Recycling genres, troubleshooting studio politics and making scandals disappear might have been too much of a cross to bear for Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix in "Hail, Caesar!" But for cinematographer Roger Deakins, it was a fun return to the cockeyed caravan of working with Joel and Ethan Coen.
"Hail, Caesar!" embraces the gray zone of Hollywood reality and artifice in typical Coen brothers fashion. And the early '50s studio shenanigans are almost film noir compared to the tired movies they're making at the MGM-like Capitol Pictures.
There's the "Quo Vadis" vibe of the Roman epic with George Clooney, the Esther Williams mermaid homage with Scarlett Johansson, the "On the Town" musical send-up with Channing Tatum and the fish-out-of water drawing room comedy with Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes.
Credit production designer Jess Gonchor with recreating the glam sets with old school craftsmanship of plastering, sculpting and painted backdrops. They shot mostly on the stages of the old Goldwyn Studios/Warner Hollywood lot. However, the highlight was using the stage that was originally built for Williams at MGM (now Sony) for all of the swimming work. They opened up the pit and filled it with water.
"For me and and lighting, while on those sets, we came back wide enough to see how they were lit," Deakins suggested. "I was back using direct light, which I don't use much and certainly not in that kind of way. It's back to more of classic way of lighting. They were all different challenges and they wanted different techniques utilized."
For the Roman epic, Deakins went for that gold and red look with warm, rich tones. For the black-and-white drawing room comedy, it was a cheap, hard light and for the singing cowboy western, he emulated the two-strip (red and green) Trucolor process utilized at Republic.
But the hardest part was the bizarre Soviet defection scene with Tatum that was part of the actual plot. It plays like "Ben-Hur" in Malibu, culminating with the emergence of a submarine. "It's played to be somewhat fake and the house on the cliff is out of ['North By Northwest']," Deakins continued. "It was pretty close to what we had in our heads."
And what is Deakins' greatest Hollywood takeaway? "How they shot some of those amazing movies with the heavy equipment that they had was brilliant. Today we run around with our little digital cameras and we can do just about anything we want. I think I had over 100 10ks up there for the swimming sequence. That's a lot of light."