Roger Deakins on WWII, the ocean’s ‘endless prison’ and inspirations for ‘Unbroken’

“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,” “Kundun,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Man Who Wasn't There,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “The Reader,” “True Grit,” “Skyfall,” “Prisoners.” Surely one of those films won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, right? Nope. Roger Deakins has 11 Oscar nominations but, to date, has not been granted access to the Dolby Theater stage (or the Kodak Theater…or the Shrine Auditorium…he's a veteran of multiple Oscar venues at this point). Could that change with Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken?” Possibly.

Deakins pushed himself quite a bit on the film and played with a few aesthetic ideas he hadn't really dabbled in before. It's only the second time he's worked in the war genre (after 2005's “Jarhead”), but he paints Jolie's canvas with striking hues of contrast. For a film that could be a formidable prestige Oscar player, it may well be his best shot at the gold since the Best Picture-winning “No Country for Old Men” seven years ago.

But enough about all of that. Let's dig into the work. I've probably interviewed Roger more times than I have anyone else in this business, and every conversation is as enlightening as the last. He's an artist in every sense of the word, creative, passionate, enigmatic in his way. He remains probably the biggest asset to any production he finds himself a part of, and it's an on-going lunacy that he doesn't have an Academy Award to his credit.

That will change some day, I'm sure of it. For now, learn more about what went into the production of “Unbroken” and what he and Jolie were trying to accomplish in the back and forth below. And for fans of that big Thelma Schoonmaker series we ran last year? Let's just say there's more Roger Deakins in this space on the horizon.

“Unbroken” opens Christmas Day.


HitFix: I think people will continue to mention David Lean when it comes to a movie like this, “Bridge on the River Kwai,” in particular. You've never really struck me as someone who references too much, but let's talk about guys like Freddie Young and Jack Hildyard. Are they touchstones at all for you, particularly when you set about envisioning “Unbroken?”

Roger Deakins: No, the film that Angie had mentioned and was one of my favorites was actually a Sidney Lumet movie, “The Hill,” which Ossie Morris shot. I knew him somewhat. He was, I think, a bigger influence than anybody on me, his work.

How so?

Just the breadth of his work over the years. Not just “The Hill” but “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was one of his best pieces, and obviously he did “Moby Dick” for John Huston. I always admired his work more than anybody else's.

Why was it that Angelina was interested in the look of “The Hill?”

“The Hill,” in a way, is sort of classicist. And in a way it's formalist. Early on when we were talking about “Unbroken,” she very much wanted to make a classic movie rather than a handheld, documentary-esque kind of film, and she gravitated towards that. Sidney Lumet's style is a deceptively simple approach to filmmaking, isn't it? Probably matter-of-fact. It's about composition and allowing things to happen within a frame, and that became quite a reference for us, really.

You mentioned Sunday during the Q&A that you don't particularly like working on action films.

I don't like action films, but then I did do “Jarhead,” which was a war film. And that was all handheld. I think the juxtaposition of those two films is interesting because “Jarhead” was much more immediate and had a much more contemporary feel to it.

Yeah, but I guess it kind of gets to what you further made in that point, which is that you were interested in the character study of “Unbroken.” And then “Jarhead,” with the Albert Camus of it all and “The Stranger,” it's not a full-blown war movie. It's like an existential war movie. And that kind of fits what you like.

That's true, yeah.

On the action films note, though, why don't you like making them?

Maybe that was being a bit flippant or whatever but I gravitate toward films about characters. I like photographing the human face. It's as simple as that. I find it more interesting. I don't like a lot of technology, and action films usually dictate multiple cameras and shooting endless amounts of shots to get it done. The nearest I've ever been to shooting an action film was the Bond film and we shot that primarily with one camera. It was an action film but we didn't shoot it like an action film. That was something we discussed before doing that film and I was very anxious that it wasn't a film that was done with multiple angles and lots of coverage, that it was much more considered about what the camera was looking at.

You said your father served in World War II. So what did it mean to you to work on a film like this?

Well, when I read the book, “Unbroken,” it felt like, “OK, I'm reading a book about Louie Zamperini and his experience because he was a celebrity before he went to war.” And I just related it to my father's experience during the war, and somebody's not going to make a film about his life, but for me Louie was standing in for all those guys that went off, 1920, 1921, and those four or five years they spent. Obviously I didn't know my dad before the war, but I know the effect it had on him because of the amount he talked about it. It did change him. There's no doubt about it. And it took those years of his life, good and bad.

I wanted to talk about the look of this film. There was a bit of a – I'm not sure how to put it – a bleached element in some of it? That wasn't really something I had seen you play around with before.

A bleached look. Is it really? Deliberately on the raft sequences, but not elsewhere. I'm surprised you say that, really.

I guess I'm thinking in terms of some of the effects aesthetic, and particularly the plane stuff in the beginning. The “Memphis Belle” sequence, as it were.

Yeah, we wanted this kind of real sense. I wanted it to feel like the light outside the plane was coming in. When you're in a plane, you're in a dark space, but those windows and the exterior look really bright, so I wanted to get that look.

And maybe “saturation” is more what I'm getting at elsewhere in the film. Does that make sense?

Yeah. I think it's more direct, and I thought I played with more, in a way, natural colors than I often do. But that's also because there's a lot of exterior work.

There's a lot of play with hues and such, especially toward the end there with the coal and the soot on the guys in the POW camp and how the tones contrast.

We didn't want to stretch the look, but there's very definite looks to each chapter. The B-24 bombing run is a specific look, the dark interiors and the bright exterior. I would say that's kind of a bleached-out environment, that the plane's in. The Kwajalein [Atoll] very much wanted to get the green of the dankness of the jungle, and the darkness of this little hole that they're kept in as prisoners. And then the raft, I didn't want it to feel like too archetypal blue and picture book, but it did want to have a kind of beauty – a starkness, but a kind of beauty to it. That, to me, juxtaposes against what they're actually going through. These guys are on this raft and sort of burning in the sun, but there's a sort of beauty to this endless seascape. So that was a very deliberate look, and the yellow of the raft that gradually fades with time.

And then Omori, it's a wooden [POW] camp. It's surrounded by this wooden stockade. So we wanted that kind of warmth to it, this kind of dusty feel. It was obviously more of a Bill Brandt coal mine, Sebastião Salgado kind of world of coal and blacks. We had very definite ideas. But you don't want to stretch it so much that it becomes an affectation. It's just like the flashbacks. Just because it's a period flashback – I mean the whole film is period – but the flashbacks within the film, it didn't want to suddenly say, “Oh, now we're going to go into sepia because it's flashback.” I deliberately make the interiors have a kind of red warmth to them to make them stand out, but hopefully it's not an affectation. It just gives you these little pointers.

Absolutely. And there's also a bit of a visual commentary with that raft sequence in terms of the scope of the world and man's place in it, how small we are.

Yeah. I think some people found that whole sequence on the raft a bit boring, and a bit same-y, but there's something about the point that it's a bit same-y. Not much changes when you're out in the middle of the ocean. I know. I've sailed around the world on the ocean, and it's very same-y. There's something that's almost claustrophobic. It's like that endless prison. You're in prison but it's this vista.

You've obviously been deep in the digital realm for a few years, and you're just now going back to film…

I'm going back to film on the Coens movie [“Hail Caesar!”].

Yeah, we talked about that a little while ago. How are you liking it?

It's going OK. We've had a few technical glitches that I can't understand, that I've never experienced when shooting with film before. But we're doing alright. We're actually having fun.

You're not rusty are you? [Laughs.]

No! I'm don't think I'm rusty. I hope not. It's just little technical things that I don't understand, purely film camera things. But otherwise it's been great.

Was “Unbroken” always going to be digital? Did you and Angelina ever flirt with the idea of celluloid?

Yeah, we talked about it. She imagined that we were going to shoot film, but as we gradually looked into it. I mean it was obvious that there was going to be a lot of effects work in it. The whole B-24 sequence, we obviously weren't up in a plane flying. There was a lot of effects work. And just the Alexa camera, there's just more resolution, frankly, than you would get on film. It's much easier to separate the backgrounds. We shot the four sides mock-up of the plane and we just lit with this big white cyc [cyclorama] and blew out the windows, but it was the practical way to do it for the CG artists, to be able to take that window and extract it. If we had been shooting on film, we would have had to use blue screen to allow them that much flexibility. So there are so many advantages. And I think I might have said to you before, there was no lab in Australia by then. All the labs had closed down. So we would have been shipping film across the world and that was just not going to be – you know, it's stressful. [Laughs.]

Yeah, you don't know how your work's turning out.

Yeah. It takes two or three days to get a report. That's stressful.

The last time we chatted you had not had a chance to see a number of this year's films yet. I'm curious if you've caught up with anything now.

Yeah we've been watching a few, actually.

What do you like?

I found “Birdman” really impressive. Chivo's work is always, like, amazing. For me that's been the most impressive film so far. I want to see “Mr. Turner” that my friend Dick Pope shot. I haven't seen that yet. That's the one I really want to see.

It's beautiful. I was just transcribing something from him right before I called you, actually.

Oh were you? Yeah, it sounds like it's really great.

It's very tableau, the filmmaking.


Well this was beautiful work here on “Unbroken.” Were you satisfied with how it all worked out? Because I know there was a lot going on with the editing in the waning hours there.

Yeah, the editing, and the effects work – there was a lot of effects work that came in very late, and we were all sort of keeping an eye on that all the time. I was watching effects work twice a week or something – I might have told you – right up until the last week and the film being locked. But it was a great experience. And I'm looking forward to working with Angie on this next project.

Yeah, “Africa.” When do you start that?

I'll have a bit of a break after I finish with the Coen brothers and then we'll go into prep on that.

Do you know where you'll shoot it?

I don't know, because it's really early days. But because it's so specifically about Richard Leakey and his life and work, as much about his struggle to protect elephants as anything – I don't know how you shoot anywhere but Kenya, really. But I don't know. It's early days yet.

Great. Well like I said, great work on this. And enjoy working from home on the Coens' film for a change!

Yeah! Alright. Take care.