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Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“A Very Nostalgic Look at my Childhood”: DP Dean Cundey on Back to the Future

Back to the Future

When I saw Back to the Future as a kid in the summer of 1985, the film’s 1950s setting felt as distant and exotic as another century.

As the movie celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, I feel both an aching nostalgia and an existential dread at the thought that the 1980s – with its Pepsi Frees, DeLoreans, and Huey Lewises — are now an equally distant and exotic relic.

There were few movies that the 10-year-old me loved as much as Back to the Future. And most of them — from The Thing to Big Trouble in Little China — were also shot by Dean Cundey.

Back to the Future was a line of demarcation in the career of Cundey, who came up through the low-budget genre ranks with director John Carpenter on films like Halloween and The Fog. The adventures of Marty McFly catapulted Cundey into the realm of effects-driven studio blockbusters, including his seminal work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Jurassic Park.

In honor of Back to the Future’s 30th anniversary, Cundey spoke about the making of the film, his beginnings with Roger Corman, and the visual acuity of Robert Zemeckis.

Filmmaker: Where did you grow up and how did you fall in love with movies?

Cundey: I grew up in Alhambra, which is a little suburb of Los Angeles, and I became fascinated by movies at an early age. My mother would drop my friends and I off at the Saturday kids’ matinee. I just loved the idea that movies could take you on this journey to somewhere you couldn’t go in real life.

Filmmaker: It’s not an exaggeration to say I watched Back to the Future 50 times growing up. Did you have a film that made a similar impact on you?

Cundey: Well in those days there was no way to see a movie 50 times, otherwise I probably would’ve. One film that made a big impact on me was Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was one of Disney’s first live-action films and they spared no expense in production design and effects. It took me on this incredible journey.

Filmmaker: I was reading recently about the Shock! package of Universal horror films that the studio sold to television in the late 1950s. Were those movies that you caught on TV growing up?

Cundey: Oh yeah. They were ideally suited for TV because those films were in black and white and so was the TV. They were the late night movie — at least late for kids, maybe 9 p.m. — and it was a special treat. I would ask mom if I could stay up late and watch it. I think because they were films that she had grown up on, she would let me, and because she knew of my interest in movies. As a result I saw a lot of those films like Dracula and Frankenstein, and that did the same thing as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in showing me how filmmakers could create these other worlds.

Filmmaker: Your first film credits were working in the makeup department on a pair of Roger Corman-produced movies. How did you end up in the Corman factory?

Cundey: I was interested in makeup in high school, and then at UCLA I ended doing makeup on three or four short films that my friends were making. So I had developed some skills and the guy who was directing Naked Angels for Roger Corman (was a classmate of mine at UCLA). He hired as many of his film school friends as he could to give us all a break. It was great because it involved doing some prosthetics and scars and things like that, but also it gave me a chance to watch how a professional film operated. I’d do some makeup and then just stay on the set and watch and absorb while they were shooting.

Filmmaker: The second of those films, Gas!, was directed by Corman himself. Do you remember any particular lessons gleaned from watching him work?

Cundey: It impressed me the way he knew how to make the most out of the least. On the previous Corman film directed by my friend, we were pretty much left to our own devices. You could see how a new director would struggle figuring out where to put the camera and all that. But Roger knew exactly what to do — what pieces he needed, where the camera should go. Even at that early point in my career I could see what experience did for you. (Corman) was such a great example and he was also very open to people asking questions.

Filmmaker: Your first camera department credit I could find was as a camera operator on Beware! The Blob.

Cundey: I had somehow made a connection with Tim Baar, who was a very old-school mechanical special effects guy. He had been hired to do the special effects on Beware! The Blob and he invited a friend and I to work on them. Then it also sort of fell to us to do some of the 2nd-unit work and shoot the effects.

Filmmaker: That film’s producer, Jack Harris, also produced John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star. Did Harris have anything to do with you meeting Carpenter?

Cundey: No, that was pure coincidence. But I do remember when we were doing Beware! The Blob getting to meet Jack in his office. It was a very interesting cultural experience because he had this fairly upscale office and he dressed immaculately. He really played the part of the producer. It was a different view of the business than the rough-and-tumble world of working on the Corman movies. And he was very open. I asked him questions about making the first Blob and about producing. It was a great experience for me.

Filmmaker: Before shooting Back to the Future for Robert Zemeckis, you also shot his 1984 adventure film Romancing the Stone. How did working on that movie affect your career in terms of bringing more opportunities outside of the horror and sci-fi genres?

Cundey: It was definitely an important film for me. John Carpenter was this great breath of fresh air as far as being a director who wanted to use the camera in interesting ways. He gave me a lot of freedom and experience and allowed me to refine my visual storytelling. So when I was invited by Zemeckis and Michael Douglas to work on Romancing the Stone, I was prepared. It was a great experience because Bob (Zemeckis) was very interested in visual storytelling, unlike a lot of directors who think of the camera as a device for recording actors talking. I really think we enhanced each other’s sensibilities.

Filmmaker: How did growing up in the 1950s influence the way you approached creating that era in Back to the Future?

Cundey: Well, 1955 was a memorable year for me. It was the year Disneyland opened and I was a very big Disney aficionado and I was very immersed in my interest in film at that point. I remembered so much of that time period that we were recreating — the cars and the clothes and the attitudes. For me it was a very nostalgic look at my childhood.

Filmmaker: Most of the film’s exterior scenes in Hill Valley were shot on the Universal backlot. What were the pros and cons of shooting on the lot rather than on location?

Cundey: For us, it was mostly pros, because it’s so hard to control the real world when you are trying to recreate a period. You really get confined in a small area. So having the backlot as our town square really made it easy. It was so controllable. We never had to worry about the real world encroaching or working around businesses that didn’t want us there because it would inhibit their sales.

Filmmaker: I know it has been a long time, but what do you remember about the camera package used on the film?

Cundey: I have trouble remembering what I used on the last movie I worked on. (laughs) We used a Panaflex camera, which was fairly standard for the time. Almost everybody in L.A. worked with Panavision cameras. We used very conventional technology for that time period.

Filmmaker: There’s a wide shot early in the film when Doc first sends his dog Einstein into the future. The camera pans as the DeLorean speeds toward Marty and Doc and then disappears, at which point flames shoot between their legs. In terms of the effects of the era, what went into creating that shot?

Cundey: We shot Doc and Marty on a bluescreen so they could be composited in. I remember that they developed a very specific mixture of fluids that would burn with the right amount of blue flame and bright yellow flame. It was a mixture of three or four different flammable liquids that were (dispensed) through a special sprayer, which was a tank on wheels with two nozzles that would spray the liquid onto the pavement the exact distance (apart) of the (DeLorean’s) wheels.

At the time all of the optical effects were photochemical. We shot them on film and they were composited onto film using a special optical projector. It was a learning process for me as we’ve developed into the digital world. Some of the very first digital effects I did were for Back to the Future II. We did cable removal for one of the flying cars and some digital compositing of things. It was a very slow progression of the technology at first and then it became an overnight progression.

Filmmaker: You famously reshot a month’s worth of Back to the Future after Eric Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox. When you did the scenes again, did you change much?

Cundey: When the decision was made, (executive producer) Steven (Spielberg) actually came to me and said, “We’re re-shooting, but I’ve seen what you’ve done so far and don’t change a thing. It’s just right.” That was very satisfying for me because he easily could’ve said, “That scene was too dark and you could’ve done this with this other scene.” So all the techniques and the sensibilities that we had developed, we just continued.

Filmmaker:  Did you have extensive notes or was it difficult to remember the exact lighting set-ups or lens millimeters you used the first time around?

Cundey: The script supervisor or one of the camera assistants often keeps a log of each shot — what lens, the distance (for focus), all that stuff. But in those days, because we were less concerned with having to do work after the fact, we were kind of casual about it. Fortunately my camera assistant, Clyde (Bryan), had a really great memory for what we had done on particular shots. So I’d say, “Hey Clyde, what lens did we use for this?” And he’d say, “That was the 35mm and the guy was about eight feet away.” So we did a lot of it just by memory and instinct and by looking at frames from the film. Very often the editor would take the scenes and he would cut out six or eight representative frames — a little strip of it — and we would have those on the set and we could hold a (magnifier) up to them and analyze what we had done.

Filmmaker: You talked earlier about Zemeckis as a visual storyteller. That comes through in Back to the Future’s opening shot, which is a long tracking shot through Doc’s house that passes over his inventions, newspaper articles, and a case of plutonium. That shot delivers a monologue’s worth of exposition without a single character in the frame.

Cundey: We talked at first about putting the camera on a dolly, but I’d been working with a remote head on a crane arm on a previous show and I was fascinated by the flexibility that we got out of that. It took quite a bit of rehearsing just to get all of the timing right and get (all the props and set dressing) in the right position. It was all about timing — yelling “And….toast” and then the toast would pop up.

It was really well-conceived by Bob. It was brilliantly written and calculated to have all of those elements explained in the first shot and then they would show up later. The entire movie is about all of these little jigsaw pieces that always relate to the story and the characters.

Filmmaker: My favorite scene as a kid was the skateboard chase through the town square. Re-watching the film, I was struck by this tracking shot inside the diner that follows the chase through the diner’s windows and then racks focus in close to Lea Thompson for a line.

Cundey: That was so typical of the kind of storytelling that Bob loved to do with the camera and that he so much encouraged. Somebody else might have done that with a pan and somebody else might have just done it with a cut. We were always trying to do shots that combined a lot of different story points into one. That was one of the things that made the trilogy so much fun to make. And it’s very rewarding to me to know that I’ve been a part of a film that, 30 years later, is pointed at as still being relevant and that still intrigues audiences.

Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.

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