"I tend to explain it as: I'm the one who's sort of inbetween the science and the art of filming because I have to deal with all the photography, all the technical aspects of it, all the lighting, managing the crew, managing the various departments, co-ordinating all of them to implement the vision of the director. Using all of the visual aspects of the film-making, brought together by the photography. I photograph the scene and I work very closely, obviously, with the director to come up with the look, the mood, and then use all of the things at our command to create that."
Do you have a lot of input of your own into a film or are you largely interpreting what the director wants?
"It usually varies with the director. There are some directors who are very good with actors and characters and aren't really very interested as far as the actual visual look of the film. That is, I supply them. I would consult with the director, but a lot of it is then interpreting the script and interpreting the scenes as they are rehearsed by the director, interpreting the location or the set as designed by the production designer. It creates the look and the mood of various scenes and of the whole film.
"Then there are other directors who have a very strong idea of the look that they want for a particular scene or even for a particular shot. It becomes very much a collaborative effort all the time. But they will have more specific ideas. Do they want the scene dark or light? Where does the camera go? Should there be camera movement? That sort of thing. My job runs the gamut from being totally in control of creating the photographic image to one where I collaborate very much with the director."
"I've always been interested in visual storytelling, you might say, and interpreting things in visuals. In high school, I was interested in working in the high school theatrical productions. I was always interested in set design and scenics. As a matter of fact, my first inclination was to become a production designer in films, so in high school I had determined that I would go to college and study architecture so that I could design the sets and environments of pictures. So I studied a little bit of architecture, but I went to UCLA film school, and when you're in film school you take a little bit of everything: editing, screenwriting, camera and so forth.
"One of the classes I took was taught by James Wong Howe, who was of course one of the legendary cinematographers of Hollywood, having started in the '20s and done a lot of very famous films. In taking the class from him, I realised that the cinematographer was probably the most dynamically involved with creating the visual storytelling aspect of the film. So I changed my focus to cinematography. Then when I graduated from the UCLA school I was fortunate in really starting to work immediately in films. Not as a cinematographer; I actually did a whole variety of roles, beginning with make-up, doing some special effects, doing some editing. All of which were great experiences as far as understanding people's skills and trades and the problems involved in a lot of different areas of film-making."
"I started off doing a little bit of odds and ends of photography, doing various inserts and pick-up shots for low-budget action films. Then I shot a film that a friend of mine was production managing. It was called Trained to Kill. From that I went onto another film which was Where the Red Fern Grows, which was a famous children's book. The film was being directed by Norman Tokar who was a Disney director and it was my first experience working with a real director, seeing how an experienced director works. Then I did a whole variety of films. The one though that really turned the corner for me was Halloween. That began my collaboration with John Carpenter. In the film business, it's interesting that you can do a lot of interesting work or creative work, but once you get a film that everybody notices and recognises it gives you credibility. So Halloween and the Carpenter films were the things that gave me that credibility and allowed me to do other things."
The famous shot in Halloween is the opening one through the mask. That was quite innovative, wasn't it?
"Yes. John is a great visual storyteller, which was one of the reasons why I particularly enjoyed working with him, and it was one of the reasons why it was such a great experience for me in being able to use photography as a visual element of the film. Not just as a way to explore actors talking, but to really involve the audience. That opening shot was certainly one of those. John was looking for a shot that hadn't been seen or done before and would really involve the audience. That was the year that they had just developed the Steadicam. And John came to me and said, 'Do you think we could do the opening shot all as one Steadicam shot?' I said, 'Well, I don't know why not.' So we set it up.
"Actually it was quite tricky and elaborate to do, to light the entire interior of the house without being able to see any of the lights. To be able to create the mood of it just with overall lighting was very tricky so it took quite a bit of work. We rehearsed it and then I operated that shot and my camera operator Ray Stella operated it also. We would take turns because it was a very strenuous shot to wear the Steadicam and climb the stairs and move through the house, all of it trying to avoid seeing the lights and doing it all with exact timing. It was very innovative, particularly for its time, and certainly was one of the most significant moments in Halloween."
You also did Halloween II and Halloween III. That one was different to the rest of the series.
"Yes, it was a departure. they were looking for a continuation of the theme, of the franchise, but they weren't sure they could sustain the theme of Michael Myers so John and Deborah wrote a completely different story for Halloween III."
My list has 41 films with you as cinematographer. Is that right?
"It could be more than that. I'd have to see the list."
An early obscurity was Creature from Black Lake. What was that?
"As far as I know, I don't even have a copy of it. I have a very small poster but that's the only thing I have that remains of it. But it was interesting. It was a low-budget film that was financed by an independent guy who had a chain of clothing stores in Louisiana and he decided that he wanted to be a producer. He raised some money and put together a script that was kind of interesting. I don't think it quite met its potential, but it was essentially a story of two young guys who are on a camping trip in Louisiana and run across this legendary bog creature. Sort of the bigfoot of the Bayou. It has Jack Elam and a few known faces so for me it was interesting to work with experienced actors. Yet it was also fun just creating a monster movie."
"Ah yes. One of the films I refer to often when people read off my filmography and mention Jurassic Park and all those things: 'You forgot Satan's Cheerleaders.' That's another very low budget action film that disappeared into obscurity almost, although I do have a tape that I found in a video store."
The stuff in the late '70s seems to be mostly juvenile delinquent type films.
"Yes. Rock'n'Roll High School is actually a pretty well known cult film in the US, but I don't think it's had too much exposure outside the USA. It still appears on midnight shows periodically. It was a film that Roger Corman produced."
It seems that everybody has worked with Corman.
"Yes, he is quite famous for having given a lot of people a start. Roger, besides giving some notable people - Martin Scorsese, Coppola - a start, certainly provided experience for a lot of people. Most of the technicians I work with have all worked on a Roger Corman film early in their careers. It was a great place to learn the real practical aspects of film-making after you came out of film school."
Without Warning was made by the same guy who did Satan's Cheerleaders.
"Yes, I did about five low budget films with Greydon Clark. I think he's still making films. He was very good at putting together a script, sometimes a one-sheet poster or promotional material, then pre-selling the distribution in order to raise the money to make the film. So we would do films which cost maybe 120 or 200,000 dollars. Actually for me that was some of my best practical experience of how to make a film on a schedule and a budget and still try to come up with something visually interesting and creative. Without Warning was a film which was ahead of its time. It was about an alien who came to Earth to do some hunting. It predated Predator by quite a while. The alien effects were designed initially by Rick Baker. It was one of his early efforts. Then when Rick had to do - I think it was King Kong - he turned it over to Greg Cannom who now is also quite well known for his make-up effects."
Again, it had a decent cast: Martin Landau and Jack Palance.
"One of the things that was also a valuable experience for me and interesting about these Greydon Clark films was that he would then, after raising the money, dedicate an adequate amount to getting a couple of recognisable and good actors. Usually he looked for actors who had a presence in foreign markets and were recognisable. It gave the film credibility, but also it was a good experience for me because I was able to see and watch skilled actors working."
"That was a film that starred Dorothy Stratten just prior to her tragic death. It was an extremely low-budget film and the challenge was trying to create the sensation of a science fiction film based on a set that was made out of cardboard and paint. I actually enjoyed that, plus it was an interesting experience because the spaceship stuff was done as motion control and was one of my first experiences into shooting models and compositing."
As cinematographer, were you working on the effects sequences as well?
"Yes, we did a lit a little bit of everything, because there was never enough budget on those films to have two units or a complete visual effects unit. Often we would schedule so that at the end of the show we would pare down the unit to a smaller number of people and we would shoot the models and the miniatures or whatever."
"Yes, again it was a great experience because John Carpenter wanted to duplicate what he had done in Halloween - create a sense of terror and fear and so forth - without an overt display of blood. Halloween had done that so successfully; it was certainly a scary movie. The original premise involved people disappearing into this mysterious fog which we created with all kinds of techniques from on-set fog to miniature fog that we composited over backgrounds.
"The interesting part was that when the movie was previewed to audiences, they weren't afraid because as our heroes disappeared into the fog there was no sense of what happened to them. And of course, disappearing into fog is something that we ourselves can do any day and come out safe. So we went back and shot for about a week material that involved the ghosts and meat-hooks and a lot more explicit deaths. John's discovery was that unless there was a real sense of death and danger to your characters, the audience didn't empathise with the horror. He did it in a fairly stylised way, but it's certainly something that became evident in a lot of the films that followed in the genre. There was a lot more slashing and blood and explicit gore in other people's movies."
Nowadays everything has a sequel, but when you did Halloween II in 1981 that wasn't so common. Why was it felt that Halloween needed a sequel?
"I think it was a thing that John and Deborah were dubious about. For the same reason that Steven doesn't want to do a sequel to ET. There's that feeling of, 'Well, how can you top it? Will you diminish a potential classic by doing a sequel?' So at first they weren't going to do that, but I think the pressure from the producers was so great to do it because Halloween has always been touted as one of the most successful films at the box office, dollar-in for dollar-out. It had the highest returns. Even at the time, that was obvious. So the producers implored John and Deborah and probably made it worth their while financially to do a sequel."
Were you approached to do any Halloween films after number three?
"No, actually I wasn't. I guess because I had moved on to other projects I became forgotten."
"Yes, and again very innovative techniques and so forth. We were one of the first films to use the brand new very high speed lenses that Panavision had developed. And HMI lighting was just becoming practical."
What is that?
"HMI lighting is a pretty common light now. It is a very high output light that produces light the colour of daylight. So we use it quite a bit for night exteriors or lighting large areas. Because the light is pure, it reproduces daylight. It was a very sophisticated sort of light when we used it on Escape from New York. We gathered together this new technology - the very fast lenses and the HMI lighting - and went off to St Louis to an area of town where they were tearing down a lot of buildings and there was a lot of urban redevelopment being done. So the city of St Louis said we could do whatever we wanted to do with that part of town, so it became the set for the very stylish Escape from New York."
Have you seen any of the numerous Italian rip-offs of that movie?
"No, actually I haven't."
The other John Carpenter film you did was The Thing, which was very different to the original 1950s version.
"Actually for all of us it was our first venture into a major studio film. It was a Universal picture and it was John's first foray, I think, into dealing with a major studio. Again it was a great experience because we now had at our disposal all of the things that we couldn't afford before: large stages and a very experienced production designer; a lot more equipment and facilities. So it was a great introduction into mainstream Hollywood, using all of the techniques and so forth that we hadn't had available to us before."
Psycho II must have been pretty daunting, doing a sequel to one of the greatest movies of all time.
"Yes, actually it was a really really interesting experience because the producer on it, Hilton Green, had been the assistant director on the original Psycho. So he had a lot of interesting perspectives and anecdotes and so forth that related to the first one. One of the things that we wanted to do was faithfully recreate the feeling of the first one in the second one. It was fascinating because we ran the first film a couple of times. Then as the sets were constructed it was almost eerie in being able to walk around the interior of the house, the exterior of the house and all the places that had been icons of the first film, then to have Hilton Green tell us little stories about the making of the original one."
Then we come to Romancing the Stone which was part of a subgenre flourishing in the wake of the Indiana Jones movies.
"It was an action-adventure film of a very specific kind. It was my first experience with Bob Zemeckis, and it was logistically one of the most difficult films that I have ever worked on. We were working in Mexico during rainstorms and mudslides and so forth. Fortunately we had two very talented actors, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, so it was a lot of fun creating an action-adventure film with those actors."
After that was Warning Sign. I haven't seen this, but I have a review which says it's not much good, ‘though Cundey's cinematography manages to find new angles for a seemingly endless sequence of people desperately trying to get out of a laboratory.’ Would you go along with that?
"Yes, that was my concern, and I would guess the greatest challenge was that we were working in a set that was a lot of hallways and stainless steel doors and laboratory equipment. So for me, the greatest challenge was trying to keep it interesting within the limits of the confined facilities that we had."
What do you think was the key to the success of Back to the Future?
"When people ask: do I have a favourite film that I've worked on? I almost always refer first to Back to the Future. I think the reason for its success is that it is probably one of the most all-round Good Movies, because of the story that is so well crafted; the characters that you like and empathise with; the very careful blending of visual effects and visual style so that it is not obtrusive and yet it always keeps you interested. It’s just well-crafted all around. And of course it's a great satisfying story full of universal things. We all wonder: what were our parents really like? And if we could go back in time and change our lives, what would we do and how would we do it? So all of these themes are all brought together in a stylish way but also one that's very accessible to an audience without being too intellectual. It's a film that touches mostly on an emotional level."
"That was an interesting aspect of how a film gets put together. Originally it was just going to be the sequel, just Back To The Future II. But the script was very long and the studio said, ‘Well, we can’t afford to spend that much money on it and the film will be too long. How can it be cut down?’ And as they went through the script trying to trim it out, they realised that there were a lot of key story elements, things that if they cut them out you would miss. So at that point, Kathleen Kennedy and Bob said, ‘Well, wait a second. Why don’t we just make it two movies?’ So they went to Universal and Universal was excited by the idea that they would have two sequels shot at the same time. So they just found the dividing point, wrote the transitions, and then we began working. It took us a year and two weeks to complete the shoot."
Was it tricky, with the second one picking up where the first one finishes, getting everything looking exactly the same after a four year gap?
"Yes, it was. Again it was the challenge and the fun of it. Because when you make the first film, you never really think that you’ll be doing a sequel, even though now the standard policy for studios when they write contracts is that merchandising and sequels are so important that they write that into the contracts. But at the time, having completed number one, we never thought it would be as big a hit as it was. So going back and recreating so much of it in two and three was a bit of a challenge but also a lot of fun to remember. Because we assembled essentially the same group of people, the same cast, crew, technicians, artists, so that we all really remembered what we had done and why we had done it, and that made it a lot easier."
"Yes, it was. It was an interesting film for me because again I was working with Carpenter who is a very visual storyteller. But it was such an unusual concept for a film that it lent itself to very interesting cinematography. There was a lot of lighting by fires and torches, and interesting sets and locations. Creating the Chinatown alleyways and trying to make them real, so it was a lot of fun for me to do that."
Did you watch a lot of Hong Kong movies to get the texture and the image?
"We actually watched a lot of the martial arts chop-socky films, and the initial idea was to try to create an American version of a Chinese film. How to do the stunts, the wirework and very daring martial arts. To the extent that at one point they talked about bringing over from Hong Kong the Chinese martial artists and stunt people. It was going to be problematic because of a lot of things. The Chinese are a lot more daring as far as the stunts they do, and the insurance companies said they wouldn't cover the insurance because of that, so we weren't able to co-ordinate the whole thing. But it would have been an interesting exercise, had we been able to pull it off."
Project X was about experiments with chimpanzees. Was there any problem working with chimps?
"No, actually I was very surprised because we hadn't done films with a lot of animals. But the chimps were actually well-behaved, when they pay attention. And when they're the right age, young-ish, they are very trainable and co-operative. A lot of it is understanding the psychology of animals. How do you work with them? How do you trick them into behaviours that are part of the story? It takes patience, it takes rolling a lot of film and really just understanding how animals react."
But no such problems with the cartoon animals in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That broke a lot of ground.
"I have to say, that was possibly one of the most innovative films I've done. There was an interesting approach to it, because we had looked at other live-action/animation films - Mary Poppins, Pete's Dragon - where the characters were combined with the real world, and there was always a ‘pasted on' look. So Bob and I said, ‘How can we take this a step further?' Disney, who were at that point going to be supervising the animation, said, ‘Well, listen we can tell you exactly how we've done this in the past. We've had a lot of experience with this. First, you lock off the camera with a wide-shot to give the animators plenty of room to animate in. And don't move the camera. Make sure that the lighting is very flat and even so that the characters blend in.' So we took the list and said, ‘Alright, these are exactly the rules that we will not follow. We will look for ways to create a new look.'
“So we shot a test, about 30 seconds, where we violated every rule: we moved the camera continuously; we had characters move in and out of the light; we had them interact with the real world. We gave the test to Richard Williams who was in London doing commercials, but doing very, very innovative, changing-perspective animation. He spent some time on it, animated the test, and when we showed it to Disney they were astounded. But it told us that we were on the right track, that we could in fact create a whole new approach to animation/live-action compositing. So after that we just went on.
"At first, it was very much a conscious thought process: what would we do in this scene to create the interaction of the rabbit with the real world? How can we get him to move props and so forth? And after a while, it really became second nature, because we were all imagining the rabbit to be real, so we could think of the animated characters as real actors and not as themselves. So it really became the key to creating the whole movie. Some people credit it with revitalising Disney's animation, and really spinning off into a lot of the use of animation in commercials and other films that hadn't been done before."
You did a film called Nothing But Trouble which has a reputation as a bit of turkey. What went wrong with that?
"Dan Aykroyd came to me and said, ‘I have this very bizarre comedy that I would love to do,' and asked if I was interested, and I was certainly interested. It starred some very good actors: Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, John Candy among others. I think it was a case that it was Dan's first directing job so he said that he would be relying heavily on me. But he really had this viewpoint of the film that he wanted to do. As we began working on it, the kind of strange point of view that he had gradually began to be made more and more mainstream. Because as we would shoot a bizarre angle and try to get it to play, the studio would come back and say, ‘Well, where are the close-ups?'
"Dan unfortunately would acquiesce and say okay, and we would shoot some close-ups. And the actors didn't always follow what Dan had in mind. So a film that could just have been a very unusual, dark comedy began to veer more towards the middle of the road storytelling techniques: the close-up and the covering shot. When it began to be put together, the studio had a lot of input into the cutting, so it really became an odd hybrid between what could have been a very unusual, bizarre film and a comedy that tried to be normal but the material wasn't. So I think the audience didn't quite get it."
"Yes, he really is. He and Zemeckis are probably, at least in my experience of working with them, the two directors who have the greatest command of visual story-telling technique. Spielberg is certainly the master of that. He understands where the camera should be, he moves it interestingly. He does a lot of his own storyboarding; he does little thumbnail sketches which he turns over to an artist who then turns them into a visual storyboard. But every shot is Steven's. Although he's also a great collaborator. Working with him on Hook and subsequently on Jurassic Park, he was always open to an interesting shot or an embellishment of his shot.
"A technique I introduced him to was the use of the remote head. He'd used the remote head somewhat on Indiana Jones, but it was a camera device that I'd worked with a lot with Bob Zemeckis. Explaining how a lot of Steven's camera moves could be accomplished with it, he really took to it and we did a lot of Hook with the crane arm and the remote head. So that led a lot to the way the camera moved. The overall look of the film was interesting because Steven sat down and said that he wanted to do a film that was not completely realistic, that tended to be a little more theatrical. He wanted to do a film that was not completely real, and yet was not fantasy. So we ran various films, and we looked at techniques of what he felt was that feeling, then we talked about how to light exterior sets that were built on a stage. How to make them look like it was outside and yet still have a stylistic approach. Steven is very, very much involved in the visual aspect of everything that he does. He realises that the camera is half of the storytelling, and actors and characters are the other half."
"It was again very much a Bob Zemeckis film. He enjoys doing high concept films, films that are very distinctive for their subject matter and their style of storytelling. So this was an interesting black comedy that had the Zemeckis touch. And of course he's always interested in not going to the edge of the envelope but pushing the edge of the envelope further out, creating a larger envelope, when it comes to technique and visuals. As a result we developed techniques that have subsequently been used by everybody. Compositing Meryl Streep's head backwards onto her body. A lot of visual effects and computer graphics techniques really filtered into mainstream film-making."
"Yes, quite definitely. Originally the concept was that the dinosaurs were going to be stop motion puppets and the general approach was that that was the technique. Then as we got heavily into pre-production, Dennis Muren at ILM said that he thought that it would be possible to create the dinosaurs completely on the computer. Steven said, ‘Well, can you show me some examples?' and he said, ‘No, there are none that exist yet, but we'll create some.' So as we began production, Stan Winston was building full-size animatronic dinosaurs, and we began shooting even before the technique was proven, but we began seeing little examples of what the computer could do. How the creatures could be created and animated in the computer. Each test, as crude as they were, was more promising than the one before. So we accepted the fact that we would be creating them in the computer. A great deal of credit goes to Steven for having a great deal of faith in this whole new, unproven technology, and dedicating the budget and the film towards that. So as we all discovered, it turned out to be a quite successful technique."
"Yes, it was. It was one of those films that when we started, everybody said, ‘I wonder if this is even going to work.' It was interesting because we realised early on that everything that was going to be seen by the camera had to be created, had to be designed and sculpted and painted. The whole complete look for the world had to be achieved. I think that was one of the most fun things about the project. There was not a single object you could get in a prop shop or a store that could go in front of the camera. Everything was completely hand-made.
"So it was interesting from that point. Then of course the question was: how does one light that world? We're used to seeing it as a very flat world in the 2D cartoon: flat colours and maybe some textures and stuff. But how do you create the feeling of a 3D world, yet still keep that very fantasy stylised look. So we had to develop a real lighting concept to accomplish that."
"Casper was another step. One of the things I enjoy about the films I've done, which I often refer to, is the fact that each one always builds on the one before as far as technique and style and complexity of what we're accomplishing. That we are always able to take something we learned on the previous film and apply it but also go another step further. Casper is a good example, I think, of taking the techniques that I learned on Roger Rabbit and yet applying new techniques to them. In this particular case, the animation was not done as conventional cel animation with a pencil and paper and then ink and paint, but completely as 3D animation in the computer.
"The difficulties on that were that in 3D animation you get a very particular look of movement, but it's very difficult to do, even now, expressions and character and so forth, that can be so easy for an animator with a pencil to do. So some of my fears initially were: would we be able to create characters that had that interesting ability to emote. But the positive side to it was that it is so much easier to put the characters into the real world with a greater sense of realism. In other words the perspectives and movement around inside the frame. Even just the ability to handle props and objects is easier, because we were able to build the props that they had to handle as 3D animated objects. So the positive side was the ability to put the characters in the world in the most convincing way, and the challenge was trying to create the ability for them to have emotions and expressions."
Apollo 13 was a magnificent film, but very different because it was trying to recreate a historical aspect.
"That was again a very interesting and specific challenge for me, because we were going to rely heavily again on the effects techniques that had developed over a period of time, but now I was going to be asked to create a very realistic look. The idea was that we have all at some point seen the space program. The people who grew up during the period remember seeing on television the first man on the Moon and the subsequent broadcasts from the capsules. So we all have a very specific perception of what that reality is like, as opposed to the space that we are used to seeing in Star Wars and Star Trek and so forth. So the idea was to really create for the audience the idea that they were watching this happen in reality.
"So we analysed a lot of the material that we're all used to seeing. What did the video images look like, and how were they covered? How was the inside of the capsule lit, that we remembered having seen on television? So we really took that approach to create the illusion that we were watching, somehow magically, the actors in a real situation. So I created lighting that was built into the space capsule that looked very real. We used fibre-optics to hide lights in the very confined space of the capsule. We lit the inside quite a bit by the apparent sunlight coming through the window of the capsule that was moving, because the capsule was always rotating. So these were all of the things that, having seen them on the footage, were the sometimes subliminal cues to an audience that they were seeing a real event."
"No. Unfortunately, one of my great regrets of life is that I wasn't able to do that. It was the second unit that put that together. Originally, that technique came out of the actors and Ron Howard going, during pre-production, to NASA space camp so that the actors would have an understanding of what an astronaut went through. And one of the things they did was go up in the zero-G plane. I think Kevin Bacon or Bill Paxton took his video camera along, just to document the event for his home movies. And it was such an amazing thing to see these people, the actors that you're used to seeing Earthbound, actually floating in zero-G.
"So when Ron came back, he said, ‘You know, that's exactly the technique we're looking for for these difficult scenes.' He couldn't figure out how to make it look like the actors were floating through the tunnel portion of the set. A lot of the other floating we could figure out, but we were so used to seeing the astronauts being able to do somersaults, floating and bouncing and so forth. Ron said, ‘Maybe we could build a set and do about four or five shots that would really create the illusion we're going for.' So he had everybody begin investigating, and NASA said, ‘No no no, we don't allow commercial filming in this thing. It's really just a NASA thing for training astronauts.' After a great deal of perseverance, calls to the White House and so forth, he finally got approval. Once the approval was attained, he said, ‘Well, you know what? Maybe we ought to do a few more of these other shots.'
"He began pulling storyboards that were perfectly suited to this. So we built a set that had to fit inside the fuselage of the plane, which had to be just a slightly smaller set than the one we were using. And there was no room for the lighting, so we had to develop whole techniques that were very specific to lighting inside the aeroplane that would match what we were going to be doing on the stages. So the second unit, that had been selected originally to do the first four or five shots, had to go through a NASA training programme in order to qualify. They went off and ended up with two weeks of weightless work. Ron went along to direct it, and I stayed behind and did the first unit work."
"That's another interesting story. Disney for a long time had a very significant presence in the video market. Most of the time, when you go to a video store, there are categories of videos, like: Adventure, Comedy, Action... Disney. So Disney, realising that they had such a significant presence in video, a few years ago made the direct-to-video Return of Jafar, a sequel to Alladin. They sold, much to their surprise, ten million units. They realised that Disney was probably one of the companies that could overcome the stigma of direct-to-video, the stigma being that any film that was released direct-to-video probably wasn't good enough to release in the theatre. So they decided that they wanted to test the market to see if a live-action video would be as successful.
“So they looked around for project that they felt would be a significant entry into the market, and what they came up with was this. They were going to do a sequel to the Honey, We Did Something to Somebody Again series, and they had a script they were going to make [By Karey Kirkpatrick - MJS] which had been budgeted at $40 million. They said, ‘This is the perfect one, because people will recognise the franchise. They'll know it can be a Disney feature. So we can probably just enter into the market with that and we'll give it a try.' But they couldn't afford to spend $40 million on it, so they opted for a lower budget: $7 million.
"So they were looking around for directors. I had expressed an interest in directing. I got a call to go over and meet them, and I said I was very interested because it was a thing that was ideally suited to me because it was so effects-heavy and fantasy-oriented. All of that was second nature. I would also enjoy the challenge of trying to make a $40 million movie for $7 million. So that's what we did. We pulled out every trick we could think of and created new techniques and so forth. The film suffers for the budget because there's a lot of stuff we couldn't do. We were very inhibited to the extent of the action and the effects that we could accomplish. I feel it's a very restricted movie, confined by that. But saying that, I am still very proud of the fact that we were able to accomplish it for that budget. It's come off pretty close to what feature quality is like."
Were Disney pleased with it?
"They were quite thrilled because it did extremely good sales. They were thrilled to the extent that they have now decided that direct-to-video is their whole new business. They're now busily on the way to making, I think, three more at the moment: The Jungle Book and a couple of others, besides some animated ones. They were quite pleased; in fact we're all heroes over there for having started them on their business with such a high-profile project."
Do you want to move more into directing, or are you happy to stay with cinematography?
"I really enjoy both. I would love to be able to do both: to photograph and collaborate with good directors on interesting projects; and at the same time I would like to do some more directing. So at the moment I am pursuing a couple of directing projects that I'd like to do."
"Well, I just finished doing Flubber. That was a great fun adventure also, because it's a classic film that I think everybody my age remembers from the '60s, with Fred MacMurray and so forth. It's been updated so that Robin Williams plays the zany absent-minded professor. He does it extremely well. Robin is a lot of fun to work with. He's a fun person and a nice guy. And of course the effects work is significant because of the flubber and flying cars and floating robots and all kinds of other things. The last I heard there were over 600 visual effects shots, which is pretty close to a record."
Is it fairly close to the original?
"It's interesting because they've really stayed very close to the original. Because I think a lot of the appeal of the original was in the story, the characters, the relationships and so forth. So they've maintained that and they've updated the appeal of the film, added some - I guess you might say - action and comedy moments. Those are certainly more contemporary. But a lot of it really follows the same basic storyline as the original."
Is that the last thing you've done?
"Actually, I've just finished shooting Krippendorf's Tribe, a Richard Dreyfuss comedy. That was an interesting departure for me because it was just an actor movie. There were no visual effects whatsoever in there. Actually, I was called in to take it over. I had never worked with Richard Dreyfuss, so I thought it would be interesting to work with an actor of his talent."
Why have so many of your films been effects-heavy? Is it the fantasy aspect that appeals to you, or the challenge of working with visual effects?
"I would say probably both of those. One of the things I've always enjoyed about film in general is its ability to take an audience to places they can't normally go. I really enjoy that part of it: creating an illusion. So I guess once once you start working in visual effects and are comfortable with them, they're certainly not intimidating, and at the same time people want you to come and work on their films because they know that the visual effects are going to be as painless as possible. And I enjoy fantasy film-making, obviously using all of that, so I've gravitated to that kind of film-making."
Do you have anything lined up for the future?
"Nothing specific for the moment. I've got two action-adventure scripts I'm developing, although Steven has asked me to direct Casper 2. So we're currently trying to get a script on that, and that's down the road a bit. That would be a lot of fun, and of course a great challenge.”
interview originally posted before November 2004