Cinematographers are often among the great unsung heroes of moviemaking; audiences know actors and sometimes directors, but they rarely recognize the name of the person who is behind the camera and collaborating with the director to capture the images that bring a film to life. But if there is a director of photography working today who might be the exception to that, it’s Roger Deakins. The British-born Deakins began his career in documentaries, TV and music videos, while his early films included Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Sid & Nancy (1986) and Air America (1990). In 1991, he shot Barton Fink for Joel and Ethan Coen, starting an astounding 12-film run with the iconoclastic siblings that will continue next year with Hail Caesar!
Deakins’ other credits represent a staggering list of some of the best films of the last 25 years, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995), three with Sam Mendes — Jarhead (2005), Revolutionary Road (2008) and Skyfall (2012), possibility the most gorgeous James Bond movie of the series — and two with French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve: 2013’s gripping Prisoners and the new, even darker Sicario, in which Villeneuve, Deakins and their crew trekked to the American Southwest and Mexico to capture not just a series of stunning vistas but the gritty reality of the ongoing dance of drugs, death and corruption on the U.S./Mexican border.
On Sicario and his other films, Deakins (who has been nominated for an Academy Award 12 times but inexplicably has yet to win) often creates painterly, rich compositions that immerse the viewer fully in the world the film is building, a talent that should suit him well as he and Villeneuve move on to make the highly-anticipated sequel to the classic Blade Runner. We spoke with him about that, Sicario and more when Den of Geek got Deakins on the phone earlier this week.
Den of Geek: Let’s start with Sicario. What was the mandate when you and Denis got together to talk about this film and what he wanted it to look like?
Roger Deakins: I don’t know, really. There wasn’t that kind of initial conversation, really. I mean we talked about the script and the look of the film sort of developed out of that. Obviously there’s a lot of action in the film. And Denis was concerned that the action was strong. The look of the film I think evolved slowly through conversations and looking at locations and all the rest.
Were there specific challenges with this material given that there’s a lot of outdoors stuff, there’s the sequences in the tunnels, a lot of things happening at night?
Yeah. The biggest challenge is always to weave everything together in terms of a coherent whole, because you’re shooting scenes so far apart and in different conditions, quite often. So the biggest challenge is to create a film that hangs together as a piece.
Specifically, I would say crossing the border into Mexico, picking up the guy from jail, and coming back and the shootout at the border was the hardest sequence to sort of achieve, because we didn’t really know where to go and how to do it. You’ve just go to think it out. You think of the best options. You think what’s best and what is cost effective. And we ended up, we went to Mexico City for the driving shots and shot the border battle on a set that Patrice (Vermette, production designer) built on a parking lot in Albuquerque. So it was a whole mixture of different elements.
When you have something like that where you are literally shooting one scene in two different places and, as you say, you have to sort of assemble it together, are you constantly referencing the stuff you shot so far? How do you make sure it stays consistent?
It’s just something you have in your head. I didn’t really look at anything. But it is tricky. For instance, the interior of the jail, which is supposedly in Mexico, was in Albuquerque. And we shot in Albuquerque weeks in advance of going to Mexico. We shot in Mexico City right at the end of the schedule. So, not knowing simply what the light was going to be in Mexico City, I said to the production, “We have to shoot this courtyard,” that we were using for the jail, “we have to shoot it before the sun comes on it about 11, 11:30 in the morning.” So we shot the whole sequence in the morning in shade because it was like in the shade of a big tower building. That was the only way I could think of covering myself when we went to Mexico.
So it’s things like that you’ve got to kind of put there and think about before you get into it.
How often do you get on the set and just sort of throw away the storyboards?
I mean you do it quite often, really. You can have a shot or a sequence of shots in mind when you get to the set and just say, “No. it plays in one shot,” or you might have thought of doing it in one shot and you can’t and you do it in a sequence of shots. I’m trying to think of a specific moment. I can’t, frankly, but it does happen. It happens a lot, really.
What opportunities and/or what difficulties does shooting in the desert pose?
Well, I’ve shot out there quite a lot. We were based in Albuquerque. I’ve shot there four or five times now. I kind of love it. It’s like being on the ocean and away from some of the places. You know, just that sense of space.
Opportunities? One of the major things that happened on Sicario I suppose we didn’t really expect but we should have, it’s the weather. We imagined a much more sort of bland look to our experience. But then it was very active monsoon season when we were there. So we got these amazing cloud formations. Neither Denis nor I had talked about that. We had actually talked about it being really quite bland. But we both decided to embrace that and use it because the landscape was such a sort of feature in the film. It was almost a character.
There’s a very painterly aspect to your compositions and to your cinematography that we don’t see as much of today. Is that something that you are conscious of and that’s something you would like to preserve in your work?
I don’t know if it’s in a conscious way. But I kind of trained as a painter when I was a kid. Then I discovered still photography and I was interested in still photography. Still am. I mean that’s kind of something I do as a hobby. And so, composition is very, very important to me.
Have you ever thought of doing a book of your still photographs?
No, but my wife was saying the other day that we might try and do that at some point. It’s not that I’ve got a huge number, but I’ve got a few I kind of like. [laughs]
This is the second time you’ve worked with Denis. You are going to work with him again on Blade Runner 2. When you work with a director, does it usually take just the first film to know that you are in sync and you speak the same language?
I mean it happens more quickly than that, really. It happens quite soon on a shoot. In fact, with Prisoners it was as soon as we were in pre-production. It was obvious. I thought we got on. You know, it’s just like any relationship, really. Sometimes you click with somebody or you don’t. But I mean with Denis, yeah, it’s quite special, really. Yeah, it’s a good collaboration, I think.
Have you had any preliminary talks about Blade Runner? And do you stay up at night thinking about how to follow up a film with such iconic imagery?
I certainly sort of think about following up the initial one. I mean it is kind of a responsibility. But, on the other hand, a film is a film. It’s a different script. It’s going to be what it’s going to be. I have so much confidence in Denis taking it somewhere that’s going to be interesting. We’ve talked about it a little bit. We’re going to be starting some prep on it next week, in fact, in Montreal. Things are moving ahead.
Have you seen the script yet?
I know that moving into science fiction is something you’ve wanted to do. You did it a little bit with In Time, but I don’t think that had quite this level of world building…
Yeah. That was hardly science fiction in a way. I think Nineteen Eighty-Four was sort of the closest I’ve come to creating a vision of the future. Again, that was a kind of retro future. But yeah, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s a different idea, really. And I’ve always loved science fiction. Not only the movies, but reading science fiction. I always have.
Do you have a favorite science fiction novel that if somebody approached you about shooting it you’d jump right in?
Mockingbird. Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird.
Have you ever had a situation where a director — and I’m not looking for names — didn’t perhaps have as clear an idea of what they wanted and relied on you more heavily?
I mean, quite honestly, I’ve worked with a director that sort of said, “Look. You obviously know about what you do, camera, lighting. You do that and I want to deal with the script and the actors.” I mean it depends where the director is coming from. Some directors, like Joel and Ethan, know the whole process back to front. Other directors don’t know one lens from another. But that’s fair enough. That’s just the range of people that direct films.
You just finished your 12th collaboration with Joel and Ethan (on Hail Caesar!, pictured above).
Are you guys at the point now where you don’t have to even talk on set?
Well, we talk about things, but maybe not so much about the film on hand. No, I’m only joking. We talk a lot. I mean the process hasn’t really changed that much from Barton Fink, really. I mean I hope. Trust builds obviously with every movie. But yeah, the process hasn’t really changed. Again, somehow I think we just hit it off on Barton Fink. And, as I say, sometimes there’s people you get on with very well and people that maybe you don’t get on with so well.
Is working with The Coens like working with one brain with two bodies?
They’re very much in sync. I mean they are very much two individuals, but they are very in sync when it comes to making a film. Because they’ve worked on the script together, they know it in and out. They’ve worked through every aspect of the production together. So, yes, in a sense, on set it’s very much like I can relate to either of them about a shot or something I’m wondering about. Basically, the three of us are totally in sync most of the time [laughs].
I read that you have gone back to shooting on film on Hail, Caesar! Can you talk a little bit about the way things have evolved? Are you an advocate for using film as much as possible? Or do you feel like we just go where the technology takes us?
I’m the latter, really. I don’t have any real affiliation either way. I just think it’s a natural progression. I mean there’s definitely a lot of advantages to shooting digital. Quite frankly, Joel and Ethan wanted to shoot the last one on film, so that’s fine. I’m happy with that. My preference probably would have been go digital, but we talked about it and they said eventually they wanted to shoot film. I thought I would be unhappy about it, but I’m wasn’t unhappy about it. It’s like an old friend, really. But I must say I haven’t shot much film. That was the first one I’d shot on film since True Grit, actually.
Yeah. Quite a while, really. I was a bit nervous, I suppose, truth be told! [laughs]
Sicario is out now in theaters.