Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC earned his sixth and seventh Oscar and American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His previous nominations were for The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There and O Brother, Where Art Thou? During 2007, he also accepted a Career Achievement Award from the National Board of Review, which also bestowed No Country for Old Men with the organization’s award for Best Film, among other accolades.
David Heuring (MM): Is it a coincidence that you have four nominations for collaborations with the Coen brothers?
Roger Deakins (RD): The Coen brothers are incredible visual storytellers, and every story they tell has a different look. I’ve been so lucky to be working with them over the years, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to do so many different-looking films.
MM: The Assassination of Jesse James was your first film with Andrew Dominik. What are the differences between working with longtime collaborators and working with a director for the first time?
RD: There was a lot more talking and a lot more preparation with Andrew than I would do with the Coen brothers these days, but I don’t find that daunting. I actually found it quite refreshing. Andrew had a very clear idea of the feel he wanted for the movie, so the challenge for me was to live up to his expectations, and to make a film that looked like what he envisioned.
MM: How did you and Andrew arrive at an approach to the visuals on Jesse James?
RD: We spent a lot of time talking and looking at many reference images. I would sit with him and we’d go through scenes, and I’d go off and doodle. Gradually, we developed storyboards for some of the more logistically difficult scenes like the train robbery. That process helped me to understand the whole feeling he was after, and helped me get to know him and to get some sort of working relationship going.
MM: How do you go about translating a literary world like that in No Country for Old Men to a believable on-screen world?
RD: I don’t know exactly how that translates. I’ve probably read everything that Cormac has written. I read that book long before Joel and Ethan intended to direct it. It’s true that the book is very visual and very poetic. You have it in your head, but I can’t say how it translates to images. It’s a feeling, and an instinct for how you want to light and frame something. For me, it’s certainly not something that’s conscious. It’s not as though I say, ‘I’m doing this or that to make it feel poetic.’ It’s much more of an instinctive feeling that I bring to the work, bearing in mind the way the novel made me feel.
Jesse James has a melancholy, nostalgic feeling, and one is very aware of creating that mood. But I never thought that I had to shoot it in a certain way to achieve that feeling. I don’t think I can say in words why I do things a certain way. But you know it affects you when you do it. While shooting Tommy Lee Jones in the scene in Ellis’ cabin, I’d get a tingle up my spine. It’s a combination of the dialogue, the setting, the vast emptiness outside the windows. It’s Tommy’s face and his acting. It’s not merely the meaning of the words that makes it powerful, it’s the whole thing—the whole feeling and the context within the story. Those juxtapositions are really the power of cinema.
MM: Are there common misconceptions about cinematography that you encounter?
RD: I think so. I think it’s pretty misunderstood. Some people seem to think you just get a camera and point it at a nice sunset or something. That’s flippant, but to an extent I think that’s true. People often recognize good cinematography as being a series of attractive images. That’s not necessarily what I think is great cinematography. Some of the most understated cinematography doesn’t get noticed. I see some films that get no recognition, and I say, ‘Wow, that’s brilliant.’ I’ve said before that the majority of the job is sort of a logistical exercise. It’s taking the producer’s desires in terms of schedule and budget, the director’s vision and then your own personal wishes to do certain things, and trying to put them all together in a happy, cooperative way. But it’s difficult, really.
MM: Is there an overemphasis on technology?
RD: Well, technology is interesting to a lot of people, especially a lot of up-and-coming cinematographers. But in the end, it’s not what’s important—definitely not. In some of the most stunningly shot films, the camera never moves. It’s not the technology. The trick is finding a look and a feel that is right for the script. That’s what I always go back to. You’re not just creating images for their own sake. The important thing is to create something that serves the story and doesn’t overpower it, along with serving the production in terms of its budget and schedule.