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Famed Cinematographer Roger Deakins Talks Coens, Storytelling, 'Prisoners'

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
January 13, 2014 7:47 PM
3 Comments
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Roger Deakins
Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in "Prisoners"

I spoke to British cinematographer Roger Deakins via Skype while he was filming Angelina Jolie's challenging new film "Unbroken" on the water in New Zealand. Deakins, who often collaborates with the Coen brothers, is a go-to cinematographer for many filmmakers and is revered by actors because he puts storytelling front and center. "He has an uncanny sense of where to put the camera to catch the most important thing in a scene," "Prisoners" star Jake Gyllenhaal told me. "That puts you on your game." 

Paul Dano told me that one of the reasons he agreed to do Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" was because Deakins was shooting it. "Prisoners," while it has not come up in many award conversations, marks some of Deakins' best work. His recent ACE nomination brings Deakins’ ASC total to 12. While he won last year for "Skyfall" and for 1995's "The Shawshank Redemption" and the Coens' 2002 black-and-white "The Man Who Wasn't There," he has never won the Oscar. His other nominations were for "Fargo,"(1997), "Kundun" (1998), "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2001), "No Country for Old Men" (2008), "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2008), "Revolutionary Road" (2009), "The Reader" (2009) and "True Grit" (2011). He was also the recipient of the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

As the world moves from analog to digital, so does Deakins, who even consults on many animated features; I talked to the filmmakers about his role in DreamWorks' "The Croods." 

Anne Thompson: You've done such a wide range of movies and different styles. Though you don't look for the bravura shots, are there any particularly tricky or spectacularly beautiful shots that you're proud of?

Roger Deakins: There are some sequences in films that I think work filmicly, that stand out to me, but that's much more to do with the staging and the cutting and the mood of the thing as a sequence, the way everything comes together. I would say a number of sequences in "The Man Who Wasn't There," are cinematically as good as it gets. But that was completely down to Joel and Ethan. Their concept was just so brilliant. The sequence I remember most is when Billy Bob Thornton's character is taking his wife home after the party with the pig. He's putting his wife to bed, they're coming home at night and he's telling us, the audience, in a voiceover how he met her and how they got together as a couple, which is really sad. And then the phone rings, and he picks up the phone and it's Dave, the guy his wife Marge is having an affair with. He goes to meet Dave in his store, at night, and he gets there and murders Dave, and then he gets back in his car and drives home. He comes back in the house, sits on the bed with Marge, and then he continues the story he's been telling of how he met Marge before he went and committed the murder. To me it's a really brilliant piece of filmmaking. Things like that stand out but it's not because of my role or cinematography or a particular shot; the whole mood and the sadness, it's cinema, you can't actually explain it because it's pure cinema. It makes you feel and think something only cinema can do.

What sequence has been a challenge for you? Maybe the sequence in "Skyfall" where Bond is in the modern skyscraper with an incredible backdrop and light patterns swirling around.

That happens every day. Every scene has its own challenge. The sequence on "Skyfall," we had the sequence in mind and were scouting in Shanghai for a location. I've never done anything like that before, even on music videos. Every scene is a challenge. There are technical challenges but often it's the simplest challenge where you feel a sense of achievement when you pull it off. 

There was a shot I did on "Sid and Nancy" many, many years ago. We're on this boat on the River Thames. The police come and raid the boat because there's drinking and drugs, and we're left with Sid and Nancy on the pier. Alex Cox just wanted a scene of them walking away with all this chaos behind them. We thought, what could we do that's really simple? We just did one handheld shot and I just walked backwards in front of the pair of them walking away from the river up this gangplank and underneath this little tunnel. It's just the one shot, and Alex used the shot with the music and set in context with the film, that was a challenge. It was a little thing. That wasn't a huge technical challenge other than that I had to walk backwards with the camera. Some of the smallest things on a smaller film, to me, are greater achievements than on a big film when you have the resources and the time and everything else.

Denis Villeneuve seems very precise and detailed as a director. Are certain directors more collaborative with you? 

Every director is slightly different. Denis is incredibly good with actors and working through a scene and finding something that's not just there on the page. I thought that was really intense, really interesting. When he found something, he knows if he wants it or not. He's very decisive like that. But he's also very meticulous with the camera. I feel every shot, every camera move, every frame, and the way you frame something and the choice of lens, I see all those things are really important on every shot. He really gets that. He really understands that the subtlest change in an image from 25mm to a 32mm or a push-in as opposed to a pull-back, or a track as opposed to a static wide shot, they all have an impact on the audience depending on what their information within the frame is. 

All these little subtle things have enormous impact over the length of a movie. And the thing with "Prisoners," my obsession with shooting is a continuity of the whole. I don't like a shot or scene to stand out of a film; I like the whole thing to work as a piece. Denis gets that every shot is valuable, not only in what you do in that shot to represent what's within the frame but all the way all those shots fit together to make a whole. It has to be seamless, otherwise the audience is suddenly taken out of the story. He's meticulous like that. Some directors will just let you do it as a cinematographer, and some directors are entirely fixed on the script and the performances. Fair enough, but Denis and the Coen Brothers and many others are meticulous about the image and the way those images relate to the acting as a whole. I think that's film, really.

I get a kick out of a grandiose, ambitious set piece with a long take like "Atonement." But a shot like that can call attention to itself and take you out of the movie. Is that what you mean?

Yeah, that's how I feel. Sometimes a shot becomes too clever for its own good. It draws attention to itself. Sometimes you watch a film and you see a big elaborate shot and think, "I wonder what that would look like if you played it on a close-up and a reverse." You know, a close-up on an actor and a point-of-view. It would have had more power.

3 Comments

  • Jim Bachalo | February 28, 2014 3:16 PMReply

    Opening shot Skyfall...simply awesome

    http://goo.gl/1sLb3v

  • Julianne | January 14, 2014 10:05 AMReply

    the shot that really stood out for me in Prisioners was the panoramic view of the river, then the zoom in to view the search & rescue crew looking for the little girls. that river shot was breathtaking

  • ag | January 13, 2014 9:09 PMReply

    i only remember two scenes from sid and nancy. the one where sid comes into the apartment and there's a guy suspended from the ceiling and the boat ramp scene.

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