Allen Daviau worked his way up the Hollywood food chain by providing lighting for high school stage plays, working the graveyard shift in photo labs and shooting a live television show for $100 per week. These days he’s best known as the cinematographer behind some of cinema’s most beautiful photographic moments in such films as E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Bugsy. In the course of his career, Daviau has earned five Academy Award nominations and, in February of 2007, he will receive the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award, which is presented annually to a cinematographer who has made extraordinary and lasting contributions to the medium.
MM caught up with Daviau to discuss his enviable career and the roles he played in some of the most highly regarded films of our time.
Bob Fisher (MM): What sparked your interest in moviemaking?
Allen Daviau (AD): When I was 12, I saw a demonstration of color television at a local appliance store. It was an NBC opera theater production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. It was an absolutely stunning experience. I had to find out how it worked, so I went to my neighborhood public library the next day. By the time I was 16, I had figured out how to talk my way past gate guards and get onto studio movie sets. One time, I watched Charles Lang Jr. (ASC) light a close-up of Shirley Booth for a film called The Matchmaker. It was fascinating. Another time, I got on a stage at Paramount where Charlie was shooting the hacienda scene for One-Eyed Jacks. It was Marlon Brando’s debut as a director. I could see that Charlie was really enjoying himself. He would quietly talk with Brando about how things were working and what they could change. I thought that he must have the best job in the world. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be a cinematographer.
MM: How did you go about pursuing this goal?
AD: I visited the camera guild office and asked about becoming a member. They told me to forget about it, that I didn’t belong there. I didn’t have the grades for admission to UCLA, or the money for tuition at USC or NYU, so I found jobs in camera stores and still film labs.
I wound up working in a film processing lab and a discount department store in Fresno six-and-a-half-days a week. I got to meet a lot of people who were interested in photography. I also got involved with the Fresno Community Theater and Civic Light Opera as a lighting designer. There were two radio stations engaged in a battle for audiences: I called one of those stations and told the general manager I was interested in the promotional end of the business. I said I could do still and motion picture photography, and I could light stage productions. Through him I got to speak with Ron Jacobs, the program director. We became good friends, and later, he got me my first job shooting a motion picture film.
MM: When did you start shooting films?
AD: Around 1967 I started shooting some commercials. I met Ralph Burris, who was the producer for a young man named Steven Spielberg. They were looking for a cinematographer to shoot a short 35mm film. Steven asked me a lot of questions. He had a great idea for a film about a European-style bicycle racing league in Los Angeles. Tony Bill was one of the stars. I told him I had only shot 35mm once and didn’t really know the equipment. I introduced him to Serge Haginere, who had a lot of 35mm experience. I was the B camera operator. I shot with a beat-up ARRI camera and a 1000mm lens. We shot as the sun was rising on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They ran out of money and never finished the film, but a year later Steven asked me to shoot Amblin.
MM: What do you remember about Amblin?
AD: It was an idyllic story about a boy and a girl who meet while hitchhiking in the desert. We shot in the Pearblossom, California area for 10 straight days. It was July and about 105 degrees every day with no breeze. We started at sunrise and finished at sunset every day and made an amazing 26-minute film with no dialogue or sync sound. It was images, music and some sound effects. That was the film that got Steven his first contract directing for Universal Studios. He tried to bring me with him, but I couldn’t get into the camera guild. Sometimes I would help him steal scenes on weekends. That was in 1969.
MM: Did you try to do narrative films?
AD: I shot my first low-budget feature [Mooch Goes to Hollywood] in 1969. We had a $265,000 budget, some very good actors, and a wonderful production manager. The director was Richard Erdman, an actor you would recognize from films in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. We shot it in Salt Lake City in 18 days. Half of the roles were people from the local community theater and everyone on the crew was under 30. The local actors let us use their homes for locations. It was a great experience, but the film only played at a few theaters in the Midwest and in the South.
MM: How did you get to shoot E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?
AD: Steven ran into [director] Jerry Freedman, who told him I was in the union… He had a film in development at Columbia that was going to be called Night Skies. It was a story about a farm family out in Oklahoma or Kansas. One day a spaceship comes out of the sky, lands and these strange creatures climb out. They cut the phone and power lines, slaughter farm animals and carry them onto the spaceship. A little boy is watching them through a window. An extraterrestrial comes up to the window and telepathically tells the boy, ‘Don’t worry. I won’t let them hurt you.’
With screenwriter Melissa Mathison, the concept for Night Skies turned into E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Kathy Kennedy was Steven’s assistant at that time, and he basically threw her into the deep end of the pool as producer. They took the idea to Universal Studios. When they asked Steven how much it was going to cost, he said $10 million. They agreed to finance the small-budget film and gave him the complete freedom that he wanted.
MM: One of your next films was The Falcon and the Snowman.
AD: The director was John Schlesinger. He said at the beginning that he didn’t want the color red in the film. If a traffic light was red, we weren’t going to shoot until it turned green. That affected everything from costumes to production design, which determined how we lit and shot the film. That’s why you light—to set the mood.
MM: For you, what is one of your most memorable film choices?
AD: I loved working on Fearless; It was a great experience for everyone. When Peter Weir directs a film, actors from around the world want to be in it. When you are on the set, you see why. Peter was there on the set with the actors talking about the story, the depth of their characters and their backgrounds. The actors adored him. There was a video village, but Peter stood right by the camera while we were shooting. When he said cut, the actors immediately looked at his face to see how he reacted to the performances. Every day was an adventure. He is a remarkable artist and a gentleman.
MM: You’ve been a strong advocate in discussions about the need to preserve films that are part of our cultural heritage. You even had an opportunity to revisit your own past a few years ago when you supervised the restoration of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. What was that like?
AD: Universal Studios re-released E.T. and a DVD with extended content to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the original release of the film. The negative and other elements were in excellent condition, because of careful handling by the lab and the foresight of the studio, which archived the film in an environmentally controlled vault. There was no color dye fading, shrinkage, deterioration or physical damage to any of the negative. I timed a new duplicate negative with scene-to-scene color correction with Bob Raring, who had timed the original film with me at Technicolor. The DVD has some behind-the-scenes material that had never been seen before; those were shot by John Toll. My favorite is an incredible shot with Steven and John Williams at a piano working on the score.
MM: You obviously believe it is important for cinematographers to be involved in the preservation of their work.
AD: I do believe that it is important for cinematographers to supervise restoration projects. We’re not only bringing our memories… we are bringing our enthusiasm.
MM: So how do you know when a film is right for you?
AD: You better believe in a film and the director before you commit to it, otherwise the passion isn’t going to be there. I have spent a lot of time waiting for films that never happened. There have been some disappointments, but I consider myself lucky because I have had opportunities to work on so many successful projects with so many wonderful people.