Deakins’ expressive range showcased in ‘Man,’ ‘Mind’

Oscar-nommed D.P. understands cinematic language

It wouldn’t surprise his peers if cinematographer Roger Deakins earns Oscar nominations for either or both “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

The two films are minimalist, character-driven stories, at least partially set in the late 1940s. Both were produced primarily at practical locations, mainly in relatively small, sparse interiors.

Despite those commonalities, they are totally different films with unique visual grammars. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is Deakins’ sixth outing with Joel and Ethan Coen. His films with the brother act include “Barton Fink,” “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “The Big Lebowski,” in addition to “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which yielded Oscar and American Society of Cinematogrpahers noms.

Deakins also earned Oscar and ASC noms for “Kundun” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” the latter taking top honors from the ASC.

“Joel and Ethan had been talking about ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ for years,” he says. “I think they did it in black-and-white for the story and the noirish idea, but maybe there was no specific reason. Sometimes it’s just the writing. I remember thinking when I read the script that it was a funny and absurd story, but there was something about the main character (Billy Bob Thornton) that was touching and haunting … it moves you.”

Deakins convinced the Coens to photograph “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in color with release prints on a special black-and-white film, which is generally used for opening and end titles. Deakins explains the film is designed to render sharp images with pure blacks and whites, and nuances in shadows and highlights. It is a defining aesthetic.

“A Beautiful Mind,” about the troubled life of Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, was his first collaboration with helmer Ron Howard.

“Ron was totally open,” Deakins says. “We initially spoke about stylizing the film and making it slicker and more surreal, but settled on a more naturalistic look which reflects both the periods and John Nash’s mental state. When he is suffering his worst hallucinations, the images have more contrast. It is very subtle because we want the audience to believe that the characters he imagines really exist, so they are as surprised as Nash when he discovers that certain people in his life aren’t real.”

When they decided that the early period scenes in “Beautiful Mind” should have kind of a warmish look, Deakins experimented with having the lab preflash the negative with a coral-colored light before it was exposed.

“That rendered a very subtle golden orange cast which puts some warmth into the shadows,” he explains. “I never tried that before.”

Deakins believes that subtleties in camera angles, lenses, composition and movement, as well as light and colors, can influence the way audiences experience stories, and he rates flexibility as an essential characteristic for cinematographers.

“We’d usually rehearse with Russell (Crowe) and Jennifer (Connelly) early in the day, but sometimes he did things differently when we were shooting, so we’d follow him with the camera and figure out what to do. We made constant adjustments,” he says.

Deakins was born and raised in Torquay, a fishing and sailing village in England.

“I loved movies,” he recalls. “My brother and I walked three to four miles, often in the rain, to see films, but I never dreamed it could become my life’s work.”

When a headmaster advised him to plan for a career working in a bank, Deakins rebelled and applied to art school. That led him to still photography and ultimately the National Film School in London. After graduation, Deakins spent some seven years shooting documentaries at places ranging from Africa to India. He earned his first narrative credit in 1983 for an English telefilm directed by a former classmate.