“Sicario” marks cinematographer Roger Deakins’ second collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve after “Prisoners,” with a third — a sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” — on the way. A moody capturing of the border thriller with silky digital photography, the work marks just another example of the celebrated artist’s brilliant eye for imagery that tells a story rather than merely showcasing it.
I spoke with the 12-time Oscar nominee (still looking for that elusive first win) about his work on the film, playing with thermal imaging devices to creep effect, going back to celluloid on the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” and much more.
Before we get into “Sicario,” you recently finished up “Hail, Caesar!” with the Coen brothers. You went back to celluloid on that. We’ve talked a little about this before but how did you feel working in that medium again?
I mean it’s like riding a bike, isn’t it? We actually shot some pickups last Saturday so, you know, I was back to film again then. We had some quite complicated pickups because we were matching a lot of different situations but it was fine. It’s just what you do, really.
I noticed a number of websites got a crack at you in Toronto and were eager to talk about “Blade Runner 2.” Are you sensing more anticipation around that project than you might have expected?
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Well, I am, really. There’s a lot of anticipation, which is interesting. I mean I love the original but I’m surprised at how much interest there is when the original actually wasn’t commercially very successful and wasn’t critically very successful as well. So that tells you a lot about a movie’s staying power.
Did you know the original film’s DP, Jordan Cronenweth, at all?
I’d never met Jordan, no. Unless I met him when I was in England once but I don’t think so. I don’t remember meeting him.
His work on that film is pretty iconic.
Yeah, yeah. Quite brilliant. I mean obviously there’s a lot of Ridley in that, too. It’s great to work with a director who really wanted to push for that look. I remember distinctly when it came out and how strong that look was when compared with other movies that were around at the time.
Are you guys going to look to that film specifically? Or are you going to kind of get at your own look? Have you started having those conversations yet?
We’ve had little conversations. I mean the film we’re going to do is going to stand by itself but it’s obviously the same world 30 years on. I mean but it doesn’t have to look the same. Thirty years on we can do anything we want, really.
That film will be directed by Denis Villeneuve, who you worked with on “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” It’s neat to see you taking on a new consistency of collaboration with a filmmaker. Why do you think you and Denis get on so well?
I don’t know. I think we complement each other in a way. We get on just perfectly but I mean we can be very honest with each other. I don’t know, it’s just a very good relationship. I’m so technically obsessive — I think maybe he likes that. You know it’s just personalities and some people we get on with and some people we don’t.
Is there something about the way he approaches material visually that clicks with you?
Yeah. Like a number of directors I’ve worked with, he’s really searching for something more than is on the page. He’s not just shooting what’s on the page. He’s really looking for — eh, it sounds pretentious, but some truth in the material or something. And his own stamp on it as well, you know? Like in “Sicario” when we were shooting the action, he didn’t want to shoot it as just conventional action. He always wanted a particular kind of viewpoint to it. Obviously in this case the film was shot from Kate’s viewpoint, from Emily Blunt’s viewpoint, until then at one point it changed into Alejandro’s and then came back to the two of them. So the action wasn’t just sort of coverage of action to make it exciting. It was very much done with a sort of personal kind of perspective on it, you know, character’s perspective.
Now that you say that there is sort of an eerie subjectivity to some of the imagery that puts you there.
Yeah, yeah. Like you I can’t really put my finger on it but that’s very much Denis’ style. I certainly felt that on “Prisoners.”
I ask you this question a lot and I get the feeling maybe you don’t like it but it’s the quickest way into discussing these things: Was there any reference or something that Denis sort of pointed to and said, “This is what I’d like the look of the film to be?”
[Laughs] Well, we talked around it a lot obviously and Patrice [Vermette, the production designer] had a whole mood board of the kind of film and images from reality, you know. Obviously things that actually were going on and are still going on on the border. I mentioned Jean-Pierre Melville to Denis. I don’t think he had seen “Red Circle,” for instance. So I mentioned a couple of films to him and just, again, Melville really found a shot that interpreted what he wanted to say, how he wanted to cover the action. He didn’t just cover it with a lot of shots and just cut it together. He was very specific and Denis is like that as well. For me Melville’s treatment of action is really interesting that it’s almost non-action. The things that aren’t happening are more interesting than the things that are sometimes. Sometimes it’s playing a reaction instead of what’s happening.
That sort of feeds into that unique subjective quality.
Yeah. So we talked about Melville a little bit. We talked about — there’s a photographer I particularly like, Alex Webb, and I thought he was really pertinent. The way he uses color is fantastic and the way his frames are so complex. I mean you can’t really do it in a movie because I think the audience would be overpowered if every frame was as complex as an Alex Webb photograph. Because a photograph you sit there and look at it for as long as you want. But I thought there was something in his photography that related to what we were doing in an interesting way. And besides he had actually done a whole piece on the border once, in the ’80s, I think it was. Some very interesting photographs.
Some of the shots that you’re able to achieve at night — the armed agents walking against sundown, the long view of Juarez with the explosions — you just wouldn’t be able to get that depth of clarity on film, would you?
You know, I don’t know about that. I feel that the digital image on a good camera is slightly a bit sharper than film. Film has a slightly softening quality. But on the other hand film has a nice look because it almost blends an image together in a way better than maybe digital does because it’s slightly softer and one color blends into another in a more slightly subtle way than sometimes digital does. But yeah.
I guess it’s always seemed that digital is good for night photography is what I’m getting at.
Well, yeah. I mean the biggest advantage is obviously the speed and the latitude you have with a digital camera. You certainly don’t have that with a film camera. But that said I did some pretty low-light stuff when I was shooting film.
Well, you’re a genius so maybe you can pull it off better than others.
[Laughs] No, no, it’s just — I mean it’s definitely a little bit more comfortable to do it digitally than on film. I mean just these pickups I did on Saturday, you know, it was shot on Saturday and I didn’t get a lab report until, like, late Monday, or actually when I went in to time them, you know? So I thought, “Here we are again,” you know, “All right, did I do that right? Is that going to match?”
Yeah, that’s you’re thing, I know. You like to be able to just kick back and know you’ve got it.
[Laughs] Yeah! I mean why not?
I hear you. The thermal imaging sequence is something that comes up a lot when people talk about this film. We’ve seen things like what Greig Fraser pulled off in “Zero Dark Thirty” with infrared.
I don’t think he had infrared, did he? He had the straight night vision, which is just sort of an enhancer.
If I’m not mistaken I believe he did use infrared LED lights that he pulled off of security cameras, of all things.
Oh, yeah, yeah. You can do that to expose, but the camera’s not actually recording the infrared image.
Right. And obviously this was a different thing. What was the thought going into what this sequence was going to be and look like and feel like?
Well, the thing for me about that sequence when we read it and when we started talking about it. I said to Denis, “My problem with it is I don’t really feel like we can shoot moonlight. We can’t do objective shots of what’s happening because these guys, these characters, are wearing these image enhancement systems, these night vision systems, because they can’t see. So if we show the audience an image that they can see it doesn’t make any sense.” I have a problem with that. I see a little bit of a problem with that in “Zero Dark Thirty” because you do see objective shots of what’s happening. If I can see, why do I need a silly goggle thing? So Denis said, “Well, it would be really interesting if we just shoot it completely with through their enhancement systems.” But then he said what else can we use?
So that’s when I thought we’ll have infrared. We did tests and he said, “Yeah, well that’s great because we can mix the two systems and Alejandro can have the thermal imaging device and everybody else is going to have the night vision.” So there’s only one shot in the whole sequence that is kind of objective and that is one you’re looking out at the tunnel and you see a SWAT member or whoever it is coming in and throwing a knife and that’s the only scene.
I wanted to talk about that shot. It’s actually a great bit of visual storytelling, focusing on the footprints, hearing someone up ahead being taken out and then revealing the body.
It was funny. We were playing around with the thermal imaging camera, because Flir, the company that had it, let us borrow it to shoot some tests. While we were just playing around we would see it would record footprints if the footprints were warmed up. The prop guy was heating up his boots and he walked down the steps and obviously you can follow the footprints. What you didn’t see in the final film is it didn’t quite come off with the footprints actually fading because the heat dissipates and you lose the image. We shot tests which was a really cool image but the shot was so quick you don’t actually get that in the film.
Was conveying the visual beats of that sequence something you discovered on the day or was it sort of mapped out ahead of time?
No that was something we talked about because the tunnel is obviously built on a stage and the Steadicam operator has got to be able to walk down those steps in the dark with his machine. So the tunnel has to be wide enough. And basically he’s only looking at a monitor because it’s total blackness, so it was a pretty hard shot to bring off, really. I mean you want the tunnel really tight and enclosed but on the other hand the guy’s got to operate the camera. So the shot was something we had storyboarded and the set built to accommodate the shot, really.
Just a couple asides here. What’s the plan with Angelina Jolie’s “Africa?” Did that stall?
You know I have no idea. I know it’s not happening now. Otherwise I’d be there.
So “Blade Runner” is definitely the next thing for you, then.
I would imagine so, yeah. Because we start doing storyboards and talking about it in a couple of weeks’ time. I’m pretty well going to dedicate myself to prep on that when they want me there. And if I can fit something else in it would be nice but as I say, I haven’t read anything else so I probably won’t.
It’s great to see you doing sci-fi, I must say.
Yeah. I’m really looking forward to it. Obviously it’s quite a responsibility. There’s been quite so much interest in it, but good.
And finally, I’m curious if you’ve seen anything from “Spectre.”
No, no. I did watch one of the trailers quite some time ago. Maybe it was the first trailer. It looked really good. It’s going to be interesting, I think, to see where Sam [Mendes] has taken the story, actually.