“So Much of What You Do is Intuitive”: Roger Deakins on Sicario
In an interview with Variety for his new film Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve claimed that the movie’s cinematographer Roger Deakins “could shoot with a shoe and it would look great.” Hyperbole aside, Villeneuve isn’t far off: if you can affix a lens to it, Roger Deakins can coax lyrical yet naturalistic images from it. Armed with an ARRI ALEXA Studio on Sicario – a slight step up from a shoe cam – Deakins pushed the camera to its boundaries to capture both the cruel harshness of the sunlight and the menacing unknown of the shadows for Villeneuve’s politically and morally complex tale of America’s clandestine involvement in the South of the Border drug trade. The 12-time Oscar nominee spoke to Filmmaker about his preference for shooting single camera, his bafflement at the trend toward older lenses, and why he finds it odd to talk about his work.
Filmmaker: Where did you grow up and how did you fall in love with movies?
Deakins: I grew up in Torquay, which is way down in the southwest of England. The only connection I had to movies was that I joined a film society in Torquay that only ran for a couple of years. I suppose to start with it was just something to do in the winter (laughs) and I guess that’s where I grew to love movies. But I never expected to be working on films. They were just an entertainment, really.
Filmmaker: What types of films would the society show? Was it mainly 16mm prints?
Deakins: Yeah, it was mainly 16mm prints. They used the back of a shop that I think sold gas fires. After the store was closed they set up a projection system and we would watch mainly European movies.
Filmmaker: Was this when you were a teenager?
Deakins: Yeah, I think I was 15 or 16.
Filmmaker: Those years from the mid-50s to the mid-60s were a great period for British cinema. You had this mixture of Bond films, Hammer horror, and the British New Wave.
Deakins: I’ve got to say, I really preferred watching European movies. I watched a lot of French, Italian and Japanese films.
Filmmaker: Sicario marks another project that you’ve shot on the ALEXA. At this point, do you even do tests with other cameras before starting a new film?
Deakins: You always run tests for something, but we didn’t do that many tests on Sicario. It was mainly testing the night vision system and the FLIR (thermal imaging) camera, but there weren’t too many other things we tested.
Filmmaker: But you don’t test the ALEXA against an Epic Dragon or a Sony F65 to see which would handle the circumstances of a particular shoot better?
Deakins: No. I’m quite happy with the ALEXA. Unless another camera came along that was obviously better for some particular reason, I don’t know why (I would change).
Filmmmaker: You shot Sicario single camera, which seems more and more rare, particularly on larger budget films. Why is that your preference?
Deakins: I rarely work with more than one camera. Even on Skyfall, it was mostly a one-camera show. It’s a different approach to filmmaking. [Sicario director Denis Villeneuve] is quite decisive about what shot he wants to be on for what part of the action. So it’s not a matter of getting a load of cameras out and just getting coverage. To me, that’s not filmmaking. Denis has a very precise way of approaching things. He likes working single camera and so do I.
Filmmaker: There is a trend toward pairing digital cameras with older lenses. You used the Arri/Zeiss Master Primes for Sicario, which are a relatively new set of lenses.
Deakins: I think the Master Primes are the fastest and cleanest lenses out there, as far as I can tell. So that’s why I used them. I don’t know why I’d want to screw around with the image from the LEXA. I quite like the image. When we did Skyfall, [director] Sam [Mendes] and I talked about adding [digital] grain [in postproduction]. Then we saw some tests when we were doing the final timing and we both decided that it didn’t make any sense. It looked good as it was. There is a fad, I suppose, for using older lenses, but I’m not sure I quite understand it. I’ve used lenses to distort an image for a particular effect like in The Assassination of Jesse James, but I’m not sure why I’d want to use a soft lens all the way through a film. My eyes are pretty good and the world looks pretty sharp and crisp to me (laughs). So I like to reflect that in the way I shoot.
Filmmaker: Outside of neutral-density filters, do you tend to use much on-camera filtration?
Deakins: I don’t so much now, especially digitally. I used to use graduated filters quite a bit, but now you have so much flexibility in the DI that you’re probably better off not using those filters and then (making adjustments) in the DI.
Filmmaker: I read that the DI on Sicario only took seven days. That seems incredibly fast.
Deakins: It was less than two weeks overall. When I was shooting film, for years you didn’t have the options of (power) windows, selective color or all the other things you now have in a DI suite. So you learned to make what you shoot (on set) look like what you want (the final image) to look like. I’ve just carried that over to the way I shoot digitally.
Filmmaker: In Sicario, you use the entire dynamic range of the ALEXXA, from blistering highlights to almost impenetrable shadows.
Deakins: I wouldn’t say it’s easier shooting digital, but it is much more reassuring when you can actually see what you’re doing on your DIT’s monitor. With film, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have, you’re still judging it by your eye. I still like to judge it by eye when I shoot digitally — that’s why I use an ALEXA Studio, because I like having the optical viewfinder — but it’s very reassuring when I go over to see the image on the DIT’s calibrated monitor.
Filmmaker: At what point in the process do you and Denis make a decision like letting some of the film’s windows go incredibly hot?
Deakins: I don’t know if there was any real point of deciding. It just felt like the way to go, really. So much of what you do is intuitive. What particular windows do you mean when you say “hot windows?”
Filmmaker: I was thinking specifically of the windows in the Mexican police officer’s home. When you are framing those shots, there must be a point where you make a decision about whether you’re going to cut the light outside so those windows don’t blow out or if you’re going to let them go.
Deakins: I just thought blowing them out made for a more graphic, interesting image in this very hot climate. It was also the location. What was out the window was just a blank wall. Sometimes the feel of the light in the interior is more important than seeing something in the window. It just seemed to fit having hot windows, for them to be harsh and bright.
Filmmaker: Violence erupts and then just as quickly dissipates in Sicario. It has a cumulative effect so that, by the time two pivotal scenes arrive near the conclusion in which Benicio Del Toro’s character aims his gun at other characters, the tension of waiting for the violence to erupt becomes almost unbearable.
Deakins: It’s (about) how long you hold those shots. The camera doesn’t do anything to deliberately heighten that tension. The camera is just observing and it’s very still and that’s where the tension comes from. When we talked about the violence — and obviously the script read as very violent — the way we wanted to do the action was to have it explode and then it’s gone.
Filmmaker: In the opening raid scene, the character of Kate (Emily Blunt) shoots a kidnapper and we cut to a wide shot in which there’s a red curtain flapping quietly in the breeze. How does a detail like that make its way into a shot?
Deakins: That was [production designer] Patrice Vermette. We were talking about what goes on the windows, because we were shooting on a set, so we couldn’t see outside the windows. But story-wise, you would think [these kidnappers] would have something on the windows. So we thought, “We don’t want anything sheer, so let’s put plastic sheeting on the windows.” And Patrice said, “Why can’t there be color?”
Filmmaker: Another great detail in that scene is the shot of the dust particles in the air inside the kidnapper’s compound just before a SWAT vehicle crashes through the wall. Is that a detail that was in the script or something you notice on the day and incorporate?
Deakins: That whole opening sequence was storyboarded and the scene needed to be quick. You couldn’t linger a lot in that scene. There were two shots that we did that weren’t storyboarded. One was the point of view as if you were looking from the SWAT vehicle going towards the house, which was just a clean track-in. The other one was the dust particles, which was something Denis thought of. We wanted to build the tension before the SWAT vehicle comes through the wall. We were going to do shoot the particles in a wide shot, but then we decided to go in close on them and you just see the shadow of one of the SWAT members passing by the window.
Filmmaker: I’m always a sucker for a beautiful silhouette. Before the raid on the border crossing tunnel, there’s a striking one as the silhouettes of the raid team slowly disappear over a ridge as if they’ve been swallowed up by the desert.
Deakins: I had marked that tracking shot weeks before with stakes in the ground. And the crew had pre-laid the track and put a dolly on it so it was all ready to go. I knew exactly where I wanted to put the camera and where everybody was going to walk. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment, which was the last possible light of the day. When we had been storyboarding the sequence, we always talked about the silhouettes of the team disappearing into the blackness and then we could cut to true night in the next shot.
Filmmaker: The final scene finds Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt’s characters in her apartment. In Del Toro’s coverage, he’s side lit to such a degree that his fill side eye is almost completely engulfed in darkness.
Deakins: Denis and I talked on the set about where the scene would happen and Denis was thinking that they would be standing up for their conversation. Then we brought the actors in and blocked the scene and the actors decided to do it sitting down. I don’t remember if I suggested Emily sit where she did or if she just naturally sat there, but it was perfect for me because I knew I was going to use the light in the kitchen to light the scene.
The kitchen set was lit by this fluorescent fixture that was designed into the set and then there was a little bit of an addition to that off-camera to the left. Then [we added] a little bit of bounce light on the wall to give more side light on Benicio because with the existing fluorescent practical [in the kitchen], there wouldn’t have been any light on him without [the bounce]. So I wanted to bring the light around just a little bit so I felt a spark in his eyes. I suppose so he looked like a wolf.
Filmmaker: Is there anything you haven’t been asked about while doing interviews for Sicario that you’d like to talk about?
Deakins: It’s funny, really, answering questions. (laughs) It’s always odd because so much of what you do is intuitive. You have a conversation on the set and then you just get on with it.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.