2023.14 : I Choose Rebirth
Santa Cruz, California U.S.A. Circa 2023
— Steven Spielberg
Allen [Daviau, A.S.C.] was a wonderful artist but his warmth and humanity were as powerful as his lens. He was a singular talent and a beautiful human being.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to have studied under or worked with Allen Daviau—I am blessed to have done both—we know Spielberg’s kind, beautiful, and generous words still don’t fully encapsulate him. For an entire generation or more of young filmmakers, there was who we thought we were before spending time with Daviau, and who we knew we needed to become after spending time with him (my circle called him by his last name; calling him by his first name felt to us, not him, disrespectful).
Daviau lived his entire adult life in Los Angeles and didn’t drive, didn’t even have a driver’s license. An incredible thought in 2023; in the decades prior to Uber, it was inconceivable—miraculous, if one knew his workload.
I loved that he didn’t drive. It meant I could pick him up and take him home. That drive time was precious time. I knew it then, and I know it now. I wipe away tears as I write this, overwhelmed by gratitude and appreciation. It didn’t take long for me to figure out how to maximize our time together. I would think of a smart question about the business or history of film, throw it into his lap, sit back, shut my mouth, open my brain, and let him pour undiluted knowledge in. Truly, he had forgotten more than I have ever learned. There are big brains, and then there are even bigger brains.
One of the projects we worked on together was a Children of the Night public service announcement commercial.
In my pickup truck, with a camper, I pulled up at the crack of dawn to take him to the shoot I was co-producing. Nathalie, my co-producer, did a great job making sure my time directing with Daviau was uninterrupted. As soon as he came out his front door, I saw he was limping. My heart sank. I greeted him, and it was obvious he was in considerable pain. I offered to cancel the shoot, but he wouldn’t let me get the words out. We did have a good laugh at the cause of his injury: socks on polished wood floors had caused him to pull a muscle.
The day of shooting was a dream. Here are just a couple of things about it.
It’s all too common for the DP and their crew to make noise—not excessive, on par with a construction site. Daviau and his crew were so tight, so in sync, they moved telepathically. He had his eye to the camera; he whispered, not spoke softly, but whispered, and instantly his entire crew materialized his request.
After fear—sheer terror, actually—of not being able to live up to expectations faded, we all fell into sync. That feeling is unparalleled in all my life experiences.
Daviau and I were walking down a hallway side by side, discussing what was done and what remained to be shot. His crew followed behind, relaxed, chatting; they couldn’t believe two kids could make their jobs easy that day. The crew were volunteering their time after all.
That chatter instantly became silence the moment Daviau uttered the “S” word. The “S” word was Steven (Spielberg). We all admired him, but we loved Daviau, and we never wanted the appearance of being with the latter to reach the former—a long Hollywood tradition.
Daviau said, “You are shooting as fast as Steven.” My soul left my body. I was, and still am, so happy. I stuttered a thank you, just as we arrived at a funny moment.
The next shot was a small bathroom. After setting up, he didn’t want to shoot it. He was right; there was no “there” there. Something in me made me plead with him to shoot a frame of it. My bold naivety and sincerity let him give-in. He instructed his camera operator to turn the camera on and then immediately off. We moved on to the next scene, all laughing.
It was actually our second attempt to make a PSA. The first attempt, he had to cancel, which had numerous knock-on effects that will be told another day, including what happened to the marvelous spokeswoman scheduled. There’s a chance she’s reading this; if so, it’s you I’m referring to, and I don’t recall if I told you all that happened. You handled it like the boss you are. Thank you.
The reason Daviau had to cancel was that he was notified he needed to immediately begin shooting the 1993 movie Fearless. That movie would impact my professional and inner life in profound ways. Thirty years ago this year. The night it opened, I was there to see the film that had dashed my best-laid plans.
Beyond entertaining, which in and by itself serves an important function in society, cinema at its best becomes a simulator. Much like the simulators pilots use for flight and emergency training, quality cinema trains our minds for life. Training isn’t the real thing, but the real thing is better handled with training.
I don’t recommend the movie Fearless except for a handful of minds who are ready. If one’s mind isn’t prepared for the emotions so realistically delivered, one will either tune out, claiming boredom, or find their real wounds starting to ache.
If you’re an actor, this film is a masterpiece, featuring the exceptional performances of the three leads. Rosie Perez was nominated for an Academy Award, and she should have won. Isabella Rossellini’s character’s character is what I have been seeking ever since.
The story revolves around a horrific plane crash. Two survivors, each grappling with radically different forms of life-destroying trauma, are brought together in the hopes that they can help save each other.
Every Easter, I re-watch Fearless. Phones off, do not disturb signs up, tissues at the ready, lights dimmed, and no distractions allowed. I immerse myself completely in the experience. As the tears flow and the film ends, I curl up and begin to reevaluate my life from top to bottom. This introspective process can last hours or even days, depending on the year.
I Choose Rebirth.
Fearless is my simulator for making sure I’m not squandering my life.
I can also see Master Daviau’s distinctive touch in the film, such as when Max (played by Jeff Bridges) appears as a “ghost” and floats into the reflection of a microwave to deliver six words of dialogue that melt my soul into a puddle with each viewing. His artistry and genius are evident in these subtle yet powerful moments.
Even after more than 30 viewings of Fearless, I continue to catch subtle details. I’ll share one thing for you to look for if you dare to watch it, showcasing the insightful sensitivity of the writer, Rafael Yglesias. After the exposition of the opening scene, pay attention to the first words Max speaks into the mirror. Then, note Max’s last words in the movie. If you share any of my unique personality quirks, comparing and contrasting these lines will leave you forever changed.
The movie touches on but doesn’t dwell on the fact that one of the two main characters is a devout Catholic, while the other is an Evidentialist. When I saw the statue of the Catholic Saint against the Santa Cruz sun, with the surfer statue on the horizon, Fearless immediately sprang to mind. The juxtaposition of the two statues in that scene captures the characters’ spiritual and philosophical perspectives.
Not long after the movie was released, my day job was as a personal driver. During the holidays, I was given the opportunity to drive Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges, along with Beau and Wendy Bridges, to Jeff’s family home outside the city.
As everyone was saying their goodbyes and preparing for the ride home, I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with Jeff Bridges. As a driver, I was trusted by my employers and those I drove not to fanboy. The only time I did was at this moment. I turned to Jeff and said, “I’m sorry I never do this, but I have to thank you for making Fearless.” He kindly replied, “Thank you.” I mumbled, “it changed lives.” I got in and returned his family safely home.
Looking back, I realize that my time with Daviau was more than just an education in the technical aspects of film-making. It was a lesson in humanity, in how we relate to one another, and in the power of storytelling to change lives. It’s a legacy that I’m proud to be a part of and one that I strive to honor in my own work.
As I continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape, I am reminded of the foundations laid by those who came before me. The likes of Daviau and Spielberg have shaped the world of cinema, and their influence will be felt for generations to come. It is my hope that by sharing my experiences, others may be inspired to follow in their footsteps, to create art that moves, challenges, and ultimately transforms us.
In the end, we are all part of a larger tapestry, each of us contributing our unique threads to create a vibrant, beautiful whole. I am humbled to have been given the chance to learn from a true master of the craft and am committed to passing on the wisdom, passion, and love for storytelling.
Sensei Daviau revealed to me that his passions centered around black and white photography and cooking for friends, both of which he pursued and loved wholeheartedly. Cinematography, he loved for more than serving as a means to pay the bills. So, when you come over for dinner and see the monochrome photography displayed throughout my home, you’ll now know who inspired and showed me the way.
Rest in peace, great one. Forever grateful, your student.
And now … know the photograph.
A.S.C. is an abbreviation for the American Society of Cinematographers. Members and non-members alike are also known as cinematographers and directors of photography. DPs are trusted with the great responsibility of both knowing and managing every aspect of the camera and lighting departments, as well as working intimately with the director and production designer to achieve the desired visual aesthetic.
The figure on the left side of the photograph is a statue of St. Joseph Marello, which stands in front of a church dedicated to him in Santa Cruz, California. A Brief Biography of St. Joseph Marello (1844–1895). (webite)
The church has a wonderful cafe named Shrine Coffee Shop. (website)
The statue on the right side of the photograph memorializes the memory of those surfers who have lost their lives surfing. The photo of the bench is placed at the foot of the statue. (more)