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ID: Speaking of Jesse James, this film has one of the most distinctive looks of any film released this fall, was there a particular inspiration for the look, a template you found yourself working within?

RD: I’ve got to say it was really from Andrew’s references. He’d been working on the project for a long, long time before I came on board. When I first met him he showed me all these references he had from all different media. There would be images from past films, still photographer’s work, paintings, even architectural magazines. One was even a Polaroid he’d taken on a location once that had kind of faded and had a certain quality to it. These things were really the basis toward the look of the picture. I kind of talked to him about that and we took it from there.

ID: It sounds as though you drew from all over the arts for the feel of the film.

RD: A lot of different sources. There was not just one source. They were all very, very different. There was a fashion photographer who had taken some nighttime flash photographs for instance, and whose work Andrew loved. We took those for an idea for some of the night work. Then there was a painting by Rousseau. That was an image that we sort of looked at for the dusk work, or the time-lapse forest photography. We didn’t say we’re going to recreate these images. It was just a feeling. A melancholy feel of the piece, the emotions were within this kind of imagery.

ID: I recall a moment in the film when Jesse James kills Ed Miller in the dead of night, lit from the front and kind of disappears into the night behind him. Was it shots like these that arose from the pastiche of influences you’ve mentioned?

RD: That was the reference, the idea of front-lit flash photography. But I kind of took that and molded it. Obviously film is different; it’s not a still frame. The distance traveling to and from the lens, the light drops off; you just couldn’t do it with a light right next to the camera. So you have to create that same feel, but make it work on film.

ID: How does shooting something like Jesse James or No Country, with the wide-open landscapes and nature imagery compare to shooting something like Barton Fink or Ladykillers where you are shooting in a largely urban landscape? Does that affect you’re approach or attitude?

RD: It’s interesting. Someone said to me, early on in film school—I think it might have been Ozzie Morris— if you can photograph the human face you can photograph anything, because that is the most difficult and most interesting thing to photograph. If you can light and photograph the human face to bring out what’s within that human face you can do anything [laughs]. I know it sounds glib, but it is all the same. It’s all the way something affects you. That’s all there is. I really don’t know what to say [laughs].

A lot of those landscapes we went down to this area near Marfa in Texas. I shot down there for four days. Just doing those still photographs. Those still images from the front of the film with the voice over. My assistant and I would get up in the morning and map out these angles. We were just looking for the things that grab you. It’s instinctive more than anything.

ID: Was Jesse James typical for you in terms of preparation for the look of a film? Or does the pre-production process vary greatly depending on who you are working with?

RD: I think the difficult thing on Jesse James was, when you talk to someone, for instance, and they say, well I want it dark, I want the night to really feel like night. Now, what does that mean? You do that for somebody, you produce a dark image and they say, oh my, that’s dark. I had that happen with a director once. I said this is going to be just silhouette.  I’m just lighting this as silhouette, and they say ok. But then we watched dailies and they said I can’t see any information on their faces cause their silhouette. And I said what is a silhouette? That’s what a silhouette is. [laughs] It’s the whole terminology, what is dark? You need to learn how many risks you can take, in a way. The fact is, working with Joel and Ethan—I’ve worked with them on 9 pictures now—it’s kind of comfortable. It’s like having a safety net. You know you can take chances, and even if you make a mistake, you know it’s worth taking a chance, and you know that’s what they want you to do. So where I started with Andrew was how dark do you want it? I was thinking this should be really dark, like the train robbery at the beginning. They’ve got little lanterns, and I thought the whole frame should be black. And he was saying there should be acres of blackness. But until you actually do it and you watch it together… [laughs]. That was kind of risky. There was really very little light; it was very hard to do. It’s about taking those chances, and being bold enough to do it.

ID: For the train robbery sequence you’re talking about, were you really just working with lights inside the lanterns? That seems like it would be an incredibly low level of light for such a large space.

RD: Well, we say its lantern light; well the lantern was justifying it. You’re trying to create the feeling that the lanterns are lighting it, but you also want to see the characters faces, to some extent. So it’s not just lit by the flame of the lantern. We worked with the lanterns and put little coarse bulbs behind the actual flames and dimmed them down. So there was a little more light than the flame would give you. Every now and again there is a little gold reflector putting a little more light in Brad [Pitt’s] face or in his eyes. So it’s not just a little flame, you couldn’t really do it [that way]. But the idea was that it’s the only light source until the train comes. The coming of the train and the light of the train basically reveals the environment for you.

ID: You said working with Joel and Ethan provides something of a safety net for you. To what extent is that a collaborative process for you? Because, certainly, the look of Roger Deakins cinematography has become an integral part of the look of a Coen Brothers film.

RD: I don’t really know; that’d be interesting, really. Because [Emmanuel Lubezki] shot the last one. I was doing something else. I don’t know, their scripts are so visual, the way they are written. So much comes from that. It’d be impossible for me to say really. How do you say where the cinematography ends and the production design takes over? And how can you go wrong if you’re shooting a close-up of Tommy Lee Jones? You know what I mean? It’s a wonderfully powerful image. The dialogue he’s speaking and the performance he gave, you don’t really have to do much, you know. [laughs]

ID: How does the transition from shooting a film to watching a film work for you? Are you ever surprised by how the film ends up looking?

RD: No, not often. Obviously you kind of regret things that are cut out. But that doesn’t last long if the film is cut well anyway. You realize the necessity.  By and large, all the films I’ve shot have pretty much ended up about how I imagined. With the Coen Brothers it’s interesting because there is very little shot that isn’t used. We don’t shoot very much in terms of raw footage at all. Very few extras set-ups. It’s so well worked out. They’re so precise in knowing what they want.

With Andrew we shot a longer film. And I saw a cut of the film that was a lot longer, that I thought was a lot better. I saw a three and a half hour version that I thought was really good. But the studio would not entertain releasing it like that. So there we are.

ID: While you are working, knowing that you’ve got a fairly accurate idea of how it will end up, do you ever stop and think to yourself that you’re on to something? That this is going to be a great film?

RD: Yes, sometimes things can be hard, and seemingly chaotic and you kind of think, wait a minute this could be a really great film. I thought that with Shawshank.

ID: Does it ever go the other way, where you stop and think this is a total disaster?

RD: Yeah, [laughs] well I think the only time that ever really happened was when I was shooting Hudsucker with Joel and Ethan. The first few weeks, we felt like we didn’t know what we were doing. Everything seemed so big. It wasn’t the concept, but it seemed so hard to achieve what we wanted to achieve. We were really concerned if we were going to make it. We did like three weeks before Christmas, and then we came back after the Christmas break and everything worked gangbusters. But for a while, we were going, oh my god is this really going to work? [laughs] I can’t think of specific moments, but you do get surprised by things. Things usually work out better than you plan. When you’re shooting a film you’re so close to it, it rarely lives up to your expectations while you’re there. You always want it to be better, more perfect. When you see a cut, maybe two or three months later, you come to it fresh. It’s generally much better than you thought it would be.

ID: Do you think there is anything that ties your work together? A specific look that you feel you can identify as your photography?

RD: I don’t really know. People say they can recognize a film if I’ve shot it. It’s certainly not deliberate. I suppose I have a certain way of lighting a film. I prefer certain lens lengths, and generally work wider than a lot of people. I generally move the camera less than most people. I guess my style is a lot simpler than a lot of people. But no, I think I approach every script as though it’s the first film I’ve ever shot.

ID: How so?

RD: Every script is so different; you just want to start with a fresh eye, a clean slate. I never want to say I’ve done this before; I’ll do it like this because it worked last time. In a way I kind of erase from my mind what I’ve done before. [laughs] Like Ethan said it’s weird working with you on a picture, because I never know what you’re going to do, you never do the same as you did last time. I think that’s good; you want to create something anew.

A Modest Lens: An Interview with Roger Deakins
By: Dustin Luke Nelson