Roger Deakins reflects on ‘The Village’ and M. Night Shyamalan’s obsession

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,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Man Who Wasn't There” and “The Village” – will get their own space in the next few days.

Say what you will about director M. Night Shyamalan, but he has put together some impressive crews for his many singular cinematic works. His only collaboration with Roger Deakins to date, and a film for which the cinematographer probably should have earned one of his 11 Oscar nominations, was 2004's “The Village.”

It was a unique professional experience for Deakins. Though he had become accustomed to storyboarding through his collaborations with the Coen brothers, he had never dealt with the level of precision he encountered with Shyamalan.

“I sat with him a long time doing the boards with him,” Deakins recalls. “I think it's a little obsessive because, you know, working with Joel and Ethan, they do storyboards and sometimes I'm involved more than others. But it can change on the day. I remember on 'The Man Who Wasn't There,' things changed. You know, five cuts became one long shot. Things change as you go. More and more they use storyboards as a sort of template, not as a sort of bible. Whereas M. Night on 'The Village,' that was it. That was the shot. If the actor wanted to change it, 'No, that's the shot.' I can understand it, and I didn't find it frustrating at all, actually. But I do find it a little bit restrictive.”

But that was part of the director's genius in some ways, Deakins says, because of the manner in which every image was designed to lead to the next. “I think it probably worked better on 'The Sixth Sense' than it did on 'The Village,' though,” he says. “I think 'The Village' needed a little bit more sense of reality. It was a little too stylized and a little bit too mannered. And I don't think the audience could quite connect with it as a real thing, as a real situation, because of that. I think that's why the film fell down a little bit. Because I think the story, in essence, was fantastic. I think it was a great idea.”

Indeed, the late-film twist – an element of storytelling Shyamalan had by that point become known for – sounds interesting on paper. It was sort of a “Twilight Zone” episode extended to feature length. But everything that built to that moment (a moment that left many critics groaning) made for an interesting exercise in aesthetic atmosphere nevertheless, Deakins' haunting imagery playing off interesting palette choices, meticulous production design and with a piercing accompanying score.

“That was partly M. Night, because he had very definite ideas about the color of the cloth, the yellow and the 'red danger' and all that,” Deakins says. “That was very much built into the whole story.”

Shyamalan has reached out to Deakins a number of times since to collaborate on this or that project, but their schedules have never really aligned. But to hear it from Deakins, it was a pleasurable experience, so perhaps some day.

“I really enjoyed it,” he says. “We had a good time. I spent quite a lot of time with him at his house in Pennsylvania doing the storyboards. He has a very nice, tight-knit crew and he's very loyal to a lot of the people he's worked with for a long time. It was like a big family, actually. It was really nice.”

Don't forget to read our “Unbroken”-centric interview with Deakins here.