Interview: Roger Deakins
Anyone who’s followed American film over the last quarter-century has probably marveled at some point at the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Best known for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers (11 so far, including Fargo, 96; O Brother Where Art Thou?, 00; The Man Who Wasn’t There, 01; and No Country for Old Men, 07), Deakins has also shot works as wide-ranging as The Shawshank Redemption (94), Kundun (97), Skyfall (12), and that pure reverie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (07). For each of these—and three others—Deakins was nominated for an Academy Award.
Born in Torquay, England, Deakins’s love of painting led him to the Bath School of Art and Design, where he discovered photography. After a year of recording his native county of Devon with his camera, he relocated to the National Film and Television School at Buckinghamshire. Upon graduating, he spent seven years as a cameraman on documentaries, including Around the World With Ridgeway (79), a chronicle of a nine-month yacht race, and Zimbabwe (77), an account of the genocide that ravaged that nation after its 15-year civil war. Music videos led to early film credits like 1984 (84) and Sid & Nancy (85), and some rocky years before the Coen Brothers enlisted him in 1991.
Renowned for both sprawling landscapes and precise interiors, he recently lent his expertise to sophomore director Angelina Jolie’s historical drama Unbroken, about the wartime travails of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. Working in the mode he terms “the classical style,” Deakins depicts with utmost clarity the horrors of Zamperini’s plane crash in the Pacific, subsequent weeks adrift in shark-infested waters, and years imprisoned in Japanese camps where the guards are as merciless as the climate.
Deakins took time out from shooting his latest Coen Brothers movie, Hail, Caesar!, to speak with FILM COMMENT about formative experiences, career-defining partnerships, and how the simplest shots can be the trickiest to achieve.
You have a background in still photography, and it remains a hobby of yours. Did you initially want to be a still photographer?
Yeah, I did. I started off wanting to be a painter. I went to art college, and most of the things I painted were fairly realistic or naturalistic. So I started taking photographs and that became my passion. I wanted to do stills, photojournalism really.
Before you went to film school, you spent about a year documenting the farms and villages of North Devon. How did that inform or inspire your style as a cinematographer?
I think any work you do in the visual area informs your style. Your whole life informs your eye. And it was great to have a full year just wandering around with a camera, just finding out how I saw things. I’d like to say I was training my eye, but it wasn’t that, I was just looking and taking pictures, seeing what I liked and seeing what meant something to me in terms of content and composition. It was a good year. I had applied to the National Film and Television School the year before I did that, and been rejected, but I was told if I applied a year later I had a good shot of getting in. I suppose they wanted people who had a bit more professional experience, people who didn’t go right to film school after college. So I did that for a year, and then reapplied to the Film School and went there.
So would you say that lived experience is more valuable than technical training, because it helps you develop an eye?
Yeah, very much so. Technical training is important. In a way it’s becoming less so, but I still think it’s important. But I think life experience far outweighs any technical training.
Are there films you saw in your formative years as an artist that made you want to be a director of photography?
Yeah, there were many. When I was at school in Torquay I joined a local film society, and I’d see lots of European films before they were released in the country. Peter Watkins’s film The War Game, for instance, which was actually made by the BBC and then banned for 25 years. We saw that in a film society screening. And we saw his other film, Culloden. And all kinds of others. I remember seeing Last Year in Marienbad there. I think that was probably my first taste of movies, really, my first taste of film being more than what you regularly saw at the cinema.
Do you choose projects on the basis of the script, fundamentally, or on the collaborators, or on the opportunity to do things you haven’t done before?
Well, all of them really, but it’s the script that’s paramount to me. There are certain people I’ve worked with, like the Coen Brothers, but generally I judge the project by the script.
Let’s talk about your work with the Coen Brothers. You’ve said before that your first film for them, Barton Fink, revived your interest in cinematography.
I’d done a particularly unsatisfying, large-budget movie just before that. I was living in London at the time, and I’d basically decided to go back to my roots in Devon. I was moving back there when the Coens approached me to do Barton Fink. So I came over to America, and it was just a different experience. I realized that I couldn’t give it up.
Fortunately! I’ve heard that with the Coens, everything is planned out ahead of time. Do you prefer working that way?
I don’t mind either way, really. The Coens plan ahead very carefully, especially for the more complicated stage sets. I’m working with them on a film at the moment.
I quite like working off the cuff as well, though. My background is in documentary filmmaking, the verité style, where there’s no preplanning. You’re just thrown into the situation, you find the best ways to cover it, and there are no second chances. I quite like that, too—it’s stimulating and fun.
I understand that the legendary shot in The Shawshank Redemption, with Tim Robbins in the rain with his arms outstretched, was actually a paring down of a more complex sequence that you didn’t have time to shoot?
It was quite a long sequence, yeah. But it got pared down to one sequence where he crawls out of the sewer pipe in the rain and the lightning.
How much of cinematography is finding creative solutions to logistical snags like that one?
Quite often, that’s what it is. Conrad Hall used to say cinematography is just happy accidents. What he meant is that they’re not really accidents at all—you’re just there in a situation and something happens that triggers an idea in your head. And it may change your idea of how to do a scene or a shot. That’s what he meant, and that’s certainly what I feel a happy accident is.
Do you think extensive planning and storyboarding makes you less open to happy accidents?
No, I don’t. I suppose it could lead to really formulaic filmmaking, if you’re not careful. I don’t like that style of stiff, methodical planning. That could lead to something that’s stale. But that’s not how storyboards are used, in my experience. I’ve used them mostly with Joel and Ethan [Coen], but also with Sam Mendes. Their use is as a template for what you’re doing, or a guide for the essence of a sequence. They’re not necessarily what you’re going to achieve in the end.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I recently read an interview with another DP where he talks about the difficulty of a director asking for absolute darkness in a shot—struggling to come close to that while making sure the shot’s contents are still visible. You’ve had some extremely dark shots in films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Is that something you’ve struggled with, too, directors asking for pitch black?
You know, a director might ask for pitch black, but do they really mean pitch black? I’ve had that conversation with a director. The director’s said, “I want it really dark,” and I’ve had to say, “Look, I hope it’s okay, but we’re doing this scene in total silhouette,” and then the director says, “But I can’t see their faces!” You have to figure out what the director means by “total blackness,” or what they mean by “silhouette.” It’s different for different people. But it’s fine when you have a relationship with a director like I have with Joel and Ethan, or with Denis Villeneuve. I know that if they say “silhouette,” they know what I mean by a silhouette, and it’s fine, it won’t be a surprise when they suddenly see a total silhouette.
Something that I noticed in Unbroken was how the viewer is kept oriented at all times, even in shots where other DPs might accentuate chaos. For example, the scene in which the three survivors are adrift, and they have to dive into the water to avoid the bombers, and then they climb into the raft to avoid the sharks. I always felt keenly aware of my bearings.
We certainly wanted that, yeah. Maybe it was more of a “classic” way of storytelling. We didn’t see Unbroken as an action film, even though there are action sequences. We wanted the audience to be with the characters, to sense what they were feeling, so if it felt chaotic to the characters, it was chaotic, but only in an emotional sense. It was important to know where the characters were and what was happening.
You’re often credited as a visual consultant on animated features, like Rango and How to Train Your Dragon. What does “visual consultant” actually entail?
It’s being one of the crew, really. I’m just giving my ideas for the film. I spent a lot of time on Rango and How to Train Your Dragon, the first and the second ones, before they did any animation for the films, talking about the look and the style and the feel of the films. And I worked with Andrew [Stanton] on WALL·E, because they wanted more of a live-action style, not just in the sense of the lighting and the visual style, but in the way that a live-action camera moves, versus the way a computer creates a camera move. On How to Train Your Dragon 2, there was quite a long prep period where we created a whole color palette reference for the look of the film. We discussed the style of the camera movement and all that. The animation itself takes something like two years to make, so obviously I’m not there for all of that, but I’d have a link to DreamWorks, so I’d always be watching the animation as they were creating it. Any time I was in Los Angeles, I’d come up and spend time with the lighters, the animators, and the layout artists. Basically I was a consultant all the way through production.
Do you find that being exposed to the possibilities of animation has bled into your work as a DP at all?
Not really, but I think of live action and animation getting closer and closer to each other. In the last few years, there’s been a lot more animation in live-action films, but the audience wouldn’t know it. But it’s a fantastic storytelling tool. The avenues are open to create films like Gravity, where you put the audience in new situations.
Do you have films that you use as visual touchstones when you’re preparing the look of a film? For Unbroken, did you look at other World War II films, or prisoner-of-war films?
Well, I have a lot in mind when I start a film. For the Coen Brothers’ new film, Hail, Caesar!, it’s set in Hollywood in the Fifties, so I’ve been looking at quite a few old films as references. But when we started Unbroken, Angie was very keen on a film called The Hill, directed by Sidney Lumet. That, in a way, was our template. Not that we copied it or anything—the feel of the film was our template for the movie, the prison camp scenes in particular. Just the simplicity of those parts, what I called the classical style a minute ago. Sidney Lumet’s work in that film is so much about simple compositions and subtle camera movements. Shooting Unbroken was so much about the compositions and allowing things to happen in the frame.
Are there any trends in cinematography today that you find troubling?
Well, yeah, quite a few. I’m not going to talk so much about the trends I find troubling…
You don’t have to name names!
I suppose in a general sense, there’s the overall sloppiness with which films are made nowadays. I’m not an admirer of the current brand of filmmaking, really. I mean, look at a film like The War Game. It has that “I am there” documentary style, and it was done all the way back in the Sixties. I think it was done better, frankly.
No Country for Old Men
Can you tell me about the most challenging shot or lighting configuration you’ve ever had to achieve?
I think that’s really hard, because sometimes it’s the simplest shot that’ll throw you a curveball, and you’ll agonize about it for hours. Just the other day I was doing some simple little scene in an office, and I agonized for hours, days, actually, over how I was going to light it. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it, I just couldn’t visualize what I wanted.
The night scenes in True Grit, or in No Country for Old Men, were hugely challenging. I had just enough light to expose the action. But it’s not the technical challenges that are really difficult. It’s the conceptual challenges, what you want a scene to look like. It’s easy to put up a light, it’s figuring out where you put it that’s the real problem. When we did the night work in True Grit and No Country, we looked at a lot of locations. It was so much about, “Okay, we could choose this place, but how do we light it to get the effect we want?”
Have you ever done a shot that you were uncertain about, and then saw on the big screen and loved?
One of my favorite films for the Coens was The Man Who Wasn’t There. I watched it again a while ago and thought: “This looks better than I remembered, actually.” I’ve always been fond of that movie. So sometimes you revisit a film after years, and it becomes fresh, almost new.
Is there anything you’ve always wanted to photograph and haven’t had the chance to shoot yet?
I’ve always wanted to do a science-fiction film. The closest I’ve come was doing 1984 years ago. But I’d like to do a futuristic science-fiction film. I’d love to do Stranger in a Strange Land or Mockingbird. A true classic science-fiction story.