One of my favorite cinematographers is Roger Deakins. If you look over his amazing resume, you’ll see he’s shot so many memorable films, you’d be hard pressed to have not seen at least a few of them. Some of the standouts include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption, and True Grit. As you may have noticed by the titles I just listed, Deakins has a very close relationship with the Coen Brothers, as he shoots most of their movies.
The other day I got to do an exclusive phone interview with Deakins and we talked about a wide range of subjects: what kinds of cameras and lenses he likes to use, his relationship with the Coen brothers and how they work together, making True Grit, digital vs. film, his next movie Now which he shot digitally with the Arriflex Alexa (his first time using digital), his relationship with DreamWorks and his involvement on How to Train Your Dragon and the upcoming sequel, 3D, and when I asked him about what’s coming up next, he said, “I’ll probably do a film with Sam Mendes next.” When I asked him if that meant he was shooting Bond 23, he said, “it might, yeah.”
If you’re interested in cinematography, or just a fan of Deakins work, hit the jump to either read or listen to our conversation:
Since some of you might not have the time to read our entire 30 minute conversation…here’s a few highlights. Although I really recommend listening to the interview if you have the time.
- He talked a lot about how technology has changed the way he can shoot as they can now remove wires from almost any shot. Says, “The first time I ever did a shot like that was on Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins is on the roof and Clancy is threatening to push him off. We did a shot that looks down above them so the crane is down to an over the shoulder and around. So they had to be harnessed off and that was the first time I did a shot where I said, “Okay, we are going to do wire removal on this digitally.” It’s a big advance. It just gives you so much more freedom.”
- With the Coen brothers, says “a lot is determined in the layout in the storyboards that Joel and Ethan do. In terms of the visual style of it and the pattern of the cutting in particular is something that they lay out well beforehand. Then, the choice of location and the decisions of where you are going to put the camera and how you are going to stage the scene on location- a lot of those decisions are made in preproduction.”
- Uses an Arriflex 535 camera. Says he has been using it “since it first came out in the market.” However, on the film he recently wrapped (Now), he used the brand new Arriflex Alexa and he shot digitally. Says “things might be changing.” Regarding lenses, he uses Arri master prime lenses (when shooting film).
- When I asked if he was going to go back to film, he said “I got a feeling that might be it for me in terms of shooting digital. I was really impressed with the imagery that we were able to achieve on this and the flexibility it gave me. The saturation seemed…the color rendition of the color saturation seemed better to me than film. I don’t know whether it will totally replace film for me in the future. I think in the long term a digital camera will, whether it’s this camera or another one. I’m seriously thinking about using it on the next film.”
- Regarding his thoughts on 3D, “I think it is here to stay probably for certain films. Across the board? No. I couldn’t imagine True Grit in 3D. I think the idea is sort of absurd. But I’ve been working on animation quite a bit, and I think the 3D on How to Train Your Dragon is really successful.”
- On the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, says “I have just been talking to the director, Dean, who was the co-director of the first one, and who is directing the second one. I’ve been talking to him about it, yeah. We just started the initial days of kind of going through imagery. We are just talking about the overall look of the film.”
- And as I said before the jump, it seems like Deakins is going to be shooting Bond 23 for Sam Mendes. Which is awesome.
Here’s the full interview:
We were talking about large budget and small budget films…but I had a phone and recorder issue. We join the conversation in progress….
Roger Deakins: I was saying that True Grit was a bigger budget than say, A Serious Man, but what you are trying to do is bigger and more expensive to do. There’s not much difference, really. You’re still compromising I feel.
Collider: How has technology changed the way things are done over your decades in the field?
Deakins: Yeah, the big change is the whole computer graphics thing – the whole CGI option and digital technology. In True Grit for instance, they do a sequence with Mattie thirty feet up in a tree. There is all of this wiring you can do now and she has to be safe. So there are all of these wires that had her safe up in the tree. Years ago, that would have been impossible to do. You would have probably have to have done a smaller insert set of a branch on a stage with a fake background to make it appear that she was on top of the tree. But now, we can actually shoot in a tree with her harnessed off and then remove those wires later.
How has that possible changed the way you set up a shot? Knowing that you can take out the wires and so much can be done with CGI. Has it changed the way you design a shot?
Roger Deakins: It gives you more freedom. The first time I ever did a shot like that was on Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins is on the roof and Clancy is threatening to push him off. We did a shot that looks down above them so the crane is down to an over the shoulder and around. So they had to be harnessed off and that was the first time I did a shot where I said, “Okay, we are going to do wire removal on this digitally.” It’s a big advance. It just gives you so much more freedom.
When I, or any of your fans, see your work you can tell that you have shot the movie. You have a distinct style. I’m curious, how much of your “look” and style is determined on set and how much in the storyboard process and in preproduction?
Deakins: Well, a lot. It depends. On a Coen Brothers movie, a lot is determined in the layout in the storyboards that Joel and Ethan do. In terms of the visual style of it and the pattern of the cutting in particular is something that they lay out well beforehand. Then, the choice of location and the decisions of where you are going to put the camera and how you are going to stage the scene on location- a lot of those decisions are made in preproduction. But then I can be on another film, like the film I just finished with Andrew Niccol, and we are doing a lot of that on the day of the shoot. Some scenes we storyboarded and some scenes we worked out exactly what the shot is going to be to reflect that one scene, but largely we are rehearsing with the actors on set in the morning on the day of the shoot and then we are working on it as we go through the day. So it varies. It really varies from project to project.
You have a relationship with the Coen Brothers. How early on do you get brought in? How much preproduction are you doing on these movies? Can you talk about what kind of collaborations you are doing before the cameras are rolling?
Deakins: Well, on True Grit I was brought in…they did one initial scout I think looking at Oklahoma, Tennessee, and all over. But then, on the next series of scouts, I was brought in. We scouted Utah twice and that was where we were going to shoot, and then we realized that it was impractical because of the time of the year that we needed to shoot in. It was just impractical to be in Utah because we couldn’t really judge the snow melt, how much snow there would be, when it would melt, or when spring would come basically. So we then went to New Mexico and scouted there because we realized that it was not only a practical place to shoot due to the tax benefits we were getting from being there, but it was a friendlier place to shoot in terms of the weather we could expect at that time in the year. So I was involved quite early on in those aspects of it.
I did the press conference with you and the Coen Brothers. Something that I found very funny was when you were describing the scene where Jeff Bridges is out and it’s a nighttime scene. In the John Wayne film, it was shot in the day, but you guys shot it at night. They were relaying how they had no idea how they were going to solve it, but they were like, “Roger will solve it.”
Deakins: When I read the script and we were discussing this I said, “It’s easy for you. You just write ‘night’” [laughs] For me, that is kind of the hardest challenge photographically in a movie. It’s to do lighting when you have no source.
It was just funny for me to hear them say, “Roger will solve it.” Yet, a second ago you were telling me how they were creating storyboards and very involved in the process. How much are they throwing on you to figure out?
Deakins: Yeah, lighting wise I suppose I have to figure out really what we are doing. We obviously discuss the look of it, but there are challenges. There are certain approaches and decisions I make to solve a problem. Obviously, in the script, they want the night scenes to be night. The exterior and the whole stakeout was night. It’s night in the book, and night in the script. So it’s like, “Go figure it out. You’re the cinematographer.” [laughs] Then there is a discussion about how you lay the scene out within the best location we could find in a practical sense, but that also best works aesthetically for the scene. Then, you just discuss how it could be staged and where the characters are. I discuss with them how I can light something and what the practicalities are from my point of view. It’s basically an organic process while you flesh things out. In the end, I’m the guy who is meant to be lighting it. So, it’s not their problem. [laughs]
Can you talk about the cameras you used on True Grit and do you have any favorite cameras that you like to use?
Deakins: I’ve been using an Arriflex 535 now for I don’t know how many years. I suppose since it first came out in the market. I think I first used it on Hudsucker Proxy. So, it’s basically since then. That is what I have been using it to date, but the last film I shot digitally. So things might be changing.
I’m curious about the lenses that you use. Have you been using the same set of lenses this whole time?
Deakins: No. The lens design has been advancing so much since I first started. I started with (sorry I couldn’t understand what he said) lenses, but I had my own set actually. When I shot 1984 I bought my own camera and lenses, and I used them for a number of movies. In fact, I think I even used one of those sets of lenses on Shawshank Redemption. But lately I’ve gone through three different sets of lenses. I’ve now settled on Arri master prime lenses. The lenses have advanced so much and they are becoming much cleaner. You don’t pick up so many flares off of a headlight of a car or the sunshine in the lens. They are getting more cleaner in terms of flare. The Arri master primes are also much faster than they have been of late.
Speaking of lens flares, what did you think of Star Trek and all of the lens flares?
Deakins: Star Trek? I don’t really remember the lens flares. They did it quite a bit for when they are in space or something didn’t they? I can’t really remember that.
The one that J.J. Abrams just did. They were shining flashlights at the camera and into lens specifically in order to generate lens flares.
Deakins: Oh, right. Yeah.
I was just curious about your take on it as a leading cinematographer.
Deakins: Well, I think it worked for that. I think that lens flares can work really well under certain circumstances. Personally, I am trying to get rid of them most of the time. I don’t like artifacts that draw attention to the surface of the image. In a case like Star Trek, I think it is quite valid.
You mentioned that you shot your new film, Now, with a digital camera. Was this your first time using digital?
Was this because Andrew wanted to use it or because you wanted to?
Deakins: No. It’s funny because it was actually quite the reverse. When I met with Andrew over this film he said, “You do still shoot film don’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” But I was at the time doing some tests with a digital camera. I went back to him during preproduction and said, “I’m not pressuring you, but I would really like to shoot this film digitally and I’ll show you why.” I showed him the tests one day and he was quite blown away. I said, “Well, the thing this is going to give us is that this is quite a demanding schedule with a lot of night shoots in downtown L.A. I don’t think we have the time or money and the facilities to do huge lighting on this. What this camera is going to do is give me more flexibility to get the kind of imagery you want.” So he said, “Yeah, let’s go with it.”
Now that you have shot the film, what was your take on using digital on a film like this? Do you think this is the beginning of you going digital in the future or do you think it will be a 50/50 kind of split?
Deakins: I got a feeling that might be it for me in terms of shooting digital. I was really impressed with the imagery that we were able to achieve on this and the flexibility it gave me. The saturation seemed…the color rendition of the color saturation seemed better to me than film.
Which camera did you use?
Deakins: The Arriflex Alexa. I don’t want to be a salesman for the camera, but it was an an Alexa camera.
There are obviously a lot of digital cameras out there and you obviously have a relationship with Arriflex. What lead you to this specific camera? Was it a certain look or just the way they were capturing a certain color?
Deakins: Well, obviously, I have a relationship with Arriflex. I’ve used their cameras over the years, but that is not why I chose the camera. I knew they were creating this camera, and there was quite a good buzz about it. So I asked the technician. I said, “Can I do some tests when you get a prototype model? I’m very interested in this.” They showed me some tests they had done with a very early prototype and it was really impressive. I’m always open to new technology – whatever helps. We ran a whole load of tests and it’s just the smoother image than what I can achieve on film. At the same time, it’s 800 asa as opposed to a high speed where it stops being at 500. It has more range. I don’t know whether it will totally replace film for me in the future. I think in the long term a digital camera will, whether it’s this camera or another one. I’m seriously thinking about using it on the next film.
I definitely have to ask you about your thoughts regarding 3D. Do you think that it is a gimmick or here to stay? Are you thinking about shooting anything in 3D?
Deakins: I don’t think it’s a gimmick anymore. I think it is here to stay probably for certain films. Across the board? No. I couldn’t imagine True Grit in 3D. I think the idea is sort of absurd. But I’ve been working on animation quite a bit, and I think the 3D on How to Train Your Dragon is really successful. I enjoyed the experience of being involved with that for that reason. I’m consulting on some other films at DreamWorks over the long term. They are all also going to be in 3D, and I think it works very well for those kinds of films. In live action – I’m not really that interested in shooting 3D.
Can you talk about how you worked with DreamWorks on How to Train Your Dragon? How did you help shape the look of the film?
Deakins: I basically wasn’t shooting too much for that year. I did a film called Company Men and then right at the end of that I was starting some prep with Joel and Ethan. I basically had a lot of time. So for about 14 months I would go in there mostly every week when I was available. When I was shooting Company Men, I had a dedicated site. I was connected to DreamWorks and they would send me their layout or some of the images they were lighting. I could sort of draw on them in a kind of photoshop situation, make notes, and send them back and forth. So I was always connected, even when I wasn’t in L.A. But the best time was spent in just going up there, sitting with the layout artists and the lighters, and just discussing the overall look and the style of the camera moves. It was great. I started off with Chris and Dean, the directors, creating a whole board of references of images that reflected the whole progression of the movie in terms of its colors, look, light, clouds, and everything else we were going to have. It was great. I was quite involved. It was a really interesting experience. It was so good that I think I am actually involved with 3 other films up there now doing the same thing.
I was going to ask you about that. How to Train Your Dragon was obviously a huge success. They are making sequels and Guillermo Del Toro is also working at DreamWorks on some animated films. Is there any chance that you are helping out Guillermo on any of the films that he is developing?
Deakins: Well, he has actually been consulting with the director of one of the films that I have been consulting on as well. I actually haven’t met him, though. I’ve never met him when I’ve been up there. I know he is involved up there.
Are you helping out on the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon or is it too early?
Deakins: I have just been talking to the director, Dean, who was the co-director of the first one, and who is directing the second one. I’ve been talking to him about it, yeah. We just started the initial days of kind of going through imagery. We are just talking about the overall look of the film.
Do you envision keeping something similar for the film? You obviously created a universe that a lot of people really enjoyed and loved. Do you envision keeping that look or are you guys planning to mix it up or did you learn some technology towards the end that you would like to apply in the future?
Deakins: Well, yeah. The technology is always advancing. So I think some of it will change. The characters may be a bit older, but they are still the same characters involved. It has got to be a balance.
I’m sort of curious if you could talk about CGI and post editing software, for the look of how you shoot. For example, obviously when you shoot something one day, you try to get it as perfect as possible with the light the way exactly you want it. How often do you go in in post, once it’s been shot and sort of start altering colors or is it sort of… obviously there is color correction for everything, but could you sort of talk about what it is in post that you’re able to accomplish or not accomplish with the look of your movies.
Deakins: Still the majority is done in camera frankly. I mean, you know, when I first started doing DI, Digital Intermediary on Oh Brother Where Art Thou, it was a very specific kind of look, you know, we were trying to create this sort of picture book world and we wanted to take all the green away and make them sort of oranges and browns, you know, so it’s very extreme, but also a very specific look. Specific situation on something like True Grit or No Country For Old Men, I mean there are scenes where I’ve toyed a little bit with the overall saturation and specific colors have changed. When Matthew is swimming the river we were in Texas and it was already spring, I think we shot back in May, no June maybe, and it was already very green, so yeah, digitally I was able to suppress some of that colour you know, so it fitted better with the rest of the movie. I mean, that’s what I do, but also then you have the effects company, the digital effects company will take shots and literally remove a green tree from the shot, like in the town of Fort Smith at the beginning there were a couple of trees we took all the leaves off, the art department defoliated them, but there were some trees in the background we had to remove and then there was also one view of the street that we had to extend the town in, so that was done digitally. So it’s a blend now between what I can do in time and what is given to an effects company to manipulate.
I’m sure that over the course of your week talking to many people one of the films that everyone brings up is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford which I love love love that movie, and I especially love your cinematography in it. Could you sort of talk about the film, making it, what you remember, do you have fond memories of it? If you could talk a little bit about it…
Deakins: I have very fond memories. It was just one of those films, I mean, you just don’t get the opportunity to do something that is you know, something that is such a poetic, meditative piece on that period of history. It was a very exceptional opportunity, especially with a director who had a very very clear, strong idea of where he wanted to go and very unique kind of visual, you know, sense of the film he wanted. It was a great challenge because again, not a huge budget but we shot most of it we shot, yeah, just all of it in Canada in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg and all over and it was quite a challenge, but it was very rewarding and I’ve only got good memories of it actually.
Andrew Dominik is developing Cogan’s Trade and Blonde, I’m not really sure which one’s going to go, but have you talked to him about -
Deakins: He’s shooting Cogan’s Trade I believe in New Orleans in a few weeks actually yeah.
I guess that means you’re not working with him again.
Deakins: Not on that one no. I hope I will sometime but not on that one.
I was going to say, I’m very disappointed I really am.
Roger Deakins: He’s got a really great cinematographer actually, Greig Fraser who is really brilliant so.
When people meet you, you have such an amazing resume of movies. What do you find that maybe the few films that people just always want to talk to you about. Obviously, The Big Lebowski, Shawshank [Redemption], for me obviously The Assassination of Jesse James but are there certain films that you are always talking to people about, or a certain shot that people are just always asking you about?
Deakins: Yeah, it’s nice people are talking about The Assassination of Jesse James because I kind of feel that film was really kind of missed somehow, it didn’t really get much play when it was released, so that’s kind of nice. But I mean, people do tend to want to talk about Shawshank a lot, which I’m glad to, I like the film, but you know, there are plenty of others I really love too so…
Your resume is just incredible, Sid and Nancy, Fargo, I mean there’s so many movies I could talk to you about. But could you sort of talk a little bit about how possibly you feel you’ve changed over your decades in the business? If at all?
Deakins: I feel like from my perspective I don’t think I have actually. I feel like I’m fairly well the same, I mean one of the first films I did was 1984 and I’m probably as proud of that film as any I’ve done, just because of the film it is photographically and everything. No I still have the same approach I think, I still try and keep things as simple as possible and make them as much as possible about the story and don’t do anything extraneous to what I think the story should be. No I don’t think I’ve changed, maybe other people would say I have but I don’t think so.
Could you sort of talk a little bit about your relationship with the Coen brothers, you’ve obviously made so many great films together. Has your style with them been the same since the beginning, have they relaxed a little bit, have they gotten…could you sort of talk about how you guys have worked together so successfully for so long?
Deakins: I think they’re a little more relaxed about not locking a scene down. I mean, for instance, the scene in True Grit at the camp overlooking the meadow, the gang’s camp, I don’t think all of that was storyboarded, some of it was, but a lot of it was worked out with the actors on the set. And they’re more free like that now I think, but basically it’s the same approach. Basically they want to prep everything and know exactly where they’re going. You know, it’s just they’re meticulous in terms of the structuring of the movie.
You guys have been making a movie almost every year for the last few years, and each one has just been incredible, can you sort of see it from the inside just how special the last few years have been?
Deakins: I don’t know, probably not really. I mean I’ve been having a good time but you always kind of want to do something more I suppose, I don’t know. I was talking to Joel and Ethan the other day and we were saying it’s amazing how successful True Grit has been but is that…although we love the film, but is that any better than you know, The Man Who Wasn’t There? Or The Hudsucker Proxy? I mean, nobody went to see The Hudsucker Proxy and I was watching a bit of it the other day and I think it’s kind of an amazing and original film, but that sort of didn’t do very well, it’s funny. It’s funny where some film will be successful another film won’t, but they like me just want to keep working on the films and things that we find interesting and enjoying doing it. You’ve kind of got to take the good with the bad really, one day a film suddenly is successful for whatever reason and the next one might not be, so there you go.
So we’re just beginning 2011, you just wrapped a movie, are you already thinking about what you want to do this year, and I guess my other part to this is, how far in advance are directors coming up to you to try to see about your schedule for the future? And how selective are you? Could you sort of talk about how you pick a project?
Deakins: Joel and Ethan plan quite in advance and obviously I’ve got a relationship with then. I’ll probably do a film with Sam Mendes next who I’ve worked with a couple of times, but usually the films come up very late. It’s just the kind of films I like doing I suppose as much as anything else, you know sort of the medium budget movies that are character driven. They don’t usually get green lit until quite late. So although I might be approached about or I might talk to somebody about a film, there are a number of directors who I’ve been talking to who are planning to do this film or that film, but it’s not actually green lit and it’s not set up and you kind of might be hoping it’s going to happen. But you don’t know what you’re doing until it gets financed, so it’s very rare, frankly it’s very rare that I have anything in the future other than in a few months you know.
Deakins: It might yeah.
I don’t even know how to respond to that! That’s amazing. That’s just fantastic.
Deakins: It could be, we’ll see!
You’ve obviously worked with Sam before?
Deakins: Yeah, I did Jarhead and Revolutionary Road.
You’ve worked with many great directors, what’s the one thing that you take away from all these great directors? What’s the one common trait that they all have that you’ve noticed?
Deakins: The one’s that I really love working with, and I suppose this might sound kind of clichéd, but their humanity.
Okay, well that’s not the answer I was expecting, but I’ll take that.
Deakins: Well you know, their passion, their care and their love of it you know?
Collider: Oh yeah, totally, a lot of people always say their collaborative nature, or the way they’re always willing to listen?
Deakins: Yeah, I suppose that’s part of it, but it’s who they are, it’s their view of the world is the most important thing I think.
Totally. Well I don’t want to take up too much more of your time so I’m going to actually stop here because you’ve given me so much of your time. I really want to say sincerely it’s a great pleasure to talk to you, again, huge fan of your work, and I wish you nothing but the best.