INTERVIEW: Shooting Coens; D.P. Roger Deakins and "The Man Who Wasn't There"
by Ryan Mottesheard
(indieWIRE/ 10.30.01) — “If I bring anything to the Coen Brothers‘ films, it’s my ability to change tack and create a different mood from film to film,” Roger Deakins tells me in his typically demure fashion.
Creating different moods, I soon learned, is Deakins’ primary obsession. In the course of a decade in America, his different ‘moods’ have jockeyed between the warm nostalgia of “O Brother Where Art Thou?“, the epic fluidity of “Kundun,” the lab experiment realism of “Fargo” and the bittersweet poeticism of “The Shawshank Redemption.” (This is without mentioning his 1980s UK work that includes “Sid and Nancy” and “White Mischief.”) It is, however, Deakins’ work with Joel and Ethan Coen for which he is best known and their latest effort, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” will do nothing to dispel his esteemed reputation.
Their “black and white barber movie” is full of the directors’ hallmarks; violence, dreams, howling fat men and peculiar haircuts (to borrow analysis from William Preston Robertson‘s book on the making of “The Big Lebowski“). This is not to say that “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is short on plot, but then neither was “Lebowski” or “Miller’s Crossing” or anything the Coens have done for that matter. Here we have a small-town barber, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with a local businessman (James Gandolfini). What follows are familiar noir chestnuts such as blackmail, murder, duplicity and the wrong schmuck taking the fall. Yet this being a Coen Brothers movie, the plot machinations are less important than say, the sight of a grown man riding a pig at an Italian wedding reception.
indieWIRE sat down with celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins to talk about his different “moods,” the nuances of black and white photography and shooting for the Coens.
indieWIRE: You come from documentaries, correct?
Roger Deakins: I did a few documentaries as co-director and cameraman. I started off shooting a film about the war in Rhodesia. Then I did a film about an ‘around the world’ yacht race with a friend, and we spent nine months on a yacht. The film was about how people get on in confined spaces under extreme stress. We were really filming the crew, but we were part of the crew and so also part of the subject.
iW: I would think the naturalistic world of documentaries and the meticulously designed world of the Coens are polar opposites.
Deakins: In a way, yeah, you’re right. Within the confines of making movies, they are polar opposites. But when I first started thinking of what I was going to do with my life I wanted to be a still photographer, a photojournalist like Tim Page or somebody. Yet right from the start I was mad about the movies. The little town I was brought up in, I’d go to the film society to these very extreme sorts of films that you wouldn’t normally see in the movie houses. But I never dreamed that I would get into the position to be shooting movies equivalent to the ones I loved as a kid.
iW: You went from your most jovial Coen Brothers’ movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, to arguably their darkest in “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
Deakins: They called “O Brother” their ‘hayseed movie to end all hayseed movies.’ I must admit I do like that darker world. I love reading different scripts and helping create different looks, different environments. Sometimes you go to meet a director over a particular script and they’ll say, “I want you to do this because I want it to look like Shawshank” and I’m like, well, I’m not that interested in doing that again.
iW: Aside from the obvious black and white, do you feel that “O Brother” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” are vastly different from an aesthetic standpoint?
Deakins: They are radically different really. Again, I think every film demands its own look, but especially the Coen Brothers’ films. They write them with a visual concept in mind. Their scripts are obviously very character and dialogue-driven but also very visual and quite specific. “Fargo,” for instance, was a much more naturalistic, observational piece, while in “Hudsucker,” the camera was moving all over the place. And in “Barton Fink,” the camera is very much a character within the room, moving independently of the actors.
“O Brother” is probably the most simplistic in terms of the way it’s shot and covered, but they had a very particular look — a dry, Dust Bowl look — and the main focus on that picture was in creating this burned, postcard sort of landscape.
iW: After all the digital processing in “O Brother,” did “The Man Who Wasn’t There” seem like a walk in the park?
Deakins: Well, you’re going from high-technology color to something very traditional, a black and white picture. I wouldn’t say it’s more simple, but I look at black and white photography as being more pure. It’s really about the content of the frame and subject matter. Often times, color is just a distraction.
iW: And it was the first film they’ve done in black and white. Were you pretty excited about shooting in B&W?
Deakins: We did pieces of “Hudsucker” in black and white, but this is the first film since film school that I shot entirely in black and white. The Coens were talking about this “black and white barber movie” for quite some time.
iW: You said you wanted it to look more like B&W Godard than, say the John Alton style lighting associated with American film noir.
Deakins: I wanted to have more tonal range than a lot of old American film noirs. The Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake movies, they’re quite bold, the mid-tones are reduced, very black and white. In this, I wanted to use a wider palette. When we go to the jail and Billy Bob is talking to Fran across the table; I wanted it to be sort of a pastel grey look rather than strictly black and white. I wanted to be able to create a lot more different looks than you find in the John Alton films.
iW: Were you looking at specific Godard films shot by Raoul Coutard?
Deakins: We didn’t obviously go look at Godard films before making “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” but I think in general, Coutard’s photography is much more about naturalism and soft sources, partially because he didn’t light a lot, or used natural light. His black and white or Sven Nykvist‘s work on Bergman‘s movie is much more naturalistic and full of grey tones. Not this hard-edged black and white look that say, John Alton was doing in American noirs. Even look at “Hud,” which doesn’t relate to this film at all, but is similar in its naturalistic way of looking at things and the vastly different looks all inside one movie. That’s what excited me with “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” that the prison could be this dull, monotonous grey at one time, then another time a huge shaft light could shoot through the bars onto Tony Shaloub, lighting him almost like in a theater show.
iW: What films, noir and otherwise, did the Coens throw into the mix?
Deakins: We talk about movies all the time, whether we’re location scouting or whatever. ut the only specific film they mentioned in regards to “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was “Shadow of Doubt” (1942, Hitchcock). [The two films share the same setting of Santa Rosa, California in the 1940’s.]
iW: The Coens are notorious for dodging questions in interviews. I assume they open up more with you during the filmmaking process.
Deakins: We don’t really have deep conversations about anything. We love movies. We have fun making images. We talk about shots and how something worked or didn’t. Like, what if we play him in silhouette? What if we move in on that shot? We don’t deeply analyze anything at all. If someone asks them ‘what’s it about?’ or ‘what’s it mean?’ they’re just like