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“I Just Like Doing My Job”: DP Roger Deakins on Working with the Coens, Digital vs. Film and His Most Difficult Shots

Roger Deakins

It was fitting that, in the year that the Coen Brothers presided over the Cannes jury, lens makers Angénieux chose Roger Deakins as the subject of their tribute at the festival. Born in Torquay, England, Deakins is best known for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, having shot most of their movies since Palme d’Or winner Barton Fink. He’s also shot three films for Sam Mendes, including the blockbuster Skyfall. At Cannes, he also had a film in competition, Sicario, his second collaboration with Denis Villeneuve, and at the festival it was announced that they would team up again for the much-anticipated Blade Runner sequel. The cinematographer has also been nominated for 12 Oscars, but has yet to win one. Not to worry, as his cabinet is brimful of BAFTAs (The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men and Skyfall) and accolades from the American Society of Cinematographers (The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Skyfall).

Filmmaker: Growing up, was there any image or images that you saw that made you think, “I want to be a cinematographer?”

Deakins: Yeah, a lot, but I didn’t get to watch films. I grew up in Devon and there was not that much contact with the film industry. I’d go to the movies, but they didn’t show much. There was a little film society that ran for a few years and I got to see a lot of European movies that I wouldn’t have got to see any other way. So I got to see anything from Last Year in Marienbad to L’Avventura or Peter Watkins’ The War Game. I remember I saw that just after it was made: it was released to film societies before the BBC banned it and pulled all the copies, and hardly anybody saw it for 25 years. I was kind of lucky for somebody growing up in Devon to see these films. I just gradually discovered movies, I suppose, films I still love, the ones that affect me going on: the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, probably Andrei Tarkovsky, Kurosawa obviously, Mizoguchi and Visconti. You know, kind of the usual candidates in a way.

Filmmaker: So with Tarkovsky, what are the key films for you?

Deakins: The two films that most affected me and still do are Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror. Ivan’s Childhood is more accessible, and they are both to me almost like pure cinema. The stories are not strictly narratives that you can understand; it’s using images and sounds and dialogue, creating something that I think only film can do. You couldn’t take the picture away and understand it, you couldn’t take the sound away and understand it. I can’t talk about it because it creates an emotional response that is more than a literary thing, that is more than cinema.

Filmmaker: One of the joys of working with the Coen brothers is that they like to mix up genres. How do they approach you to talk about each individual project?

Deakins: I don’t think it’s really like that. They send me the script, I’ll read it and we’ll slowly go into production. It’s a slow thing: they storyboard their movies and sometimes I’m involved in doing the storyboards with them, and sometimes not  — mainly not lately — but then we’ll go through storyboards or whatever. Usually conversations happen as we are scouting locations, or with the designer talking about the design of the set or the staging of a scene in a set. It just gradually happens. I find [that] their scripts are so visual, even though they don’t describe; somehow the visuals just come off the page in a way.

Filmmaker: Is there something the Coens do with their scripts that is different from other directors?

Deakins: Maybe because I know them and I can read between the lines, I don’t know. But they conjure up a world that seems to me to be quite self-evident from the script. Otherwise, I don’t really remember having one meeting where we are discussing the look of the film.

Filmmaker: What, for you, is the most difficult shot to execute?

Deakins: Sometimes the most difficult shot in a movie is like that [pushing his fingers forward to show a single camera pointing straight] or sometimes it’s a huge rig and blah blah. It can be a technical challenge. I supposed if you are talking about Joel and Ethan, Barton Fink was the first film that I did with them, [so] there was more pressure on me. There were some very particular shots that were difficult. One in particular was the camera starting underneath the bed, tracking across the room, into the bathroom and down the plughole. This was the early days of remote heads and all this sort of nonsense, so it was incredibly hard to do that. I figured out how to recalibrate a lens to focus up a plughole; we figured out how to get focus with a string and knots in it, so when the camera went down and the focus puller knew how far — all this sort of  stuff. We figured we could get an oversized pipe, I could light it from the back and then have a piece of card that had a painting of a pipe continuing in the distance, and we could bounce light off the painting element to come back and light the foreground real pipe, and then track down that pipe with a probe lens on a camera, and then dissolve from the plug hole of the one shot into the shot as if you were going down the pipe in this fake scale thing. I thought that worked really well. You read it on the page and you go, “Oh shit, how we going to do that?”

Filmmaker: How important is it for you to keep abreast of all the changes?

Deakins: In the old days of film stocks I would keep doing tests on film stocks, different kinds of lab processing. Now, with digital cameras, that is not so important. I got to love the ALEXA and I haven’t really tested other cameras, because I’m quite happy shooting with the ALEXA. They upgrade it every now and then. The last film we did [Sicario] we shot open gate using the full sensor, which you couldn’t do up to a year ago, so you would do tests with that. I’d test different remote heads when they come along. You keep up with it, but I think technology is a means to an end. It’s not something that dictates how you shoot, it’s just something that makes it more efficient to manage a schedule. Often shooting a film is a war against schedule more than anything, and any technology that can help you do that is only a good thing.

Filmmaker: How did you look upon the change that took place in the last decade from film to digital?

Deakins: It’s not really different for me. There came a point where I thought the advantages of shooting digital outweighed the advantages of shooting film. I’m not really talking here about image quality — I think it is a bust between film and digital. [Between] a well shot, well exposed emulsion and a well shot digital image, I don’t know if there is that much to choose between them. The advantages of shooting digital, just in terms of the length of the magazine, the fact that you don’t have to wait for a lab report, the fact that you can discuss with the director the image because you have a calibrated monitor on set, I think these things are big advantages to making a film and being efficient.

Filmmaker: One of my favorite shots of yours is the scene of the falling trash in Sid and Nancy. What do you remember of that scene?

Deakins: We were going to work. I drove in with Alex Cox and Abbe Wool, who was the writer on it, and Abbe was saying “We need this shot of Sid and Nancy kissing, like a poetic image. Why don’t we have trash falling around them and dustbins falling and do it in an alleyway?” I said, “Wow, OK, if you want to make it look poetic it has to be high speed.” We are going to work and I have to ask the production to get a high speed camera so we can start shooting this shot. We found this alley and started shooting, and the camera kept jamming — because it was a really cheap rental house, I think — and we kept getting through 20 feet of film and it would jam. Eventually we got one take where the camera would keep going for about 50 feet of film and that was in the final movie, the dustbin and trash falling and them kissing. It was a great shot. The way we made that film was like that; it was spontaneous and we would often go off the cuff.

Filmmaker: Do you like that type of filmmaking? Recently you have been making big films where I imagine you don’t have that ability to shoot from the hip.

Deakins: No. You don’t have that flexibility on something like Skyfall, [but] you can still be spontaneous. I like going from smaller films where you are doing that kind of work to other films. I like the variety. The only real big action film [I’ve done] — if you can call it that — is Skyfall. But our approach was the same as with the other films of [Mendes’] I operated. Most of it was single camera; obviously some big scenes we had multiple cameras, but not many. We had a second unit that shot the opening sequence, but at the end of the schedule we went to Turkey with Daniel Craig and inserted ourselves into that opening sequence and basically shot half of it as first unit. So it wasn’t really like doing [a] multiple camera, big action movie and it was much more personal — like I would work with the Coen Brothers, just a bigger film. Lots of splashy sequences, but it was character driven. It had action, because obviously it was a franchise, but it was really a character driven piece.

Filmmaker: Do you see that being different when you go on to make the Blade Runner sequel?

Deakins: If you look at the original Blade Runner it is not an action movie. The most powerful scene is the big close-up of the android with a white dove; Rutger Hauer is dying and it’s wonderful. Or the scene between Sean Young and Harrison Ford. It’s just that moment of human contact between a human and an android that has human feelings. It’s wonderful.

Filmmaker: Why is the relationship now developing with Denis Villeneuve? What makes that connection for you that you go back and work with someone again?

Deakins: I don’t know. I’ve worked with a lot of people and some of the people I’ve worked with once and probably won’t work with again. It’s not like we didn’t get on, it’s just we haven’t clicked in the same way you might do with somebody else. I’ve worked with Joel and Ethan and it’s just so easy, it’s great, and with Denis it’s the same. I met Denis because I was asked to introduce him when they had an Academy event one night. They had their foreign film nominees at an evening cocktail event and each one was introduced by a different member of the Academy. I was asked to introduce Denis and so I watched his film Incendies and I loved it so much that I watched all the other films that he’d made. When I heard later on that he was going to make Prisoners, I asked my agent to put my name in the hat and luckily Denis said, “Oh, great.”

Filmmaker: And the DP on Incendies has a voodoo doll of you?

Deakins: Probably. I met him that night they showed Incendies and apparently they’re friends and it’s fine.

Filmmaker: Is there a big rivalry between DPs to get the good films because there are not too many of them?

Deakins: Well, that’s the problem. There is not a rivalry. Everybody understands what the world is. The American Society of Cinematographers is quite a busy organization. Over the years I’ve got to know just about every other cinematographer just to know [them], if not to be friends with. I would not say that we are not competitive, in the sense that everybody wants to shoot the best material, but there is no animosity about that. I was surprised, when I first went to the States, just how open everyone was and accepting. I went to the club house for the first time and Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis and a few of the other guys — I think Haskell [Wexler] was there —were so welcoming. I was in awe of Conrad, and I went up to him and was going to say “Conrad, you have been such in inspiration” and before I got a couple of words out, he said “You’re Roger Deakins aren’t you? Barton Fink, wow.” I felt so humble that he knew who I was.

Filmmaker: In the past decade what have you watched and thought, “I wish I had made that”?

Deakins: I think anything that Chivo [Emanuel Lubezki] does is amazing. I’m not saying that I love the movies so much. To be quite honest I have not been a great fan of some of the films that he has shot — not because of his work, because I think his work is amazing. I’ve watched [the films] just for what he has done. I’m in awe of the technical prowess. His work on Gravity, in particular, the mix of the technology with the artistry — I admire his control. The things he’s done with Terry Malick as well, his control of natural light and the way he uses it: I don’t know how he can mold faces like he does and produce stunning images.

Filmmaker: What does winning the Angénieux award mean to you today, and what do awards mean to you general?

Deakins: Quite honestly, I don’t really care about awards. I feel incredible flattered to be given this and to think it’s a recognition of my life, really, so it’s quite moving in that sense. It made me think as we were coming here to Cannes, sitting on the plane, [that] I’ve actually been shooting film for 40 years and it’s my life, so it’s quite a moving thing. But awards is just awards. I just like doing my job. What is nice about being here is being with a lot of friends.

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