A version of this story about Caleb Deschanel appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
For the first 38 years of the Academy Awards, foreign-language films were ignored in the Best Cinematography category. But in recent years, foreign fare has averaged almost one nomination a year — and this year three of the five nominations are for films not in English, tying the record set in 2004 when “House of Flying Daggers,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “A Very Long Engagement” were all nominated.
Interestingly enough, Caleb Deschanel was involved both of those years: He shot Mel Gibson’s 2004 nominee “The Passion of the Christ,” which was in Aramaic and Latin, and also is in the running this year for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s German-language drama “Never Look Away.”
“The difference is that nobody on the set of ‘The Passion’ understood Aramaic and Latin,” Deschanel said with a laugh. “In the case of ‘Never Look Away,’ I was the only one who didn’t understand the language. But I came to the conclusion that if you don’t know the language, you actually pay more attention to the actors’ facial expressions, their eyes, their movements, the rhythm of their speech.
“Florian would always be surprised when I said, ‘That’s the best take,’ but you can read that without knowing the language.”
The nomination is the sixth for Deschanel, who has never won an Oscar despite shooting some of the true landmarks of the last 40 years of cinematography: “The Black Stallion,” “Being There,” “The Natural,” “The Right Stuff” and “The Patriot.”
Despite his track record, his nomination came as one of this year’s biggest surprises — while the other foreign-language nominees, “Roma” and “Cold War,” were expected, “Never Look Away” was not thought to be a strong contender outside the Best Foreign Language Film category (where it was also nominated).
Deschanel was in London working on the live-action version of “The Lion King” when nominations were announced, and he was so delighted by the foreign-language nomination for “Never Look Away” that he ran upstairs to call his wife, actress Mary Jo Deschanel (they have two actress daughters, Emily and Zoey). It wasn’t until he returned to his basement lair on “The Lion King” that a couple of that film’s producers broke the news that he’d also been nominated for cinematography.
(And for the record: No, he’s not happy about the Academy’s plan to present the cinematography Oscar, along with three other categories, during commercial breaks in the show.)
It makes sense that the Academy’s cinematography branch would not only pay attention to Deschanel, one of its giants, but to “Never Look Away.” Loosely based on the life of German artist Gerhard Richter, the film is a panoramic, multi-layered look at the act of creativity and at decades of German history, and it required Deschanel to capture the nuances of fine art in his work.
“We were trying to use the same techniques that artists use to paint to tell the story we were telling,” he said. “It’s all about light and composition — how do you draw the eye to a certain point?
“It’s an interesting thing that you can actually alter what a painting looks like by putting light on it. And there’s so much detail in the movie that’s so well thought out. Florian is just amazing. If there were seven ideas in a scene, he wanted to make sure we got every one of those ideas clearly.”
The toughest scene for Deschanel, and a stunning centerpiece in the film, finds actor Tom Schilling, who plays the artist, discovering his artistic voice as he paints furiously in a room lit both by a slide projector and by sunlight streaming in through curtains and shutters flapping in the wind.
“In the script it’s two pages of description, and it had me really scared,” Deschanel said. “Even though it’s two pages, it’s hundreds of shots, and there’s a lot of precision needed to tell the story as the wind builds and the light changes. The great thing is that when it was done and edited together, especially when Max Richter’s music was put over it, it still gives me chills.”
In recent years, Deschanel has been active on the Oscars’ foreign-language film committees — but when he was asked why three of this year’s cinematography nominees are foreign-language films, he could only shrug. “I really have no idea,” he said. “It’s interesting to think about, but I don’t know if you can come to any kind of conclusion.
“But I have to say, having seen a lot of foreign-language films over the last few years, there’s really an explosion in the quality of them. I hate to say it, but now you have cameras that are inexpensive and really good quality — enough that you can be in the middle of nowhere and make a pretty damn good-looking film. You’re discovering a lot of talent that would otherwise move on to some other career.”
To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire Oscar magazine, click here.