It’s the burden on everyone else to lament that Roger Deakins has yet to score an Oscar from his 13 nominations. Speaking with the famed cinematographer himself, it’s clear he’s honed in on the process and the process only; this year’s nomination is for Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” yet he’s already lensed the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” and started prep on “Blade Runner 2” (again with Villeneuve). He’s also uniquely generous in sharing that process, as one of the few DPs to moderate an online forum with discussions and advice on lighting, gear, and narrative techniques.
From his early career in documentaries to shooting diverse, high-profile projects like “Skyfall,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “A Serious Man,” Deakins has fostered a number of creative partnerships while embracing the numerous shifts in technology. A collaborator of the Coens since “Barton Fink,” Sam Mendes since “Jarhead,” and Villeneuve since “Prisoners,” he has slowly switched to digital possibilities while returning to film as needed, as with “Hail, Caesar!”
This expertise of both sides of the tech debate only makes sense to Deakins for telling a good story, but it has also placed him as a key source of predicting where the future of film is heading. Recently, The Playlist spoke with Deakins about his full feelings on that topic, as well as his thoughts on sci-fi, his time spent in documentary and animation, and the pressures of pushing a vision to its best outcome.
You started as a documentary director and cameraman; is there a particular subject or experience that has stuck with you?
I sailed around the world on a yacht when I was 26 for about nine months to make a film about what life was like aboard [“Around the World with Ridgeway”]. It was the second of the Whitbread races, and back then it was just a sound recordist and myself. I had to be pretty self-contained in terms of equipment: an old NPR 16mm film camera, a spare body, and two zoom lenses; I also used one of the first solar panels to charge my batteries.
The sound man and I both had to train as yachtsmen, do our part on the watch and all that. We sailed from England to Cape Town, Cape Town to Auckland, Auckland to Rio, where we got to on the first day of Carnival. That was quite a stop. After that I went to Rhodesia — which is now Zimbabwe — and filmed the civil war that was going on there. And then I went to Eritrea which was having a 21-year-long war at the time for their independence. My time in documentaries was very educating, in terms of life experience as well as the filmmaking side of it.
How did you make the transition from documentaries into features?
I’d known the director of “Another Time, Another Place,” Michael Radford, a bit in film school — he was in the year ahead of me and I worked documentaries for him. We made that film and it played at the Cannes Film Festival; Phyllis Logan even won the Best Actress prize in Cannes. It was quite well received. On the basis of that film, a producer asked Michael what he wanted to do next; he told me this after, but I guess he didn’t really have anything. He’d always wanted to make a film of “1984,” though, and his producer said, “Well, let’s do that then.” So the next year we found ourselves making “1984” with John Hurt and Richard Burton. Quite amazing, really, going from documentaries to this quite sizable production.
What was your experience working with Richard Burton?
He was a lovely man. I think his performance in “Spy Who Came In From The Cold” is one of the greats. [“1984”] was his last film, he died just after we’d done post-synching with him, which was quite sad. On the second day he was with us, our AD came up to us all and said, “Mr. Burton would like to talk to everybody at end of day’s shooting.” Of course we were all nervous as hell, thinking he was going to give us a roasting for what we’re doing wrong. So we all gathered around his trailer, and he came out and said, “I just want to thank you for one of the nicest experiences I’ve ever had on film. I was so nervous when I turned up and everyone was so young.” We thought, that’s exactly the wrong way around, we should be saying this! He was such a gentleman.
What are the biggest worries you have on a set?
It’s not really the technology or technique. I mean, I always had those worries about film, whether it was being exposed right and that, but you can have the same worries about digital capture. Personally, it’s much more about conceptualization on a film and whether we’re going in the right direction. Not necessarily whether it’s going to look “good,” but I mean whether what we’re doing visually is right for that particular project. That’s the key: Once you’re comfortable with the look of a picture, everything else is just technique.
On the “Blade Runner” sequel, how much of your comfort pays into whether you’ll go 3D or not?
I think they probably will do 3D. We’ve had discussions about it. But I think that’s just the commercial reality today. 3D and IMAX versions are the business models, and there’s not much you can do about it. I know a bit about 3D, though, because I’ve done quite a bit with animation, but frankly I’d hope that it stayed in the one format that we’re shooting on.
As a fan of sci-fi, how will you approach the new film with Denis?
Well, I love the writing of Walter Tevis and what he views as the possibilities of science rather than science fiction. I think most films made are not in any way sci-fi, like Tevis or [Robert] Heinlein or Philip K. Dick did. It’s musing on the future of man, not space aliens and strange characters fighting each other in spaceships. To me that’s not science fiction. This new one is going to be a lot of things I haven’t done before. “Skyfall” was big, and actually “1984” was pretty big as well. It’s going to be something on that scale, size-wise… but I guess you’ll have to see after that, won’t you? [laughs]
How did you get involved in animation, and what were your day-to-day duties on those projects [“How To Train Your Dragon,” “Rango”]?
It all started because I did some work on “Wall-E” years ago. I’d gone up to Pixar to do some seminars and Andrew Stanton asked me to work on it — basically that film’s opening more than anything else. After that, Dean DeBlois asked me to work on “How To Train Your Dragon” at DreamWorks, and I said, “Sure, but I wanted to be involved from start to finish.” So I got to work on doing concept board and shot construction, and then move to working with production designers and the tech departments. There was a whole team of people that I worked with over two to three years to do that film.
It’s nice, because when I’m away doing live action, I can have a dedicated pipeline to the animation teams. I can view images and Photoshop ideas on top of the images that are sent. And then any time I was in LA, I’d go over to DreamWorks, and then if I was, say, in Australia doing “Unbroken,” I was still connected talking about lighting. I could plug into my computer for an hour and see what the latest developments were.
Is the Africa project you were doing with Angelina Jolie still around, or has it shuttered for good?
I think she’s hoping to keep it going, but I don’t know why it petered out. It was the beginning of spring last year; we were about to go scout it and I thought the picture was going, basically. And then it just fell through — it was very disappointing because I worked for a year on it.
Were there ever talks of you working on her latest, “By The Sea”?
Yeah, there was, but I had something else on.
You’ve mentioned the photographer Alex Webb in relation to your work on “Sicario.” What about his style draws your eye?
He’s quite brilliant. It’s the complexity of those images. Stills work is so much about the moment, and how he can get such a complex image with all the elements in the frame, and the whole connection of colors. Because some of those stolen moments are quite breathtaking. There’s one in Cuba where it’s outside a registry office. There’s shadows, and someone has a paper, and there’s a couple kissing under an archway. It’s three or four studies of people in this one environment. Just a perfect frame.
Something like that takes a huge amount of concentration and a huge understanding of what’s going to happen. I realized that when I shot documentaries, that you need this sixth sense about what was going to happen. It’s no good just… reacting. Alex Webb can do that with a still camera, and it’s quite breathtaking.
Do you take still photos on set in-between setups?
No, I rarely shoot on a set. On an off-day or weekend I’ll go off with my camera and wander around. When we were in New Mexico doing “Sicario,” at the end of the day if we wrapped before the sun went down, I’d drive out to the desert and take photographs. Not while I’m actually working and shooting, though — it’s too hard.
The set pieces in “Sicario” are impressive, but how did you approach a subtle scene like when the refugees are questioned in the massive hangar, having to cover such an enormous area and crowd in a compelling way?
That was actually a fertilizer factory, believe it or not. We had to clear away piles of fertilizer, which stank, to make space. But Denis loved the architecture so much, and it had the feeling of some government building. There was no lighting there, just a few scoop lights on the ceiling; we manufactured these reflectors so I could put lamps in and rig them into the ceiling because they appear in shot. And as you say, it was a large crowd of people. There’s no way you could light conventionally because we saw it wide, and we saw it from the car driving in. It just had to be there, and lit.
To do that, I had a crew there for about two weeks rigging these lights in that ceiling, since it was quite a lot of cabling. At the end of a day’s shoot, I’d go there, about an hour outside of Albuquerque, and check out the initial lighting rig to make sure what they were doing was going to work. I wanted to be sure because it’s a responsibility when you get there on the day. You’ve got those extras, you’ve got everything set to go, and you don’t have a very long night. It’s quite a pressure to get there and just start shooting, but we did it in the end.
You also had similar situation and responsibility crowd-wise with the border shootout.
We storyboarded that over a number of weeks, constantly finessing. I would say it’s 80% exactly what we drew. The hardest thing about that sequence was how we were going to shoot it, because obviously you can’t shoot on the real border. So that’s why the SUVs crossing initially were CG, because otherwise how else were we going to get a take two? And then that shootout, that was our production designer Patrice [Vermette], who built a set in a parking lot outside of Albuquerque. We had around 180 cars on set, and then CG extensions on top of that. So the set was built in conjunction with doing the storyboards.
How is it working with the Coens compared to Denis? Was it a complete shift from “Sicario” to “Hail, Caesar!”?
I went right from one to the other. Joel and Ethan were quite worried about having enough prep time on “Hail, Caesar!,” so I immediately started scouting with them after “Sicario” and discussing the looks of the movies within the movie. But I actually had more pre-pro time on “Hail, Caesar!” than most of the films we’ve done, just because it was re-creating Old Hollywood and they were a bit nervous about it. They work fairly similar to Denis in a way because they storyboard everything. On “Sicario,” we storyboarded key sequences but not everything. Joel and Ethan do. Every department head meets regularly to discuss all the things related to the images in the film.
Do you ever study certain films when beginning a project?
I don’t study any films. I’ll watch them but I don’t study anyone else. Actually, last week I was watching some of Tarkovsky‘s movies and I had the thought: There’s not the audience for films like those today, but to me they’re pure masterpieces. So I watch them and I know I can never do that. Some things you take from those films because they’re so cinematic, like “Andrei Rublev.” Not that I can understand all of that film, but just the way it’s constructed. Most of the films we do nowadays, they’re a little bit like documented plays, frankly. I’m not talking about “No Country For Old Men” or “Sicario,” but a lot of films are not cinema in the way that Tarkovsky viewed cinema.
Was that why working with Andrew Dominik stood out for you?
Yeah, he’s quite exceptional. He’s somebody who so revels in cinema — that intangible quality when you combine sound and an image.
Were there any ideas from Dominik that differed from your initial interpretation of the “Assassination of Jesse James” script?
The opening of the film — Andrew had that idea of the distorted, vignetted image. When he suggested that he wanted this old box-camera look, I had one idea that I’d used years ago in a film. So I got with [rental house] Otto Nemenz, where I get my camera equipment from, and started playing with lenses to create something that we could pursue. Then we manufactured these distorted lenses that we used for the film.
And though you shot on film with ‘Jesse James,’ you finished digitally?
Yeah, I did. It’s interesting, Andrew wanted the film to be slashed, he wanted to pre-slash the negative, which I’d done on “A Beautiful Mind” with Ron Howard for the period parts of that movie. I’d slashed it with a warm light so that all the shadows had a kind of rich red/gold texture to them. But by the time we came to do ‘Jesse James,’ there was nobody around to do that, and it was going to take a huge amount of money to persuade a lab to do that. So basically I said to Andrew — who I knew was a film purist — “Look, it’s just practicality that I do this aspect of the film digitally. You can control it, and it won’t cost what it would to do in the lab.” It’s just sometimes a practicality.
You’re consistently asked about whether film has hit its finish line; are moments like that on ‘Jesse James’ part of why you’ve largely moved to digital?
I did an interview a week or so ago where I’d said, “Film is over.” But I also said that I wish it wasn’t, and that film stayed around for us to have the option. In many ways, I wish that there was no digital and we were all shooting film, but it’s just not reality. However, they quoted me and only took the first line: “Film, it’s over.” [laughs] I really hope that film continues to be an option. But on “Hail, Caesar!,” I had problems with film — not only with the stock, but also with the development of stock and frankly the printing. And I’ve heard that many other productions have had similar problems.
Unless Kodak, which is sadly the only manufacturer left, and the labs step up and actually regain their technical perfection that they used to have, it’s over. The responsibility is too great. I can’t be waiting for a lab report in the morning not only worried about my contributions to that negative, but worried about the film stock and the lab’s doing. That’s insane. I’m not going to take that responsibility again, frankly. I think the look of “Hail, Caesar!” is pretty good. But it’s the other issues.
“Hail, Caesar!” is in theaters now. The Oscar-nominated “Sicario” is currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD and most streaming outlets.