When I heard that Caleb Deschanel, ASC, would receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at Camerimage this year, I asked his ASC colleague and longtime friend Stephen Burum about their early work together, including The Escape Artist (1982). The film was Caleb’s feature-directing debut, and Stephen was the director of photography.
More than a decade earlier, Stephen and Caleb had co-photographed Rodeo, a documentary short about bull riding directed by Carroll Ballard and shot at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City. After that, Ballard worked alternately with Stephen and Caleb, depending on their availability. On Ballard’s feature The Black Stallion (1979), Caleb was director of photography and Stephen shot and directed second unit, a service he had also provided to Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, on Apocalypse Now (1979).“Those were the only two times I directed, and I did it because I went to film school with Francis and Carroll,” says Stephen. “I’ve never really been interested in directing; it’s just not my area of interest.
“Caleb is a great collaborator,” Stephen continues. “He really pays attention to story, and he really pays attention to the actors. Unlike a lot of first-time directors who know something about cinematography, he didn’t hide in the camera on The Escape Artist. He really put himself forward as a director. I think it’s sad that he hasn’t had more opportunities to direct. He did a very good job with The Escape Artist. The only problem was that it came out at the same time as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
The cast of The Escape Artist included Raul Julia, Desi Arnaz, Griffin O’Neal, Teri Garr, Jackie Coogan and Huntz Hall. “Raul and Desi would get into these discussions in Spanish, and sometimes they would get hot,” Stephen recalls. “Caleb was very good at mediating, calming them down and getting them to cooperate. Raul was the hot new guy and Desi was the seasoned veteran, always telling us how he invented the three-camera approach and put up his own money for film stock on I Love Lucy. Caleb was great at letting Desi talk about these things.
“It was the same with Huntz and Jackie, who had both been child actors and had had long, terrific careers,” Stephen continues. “Jackie felt strongly that his battles, and the Coogan Act, had saved a lot of kids in show business. When you get older, you want people to recognize the things of value that you’ve done. Caleb was masterful and gracious in dealing with all those egos, a skill that is very valuable for a director. He is a great person, a very giving person and a very smart person.”
The Escape Artist was filmed on locations in Cleveland and Los Angeles, and on stages at Zoetrope. At that time, an actors’ strike had halted almost all production. Only two other pictures were shooting: Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond and Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf. “All these sales guys for Kodak, Panavision, Lee and Rosco had nobody to visit,” Stephen recalls with a laugh. “So there would be a pack of people trying to take us to lunch. We didn’t have the time, so we said, ‘Why don’t you guys go out to lunch with each other?’”
Regarding the cinematography of The Escape Artist, Stephen says, “It was an instinctive thing. Caleb and I had worked together, and I understood his style and the way he thinks. I tried to do it the way he would do it, with my own twist. He would show me a scene, I would set something up, and he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not exactly how I would do it, but if that’s the way you want to do it, okay.’ Or, I’d set something up and he’d say, ‘You know, I’d really like to do it this other way,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll do that. It’s not the way I’d do it, but if that’s what you want to do, I’ll be happy to do it.’
“Stylistically, the picture is a strange mix of two people — it’s not me and it’s not him, it’s us,” says Stephen. “And I think it’s very successful. We respected each other and tried to support each other. We each thought of it as our breakthrough picture, so we wanted it to represent the best we could do. You do your best job on every project, but when it’s your first big break, you’re extra careful.”