Arcane statistics are generally the purview of baseball fans, but Roger Deakins is fast becoming the Oscar-watcher’s equivalent of Hack Wilson (190 RBIs, Chicago Cubs, 1930). With seven Oscar nominations and no wins, Deakins is also poised to perhaps become a double nominee in the same category. For two years running.
Last year, Deakins was up for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “No Country for Old Men” (the first time a d.p. had double-dipped since Robert Surtees in 1971). This year, his understated eye created the look of two major end-of-the year projects: Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” and John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.” (He also started work on “The Reader” but delays forced him to hand off to Chris Menges). For Deakins, splitting the vote is apparently becoming a habit. And so is his use of the camera as a vehicle of subtle psychological persuasion.
“We took our cues from the script,” he says, referring to Shanley’s drama about intermural warfare at a ’60s Bronx parochial school, and Justin Haythe’s adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel about ’50s conformity.
” ‘Revolutionary Road’ was quite formal at the beginning; it’s about this relationship, and it’s all spelled out in the way the camera moves. It ends with handheld, a more mobile approach, all of which if fairly subtle. In both films, it’s really all about the acting,” Deakins says.
A key element of acting is faces, and in that regard, the two films are strikingly different. “I’m not someone who likes a lot of cosmetic lighting,” says Deakins, “but you need to do justice to the faces.
“In ‘Doubt,’ Meryl (Streep) wanted to look older; she played older. But she was a narrow target,” Deakins adds, referring to Streep’s archaic Sisters of Charity headgear, a kind of Amish-inspired black bonnet. “You want to see the faces, but you can’t very well stick a spotlight in that narrow opening.”
Conversely, Kate Winslet in “Road” is photographed lushly, yet in a manner that enhances an already nerve-racking performance.
“Kate commented on it, actually,” Deakins says, referring to the film’s climactic sequence at the breakfast table with her husband, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. “It was about getting into what her character is thinking. I put a harsh light, raw light, in there, bounced light off the floor. The scene is so underplayed you could cut the tension with a knife. But the danger in both films is that things could have very easily gone melodramatic. And I don’t like melodrama.”
One of the remarkable things about “Road” and “Doubt” is the absence of “wow” shots. “I don’t like that kind of thing,” Deakins says. “The audience is brought out of the films.”
Similarly, he says, the particular challenge of “Road” was maintaining a consistency of light, and thus invisibility. “Some of those scenes,” Deakins says, “we shot over several days. The light was constantly changing, there was rain, sun. Hopefully, you don’t see it. But that’s the challenge to me.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Camera: Arriflex 535B
Secret weapon: Arrow box crane (“It’s not really a crane; it’s about 12-13 feet, but it allows quick, easy camera moves.”)
Aesthetic: “Less is more.”