|(L to R): Ethan and Joel Coen on the set with
There is no dearth of talent behind the camera in
American cinema. Whatever Hollywood may lack for, it’s certainly
not access to world class cinematographers. The best DP’s from around
the globe inevitably find their way to Los Angeles. Roger Deakins
is one such artist. One of the best in his field, the sheer number
of excellent films he has shot since his career began in the late
1970s is impressive by any standard. Born and raised in the UK,
where he got his start as a documentary moviemaker, Deakins is now
one of the most celebrated cameramen in Hollywood or, for that matter,
Now a regular collaborator with the Coen Brothers
(he has shot all of their films since and including Barton Fink),
since his film school days Deakins has worked with some of the most
interesting directors in the business. These have included David
Mamet, Mike Figgis, Frank Darabont, John Sayles and Martin Scorsese.
His most recent work can be seen in the Oscar-winning film, A
Beautiful Mind, as well as the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who
Wasn’t There. Though an Oscar win has alluded him so far, Deakins
has been honored with five nominations since 1994 for his work on The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun, O Brother Where Art
Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There. The common thread
in Deakins’ work is not the presence of a particular style, but
rather a passion for making films about real people. For him, human
relationships are where it’s at and that’s what he focuses on. In
1998, MM deemed Deakins one of the world’s 15 greatest living cinematographers,
and featured him on the cover. Just recently, we caught up with
him again to discuss what he’s been doing since.
Phillip Williams (MM): You’ve
worked with many directors more than once. Is that helpful? Is the
second time out usually better insomuch as you’ve learned a bit
about each other?
Roger Deakins (RD): Yes, it really is. The
problem is you can’t keep working with people because you may not
be available at the time they’re doing a project. I do try and keep
myself available when Joel and Ethan Coen do a movie, because that
relationship has gone on and on. We’ve done six movies so far and
we are doing another one in the summer.
MM: What is it about that collaboration
that you enjoy?
RD: It’s a matter of trust. You have to trust
the director and the director has to trust you. I feel that if you’re
in a situation where you feel that the director trusts you, you
can take your work further, even if it’s as simple as exposing a
shot a little darker. You don’t tend to take those risks with people
you don’t know, especially if you are doing a big studio production.
The last thing you want is to go into a screening room at dailies
and have everyone whining because the shot is too dark. If you do
that with Joel and Ethan they’ll know why you’re doing it and they’ll
probably turn around and say ‘Yes, but can you print it a bit darker?’
MM: How do you select projects? I assume
that at this point you don’t have to take everything that comes
RD: I never really did that. I don’t mean to
sound arrogant, but I’ve never been seduced just by the business.
I enjoy what I do and get satisfaction from it. If I don’t feel
that the project is something that I can relate to then I’d rather
not be doing it; I’ve always had that attitude.
MM: What brought you onto A Beautiful
RD: A few years ago I asked my agent what was
around and I read A Beautiful Mind and really liked it. He
pursued it for me. When he found out that Ron Howard was doing it
he got in touch and said that I was interested. It was a happy circumstance
that Ron Howard was looking for someone.
MM: Did you see any particular technical
challenges for you in the film before you started to shoot?
RD: It’s not really about that for me. I could
relate to the script. I had done a couple of documentaries with
a friend about schizophrenia. We spent three months in a mental
hospital in London following the cases of eight patients in the
outpatient ward. I’ve always been interested in the subject and
thought the idea of tackling it in a feature film "a mainstream
Hollywood movie" was interesting. It’s a difficult balance
because you are trying to make a movie that is accessible to a broad
audience, but also trying to do justice to the subject.
MM: Was there an attempt to create some
sort of visual language to differentiate between John Nash’s subjective
world and the so-called ‘real’ world?
RD: We went back and forth on that in discussions.
When we started off Ron had suggested that we make the vision bleaker
and bleaker and more and more stylized, a sort of film noir/Third
Man look. But in the end we scaled the whole thing back because
you want to sell the whole thing to the audience as being real and
I think that if we had gone too far the audience would have sensed
the artifice of it.
MM: How do you typically prepare for a film?
RD: In the first discussion with a director
you go with your own vision of what the film can be and then see
if that’s in sync with the director’s. If you find that you are
both going down the same path then it’s a matter of mixing ideas
and gradually the vision forms.
MM: As the DP, you are making decisions
about all sorts of matters, right down to the film stock. Do you
include the director in all those decisions?
RD: Sometimes the director’s not interested.
Sometimes the director is just into the script and the actors and
they leave the visuals completely up to the cameraman. With Joel
and Ethan, obviously they are very involved. They don’t always ask
me about film stock, but we do talk about the look and texture of
the film. That’s why in O Brother, Where Art Thou? we ended
up doing a digital intermediary and coloring the picture the way
we did. They said up front that they wanted the feeling of a hand-tinted
photograph. We went through several experiments to get that look
and ended up taking the digital route.
MM: What part of the process is the most
attractive to you?
RD: There’s not one actual aspect alone. The
biggest thrill is looking through the camera and seeing a performance
and a scene coming together and realizing it’s special. Sometimes
when something is working you get a tingle up your spine. It’s a
wonderful feeling when you realized you’ve captured a special moment.
It’s quite a buzz, really.
MM: When you prepare are you putting any
notes on paper or is it all inside of the conversation with the
RD: There are two aspects, really. With Joel
and Ethan you basically storyboard the whole picture. Also, when
making a film, you have to have a battle plan: you scout every location
with the director; you talk about the possibilities of the location
with the director; you talk about the major problems or the better
camera angles. Then you go back with the technical crew, the gaffer
and the key grip, and you thrash out how you’re going to light it.
I always do a diagram of the set, a plan of the lighting and whatever
rigs I might want. If it’s for Joel and Ethan, where everything
is prepared up front what kind of camera angles and shots we’re
going to do, I do diagrams of those shots.
MM: Do you have a sense of how you will
lens the film up front?
RD: Yes, you do tend to have a sense of what
lenses you are going to use. On Fargo, for example, most
of the film was shot with relatively long lenses. Normally they
like to shoot with wide lenses. We shot a lot of that film on a
40mm, which is long for them.
MM: That’s actually a normal lens, isn’t
RD: Well, it is for most people (laughing).
I shoot on a 32mm most of the time with them. On Barton Fink, which was the first time I worked with them, we shot most of
that on a 25 mm and 28mm.
MM: Are there things you can do to practice
"to hone your skills" when you aren’t making a picture?
RD: Yes, I think coming from documentaries
brings a certain perspective to the process. And I was a still photographer
for a short time and I try to keep that up. I don’t take that many
pictures but I spend time trying to (laughs). It just helps to cultivate
a heightened visual sense; it keeps your instincts alive in many
MM: Are there directors and DP’s whom you’ve
admired or who have been mentors for you?
RD: Absolutely. I’ve always admired Conrad
Hall’s work and I’m pleased to regard him as a friend now. I met
him when I first came over to America and I’ve gotten to know him
since. I think his work is fantastic because it’s so varied. It’s
not like he has a particular style, but you know it’s his work,
somehow. And the other guy is Ossie Morris, the British cameraman,
who is also quite brilliant. He shot a lot of John Huston’s pictures-Moby
Dick, Moulin Rouge, Beat The Devil, The Man Who Would Be King.
He did The Spy Who Came In From the Cold with Richard
Burton, which is one of the best black and white films you could
ever see. He has an amazing track record.
MM: When you shot The Man Who Wasn’t
There, did working in black and white necessitate a shift in
your methods? What sort of homework did you do? I assume you looked
at a lot of black and white material.
RD: Well, it was the first film I shot totally in black and white. I shot part of The Hurricane for Norman
Jewison in black and white the boxing scenes. When I was preparing
I actually watch some black and white films but they weren’t really
related to what we were doing. It was just a good excuse to revisit
some black and white movies. I was watching Hud, I remember,
but the lighting in Hud has got nothing to do with The
Man Who Wasn’t There at all (laughing). The look and how you
shoot really comes off the script and the material. Every film is