In the cavernous dark of the Uptown Theater the trailers flicker to a close, and
through hushed whispers and the palpable odor of artificial butter the first
frames of No Country for Old Men fill the refurbished theater with light. As Anton Chigurh, played by Javier
Bardem and his Little Rascals comb over, commences his first murder, only a
handful of lines have been spoken. The whispers only now cease, as Chigurh
creeps through shallow focus into the foreground. Throwing his hand over the
officer’s head he tightens the chain binding his manacled hands around a police officer’s throat. Those hands, in those shackles, transform from a restraint into the
catalyst to his freedom, a symbol of the unlikely carnage he can ignite. The
camera cuts quickly behind the struggling pair, following them as they topple
to the floor on their backs. A few quick cuts: the officer strains at the chain
collapsing his windpipe; he kicks, leaving black rubber trails on the tiled
floor; Chigurh’s hands begin to bleed. The pacing slows, easing into one slow aerial shot,
watching the retching officer struggle against this unknown stranger in an
empty Texan police station. But the camera doesn’t seem to care, or maybe it cares too much to take note, revealing the struggle
in isolated fragments. The frame, finally, comes to rest, like a resolving note
of a dissonant chord, gradually tightening on Chigurh’s placid face and his unflinching eyes. His deterministic will surfacing from
the depths of his cold disregard reveals his only intention: freedom. The frames’ apparent lack of concern for the physical act of violence reveals the violence
of the mind. Without any words, the camera of Roger Deakins has told you the
story of Anton Chigurh. This all takes place in less time than it took you to
read this: 15 cuts, the escape, the murder, 59 seconds of celluloid. What has happened before doesn’t matter; this is everything.
This is the art of Roger Deakins: the subtle revelations in angles, the shifting
focus, the steady spiraling zoom. Deakins is one of Hollywood’s busiest cinematographers. He’s the eye behind three award winning films in theaters this year. No Country has already won five best picture awards and is in contention for many more. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and In the Valley of Elah have both received a handful of awards and continue to stack nominations as the
film industry rolls into awards season. On top of winning the Career
Achievement in Cinematography award from the National Film Board this year he’s had five Oscar nominations and over twenty-five awards for best
cinematography. Needless to say, Deakins has been busy for decades.
A native of Torquay, England, Deakins originally enrolled in art school for
graphic design but soon discovered a love of photography that drove him to drop
out and reenroll in school for photography. This shift led to him becoming a
seasoned documentarian of war zones, mental institutions and impoverished
regions around the globe. He then made the leap from documentary cinema to
narrative cinema, eventually becoming the cinematographer of choice for the
Coen Brothers as well as working with Martin Scorsese, Paul Haggis, Sam Mendes,
John Sayles, M. Night Shymalan, Ron Howard, Edward Zwick, Tim Robbins, Michael
Apted, and, well, you get the idea. More than a few of his films are considered modern classics (see:
Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Dead Man Walking, etc.). Looking through the list of over 60 films he’s shot in the past couple of decades, I can’t imagine there are many people who haven’t watched a film shot through the lens of Roger Deakins.
I spoke with the acclaimed cinematographer by phone on Nov. 17 about the process
of production, inspiration and the future of the film industry.
InDigest: How did you find yourself in photography? What was the initial impulse
that led you to changing your focus in school and ultimately to working with
directors like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers?
Roger Deakins: I can’t think of one actual moment. I started watching films when I was at school. I
was in the film society in Torquay. They didn’t really show that many films in the local cinema, so, I was in the local film
society. I remember watching Peter Watkins film War Game, which was a sort of drama-documentary about a bomb going off in London. We
watched that film. It was the mid-sixties, I suppose, and I don’t know how we got to see it because the film was banned for, like, 25 years. It
was made by the BBC and it was never shown. It was made for television, and it
was never shown on television or anywhere else. But we managed to see it in
this little film society. It was kind of odd. Then there was another film he
made called Culloden, and I remember seeing it at that time as well. Apart from that we watched
Italian Neo-Realist movies, things like that. I guess gradually, that kind of
strengthened my love of cinema, but the idea of actually working in film didn’t occur to me until much later.
ID: Were there, or are there, art forms outside of the cinema that inform or
inspire your work?
RD: Still photography. I still take pictures myself. But there are great still
photographers that have been, probably, more of an inspiration more than
ID: You started your film career doing documentaries across Africa, in England,
in mental institutions, a very different experience than what you are currently
doing. How does that figure into your work?
RD: Yeah, it’s very different. You’re finding out things, as you go along, you don’t start with a script. You’re just put in a situation. I did a number of films where I was an assignment
cameraman; I suppose you’d call it. I was the director of the camera and there was no director. So I’d be there with a sound recordist and we’d basically make up the film as we were going along just discovering things for
ourselves. And that is a very different kind of experience.
ID: Is the documentary something you think you’ll ever return to?
RD: Well I did a number of different documentaries, I did a couple in war zones,
and the last film I made with a friend, well I made a couple of films in mental
institutions that followed patients treatment in mental institutions. I started
having a moral problem, really, with documentaries. To a certain level they’re very voyeuristic. I guess I was being offered dramatic films for television,
and the first features while I was still doing these documentaries. I thought
it’d be nice to get into a situation where I’m helping telling a story but I don’t have that kind of terrible dilemma. Where I’m somebody dropped into a situation for a couple of months and I can leave it.
You’re just filming these people, whatever the situation is, but you’re always the one that can escape. I find that a problem really. I loved doing
them; it’s a fantastic education. I still cherish the experience I had doing them. I
probably sometimes romanticize that I’d go back and do documentaries later, but I don’t think I will now.
ID: Documentaries certainly carry an inherent sense of politics, whereas films
like In the Valley of Elah or Jarhead have a more overt sense of politics. Do you think of your work as a political
act? Do you seek out these somewhat political films when choosing projects?
RD: All I’ve ever wanted to do is take stills of people, or take documentaries about
people, and try to express to an audience how somebody lives next door. You know what I mean? Just how similar we all are as individuals. I think I’m drawn to scripts that humanize people, that in some way help us understand who
we are, that are about character, or character development, and man’s dilemma. And that does come into the Coen’s films. They may not be overtly political. But you take a film like
The Man Who Wasn’t There, that’s a very interesting study of alienation, at least in my viewpoint, anyway. And
certainly this last film No Country is very pertinent to our times. And that’s the kind of film I love. Yeah, Elah is more overtly political, because it’s about the Iraq War, but you take Dead Man Walking or Shawshank [Redemption], they all have something to say about the way people are dealt with in
society. They all pose that kind of question, even Jesse James. So that’s the kind of film that I’m drawn to, something that has something to say about who we are, and our own
little personal problems. [laughs]
ID: Does the production experience vary greatly for you depending on whom you’re working with? You’ve made nine films with the Coen brothers, how does that compare to working with
someone like Andrew Dominik or Paul Haggis for the first time?
RD: It does, it’s a very different process. They each have very different ways of working. And
so in a way what is required of a cinematographer is kind of different. With
Paul, we were working very much more instinctively and doing rehearsals with
actors in the morning, and working out what we were going to do from that.
Whereas, on the other side, with Joel and Ethan [Coen], everything is very well
worked out in pre-production. You go on set, you rehearse with the actor in the
morning like you would on any set, but it’s kind of worked out how you’re going to shoot it well before hand. You can change that, if you have a better
idea, if anybody’s got a better idea, then it can change and develop on the day. But it’s much more formal, in a way, their whole style is much more a sort of formal
way of making film. And with Andrew it varied. Some scenes we had, or he had, a
very concrete idea of a particular shot, or a particular way he wanted to
express a scene or a moment in the script. Other times we were working it out
with the actors, even to the extent that some stuff we did handheld, and I just
shot it, because the actors were adlibbing dialogue and we just shot it kind of
raw and quickly, handheld. That’s the exciting thing about the job really, the sort of variations of ways of
working, from film to film, and within a film.