Dean Cundey Goes Back to His Roots — Hands-On Filmmaking

Dean Cundey, ASC. Portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC.

Dean Cundey, ASC. Portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC.

Dean Cundey has been lending his considerable expertise to first-time directors, on smaller budget films. In one recent example, the filmmakers contacted Dean because they liked a little film he made in the 1980s called Back to the Future.

“It seems odd in retrospect, because their film, Walking with the Enemy, is a dramatic wartime period piece and not a comedy-fantasy. But I had just come back from some conversations at a film school, and these students in their 20s often refer to Back to the Future, and some of the others I did back then, as some of their favorite, iconic movies. I feel very gratified that the films stick around and still resonate with audiences.”

Dean has been drawn to this type of project — smaller budgets, younger filmmakers — for a number of reasons. “They’re made by people who are pretty brave,” he says. “They go out and raise a small amount of money. Also, I think that with a smaller film you’re more directly and creatively involved in making a film. You’re not part of the dialogue unit, or the visual effects unit or the action unit. There aren’t all these other people who are also making the movie. It’s more hands-on filmmaking. I got interested based on the fact that I came out of low-budget films when I first started.”

Dean says his roots in low budget filmmaking sparked his interest in helping young indie directors today. That's Dean peeking out from behind the camera at right, circa 1980. The rest, from right to left: John Carpenter (director), Barry Bernardi (associate producer), Jeffrey Chernov (second AD, now a studio exec) and an unknown accomplice.

Dean says his roots in low budget filmmaking sparked his interest in helping young indie directors today. That’s Dean peeking out from behind the camera at right, circa 1980. The rest, from right to left: John Carpenter (director), Barry Bernardi (associate producer), Jeffrey Chernov (second AD, now a studio exec) and an unknown accomplice.

Walking with the Enemy is loosely based on a true but relatively unknown story from World War II. “When they outlined it for me, I thought it was really interesting,” says Dean. “World War II is an evocative period for us. There’s a certain amount of romance left in that war, which people describe as the last good war. There was a human element — the espionage, the spying, and the soldiers. The weaponry was relatively low tech. And out of it came human stories of heroism. I’ve always been interested in that period.”

Another appealing facet was that the production would be mounted in Romania. “Romania has the architecture, the weaponry, the old vehicles,” says Dean. “It’s an interesting film culture and I really enjoy working in different film cultures like Mexico, England and Italy, to see the common aspects of what we do in making a film, and also how various cultures have solved the challenges differently. Sometimes I find that when they don’t have the particular piece of equipment, or the budget, ingenuity has led them to a great solution. I had never worked in Romania before. The crew was diligent and had a lot of expertise, so it was really a great experience.”

The director, Mark Schmidt, was making his feature debut. His research revealed that for the price of renting gear, they could purchase two Red One cameras and rent lenses. He sought Dean’s advice in assembling a package, and Dean and his assistant, Bill Coss, customized the rigs, which Schmidt then bought. The rented lenses were Angenieux Optimo zooms, and the package included the bracketry necessary to make the combination work.

During the roughly 30-day shoot, Dean applied some filtration to add “a little bit of nostalgia” to the images, and to minimize the feeling of “now.” Otherwise, the look was not stylized. “We went for a fairly real look,” says Dean. “I think in order to stylize, you need a higher concept. This was a real concept with real characters, which is easier to do on a limited budget. You’re not modifying buildings and sets. We tried to make it straightforward, natural and real, told with real people on real locations.”

Dean’s years of experience were no doubt valuable to Schmidt. “One of the fun things I enjoy doing is working with a new guy and leading him through the thought process,” says Dean. “Not only what is good at the moment on the set, but also how it’s going to cut together, and understanding the pacing. If you have three really interesting shots but you can’t cut them together unless they’re too long, it will slow down the pace of the film. You have to really sort of be aware of that and lead a new director through that process.

“Mark was pretty open to my input as far as helping him stage a scene or some action,” he says. “Over a period of years you develop an understanding of, as you shoot it, which little pieces of the shot that you just set up are valuable. Where does the camera go in order to get the action to flow for the audience? That’s one of the things that a lot of first-time directors don’t have. They’ll often think of a great shot or moment, or stage the action in a particular way. But how will it cut together?

“I find that this makes you reflect on your own creative process, because you’re having to explain it,” says Dean. “As I watch the action, I say, ‘OK, the camera goes here, and then goes over there, and he needs to say his line a little faster.’ You’re seeing the movie in your head. It’s instinct. But then you have to back up, and explain the reasons, and show the director what he’s doing through the eyes of the audience. That’s something you’re always trying to do, and it makes you think about the creative process even more.”

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