The cinematographer created a moving painting with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s German-language contender.
Like everyone else, Caleb Deschanel was taken by surprise with his sixth Oscar nomination for German-language nominee, “Never Look Away,” about the horrors of war and the artistic process. The legendary cinematographer, best known for “The Black Stallion, “The Right Stuff,” and “The Natural,” now becomes the sentimental favorite to win his first Academy Award.
“People kept coming up and raving about ‘Cold War’ and ‘Roma’ and I sheepishly told them that I had a foreign-language film and they said they had the DVD somewhere,” Deschanel said.
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Clearly, enough Academy members took notice of the exquisite cinematography and the stealth campaign worked. “Never Look Away,” directed by Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), fictionalizes the life of experimental abstract German painter Gerhard Richter, who finds his artistic voice in the film after falling in love with a fashion student whose gynecologist father has a secret past as a Nazi eugenics leader.
However, the painter named Kurt (Tom Schilling) is unaware of a mysterious link between his girlfriend’s father, Carl (Sebastian Koch), and the death of his schizophrenic aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) when he was a child living under Nazi rule in Dresden.
“I spent fours hours at breakfast with Florian, who met with Richter and told me his story,” said Deschanel, who committed to shooting the movie on the spot without a script. “Just the fact that he’s surviving and that he always wanted to be an artist I found fascinating — that obsession to be an artist no matter what and to keep trying different things until he finally found something.”
Although the original plan was to shoot on film, they quickly went digital with the Alexa when the closest lab in Vienna closed during pre-production. “I was really happy with it,” Deschanel said. “There are a lot of conveniences to shooting digitally, but with film you have grain and every frame is different because the grain structure [changes]. And there’s a certain softening to the lines that’s more pleasant than digital.”
For Deschanel, the joy was visualizing Kurt’s search for truth and beauty through his art. “The movie is like a moving painting,” he said, “discovering things as it goes along for each of the characters. It’s interesting that you have these two parallel stories that come together.”
Kurt’s turning point occurs when Elisabeth becomes his muse, a mad genius whom he dearly loved. In an early scene, young Kurt watches his aunt become enraptured by a symphony of bus horns, which the cinematographer bathed in blue light and capped with a 360 pan.
“Her standing there listening to these horns, going through this reverie, is a visual representation of what’s going on inside her head,” Deschanel said. “What’s wonderful is that it’s crazy and also beautiful, the proximity of insanity and artistry. And that happens later when you first see Kurt as an adult, sitting in the trees and the wind is blowing.”
The blowing-wind motif later plays a key role during Kurt’s breakthrough in an art studio where he experiments by painting a photograph of Carl, the former Nazi. “I have to say that it was the one scene in the movie that I was fearful of because it had so many elements that had to go together,” said Deschanel.
“You had to get all the lighting changes with the wind blowing the shutters closed, and the projection on the screen to go from bright sunlight to darkness. It was really complex. And we knew we had to get all these hundreds of pieces in order to tell the story.
“But, in the end, I think it was very effective, And there’s this wonderful moment where you sense that he knows that he’s gotten something. He turns off the light and the light from outside shines on the painting, and the door closes. It signals that you’re off on an interesting adventure. And that adventure is him discovering who he really is.”
Meanwhile, Deschanel has been finishing his latest adventure in London, the all-CG reworking of Disney’s “The Lion King” (July 19th). The cinematographer has been blown away by his first foray into photo-real animation, directed by Jon Favreau (“The Jungle Book”).
“It literally was like me making a movie,” he said, thanks to advanced virtual-production tech overseen by Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato. “I’d be in Africa every day with all the things I normally have, and I didn’t have to worry about being mauled by a lion.”