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.
In 1985, with a wealth of documentary experience and a handful of narrative toe-dips under his belt, Roger Deakins got the call by director Alex Cox to help him envision the tumultuous relationship of Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious and groupie-turned-soul-mate Nancy Spungen. The resulting film, “Sid and Nancy,” was an artistic starburst, shrugging off certain biopic tropes in favor of surreal and dreamlike connective tissue for its various episodes.
One image from the film in particular stands out as perhaps one of the most iconic shots in cinema history, and certainly a major such frame from Deakins' own filmography. It's the image you certainly think of when someone brings up the film, the eponymous pair smooching in an alley as garbage rains down from above.
“A number of people have mentioned that shot over the years,” Deakins says. “It was funny because I would drive to work with Alex and Abbe Woo, who wrote the script. It's morning and we were driving and Alex said, 'I think we need something a little, you know – we want it down and dirty, but it's poetic. We want to feel how close these two characters are becoming. But it wants to be kind of surreal.' And Abbe said, 'Well, what if they're kissing in the street, in the alleyway, and there's all this trash falling down?' And then Alex said, 'Yeah, OK, but we don't want it too pretty. What if there's maybe bins and heavy things falling down as well?' So it was all a discussion in the car.
“We get to set and I said to my assistant, 'OK, we need to go high speed because otherwise this is not going to work. So we need a camera that will do 120 frames [per second],' which we didn't have with us. And then, 'We need it now,' right? So we called around all the rental houses to get this camera, and then the magazine kept jamming at 120 frames. So we shot it about six times and one time the camera ran enough film that we had the length of a shot and that's what's in the movie. Right literally before the camera jammed again. I love that shot.”
There was also the vibrant recreation of Sid Vicious' music video cover of Frank Sinatra's “My Way,” which, again, was less about direct replication than evoking the sense of the thing.
“'My Way' was great,” Deakins says, “because it doesn't really look like the actual thing that he did in Paris that time, the video he did. We did something a little bit slicker than that, you know? The stairs with the fluorescent tubes and everything. That was a lot of fun, actually.”
Those are just a couple examples from a wealth of imagery in the film that feels inspired and evocative. Sid sitting on a fogged over curb as Nancy calls home at a red phone booth behind him. His reflection in a taxi window as she looks on from inside, beckoning him to catch a cab with her to the afterlife. Moment after moment, it's a pretty bold visual experience.
“So much of that was made up as we went along,” Deakins says. “It was kind of nice like that. I wouldn't say sometimes it wasn't frustrating. It was not knowing what we were going to do on the day, and I mean I started my career doing documentaries [where that is commonplace], but it was also very exhilarating, that you were just making it up. I mean there's one shot in there where the Sex Pistols are on a boat on the Thames and there's like a party on the boat. And the police raid it because they're going crazy. The boat pulls up on the dock side and we wanted to do something that showed them walking away from this scene of mayhem, but they were kind of in their own world. So I said, 'Let's just do a handheld shot.' I walked backwards and it went on and on and on and it went all up this gangplank, and right at the end I thought, 'Oh, it's great. We got the London Town Hall, the City Hall, in the background.' So when they went out of frame we ended up looking down the river. It's just – it was a great shot. I was surprised when we shot it that it actually ended up in the film in its entirety.”
He also recalls having a great time with actor Gary Oldman, who was tackling one of his first big film parts at the time as Vicious. Strange in hindsight that the only awards recognition he received was an Evening Standard British Film Award for most promising newcomer.
“He was so into it,” Deakins says. “He had the hair implants to get the whole effect. I remember we went out one night in San Francisco rather late, got rather drunk, and he was still in character. It was really funny, wandering around. Fantastic.”
Bouncing around the Tenderloin or the Mission with Roger Deakins and Gary OIdman in character as Sid Vicious. The mind reels.
Don't forget to read our “Unbroken”-centric interview with Deakins here.