If daunting physical conditions served as an impediment to Dean Semler, he wouldn’t have much of a career. But this sturdy, versatile cinematographer — characterized by an ageless enthusiasm and an endless capacity to surprise — never shies away from “the sheer challenge” of shooting in extreme environments.
“It was heat and dust in ‘Road Warrior,’ water and waves in ‘Waterworld,’ and humidity and jungle in ‘Apocalypto,’ ” he says, as if recalling grand adventures, “all horrible for gear and crews, but great for cinema.”
The 70-year-old Aussie d.p., who’s receiving the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has shot more than 70 titles, including such seminal Down Under statements as “Dead Calm,” and vehicles for some of Hollywood’s most muscular box office magnets, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy. He also has worked alongside two of the industry’s more intimidating multi-hyphenates, among them four films with fellow Aussie Mel Gibson, and three with Kevin Costner, including “Dances With Wolves,” which won him an Oscar and an ASC kudo, and what might be considered Costner’s Waterloo: “Waterworld.”
But it’s Semler’s ability to not flinch in the face of geographic or technical challenges, and to maintain the buoyancy of a young trouper despite the pressures and the risks therein, that keeps him in good stead with his peers.
“That childlike joy in his work is what makes him one of the all-time great d.p.’s,” says Gibson, who met Semler on “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and was immediately impressed with his “fantastic technical skills and his great eye for these barren, desert landscapes. He’s open to anything and still gets so excited about the work, which is infectious for the rest of us. And he’s got such range.”
Gibson, whose collaborations with Semler included the third “Mad Max” film and the Vietnam drama “We Were Soldiers,” says he specifically hired the d.p. for his Mayan action film “Apocalypto,” “because I needed someone who could handle a very tough physical shoot and really push the limits.” That included shooting the ’06 film with the Genesis — “long before digital became more common,” he says. “It was pioneering work and it also required a lot of technical understanding of the medium and all the lighting.”
Semler, who began his career as a TV studio cameraman, credits his early broad training in news, drama and documentaries for his well-rounded technical skills — along with “good timing” for his ability to ride the ’80s Aussie New Wave into Hollywood. “It was such an energetic time, with people like Peter Weir, Russell Mulcahy (for whom he shot “Razorback” — “one of my favorites”), George Miller and Phillip Noyce (for whom he shot ‘Dead Calm’),” he recalls. ” ‘Dead Calm’ launched three of us: Phil, Nicole Kidman and myself.”
Then John Milius, another action-oriented filmmaker, invited Semler to shoot “Farewell to the King” in Borneo and Hawaii, and immediately after Semler headed to the Caribbean to shoot “Cocktail” with Cruise for Roger Donaldson. “My career just took off,” he recalls.
With another half-dozen features under his belt in quick succession — including such varied titles as “Young Guns 11,” “City Slickers” and “The Last Action Hero,” Semler moved to Hollywood by necessity. “I had this great agent, Crayton Smith, who’s still my agent today, and the jobs just kept coming,” he says. “And of course ‘Dances’ was a huge deal for my career, as the Oscar pushed me way up the ranks. It actually meant more to me than I’d expected, especially when I went back to Australia. They were so proud.”
Besides Gibson and Costner, other actor-directors Semler has collaborated with include Ed Harris (“Appaloosa”) and Angelina Jolie. ” ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ was (Jolie’s) directorial debut. She’d written the script and was very passionate about it. It’s a very disturbing and harrowing movie, and underrated, I think. She did a great job directing.”
Semler also made the move into directing early in his career with the ’79 Aussie production “Saturday,” followed by two more efforts in the late ’90s, including the Steven Seagal actioner “The Patriot.” “But I was just no good at it so I went back to shooting and doing what I do best,” he says.
He’s in New Orleans working on the boxing comedy “Grudge Match” starring Robert De Niro and Stallone for director Peter Segal. “It’s our fourth film together so it’s a very comfortable relationship and it’s always fun doing a comedy.”
After a half-century behind the camera, Semler says wryly that he’s, “finally getting the hang of it. And if I don’t work for a few weeks, I just go nuts. I love my work. I’m a lucky guy.”
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