cog in the wheel. I was intrigued by the subject matter and the period. I had never done a WWII film. I gave him advice on the script, some of which he took. We went off and scouted Romania and it looked like it was going to be an interesting project, so I was very glad to have been involved.

SM: Normally I associate you with colors that pop, but Walking with the Enemy is a much more subdued piece of work without going the cliched route of desaturating color to make it look old.

DC: Right. I think that that was part of our approach to it. My conversations with the wardrobe people indicated subdued colors. That was the overall look, yet you could still keep the colors when you wanted them. It was a case of doing a little bit of desaturation and color shifting in the final color correction. A lot of it was not making it so obviously altered that people have a hard time relating to it. If you’re going to do black-and-white you might as well do black-and-white. It’s a case of just touching it just right so it doesn’t look like a contemporary world and life.

SM: Are you pleased with the conversion from film to digital?

DC: Not quite yet. It’s an ongoing process that changes quite literally every six months. There are some aspects that I like. I like the control of color and stuff that you can do later. That’s like another tool in the toolbox. I like the idea that if you have a good monitor on the set, you can see what it is you’re getting and adjust it as opposed to shooting on film and worrying that when you see the dailies it didn’t turn out as you had hoped. At the same time there’s something about film that… most of the cameras now and the shooting techniques are all trying to emulate film. We still hold film as the Holy Grail way of making movies. They’re getting there, but it still has technical issues.

The old paper-airplane-in-the-ear gag. Paul Bartel in Rock 'N' Roll High School.

The old paper-airplane-in-the-ear gag. Paul Bartel in Rock 'N' Roll High School.

SM: You seem to be the go-to man for combining live action and animation, but before Roger Rabbit, Casper, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and Garfield, there was Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. Even though not one animation cell was used during the making of the film, I’d probably credit it as your first cinematoon. The paper airplane avalanche gag is a joy to behold. Do you remember what it took to get the planes POV shot?

DC: I think it was fairly simple as we had to be in those days of low budgets and Roger Corman. We just sort of taped it underneath the matte box of the camera and flew it down the hallway on a dolly. It was actually pretty low-tech, but fairly effective. Today, it would be a very elaborate digital effect with the airplane flying and the camera sort of following it and all that. We did it the way we had available in those days which was simple in front of the lens stuff.

SM: You are chosen to win a life-time achievement award at the Oscars -- because God knows your work is far too good to warrant a real one — and asked to pick three moments from your films to open the clip-reel. What would they be?

DC: I guess I go to the stuff that everybody sees and reacts and relates to.

SM: I smell a dinosaur coming.

DC (Laughing): There’s definitely a dinosaur attacking somebody…there’s Marty McFly either going into the past or back to the future. And after that, it might be something out of Roger Rabbit. That sort of the gamut of moments that people remember.

SM: For me it would end with a paper airplane landing in Paul Bartel’s ear.

Kurt Russell and Ernest Borgnine in Escape From New York. Lighting by Cundey.

Kurt Russell and Ernest Borgnine in Escape From New York. Lighting by Cundey.

DC (Laughing): It’s always tough. There are different movies for different reasons. The three I named were all groundbreaking ones both story wise and technically. Other than that, something out of Halloween because for me it was a significant breakthrough. It was a film that got noticed and as a result, I got noticed. There were other films that were big challenges. Escape From New York had big night exteriors, and again we had no money and no time. It holds up as an action/adventure film that is almost as stylistic in production value as many of its contemporaries.

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Comments

You mentioned "Garfield", but no "Big Trouble in Little China"? That movie is a prime example of coked-up 80's enthusiasm! I guess you waited for "Aliens" to come out a week later in 1986 instead....

I had 30 minutes with the guy. Couldn't touch on everything.

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