With the record-breaking “Skyfall” (perhaps even the first billion dollar Bond) generating lots of Oscar buzz, is there any doubt that acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins will receive his 10th nomination? Not after turning in the most stunning-looking Bond movie in its illustrious 50-year history. The funny thing is: Deakins was by no means a Bond fan when director Sam Mendes approached him for the third time. But the script was too good and the opportunity was too enticing to turn him down. And like Mendes, Deakins is proud of the fact that “Skyfall” works on its own terms. Indeed, it’s very much a Mendes movie: orphan story, existential crisis, doppelganger tale, love letter to London, and dialectic between the old and the new.
“I think very much that Sam wanted to make it a movie rather than one in a series,” Deakins suggests. “But a Bond movie is full of icons and I hadn’t worked in England for so long. It is a combination of the old and the new and it is a fine line, and Sam wanted it to be as much of a character piece as an action movie. Obviously you have to have all the traditional elements of a Bond movie but Sam’s strength is development of character, and that’s certainly what attracts me to any movie.
“We really talked through the script a lot and how it evolved and the shade of it and gradually you look at locations and [production designer] Dennis Gassner started showing us set design and talking through it is a prolonged, organic process. I had more prep on this film than I’ve had on anything, really.”
However, the first major decision was to shoot digitally with the Arri Alexa — a first for Bond. Deakins is a recent digital convert, having shot the sci-fi indie, “In Time,” with the Alexa. Still, he had to first convince Mendes and producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. “When Sam approached me to do ‘Skyfall,’ I thought the style he wanted and the situations we were going to be in would be suitable for digital. I showed him some footage and, to be frank, I was quite nervous about making that decision because I’d only done one film on it but I have absolutely no regrets.” Even so, the exterior yacht scene proved the most daunting because of such harsh sunlight, but Deakins still achieved a pleasant result.
“The first camera they brought out had an electronic viewfinder and that for me is anathema. I just can’t work that way and Arri was always intending to bring out a studio camera with an optical viewfinder, but because of the economic times they pulled back doing it. So we had the first two prototypes with the optical viewfinder. I basically think digital now has more advantages than film.”
As for converting to IMAX, which boasts 26% more visual information, Deakins was pleasantly surprised. “We shot 2.35 but because of the size of the chip, you’ve got so much space top and bottom that basically I shot it for both formats. But the IMAX was clean and the image quality is fantastic.”
With “Skyfall,” the franchise is definitely more grounded and theatrical but still pushed. Visually, Deakins says you make decisions about 007’s emotional arc (a first during the Daniel Craig of a more conflicted, post-modern Bond) and the conflicts he encounters during his journey. For example, during the action-packed pre-credit sequence in sun-drenched Istanbul, where Bond is at the top if his game and then struck down, the idea was to overexpose everything to get that feeling of the blown out look combined with the final timing in the DI. “We were very lucky because most of that was done in a big exterior set at Pinewood,” Deakins notes, “and we were shooting in March with two weeks of full sunlight. So we were incredibly [fortunate] to get that hot, dry, sunny look that we needed.”
By contrast, there’s more of a gray, soft look to London, which is depicted in a more traditional, underground fashion. Then it’s on to Shanghai, which is “the brave new world.” “It was interesting to have that much time in prep and to go to places like Shanghai to look at the possibilities, but in the end most of that we did in Pinewood,” Deakins continues.
It was still valuable because they captured the modernistic essence of Shanghai, with the blue neon LED advertising screens from skyscrapers outside the office tower where Bond fights henchman Patrice (Ola Rapace) in silhouette. “The original idea was to shoot it on location in Shanghai but you couldn’t find a place with that kind of light source, so Dennis and I talked about doing it on stage with big LED signs so that we could control it and that’s how it evolved. But it’s based on that look of Shanghai.”
With Macao you’re evoking a much older and mysterious world. The Floating Dragon Casino has a seductive golden aura while the Dead City lair of baddie Silva (Javier Bardem) is based on Hashima Island off Japan with its undisturbed concrete buildings.” I think that’s why the film’s so powerful because it’s based on things that are very real, even when it’s shot on stage,” Deakins adds.
Meanwhile, with the climax in Scotland, we’re going back in time to Bond’s early roots at Skyfall while echoing the beginning of the franchise. “Scotland is very interesting,” Deakins says, “because it’s a mixture of shooting on location and in a built house that wasn’t in Scotland, and then actually doing model work and shooting in a studio with a fake burning house. That was a huge collage of different techniques, shot several weeks apart, to make it seem like a seamless piece of action.”
It’s the old and the new, indeed, for Bond. But it would be a brave new world if Deakins actually snared his elusive Oscar.