Cinematographer Dean Cundey talks Halloween

Cinematographer Dean Cundey talks Steadicam, John Carpenter and Halloween for the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray that is available now.

Widely considered one of the best cinematographers of all time, Dean Cundey has been behind the camera on classics such as Rock 'n' Roll High School, Escape From New York, Back to The Future, Big Trouble in Little China, Jurassic Park and Apollo 13, just to name a few. However, he may still be best known for his work on the 1978 horror classic Halloween, which celebrates its 35th Anniversary this year with a brand new Blu-ray release. Although it had been used sparingly in films such Rocky and Marathon Man, Dean Cundley helped spawn a whole new era of cinematography with his use of the "fluid prowling camera," which later became known as the Steadicam. I recently had the chance to speak with this legendary director of photography over the phone about his experiences on director John Carpenter's horror classic. Here's what he had to say.

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This is obviously such a classic film, but one of the things I didn't realize was that this was one of the first films to use the Steadicam. How cumbersome was that technology at the time, as opposed to what Steadicam rigs are like now?

Dean Cundey: Well, it had been used very little, up to that point. Three or four films had used it, but only in limited ways. Any time there is new technology like that, people look for a way to use it, but they don't always think of the most ingenious things. They looked at the Steadicam as a way to replace a dolly or a handheld camera. One of the things that John and I really tried to do was find a way to turn the camera into a character. What we used it for, was actually pretty unique, for the time. Now, of course, it's become such a ubiquitous thing that almost every feature carries a Steadicam and Steadicam operator. At the time, it was such a special thing that you had to designate two or three days for its use.

Wow. That's interesting. Was that something that was always on the table, with you and John? Or did that evolve later on?

Dean Cundey: I had gone to Cinema Products, who had the original Steadicam, to try it out, and then Panavision built their own version. I went to Panavision along with a couple of my crew guys, and we tried it out. I put it on and walked around, through cars and stuff. There's actually a piece of film on the Internet, that test film that we shot. We pretty quickly figured out that it had some great potential. We used the Panavision version of it, and it came and went, I remember, according to when we needed it, because it was an extra budgetary consideration, but it was a device that we really thought could have potential, beyond replacing the dolly. It's something you always hope to do, which is use the camera in some way to draw the audience into the story, and attach to them emotionally. We thought that this would be a new way to do that.

When you take on a horror film, is there any specific way that you modify your approach, than you would if you were shooting something like D.C. Cab or Back to The Future? Is there a specific mindset you get into when you're shooting a film like Halloween?

Dean Cundey: Yeah, I think so. You always think about how to interpret a particular film, or a particular story, stylistically, with the camera. How do you use the camera and the lighting and everything, to tell a particular kind of story? So, yeah, with a horror film, you know you're creating suspense, or you hope you're going to be creating suspense and scares, as opposed to a romantic comedy, which is a whole different approach.

I was actually talking with P.J. Soles last week, who you also worked with on Rock 'n' Roll High School. She was saying that, since it was one of her first movies, that she couldn't exactly tell, on the set, that Halloween would be such an iconic film. For you, having worked on other films before this, were there any moments for you, where you could tell that this could be a film that is still talked about after 35 years?

Dean Cundey: Yeah, you know, I think we all felt the potential, the desire, for it to be unique and uniquely noted and viewed. We certainly put the dedication into it, the thought into every shot, composition, the use of the camera, and John with pacing the actors and all of that. Yeah, I certainly felt it to be elevated above a lot of the previous films I had done, and some of the subsequent ones also. Halloween definitely stood out, in my mind, as being a unique effort.

We also talked about how quickly the film was shot in and that, despite not having a lot of time, that it was a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Was that unique as well?

Dean Cundey: Yeah. I mean, that's a hallmark of any film that ends up with decent results, as far as my experiences. There are directors who try to whip up chaos. An actual quote I had heard was, 'If there isn't chaos, the crew isn't paying attention.' You need this frenzy, to make them pay attention, which is, in fact, the opposite, because it makes everybody just crazy and not be thoughtful. Halloween was a thoughtful approach. Everybody enjoyed working on it. It was a short schedule, but, we were trying for quality rather than quantity. I think that shows up in everybody's feelings and attitudes and the whole sort of demeanor on the set.

The music is always one of the things that comes up when it comes to Halloween. I read that it only took him five days to compose the score for that. Were you privy to any discussions about the score on the set?

Dean Cundey: No, I know that John's father, back in Kentucky, was a concert violinist, who played in the orchestra, so John had a musical upbringing. He played guitar, and we actually heard him and his group from SC, some of the guys who worked on the movie, so I knew that John was musically talented and accomplished, but I didn't hear the score until we were looking at some of the final cuts. At that point, it was very unique, still is, unique and iconic. You don't hear it without knowing what it is. It was another brilliant inspiration by John.

You also approved of the film's 35th Anniversary Blu-ray transfer. Was there an actual restoration that took place from any original negatives?

Dean Cundey: Yeah, I think that was the thing that impressed me. A lot of the previous editions had just been made from a print or a previous digital version or whatever. I was very impressed by the fact that they wanted to make this sort of the definitive copy. Obviously, Blu-ray is, at the moment, state-of-the-art, and the fact that they went back to original materials, the camera negative and IP, and brought John and myself in to sort of approve the work and make sure it looked like our original intention, was highly commendable, I think. Yes, they did take advantage of all the latest technology, with scratch and dirt removal, things like that, so it is a very pristine example of the movie we made.

Is there anything that you're currently working on now that you can talk about?

Dean Cundey: There are a couple of films that are trying to get distribution that I worked on, two period films which I had a great deal of pleasure making. But, at the moment, there's nothing else.

I was wondering if you would comment on today's 3D culture. Is that something that you're interested in exploring? There are a lot of polarizing opinions about 3D, so I was curious about where you stand on that?

Dean Cundey: I'm not a big fan, or overly impressed, at the moment. It's a cumbersome process, both in production, because the cameras are bigger and there's a lot of technical considerations and limitations, when you're shooting, and then to do the exhibition for the audience. At the moment, you have to wear glasses, and people are saying we're going to have no-glasses versions, but I don't see that happening for awhile, if ever. So, we are stuck with wearing glasses, which cuts down on the light and it's an inconvenience. I don't think it's an easy-going process like 2D, and I don't think you gain that much from all of that. People go to be told a story and get emotionally involved in the characters. 3D is not essential, it's an embellishment, so I'm not overly impressed, yet.

It seems like just a tactic to get people into theaters, as opposed to waiting for Blu-ray and DVD, even though there is Blu-ray 3D now.

Dean Cundey: Yes. Like a lot of those innovations in theaters, it's a way of attracting the audience, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Excellent. That's about all I have. Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure talking to you, Dean.

Dean Cundey: Well, thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I look forward to seeing the results.

You can watch Dean Cundey's revolutionary camera work on the Halloween 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, which is currently available for purchase everywhere.