Roger Deakins on ‘Hail, Caesar!,’ Old Hollywood and Going Back to Celluloid

'Just the technical problems with film, I’m sorry, it’s over.'

Roger Deakins
Courtesy of Universal

Cinematographer Roger Deakins is enjoying the afterglow of his 13th Oscar nomination, for “Sicario.” But in the meantime, he has another film heading to theaters next week: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” It’s notable because it’s the first project Deakins has shot on film since the last time he collaborated with the Coens on 2010’s “True Grit.” Since then he has clung to the virtue of digital, and judging by some of his comments discussing the filmmaker siblings’ latest, he’s clearly eager to get back to the ones and zeroes of the future.


This is one of the Coen brothers’ funniest movies. Some of the Ralph Fiennes stuff just had me in the aisles.

Oh good, good. Yeah I’ll be interested how audiences receive the movie. Like some of that stuff, it’s quite quirky isn’t it?

It made me wonder if you guys ever break out into stitches after they call cut on the set.

Not really. I mean certainly that scene with Ralph had us laughing, but no it doesn’t. I mean the set is quite kind of relaxed in the way we laugh at some of the stuff. I guess people are concentrating on their job that much that you don’t relate to it so much. I mean there was one take that they did where Ralph — and some of it’s in the movie I think — where Ralph was just ad libbing, really, and going on and on and poor Alden [Ehrenreich] was like, “When are they going to say cut?” He couldn’t keep a straight face.

We’ve talked plenty about going back to film on this one, but when you watch it, it sort of seems completely apt given the context, the old Hollywood flavor, characters watching dailies, etc. Was that fun?

Yeah, I mean, that was Joel and Ethan’s take on it, really. They felt we had to shoot film just because of the content really.

Frances McDormand makes a cameo as a film editor working feverishly at her Moviola. It’s a hilarious scene for the content, but also interesting to see that attention paid to the process of making a movie. Is that fun for you as an artisan, to shoot a scene that gets into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking like that?

Yeah she’s so over the top in a really good way. And I mean, that was fun. I think it was hard for them to find the actual machinery. I mean it’s so sad there’s not much left. You would think there would be more Moviolas in particular. And then we had to adapt it to what we were doing and stuff. Yeah it was kind of fun. The most fun was really shooting at Warners on the back lot between the stages. And to get those wide shots of Josh [Brolin] — Eddie Mannix — walking through the studio in the mornings and stuff, those empty, wide shots. It was quite amazing. They cleaned out the aisles between the stages for us. We blocked it out where exactly we wanted to shoot and they took out all the campers and the generators and the cabling so we had these very clean looking avenues of stages. It was pretty much as it would have been.

It’s intriguing because it really sets the backlot off as this other world, those shots.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And back then they were. They were like sausage factories, really. I mean they were just churning out movies like crazy.

So regarding shooting film, did the old anxiety come back, worrying about whether you got the shots while waiting on the lab reports and whatnot?

Well, you know, it’s like they say riding a bike. I can’t ride a bike myself, but I’m sure it’s the same. It’s fine. We did have some problems. We had some stock issues and stuff like that, which was really disconcerting. And I’ve heard that’s happened to a lot of people lately, you know, stock and lab problems. That’s unnerving. I mean I never really remember having those kind of problems before. But it makes me nervous now. I don’t want to do that again, frankly. I don’t think the infrastructure’s there.

It was interesting to note this year’s cinematography Oscar race and the range. There was the digital of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant” and “Sicario,” the 16mm of “Carol,” the 70mm of “The Hateful Eight.” And Janusz Kaminski was in the thick of it shooting 35mm on “Bridge of Spies.”

Well, again, it’s just like any other tool, isn’t it? In the old days it was choice of stock. When everybody was shooting film you still had the choice whether you shot 16 or anamorphic or, you know, the 65 or whatever. Those choices have always been there. I think there’s always been that kind of range.

Back to “Hail, Caesar!” Did you guys take any kind of inspiration from the look of some of the work that was being referenced, like the Busby Berkeley stuff (a nice echo of “The Big Lebowski” there) or the costume epics of that period?

Yeah, we watched some Esther Williams swimsuit movies and old clips. And we definitely referenced films like “Quo Vadis” and “The Bible,” you know. I mean it’s difficult, really, because we needed to show how those films were kind of shot and lit. And sometimes you pop out wide and you see the whole set. You see the way it was lit. So we had to be true to it to a degree, but on the other hand, we’re also making a film that had to sort of be cohesive as one piece. Ethan put it best. I think he said it’s not a tribute to filmmaking, it’s a film set in that time. So although we were kind of mimicking some of the old movies, especially the Western and stuff, to go too far with it I think pulled the audience out of the overall movie really.

For the scenes with Mannix watching dailies, did you shoot that particular material any differently than the overall film itself?

With filtration and stuff. We went for that kind of quite highly saturated, kind of warm look. But nothing extreme. I mean the Western we deliberately shot on slow stock. It was as much the sets and the kind of lighting, really. I mean the thing is, what can you do? Film stocks today are nothing like the film stocks they shot with back then. Do you know what I mean? So you can’t make a choice. You can’t even process differently these days. You don’t have that option. You’re pretty restricted with what you can do with film these days. So I mean there’s how many stocks now? Four or five? Your choices are very limited. But as I say, that was fine. I wasn’t going to do much in terms of the way it was processed, so I probably wouldn’t have gone that way even if I had the choice. So no, originally we were not going to change the kind of format. It was only late in pre-production that the guys decided yes, the 1.33:1 [aspect ratio] would play for some of the films and, you know, George Clooney’s Roman epic would be 1.85:1, but it wasn’t going to be widescreen.

Well I loved your lighting throughout. That shot of George Clooney in the lounge chair comes to mind.

Yeah, we had fun with that. George is always great to work with. It was a very fun set and it’s nice to be able to film where you are kind of playing with the look of different scenes. Even the main film, you know, Josh’s story, we were kind of playing with because we wanted that to have a sort of slightly noir feel to it. It’s all sort of hopefully subtle. And then, you know, the last scene with Channing [Tatum], it was like the idea was life was becoming a movie. So we deliberately made that kind of slightly fake, you know.

I’m glad you mentioned that. It did have that feel of artifice, which I thought was really intriguing.

Yeah. I mean the house on the bluff was meant to be, you know, Hitchcock, “North by Northwest.” Do you know what I mean? They’re all kind of little homages in a way.

Do you ever find yourself trying to convince the Coens to go digital?

I think they were. I don’t really know, but apparently Ethan at some point was talking about shooting the next film digitally. And then it turned around. They’re really debating it. I was in Albuquerque shooting “Sicario” and they were talking about it and they said, “I don’t know how you feel about it, but I think we want to go on film.” And I said, you know, “I don’t mind. I’ll shoot it on a cell phone if you like. I don’t mind. I really don’t.”

Maybe one of these days they’ll go that route.

Oh, I think they will. As I say, just the technical problems with film, I’m sorry, it’s over.