Roger Deakins: Sticking to the Script

Slide 1: Roger Deakins, Director of Photography

Think of a film shot by Roger Deakins and a few things will come to mind—beautifully framed shots, sensitive lens work, and, most of all, a visual language that’s in perfect harmony with not only the film’s narrative but also its deepest themes. From his earliest work in the mid-1970s, Deakins has become one of today’s top directors of photography not by creating a signature style but by evocatively shooting in sync with story and character. “It’s always about the script,” Deakins says when asked how he chooses his projects. “I think, ‘Is this something I want to go and see in the cinema myself? Is it something that moves me? Are the characters interesting, do they have something to say to me? Do they change? Do they develop during the film?’ I read a script and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, that affects me in some way.’ But I will never read a script and think, ‘Oh, that will be visually interesting.’”

Born in England and with an early career that included the study of photography and documentary work in Africa, Deakins early on shot Michael Radford’s Orwell adaptation, 1984; Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; and Mike Figgis’ Stormy Monday. In 1991 he shot the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, beginning a relationship that has lasted through all their subsequent films, including the Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country for Old Men, all of which he received Oscar nominations for. Among his many other credits are The Shawshank Redemption, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Reader, and Kundun. We caught up with Deakins by phone and he gave us his thoughts on eight of his films, including A Serious Man and four others by the Coens.

Slide 2: A Serious Man - A Skewed Focus

“It’s the tenth film I’ve done with the Coens. Every film has been quite different, but it’s not always that we are trying new things. In this film, though, we did use swing and tilt lenses to get [Danny Gopnik’s] point of view during the bar mitzvah sequence, and we did the same thing when Larry visited Mrs. Samsky. The [tilt lens] was built for still photography—it’s the type of lens you use when, for example, you’re looking up a tall building. It changes the plane of focus. We used it before in The Hudsucker Proxy when we looked down the line of men sitting in the boardroom, and in A Serious Man we used it in the opposite way, to keep the entire focus on the same narrow plane.”

Slide 3: Sid and Nancy - First Shots

“I was doing a clip reel yesterday because I’m getting some award, and I started off with 1984 and Sid and Nancy and ended up with A Serious Man. Someone said to me, ‘Your work has not changed at all!’ I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it may be true. I can take more chances with lighting now than when I started, but I don’t know that I have changed that much. I have more experience. One day on Sid and Nancy, we flew to Paris in the morning, shot day shots, shot a night scene on the Moulin Rouge with four redhead [lights], no permits, powered at the local cafe, and then we flew back the same evening. That said, it wasn’t that long ago I did Jarhead, which was all handheld, where we shot the rehearsals and had some sort of spontaneity.”

Slide 4: The Man Who Wasn’t There - Modern B&W

“I tend to ‘light the scene,’ but obviously you have to think about [the effect of light on] the actor. The Man Who Wasn’t There was great for me because it was an opportunity to use hard light, which works well with black-and-white. The film is an homage to film noir, but when the Coens and I talked about, we decided we didn’t want it to look like a traditional black-and-white movie of the period but instead like a modern version of [such a film]. Because I wanted the black-and-white [cinematography] to look its best, we didn’t try to go back to any of the older technology. I went for the best way of creating that black-and-white imagery, and I’m sure if they were invented [Citizen Kane cinematographer] Gregg Toland would have wanted modern emulsions and a DI [digital intermediate] too!”

Slide 5: The Hudsucker Proxy - Just Bold Enough

On The Hudsucker Proxy, which is an homage to ‘50s movies, I deliberately lit it in a soft and quite modern way. I felt the piece was so strong it would have been overpowering if I had lit in an old-fashioned, ‘50s comedy kind of way. The camera and shots were bold enough.”

Slide 6: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - An Old West Mood

“Because the film was this kind of poetic reimagining of [this Western tale], we made certain images that looked like they came from an old picture book, as if they came from an old box camera.”

Slide 7: Barton Fink - New Approaches

“I love that film. It was the first one I did with Joel and Ethan, and I wasn’t used to working their way with storyboards.  The first day was in the theater—John Turturro is in the wings and watching a play. The storyboards called for five or six separate cuts, and I said, ‘Why we don’t combine that into one long crane shot’ It was with this remote Louma crane, which they had never worked with before. Ethan was worried we wouldn’t make the day, so we set the crane up the night before, and we finished the scene by 11:30 in the morning!”

Slide 8: Barton Fink - Lighting the Hallway

“Dennis [Gassner, the production designer] and I built the set piece of the hotel lobby in the [August] Wilson Theater—we changed it all around. I discussed with him the colors, where and how I wanted the light to feel, and how to place things. I wanted to have this odd shaft of sunlight crashing through the middle of the space. Lighting the corridors was interesting. It was a very important collaboration for me [with Dennis]: ‘How do you light a passageway?’ We found these practical [lights] and discussed how to place them on the set, and then I cut holes behind each practical to punch them up [with additional lights].”

Slide 9: Fargo - Fighting the Elements

“The hardest thing about Fargo is that we didn’t get a lot of snow, so we had to create it. For the opening scene we planned out all the shots on that location, but we were shooting another scene the day we got the [needed] snowstorm. So, we sent my standby operator with another assistant to do the opening sequences. We had marked the shots with flags—‘50 millimeter lens pointing this way.’ There wasn’t much snow at the airport, so for the scene with Steve Buscemi’s character changing the airport car, all that snow was created overnight with snow makers. The scene with the car crash that Marge looks at in the morning—we shot the first part but by the next day the snow had melted. So, we had to drag the wrecked car to a field that still had snow and stick it down while the location guy tried to find the owner of the property to get permission.”

Slide 10: WALL-E - Bring Animation to Light

“As [visual consultant], I went in and talked to the lighters and camera operator about how I would work in live action. So, if they wanted to get the feeling of live action, I told them how I’d move the camera, or how to replicate a handheld feel, or a dolly move, or a camera on a jib-arm in the digital realm. And we talked about different lighting techniques. With a film like Avatar out now, it’s obvious that there is going to be more integration [between digital and live action]. It’s a totally different experience to sit with a digital lighter at a workstation and describe to him how to light a digital world. But we’re working with the same idea of light, and how to not just light a scene but enhance a story.”

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