Cinematographer: 'Jesse James,' 'No Country,' 'Elah'

There’s a particularly dazzling sequence in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” when Llewelyn Moss, the film’s picaresque hero played by Josh Brolin, commits an act of folly that sets off a chain of inexorable events. In the predawn hours, Moss returns to the scene of a crime to aid a dying drug runner, but this wayward streak of humanity has sealed his fate: In short order, the tires of his truck are slashed and he’s chased down by two men in a flatbed truck under a hail of gunfire, culminating in a narrow escape from a charging pit bull.

One of the reasons the scene is so effective is that we can see, from Moss’ point of view, the perfectly articulated movements of his pursuers in the distance — their figures precisely silhouetted by a bank of 18K HMI lights, doubling for sunrise, situated behind a bluff. By the time Moss literally eludes the jaws of death, the magic hour of early morning envelops the frame like a cold slap in the face.

The logistics of matching the artificial glow of dawn with the natural light of sunrise was not inconsiderable, and although cinematographer Roger Deakins succeeded brilliantly, he wasn’t happy with the outcome. “It kills me every time I see it,” he says during an interview at EFilm, the digital post house he calls his “home away from home.”

“I figured we’ll have Moss going this way and the truck on the hill, and then the real dawn will come in behind where I created the fake dawn, and then it will all matte in together,” he explains. “But it was a cloudy morning, so the real dawn was behind the clouds and my dawn was in front of the clouds. So I look at it and go, ‘Oh god!’ Probably on a bigger picture we’d have said, ‘Well, OK, we can come back and do it tomorrow.’”

That Deakins doth protest too much is testament to a man who aspires to perfection but is never quite satisfied he’s achieved it. The Brit d.p. — a square-jawed, manly man who looks like he could’ve played a big-game hunter in a John Huston movie — might be the best cinematographer to never have won an Oscar. He has shot nine Coen brothers movies dating back to 1991′s “Barton Fink” as well as such visually dynamic statements as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Kundun” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

When asked about his chemistry with the Coens, Deakins responds more in terms of personality than aesthetics. “They just seemed brilliant and totally unpretentious,” he recalls. “So I came over (from London) and did ‘Barton Fink’ and we got on just great. … I think all three of us have got the same ironic sense of humor.”

Although the Coens’ preparation is meticulous, mapping out their movies in classic storyboard fashion, they’re open to what the late d.p. Conrad Hall referred to as “happy accidents.”

For example, while a roadside scene was being shot involving Javier Bardem’s assassin and a farmer with a chicken truck, a dark rain cloud was forming on the horizon, which called for some quick improvisation — namely, turning on a dime to capture a bit of foreshadowing in the form of lightning for a scene in which Moss returns to his truck after making off with a satchelful of loot. “Basically we scrambled to get that because it was such an interesting image,” Deakins says. “You sense a sort of doom.”

In addition to the poetic realism Deakins helped bring to “Men,” his alchemy on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “In the Valley of Elah” stands out in a year of remarkably high achievement in his field. And although he’s picky about what he takes on, Deakins still operates as if each film could be his last.

“I think it’s because there are so many really good people out there,” he explains. “There’s quite a lot of competition, which I think is really healthy. It pushes everybody to do their best.”

At EFilm, Deakins is putting the finishing touches on Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road,” his second film with the director following “Jarhead.” After the death of Hall, who worked with Mendes on the latter’s first two features, “American Beauty” and “The Road to Perdition” — resulting in Oscars for both Hall and Mendes — the helmer settled on Deakins, a testament to the d.p.’s stature among filmmakers.

His moody work on “Jesse James,” which he describes as “this reflective meditation on fame and death,” resulted in critical rhapsodies about the film’s look. Critics used terms like “ravishing,” “bewitching,” “majestic” and “gorgeous.” In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum deigned to mention the d.p.’s name in her lead– before that of director Andrew Dominik and star Brad Pitt.

It’s sort of in the autumn years,” says Dominik in describing the film’s tone and mood, “Jesse is wandering through the ashes of his life, so we tried to keep things sort of autumnal, like one long funeral. We knew that there were going to be certain pieces of the film that are like museum dioramas, like you’re looking at the world encased in amber. We saw a lot of photographs of the era, with the lenses being sort of wonky around the edges.”

To achieve this effect, Deakins had lenses created “that would give us that sort of box-camera effect with the vignetting.” He also used a partial bleach bypass to slightly desaturate the images, then added colors like yellow and red-black on top of that. “It’s very subtle,” he explains, “but it gives it a sort of luminosity that Andrew was after.”

Deakins says Dominik laid out the movie as a whole series of visual references, from stills of “Days of Heaven” and “Heaven’s Gate” to period photos of Jesse James in his coffin. “He also had some Polaroids that he’d taken (on which) the color had been skewed or the focus was slightly odd,” he says.

Inevitably, says Deakins, the film’s mood owed more to Ron Hansen’s novel on which the film is based than anything else. “Like ‘No Country,’ it comes right from the page — this kind of melancholy sense of the West changing and the nature of fame.”

His describes his work on “Elah,” by contrast, as “very direct, very matter of fact,” harkening back to the d.p.’s early days of working mostly in nonfiction. He says director Paul Haggis wanted “an immediacy and the feel of a documentary” to the story of a father who unravels the mystery of his son’s disappearance after the young man served a term of duty in Iraq.

“The first thing (Haggis) said when we met was: ‘Now you might not want to do this because I want the photography to be absolutely bland, kind of inconsequential.’ And I said: ‘Well that’s absolutely perfect because that’s how I saw it as well.’ I wanted to have this cold, sad, empty quality to it.”

When asked if there is a distinguishing attribute to his work, Deakins uses the word “simplicity.”

“I always remember reading (d.p.) James Wong Howe saying later in his career: ‘You know, when I started out I’d light a set with 60 lamps, and I’ll do the same set now and I’m down to about five; I’m really trying to get down to one.’ And I’ve begun to feel like that. You want to get rid of the clutter and what’s really important in this scene and in this frame and this moment.”

SNAPSHOT

Awards pedigree: Five Oscar noms; five ASC noms and two wins, for “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994); AFI Film, BAFTA, Boston Society of Film Critics, LAFCA awards for “The Man Who Wasn’t There”; BSFC award for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000); special award from Camerimage (2001); Spirit Award for “Fargo”; LAFCA award for “Barton Fink” (1991); National Board of Review Career Achievement (2007); National Society of Film Critics awards for “Kundun” (1997) and “Barton Fink”; New York Film Critics Circle awards for “Kundun,” “Barton Fink.”

Mentor/inspiration: “Oh there’s so many, but Connie (Hall) is somebody that always pops into my mind that I happened to know.”

Visual aids: For “No Country”: “Ballad of Cable Hogue,” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”; for “Jesse James”: “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid,” “Days of Heaven,” “Heaven’s Gate,” period photos and paintings.

Favorite tools: “I’ve been working on a small 14-foot sectional jig arm, an Aerocrane, that is very, very lightweight with a remote head that gives me a lot of flexibility to move the camera and I can change the shot quite quickly.”

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