Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel last week scored his sixth Oscar nomination, for his work on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, one of the three Foreign Language nominees that crossed into other key categories this year. Deschanel, a respected DP who has surprisingly never won the Academy Award, has such varied credits as Being There, The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural, National Treasure, Killer Joe and The Passion Of The Christ. I caught up with him recently from London (where he’s working on this year’s The Lion King for Disney) to discuss his approach to Never Look Away, the mystery of creating art and connecting emotionally through images.
Never Look Away is inspired by the life of artist Gerhard Richter and premiered to much acclaim in Venice. It spans three eras of German history, centering on art student Kurt (Tom Schilling) who escapes post-war East Germany for the West with the love of his life (whose own family has a complex connection to Kurt’s past), but remains tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and begins to create works that mirror his own fate and the traumas of a generation.
Henckel von Donnersmarck contacted Deschanel even before writing the script. He tells me he said to the DP, “I know you pass on almost everything, but I just don’t know who else could photograph this.” He then recounted the full story, scene-by-scene, and Deschanel tells me he loved it. “I’ve never seen a movie that gets to the mystery of creating something, whether it’s a painting or a piece of music or film and I think Florian really got to some sort of place that understands the universal camaraderie of the arts. There is this mystery of where these ideas come from.”
Sony Pictures Classics is handling Never Look Away and had also released Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar winning The Lives Of Others. SPC Co-President Michael Barker says that when the filmmaker told them he had convinced Deschanel to shoot Never Look Away, “That sealed the deal for us.” The film opened solidly this weekend in an exclusive engagement at New York’s Paris Theater — which Barker notes is conveniently located near some of the city’s major museums. It heads to Los Angeles on February 8 and then goes wider by February 22.
Henckel von Donnersmarck and Barker have something in common when it comes to Deschanel: Both cite Carroll Ballard’s 1979 The Black Stallion as a pivotal point in their lives. The German filmmaker saw it at age 7 in New York “and it made me understand that cinematography can be Art. I remember sitting there… and actually feeling that these moving images on screen were every bit as great as the paintings my parents took me to see at MoMA.” For Barker, “I remember when I first moved to New York from Texas, it was one of the first movies I saw and I was like ‘Wow!’ He’s one of the greatest cinematographers in the world.”
Because Never Look Away is the story of an artist, Deschanel says the filmmakers “wanted the movie to be in a way a canvas for the canvas of the paintings. It needed to be visual images that inspired the art and made you aware of all the emotions of these characters. It was a great team that gave us these things that really rose to the level that became something worth looking at.”
Henckel von Donnersmarck believes part of Deschanel’s secret is a particular admiration for actors. Deschanel responds, “The most important thing I do is observe them really carefully. One of the outcomes of doing a movie where you don’t understand the language is you come to an understanding of how they express themselves. You are often the person closest to them and who gets to see what they’re doing. I find it amazing. People talk about cinematography as making pretty pictures, but we get to be there when an actor does a performance that really astounds you and you know people will see that performance a year later and respond way you did, and it’s exciting to get to be the first person to see the performance.” He adds, “Elia Kazan says he spent his whole life reading emotion in photographs, but in reality that’s what he did in his movies and his plays.”
Deschanel also offers that great cinematography “is all storytelling” that “distills the visual images down to certain aspects of a story. There’s lighting and camera moves, whether a close-up of an actor that enhances performances or helps express the emotion of that story. It’s all part of what you do.” He points to a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. “Jack Nicholson is writing his novel and then his wife comes up and sees what he’s writing over and over again and it’s ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ There it is, a perfect way to describe what visual images do. You find the visual equivalent of expressing the insanity or joy or emotions of these characters.”
Trial-and-error over time also helps to develop instincts, Deschanel says. Things begin “to bubble up to the surface and you end up creating something without feeling like you’re responsible for it. When I’m at my best, I don’t have any ego. You feel like it’s coming from your subconscious or some other mysterious place so that you can be as excited about it as the audience that sees it later. There’s something wonderful about that. Some parts sweep you away to the point that you don’t think you worked on it because it’s so complete. It’s a combination of images and performances and music that all come together.”
Deschanel praises Henckel von Donnersmarck who “really would get everything out of the performances that was in the script. He was there to make sure it got through. You look at the movie and everything is very clear, you understand. And yet at the end you have this wonderful sense of mystery about creativity and the creation of art. Very few get to that level.”
The project did not come without its challenges, however, even for such a seasoned DP. There’s a particular sequence towards the end of the film when Karl has a breakthrough creating photorealistic images. The scene also involves projectors and giant window shutters. It was “the most complex scene I’ve ever done in my life,” says Deschanel. “I was really terrified doing it because I knew how difficult it would be. It sort of became just getting every last detail. You needed to get all the pieces that had to go together. Part of it was to get the performance from Tom and the progression of painting, using the episcope, drawing the images; it goes on and on — and it’s a combination of that and Max Richter’s score. Every time I see that scene, I become emotional. It really gets to me.”