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.

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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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