Interview: Legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins

I’ve done a lot of interviews during my time at /Film, but I usually don’t have the opportunity to interview cinematographers. However, when the offer came to chat with Roger Deakins, I jumped at the chance. Deakins has helped to craft some of the most memorable images in the history of cinema. His insanely accomplished filmography includes the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, Revolutionary Road, and A Beautiful Mind, not to mention many of the films of the Coen Brothers. This year, Deakins received an Academy Award nomination for his work in the Coen Brothers True Grit (his 9th nomination, although he hasn’t yet won). He will also be the recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award.

Below is an excerpted version of our lengthy conversation. Note that there is a quasi-spoiler for True Grit in the interview.

Roger Deakins, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

My pleasure.

And I guess congratulations are in order. Congratulations first for the nomination for True Grit and also for receiving the A.S.C. lifetime achievement award.

Thank you.

I want to start back a couple decades ago. Could tell us how you first broke into the industry, because we have a lot of listeners out there who are aspiring filmmakers and cinematographers themselves, and I’m sure they’d love to hear your “origin story.”

I came up, I suppose, a fairly traditional way. I went to art college. I always wanted to be a stills photographer, really, when I was younger, and I briefly worked as a stills photographer. And then I saw an opportunity to get into film, when a film school called the National Film School in Britain opened. I applied for a place at that film school and I got into film school in the second year, with the intention of really shooting documentaries.

I was moving out of stills photography into sort of more of a reportage kind of style that I liked. So I was moving into documentaries. After that film school, I worked in documentaries for maybe six or seven years. But after that time, people that I worked with in documentaries, directors, started doing dramas, and I gradually segued into doing feature films.

Back then, you mentioned how you had a love of still photography and, I assume, obviously a love for cinematography as well. Can you talk about who were the photographers or the filmmakers or cinematographers that inspired you to get into the business?

Yeah, I mean, there’s many, many stills photographers. You know, Don McCullin, Larry Burrows, Bill Brandt, Roger Mayne. While I was at art college, there was a photographer, Roger Mayne, who would come and lecture at odd times. You know, so many stills photographers that inspired me, but in terms of film, I didn’t really see myself getting into the film industry.

I mean, I loved movies ever since I was a kid. I used to go to a film society in Torquay, where I was brought up. I used to watch films in the winters at this film society, and they used to show the sorts of things that wouldn’t be showing at the local theater. But I never really sought my way into the feature film industry, so it was only later, gradually after film school, that I met people who were working in feature films and dramatic films while I was doing documentaries. It’s only gradually then that I moved into features.

One of your most fruitful collaborations has been with the Coen brothers.

Yeah.

Can you talk about how that collaboration first came about?

Well, it came out of the blue, really. My agent had got a call from them about Barton Fink, and they sent a script and I met with them one day in Notting Hill. They were in London, I think showing a movie or something, and I met up with them in London. And it just went on from there, really. I guess we got on on that first meeting, and they asked me to come over to Los Angeles and shoot Barton Fink.

And what is it like to work with them? What is their work flow like?

I mean, it’s just great. I guess, in a way, we have similar ways of working. They’re quite meticulous. They like doing a lot of prep. They write their scripts together, and so they’re very in sync about where they’re going and what they want to do, I guess because from when they started they never had a lot of money to make movies.

They come from the independent sector of making their own films and raising money to make their own films. So everything…you know, they do their best to put all the money on screen. They make the money go as far as they can, so they’re very, very prepared.

It must be a much different experience working with them today than working with them back on Barton Fink, especially with all the acclaim that they and you have won over the years.

It’s not. I can promise you it’s not any different at all…They don’t work in any different way now than they did.

I just meant in terms of the resources and things that you’re allowed to have, I would assume.

No, well, that neither, you know? It’s funny, really, because it depends on the project. I mean, Barton Fink, I suppose relatively we had more money than we had for doing A Serious Man a few years ago. You know, the picture before True Grit. So it really depends on the piece, on the script, on the piece they want to do.

When we did The Man Who Wasn’t There, that was very, very low budget because it’s a very…[Laughs] sort of dark, kind of thoughtful piece, put it that way. And it’s in black and white, and they were insisting it was going to be black and white, the main release, and you can’t get a lot of finance for a film like that. Even they can’t get a lot of finance for a film like that. So, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s changed much over the years. You try and get the maximum out of the money you have.

I want to ask you a couple questions, because before this phone call began, I actually asked some of our readers and listeners if they had any questions for you, and I thought some of these were pretty good. And one of the questions is: How long does your average lighting set-up take?

[Laughs] Somebody once told me, when I was talking to a cinematographer in England, they said “well, really, you should average about twenty minutes a set-up.” I really have no idea. It’s very hard to judge, but I guess if you took it over the entire length of the schedule, it may come down to twenty minutes, but that would include shooting exteriors or whatever. Obviously, some interior lighting set-ups can take quite a while.

On The Hudsucker Proxy, I remember there was one lighting set-up that took me four hours to get, but it was kind of a long complicated shot. So it’s hard to actually answer a question with a simple sort of “twenty minutes” or “half an hour” or whatever.

Can you think of a shot, either throughout your career or in the last few years, that has been particularly challenging and was very satisfying when you completed it?

Well, there’s a number. I just mentioned Hudsucker, but a number of shots in that were very challenging just from a technical point of view, the size of the sets and the camera moves and the effect we were after. But then you could look at something like True Grit and say, for instance, the sequence with Blackie galloping at night.

It’s Rooster taking Mattie after she’s been snake bit. Well, I read that script and immediately was thinking of that scene. How do we do this idea? We want close shots of a horse’s head, a horse that’s galloping in the middle of the night across an empty plane, and the horse is jet black. [Laughs] It seems like a simple thing, but actually technically how you get that, that was really challenging. It’s funny what comes up and actually proves to be challenging. What’s seemingly a simple thing can actually be the hardest to achieve.

You’ve shot a few films in the past few years that have taken place in the vast expanse of the West, or the Midwest. I’m thinking of No Country For Old Men, True Grit, and The Assassination of Jesse James.

Yeah, I felt so lucky when the boys–the brothers–said they were writing a script for No Country For Old Men. And I’d read the book, and they were questioning whether they were going to direct it, and I thought “Wow, I hope you direct it.” I mean, what a wonderful piece.

I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, but my favorite kind of Westerns mostly were Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns, and they mainly took place in the West that was changing. It was about change and people being left behind. And No Country For Old Men, I felt, was very much in that sort of vein, and in the vein of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or something like that.

And then I was lucky enough to be offered The Assassination of Jesse James, which is…not the complete opposite, but very, very different tack in terms of a Western. It’s a much more melancholy, sort of contemplative piece about this bandit, this bank robber whose time had kind of passed. I love that film, and I love the challenge of doing something that had this much more sort of poetic, melancholy kind of feel to it.

And now True Grit. It’s three sort of very different films, but in a way connected by their connection with the West, the idea of the West and the change of the West. True Grit is, in a way, a much more sort of traditional straight-forward sort of narrative piece, really.

The three films, they’re all kind of, in some ways, located in the same area, but at the same time, they look different. Yet all of them are quite beautiful. Is there anything that you consciously had to think about when you were approaching making these films so that they each have their own visual identity?

Yeah, they do, but it comes out of the script and the nature of the project and just the tone of the piece. If you read the book No Country For Old Men against the book of True Grit, they’re very, very different. And then the book The Assassination of Jesse James is basically the historical telling of that tale, but also, the book and the script were the same, and they had this very kind of perfect melancholy almost dream quality to them.

One of the things that was very fascinating to me when I first heard about it was the fact that you’ve been a visual consultant on a couple of animated features in the last few years.

Yeah.

Specifically, WALL-E was the first one. When I first heard of your involvement with it, I was very fascinated. At the same time, it made complete sense, because that movie is so visually striking that it didn’t surprise me to learn of your involvement. Can you talk about how that came about? I assume Pixar came and pitched you the idea?

Well, how it came about…I think Andrew Stanton was interested in getting more of a live action feel of filmmaking to the animation that he was doing. And I had gone up to Pixar to do a kind of lighting demonstration for a lot of their lighters, the computer lighters there, the animators. I just described how I play with light on a set. And from that, then I was asked by Jim Morris, the producer, if I wanted to be involved in WALL-E, and I said I could, I’d love to, but I wasn’t sure what my commitment would be to anything else.

And as it happened, I went to Pixar a number of occasions and we discussed it. We did some references, we played with some scenes, discussed light, discussed camera movement. I was really more involved in the sort of general approach to it, basically more in the early part, where WALL-E’s on the trashed planet Earth, really. We discussed that quite a lot, the look of that. But then I went off to do live action, so my involvement in that was more early on than all through it.

Then I’ve later been involved in How To Train Your Dragon on a much more long-term period, really. That was about fourteen months that I was sort of regularly going to Dreamworks and working with them on that.

I assume you took on a much bigger role in terms of shaping the look of that film than in WALL-E? Would you say that’s correct?

I wouldn’t want to say “shaping” that look, but involved in the creating of that look, because it’s a whole team. So I’m just one person amongst a team. Talking about the overall look, the first thing we’d do, we’d get a book of reference images that basically told the tale of the whole film in terms of reference pictures. And then developing a shooting style, in terms of lens choice, use of 3D, etc.

And then lighting approach. The first thing we did was do some reference sequences in terms of lighting, what they would look like. What candle light would look like, what a foggy day exterior would look like, what a night moonlight would look like and how that would relate to the dragons and how the flame would light the set and stuff like that, you know?

Just so you know, that was probably one of my favorite films of 2010.

Oh, that’s nice to hear. I like it, too. I think it’s really because more than anything else, it’s a great script. It’s really a heartfelt script. I think it’s quite original, too.

Well, I particularly enjoyed the sequences of the flying and the usage of 3D in those sequences, I thought, was unlike anything I have seen in a movie before.

Yeah.

So how involved were you with the sort of 3D elements of it, and I’m very curious to know what your general take on the 3D phenomenon is.

Everybody asks that question, don’t they?

Yes. [Laughs] You probably have a well-rehearsed answer by now.

[Laughs] No, I haven’t, actually, because I probably say a different thing every time. I’m kind of conflicted here. I mean, I couldn’t imagine True Grit in 3D, for instance. I think it would just be stupid. But How To Train Your Dragon in 3D works fantastically well, I think. I think the film also works in 2D, but there’s this sort of slightly different, enhanced experience, I suppose, in 3D. It’s just horses for courses, you know?

I’d love to see a science fiction film of the kind like 2001 in 3D, where you put an audience in that kind of world, that kind of gets that sense of weightlessness and everything else. I think 3D can certainly work in certain circumstances, for even a straightforward dramatic narrative, but I think it best serves a different kind of movie, which is a much more sort of visceral experience.

Right. Well, speaking of science fiction, you’re currently filming the film Now, which is directed by Andrew Niccol.

Yeah.

I don’t know if that’s your first science fiction film, but it’s certainly one of the few science fiction films that you’ve done. Is that correct?

I mean, it’s not science fiction in the sense that there’s not big sets with aliens and spaceships. It’s a sort of posited future. It looks like today, and in that sense it’s very like 1984. I would put it on a parallel with that in the sense that it’s a parable. It’s a sort of “what-if.” This is the kind of future we could have if such and such, you know? In a way, it’s a kind of parody on capitalist society, [Laughs] I suppose you could say.

Interesting. You know, you mentioned earlier about how when you’re approaching scripts like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and The Assassination of Jesse James, the script very much informs the look.

Yeah.

No, you’re filming a science fiction film or a dystopian film, and I wonder when you are reading the script or when you’re working with the director, how do you take the tone and translate it? Practically, how do you translate that into what you actually physically do to produce the look of the film?

Well, it would be something if I could say how. I don’t know. Really, I’m not being flippant. I couldn’t really say. I read a script and gauge the mood of it and talk with the director and hopefully get a sense of where that director wants to go with the piece, and then something kind of gradually forms and I take it down that road, really. I don’t know why.

I’m now creating something much more colorful than I’ve done before in a movie, and it’s quite sort of stylized in terms of the compositions. It’s funny, Justin Timberlake, who’s in it, said “Wow, I didn’t know we were shooting it like a Western,” but it is, isn’t it? Because of the framing, it feels…it’s not fast and cutty like you might expect it to be. It’s not like The Bourne Identity in terms of the camera moves. It’s much more sort of, I suppose, more classic and severe, I suppose. Multiple compositions.

Why it came that way, I don’t know. It just developed through conversations with Andrew and just the feel of it.

That’s very interesting. I understand how challenging it must be to try to sum up what is a visual process into words, but I could not help but try to determine some of that Roger Deakins “secret sauce,” as it were.

[Laughs] The secret sauce?

Exactly.

I don’t know. Luck, mate. Luck, I tell you.

One question that some of our listeners have is: you’ve worked on so many gorgeous movies over time, you’ve been nominated for so many Academy Awards, and some people were wondering, what is it that still excites you about the film industry these days? What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning?

Well, especially now, the technology and how it’s changing and the possibilities that are coming. This film Now, I’m shooting on a digital camera. First film I’ve shot digitally, because, frankly, it’s the first camera I’ve worked with that I’ve felt gives me something I can’t get on film. Whether I’ll film on film again, I don’t know.

Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean when you say it gives you something you can’t get with film?

Well, it gives me a lot more options. It’s got more latitude, it’s got better color rendition. It’s faster. I can immediately see what I’m recording. I can time that image on set with a color-calibrated monitor. That coloring goes through the whole system, so it’s tied with the meta-data of the image. So that goes through the whole post-production chain, so it’s not a case of being in a lab and having to sit and then time a shot on a shot-by-shot because this has already got a control on it that’s set the timing for the shot, you know? All sorts of things, really.

Do you miss film at times?

Am I nostalgic for film?

Yeah, exactly. That’s what I–

I mean, it’s had a good run, hasn’t it?

[Laughs] Wow.

You know, I’m not nostalgic for a technology. I’m nostalgic for the kind of films that used to be made that aren’t being made now.

What I mean is the look of film, though. Do you feel like there’s anything you lose with the transfer? I mean, some people have said the grain is unique.

The grain is unique, but on this film Now that I’m doing, I’m probably going to add grain for certain sequences where I feel that they would benefit having grain, just the look and the texture of it. Yeah, there are certain things about film emulsion that I love, and for certain projects, absolutely. I would certainly consider shooting film again, but you can add grain to a digital image.

And, frankly, it’s not the technology that makes the great movies. I mean, if you went back to see Citizen Kane and you looked at it on a big screen and you looked at the quality of the image, I mean, frankly, some of it is not very…well, good’s not the right word, because technically it’s not as sharp. Some of it is very grainy. The lens quality is not as good as modern lenses. But…[Laughs] it’s still a better film than ninety-nine percent of what are made today. So, you know, it’s not just about technique and equipment.

I had one question that one of our listeners asked about the opening shot of True Grit, which is really a haunting and amazing shot. Can you talk about how you conceived of that shot?

That sequence, originally I think it was four storyboarded shots. The Coen brothers tend to storyboard everything in the film, and that might evolve. And in this case, I think the opening was going to be four or five shots. Four shots, maybe. We were shooting overnight to get this shot, the horse riding away, passing the dead body outside the boarding house, and we were going to be looking down the street.

And I was trying to get a way of silhouetting the horse as it rode away, and we couldn’t do it, so we decided to do the shot as a dawn shot. So we were setting up, we were waiting for dawn, and I said, “Well, as we’re waiting, why don’t we do this other shot, side on and tracking in towards the boarding house as an alternative?”

And we did, we did one or two takes of that shot. And in the end, that was the shot they used, and they didn’t use the other shots we did. The thing about the shot is it’s much more simple. It’s more about the body than the horse riding away, that first shot. But it’s also much more simple in terms of its elements. The boarding house, the snow, the body in the street, and the horse passing across the frame very briefly. It’s just a very simple sort of picture-book telling of that scene, that story point. So I know that’s why they used it.

It’s fascinating that that almost never was, but for your casual mention of “let’s try this.”

Well, it’s that thing. Sometimes, you know, happy accidents. Conrad Hall used to talk about things like that. I mean, things just sort of happen and something comes on the day that is “okay, well we didn’t think of that.” We knew we wanted to do the scene in a certain way, but we didn’t think of doing it completely in this way, and that’s what happens when you’re working on a set with a number of people. It’s just how things have evolved.

My last question I’m just personally interested in, because I’m an amateur still photographer myself, and that is: how often do you still shoot still photography these days and what type of camera do you use?

I haven’t been doing as much and I haven’t done much in the last year. I’ve been sort of pretty busy, but I do like to every now and again. Especially when I go back to England, I spend time taking photographs. I’ve got two Leicas, basically. I’ve got an M6, which is film. [Laughs] I’ve got an M8, which is digital.

Very cool.

I go between the two. I can’t decide which one I like best. [Laughs]

Excellent. I promise this is the very last question. One of our listeners wanted to know: you’ve been doing some work with Sam Mendes recently.

Yeah.

Have you been approached to film the upcoming Bond film?

[Laughs] Yes.

So is that something that’s in your future?

It might be.

[Laughs] Okay, well, if you do make James Bond number twenty-three, I’ll be very excited to see. A Roger Deakins-filmed James Bond would probably be very–

Well, a Sam Mendes will be pretty interesting, don’t you think?

Exactly. The combination of the two will be quite spectacular.

Well, we’ll see.

Well, Roger Deakins, I’m very grateful that you’ve generously given us your time today.

My pleasure.

Thanks so much. Congratulations again on the A.S.C. lifetime achievement award, and good luck at the Academy Awards this year.

Alright. Thanks so much.

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