Dean Cundey has had a long and incredibly successful career in Hollywood as a cinematographer. He has been working in the industry for nearly 50 years now and his resume includes some of the most memorable film projects in history. His early work with iconic director John Carpenter included cult classics like Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing. He would then work with Robert Zemeckis on the Back to the Future Trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Cundey would then serve as Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer on Hook & Jurassic Park. He would also bring his talents to the Amblin projects The Flintstones and Casper.
I spoke to Dean Cundey about his love for cinematography, the BTTF series and what it was like to work on the groundbreaking film, Jurassic Park.
When did you first decide you wanted to pursue a career in cinema as a cinematographer?
Like a lot of guys say when we talk at the American Society of Cinematographers, I got interested in film at a very early age. I was probably 12 and going to the movies a lot and was fascinated by these people who were creating worlds that we all believed in. The magic of film fascinated me. I saw all kinds of interesting movies and I was fascinated by the illusion. I decided in high school that film was what I wanted to do.
I went to UCLA Film School. I graduated there with a degree in film. I was lucky enough to start working almost immediately. I did makeup on my first couple of films. But I always knew I wanted to work in cinematography and on camera. I would work on anything I could get. I would do jobs for free. I always encourage film students to take any job — whether they pay or not. It builds your resume, gives you contacts, and it builds your experience. I started at a young age and was just single minded. You have to have passion. You can’t listen to people who say no.
How would you describe your visual style of storytelling as a cinematographer?
I always think that the script and movie dictate the style. You read a script and then you visualize it. You have to be able to see the movie in your mind. You have to read the script and visualize the images and the visual storytelling. Rather than saying I have a specific style…I have always felt each film dictates the style.
What do you remember about Robert Zemeckis asking you to work on Back to the Future with him and Amblin?
The first film I did with Zemeckis was Romancing the Stone. I got that job because Michael Douglas and Zemeckis saw Escape from New York. They thought I fit into their idea of what Romancing the Stone was going to be. When Romancing the Stone was a big success and Zemeckis had notoriety and the ability to make his own movie, he and Bob Gale pulled out a script they had written previously, it was Back to the Future. They rewrote it so it would fit into a budget and the schedule of an actual movie. He called me up and asked me if I would be interested in working on it. I enjoyed working with him so much. He was a great collaborator and a great visual storyteller. So of course I said yes to working with him again.
You talked earlier about the individual film’s story dictating its visual style. When you read the script for Back to the Future and talked to Zemeckis about its story, how did you view it visually?
We wanted to make sure it wasn’t a science fiction movie. Marty didn’t go to a weird future. He didn’t end up on a spaceship. He didn’t do any of the things we would think of as science fiction. It had to be a film that was accessible to people because they had to visualize themselves as Michael J. Fox. Who wouldn’t want to go back in time and fix something? That was the appeal of the film. We made 1955 look happy and friendly. It was a case of creating a friendly time travel movie rather than anything scary.
Eric Stoltz was famously replaced by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future after you guys had filmed close to half the film. How did that huge change effect you as the Director of Cinematography?
When I heard we were recasting, and reshooting almost half the movie, I went to Steven Spielberg (BTTF Executive Producer), he was the final word on the recasting and reshooting, I asked what we should be doing better or different, he said it all looked great, just do the same thing, and keep going. We didn’t really have any second thoughts about the shooting style. It paid off because Robert Zemeckis was a great storyteller and he just continued down his path.
Did you agree with the recasting choice of Marty McFly?
Yeah. I think so. The Back to the Future script was good and it was evident how it needed to be seen. Everyone got that. Anybody who read it got that. Some scripts or films are very evident about what they need to be. Some film situations have a script that I will read, and it is evident what it needs to be. But you might get a young director who wants to make his mark and he will say, ‘we should do this dude.’ You try and talk him into ideas that fulfill what he wants to do but aren’t too radical. But sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
After working with Zemeckis on the first BTTF film, you guys collaborated on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. How excited were you to take on the challenges that came with mixing a live action film with animation?
I had been involved in animation ever since I was a kid. I read everything I could about it. I saw all the Disney movies. I read all the books and watched all the documentaries. I had a good background in animation. It was just a fan background. So when Zemeckis said we were going to do this goofy thing with animation, I said it sounded great. Because I loved animation. I was excited about applying my knowledge to the story of the film. Creating the illusion that these animated characters lived in the real world was what it was all about.
Did you have to do a lot of things on faith when it came to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The animation was added after you guys shot the live action portions of the film. Did you have to have a lot of trust in the process and the animators that would finish off the look of the shots you composed on the set?
There was a lot of faith given. It was also knowledge and understanding of the process. We worked out techniques so we could understand what the scene would be like when the scene was completed with animation. We had full size rubber versions of Roger and the other characters on set. This was so we could rehearse the scene and so that the actors could visualize the characters and how they moved and where they were. We would shoot one or two takes with the rubber figures so that the animators would have a reference for the intention of the scene. We worked out a pretty good process for visualizing.
You continued to work with Zemeckis with Back to the Future II & III. You were able to finish the trilogy and shoot the sequels back-to-back. How did you feel about filming both sequels at essentially the same time?
The original script for Back to the Future II was too long. The movie was going to be like 3 hours. That script was cleverly cut into two. It became Part II & III. It made perfect sense to shoot them back-to-back because everyone would be working on the same two movies — which in essence was one long movie. Everyone would stay in tune. It was a great idea and it worked out very well. For efficiency and creativity, we shot them one after another.
You faced another huge challenge when you joined Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park in 1993. How intimidating was that shoot?
I have always gravitated towards new stuff. New technology. It was a great experience. Nobody had ever made photo realistic creatures in the computer before. Certainly not dinosaurs. They have tried it before, but it was always fantasy looking. These had to be real. We knew we had a big challenge ahead of us. We had great people creating the dinosaurs, ILM, George Lucas’s company. Everyone was completely involved because they loved we were doing something new and different.
In many ways I think filming JP would be like Roger Rabbit? Much of the effects work would be added after you were finished filming on set. Was your experience working on Roger Rabbit helpful when it came time to film Jurassic Park?
I often referred to Roger Rabbit on set. I would reference shots and techniques we did on Roger Rabbit to Steven Spielberg. How do you make dinosaurs that weren’t there interact with the real world? How do they touch and move things? Roger Rabbit was a step for me into the world of Jurassic Park.
You started your career doing lower budget films, like the work you did with Carpenter. Eventually you found yourself working on a huge blockbuster like Jurassic Park. Did you enjoy that transition? Is there a style or budget of filmmaking you were more comfortable with when you look back at your career?
They all led down the same path. I really enjoyed working on the low budget action films I started with. They taught me techniques and how to deal with the crew. I learned problem solving and all the mechanics of making a film. I had the chance to practice visual storytelling with those low budget films. They were my training ground. I applied the same thought processes on the bigger budget films I eventually worked on. It all led down the same path for me.
You have worked with a lot of great directors in your career. In your mind, what made Steven Spielberg unique?
Steven likes to do all kinds of different genres of movies. But it’s always about involving the audience and visual storytelling. I have never worked on a film where I haven’t learned something and he’s a great example of a teacher when it comes to visual storytelling. I consider him the Great Professor of filmmaking.
You served as Spielberg’s cinematographer on Hook and Jurassic Park. Do any instances stand out from either of those films when it comes to him being such an incredible visual storyteller?
It would be hard to pinpoint anything because so much of it is his holistic approach to filmmaking. I think in general he just has a very thoughtful but instinctual way of telling a story. That’s my biggest takeaway of working with him.