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Famed Cinematographer Roger Deakins Talks Coens, Storytelling, ‘Prisoners’

Famed Cinematographer Roger Deakins Talks Coens, Storytelling, 'Prisoners'

I spoke to British cinematographer Roger Deakins via Skype while he was filming Angelina Jolie’s challenging new film “Unbroken” on the water in New Zealand. Deakins, who often collaborates with the Coen brothers, is a go-to cinematographer for many filmmakers and is revered by actors because he puts storytelling front and center. “He has an uncanny sense of where to put the camera to catch the most important thing in a scene,” “Prisoners” star Jake Gyllenhaal told me. “That puts you on your game.” 

Paul Dano told me that one of the reasons he agreed to do Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” was because Deakins was shooting it. “Prisoners,” while it has not come up in many award conversations, marks some of Deakins’ best work. His recent ACE nomination brings Deakins’ ASC total to 12. While he won last year for “Skyfall” and for 1995’s “The Shawshank Redemption” and the Coens’ 2002 black-and-white “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” he has never won the Oscar. His other nominations were for “Fargo,”(1997), “Kundun” (1998), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2001), “No Country for Old Men” (2008), “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2008), “Revolutionary Road” (2009), “The Reader” (2009) and “True Grit” (2011). He was also the recipient of the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

As the world moves from analog to digital, so does Deakins, who even consults on many animated features; I talked to the filmmakers about his role in DreamWorks’ “The Croods.” 

Anne Thompson: You’ve done such a wide range of movies and different styles. Though you don’t look for the bravura shots, are there any particularly tricky or spectacularly beautiful shots that you’re proud of?

Roger Deakins: There are some sequences in films that I think work filmicly, that stand out to me, but that’s much more to do with the staging and the cutting and the mood of the thing as a sequence, the way everything comes together. I would say a number of sequences in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” are cinematically as good as it gets. But that was completely down to Joel and Ethan. Their concept was just so brilliant. The sequence I remember most is when Billy Bob Thornton’s character is taking his wife home after the party with the pig. He’s putting his wife to bed, they’re coming home at night and he’s telling us, the audience, in a voiceover how he met her and how they got together as a couple, which is really sad. And then the phone rings, and he picks up the phone and it’s Dave, the guy his wife Marge is having an affair with. He goes to meet Dave in his store, at night, and he gets there and murders Dave, and then he gets back in his car and drives home. He comes back in the house, sits on the bed with Marge, and then he continues the story he’s been telling of how he met Marge before he went and committed the murder. To me it’s a really brilliant piece of filmmaking. Things like that stand out but it’s not because of my role or cinematography or a particular shot; the whole mood and the sadness, it’s cinema, you can’t actually explain it because it’s pure cinema. It makes you feel and think something only cinema can do.

What sequence has been a challenge for you? Maybe the sequence in “Skyfall” where Bond is in the modern skyscraper with an incredible backdrop and light patterns swirling around.

That happens every day. Every scene has its own challenge. The sequence on “Skyfall,” we had the sequence in mind and were scouting in Shanghai for a location. I’ve never done anything like that before, even on music videos. Every scene is a challenge. There are technical challenges but often it’s the simplest challenge where you feel a sense of achievement when you pull it off. 

There was a shot I did on “Sid and Nancy” many, many years ago. We’re on this boat on the River Thames. The police come and raid the boat because there’s drinking and drugs, and we’re left with Sid and Nancy on the pier. Alex Cox just wanted a scene of them walking away with all this chaos behind them. We thought, what could we do that’s really simple? We just did one handheld shot and I just walked backwards in front of the pair of them walking away from the river up this gangplank and underneath this little tunnel. It’s just the one shot, and Alex used the shot with the music and set in context with the film, that was a challenge. It was a little thing. That wasn’t a huge technical challenge other than that I had to walk backwards with the camera. Some of the smallest things on a smaller film, to me, are greater achievements than on a big film when you have the resources and the time and everything else.

Denis Villeneuve seems very precise and detailed as a director. Are certain directors more collaborative with you? 

Every director is slightly different. Denis is incredibly good with actors and working through a scene and finding something that’s not just there on the page. I thought that was really intense, really interesting. When he found something, he knows if he wants it or not. He’s very decisive like that. But he’s also very meticulous with the camera. I feel every shot, every camera move, every frame, and the way you frame something and the choice of lens, I see all those things are really important on every shot. He really gets that. He really understands that the subtlest change in an image from 25mm to a 32mm or a push-in as opposed to a pull-back, or a track as opposed to a static wide shot, they all have an impact on the audience depending on what their information within the frame is. 

All these little subtle things have enormous impact over the length of a movie. And the thing with “Prisoners,” my obsession with shooting is a continuity of the whole. I don’t like a shot or scene to stand out of a film; I like the whole thing to work as a piece. Denis gets that every shot is valuable, not only in what you do in that shot to represent what’s within the frame but all the way all those shots fit together to make a whole. It has to be seamless, otherwise the audience is suddenly taken out of the story. He’s meticulous like that. Some directors will just let you do it as a cinematographer, and some directors are entirely fixed on the script and the performances. Fair enough, but Denis and the Coen Brothers and many others are meticulous about the image and the way those images relate to the acting as a whole. I think that’s film, really.

I get a kick out of a grandiose, ambitious set piece with a long take like “Atonement.” But a shot like that can call attention to itself and take you out of the movie. Is that what you mean?

Yeah, that’s how I feel. Sometimes a shot becomes too clever for its own good. It draws attention to itself. Sometimes you watch a film and you see a big elaborate shot and think, “I wonder what that would look like if you played it on a close-up and a reverse.” You know, a close-up on an actor and a point-of-view. It would have had more power.

Are you a believer in the long take? Do you feel like there are times when the long take is the right way to go?

Absolutely. No question about it. I’ve got a few long takes in many movies we’ve done, especially Coen brothers movies. It’s when the camera becomes ostentatious and it’s done more because it can be done that because it actually relates to what the film is trying to express.

Tell me about Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” which you’re shooting right now. What are some of the challenges on that film?

We’ve shot for four weeks. Every film is a challenge in a different way. The film is about Louis Zamperini. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II on the water and spent two-and-a-half years in a prison camp.

Of the Coens’ films you’ve shot I’m particularly fond of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” You were innovating something that hadn’t been done before in terms of the digital master.

We were shooting in Mississippi in mid-summer and the Coens and I wanted a dry, dusty look but obviously, it was a very lush environment. We also wanted a kind of feeling of a painted postcard, and we experimented for quite a long time. Digital finishing was starting, people had been using digital technology to do effects work and we thought, “Why not try and do the whole film like that?” We made some tests and figured that by the time we finished shooting and were in post-production that the technology would be advanced enough that we could do it. It was a bit of a struggle, but that’s what we did.

You’ve made the inevitable switchover to digital. You shot “True Grit” on 35mm, and went digital with “In Time,” which looked great. And then “Skyfall,” which was stunning. In your filmography, what’s the proportion between 35mm and digital?

It’s a slow change. Since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I think I’ve finished almost every film digitally but in terms of shooting digitally, I only started shooting digital negative on “In Time” a few years ago, then “Skyfall,” “Prisoners” and the film I’m doing now.

What do you prefer?

It’s hard to say. There are so many advantages to digital capture. The first one is that now there’s no film lab in Australia or New Zealand, so if we were to process film we’d have to send it to LA or London. So the biggest advantage for us here is that we know what we’ve got. We see the image onset and that’s it. We don’t have that week of processing the negative and getting the dailies in return. There are lots of advantages in the shooting as far as I’m concerned, in terms of the flexibilities of digital technology as opposed to film. I say that but I’ve shot film, obviously, for many, many years and I love the process. But one can’t be nostalgic. That’s the way things are going. 

Most people now, even those who shoot in 35, they finish the movie digitally. What’s going to be lost forever with your generation is people who know how to process 35.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you record the image on. It’s the image you’re recording that’s important. It’s the framing, the way you move the camera, the choice of shot, the lighting within the scene. It’s not what you record the image on. I think this argument is a little irrelevant actually.

The 35mm advocates would argue that the digital cameras, while they are improving every year, they still don’t beat the quality of the image you can achieve on 35.

Frankly, I totally disagree. I don’t know what a better quality image is or how to describe it, but I didn’t start shooting with a digital camera until I felt the image was superior to what I could get on film for what I wanted to achieve. Other people have different ideas on that. I understand that and accept their opinions, but I don’t agree with them.

When Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese talk about 3-D, they make intelligent, brilliant analysts of what makes a shot work and its impact. Have you ever done 3-D?

I work in animation, with DreamWorks, and all their shots are in 3-D. I’ve worked on “Wall-E,” “Rango,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Croods,” “Rise of the Guardians” and now I’m working on “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

What is your role there?

It’s much the same, really. At Pixar with “Wall-E,” the director wanted this live-action feel to the film and I’d been up there doing a seminar and they asked me to be involved. It was over a short period. I wasn’t involved for the whole period because they take so long. And after that I got asked to be involved in quite a few more at DreamWorks. It is very much as a consultant, with animators, directors and the lighting. You discuss the look of the film and how it relates to the story, as I would do in live-action. But it’s a much longer process, and it’s a larger crew of people working on it, so it’s much more of a collaborative process.

Do you contribute to the storyboards and shaping the animatics?

Yes, in terms of the shots. They do storyboards and then they actually do motion capture on some sequences and all sorts of things now. It’s so different now. The blend between animation and live-action came into becoming kind of fuzzy. On “The Croods” for instance, we were doing a lot of motion capture in order to create shots just the same as you might do on some live-action sequences.

Have you ever considered directing an animated film?

Most of the animated films that I work on, I love the films. If I worked as a director, I don’t think it’d be very commercial.

Have you thought about directing films in general?

No, I love what I do. You recognize what your abilities are. Years ago, I did, but not no. I’m quite happy.

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