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How Oscar Perennial Roger Deakins Crossed New Borders with Denis Villeneuve for ‘Sicario’

How Oscar Perennial Roger Deakins Crossed New Borders with Denis Villeneuve for 'Sicario'

Call it “Prisoners” on steroids. That’s because “Sicario”—the term refers to a Mexican hitman, as well as to Jewish zealots who revolted against the Romans—expands its dark psychological themes, pitting idealistic FBI agent Emily Blunt against lethal consultant Benicio Del Toro during a secret raid on Mexico’s most powerful drug lord. It’s the perfect backdrop for Roger Deakins, now Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematography for the thirteenth time (with no wins), to cross new aesthetic borders for his second collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve. (They are currently prepping the “Blade Runner” sequel, which starts shooting next summer.)

But unlike the bleached look of say, “No Country for Old Men,” Deakins embraced a more colorful landscape for “Sicario,” which is set on the Mexican border and is also very brutal. The look may be heightened to some extent but it’s still reality-based. “The landscape needed to be a character and it says something about what we humans were doing against this beautiful landscape,” he said.

“We discussed the look of the desert and imagined this bold, blue sky, and thought of empty frames but quite colorful. And yet we had a very active monsoon season in New Mexico that year. So we got these amazing sky formations and embraced what’s there—you don’t have any alternative.”

Villeneuve wanted to stress silhouettes and not fight the light in the landscape, and Deakins looked to photographer Alex Webb for inspiration: “I mentioned Webb’s work to Denis partly because in the ’80s he did a series on the border, but I love his use of color and the complexity of his compositions that are extraordinary,” Deakins added.

But they had a lot less to work with than on “Prisoners” in terms of budget and schedule, compelling Deakins to be even more creative and economical. They shot in in Albuquerque and Mexico City (doubling for Juarez). Interiors were often yellow-orange to complement the landscape. “But once you crossed that border into Mexico there had to be a complete change from the look of the film on the American side [and it became very colorful].”

As always, though, it’s a jigsaw puzzle for Deakins in piecing everything together. “The hardest thing in a film is to try and make it seamless when you’re shooting in different locations and sets and weeks apart,” Deakins suggested.

The challenge of the opening FBI raid and the shocking discovery of mutilation and death was to grab the audience straight away. “We wanted this very tense opening sequence so we needed a series of very quick, graphic shots to get you into that sweat house and the horror of all those bodies in the wall,” Deakins explained.
The narrative mostly follows Blunt’s point of view until it segues into Del Toro’s in the last act, when his enigmatic past and mysterious motivation are revealed. The raid has hand-held shots keeping close to Blunt, and Deakins generally used a wider lens with her for greater intimacy. Inside cars at night, he didn’t have the budget to light the landscapes, so he used the headlights to light the landscape and the spill lit their faces.

“We had a problem with that whole journey into Mexico,” Deakins continued. “It wasn’t easy and it was a little bit more expensive to actually go to Mexico to shoot. But there was no way we could reconstruct it in America and certainly not in Albuquerque. So eventually we got permission to shoot these few days in Mexico. And, yes, the actual convoy going through the streets and going up to the jail was shot in Mexico City.

“It was tricky to shoot the entrance into Mexico and collecting the guy from jail in isolation from the convoy. Then we had to shoot them coming back in the shootout before we went to Mexico. So it was kind of nervy, really, knowing what we would get in Mexico City. We went and scouted Mexico City during production and then, when we went to shoot, we went in early and [spent] a whole day looking at these locations and figuring out what we wanted to do. But it was very tight because we picked specific streets for specific shots and they were quite spread out across Mexico City. However, it took some doing to get permission to shoot the exterior of the jail we were using.”

Yet the most nerve-racking challenge for Deakins was figuring out how to shoot the nighttime raid in the tunnels where the drugs were transported across the border. It was too dark to believably shoot the objective shots with only the Alexa, so Deakins successfully tested a thermal imaging camera from FLIR used for scientific research. The result is one of the most fascinating night vision sequences in a movie, with two different looks achieved through separate vision systems (infrared for Del Toro’s POV and green image-enhancer for everyone else’s). Since the color image was too wonky-looking for the infrared, they stripped the color out.

Also, one interesting revelation during testing was they could do footprints, so out of that came the idea of shooting footprints to the dead bodies in the tunnel. “So much of it was finding an interesting graphic way of showing the aftermath of these drug dealers being killed in the tunnel. 

“It wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been an actual night vision system used for military operations,” Deakins conceded. “It’s a nice way to tell the story and reflect the kind of confusion that the characters were going through, not knowing where they are, not knowing what was going to happen at any moment.”

Meanwhile, it’s on to the untitled “Blade Runner” sequel (starring Ryan Gosling), which certainly fits into Villeneuve’s wheelhouse for conveying mystery, shadows, and doubts. And for Deakins, the sci-fi framework will provide a visual feast. And, yes, the director has hinted that it will address whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard is human or replicant (Ridley Scott believes he’s a replicant while Ford maintains that he’s not).

“It’s really nice that it’s come around to Denis. We have a good working relationship and he’s gonna have a really good take on that project,” said Deakins, who’s leaning toward shooting digitally and relying on storyboarding rather than previs because that’s the director’s preference. “It’s such a responsibility because everybody that’s seen the original acknowledges what an icon it is. But I think there are so few serious works of science-fiction out there that it deserves an opportunity to make a follow-up.

“And for me, the strongest part of the film was Rutger Hauer’s death. In a way, it’s an advantage having that previous film because they’ve created a world and it gives people a bar to jump over.”

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