Here is my introduction: Roger Deakins is inarguably one of the greatest cinematographers of our time. He is also – according to the New York Times – the Susan Lucci of the Oscars (or perhaps – more fitting – the Annette Bening) having been nominated and lost eight times, with 2007’s a double whammy as Deakins was nominated for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford only to lose to There Will Be Blood. True Grit is his ninth nomination, and this modern master was kind enough to grant me an audience for thirty minutes. The good thing about that was it was originally scheduled for fifteen minutes, but we had room to go long, and I’d like to think I probably went about this different than most of his interviews that day (at least I hope). I covered a lot of his career, though not much pre-Barton Fink, with special attention granted to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. As the conversation ended, I asked about his favorites, and he surprised me by listing one of my favorite French filmmakers. I geeked out on him for an extra minute and I’m going to include that part sans too much editing.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy:
Damon Houx: I was thinking of a way to start… I may be a little nervous because I think you’re a genius.
Roger Deakins: Stop (laughs), oh well…
Damon: I was thinking about Francis Ford Coppola who – on the commentary for The Godfather – talked about fighting with Gordon Willis because in the sequence where Marlon Brando gets shot he wanted an overhead POV. Gordon Willis said “Whose point of view is this?” (Deakins laughs) and Coppola said “I don’t care.” (Deakins laughs) Have you ever had fights like that, do you ever get into the ideology of the POV, especially in a film like True Grit, which is taken from a first person perspective?
Yeah, it’s funny, there are a number of times I’ve started a film and had a conceptual plan… I mean when we started Fargo, Joel and Ethan and I thought the film was going to be more observational. We would shoot it more with a static camera – a little bit more like Ken Loach would approach it, and pan more often on a longer lens than anything else. It’s so funny, we discussed it for a long time, and I do think the film does have that quality to it to a degree – but I remember the first day the first thing we set up was a hundred and twenty foot tracking shot. You create these rules in your head, but they’re there to be broken. On True Grit it was important that it was very much Mattie’s story, and you wanted to keep her the central character as much as possible and from her perspective, but there are times you break the rule.
With this film you’ve been working with the Coens for twenty years now.
Yeah, long time.
Was there a point that you felt like you were a part of the family?
When they asked me back after Barton Fink… I mean I shot Barton Fink and we got on really well – but you never know if someone’s going to ask you back. And when they took the chance on me doing The Hudsucker Proxy, I thought then yeah, I’m part of the family.
It’s been a great partnership, and I love your work with them. When you look for work, are they always the first priority?
Yeah, it’s difficult though, because they don’t always know what they’re doing. I may call them up and say “I’ve been offered this or that” and I ask their advice, really, and I’ll do anything to keep myself available, though sometimes it’s not altogether practical. They’ve been through quite a few films lately, but sometimes it’s a longer break between.
They’ve been on a roll, a film a year now for a while; do you know what you’re doing next?
Yeah, they’re writing, I’m probably going to do a film in England, and I rang them up to ask “is this going to clash with your plans?” It’s tricky because they’re not really sure what they’re going to do.
With True Grit you had a lot of exterior sequences. Did you spend a lot of time waiting for God moments?
It’s funny you say that. If you look at the film, a huge amount of it is interior, quite a lot of it is on set, quite a lot of the night shots are interiors on stage and quite a lot of the exteriors are night exteriors. In terms of day exteriors, it’s not a huge part of the film. One of the big advantages on the way the Coens work is that when you’re restricted on the budget and the schedule they storyboard everything so you can take the day’s work and look at the location and figure out how the sun’s going to change during the day or how the sun’s going to change during the day, and you can schedule the shots around the light. The thing is when you’re on a schedule you can’t not shoot. You can’t wait more than ten minutes or fifteen minutes for the light to change if it’s a cloudy or sunny day. You can wait for the sun to come in or go out, whichever one you want to a degree, but you still have to make the day’s work. So there’s an incredible pressure just to shoot. I mean, I can’t stand there and say “I can’t shoot today because the light’s not right.” That’s not going to happen ever, which is because it’s the cinematographer’s responsibility to get the film shot. It’s as much a logistic and practical thing as it is an aesthetic one.
Do you then schedule certain shots because you’re hoping for certain weather?
As I said, you schedule the day, and sometimes you schedule the days so you can work later on one night to get an evening light or start early on another day to get a morning light. I work with the AD a lot in terms of the schedule and how that’s going to affect where we are and what light we’re going to get.
We’re also ten years on from O Brother, Where Art Thou? where you were using a lot of digital manipulation for the color scheme. How much are you relying on post these days?
You know, I’ve done a digital intermediate on every film but one since then, but that was a very specific look. It was a very specific thing, changing the color of those leaves and the grass and trying to create that sort of autumnal landscape. I’ve done that on the odd scene, but generally, the digital control I use is more for saturation – general saturation – and contrast. And then sometimes, if you’ve got a really hot sky you can bring it down digitally, but I don’t tend to use it a great deal. It’s little tweaks versus big things like it was on O Brother.
After having gone through that with O Brother, I was curious to know how that changed your work.
I still try and shoot the negative, or if it’s digital the file, as close as you can to the way you want it to be, because anything you do in post is changing the quality of the image.
Vittorio Storaro’s famous for having his ideology of colors; do you have anything like that?
No, not at all. (I Laugh), No, I mean, everyone has their own sort of approach, and their own color philosophy that guides their work, I guess it’s some sort of trick you use, but no I don’t have any sort of philosophy of color at all.
With the Coen Brothers, they are notorious for storyboarding; do you feel like you have freedom within those boards?
Oh yeah, I usually spend time with them going through the boards, but even on set or when we’re scouting location, we discuss the way it’s going to be shot, and things can change and we can talk about other possibilities. But they’ve always done it because they cut their own films. So they’re very aware of the cutting pattern and style and speed of the cutting they want. The storyboards are a reflection of that as much as anything. But also, they’re very aware they started with very small budgets, and in order to put all the money on the screen it’s very efficient to storyboard. On a film like Barton Fink I remember seeing the final film, and counting the number of shots that were done we never used. I think I didn’t get up to two hands. Which is extraordinary, really. Everything we shot was there, and everything was more or less in the same sequence as in the storyboards. Very efficient.
You obviously have a strong relationship with the Coens, how then do you transition to work with other people?
I have a strong relationship with other people as well, I just tend to prioritize working with Joel and Ethan. It’s loyalty, but also, they’re friends. We’ve been doing it a while now. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, to go on a film where one way is neither right nor wrong, where you don’t have any storyboards, and you’re shooting something off the cuff. It’s a different way, but it’s kind of nice. But I wouldn’t want one without the other.
You’re listed as the camera operator on True Grit, and on a number of your films, do you like operating?
I’ve always operated, I haven’t done a film that I haven’t operated. I came from documentaries and for me the framing and the way the camera moves is most important aspect of what I do. And I like that connection with the subject or the actors, or whatever, I just like that involvement, so I’ve always operated, yeah. Recently I’ve been allowed to have a credit for it.
It’s not reflected in your credits, so I didn’t know. When you were approaching True Grit… you know I absolutely adore The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I mean I’m sure you hear it all the time, but it’s something to savor. That said, having worked on a western before, did you approach this differently, not wanting to do certain things?
Not at all. I always count No Country as a western, a contemporary one, I think of the three films as connected in some way. Each of those three films has a different starting point, and a very different script, and a very different kind of mood that the script is creating. The Assassination of Jesse James is much more like a poem, a tone poem. The book that it’s based on that Andrew (Dominik) wrote the script from is the same, it’s lyrical. A mediation on this outlaw who realizes he’s getting old and how he can maintain who he thinks he is. And also, the change of the west; the way the west was getting civilized. It’s a very different film from True Grit, which is much more straight a narrative.
Recently Walter Murch wrote an article about how he hates 3-D.
(Laughs) Good for him.
You’ve helped on some animated films, but I don’t know if Now, which you’re shooting now.
I just finished on that, that’s not 3-D.
How do you feel about 3-D as a movement in cinema?
I think it’s giving the audience a different experience, and I think on How to Train Your Dragon, which we did in 3-D, it works really well because part of that film is the experience of flying, part of the film is like a ride. But doing a drama like True Grit or Now or something, it’s not. I think it’s more a window on the world; it’s like watching a picture come to life. You don’t want to… you don’t want to immerse them in it, it’s a different experience.
I was looking at Now, and you shot it digital. Do you have a preference? Do you prefer 35mm?
Well, it was the first film I shot digitally, and it was the first time I wanted to do it because there was a new camera that I thought had a lot of potential, and I feel for that film in particular it gave me some possibilities technically that I couldn’t have had with film, partly the speed, but also the dynamic range, but a number of other things. I was really impressed with the imagery, and the way the camera worked, actually, and I’m not sure if I’ll go back to film now.
Technology’s not really what it’s about for me, I’m not a technically minded person, all I care about is producing the best image I can get for whatever kind of look I’m after. I think the digital cameras coming on line now are really, really impressive. I do have an affection for film, and am slightly nostalgic for film, but if I had my way, everything would still be in black and white.
How great then was it to shoot The Man Who Wasn’t There?
That was great, that was wonderful, you don’t get that kind of chance to do a film that works that kind of look.
Have you tried to get other things – like True Grit – shot in black and white?
(Laughs) No. It would be nice to do something else in black and white, but the Coens do have something they’ve talked about doing in black and white. But, you know, it’s not something that’s very commercially viable now so if you do if you do a film in black and white like The Man Who Wasn’t There, which had a minuscule budget, on the one hand you get an opportunity to shoot something, and do that kind of lighting and that kind of look, but on the other hand you don’t have a lot of money to do it (laughs).
Well, like The Assassination of Jesse James, The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the most gorgeous films of the last ten years… I can still say that, right? It’s still ten years (the film came out in 2001) Do you have a preference in working scope or flat?
I’ve never shot anamorphic, actually.
Really? Kundun was 2.35:1, but was that Super 35?
Yeah, all the films I’ve done wide are super 35. Or extraction, earlier they weren’t even Super 35. Like now is 2.35:1 but it’s an extraction from the 16 by 9 chip, yeah.
Do you want to shoot something with an anamorphic lens?
It’s a particular kind of look, and I guess I like – coming from documentaries – I like the immediacy of spherical lenses, cause I like being close to the subject. I like the feeling of the background staying more present and more sharp. And with anamorphic it tends to push the backgrounds away and put them out of focus. It’s not a look I particularly love. The Coen Brothers were going to do a film “To the White Sea,” which is one of the greatest regrets I have that the film never happened. It was a wonderful project. And that film we intended to shoot anamorphic, but it was interesting I wanted to create… the film was set in Japan during the Second World War – about this gunner from a bomber which was shot down in Japan, and it was about his escape across Japan. And we wanted to do it – I suppose – in a sort of painterly way, and we were thinking of using anamorphic just for the scope of it, but also to create flat images also. But the film never happened, so I never got to do it.
I would kill for that movie. In terms of aspect ratios, do you prefer 4 by 3?
It depends. It really depends on the project. I think most films I’ve done have been 2.35:1, Super 35.
When you’re shooting a modern western, like you were with True Grit, how much of what you’re doing is limited by location? Because you’re obviously dealing with a more modern world.
An enormous amount really.
There’s the famous quote from Sidney Lumet, when he asked Akira Kurosawa “why did you put the camera there?” and Kurosawa replied “because if I panned any more to the left you could see a supermarket, and if I moved it to the right, you could see a freeway.”
I really sympathize with that. We had that issue completely. I mean, in a way, we were restricted where we could go because of the budget, and it was the most economical place that gave us locations was based out of Santa Fe – we did half in New Mexico and half in Texas in Austin. But it wasn’t ideal, we didn’t want the feel of No Country, so we had to travel long distances, and there were little areas that looked right, and there was one scene where traffic was flowing in the background we couldn’t stop. But we knew that we could remove it digitally later on. Kurosawa, of course, didn’t have that possibility. He couldn’t shoot toward the supermarket, we could.
Did you face similar problems with Jesse James?
There’s no digital work on Jesse James like that, because we were shooting in Edmonton and Calgary and some in Winnipeg. We chose locations much further out that were fairly pristine. You think with the Canadian plains that there would be more opportunities, but it was still quite restrictive what we could shoot. It’s hard.
There’s been a story about No Country for Old Men that you guys were shooting at one point, and There Will Be Blood were testing their oil derrick explosions. Did that happen?
We were shooting, and I knew Steve Cremin, the effects guy, and we got him on his cell phone (laughs) “You’re blowing up your oil rig in the back of our shot!” It was funny, we were doing a pre-production week of shooting, and they were up there blowing up a derrick.
At least you figured it out quickly.
Yeah, I knew they were there, and I knew who was there, so… this town is quite small really.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from shooting True Grit? Do you have a favorite moment?
I don’t know about anecdote, the first day of shooting was the most memorable in a way, and it was a sign of the way the whole shoot would go, because we turned up on location and there was like two feet of snow, and all the trucks were snowed in. There was nothing we could do on that location because we didn’t want snow at that location. So we had to dig out a couple of snake beds, and put equipment on it, and drive – I think we drove about 140 miles – to this other location where we wanted snow on the ground. And managed to save the day by shooting this scene, but it was quite worrying that morning, standing at seven in the morning in this foot of snow as far as you could see. Two feet of it, and you’re thinking “what the hell are we going to do?”
Was it a tough shoot?
Yeah it was, we had some very tough days, and you know all that night work was tough. It was quite a physically demanding shoot. The locations were a long distance from our base, so there was a lot of driving at the beginning and end of day, and it was a tough shoot, actually. But even more satisfying in a way because if you achieve something you make the day.
Do you like night shooting normally?
That sort of night shooting is always hard. The hardest thing for a cinematographer is “how do you do light when there isn’t supposed to be a moon?” How do you light it, how do you work in it? It’s a big logistic and aesthetic challenge.
To tie it all back in, it strikes me one of those compromises, how do you make it work?
It’s a balance, a balance between the money you have, the rigging you have, the number of lights you can afford, how much of the action you need to show the audience, it’s a lot of things you have to think about. How many shots you have to do every night, you know, I tend to light in such a way that I can be quite flexible. Most of that night work, I created a big pseudo soft-light effect that basically allowed me to shot a number of different angles without changing the light source, just because we really didn’t have that much time to do it.
In a situation like that – we were talking about digital tinkering – do you go a little hotter, or a little brighter with the thought that you can grade down?
That’s the thing. On film you always think “well how far am I going?” I always give it a little more exposure than I want in the final image, but on the other hand you give it too much and you can’t bring it back to where you really want it to be, or change the contrast or anything else. So that’s tricky, you’re always taking a bit of a chance. It’s funny, I might have shot those sequences with a digital camera had a digital camera been available at the time. It’s a faster camera, so it would have given me more latitude.
So you think you’ll shoot your next Coen Brothers film digitally?
That’s interesting, because they’ve got a project they want to look like a 16mm Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker type of documentary, so we’re not sure. We talked about shooting it on film, but the other option is to shoot it digitally and make it look like old 16mm film afterwards. I don’t know.
You mentioned D.A. Pennebaker, do the Coens ever throw at you movies they feel it should feel like?
No, the only time was The Man Who Wasn’t There they mentioned the Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt, but that wasn’t because of the look of the film in terms of lighting or anything else or the camera movement, it was just the feel of that community. The small-town feel of that community. They liked the mood Hitchcock had created in Shadow of a Doubt is part of what they wanted to create in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Have you ever had directors throw titles at you like that?
Well, you’re sitting, talking about the look of a film, and which way to go with a particular scene, and you might throw around film titles, and you might say “what about such and such?” I think it’s always a good way of referencing what you’re talking about but never, never, have thought about copying something in that sense. Just more about the sensibility of the film. And the overall feel of it.
Are there any films you go back to for inspiration?
Oh, millions. Most of them directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, I must say.
Really, you’re a huge Melville fan?
Oh my god, I swear by Melville.
Oh god, oh god yeah.
I think he’s one of the great filmmakers, but probably one of the most underrated, and unknown really.
I’ve tracked down the one where they go to New York (Two Men in Manhattan)… He’s absolutely one of my favorites… and seeing Army of Shadows on the big screen…
Yeah, it’s one of the great movies of all time.
And at the time, it was just treated like crap because it bothered to feature De Gaulle, it’s amazing.. Were you a big fan when you started, were you watching Second Breath?
I remembered seeing Army of Shadows when it first came out in England. I think I was at Art College, and there was a cinema in this small town in Wilshire that showed art films and European films, and I think that’s where I first saw it.
Oh, Le Samourai, yeah.
(I start giggling, and yes, like a schoolgirl)
The Red Circle is one of my favorites. I was talking to someone about that the other night because it’s such a brilliant… I don’t know, but the tension he manages to build up. It’s just great stuff.
There’s a shot of the pool table in Le Cercle Rogue that is one of my favorite shots of all time. That’s great to hear that you’re a huge Melville fan, because he’s one of the greats.
And with that, I thanked Deakins repeatedly for his time.