On the cinematography of Kundun (5 replies and 1 comment)
Hello, Mr. Deakins! I first wish to say that I am an absolutely tremendous fan of all of your work, and sincerely believe you to be one of the most talented cinematographers working today.
A question I've always wondered is what you have to say about your collaboration with the equally legendary Martin Scorsese on the 1997 biopic Kundun, and how working with Scorsese compared to working with, say, the Coen Brothers, or Sam Mendes, or Denis Villeneuve.
I do believe that Kundun is one of your most incredibly underrated works, as it has a certain naturalistic, yet poetic and dreamlike quality that one rarely sees in cinema nowadays, be it the subtle camera movements, or your incredible use of the soft color palette. I feel the film isn't discussed enough, and so I wondered if you had any stories and insights on it to share, be it the way you lit certain scenes, or how you dealt with filming in such remote locations and the like.
Thanks for taking time to read this, and I wish you the very best!
I am glad you like 'Kundun' as it is one of my person favorites, especially for the memories I have of all the Tibetan people we worked with. As you say, it is a rare film that is more of a tone poem than a linear narrative. It is in this way similar to 'The Assassination of Jesse James ....'. I believe Scorsese asked me to shoot the film because of my documentary background and the fact that we would be working with non actors. However, the way we shot the film was very unlike shooting a documentary. Nothing was storyboarded but Marty had a very clear idea of how he envisioned the film and would sketch a plan of his shots alongside each scene in his script. I was basically working from these.
Really? How fascinating! Honestly, a part of me is stunned you took the time to answer my question! I’m so grateful!
Kundun is also one of my favorite films of yours. Having travelled to Nepal, Bhutan and India, and having been in extensive contact with the Tibetan community in exile, I feel this film has shared part of their tragic history beautifully and meaningfully but also maybe more importantly the graceful way they lived through it.
The Tibetan culture is rich in colours. The red and yellow of the monk robes, the gold of the statues, and the elaborate decorations that ornate their monasteries contrasting with the deep blue sky and the harsh rocky mountains of the Himalayas. You rendered them all gorgeously. I remember seeing it for the first time in a cinema in Reunion Island and telling myself that this must have been how Tibet looked like.
The Tibetan people are a very peaceful community. They have a certain gentleness and kindness about them, even in 'stressful' situations. But something always strikes me, as some of my good friends are Tibetans, their faces shine with naturalness, almost like children. This shines through beautifully in the way you shot it.
It must be indeed a rare feat to get such a film done. I sometimes can't believe it has been shot by you, directed by Martin Scorsese, a soundtrack by Philip Glass and with a script by the writer of ET! Here's to more of these daring and humanly meaningful productions in 2018...!
@markhamillz there is an interview of Roger I just read in 'Contemporary Cinematographers' where he mentions some of the trials and tribulations of shooting Kundun. Here's a brief quote: "I offer this as just a brief glimpse of all the many practical considerations that impose themselves upon the way a set may be finally lit. A great deal of work happens between scouting and shooting and it can be a very tedious process. In the end, if any of that behind the scenes work shows in the final product, then I think that work has been for nothing."
Fans of "Kundun" should welcome Kino Lorber's plan to release this modern classic sometime this year. The existing German blu-ray is abominable with its digital noise reduction, while the Japanese blu-ray is marginally better. Check it out here:
I'm hoping for a proper remaster and a commentary track by Mr. Deakins/Martin Scorsese would be heavenly.
What is your opinion on commentary tracks, Mr. Deakins?