Deschanel on 'Creating Art by Default'

At work on THE BLACK STALLION, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (left) and director Carroll Ballard prep a scene with actors Mickey Rooney and Kelly Reno.
At work on THE BLACK STALLION, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel checks the light on Mickey Rooney as director Carroll Ballard stands by. Seated at left is the film's young star, Kelly Reno.

Shortly after Camerimage announced that Caleb Deschanel, ASC, would receive the lifetime-achievement honor at this year’s festival in November, I caught up with Caleb by phone. He had just finished shooting Warren Beatty’s long-gestating Howard Hughes project. I asked him if the Camerimage honor made him reflective about his career as a whole, and whether he had any pearls of wisdom to share at this stage of the journey.

“There are movies I wish I’d done, but then again, there are movies I still hope to do,” Caleb says. “I’m not as anxious to run out and do things as I once was, not as anxious to travel the world the way I once did. But I still get tempted by good scripts. As long as things I can be enthusiastic about keep coming my way, I want to do them. I still find myself learning. I’m living in an age in which the evolution of digital cinema has suddenly presented [cinematographers] with something new to deal with. You’re still working with a system to record an image, but there are definitely new wrinkles and new technologies you have to conquer, and you have to wrestle that into what you know and understand. So that makes it interesting.”

I asked Caleb if the business side of filmmaking has changed since he started out in the 1970s. “Well, I haven’t been worn down by the greedy bastards yet,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people, where they just get sick and tired of the way films are managed and run. But I can’t say it’s much different. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, perhaps there was more of a sense of trying to create some kind of art. Now, it’s really clear that we’re not creating art except by default. We’re really in a business.

“But early on in my career, I remember Nathan Boxer, the sound man, saying, ‘You young guys all think we’re out here to create art. It’s not art. You’re just here to start a film and finish it. If along the way you create art, great. If not, at least you’ve accomplished something.’ It’s always been my sense that you don’t know what you’re creating when you’re in the midst of something. You really can’t possibly know.”

I asked whether he could recall a crossroads in his career, a point where things might have gone in a different direction. “Well, every movie reaches a point where you feel like quitting — it’s just the nature of making movies,” he says. “It’s just so intense and so amazingly difficult at times because there are so many different aspects that have to come together all at once for it to work. You’re working with people, the director and the producers, who are always under so much pressure to get things done. There’s never enough budget, and there’s certainly always a lot of waste and a lot of mistakes made along the way. It continues to be a mystery to me, you know, that we actually get them done.

“I was ready to quit The Black Stallion a couple weeks in,” he continues. “It was very frustrating dealing with a few crew members in Toronto who had no respect for [director] Carroll [Ballard] and the way he made movies. It was my first movie, but I had Nate Boxer’s good advice to keep going, and I did.

Deschanel (right of camera) preps a scene with producer Tom Sternberg (far right), 1st AD Doug Claybourne (with megaphone), and Tim Farley (holding the camera partially hidden, just behind Doug, is Tim Farley.
Deschanel (second from right) and the BLACK STALLION team prepare for some underwater work. Producer Tom Sternberg is at far right, assistant director Doug Claybourne holds the megaphone, and production assistant Tim Farley (son of BLACK STALLION author Walter Farley) is at the camera next to Deschanel.

“One of the great things about making movies is that you’re thrown together with a bunch of people for a finite amount of time. You’re usually drawn in by a script, the story, and then you’re thrown obstacles. It could be weather, limitations of budget, or the failures of certain people who are supposed to be supporting you along the way. Somehow, you push your way through to the end. It’s like going to war: at some point, you’ve got to take the damned anthill, and that’s what you do. That’s the process.

“Filmmaking is always going to be difficult. It’s always going to be messy. Sometimes you come out the other end and you’ve created something wonderful, and sometimes you haven’t. But it’s always hard work. It’s always trying. That keeps the fainthearted out of the business. There are so many people outside the movie business who look at it and think it’s easy. Well, guess what? It’s not.”

 

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