Roger Deakins: In Person

Photo by Margaret Drysdale. Roger Deakins on the Edinburgh International Film Festival red carpet on June 22nd.

Cinematography was one of the official themes of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, and although Brian Tufano had to cancel, the festival was still able to welcome Roger Deakins for an In Person appearance. The respect accorded Deakins by his peers can be judged from the fact that he was interviewed by Seamus McGarvey – which meant that three-fifths of the 2008 Oscar nominations for cinematography were represented on the Edinburgh stage – in front of an audience including Christopher Doyle and Rain Li. “God help cinema if a bomb goes off,” said EIFF artistic director Hannah McGill.

Deakins described his route to cinematography as beginning with a love of painting at school in the southwest of England, and fermenting through a talent for still photography. “I started in films as a documentary maker, but I was the kind who really wanted to work in still photos,” he said. “I tended to do the documentaries that other people didn’t want to do. I spent months on board a round the world yacht, and then made several films in Africa covering trouble spots like Zimbabwe and the war in Eritrea.”

His work in feature films began with Michael Radford’s 1984 and David Drury’s Defence Of The Realm, before he worked for Alex Cox on Sid and Nancy. “Actually,” interjected McGarvey, “I was an extra in Sid and Nancy. I got moved to the front row as a suitably punky specimen. I had to spit a lot.” “We had to wear coats,” Deakins agreed.

Deakins long and fruitful relationship with the Coen brothers is a defining feature of his career, and it began shortly after the worst working experience of his life. “I met Joel and Ethan Coen just after I’d given up on the industry as a result of doing Air America in 1990,” he said. “That was a simply horrible experience. The money men were in control, there was a second unit running around somewhere that I didn’t even know about … Awful. It was so bad I quit the profession.”

He was back a year later though, working on Barton Fink and going on to become the Coens’ most frequent cinematographer. “As a DoP you change your methods depending on whom you work for,” he said. “It’s a different set when you work for directors who have some visual knowledge, versus directors who are writers and who need something different from you. You also have to be careful when interpreting what the director is asking for. When Andrew Dominik on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford said he wanted shots that were really, really black, I had to think ‘Well, yes … but does he mean it?’ And in that case, he really, really did.” So what is a Coen brothers set like? “Comatose. We do so much preparation that the actual working set is very quiet.”

Making O Brother, Where Art Thou in 2000 saw Deakins and the Coens experimenting with newly-emerging digital technology. “On that film we were one of the early pioneers of using a digital intermediate,” he explained. “I did a huge amount of testing to see if a digital approach could achieve the same results that I knew I could get photochemically, and because this was the early days of digital I certainly did not have 100 percent confidence. But we knew that the schedule gave me six to nine months between the tests and the moment that the picture would actually go through the digital intermediate stage, so I took the plunge and trusted that the technology could only become more robust in the mean time.”

After principal photography on O Brother had concluded, Deakins spent 12 weeks on the color timing, a nervy process. “At that time there was no actual digital file involved as the process always printed back to the actual negative, so it was very hairy. Plus the computer kept crashing. But the results were great; all those brown earthy-colored fields in the film were actually bright green!”

Deakins was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA for his work on No Country for Old Men, and described something of his work on that film and his methods in general. “I operate my own camera. I don’t like people around me and I need to look through the viewfinder – which is one reason why using HD and having to look at a color monitor makes me uneasy. On set, if I use a monitor it’s set up in black and white with very high contrast.”

The dawn chase sequence in No Country was planned by Deakins to a tight schedule, each shot allocated a 20-minute window in the rising dawn so that the whole chase would go from night to daylight when edited together. “I put huge blue lights on the horizon shining up into the sky to look like the first dim light of dawn. Then I coordinated the shooting schedule for each element of the sequence to match the light from my dawn with the light from the real thing.” Deakins claims that unforeseen cloud derailed his plan for one shot of the scene, but even when he pointed it out on screen it was impossible to see the joins in his handiwork.

With immense modesty, Deakins summed up his award-winning work in the film along with the rest of his career as not being anything special. “Just luck,” he said. “I was just lucky to get the right light.”

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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