One of the most unexpected Oscar nominations this year came for a German film in the thick of the foreign-language race that managed to score love elsewhere: Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography notice for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “Never Look Away,” a three-hour epic inspired by the life of artist Gerhard Richter.
For Deschanel, a beloved industry veteran with six nominations dating back to 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” it was as much a shock to him as it was to the awards season chattering class.
“You sort of figure, ‘No chance; not enough people have seen the movie,'” Deschanel says, calling from London where he’s in the middle of production on Jon Favreau’s effects-driven remake of “The Lion King,” due out in July. “But I had so many calls from people who loved this movie.”
It’s easy to see why Deschanel’s colleagues in the cinematography branch, over which he has presided as a governor in the past, would be drawn to the work. The lighting is gorgeous, the German locations add to the rich imagery, and with a focus on the development of painter Kurt Barnert (the character based on Richter), played by Tom Schilling, the photography is accented all the more.
Incidentally, Deschanel and von Donnersmarck had hoped to shoot the project on film. The labs in Berlin and Munich had already shuttered, however, and the closest facility was in Vienna. After they shot a handful of tests, that facility closed as well. “They said don’t bother, we just went out of business,” Deschanel says. “The loss of film is like the loss of a friend to me.”
“Never Look Away” wasn’t Deschanel’s first experience with shooting a foreign-language production. Oddly enough, his most recent previous Oscar nomination came for Mel Gibson’s 2004 opus “The Passion of the Christ,” which featured dialogue in Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew. But for Deschanel, shooting a film that’s not in English is still unusual — and the DP feels it allows him to be more intuitive in his work.
“When you don’t speak a language, you end up really looking carefully at people,” he says. “It’s kind of what we do as filmmakers. We’re judging people’s faces and reading what they’re telegraphing.”
The 74-year-old lenser did not have filmmaking in his sights to start. He attended Johns Hopkins University where he met film editor Walter Murch and screenwriter Matthew Robbins, who convinced him to get into the business.
“I just came out to L.A. and went, ‘What a nice goof, to make movies for a while and see how it goes,'” he recalls. “And here I am, 50 years later.”
Early on he was tipped for possible Oscar recognition for Carroll Ballard’s 1979 film “The Black Stallion.” A nomination didn’t materialize, but he finally got the call with Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” four years later. The circuit was much different then, of course, than it is now.
“My wife and I were in Rome and we got a call from a friend of hers, an agent who had found out about it,” Deschanel recalls. “Being young, you don’t realize how profoundly important it is [to get a nomination].”
Buzz around his work carried through to another nomination the very next year, for Barry Levinson’s baseball drama “The Natural,” with Robert Redford. Based on the Bernard Malamud novel, it was a tale with qualities of magical realism, something Deschanel has found to be a constant in the projects that attract him.
“It’s one of these stories where you incrementally carry the audience along to the point that when he hits the ball into the lights and they explode, your brain has been so distorted by the mythology that you totally believe this is happening.”
“You sort of figure, ‘No chance; not enough people have seen the movie.'”
Deschanel teamed with Ballard again on 1996’s “Fly Away Home,” a dramatization of Bill Lishman’s work with aircraft-led migration of birds that brought him his third nomination. It was a tech-heavy production that yielded awe-inspiring footage of a small aircraft leading a gaggle of Canada geese over striking landscapes. “It was about figuring out ways that you could make this real,” Deschanel says. “We used a lot of different techniques.” That was a special nomination, too, because he was able to bring his daughters, Emily and Zooey, to the Oscars that year.
Four years later, Deschanel met Gibson on “The Patriot,” a Revolutionary War drama directed by Roland Emmerich.
“I loved those big canvases and the scope of that,” Deschanel says. “To me, that movie was about this intimate story that opens up into a battle for the whole country. It was, ‘How do you stand up against something that is so big and powerful and well-trained when you are not?'”
Having been brought up a Quaker, Deschanel says he wasn’t fully attuned to the Stations of the Cross story told in “The Passion of the Christ.” But again, owing to his attraction to the mythological, he was taken by the archetypal story of a character taking on the sins of humanity.
“We were in Southern Italy, and every weekend I walked to tens of churches and would go inside, and after a while, I realized every church had the storyboard for this movie in it,” he says. He and Gibson were largely inspired by Caravaggio paintings in developing the look for the film.
And now, “Never Look Away.” Deschanel might be a long shot to finally bring home the gold, but the real victory is shining a brighter light on the film.
“What’s great is that I never expected it,” he says. “A lot of it’s luck.”