‘Kundun’: Martin Scorsese’s Serene Meditation on the Transient Nature of Life


By Koraljka Suton

It is no secret that Martin Scorsese is a devoutly religious man. His life-long quest to re-evaluate and come to terms with his faith was the driving force behind his highly controversial masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, the making and aftermath of which turned into Scorsese’s own way of the cross. After witnessing his movie being boycotted and protested against, theaters in Paris being burnt and people hurt, after having his film banned in several countries and personally receiving continuous death threats due to his “blasphemous” portrayal of Christ as a flawed human being, rendering the director unable to go to public events sans a bodyguard, one would imagine that Scorsese would not be all that keen on directing yet another religion-based movie and risking similar repercussions. And one would be mistaken. No less mistaken than those who found it baffling that Scorsese was first on E.T. screenplay writer Melissa Mathison’s list of directors she wanted turning her script about the 14th Dalai Lama into a motion picture. Having met Scorsese on several occasions and being well-aware of his Christian background and former desire to become a priest, Mathison thought the director would be perfect for the job of bringing the true story of a young boy destined to become the spiritual leader of Tibet to the silver screen. She either sensed or knew that Scorsese would approach this particular filmmaking process in a way that exuded humility, reverence and deep respect for both the subject matter at hand and the Kundun himself. A Tibetan word for “the presence” (of the Buddha) and the Dalai Lama’s alternative name, Kundun became the title of Scorsese and Mathison’s project, one that took several years and fourteen screenplay drafts to make.

Interestingly enough, Melissa Mathison’s motivation for writing the script did not stem from her interest in Buddhism or Tibet and its complex history. What fascinated her was the extraordinary story of a young child separated from its parents at a very young age and deemed the reincarnation of the previous spiritual leader. A boy who grew up surrounded by monks and treated as holy. A kid raised to take over a country that would soon find itself in great political turmoil, forcing him to make political decisions that would have a lasting impact on his people. At first, Mathison wanted to make a children’s movie, but eventually found herself overwhelmed by the complexities of reality that demanded the film be made for a more mature audience. The more she did her research, the further her newly acquired vision diverged from the initial path. She wrote to the Dalai Lama, informing him that she intended on crafting a screenplay based on his early years. And he responded with interest. They met in California, along with Dalai Lama’s advisors and Mathison’s then-husband Harrison Ford, and the screenwriter pitched the movie, telling Kundun she wanted “to cover the stages of life from infancy to young adulthood; that within the context of his upbringing and Tibet’s history, it was a microcosm for the ages of man, the ages of child.” The Dalai Lama’s response? “Okay, if you think this is a good idea, you can go ahead and try.” After that, Ford and Mathison were invited to spend several days with him and she took the opportunity to get the inside scoop on the spiritual leader’s life experiences. When the first draft of the script was finished, Mathison and Ford went to India to visit the Dalai Lama. He gave her corrections and she decided to interview the people of Dharamshala, where the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration and the Dalai Lama’s residence are located. She even visited Tibet later on. As her perception expanded and her horizons broadened, the material she was working on changed and deepened. Her initial disinterest in Buddhism and Tibet’s history dissipated and she found herself immersed in this beautiful spiritual practice, which in turn greatly influenced both her approach and her writing.

But she wanted the movie to show, not tell. The Buddhist practices were to be presented as a reality the monks and the Dalai Lama were living, not merely a philosophy to be elaborated on. And Scorsese was the perfect director to translate her intentions onto the screen. He came on board in 1989, yet it was not until 1996 that the movie could finally be made, courtesy of the director’s other engagements and contracts. But that does not mean that the said waiting period was a passive one—Mathison and Scorsese worked together on multiple drafts during those years, as revealed by the filmmaker: “It is about where you arrive. I must say that we had to go from the end back to the beginning, and it was quite a journey for us, too. First of all, Melissa Mathison’s writing: we went through fourteen drafts, and we knew we were on the right track when our last draft resembled the first and second drafts more.” Scorsese also met with the Dalai Lama several times and reported feeling good and relaxed in his presence, as well as “a very kind and compassionate aura around him,” describing Kundun as “not egotistical, and pretty much down-to-earth and realistic.” And what were the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on Scorsese? What is known is that he had not watched a single movie made by the director, for his pictures were deemed too violent for the eyes of the spokesperson for peace.


I grew up in a very tough environment. Very, very tough. Violence was a key form of expression. And it’s just a microcosm for the whole world—that’s all it is. I’ll report it as I see it—when they’re committing the violence, reveling in violence, because that’s part of human nature. That’s what interests me: how could we be that way? Read St. Augustine when he went to the arena. He was afraid to go back, because he liked it. You know, it’s part of our nature. Why? If we continue to go that way, there’s not gonna be any of us left. But why should there be? Dinosaurs became extinct, too.Martin Scorsese

Seeing as how Scorsese positions himself in the role of an observer whose career revolves around documenting the realities he exposes himself to, it should come as no surprise that one of those realities would turn out to be an alternative to the existing norm. And one which is much more in alignment with the director’s own pacifistic beliefs and values. In Kundun, he uses his diligence and discerning eye to depict a world where peace and compassion reign, with the concept of the sacredness of life permeating its core, much the same way he utilized his talents to realistically portray the violence he was surrounded with, in the movies he is best known for. But how does one go about truthfully documenting such a world, one enveloped in quiet contemplation, characterized by an air of peacefulness and serenity, which demands to be actively lived in and experienced so as to be fully grasped? By working with esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins, Scorsese managed to achieve precisely that—he created an experience rather than a spectacle. The characters of Kundun are often framed against stunning landscapes and scenery, thereby enabling us to absorb the lushness of the surroundings that make up their secluded world. The dominant colors are brilliant yellows and reds, creating a mesmerizing effect and successfully lulling us into a sense of security and safety. The camera movements are restrained, following the action that is taking place as opposed to serving as a tool of expression in its own right. Deakins stated that the movie is “very much a poem, rather than a traditional narrative film,” more of a “mood piece” than anything else. Together with his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese replaces the editing aesthetic that had served him thus far with a poetic one, extensively resorting to surrealistic cross-cutting and crossfades that evoke the French New Wave. In other words, Kundun was cut on an emotional level, with scenes from various sections of the picture frequently shuffled around, resulting in the movie being comprised of dreamlike states as opposed to strictly narrative scenes.

To put a Western audience in the middle of a farmhouse in Amdo in the middle of nowhere in Tibet, and then in the middle of this palace, and not explain any of it. Not to condescend, but to throw you into the middle of a culture and let you sink or swim. If it’s alien, if you’ve never seen anything quite like it, you don’t even know what they’re doing or even what the ceremony is sometimes—whether it’s religious, political, or just eating breakfast—what do you get, how do you hook on to the people? There’s only one thing—you hook on to the people, which is what it should be.”Martin Scorsese


But it would be impossible to hook on to the people were it not for the remarkable non-actors that were cast, thereby bringing even more unconventionality to his poetic and lyrical picture. Since the director wanted to cast Tibetans from the onset, his casting manager Ellen Lewis was tasked with taking a camera and going through Tibetan communities in the USA and India, trying to find people with the required physical characteristics and with a decent enough grasp of the English language that would enable them to channel the emotions the story was imbued with. Only three cast members (Sonam Phuntsok in the role of Reting, Tashi Dhondup as the adult Lobsang and Jampa Lungtok who plays the Nechung Oracle) are members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and the rest of the cast are not professional actors. When Lewis was introduced to Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, the Dalai Lama’s real-life grandnephew, she knew she had found the right person to play the 18-year-old Kundun, describing the young man as having depth, enough confidence to handle the material, a sense of humor, as well as a lightness of spirit. In short, all the qualities they were looking for in a person who was to represent the Dalai Lama truthfully and without pretense. Several other cast members are also related to the people they portray in the film—Tencho Gyalpo plays her grandmother (Kundun’s mother), Tenzin Lodoe stepped into the shoes of his uncle (Kundun’s brother) and Gawa Youngdung was cast as her older sister (an old village woman). Tenzin Trinley was cast as Kundun’s tutor Ling Rinpoche, without Lewis knowing that the man had actually been Ling Rinpoche’s student. It is undeniable that casting not just non-actors, but also non-actors who were tasked with playing their own family members, conjured a special kind of magic, both on set and on screen. For they were meant to bring to life that which was already very much alive within them—the essence, tradition and humility of their deeply meaningful spiritual practice as a way of life. Mathison recalls how they would enter the room that was “portraying” the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s winter palace from 1649 to 1959 located in today’s Tibet Autonomous Region in China, and would start either crying or praying, a testament to the extent to which they were still moved by both the Potala’s significance and the opportunity to be a part of a movie that is meant to display their history, heritage and lifestyle for the world to see.

I was dealing with the details, rather than the major ideas. I always started out with the boy—What is he doing? How much does he know? What is he thinking? What aspect of the teachings has he got to at this point? Very often, the Tibetans had to show me what their behavior would be in a particular scene, and certainly what the rituals would be like. I already had angles planned, but I would improvise and work with them. I was being put into their world, you see, not the other way around.Martin Scorsese


It could be said that the on-set experience was unlike anything Scorsese had ever encountered. The movie was filmed in Morocco where he had previously shot The Last Temptation of Christ and most of the crew came from Italy, Morocco, Great Britain and the United States, but there were also people from other countries. The three working languages were French, English and Italian and many members of the crew were tri-lingual, with some of them also acting as interpreters from Arabic and Tibetan. The most beautiful part: Islam was practiced alongside Buddhism, the two religions and their practitioners co-existing peacefully and respectfully. It would not be inaccurate to state that the atmosphere and conditions on the set mirrored the theme that permeates Kundun’s core as much as it does the Buddhist religion—the notion of kindness, empathy and love towards all living things being not just a potential reality, but a feasible one. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciated the movie and its story for what it is, least of all China. Scorsese was banned from ever entering the country and the movie received a ban as well, along with all films by its distributor Disney. Due to the fact that the Dalai Lama is considered a threat and a separatist by the Chinese government, the movie’s portrayal of the Tibetan leader in a positive light was severely frowned upon. Disney then apologized for making the film, calling it “a stupid mistake” and appeasing the Chinese Prime Minister in 1998 by telling him that very few people in the world had seen it. And although Kundun received four Academy Award nominations—for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction—many critics were not all that enthusiastic about it, deeming it boring and plotless, but praising the way it was made.

The intention behind Kundun was never to provide a compelling narrative in the form of eventful plot-developments or to take either a political or religious stance. What Scorsese and Mathison wanted was to offer us a glimpse into the world of a young boy born into a culture that considered him divine. A child who spent his days living in accordance with teachings that will later on define his political decisions i.e., his insistence on non-violence as the only viable option. A teenager whose biggest burden was, perhaps, the fact that his divinity was a given that was never brought into question. Kundun presents us with the unfolding of a young life destined for greatness, accompanied by beautiful imagery and a score that mimics the nature of life itself—cyclical, repetitive, without beginnings or endings, Philip Glass’ music is an auditory representation of life as an on-going process that never ceases to be, but rather continuously transforms without any regard towards our unwillingness for it to do so. Much the same way Tibetan mandalas made from colored sand are meticulously crafted, only to be purposefully destroyed the moment they are finished, becoming nothing more than dust in the wind.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


“I had met Marty a couple of times. I grew up a Catholic, he grew up a Catholic. I knew he had actually studied for the priesthood at one point and I knew that he was really interested in the spiritual. I didn’t have a clue that he had any interest in Tibet, but I just knew that whether or not he wanted to make this movie, he would understand what it was about. Well, Marty is, of course, a great movie buff. He loves old documentaries and newsreel footage and he immediately told me how he remembered as a child seeing this footage of Tibet, footage of the Dalai Lama escaping, and how he was always intrigued, as we all are, by Tibet—the magic and the mystery of it all. Then he read the script and, to my great delight, he said he wanted to make the movie. He understood the destiny of the boy, basically a child carrying the destiny of his people. It’s a pretty grand subject. It all appealed to him. Then it took us three more years to get to make the movie! [Laughs.] He had no time, so I had to become the pushy person and convince him not to do something else but to do this movie. Then he had his own contractual dilemmas he had to work out, so it was always slow—slow and difficult. We worked together now and then for a couple of years on different drafts, and then finally he was free to make the movie.”
Melissa Mathison

Screenwriter must-read: Melissa Mathison’s screenplay for Kundun [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon (this title will be released on October 29, 2019. Pre-order now) and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Everything is Form, by Amy Taubin, Sight & Sound, February 1998.

Amy Taubin: I remember talking to you a few years ago, just before you started Casino (1995). You were already committed to Kundun, and I was trying to figure out why you wanted to make it. I had the impression then that your commitment was to the Dalai Lama, that he had had an extraordinarily seductive effect on you.
Martin Scorsese: I started getting interested in him in 1989, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Before that I didn’t hear anything about Tibet. Tibet isn’t interesting to us, they aren’t bombing anyone. But then I began seeing him on television a little bit. And I was beginning to understand the scope of the situation, and the way he was behaving fascinated me. Meaning that I think he was doing the right thing. I think he behaves the way we all should behave. And then I met him with Melissa, and what happens is that you want to be like him. And I don’t find that with many clerics in my own religion. I always wanted to make a film about priests and nuns who’ve had to overcome their own pride in order to deal with people, to have true compassion. In the modern world, they’re bogged down a lot of the time. Because the social problems, the emotional problems, the psychological problems are so rampant in our society now, particularly after the breakdown of the two superpowers, and with the world getting smaller. It’s a kind of spiritual and moral anarchy. So they’re just trying to hold everything together. Between baptizing a baby and performing last rites on a homeless man cut in half by a train when he fell on the tracks—I mean, how much can you take? So when I see anybody who really practices compassion, kindness, and tolerance, which most of our religions preach but don’t practice, and who practices the most revolutionary concept—nonviolence—that’s extraordinary. So that’s what attracted me to him. The Dalai Lama is in the process of handling one of the greatest catastrophes and tragedies, and he’s handling it in an extraordinary way. And I think anyone like that should be supported. I grew up in an area where the people, even though they try their best, are prone to the other way, which is destruction. So whenever I see anyone constructive—I mean basically the whole country has been smashed and all these pieces have splattered out into the diaspora, but they’re still alive. The younger generation is having problems continuing the culture, but it’s still alive, and who said Tibetan Buddhism was going to continue to exist the way it existed for fourteen hundred years? It changes. But that’s what I saw in him. I’m still Catholic, I’m not a Buddhist.

Did you ever try to meditate?
I find it very hard to meditate. But even though I got angry a lot doing the film—because of the weather, because the horses weren’t hitting their marks, I make a lot of jokes about it but the horses were a problem, they don’t care, they’re not interested—I found that there was a way you could tap into this meditation, to puncture this incredible package that you carry around of anger and semi-madness, and let it seep out, and just remain calm. There’s ways of doing it, and I used it a lot. The actual meditation is very hard for me. I even had that problem when I was an altar boy—you have to meditate. I didn’t know what to think about. Well, the idea is not to think about anything. I didn’t know that. Bertolucci called me when I was about to start shooting, and he said, “Have you learned that everything is form and form is emptiness?” No, I’m always the last to know. But thank God, I’ve got this information now [laughs].

Kundun is one of the rare films where the meaning is embodied in the form. When the Dalai Lama says that line about past, present, and future being one—it’s Buddhism, but it’s also about editing. It sounds like Dziga Vertov: “The Kino-eye is a victory over time.”
We shot the film according to the script, but then in the editing Thelma [Schoonmaker] and I really shuffled things around. I worked on the script with Melissa for a couple of years. At the fourteenth draft, we realized we were back in drafts one and two. I had tried to bring in some historical aspects and then realized we didn’t need that. It would only clutter it up and make it conventional: even though some masterpieces, such as Lawrence of Arabia, have been made as historical epics, it’s still a conventional form. I wanted to capture the essence of their spirit: who are they, their culture and their religion? So we went back to the early drafts, but made it even more from the Dalai Lama’s point of view. The only way I could do the film—because I’m not a Buddhist and I’m not an authority on Tibetan history—was to stay with the people. Stay with the kid [who ages from two to twenty-four in the film] and literally see things from his point of view. And then Thelma and I looked at the first cut, and I said, “We have to shuffle scenes.” We started shuffling scenes around without worrying about what monastery they were in and, to a certain extent, what part of the world they were in. And we turned certain scenes into dreams without marking where the dream started and ended. We just went with the emotion of the thing. There was a storyline but we just kept the basics of it. And as I did that, I realized that that’s the way to go in order to create a sense of Tibet—and not as a Shangri-La. I don’t know, I may be naïve, but there are some Tibetan mystics who push the limits of the spiritual and go further. That doesn’t mean there aren’t Catholics or Christians or Jews or Muslims who do that. But Tibet was closed in by these mountains and they couldn’t go outside, so they went inside. And there’s got to be something we can learn from that. So Thelma and I kept playing around with the picture, but it was very anxiety-provoking because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You’re flying without a net.

How long did it take you to edit?
The real heavy work was done from January to August last year, but we worked into October. The excruciating part was from August to October. Because it’s not traditional drama, we worried about how long will an audience hold. Will it hold till after he gets back from Peking [about two-thirds of the way through the movie], because all the violence comes after he gets back from Peking? And there’s no conflict until the Chinese invade [about half-way through] and then the conflict is so overwhelming that you can only deal with it on a personal or spiritual level. We could have shown conflicts within the Dalai Lama’s family or political conflicts with Retin Rinpoche [the Lama who discovers the Dalai Lama] who actually tried a coup d’état. That guy had a racket going. Human beings, there’s always corruption. But we wanted to take the audience and immerse them in this very serene world, and then disrupt it. But you’ve got to be immersed first. I don’t want to make movies anymore like Cape Fear (1991) that stick to a conventional plot. I’m getting bored, I don’t like working for someone else. Doing someone else’s movie is a hard job. But Cape Fear turned out to make the most money, so it gave me The Age of Innocence, it gave me this picture, it did a lot. But working for other people—I was talking to Brian De Palma over the holidays. And he said, “Do you find you’re getting a little bored with the entire process?” At our age, sometimes, yeah. That’s why each project has to be special for me. This one was very special. Even though the form itself was more created in the editing and in the writing rather than the shooting. But I had nonactors which was a very different thing for me. And that kept my interest.

They’re all amazing. The young man who plays the oldest Dalai Lama gives one of the best performances of the year. And it’s not that he’s doing an impersonation.
I went with what was genuine in that young man, Thuthob [Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong]. And I couldn’t do Mao [Robert Lin] as an impersonation either. The only thing I could do with Mao was to do what the Dalai Lama told me about him—that Mao spoke very slowly, as if every word was of great import. And he moved slowly, I think because of the medication he took, because his lungs had been ruined before the Long March. And that moment where he says, “Religion is poison.” That’s exactly what the Dalai Lama told us he said, and how Mao moved closer to him on the couch. And that the Dalai Lama couldn’t look at him any more, he just looked at Mao’s shiny shoes and knew that that man is just going to wipe everything away.

At that moment, Mao could have been a Hollywood mogul saying, “Art is poison.”
I wasn’t thinking of that. It was more that he was an incredible gangster. I always had a morbid fascination with gangsters. Some of them were my role models despite what my father told me. Obviously, I’m interested in the consolidation of power. But the Chinese never expected that the Dalai Lama would do so much after he got out.

Did you rehearse the cast as if they were actors?
Yeah. Two weeks before we started shooting, we did readings. The Tibetans also worked on the lines themselves, and they’d even drilled the kids. They had a lot at stake, they represented their whole culture. Some only had a few lines and that’s all they could do because they were very self-conscious. I thought of Robert Flaherty—Elephant Boy (1937), or Louisiana Story (1948)—or Rossellini’s Flowers of Saint Francis (1950) where he actually put strings on the nonactors. And he’d pull a string and the person would say a line. To a certain extent, there’s an awkwardness about them that I really like. What was very good was that in the first week-and-a-half the ice was broken, because we had to deal with the two-year-old in the breakfast scene. So we rehearsed and rehearsed and by the end of five days they understood about hitting marks, about repeating lines, about making sure the light was hitting them in a certain way. The idea was making them as comfortable as possible and not treating them like props. They aren’t actors, they’re not even a group of people who said it might be fun to make a movie for five months. No, they are really living it, they are it, their very being is there in the frame. They directed the picture, in a sense. They forced me to see things in a certain way—framing, camera movements, and when not to move but to hold on those faces and the incredible turmoil and emotion that’s going on beneath the surface. They grounded me. There were little things I didn’t know they were going to do. Like the throwing of the scarves at the end. I thought they were meditating but then they said, “And now we throw scarves.” Great, but let’s get a close-up of the mother throwing the scarf, and let’s do it in three different speeds, and let’s track on it. It was that kind of fun. It was so enjoyable to do. And that kid Kunga [Tulku famyang Kunga Tenzin, who plays the five-year-old Dalai Lama] was amazing. He was taking over the production. He was doing me. I’d see him walking with his hands in his pockets, and I’d say that kid is doing me. And then the twelve-year-old [Gyurme Tethong] had a different presence. And the eighteen-year-old [Tsarong]. But we’d have to watch him; sometimes he’d walk and he’d shuffle because he’s an eighteen-year-old kid. And we’d say no, the Dalai Lama doesn’t shuffle. But what a presence.

And the beautiful stuff he does with his glasses. Because his near-sightedness becomes part of the character, but it’s also a metaphor, it relates to the way you use the telescope. How when he’s inside Tibet, he’s trying to see out past the moun- tains, and then in the very last shot, when he’s exiled, how he tries to see back in.
Exactly, that thing with the eye and the lens.

What has the response from the Tibetans been?
So far, very positive. They were very moved. Maybe it is the kind of film that’s made more for people who already agree with the subject. I wanted to make a film for everybody to see, but also for them, something that they could feel was an expression of their culture, as if they made it themselves. It wasn’t a matter of going in and getting the real lowdown on the sociological set-up, on the real politics of Tibet. That’s another movie. And there are lots of movies you could make. You could make a movie on just the fall of Lhasa day by day. There’s a wonderful book on that and I’ve read all that stuff, but I wasn’t interested in that.

It seems as if there are more dissolves in this film than in any of your others. Those fast dissolves are what makes it seem like memory.
I knew from the beginning that some shots were going to wind up supering or dissolving. I knew it when I was shooting. Otherwise, it would have to be too concrete. We tried to think of the whole picture as memory. For example, Dante [Ferretti, the production designer] built a lot of the rooms as accurately as possible. But one of them—the room that has the giant Buddha, the room where he’s enthroned—that was part imagination. It’s the impression of a child. Last night I was in Corona, Queens, that’s where I was born. We lived there from 1942 to 1950. And I’ve never been back there since. So we drove around to the little two-family house that I grew up in. And it was dark, so it was very strange. And yet I immediately said, “That’s the house.” It’s still there. It came out of the darkness but I knew the look of the brick. It was amazing. So we tried to give the impression of the child’s memory through the whole look of the film.

There’s always a lot of music in your films, but this one is almost an opera.
I don’t really know much about modern music. But after I saw Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and then Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983), I said that one day I would love to be able to make a film that would cry out for a score by Philip Glass. And then I went to a few Tibetan benefits in New York and he was always performing. I like the emotional power of his music, and yet the music is intellectually disciplined. Before I went to shoot the film, I sat down with him and I said I’m thinking of music here, here, and here. He sent me about ten cues. I called him up and told him this is perfect, just keep going in that direction. And he finally admitted that he had waited twenty years to do this. I knew that the last thirty minutes of the picture had to build emotionally with the music. It’s got to go. But then we had some real problems. Because we had to build there and then build again in the last shot when he looks through the telescope. While we were editing, he kept writing to our rough cut. We kept telling him not to because we’re going to change things. And he said it didn’t matter. So every time we changed it, he changed it. And it went back and forth until we came up with what we have in the film.

It’s all of a piece—you’re a westerner and you’ve directed this film from a western point of view, and Philip’s music is a western version of the Tibetan music that has always been important to him. But still, I could have used less of his arpeggio noodling.
We put that in. He felt it was boring, but Thelma and I felt it gave a certain emotional drive to those sections of the film. Sometimes it may be too much music, sometimes not enough, I don’t know. But that’s what we finally, how shall I put it, we didn’t finish the picture, we kind of abandoned it. That’s it, I’m not touching another frame. Although I just looked at a new print of the dupe negative yesterday and I’m still perfecting some of the color, in the last reel particularly.

Tell me technically about what everyone refers to as the Gone with the Wind shot—the nightmare image of the Dalai Lama surrounded by thousands of slain monks. Is it digital? Because the camera doesn’t only seem to pull up and out, it seems also to go more wide angle—like a combination of Renaissance perspective and a flat Tibetan art perspective.
It gets wider, but that’s the actual shot. We didn’t go wider digitally; we digitally duplicated groups of monks. The actual shot is just a circle of monks around him, and a lot of empty ground around them. So we digitally rephotographed the monks and put them in. To start with, there were two hundred monks. That dream and the dream of the blood in the fishpond were nightmares the Dalai Lama actually had at that time, and he told them to Melissa. And I said, that’s enough, we don’t need armies coming in. And of course, the puff of blood coming into the fishpond is this incredible moment in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) [laughs fiendishly], when the woman is in the bathtub and she’s dead and she’s got black hair, a white face, and bright red lips, and it’s a white bathtub and this blood pumps up.

The response to the film is very peculiar.
Totally odd. Melissa and myself, Barbara [DeFina, the producer], and Thelma, we’re all very, what can I say, “This is what life is and it’s the business”—it’s very interesting. God. I think that for some of the critics, the film isn’t pure enough. It isn’t Flowers of Saint Francis. It doesn’t feel like you’re on the edge of documentary. One is aware of the big machine that made this film; it couldn’t be other than an American movie. So that makes the purists crazy. And on the other hand, it’s not dramatic enough to satisfy the ones who eat up big studio pictures. But what interests me about it is that it’s such a hybrid, and if you can’t have hybrids, then nothing will develop. By not letting in the influence of other cultures, of foreign films, we’re now feeding off our own entrails in this country. We have to have hybrids, to attempt to go somewhere else, maybe make some mistakes or maybe not, and we’ll see later on. And also we got thrown in with what the press calls “Tibetan chic.” Hollywood goes Tibet. Which is so cynical. It’s a disgrace. Because some people have a heart big enough to want to help out, the press makes fun of them. An absolute disgrace.

And the other stupid line is that Kundun isn’t critical enough of Tibet, as if the fact that Tibet was a theocracy excused that China marched in and murdered over a million people.
Apparently that’s the case. The Tibetans had a bad system of government and it had to be changed. In changing it, did you have to wipe out so many people and destroy almost every monastery? Is that necessary? Well look, we have a lot of business to do with China so we have to be careful. If we weren’t doing business with China, they’d be the worst—Mao would be like the Ayatollah. It’s a farce, in a country that seven years ago went to war for oil, blood for oil, so we could take an extra few flights to LA, or basically, for the Texas oil machine. It’s a total disgrace. But what’s hurt more is the cynicism of the press about people getting involved with the Tibetans. When Disney stood up to the Chinese and said, “Yes, we are going to continue making the film,” there was this piece in Time. It said that Disney stands by the life story of the Dalai Lama, and then, in dashes, “Now that’s a real blockbuster.” Who are these people? Show me a face. To say, “Now that’s a real blockbuster”! But Richard Corliss gave us a good review in Time. He came through for us on Last Temptation too. But the feature article John Leo wrote for Time on Last Temptation—that was disgusting. I have it framed on my wall, it’s so appalling—and I know for a fact he was going to write it without seeing the film. Then he saw it and hated it anyway. I’m laughing because it is what it is. I’m just getting this thing about Tibetan chic off my chest and how it’s grist for the mill. But when they say, “Now that’s a blockbuster,” well it’s not a blockbuster, OK. It’s a movie, it’s a little different from other pictures, we’re trying other things, but it’s not a blockbuster, it’s not Lawrence of Arabia. It’s something else. Maybe it’s Lawrence of Arabia when he gets up on top of the train and he opens up his robe and silhouettes against the sun. Maybe it’s that part of Lawrence of Arabia, I’m not saying it’s as good, but you know, maybe it’s a microscopic version. But this cynicism about Tibet, you wouldn’t do it with the Catholic Church, you wouldn’t do it with Judaism, you wouldn’t do it with the Muslims, not in the press. It’s very bad attitude. And it’s like, everybody’s heard about Tibet now for four months, it’s enough. It’s like we have blinkers on, and when it’s Asians, you can’t take them that seriously.

And David Denby’s review in New York Magazine, saying that maybe you just can’t make a movie about Buddhism because it’s too passive. What is he saying? That you’re only allowed to make action movies?
It’s like this conversation I had with Elia Kazan a few years ago. He said, “Yes, I can make pictures with plots and the normal traditional action. But what if you do something that’s passive? Can you make a film about passive characters, where inaction is action? Then you really see if you can go inside the mind and the heart.” Maybe we didn’t do it in this picture completely. I know for some people, we did. How many years more must we just do act one, act two, act three? Polish cinema has done something else. Kieslowski has. And Russian cinema. There’s a new Sokurov film that Paul Schrader told me about [Mother and Son]. This is also cinema. Why can’t America make cinema like that? And I know we’re also dealing with the marketplace, with LA. It’s a hard town. There was a time when we were worried that Disney wouldn’t stay with the picture. But they have and they’ve been very supportive. They even showed up at the premiere in LA. I turned around, and there was studio head Joe Roth, and he took pictures with us.

Given what’s happened, if you had it to do again, would you?
Absolutely. This is what you live for. I wish I could find another project like this one day.



“I think I said to you before, that was a very specific project,” Deakins says. “I think he asked me because of my documentary experience. Because Kundun was a film where we were basically working with non-actors. So I think he just wanted that somebody that could react to them and fade into the background, maybe. It was a very particular film.” The film was shot over a 103-day period in Morocco—the most exotic location Deakins can remember tackling over his 30-year tenure—with a pick-up day at an upstate New York Buddhist temple to boot. It was originally supposed to be 75 days but things went long. It also features an interesting—not so much staple Deakins shot, but certainly an image he’s come back to in a few other films: characters watching something projected. It pops up in Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Shawshank Redemption and Jarhead, for example. “It’s a great shot, isn’t it,” Deakins says. “And I love it in Citizen Kane. Sunset Boulevard was probably where it was done better than anywhere else.” It’s used to rather penetrating effect in Kundun, however. As the Dalai’s older brother asserts that Tibet must fight, images of the battle scene from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V flicker across his face. “It is unlike anything else he’s done,” Deakins says of Scorsese’s film. “I love that film. I loved the experience. I’d be surprised if he asked me again, because he’s also got a couple of regular people he works with. On the other hand maybe he will. I don’t know.” —Roger Deakins looks back on 1997’s ‘Kundun,’ his only Scorsese collaboration to date


The film presents the life of the 14th Dalai Lama in a series of lyrical, dreamlike sequences photographed with consummate skill by Roger Deakins, who combined naturalistic lighting with director Martin Scorsese’s penchant for kinetic camera moves. This archival article originally appeared in American Cinematographer, February 1998.

The year is 1959; high up in the frigid reaches of the Himalayan mountains, a bone-weary traveler on horseback slowly approaches an Indian border crossing, surrounded by a small phalanx of fellow riders. As he dismounts, this forlorn figure is stopped by sentries, who quickly realize the significance of the moment: the man standing before them is none other than the Dalai Lama. Expelled from his Tibetan homeland by Chinese invaders, the deposed deity has nowhere else to turn for sanctuary. Today, 39 years after his ouster, the Dalai Lama has yet to return to Tibet, which remains a near-mythical realm in the minds of most Westerners. Situated on a high plateau in southwest China, at an average altitude of 16,000 feet, this storied land is known as the cradle of Buddhism, a religion with millions of followers the world over. Since it was forcibly assimilated by the Chinese (who promptly rechristened it Xizang), Tibet has been shrouded in the melancholy aura of a lost civilization. Due to the persistent efforts of its spiritual leader, however, the region has remained alive in the public consciousness as the focus of an enduring political controversy. Thus far, the Chinese government has scorned the Dalai Lama’s attempts to rally worldwide support and restore Tibet’s independence.

Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Kundun (a term meaning “Ocean of Wisdom”), traces the life of the Dalai Lama from infancy to adulthood. The tale begins in 1937 at a small farmhouse in rural Tibet, where precocious, two-year-old Tenzin Gyatso has enjoyed an idyllic childhood with his loving family. The clan’s peaceful existence is forever changed, however, when a group of Tibetan scholars arrive at their door. Intent on locating the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha, the scholars soon determine, through a series of tests, that Tenzin is the new Dalai Lama. The boy and his dumbfounded family are immediately escorted to Lhasa, where little Tenzin is enthroned as the country’s spiritual leader. While adjusting to his new life, Tenzin is tutored by the best Tibetan scholars; in 1950, during his 15th year, these teachings are put to the test when the Chinese communist army of Chairman Mao Zedong invades the country, claiming it as part of China. The Dalai Lama’s attempts to resolve the situation through nonviolent diplomacy fail, and he is forced into exile nine years later, at the youthful age of 24.

In bringing this story of personal struggle to life, Scorsese and his crew faced an array of artistic, technical and logistical difficulties. Determined to lend their intimate film an emotional resonance, the director and producer Barbara De Fina cast the film with native Tibetans, none of whom were professional actors. The part of the Dalai Lama was played by four different boys (aged 2, 5, 12 and 18), and other key roles were assigned to actual members of the Tibetan leader’s family. In fact, the Dalai Lama himself served as a consultant on the project, working closely with script-writer Melissa Mathison and the filmmakers. Scorsese’s insistence upon picturesque locations presented further challenges. Denied permission to shoot in India, the production headed for Ouarzazate, Morocco. Over the years, this small municipality has developed into a staging post for tourists headed into the Sahara Desert; it also offers a motion picture facility, the Atlas Film Studio, located just 15 minutes from the center of town. But as director of photography Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC notes, the working conditions in Morocco were a far cry from the luxuries of a Hollywood studio. “I went to Morocco for about 10 days with Marty sometime in June of 1996,” recalls Deakins. “It was a bit of a scramble to find the locations we needed. We saw some locations we knew we weren’t going to use, and we also saw the Atlas Film Studio, which was built years ago when a James Bond picture shot there. The studio ‘entrance’ consisted of a mud wall with this door in the middle, and when you went through, there was one small ‘stage’ really just a warehouse surrounded by an expanse of desert. It was really surreal.”

The rough working conditions did little to deter Deakins, who has earned the admiration of both critics and his peers with outstanding work on such features as The Shawshank Redemption (which earned him both an ASC Award and an Academy Award nomination see AC June 1995), 1984, Courage Under Fire and Dead Man Walking. The cinematographer is probably best known for his collaborations with the Coen brothers: the ASC- and Academy-nominated Fargo (AC Mar. ’96), as well as The Hudsucker Proxy (AC April ’94), Barton Fink and the upcoming feature The Big Lebowski. However, it was his impressive photography on the scenic dramas Pascali’s Island and Mountains of the Moon (see Scorsese interview on page 58) which actually caught the director’s eye. To ease his burden a bit, Deakins brought some of his key crew members from the United States: gaffer Billy O’Leary, dolly grip Bruce Hamme and camera assistant Andy Harris. “The key grip, Tommaso Mele, came from Italy, and he was wonderful,” Deakins enthuses. “The rest of the grip crew was also Italian, as were the balance of the electricians. They were all really helpful. We also had a great English operator named Peter Cavaciuti, who handled the B-camera and Steadicam work.”

The cinematographer says that careful planning and his detailed discussions with Scorsese helped prepare him for the arduous nature of the show. “Marty had the script very clearly in his mind, and he had a very definite concept about how he wanted the film to feel. Even before going to the location during prep, he had broken down each scene into a specific style. If he wanted a particular scene to be a long, moving camera shot on dialogue, he would have that down, maybe along with a couple of close-ups he wanted to use to heighten specific parts of the sequence. On another scene, he might have things broken down into a much more conventional series of close-ups on dialogue. He did this even before locking down the locations or actually seeing the final sets! “Those sketches were what we primarily worked from,” he continues. “The day before we shot a scene, we might have a brief conversation about the next day’s work, but we basically worked from his initial conception. Of course, sometimes, given the practical realities of a set or location, we couldn’t achieve the precise shots that Marty wanted; if I saw that something wasn’t going to happen the way we’d planned it, I’d talk to Marty and we’d come up with an alternative.

“I don’t know if that’s the way he’s worked before, but for me it was great,” he maintains. “Generally, I was surprised at how often I was left to my own devices in terms of lighting the shots and choosing a lens. After seeing the sets and locations, I would take Marty’s script notes and transform them into little diagrams showing where the camera would be for each shot, which order to shoot things in, and so on. Overall, I felt as if I had a lot of input; Marty gave me quite a bit of his trust, and I did the best I could to get what he really wanted.” The cinematographer says that his earliest strategy sessions with Scorsese revolved around their use of the Super 35 format for widescreen compositions. “I shot Air America in Super 35, so I was familiar with it,” he notes. “I feel that there are good and bad aspects to the format. Technically, it’s pretty good these days, though there is a definite loss of color intensity because the whole Super 35 process involves an optical. On balance, though, I think Super 35 was the best way to go on this film; the slightly less saturated colors actually add to the naturalism we sought. Most of the interiors take place at night, and our only practical sources in those scenes were butter lamps little wicks in bowls of butter fat. In general, I like to make a light source look as if it’s really working, instead of overpowering it with an artificial source. I do use gag lights, but I like the sources themselves to be very bright within the scene. In this particular respect, the Super 35 format has the advantage over anamorphic, because it allows you to use faster spherical lenses.”

Deakins opted to shoot most of Kundun with Zeiss Superspeed and standard-speed lenses. For closer shots, his favored lenses were the 40mm and 50mm in keeping with the cinematographer’s oft-stated preference for focal lengths which simulate a human eye’s actual field of view. “A lot of times, though, I put on a wider lens than Marty had imagined,” he admits. “We were occasionally shooting with a 14mm to see the scale of some of our sets often because we couldn’t float the walls. Even if we could, the ‘stage’ wall might only be a few feet behind the set wall.” The production did carry a Cooke 18-100mm zoom lens, but it was used sparingly. “I like using prime lenses because it forces you to move the camera and think about where the camera needs to be,” he maintains. “That’s the way Joel and Ethan Coen work, and Marty is very much the same way. We really only needed the zoom for this one specific shot that we did, which occurs within a dream sequence that we’d talked about well in advance of the shoot. The camera starts in really close on the Dalai Lama’s eyes, and then pulls back and tilts down to reveal him standing amid this array of dead monks in red robes. The camera then begins rising straight up until he’s back in frame at full figure, surrounded by this sea of bodies. There was no way of tracking with the 75′ Akela crane we used, so in order to get the size we wanted on the Dalai Lama’s face at the beginning, and still have a move with a fluid feeling, we used the zoom to widen out at the end of the move. As the camera neared 50′ and rising, the perspective shift on the wide end of the lens became very slight; this allowed the effects people at Dream Quest Images to continue the move even further while adding extra bodies to fill the outer edges of the frame.”

Hewing to his desire to let real sources do as much work as possible, Deakins shot most of the film at an aperture of T2.2 or 2.5. “If you shoot at 5.6, the candles aren’t going to do anything,” he says. “We had some big night exteriors where I would have dearly loved a deeper stop, but using all of the HMI lights at my disposal, I could only manage a stop of 2.4 and still keep a thick negative. I always try for a thick negative because I don’t like to lose richness in the blacks. I always overexpose a little, and I’m usually printing in the mid-40s. “During day interiors, I was probably lighting to a 2.8 or even 3.2, and when high-speed work was involved in a scene, I would light the whole scene higher in order to make the matching easier. On exteriors, it really depended upon the kind of depth of field we wanted. In those types of situations, I like to have good depth, because to me that seems to be the more natural way of seeing things. I tended to use a .3 neutral-density filter and shoot at about 8 or 11 for bright exteriors.”

The cinematographer exploited Eastman Kodak’s Vision 500T 5279 stock for all of his interior and exterior night work; he switched to EXR 5293 for day interiors or dusky exteriors, and EXR 5248 for day exteriors. “The 79 is terrific, because it’s so fast; it really is 500 ASA. I began rating the 79 at 400, but I found I could really rate it at 500 and not worry about losing the blacks.” Deakins notes that Kundun relies heavily upon its atmospheric staging and locations. “I think this film is very much a poem rather than a traditional narrative film,” he opines. “It’s more of a mood piece involving a specific time and place in history, so our main challenge was to capture that. Morocco is not at the same altitude as the spot we’d initially chosen in northern India, and the mountains aren’t quite as present; it’s also much more arid, which was kind of nice. The Tibetans were constantly saying how much it reminded them of their homeland, and they got a bit tearful at times, which was a pretty good gauge of our location’s appropriateness.”

Of course, Deakins wasn’t alone in his quest to transform Morocco into Tibet; also joining the caravan was expert production designer Dante Ferretti, who did double duty as the film’s costume designer. Over the course of his long and illustrious career, Ferretti has earned four Academy Award nominations (Interview With the Vampire, Hamlet, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence). His impressive list of credits also includes another successful collaboration with Scorsese (Casino), as well as five films with Federico Fellini (The Voice of the Moon, Ginger and Fred, And the Ship Sails On, City of Women and Prova d’Orchestra) and a half-dozen pictures with Pier Paolo Pasolini (120 Days of Sodom, Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Oedipus Rex, Decameron and Medea). Once the production had selected the town of Ouarzazate as its primary location, Ferretti supervised the construction of a second, larger soundstage at the Atlas Film Studio. “It was really just another warehouse,” the production designer admits, “but we did all of our interiors there: the Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lama spent his winters; Norbulingka Palace, also known as the ‘summer palace’; Dungkhar Monastery, the Throne Room, and so on. The stage we built was 300′ by 200′, and about 50′ high. We also built a passageway to connect it to the smaller existing ‘stage’.”

Ferretti and his multinational team (“We had Italians, Moroccans, English and Americans in key crew positions”) redressed an existing street to resemble the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, using the concrete shells of unfinished houses as facades for their exteriors. The production also hired hundreds of Moroccans to help fashion the entrance to Norbulingka Palace and its walled gardens, which were built on the shore of a large reservoir located 40 minutes from Ouarzazate. Later scenes set within Mao Zedong’s Peking headquarters were shot at an existing building in Casablanca, while a field study center in the High Atlas Mountains, some 90 minutes from Marrakech, was converted into the exterior of the Dungkhar Monastery. Ferretti concedes that his budget was not lavish; accordingly, he spent funds judiciously while still striving for sumptuous sets and costumes. “I did have a very low budget, but Morocco is not a very expensive place,” says the designer, who first worked there 30 years ago on Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex. “This is the kind of movie where the audience has to believe that they are actually in Tibet, so we built everything to be as real as possible. We used real flagstones for the floors of the sets, and I went to a factory in India to get the types of brocade, silk and fabric normally bought by Tibetan people. To do the construction, we hired a lot of Moroccan carpenters, plasterers and sculptors who did everything the old-fashioned way. Sometimes we had as many as 300 people working at once, but we could afford it because their fees were very low. There would have been no way to do it otherwise, because we had to build the big sets in about 14 weeks.”

“Absolute authenticity” was Ferretti’s ultimate goal. “I read a lot of books in preparation, and I had very good technical advisors. Namgyal Takla, the widow of the Dalai Lama’s brother, helped with the costume research, and I even had some meetings with the Dalai Lama himself; he did some sketches and floor plans for me. I didn’t want to make any compromises, and Roger did a good job of shooting and setting up his lights so that we could keep everything authentic.” Deakins admits that the meticulous accuracy of Ferretti’s approach came with a price. “Because of the relatively low budget, it was difficult to have optimal setups,” he says. “With the sets built in warehouses that passed for stages, there were no rigs, no gantries, and no greenbeds up in the ceiling. The roof just wouldn’t support any real weight. I have to say, those sets were the most difficult I’ve ever dealt with, because of the situation we created. Dante really didn’t have the money to construct the sets the way I needed to build roofs that I could work on, platforms I could light from, or structures to which I could rig lighting fixtures. The sets were built as inexpensively as they could be and still look good, but they weren’t specifically structured to accommodate a director of photography. I sympathized with Dante, because he just didn’t have the money to do it.

“When I got there toward the end of prep, I had the crew strengthen the ceiling in certain places, and put in trusses or wooden beams where I needed to place lights. I didn’t see any alternative; we couldn’t light those scenes from the floor.” The cinematographer says that the Kundun shoot required a very large lighting package. He initially planned to leapfrog his lights from one set to another, but modified this strategy to accommodate a schedule which to some extent reflected the chronology of the script. This meant that the composite Potala set stood for a large part of the schedule, while the appropriate lighting fixtures remained rigged and ready for shooting. Deakins explains, “I didn’t want to be fussing with the lights while the actors were there preparing for a scene. On most of the sets, there were only minimal lighting changes from shot to shot, because I pre-lit the sets using the platforms that had been prepped beforehand.

“I did have a large lighting package, but it wasn’t because I needed a lot of units on any particular set in many cases, I simply couldn’t de-rig one array of lights and get it onto the next set in time to shoot.” Deakins felt that it would be better and more cost-effective to use tungsten sources on the sets, while maintaining a separate HMI kit for exterior work, night work and the few location interiors. He ordered his basic package from Cartocci in Rome, and made sure to schedule in the two-week delivery time to Ouarzazate. “I wanted to have the equipment in Morocco two weeks before we started shooting so we could do our pre-lights,” he notes. “Working off of Dante’s plans, I came up with an overall lighting package, and I added some extra gear to cover any problems, which I knew we’d encounter at some point.”

The complete lighting package for the Atlas Film Studio stage work included approximately 58 Maxi-Brutes, 32 blondes, 24 10Ks and two 20Ks. “It was probably even more,” Deakins hedges, “and that was just for the stages. We mounted 20 of the Maxis on the wall of our Potala courtyard set, and they stayed there for 10 weeks. We also had to have two generators. I couldn’t have gone much further with the lighting package, because I wouldn’t have had the generating capacity. At one point, we had everything burning, and both of the generators were in trouble! It was right on the edge of what they could handle, and I was still only shooting at T2.5.” Depending on the scene at hand, Deakins altered his lighting approach for stagebound setups to reflect the appropriate dramatic tone. “The first time we see the Tibetan assembly room is during a sequence in which the young Dalai Lama is walking around the monastery and checking things out,” he relates. “He hears these voices from the assembly room, and when he looks in he sees all of these older men discussing the fate of Tibet in this huge, amazing room. I wanted our first view of the room to be really gray and kind of mysterious, so we used a soft, cool toplight; to get a soft wrap, I installed wide-flood bulbs in a number of Maxi-Brutes. We then bounced these lights off large Griffolyns which we tied to the roof rafters of the ‘stage.’ This light was then softened and cut as it entered the ceiling of the set itself, only 10′ below. It was all a bit of a struggle; I must have lit that particular scene five times before achieving something that I was happy with.

“For a later scene in which the Dalai Lama is meeting with a Chinese general in a French-European-style living room, I wanted more of a low, direct sunlight look. I was basically using the same units, Maxi-Brutes, but I switched to narrow-beam spot bulbs to obtain a harsher look. A light brushed-silk diffusion erased the multi-shadow problem caused by the bulb array. If I was using a Maxi for a different kind of situation bouncing light off a Griffolyn or something I would occasionally install medium-flood bulbs.” The scarcity of state-of-the-art equipment made the film’s larger night shoots a bit problematic particularly a key sequence in which the disguised Dalai Lama leaves his palace for the last time and wends his way through a throng of people beyond the gates of an ornamental garden. “There are no lifts or Condors in Morocco, and you can’t have a Musco light with the type of budget we had,” Deakins submits. “The only way to do that shot was to build a 60′ tower rig, partly out of scaffolding we managed to find in Casablanca. All of that material had to be brought 400 miles from the coast to Ouarzazate. It took the crew two weeks to build the rig; there was no way it was going to move once it was up, so we basically had to light this entire series of shots with one high source.

“We built the tower in a very specific spot so it would be hidden behind the garden wall when the camera panned, tracked and craned around. I think we had six 12K HMIs up there to create a blue ‘moonlight’ effect. Those were not corrected at all, as I was going for a more colorful look than I normally would at night. We also placed some little oil lamps actually 1K bulbs on dimmers beneath the archway to add some contrasting color to the shots as the Dalai Lama and his companions went through the gate. “We had an original HMI package of four 12K and four 6K Pars, but for the night shoots we had to bring in two extra lamps from Rome and a couple more 12Ks from this little commercial company in Casablanca. After we finished each night, we had a day crew move everything lights, generators and cables to the next location so that we could maximize our shooting time.”

Smaller tower rigs were used for a subsequent nighttime sequence in which the Dalai Lama departs from Lhasa in a small boat. “We were shooting on an open lake, but it was meant to be a broad river in the story, so I tried to find a spot where I could have the feeling of a far bank. We found a place where the landscape curved so I could have a headland, about three-quarters of a mile distant, in the back of the shot. “I was under some restrictions lighting-wise, because we were shooting on a dirt path by a lake; I didn’t have a crane, and we couldn’t build any large towers down there. Besides, all of the scaffolding we could find in Morocco was already in use at the palace location. When I first thought about lighting that scene, I was going to put all of my lights on a hill and just have a big wash. But then I thought, ‘That’s going to be one hard source, and I’m still going to have to fill faces as I move the camera.’ There were quite a lot of moving shots, and a lot of shots to do [in general], so we didn’t really have the time to mess about. I lit the background with Par lights aimed from the top of a hill, which gave us this gray wash on the far hillside. To light the characters in the boats and on this nearby jetty, I came up with an idea. There was one area of beach that I didn’t have to have in the frame, so I put up four little 10′ towers, each with an 8′ by 8′ reflector on top. Each tower had a 12K or a 6K HMIPar underneath it. Depending on where the camera was, I could line these reflectors up quite quickly to give a somewhat soft directional source. I was shooting wide open at about T2.1 with one of the slower, 32mm Zeiss lenses. It actually worked very well. Of course, if it had been windy I think I’d have been screwed!”

Deakins notes that the scene was later enhanced by digital artists at Dream Quest Images, who added mountains in the background and stars in the sky. “I looked at some of the test composites, and they were pretty good,” he says. “The trick was to match the lighting of the background plate to my lighting in the foreground. Trouble was, I couldn’t light the foreground with the same quality of light that could be created with the freedom of the computer. The computer-generated background looked softer and better than my foreground, and the difference between the two was a giveaway. To even it out, they had to make the lighting in the background a little more directional and from the side, rather than the beautiful soft moonlight that they started off with. “There was no way we could have lent that scene a feel of the distant mountains before this sort of technology came along,” he maintains. “We could have done a static bluescreen-type shot, but we’d have been very restricted. Digital technology has really freed us up; my only regret at this time is that we were unable to adjust all of the shots within that scene.”

Thankfully, the film’s daylight exteriors proved to be a bit less labor-intensive. “We basically shot with very hot light,” Deakins says. “I suppose we made an advantage of the fact that we were shooting in midday sun; every day was hot and bright. We really didn’t shoot anything in the morning or evening; I think low, golden sunlight tends to be a bit overused. We used the bright exterior light as a nice contrast to the interiors of these monasteries, which are naturally very dark.” Because Morocco’s altitude is not as high as Tibet’s, Deakins found himself dealing with the country’s dustier atmosphere on exterior shots. “I tried to get rid of that with Pola screens, and I didn’t filter anything because I wanted to keep everything as sharp as possible. There isn’t a single diffused shot in the film; I did use the odd grad, but not too much.” Deakins did make frequent use of gels on his lights, however. His use of color is illustrated by a scene in which the Dalai Lama moves through a snowswept passageway and enters the Throne Room, which was decorated with a huge golden statue of the Buddha and cylindrical cloth tapestries known as thangas. Within this majestic space, the young boy is officially enthroned.

The passageway in question underwent several changes during the course of production. In addition to serving as the entrance to the Throne Room, it also doubled as a corridor in both the Potala Palace and Dungkhar Monastery. The passage was open to the elements on each side, and also featured three skylights along its 70′ length one large opening, and two smaller versions. “If I had been in a studio, I probably would have put a big white bounce cove above the skylight and bounced the light from outside the set walls,” Deakins says. “There was no way I could do that on this show, because there was no place for me to rig that kind of setup. I talked about that with the key grip, Tommaso Mele, but it would have involved rigging up this huge construction, and the wind probably would have blown the whole thing down. There were 20 miles of flat desert on either side of our corridor, and every afternoon at three o’clock, 50 mile-an-hour winds would come howling across the desert, blow our lighting frames away, completely trash my rigs and fill the whole corridor with dust! In the end, we erected a more modest grid above the skylights a wooden truss surrounded by some piping. The only way to get the look we wanted was to hang Maxis above the skylights. We had six Maxis over the biggest skylight and two over each of the smaller openings. The Maxis generally had 1/2 CTB on them, and the mixture of this light and the natural daylight that percolated through these openings was further softened and corrected by two layers of 250 diffusion and 1/2 CTO gel.

“For the scene in question, however, I wanted the passageway and the Throne Room to offer sharply contrasting color temperatures. We had a snow effect coming from overhead in the passageway, and the floor was covered with piles of the stuff. For that part of the sequence, I created a cooler look by removing the 1/2 CTO gel on the skylights. The mixture of 1/2 blued tungsten and raw daylight from above looked great on the fake white snow, and heightened the dawn effect.” The Throne Room, by contrast, was lit to be completely warm. When the Dalai Lama reaches this area, he discovers a crowd waiting to witness his coronation. “The people were sitting on benches, facing the Buddha,” Deakins recalls. “It was going to be hard to light the set from below, and the roof of our ‘stage’ wouldn’t hold very much weight. I rigged up a bunch of lightweight 10Ks on dimmers, just hoping the room could take them. These lamps were bounced off some 8′ by 8′ gold reflectors positioned in the rafters. Each lamp carried 1/4 CTO and was dimmed to about 60 percent to create a warm, golden look. I also positioned gag lights behind butter lamps on the floor 1Ks or 500-watt bulbs dimmed down to around 2200°K.

“Of course, we could have lit everything straight tungsten and printed warmer, but I never think that really works as well. When you do something like that, you’re exposing the emulsion in the wrong balance. Attempting to change that balance in printing will only alter the contrast and grain in the final print. “When I’m told about a set, I draw it out and sort of sketch in what I think I should do,” he adds. “On that particular set, I thought I was going to use a direct-light effect, but when I looked at the actual space, I decided that I wanted it to be a bit softer, so I wound up bouncing all of my lights.” Deakins says that the nature of the shoot, and its authentic sets, led the filmmakers to use Steadicam more often than expected. Although Scorsese has used this device sparingly in the past (mainly for meticulously staged sequences like the bravura tour of the Copacabana club in Goodfellas), he and Deakins decided to take advantage of English operator Peter Cavaciuti’s considerable expertise. “Prior to shooting, when Marty and I went through the script and talked about camera moves, there were only two preplanned Steadicam shots. I had worked with Peter on The Secret Garden, though, and I knew he was a great operator; I had a feeling we’d be using him more on the actual shoot. We eventually worked out that he would be there the whole time, and we also negotiated to have his equipment there all the time. Once Marty saw how good Peter was, he gained an enormous amount of confidence in him. The moves didn’t have the floaty feeling that Marty doesn’t like; when Peter ends a move, it’s rock-solid.

“The sets, by their nature, were built to look very real,” he points out. “The floors were stone; we couldn’t do the old trick of pulling the rails away as the camera passed by, because there was no place for the people to get out of the way in these narrow corridors. Quite often, the only way we could do a sequence was with the Steadicam and the Moviecam SL.” The value of the Steadicam is illustrated in a key scene near the end of the film, when the Lord Chamberlain informs the Dalai Lama that foreign governments have refused to support Tibet as an independent nation, in effect siding with China. The sequence was blocked out as a Steadicam shot that would move backwards as the two characters walked through a long, winding corridor and into a study, where other Tibetan noblemen awaited them. “That sequence was initially broken down into a lot of different shots, some involving the Steadicam,” Deakins notes, “but we wound up doing one Steadicam shot walking backwards in front of the guys, and another little piece of Steadicam over their shoulders as an intercut.

“We pre-lit the entire corridor for that,” he explains. “There were some small side windows in this monastery set, and we also had several skylights to work with. The whole thing was lit in this soft, gray, cool and naturalistic way. I didn’t use a lot on the floor at all, although I occasionally put some butter lamps down there with gag lights around them. We used big soft sources like Maxi-Brutes for the overall lighting through the windows. You need a big soft light outside the window so it wraps through the window; if you put a small unit directly through the window, you’ll just get a shaft of light in one spot. Outside the windows I’d have a 20′ by 20′ light gridcloth with a row of Maxis going through it. The scene started off in darkness, lit just by butter lamps, and then the actors went through this side light from a little terrace area, which became a backlight as the camera pulled back. Next, they passed beneath a little skylight; we had some Maxi-Brutes aimed down through a gridcloth and then through another, lower piece of diffusion to provide a really soft toplight. After moving down some steps, the actors came into this much bigger and softer toplight source. Ironically, it can sometimes take longer to set up if you’re trying to do something naturalistic, because you have to use more light! You’re not trying to be stylized with fewer units and some hard shadows.”

For other scenes designed to simulate the young Dalai Lama’s POV, the Steadicam was used in low-angle mode. “A lot of the film is seen from the child’s point of view. We did a lot of the earlier scenes with our main camera, an Arri 535B, at a really low angle, and we also followed him quite a bit with the Steadicam. We used other motion systems to get that effect as well. There’s a big scene where the boy is pronounced to be the new Dalai Lama in this outdoor ceremony under a tent. All of the people from the surrounding countryside have come to see him, and he walks down this red carpet with rows of people along either side. Marty wanted one POV shot that started on the blue sky and then tilted down past the tent and this throne, which are glimpsed in the distance. The shot continues down until we see the kid’s feet walking along the carpet, and then it tilts back up again to reveal these people looking at him. We had the camera offset on a little PowerPod remote head on an Aerocrane jib arm, and we used a slightly wider lens to catch all of the people in the frame.”

To lend a dreamlike effect to certain scenes involving the Dalai Lama’s point of view, Deakins executed a number of old-fashioned speed/aperture changes with his camera of choice, the Arri 535B. “It’s harder to do than a shutter change, but I liked the idea of doing those shots with a stop change,” he says. “If you change the running speed of a 535A, the shutter will change to compensate the exposure, and it doesn’t affect the depth of field; when you change the aperture, it does. I like slow motion where you’ve got a very shallow depth of field, because it sort of isolates the thing that’s slow in the frame.” Reflecting upon Kundun‘s overall visual style, Deakins notes, “This picture really isn’t an epic; it’s more of an intimate look at the life of an extraordinary person. During the prep period, Marty and I talked about The Last Emperor a bit, and how it was so vast and overpowering. I hope that our film is somehow more naturalistic and earthy. The story is really about the child, and it’s seen primarily from his point of view. We generally didn’t show much that he didn’t experience firsthand. The invasion of Lhasa, for example, is mostly heard in the distance; we do have some shots of Chinese soldiers marching along, but that’s it. As the Dalai Lama grows older, he becomes more aware of the political situation around him.

“In general, I used a lot of sidelight and toplight on this picture,” he adds. “I started off thinking about creating shafts of sunlight through windows, but quite honestly, it was just impractical. Instead, I chose specific scenes that I would light hard; there are some scenes where people are sitting and talking amid this light that is just blasting in. Overall, though, the lighting is less showy and more subdued. “Working on this show reminded me of some of the documentaries I’ve worked on,” concludes Deakins, whose work on Kundun recently earned him awards for Best Cinematography from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics. “It was a bit like camping: we just had to make sure we took everything we were going to need! We had a complicated schedule, difficult sets, and a remote location. But in the end, I’m very pleased with what we accomplished.”


“It’s a bit of a letdown when you’ve spent so much time on something and then it’s either buried or the audience doesn’t relate to it. I feel that way with Kundun. It was one of the best experiences of my life, for a lot of different reasons. Not just the challenge of the filmmaking, but the people involved and the crew and the Tibetans. It was just a wonderful experience. And the film was basically buried, frankly. It was really disheartening.” —Roger Deakins


Team Deakins podcast is a conversation between acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins and his collaborator, James Deakins. “We start from a submitted question and end… who knows where! We are joined on some episodes by friends and colleagues. Matt Wyman, friend and aspiring cinematographer, has been invaluable in working on this podcast series with us and joins in with some really good questions!”




Martin Scorsese delivers the prestigious David Lean film lecture and shares insights into his illustrious career.


Barry Norman talks to Martin Scorsese about his film Kundun. From 30th March 1998.



I’m always interested in people who really have the guts to stand up and do things through non-violence. ‘Cause I’m so much aware of the other way of doing it, through violence, and it’s so much sanctified in our world. —Martin Scorsese

The making of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film Kundun was an historic event, the first feature film treatment of the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. Michael H. Wilson documented this emotion-filled encounter of Scorsese and his Italian and American team with the Tibetans who portrayed the key figures in the tumultuous recent history of Tibet. Featuring compelling interviews with Scorsese, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, and production designer Dante Ferreti. Filmed on location in Morocco and India. Rare archival footage from Tibet.


In loving memory of Melissa Mathison (1950–2015)

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. Photographed by Mario Tursi © De Fina-Cappa, Dune Films, Refuge Productions Inc., Touchstone Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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