In my world, Roger Deakins is a movie star.
Some of the most indelible images of the last quarter-century of film were composed by the eye of this amazing Englishman. The heroin-sick rot of “Sid and Nancy” and the muted Mamet’s haunting “Homicide” and the Art Deco-flavored candy of “The Hudsucker Proxy”, the ’30s postcard perfection of “The Shawshank Redemption” and the frozen Minnesota Hell of “Fargo” and the lush shifting mandala of “Kundun”… these are just a few of the remarkable tapestries that Deakins has laid out over the course of his career.
For my money, there are very few films that have ever been photographed with the same sensual control as “The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and the fact that he went head-to-head with Robert Elswit for “There Will Be Blood,” another singular accomplishment in film craft, was just one of those flukes of timing that you have to shake off. He’s been nominated seven times for the Oscar, and he’s never won. His own peers, the ASC, have awarded him twice for “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There, and nominated him many times as well. He is thought of as one of the giants in his field right now, and for good reason. There are few artists in front of or behind the camera whose work is as above reproach these days.
When I was offered a chance to chat with him, I was in Austin getting ready for Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and since I’d already seen “True Grit,” Paramount told me there was a short window of time where he’d be available. It was funny… I was staying with my good friend Aaron, who is making the film “The Home” with Eric Vespe, better known to Ain’t It Cool readers as Quint. So I knew Quint was interviewing Deakins right before me, and Aaron was texting Quint during my interview, comparing notes in real time basically. Ahhhhh, this small small online world of ours.
I was thrilled to be included. I love this gentleman’s work, and when you’re on set, you rarely have time to talk to the cinematographer because of how labor intensive their work is during the day. Knowing that the clock was ticking and that he was already at the tail end of a day of press, I tried to jump right in. It’s been an amazing year for Deakins. His work on “How To Train Your Dragon” and “True Grit” pretty much shows off his range, working on the cutting edge of technology while also showing off the virtues of classic photography.
“It’s funny you’d put it that way. I’m in Los Angeles right now, shooting something, and it’s my first time shooting with a digital camera. It’s been a very diverse year.” I asked how he got involved in “Dragon” and mentioned his work for Pixar on “WALL-E,” which seemed to push that studio in a really bold direction, just as “Dragon” did for Dreamworks. “I’ve also been doing some work on Gore Verbinski’s film ‘Rango,'” he said, which you should keep in mind is while also shooting “The Company Men” and “Grit.” For a 61 year old man, his schedule exhausts me just to consider. “I would say that with ‘How To Train Your Dragon,’ I probably had the most involvement just because I was on that over a span of fourteen months. I was very very interested in bringing in live-action techniques, and not just in terms of lighting. But also in terms of shot construction and trying to capture that feel you get when you break something down to shoot it.”
The communication between collaborators on a film set is key, and particularly that relationship that exists between director and cinematographer. Some of the most striking work on Deakins’s filmography is his work with Joel and Ethan Coen. “A Serious Man.” “No Country For Old Men.” “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” “O Brother Where Art Thou?” “Barton Fink.” “The Big Lebowski.” Each of those films is gorgeous, each so totally different. The first time I saw “Hudsucker,” it felt like a magic trick to me. Even the two films by the Coens that I fundamentally dislike, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” are shot with the same inventive and playful eye that has marked their entire history together. “True Grit” marks their eleventh film together, and I asked him how they sit down together on a new project and decide what the starting point is on this next artistic adventure together.
“In this case, it was with the book, because at first, there was no script. They said they were just doing the book, and in the end, the book is very much like the script that they wrote. So I read the book, and we sat down and had that conversation, and I worked with that while they went off and wrote the script. And, look, it always starts with the script. No matter who wrote it or who is directing it. There’s nothing different… with them, with anyone, it all comes back to the script.”
I asked him how a cinematographer approaches a Western, when the American West is arguably the most photographed subject in Hollywood history. “Oh, I was definitely aware of that, having shot ‘Jesse James.’ At first, I thought of this as my second Western, but then when you read the book and what the Coens did with it, it’s such a different animal. I don’t approach films purely in context of genre. I was pleased to be able to shoot a Western, but I don’t just think of it as just a Western. It’s about the particular story and these characters and how to convey that.”
I told him that the most immediate difference for me is how “Jesse James” feels like you’re looking at something long dead, a memory pressed between pages in a book. “I’m really pleased you’d say that. That’s exactly what Andrew was trying to do. It’s a very melancholy piece. ‘True Grit’ is much more direct. The visual language is totally direct.”
I told him that the film felt very grounded in reality at the beginning, but the further you get into it, the more it feels like we’re really watching it through Mattie’s eyes. In particular, there’s a scene near the end that is almost a fever dream. I asked how consciously they chose to make it a film from her perspective. “We talked about that quite a lot, actually,” he said. “And that sequence you’re talking about as the result of a number of demands. It had to be shot that way. We couldn’t afford to do this big extended sequence on location of them riding and riding. It had to be shot that way. We almost had to make it abstract.”
Obviously, “True Grit” is a major player in this year’s Oscar race, and I asked him if it bothers him that many of the people voting on the awards watch these films on the screeners that are sent out, which aren’t even high-definition, and they’re often watermarked with things that obscure some of the image, which would seem to render them useless when voting on best cinematography. “I notice the same problem even on set, when I see the director and everyone else and they want to watch dailies on their laptops. Or maybe on a TV monitor. These days, you don’t have dailies sessions in a theater. And that affects the way people even compose their films now. That’s just the reality of how films are viewed these days.”
I asked him how he chooses projects these days, telling him that I imagine he has his choice of collaborators. “Well, thank you. That’s not really how it works in the business. I’ve been lucky to develop relationships with several filmmakers like Joel and Ethan, and hopefully I’ll keep working with them.” I talked to him about how I’ve always loved the visual style of the Coens films, and how it feels like their voice found its purest expression in the work they’ve done with him. “I love working with them. They create such a different visual language in each of the films. I think they’ve changed over the years, and there’s such a change in style and mood for each film.”
I asked him what tests he’s been doing, and what cameras he’s been working with for digital photography, like the RED Epic or the Viper. He’s always been a guy who seemed determined to fuse the digital and chemical disciplines of photography together, and was one of the first people to really talk about the marvels of digital DI in post-production. “I moved into that on ‘O Brother’ because it was the only technique available to get the look that we wanted. Having done that and seeing the advances in the digital post-production world, I realized there was so much more freedom to realize what it is you have in your mind’s eye. I think digital photography is opening up so many new tools and you’ll always need a human to operate it. You’ll always have to have a human deciding what shots you need to tell a story and how to best communicate something.” I talked about the way I’ve run into cinematographers that are dead-set against ever shooting digitally, almost as if they think it will mess up their mojo and permanently alter what it is they do. I asked Deakins if there are any tools he just simply won’t use, or if everything’s fair game in pursuit of telling the story. “I constantly look for new tools to use, anything that might help me, but I shouldn’t mention the names of the cameras that I absolutely would not go near. I think technology has advanced so far now that there are some cameras on the market that give film a run for its money. It’s all about flexibility in capturing images, and digital or film, it doesn’t matter to me.”
I noted the huge disparity in experience between Jeff Bridges, a veteran actor who is also an accomplished photographer in his own right, and Hailee Steinfeld, a 13-year-old who had never starred in a movie, and asked if that disparity means that Deakins works in different ways with the two of them. “Not really. Obviously Jeff’s comfort level was a little higher than Hailee’s, and at the start of the shoot, she was very aware of trying to create a character with all of these people standing around. I think our job is always to try and create a comfort zone and intrude as little as possible. If you don’t have the performance, you don’t have the film. And Hailee… we learned quickly that we didn’t have to make any adjustments for her. She’s incredible, and she was able to jump right in.”
Finally, I wanted to ask him about his feelings on 3D and the industry’s mania to push photographers to shoot with the new Pace system or with a similar process. “Well, I quite liked at Dreamworks, the 3D that we experimented with on the animated films I was involved in. But I don’t see in live-action… I think it’s like many things right now, like flashy camera work and fast cutting, are really just ways of hiding that there’s no story. Instead of spending the money on 3D, they should spend the money on some decent scripts. You don’t need 3D. It’s a totally different experience watching a stereo film. It’s more like an amusement park ride than a story. I like watching films like paintings. I don’t want to be inside them. I want to look at them.”
Roger Deakins has spent his career crafting things worth looking at, and I hope he continues for many years to come. If you haven’t had the chance, check out our latest gallery of images from “True Grit.” Even in these stills, you get a sense of just how much character Deakins brings to every frame he shoots.
“True Grit” opens in theaters December 22.