It seemed this year that if any artist was due for the retrospective treatment, it was “Unbroken” cinematographer Roger Deakins. While I of course did not address all of the 50-plus films he has shot throughout his illustrious career during a recent extended interview, I settled on a few in particular that I think represent a nice cross-section of his work. Each of them – “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Barton Fink,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Kundun,” “The Man Who Wasn't There” and “The Village” – will get their own space in the next few days.
Of all the films Roger Deakins has shot over his illustrious career, 1994's “The Shawshank Redemption” holds a special place. It has such a life beyond cinephiles, beyond the industry. Everyone loves “The Shawshank Redemption.” And Deakins had a hunch it would go over well.
“I don't often think this on a film, but about halfway through shooting that I thought, 'You know, this is going to be really good,'” he recalls, 20 years later. “I just thought the performances were so great and the whole feeling of it. Quite honestly I feel, for my taste, it's a bit soft. I wish the film had been a bit harder, you know? But it's more accessible for doing that. I think it turned out really well.”
But that feeling wasn't always shared on set. Some of the crew seemed pretty nervous that the film, from an unseasoned director at the time (Frank Darabont), would amount to much. The sets as well as the reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, which stood in for the eponymous Shawshank State Prison, played a bit of practical havoc, and Deakins – while certainly on his way – wasn't yet the super seasoned, trusted artist he is today.
“I remember making the film was a struggle,” Deakins says. “It was quite a chaotic shoot and difficult just because of what we were trying to do, where we were shooting. It was difficult to light. The main interior of the cell block was actually a set we built in a warehouse. So it was a combination of this real prison that was abandoned and this huge set that Terry Marsh had built in this warehouse, which was the big central area with all the cells facing in in a courtyard sort of thing. And both the set and the real location needed a lot of light to light it. I got a lot of pushback about how many lights I needed to make this work and stuff like that. So that's always frustrating, when you get argued back at when you say, 'No, I need this amount of light.' I was shooting, like, wide open, but I still needed that amount of light.”
He particularly remembers enjoying the company of people like Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins on the set. “I mean it was a great group of actors,” he says, and that camaraderie went a long way in soothing the nerves frayed by the taxing shoot. But when it was all said and done, praise both overt and unintended was waiting in the wings.
“I think one of the greatest compliments I've ever been paid was, after that film came out, I was invited to go up to the ASC [American Society of Cinematographers] Clubhouse and I hadn't been there at that time,” he recalls.
“I heard in a conversation – I mean nobody knew me. Why would they? There was a conversation going on with a couple of very well-known cinematographers, and one was saying to the other, 'Yeah, 'Shawshank,' it's wonderful photography. But I wouldn't vote for it because it's all natural light. I would vote something that's been lit.' And I thought, 'Natural light?? Jesus!' I just laughed. As I say, it's probably the biggest compliment anybody's ever paid me.”
The film netted Deakins the first of his 11 Oscar nominations, and obviously some of his fellow cinematographers did vote for him: he won the first of three ASC prizes to date for his work on the film.
CONCLUSION: Roger Deakins has brought us striking images from the Badlands of South Dakota and the Highlands of Scotland. He's delivered western iconography from the heart of west Texas and the peaks of Alberta with equal aplomb. He's traveled to Morocco to tell the Dalai Lama's story with Martin Scorsese, and now to Australia to tell Louis Zamperini's with Angelina Jolie. I spent much of the last year revisiting his entire portfolio, noting his tendencies (he likes his silhouettes and high angle shots, and like any DP, delights in night fire lighting), studying his work, more or less preparing for a series I knew he deserved. Again, it was worth it, I felt, to dive into this particular filmography and highlight a few unique examples.
I also asked a few people along the way their thoughts on working with Deakins, like Ben Kingsley, who starred in Vadim Perelman's “House of Sand and Fog.” Said the Oscar-winning actor, “Roger is a narrative director of photography. He wants to tell the story. 'What tells the story? If I put the lamp there, he's just sitting in a room. If I put the lamp there, he's the loneliest man in the world.'” Or Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in Sam Mendes' “Jarhead” and Denis Villeneuve's “Prisoners.” He had similar sentiments. “There”s a comfort that you get as an actor when you know you have people, particularly department heads, who are telling the story and that that”s priority over what their specific job is,” he told me. “To me, the story's always priority over the character. When it works, it's fucking magic. So Deakins, when you're working with him, is so hyperaware of the story that he's shaping and molding and blocking and emphasizing. And he's going to tell you what's up. And by the way, that”s what we”re trying to do when we make movies. At least that”s what I hope we're trying to do.”
So I hope, if you've had the time to follow along, you've enjoyed this series over the holiday. If you'd like to catch up, check out the links below.
And don't forget to read our “Unbroken”-centric interview with Deakins here.