Cinematographer Roger Deakins Takes Visceral Approach To His Craft

Roger Deakins Cinematographer
SPW/DMR/Splash News/Newscom

If Roger Deakins were cast in a movie, he might play a big game hunter, or a celebrated explorer — he has that kind of physical presence. He’s a manly man. Yet there’s sensitivity behind the virility. His nature is calm; his manner soft-spoken; his sartorial style consistent: white cotton Oxford shirt, casual windbreaker and scruffy boots. The outward simplicity reflects an approach he applies to the craft of cinematography. But the result is anything but.

“Everybody uses the same tools, the same technology, the same work flows. But it’s all about your taste and how you apply it,” says Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. “And I think that’s what makes Roger so compelling. His approach to everything is filtered through his eye and his taste in a way that only he is capable. It’s that simple, if that can be thought of in any way as simple.”

Crudo calls Deakins “the pre-eminent cinematographer of our time.” And yet the seemingly shy Brit from the county of Devon says, “I don’t see myself as one of the more advanced cinematographers.” He always talks about stripping things down to the basics. In a recent visit to the offices of Variety, he quoted one of his heroes, the late Oscar-winning d.p. Conrad Hall, as a way of reflecting his own philosophy to the craft: “Connie Hall said it best: ‘I just wish I could film despair and get rid of all the artifice and actually get to the real meaning of it,’ ” Deakins says. “It’s not about pretty images and beautiful compositions, it’s about something that just feels right.”

“Connie Hall said it best: ‘I just wish I could film despair and get rid of all the artifice and actually get to the meaning of it,’” says Deakins.

Deakins’ film career spans more than 40 years, and despite his youthful appearance (at 66, he looks a good 20 years younger), he has already been honored with lifetime achievement laurels from both the ASC and the BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) — with a combined seven competitive awards from both organizations — and has racked up an astounding 12 Oscar nominations. He credits his background in documentaries with teaching him to think quickly on his feet, and taking a certain unfussy approach to his craft.

“The documentaries gave me two things really,” he says. “An experience of the world and a sixth sense about what’s about to happen and what’s important in the frame. I think that’s really key to what I do; it’s how you position yourself and the camera to interpret what’s in front of you. It also teaches you to work very quickly and very instinctively.”

Deakins gravitated toward features by connecting with the director Michael Radford, with whom he attended National Film and Television School in the U.K., on “Another Time, Another Place” (1983), Deakins’ first narrative d.p. credit. They would work together again on Radford’s “1984,” a stark treatment of Orwell’s totalitarian classic rendered in muted tones and a gritty realism.

But it was the Murphy’s Law universe of the Coen brothers, with whom Deakins has collaborated dating back to 1991’s “Barton Fink,” that he established his reputation. The d.p. managed to meld his no-nonsense approach to the filmmakers’ absurdist, mordantly droll world view with incredibly nimble and rangy style, from “Fink’s” phantasmagoria of Hollywood paranoia to the ’30s screwball humor of “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) to “Fargo’s” snowbound tragedy of a ridiculous man (1996) to the B&W neo-noir of “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) to the filmmakers’ ultimate depiction of a godless universe, “No Country for Old Men,” the Academy’s best picture winner from 2007.

Ethan Coen has said that he and Joel “generally do a draft of the story by ourselves and with the storyboard artist, and do a subsequent draft, as it were, with Roger.” Just as George Martin was considered by many to be the fifth Beatle, Deakins is the third Coen brother. “When you find somebody as brilliant as Roger is after having done a movie with him, it’s hard to imagine doing without,” Joel Coen said in one interview.

Not that Deakins has worked exclusively with the Coens all these years. Since teaming up with them, he has exhibited astounding versatility with some of the most respected filmmakers in the business, including Martin Scorsese (“Kundun”), Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), Michael Apted (“Thunderheart”), Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”), John Sayles (“Passionfish”), Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”), Sam Mendes (“Revolutionary Road,” “Skyfall”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” the upcoming “Sicario”), to name a few.

Mendes, a stage director-turned-filmmaker who has benefitted from working with the greats, including Hall on “American Beauty,” calls Deakins “in a league of his own.” Villeneuve rhapsodizes about the “strong poetry to the image” that Deakins brings, “but in a very natural way. It feels easy but it’s so controlled and so perfect.”

Deakins doesn’t like to intellectualize about cinematography. He says he works “emotionally and spiritually.”

Talk to enough cinematographers and you sense a consistency in their humility, whether it’s scripted or genuine: they’re at the service of the filmmaker’s vision, they’ll explain; their allegiance to story and character is a common refrain; calling attention to their craft is almost sacrilege.

“It’s never showy, it’s never going for the obvious,” Crudo says of Deakins’ work. “Roger has certainly had a million opportunities to place photography out front, to put it ahead of the story. But he never does that. And none of the great cameramen do. Yet (the work) absolutely has his stamp on it. I attribute this to his individual way of seeing. These things are as peculiar to an individual as their handwriting.”

If Deakins can be rather modest about what he brings to the table, it’s all there in the imagery. The predawn sequence in “No Country for Old Men,” when the film’s picaresque hero played by Josh Brolin is chased down by two men in a flatbed truck under a hail of gunfire, is just one of countless examples. In the scene, Brolin’s pursuers are initially silhouetted in the distance by a bank of 18K HMI lights doubling for sunrise that are situated behind a bluff. The scene culminates with Brolin narrowly escaping the jaws of death from a charging pit bull, with the light of early morning enveloping the frame like a cold slap in the face.

Through a lens darkly: From the left, Roger Deakins works wonders on “No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Skyfall.”

The nighttime robbery scene in Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” might be one of the most artful sequences in the history of cinema, but the effect looks utterly true to life: the James gang lying in wait, their faces seemingly illuminated solely by kerosene lamps. As the train approaches, its headlight streams through the forest trees, sparks shooting from its braking wheels, screeching to a halt in front of Brad Pitt’s James, backlit by the train’s beam, surrounded by a plume of steam that swallows him whole. Dominik’s visual style throughout evokes Terrence Malick, and Deakins rises to the challenge.

Unlike many of his A-list compatriots, Deakins is his own camera operator. Given that he’s also in charge of the lighting and all the myriad logistics involved with filming a scene, his task is aided immeasurably by a team he’s kept with him for decades, including first assistant cameraman Andy Harris, who’s been with the d.p. since “Shawshank.”

“It’s family, you know, we’re friends,” Deakins says. “The familiarity is really good. You need less conversation. They know the kind of equipment I like, and the way I like it to work.”

Having Deakins peering through the lens also puts less space between him and the actors. “It’s really part of the cinematographer’s job to create the right atmosphere for the actors to do their work,” he explains. “If you haven’t got the performance, you haven’t got anything. It’s partly why I like operating, and partly why I like working with the same people. They’re not only my friends but they’re really great technicians. And it’s very low key. I have as few people as possible in close proximity to the camera, so that you’re working very intimately with the actors. You give them their space.

“Whereas if you’re working with an operator, their responsibility is with the cinematographer. If the cinematographer has set a shot, the operator might not feel the freedom to make something up with the actor in exchange. If the actor wants to do something else I feel like I can make that decision.”

While nobody exactly took Deakins under their wing as he was rising in the ranks, there are a few d.p.’s he looked up to, and still does. “There’s so many, mostly that I never knew,” he says. “I only met (French Nouvelle Vague master) Raoul Coutard once at the ASC.” He also mentions the Japanese d.p. Kazuo Miyagawa, known for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa (“Rashoman”) and Kenji Mizoguchi (“Ugetsu”), and, of course, Hall, whom he idolized.

Maybe the closest thing to a mentor was fellow Brit Oswald Morris (“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” “Moby Dick”). “I used to get letters from Ossie telling me I shouldn’t operate,” recalls Deakins.

As the Coens suggested, once a filmmaker manages to land Deakins with the right material (for Deakins, it’s all about the script and his visceral reaction to it), they tend not to let go. Villenueve will be working with Deakins again on a sequel, of sorts, to “Blade Runner,” which will start shooting next year. And Angelina Jolie will follow her work with Deakins on “Unbroken” with “Africa,” about Richard Leakey’s battle with ivory poachers in the ’80s. In the meantime, his latest collaboration with the Coens, “Hail Caesar!” another satire on Hollywood, is in the can and scheduled for release early next year.

It’s tough to pin Deakins down and not bring up the elephant in the room, his dozen Oscar nominations and zero wins. The prevailing wisdom is that he canceled himself out in 2007 when his work on “No Country” and “Jesse James” were nominated, clearing the way for Robert Elswit’s lensing of “There Will Be Blood” to claim the prize. When asked if all these near-misses get under his skin, Deakins seems genuinely indifferent.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” he says. “I feel very lucky. It’s what individual people think about your work. I still see myself as just starting out. And then you realize, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time.’ I’ve had a fantastic life already, and I’ve got plenty to come, I hope.”