Two weeks ago cinematographer Roger Deakins picked up his eleventh Oscar nomination to date, and as many who trade in these circles are well aware, he’s still on the lookout for his first win. “Prisoners” won’t likely be the film to get him there as “Gravity” is gobbling up most of the attention in that field this season, but the consistent recognition (including a twelfth American Society of Cinematographers nomination) is unique and continues to mark Deakins as one of the greats.
Indeed, Deakins is “kind of the God of contemporary cinematographers,” as one of his longtime collaborators, Joel Coen, told us not long ago. So much so that Bruno Delbonnel, a huge talent in his own right, admitted he was soiling his shorts at the thought of filling his shoes on “Inside Llewyn Davis.” But Deakins is also at the forefront of the form, having transitioned fully to digital work and seemingly not missed a beat. And his work in the animated realm as a visual consultant on projects at DreamWorks Animation further diversifies his reach in the industry.
As readers of this site know, Deakins is a consistent presence in this space as we frequently talk to him for our annual “top 10 shots of the year” piece. Something from Deakins may or may not be on this year’s collective. You can find out for yourself on Feb. 11 as we roll out that feature, but for now, read through the back and forth below to learn more about Deakins’ work on not just “Prisoners,” but a film we could well be talking about at this time next year: Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” which he’s just wrapping up now in Australia.
HitFix: Hey Roger. So you’re still in Australia, huh?
Roger Deakins: Yeah, we’ve got another week and a half to go.
How’s it going out there? Are things moving along well?
It’s going really well, actually, yeah. It’s going to be pretty good.
I’m looking forward to that one. Well, I’m glad I could finally talk to you specifically about “Prisoners.” Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. I think that’s nomination number 58 or something like that?
No, you’re up to number 11 from the Academy. Easy question to answer, I guess, but how does it feel to just have this consistent sort of recognition from your peers?
It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? It’s quite amazing. I could never have imagined it, really.
Were you able to get out and see some of the other movies this year or have you been too busy?
We watched the screeners we had. Not much has been shown here. They’re all a bit later up here. But we’ve seen the screeners. We saw “Gravity” on the big screen. That was amazing.
Thank God for that. On screener that’s not nearly the same experience.
It’s an interesting year for cinematography in general. There were the seven nominations from ASC. It just shows, I guess, how competitive it was this year. What do you think of some of this other work out there?
It’s really diverse, isn’t it? I think that’s always the problem, but particularly this year: how do you judge? How do you choose? There’s such a diversity of work out there. [Laughs]
And just a diversity of methods, too.
Yeah, that’s why I was laughing, really. I work on animation at times and I was laughing because I think, well, you know, a lot of this is computer-generated. Why don’t the people that light animation qualify as cinematographers? I mean, I’m serious. The whole way of creating images, the route you go to create images is changing and diversifying, so I have no idea how you choose. But it’s nice to be amongst the group!
It’s interesting because sometimes people bring up the idea of having separate categories within cinematography for recognizing digital work or something like virtual cinematography. Should there be something like that? I don’t even know how you’d assess what’s what.
[Laughs] It’s kind of funny because how do you make the selection? On “Prisoners,” for instance, some of the snow and some of the rain is computer-generated. So how do you judge a film that is naturalistic and purist, in-camera, if you want to call it that, and one that, you know, where is the line? It’s not possible. And other people have talked over the years of doing it as a budget thing, a small film category as opposed to a big film category. But then you have to say, well, some budgets, most of the money is spent on the actors and what you actually get to shoot with is not much anyway, you know what I mean? In the end it doesn’t matter. I think the choices should encompass all of it, really, and leave it up to the individual members for which way they want to go.
That’s really it. All of this stuff gets lumped in together anyway, but the unfortunate thing is when you have those uneducated saying things like, “Oh, what did Chivo really do on ‘Gravity’ anyway? It’s all visual effects.” It couldn’t be more ignorant as to what he did on the movie.
So hopefully that curve catches up. It’s obviously such a transitioning medium, like so many other things today.
But, you know, it’s always been like that. I sometimes quote a conversation I heard once between some of my peers where they were talking about something I had shot and they said, “Yeah, it was nicely shot, but I wanted to judge something that had a lot of lighting.” And they were talking about a movie that was entirely lit. It was totally faked but – in a way that was a compliment. But again, how do you judge?
Well I have to say I’ve revisited “Prisoners” a couple of times and something that always sticks out to me is there are a lot of shots through windows, or rain-streaked windows. One image of Jake Gyllenhaal through a grimed-up window sticks out in my mind. There’s the shot of the deer in the back of the truck or the kids walking away from the RV shot through the back window. Just in general, that motif kept bubbling up. Is that something you wanted to do or is it something that just came naturally?
A bit of both, really. We talked about it and Denis had a number of images when we were in prep that he brought and we discussed. A lot of it was just trying to keep things from being clear, literally and metaphorically. So the idea was shooting a lot of it through glass or somehow making it less clear.
Something else is the trees in the movie. They’re always there and they’re always foreboding. There’s one shot where you push in specifically, ominously, on a tree early on in the film, ratcheting the tension as we suppose the kids are being kidnapped.
Also something that was very important for Denis. When we scouted for the suburban neighborhood location, it was very important to him that we found the right trees. We found a number of locations that had pine trees, so they didn’t have these bare kind of branches. The whole thing built from there, really.
Where did you shoot this?
It was all shot in Atlanta. We were really lucky because Atlanta is usually quite bright and sunny. We were there in the winter and we were very lucky. I think they had one of the wettest winters they’ve had. That’s what we wanted. The line producer and the first AD, everybody really took it in hand to be as flexible as possible with the weather so we could look at the forecast and say, “Well, we can’t do that.” In the neighborhood we had matching houses, an interior and an exterior. So we could be shooting the exterior and if the sun came out we’d move to the interior, which would already be rigged and ready to go and we didn’t waste time. It gave us that flexibility with the light. It was really important to Denis that we shoot everything in gray sky, so it had this very sort of claustrophobic presence to it. It’s a deceptively simple film in a way because to get that is actually very difficult.
What was the importance of the rain in general, this precipitous sort of environment.
Well again, just the feeling of claustrophobia and the sadness of it.
With that in mind, why shoot it in a 1.85:1 ratio rather than scope?
You know, we talked about that quite a bit. I think it was first my choice and Denis agreed it was the best way to go. It was something about it being more observational, I suppose. A little less like you’re watching a movie. I don’t know. A lot of these are just kind of instinctual choices. I can try and talk about it but it just felt right. It felt more like a natural frame. You’re not saying, “This is a movie.” You’re saying, “These are real people in a real situation.” The way we shot it is really quite restrained because I think anything else would have brought attention to itself as being a movie and made it more melodramatic, whereas we wanted to bring it back down to a human scale. So it was all about that, really, getting into the characters and bringing it into a human scale, not saying, “You’re watching this dramatic detective story.” This is a little story about this man whose kids disappeared and the torment he’s going through and what drives him to do what he does. It’s not about making a dramatic murder mystery or Gothic horror story.
This is kind of a boring question but what brought you to the project? Because you being someone who so often collaborates with the Coen brothers, I’m always interested when you go work with a John Wells or with an Andrew Niccol or in this case Denis Villeneuve, what drew you to this project and why did you want to shoot this movie?
Denis, really. I met him at the Academy when his film “Incendies” was nominated. I sort of did an introduction for him at one of those Academy events and I thought “Incendies” was just remarkable, brilliant filmmaking. So when I heard he was going to be doing something in the States, I asked my agent to see if he had anybody. So I sort of chased it, I suppose.
And now you’re working with Angelina Jolie. How is this movie, “Unbroken,” for someone like you who has been around the block, how is this one challenging you anew?
It is incredibly challenging because of the story we have to tell, with not a big budget, and not a lot of time. We’re here in Australia because it offers us a number of really good things, but then some other things are hard to find. The story has quite a big scope. It’s a World War II story. It basically encompasses this main character’s childhood in Torrance, California then moves to the Pacific and mainland Japan when he becomes a prisoner of war. So it’s got a huge scale and scope and that’s a real challenge on what’s not a big budget or not, actually, a very long shoot. It’s been very challenging but I think the result is going to be quite remarkable.
I keep forgetting that the Coens were writers on that project. Was that your way into it at all?
Well, it’s funny because when I was sent the script I saw their names on the cover and I didn’t know they had written it! I went, “Oh, really?” And when you read it, yeah, it’s like their scripts. It’s a very visual read. I had read the book. It’s a fabulous book and encompasses so many things but to read that script and see how they had honed in on one particular – or the main core of the book in such an interesting way, it really drew me in.
Well, again, I’m looking forward to that. And congratulations again on the nominations. I’ll see you at the ASC Awards?
No, we’re going to miss it. We’re going to be here for a bit. We’re back the end of that following week, so we’ll miss it, which is a real shame.
Ah, bummer. Well good luck with the rest of the shoot and be safe out there.
Alright. Take care. Cheers.