Cinematographer talks about his work on the western

From the first image of “True Grit” — initially blurry as in a dream, then more fully focused if unmistakably nightmarish — the sight of a dead man sprawled on the ground in front a 19th century building establishes the film’s iconographic relationship to the Western and its continuing obsessions with death, violence and primal human existence.

It also sets a theme that was crucial for cinematographer Roger Deakins in the latest of a string of collaborations with Joel and Ethan Coen that spans two decades: “It came out of long conversations I had with the boys (as Deakins commonly refers to them) — how do we capture the story’s switch from civilization to wilderness? Very often in the Western, it’s the reverse, where you begin with the wilderness, and civilization encroaches until it takes over, the way it did historically. It’s an interesting aspect of Charles Portis’ novel that we begin in the civilized world of a town like Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then travel into basically ungoverned wilderness.”

Finding true wilderness proved far more difficult than creating the town setting built in Granger, Texas (just north of Austin), with its deliberately wide streets and elaborately built structures and interiors.

“We scouted locations in Utah for wild places,” says Deakins, “but they were impractical for our March-April shooting period, so we went back to New Mexico where we had shot most of ‘No Country for Old Men,’ which offers a vast range of locations. The secret, I learned as far back as making ’1984′ with Michael Radford, is finding great locations.”

Oscar pedigree: Nine nominations, beginning with “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994).

2010 awards won to date: National Society of Film Critics, Boston Society of Film Critics, Online Film Critics Society, Phoenix Film Critics, St. Louis Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics

Camera and film stock: Arri 535B and the Arri Light Camera; Kodak 5217, 5219

Key scene: In keeping with Deakins’ emphasis on finding just the right locations, he cites an encounter between the protagonists and a figure hanging high from the branch of a cottonwood tree — a portentous image of death (or, as the Coens described it to Deakins, “a descent into madness.”) “The intent was a setting with an empty plain and a lonely tree, and we were finding it extremely difficult to find such a locale,” says Deakins. “You never have the ideal conditions — this time, we had snow when we didn’t want it, or you can’t find a place you need — but you have to turn what you find into something as close as possible to those images floating in your head, and we finally found a grove of cottonwoods near Los Alamos.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: The Director
Jack Cardiff: Painter’s eye view
The nominees:
Danny Cohen | Jeff Cronenweth | Roger Deakins | Matthew Libatique | Wally Pfister

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