This weekend the revival of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” finally becomes a reality. The hard work Jamieson McGonigle has put into this thing behind the scenes is something to behold and notice has been taken across the net, his mission statement even making it into a New York Times Business section piece a few weeks back. I’ve been honored to have a hand in it all and look forward to hopping a plane later this week to share in the spirit out in Queens Saturday night.
In the run-up to that event, a number of outlets – Ain’t It Cool News, Film.com, Film School Rejects, The Film Stage and HitFix – will be offering up appreciations of various elements from the film. As you might have expected, it’s on me to look back on Roger Deakins’ next-level photography, and the pleasure is all mine.
I phoned Deakins up a while back specifically for this piece, to gauge his reflective thoughts on the project. It was a great year for him: he was double-nominated by the Academy for “Jesse James” and “No Country for Old Men.” Robert Elswit won the Oscar for “There Will Be Blood” and the other nominees were exemplary as well. It was really a great year for the form, so much so that it inspired an annual feature reflecting on the top 10 shots of the year here at In Contention. And yes, the most iconic image of “Jesse James” not only made the list, but took the top spot.
Deakins is pretty low key about this kind of thing. He immediately, for instance, extends the credit of the film’s visual poetry to novelist Ron Hansen’s work on the page. “It almost visualizes that world itself,” he says, “that descriptive nature of the writing.” But nevertheless, what Deakins saw through that lens was pure magic, kissed with mythology and iconography.
The film is a sort of tone poem, he concedes, but the aim was to get the authenticity right. More to the point, the elegiac aspect of the story was something he and director Roger Deakins wanted to capture, “that moment in history when the world was changing and industry was arriving – the old west was dying.” It’s something that’s rarely been done in movies and that excited Deakins. You can call it a western, he says, but it crosses over into something else. It is, as he has said plenty of times, a “Victorian western.”
It’s also worth noting that Deakins preferred the longer version of the film, which Dominik is still hoping can see the light of day. It delved more deeply into the characters, he says, what happened to Zee and Frank James, “and it just had a better sense of the changing times and the idea that this world was dying,” he says. “And in a way, that’s what Jesse James knew. It was a much more kind of reflective and thoughtful piece. And most of that extra time went on in the latter part of the movie after Jesse James was killed.”
It was a very ambitious shoot. Deakins and the rest of the crew were tasked with filming a large and sprawling piece of work in something like 60 days. Finding the right weather for this look or that was always a chore and concessions you’d never have noticed were made, this scene or that forced off an uncooperative location and onto a sound stage.
But Deakins is rare for having lensed two westerns in the modern era, the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” in addition to “Jesse James.” And he opts to stretch that to three as he very much feels that “No Country for Old Men” deals in the themes and, in some ways, frontier crucial to the genre. But with “True Grit” in particular, he marks just one shared element between the two: a sense of reflection.
“It had some of the same melancholy sort of feel about it,” he says. “And certainly with Rooster’s character there were certain moments that became almost, dare I say, existential. It was that kind of reflective material at times.” But beyond that, the visual acumen of the Coens and that of Dominik are so strikingly different that it made Deakins’ experience on the two films completely different.
“Jesse James” was also one of the last features Deakins shot on film, as he has made a full transition to digital filmmaking and embraces it wholeheartedly now. Part of what he achieved on Dominik’s film was done digitally, in fact, because the digital finish went a long way toward giving him control over the image. “I couldn’t actually do what I wanted to do photochemically,” he says.
And when I say his work in the digital sphere doesn’t quite have the digital “look” so prevalent in other such work, he’s not really having any of it. “I don’t really know what that is when you say a ‘digital look,'” he says. “I know some movies look digital but it’s kind of the way they’re shot and the technology and processing that’s being used on them. But I don’t think the average person would notice it.”
Maybe, maybe not. But having a master behind the camera makes all the difference in the world, whether it’s a film magazine or a hard drive in play. And that was certainly the case on “Jesse James”: a master was behind the camera, cranking out some of the most memorable cinematic imagery of the modern era, some of the 10-time Oscar nominee’s finest work to date on one of the greatest films ever made.
How’s that for superlatives?
The “Jesse James” Revival gets its moment on Saturday, Dec. 7.