ASC honoree Deakins a master realist

Cinematographer honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

Is Roger Deakins the best cinematographer to never win the Oscar? Ask Deakins himself, arguably the most widely respected working d.p. in the movies, and he turns the question around to point to how unexpected, perhaps even absurd, that he’s receiving ASC’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.

“It seems kind of premature, don’t you think?” the Brit lenser ponders. “I’m not remotely near the end of my career, which I suppose is what most people associate with such an award. I can assure you that I have many, many films left in me…”

The ASC’s acknowledgement underlines what has been long well-known among cinematographers, and has slipped out beyond that circle to those who pay attention to the discipline: Deakins is a cinematographer’s cinematographer — a master craftsman-artist whose sensitive handling of framing, composition, light and the dynamics of the film image easily rank him in the pantheon of d.p.s that includes Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis.

Like those three, Deakins’ powerful sense of the image has made him a virtual co-filmmaker to those with whom he collaborates, most famously the Coen Brothers, but also directors Michael Apted (“1984”), Alex Cox (“Sid and Nancy”), Martin Scorsese (“Kundun”), Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) and Sam Mendes (“Revolutionary Road,” “Jarhead”).

“There are maybe four or five cinematographers in the world who are as good as Roger Deakins is and he just happens to be the one we know (laughs),” says Joel Coen. “He isn’t interested in pretty pictures for their own sake. He wants what he does to resonate with the story. When we work with people on a movie we assume that they have the same sense of the material and Roger always does.”

Adds Ethan Coen: “There’s a lot that’s unspoken and he seems to understand what we want to do.”

Despite his training in the realist school of British documentary in the period just following the “Free Cinema” movement led by Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, Deakins’ most distinguishing qualities as a cinematographer are as a highly theatrical arranger of the image frame and the textures of light that fill that frame.

It’s impossible not to notice a Deakins image from the moment it appears: The great depth-of-field majesty and near-black shadows of “Miller’s Crossing”; the fascination with clutter and the absurd juxtaposition of reality and fantasy in “The Big Lebowski”; the immersion in facial close-ups, rich reds and rituals in “Kundun”; the deliberate appropriation of classical American painting with its placement of bodies against giant landscapes in his westerns, including “Jesse James” and his most recent film with the Coens, his Oscar-nominated work on “True Grit.”

“We don’t think of Roger as having a style, in the same way we don’t think of ourselves as having a style,” says Joel Coen. “The thing that sets Roger apart is that he only uses a style that makes sense for the story.”

Deakins surprisingly doesn’t hesitate to cite his favorite pick among his work: “Well, because I had just done ‘True Grit,’ I was thinking that may be the boys’ (his code for Joel and Ethan Coen) best, but I’m still partial with my own work to ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There.’ I somehow got most everything right with that one, and I suppose working in black-and-white brought out the best work in everyone on the camera crew.”

Another surprise for Deakins fans, who may naturally think of him first and foremost as an artist of light: “No, lighting is way down the list of priorities for me,” he clarifies. “Since I started in documentaries in Britain, I learned that the camera’s relationship to the subject is fundamental, the starting point. I always operate the camera, which is my real strength. My greatest concern is the framing of the shot, and if the shot is moving, how it’s moving. We didn’t have a lot of lights in documentaries, we were very off-the-cuff, so when we went to Eritrea or the Sudan to shoot, we made the film as we went along.

“This instilled in me the importance of not only the sense of place where you’re filming, but most of all finding the right place to put the camera.”

Deakins’ work clearly inspires his colleagues to think long and hard about the artistry behind cinematography, perhaps no better expressed than by fellow d.p. Michael McDonough. “I think the key to Roger’s work is his sense of natural realism,” says McDonough, who shot “Winter’s Bone,” “the idea that there’s one reality that exists despite what humans may think or feel about it. It’s not magical realism. Roger combines the absolute reality of light found in nature with poetry, yet it always feels rooted in the natural world. Think, for example, of his incredible sunrises and sunsets in ‘No Country for Old Men.'”

“Seeing his work in ‘1984,’” adds McDonough, “which was fairly early in his career, absolutely set my determination to become a cinematographer, and I have no doubt that he inspired many of my peers to do the same thing. With that film, I was aware that I was watching motion art that was distinct from painting and art photography, and uniquely right for (that) version of Orwell’s novel.”

After his feature breakthrough in 1983 with “Another Time, Another Place,” Deakins’ shift to America began with Bob Rafelson’s “Mountains of the Moon” in 1990, followed a year later with his first Coens movie, “Barton Fink.”

“Whereas with the Coens, who are very stylish filmmakers, very calculated and structured,” says Deakins, “I’ll work with a director like Sam Mendes, who, despite his roots in the theater, doesn’t do blocking rehearsals, but just starts shooting. This is really quite stimulating for me to work alongside filmmakers with such various approaches, since it keeps my muscles working. You don’t fall into bad habits.

“The key isn’t what I do, to be frank. The essential aspects to ensuring a good film are, first, that the director has a vision and sticks to it, and second, that my key personnel are unified. I keep my team with me: My dolly grip worked with me on ‘Barton Fink,’ my focus puller goes back to ‘Fargo, I work with an East Coast gaffer and West Coast gaffer, depending on where I am. Having that continuity is essential.”

More from the ASC Awards:
Roger Deakins | John Seale | Douglas Kirkland |Michael O’Shea