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ASC Lifetime Achievement Award Winner – Caleb Deschanel

A Lifetime of Learning and Art

By Michael Fickes

Caleb Deschanel
Photo by Douglas Kirkland

Although Caleb Deschanel’s breakthrough film, The Black Stallion, was shot 30 years ago and he’s gone on to net Academy Award nominations for The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home, The Patriot and The Passion of the Christ, it may seem that the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Lifetime Achievement Award, which he will be awarded on February 27, is a bit premature. For such an active cinematographer the award could well add a modifier: the Lifetime (So Far) Achievement Award.

“Caleb Deschanel is an extraordinarily talented cinematographer who has played an influential role in cinema history and driven artistic excellence in contemporary filmmaking,” says ASC president Michael Goi. “For him to receive this honor while still at the top of his field shows the professional influence and respect he has among his peers. His innovative cinematography is inspiring. We look forward to seeing what is yet to come in his work.”

Deschanel maintains a busy schedule with My Sister’s Keeper, from director Nick Cassavetes, released last year and director Jim Sheridan’s psychological thriller, Dream House, starring Daniel Craig, now in production in Toronto.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC hovers over the Pacific Ocean on the set of My Sister's Keeper. (Photo by Sidney Baldwin/distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures)
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC hovers over the Pacific Ocean on the set of My Sister’s Keeper.
(Photo by Sidney Baldwin/distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures)

Unlike fellow ASC honoree John C. Flinn, III (see separate feature in this issue), Deschanel didn’t pursue a family tradition of working in the motion picture industry. Raised in Philadelphia and Annapolis, Maryland, he hails from a family of doctors, lawyers and engineers. Deschanel’s introduction to photography came when he received a Brownie Hawkeye camera at the age of 11. He became a photographer for the newspaper and yearbook at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied chemistry among other things, and took a summer job in New York City working with a still photographer who shot everything from catalogs to record album covers.

He spent his weekends in town going to movies. “There were all these theaters that showed great old movies,” Deschanel recalls. “They felt like movies I wanted to make and could make compared to the Hollywood movies of the day which I didn’t like.” Back at Johns Hopkins screenings of French New Wave films, Italian cinema and Ingmar Bergman pictures further piqued his interest in the moving image. “I loved the sensibilities of Truffaut, Godard, Jean Renoir, Fellini,” he says.

When college friends Walter Murch and Matt Robbins, who graduated a year ahead of him, enrolled in the film studies program at the University of Southern California (USC) they encouraged Deschanel to do the same. “I never really thought of photography as a possible profession,” he notes. “But, at USC, filmmaking took on the reality that it was something I could do.” Other USC classmates — George Lucas, John Milius and Randal Kleiser, among them — were similarly inspired.

The year the American Film Institute (AFI) opened Deschanel applied “to run their cameras.” He became a cinematography fellow at AFI, the only one in another class of future influential filmmakers who included David Lynch, Terrence Malik and Paul Schrader.

“We didn’t have classes as much as get-togethers where we compared notes and got projects off the ground,” he says. “Now the AFI has a real curriculum, but then it was kind of experimental with seminars and talks. It was more of an inspirational environment where you were surrounded by people anxious to make movies.”

While an AFI fellow Deschanel made the short documentary, Trains, and got a grant to shoot a film about Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The evocative Revolutionary War film became the orientation film for the historic site’s visitors’ center and “is still playing at the park,” he reports. “When I was in Philadelphia for National Treasure some of the crew went on a tour of Valley Forge and said, ‘We just saw a movie you did!'”

When a planned AFI internship with Gordon Willis, ASC, fell through Deschanel decided to pursue it on his own. “My sister and brother-in-law at the time lived in New Jersey; he was a record producer who had an apartment in New York City and let me stay for free. Gordy was working on The People Next Door and I was watching what he did. After a couple of weeks a lot of the crew was asking me ‘Why is he doing this and that?’ They were afraid to ask him. I was the curious interloper who asked, and I learned how he conceptualized shooting film.

“Doing photography is more than setting up shots and lighting the best you can,” he continues. “You really want your photography to stylistically match the drama in the film. That’s what Gordy was so good at: finding the key element to use as a visual trigger to tell the story. What makes a really great cinematographer is when a film is a complete whole, with a complete visual style.”

Caleb Deschanel and director Barry Levinson (left) on location for The Natural.
Caleb Deschanel and director Barry Levinson (left) on location for The Natural.

Haskell Wexler, ASC, was another mentor. “I have vivid memories of both Haskell and Gordy sounding off about us ‘young guys’ not knowing anything about cinematography because we had never shot black-and-white film,” says Deschanel. Wexler lent his black-and-white filters to Deschanel to shoot Trains during which he learned “the extent to which you have to separate images with contrast rather than just colors.” One shot he particularly liked was the train leaving the station in the fog. “What made it interesting was the gray of everything in the fog and the red light at the rear” of the train, he recalls. “But in black-and-white there was no red light. That made me aware of the value of color and contrast.”

Deschanel was living in Venice, California when he met Carroll Ballard, his neighbor across the alley and a colleague at the same educational film production company. He did a few educational films with him, then Ballard was hired by his former UCLA buddy, Francis Ford Coppola, to direct The Black Stallion. Ballard asked Deschanel to be his DP.

“It was my first feature although other people had tried to hire me for features, but the union wouldn’t let them,” Deschanel points out. “The Black Stallion was filmed in Toronto and Italy where the unions didn’t have control. I then shot More American Graffiti which was also out of union jurisdiction. Steven Spielberg had enough power to hire me to shoot After School although I wasn’t in the union. The picture was cancelled, but the fact that Universal had hired me for 30 days of prep work as a DP qualified me to get in the union, not my work on The Black Stallion. I did not have to shoot one foot of film for the union to accept me in as a DP.”

Deschanel is still good friends with Ballard whom he calls “a very intuitive filmmaker. He doesn’t work out everything in advance; he likes to feel his way as he goes. And he’s always trying to get all the details; that’s why the first cut of The Black Stallion was five hours long!” He reteamed with the director for 1996’s Fly Away Home, Deschanel’s third Oscar nomination.

Getting into the union enabled Deschanel to shoot his “first Hollywood movie,” the iconic Being There, directed by Hal Ashby and starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. He recalls Sellers as something of the chameleon his diverse roles on the screen suggested he might be. “He was never quite Peter Sellers; he was always at least partially Chauncey Gardiner, even at dinner. He had an amazing ability to pick up accents.” Months after the picture wrapped Deschanel got a phone call from Sellers at 3 a.m. and didn’t recognize the actor’s natural voice; he thought it was someone playing a joke on him.

The cinematographer went on to earn his first Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff in 1983 then directed his first feature, The Escape Artist. Deschanel also directed Crusoe in 1988 along with episodes of Twin Peaks, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Conviction and a 2007 episode of Bones, the hit FOX series in which his daughter Emily stars. “I like going back and forth between directing and cinematography because you get to see filmmaking from different perspectives,” he explains, “and I love working with actors.” That’s a good thing since wife Mary Jo and younger daughter, Zooey, are also successful actors.

Deschanel netted his second Oscar nomination for Barry Levinson’s The Natural, starring Robert Redford. “The mythological story of The Natural allowed me to exaggerate the visual style a bit,” he points out. “There were definitely good and evil characters, and it was great to play with different lighting for them. When Roy Hobbs (Redford) hits the ball and the ballpark’s lights explode that was a filmic reality — pyrotechnics with sparks showering down on everybody — that never would happen in real life.”

The Patriot
The Patriot

For an eight-year period starting in the mid-1980s Deschanel took a hiatus from features. “My kids became too old to take them out of school and take them on location, so I stopped shooting features,” he explains. He launched a commercial production company, Dark Light Pictures, and began shooting and directing spots. They took him away from home only for short periods of time and gave him “an opportunity to use a lot of different tools and techniques,” he reports. “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.”

Deschanel resumed feature work with It Could Happen to You in 1994, followed by Fly Away Home, Hope Floats, Message in a Bottle and Anna and the King.

Having shot the now long-running Valley Forge visitors’ doc, Deschanel was something of a natural himself to shoot Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War tale, The Patriot starring Mel Gibson. It earned him his fourth Academy Award nomination. “I love that period of history,” he says. “We wanted audiences to feel and understand what it was like to be there in 1776. Every minute of each scene had a purpose.”

Four years later he was back with Gibson, this time with Gibson directing The Passion of the Christ. For this film Deschanel found his visual cues in art history which he had studied in college. “Mel and I like Caravaggio, and I used his paintings a lot for reference,” he reports. “Shooting in Rome meant that every weekend I could see amazing collections of paintings. Those accumulated images became the inspiration behind the visual images in that movie. It was impossible to do without being archetypal!” Deschanel received his fifth Oscar nomination for the film.

In the last two years Deschanel has kept up a brisk pace serving as DP on The Spiderwick Chronicles, Killshot and My Sister’s Keeper. He is now prepping Dream House.

Caleb Deschanel lines up a crane shot for Anna and the King
Caleb Deschanel lines up a crane shot for
Anna and the King

Although all of his features have originated on film Deschanel is experienced with HD formats from shooting commercials and directing episodic television. “HD is fine, but the quality of film is better and probably more archival,” he says. “Negatives from films that the Lumiere 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.”

Deschanel says he “didn’t get involved in filmmaking just because it is entertainment. I think movies at their best can inspire us to be better human beings. Any great literature does the same thing — gives us insight and understanding of people and a different perspective on life — so why should film be different?”

When aspiring cinematographers ask Deschanel for his advice, he tells 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’m still learning every time I shoot a frame of film. When I’m not learning, I will know that it’s time to quit.”

December 17, 2012