Here is my introduction: Roger Deakins is inarguably one of the greatest cinematographers of our time. He is also – according to the New York Times – the Susan Lucci of the Oscars (or perhaps – more fitting – the Annette Bening) having been nominated and lost eight times, with 2007’s a double whammy as Deakins was nominated for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford only to lose to There Will Be Blood. True Grit is his ninth nomination, and this modern master was kind enough to grant me an audience for thirty minutes. The good thing about that was it was originally scheduled for fifteen minutes, but we had room to go long, and I’d like to think I probably went about this different than most of his interviews that day (at least I hope). I covered a lot of his career, though not much pre-Barton Fink, with special attention granted to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. As the conversation ended, I asked about his favorites, and he surprised me by listing one of my favorite French filmmakers. I geeked out on him for an extra minute and I’m going to include that part sans too much editing.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy:
Damon Houx: I was thinking of a way to start… I may be a little nervous because I think you’re a genius.
Roger Deakins: Stop (laughs), oh well…
Damon: I was thinking about Francis Ford Coppola who – on the commentary for The Godfather
– talked about fighting with Gordon Willis because in the sequence
where Marlon Brando gets shot he wanted an overhead POV. Gordon Willis
said “Whose point of view is this?” (Deakins laughs) and Coppola said “I
don’t care.” (Deakins laughs) Have you ever had fights like that, do
you ever get into the ideology of the POV, especially in a film like True Grit, which is taken from a first person perspective?
Yeah, it’s funny, there are a number of times I’ve started a film and had a conceptual plan… I mean when we started Fargo,
Joel and Ethan and I thought the film was going to be more
observational. We would shoot it more with a static camera – a little
bit more like Ken Loach would approach it, and pan more often on a
longer lens than anything else. It’s so funny, we discussed it for a
long time, and I do think the film does have that quality to it to a
degree – but I remember the first day the first thing we set up was a
hundred and twenty foot tracking shot. You create these rules in your
head, but they’re there to be broken. On True Grit it was
important that it was very much Mattie’s story, and you wanted to keep
her the central character as much as possible and from her perspective,
but there are times you break the rule.
With this film you’ve been working with the Coens for twenty years now.
Yeah, long time.
Was there a point that you felt like you were a part of the family?
When they asked me back after Barton Fink… I mean I shot Barton Fink and we got on really well – but you never know if someone’s going to ask you back. And when they took the chance on me doing The Hudsucker Proxy, I thought then yeah, I’m part of the family.
It’s been a great partnership, and I love your work with them. When you look for work, are they always the first priority?
Yeah, it’s difficult though, because
they don’t always know what they’re doing. I may call them up and say
“I’ve been offered this or that” and I ask their advice, really, and
I’ll do anything to keep myself available, though sometimes it’s not
altogether practical. They’ve been through quite a few films lately, but
sometimes it’s a longer break between.
They’ve been on a roll, a film a year now for a while; do you know what you’re doing next?
Yeah, they’re writing, I’m probably
going to do a film in England, and I rang them up to ask “is this going
to clash with your plans?” It’s tricky because they’re not really sure
what they’re going to do.
With True Grit you had a lot of exterior sequences. Did you spend a lot of time waiting for God moments?
It’s funny you say that. If you look at
the film, a huge amount of it is interior, quite a lot of it is on set,
quite a lot of the night shots are interiors on stage and quite a lot
of the exteriors are night exteriors. In terms of day exteriors, it’s
not a huge part of the film. One of the big advantages on the way the
Coens work is that when you’re restricted on the budget and the schedule
they storyboard everything so you can take the day’s work and look at
the location and figure out how the sun’s going to change during the day
or how the sun’s going to change during the day, and you can schedule
the shots around the light. The thing is when you’re on a schedule you
can’t not shoot. You can’t wait more than ten minutes or fifteen minutes
for the light to change if it’s a cloudy or sunny day. You can wait for
the sun to come in or go out, whichever one you want to a degree, but
you still have to make the day’s work. So there’s an incredible pressure
just to shoot. I mean, I can’t stand there and say “I can’t shoot today
because the light’s not right.” That’s not going to happen ever, which
is because it’s the cinematographer’s responsibility to get the film
shot. It’s as much a logistic and practical thing as it is an aesthetic
Do you then schedule certain shots because you’re hoping for certain weather?
As I said, you schedule the day, and
sometimes you schedule the days so you can work later on one night to
get an evening light or start early on another day to get a morning
light. I work with the AD a lot in terms of the schedule and how that’s
going to affect where we are and what light we’re going to get.
We’re also ten years on from O Brother, Where Art Thou? where you were using a lot of digital manipulation for the color scheme. How much are you relying on post these days?
You know, I’ve done a digital
intermediate on every film but one since then, but that was a very
specific look. It was a very specific thing, changing the color of those
leaves and the grass and trying to create that sort of autumnal
landscape. I’ve done that on the odd scene, but generally, the digital
control I use is more for saturation – general saturation – and
contrast. And then sometimes, if you’ve got a really hot sky you can
bring it down digitally, but I don’t tend to use it a great deal. It’s
little tweaks versus big things like it was on O Brother.
After having gone through that with O Brother, I was curious to know how that changed your work.
I still try and shoot the negative, or
if it’s digital the file, as close as you can to the way you want it to
be, because anything you do in post is changing the quality of the
Vittorio Storaro’s famous for having his ideology of colors; do you have anything like that?
No, not at all. (I Laugh), No, I mean,
everyone has their own sort of approach, and their own color philosophy
that guides their work, I guess it’s some sort of trick you use, but no I
don’t have any sort of philosophy of color at all.
With the Coen Brothers, they are notorious for storyboarding; do you feel like you have freedom within those boards?
Oh yeah, I usually spend time with them
going through the boards, but even on set or when we’re scouting
location, we discuss the way it’s going to be shot, and things can
change and we can talk about other possibilities. But they’ve always
done it because they cut their own films. So they’re very aware of the
cutting pattern and style and speed of the cutting they want. The
storyboards are a reflection of that as much as anything. But also,
they’re very aware they started with very small budgets, and in order to
put all the money on the screen it’s very efficient to storyboard. On a
film like Barton Fink I remember seeing the final film, and
counting the number of shots that were done we never used. I think I
didn’t get up to two hands. Which is extraordinary, really. Everything
we shot was there, and everything was more or less in the same sequence
as in the storyboards. Very efficient.
You obviously have a strong relationship with the Coens, how then do you transition to work with other people?
I have a strong relationship with other
people as well, I just tend to prioritize working with Joel and Ethan.
It’s loyalty, but also, they’re friends. We’ve been doing it a while
now. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, to go on a film where one way is
neither right nor wrong, where you don’t have any storyboards, and
you’re shooting something off the cuff. It’s a different way, but it’s
kind of nice. But I wouldn’t want one without the other.
You’re listed as the camera operator on True Grit, and on a number of your films, do you like operating?
I’ve always operated, I haven’t done a
film that I haven’t operated. I came from documentaries and for me the
framing and the way the camera moves is most important aspect of what I
do. And I like that connection with the subject or the actors, or
whatever, I just like that involvement, so I’ve always operated, yeah.
Recently I’ve been allowed to have a credit for it.
It’s not reflected in your credits, so I didn’t know. When you were approaching True Grit… you know I absolutely adore The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,
I mean I’m sure you hear it all the time, but it’s something to savor.
That said, having worked on a western before, did you approach this
differently, not wanting to do certain things?
Not at all. I always count No Country
as a western, a contemporary one, I think of the three films as
connected in some way. Each of those three films has a different
starting point, and a very different script, and a very different kind
of mood that the script is creating. The Assassination of Jesse James
is much more like a poem, a tone poem. The book that it’s based on that
Andrew (Dominik) wrote the script from is the same, it’s lyrical. A
mediation on this outlaw who realizes he’s getting old and how he can
maintain who he thinks he is. And also, the change of the west; the way
the west was getting civilized. It’s a very different film from True Grit, which is much more straight a narrative.
Recently Walter Murch wrote an article about how he hates 3-D.
(Laughs) Good for him.
You’ve helped on some animated films, but I don’t know if Now, which you’re shooting now.
I just finished on that, that’s not 3-D.
How do you feel about 3-D as a movement in cinema?
I think it’s giving the audience a different experience, and I think on How to Train Your Dragon,
which we did in 3-D, it works really well because part of that film is
the experience of flying, part of the film is like a ride. But doing a
drama like True Grit or Now or something, it’s not. I
think it’s more a window on the world; it’s like watching a picture come
to life. You don’t want to… you don’t want to immerse them in it, it’s a
I was looking at Now, and you shot it digital. Do you have a preference? Do you prefer 35mm?
Well, it was the first film I shot
digitally, and it was the first time I wanted to do it because there was
a new camera that I thought had a lot of potential, and I feel for that
film in particular it gave me some possibilities technically that I
couldn’t have had with film, partly the speed, but also the dynamic
range, but a number of other things. I was really impressed with the
imagery, and the way the camera worked, actually, and I’m not sure if
I’ll go back to film now.
Technology’s not really what it’s about
for me, I’m not a technically minded person, all I care about is
producing the best image I can get for whatever kind of look I’m after. I
think the digital cameras coming on line now are really, really
impressive. I do have an affection for film, and am slightly nostalgic
for film, but if I had my way, everything would still be in black and
How great then was it to shoot The Man Who Wasn’t There?
That was great, that was wonderful, you don’t get that kind of chance to do a film that works that kind of look.
Have you tried to get other things – like True Grit – shot in black and white?
(Laughs) No. It would be nice to do
something else in black and white, but the Coens do have something
they’ve talked about doing in black and white. But, you know, it’s not
something that’s very commercially viable now so if you do if you do a
film in black and white like The Man Who Wasn’t There, which
had a minuscule budget, on the one hand you get an opportunity to shoot
something, and do that kind of lighting and that kind of look, but on
the other hand you don’t have a lot of money to do it (laughs).
Well, like The Assassination of Jesse James, The Man Who Wasn’t There
is one of the most gorgeous films of the last ten years… I can still
say that, right? It’s still ten years (the film came out in 2001) Do you
have a preference in working scope or flat?
I’ve never shot anamorphic, actually.
Really? Kundun was 2.35:1, but was that Super 35?
Yeah, all the films I’ve done wide are
super 35. Or extraction, earlier they weren’t even Super 35. Like now is
2.35:1 but it’s an extraction from the 16 by 9 chip, yeah.
Do you want to shoot something with an anamorphic lens?
It’s a particular kind of look, and I
guess I like – coming from documentaries – I like the immediacy of
spherical lenses, cause I like being close to the subject. I like the
feeling of the background staying more present and more sharp. And with
anamorphic it tends to push the backgrounds away and put them out of
focus. It’s not a look I particularly love. The Coen Brothers were going
to do a film “To the White Sea,” which is one of the greatest
regrets I have that the film never happened. It was a wonderful project.
And that film we intended to shoot anamorphic, but it was interesting I
wanted to create… the film was set in Japan during the Second World War
– about this gunner from a bomber which was shot down in Japan, and it
was about his escape across Japan. And we wanted to do it – I suppose –
in a sort of painterly way, and we were thinking of using anamorphic
just for the scope of it, but also to create flat images also. But the
film never happened, so I never got to do it.
I would kill for that movie. In terms of aspect ratios, do you prefer 4 by 3?
It depends. It really depends on the project. I think most films I’ve done have been 2.35:1, Super 35.
When you’re shooting a modern western, like you were with True Grit, how much of what you’re doing is limited by location? Because you’re obviously dealing with a more modern world.
An enormous amount really.
There’s the famous quote from Sidney Lumet, when he asked
Akira Kurosawa “why did you put the camera there?” and Kurosawa replied
“because if I panned any more to the left you could see a supermarket,
and if I moved it to the right, you could see a freeway.”
I really sympathize with that. We had
that issue completely. I mean, in a way, we were restricted where we
could go because of the budget, and it was the most economical place
that gave us locations was based out of Santa Fe – we did half in New
Mexico and half in Texas in Austin. But it wasn’t ideal, we didn’t want
the feel of No Country, so we had to travel long distances, and
there were little areas that looked right, and there was one scene
where traffic was flowing in the background we couldn’t stop. But we
knew that we could remove it digitally later on. Kurosawa, of course,
didn’t have that possibility. He couldn’t shoot toward the supermarket,
Did you face similar problems with Jesse James?
There’s no digital work on Jesse James
like that, because we were shooting in Edmonton and Calgary and some in
Winnipeg. We chose locations much further out that were fairly
pristine. You think with the Canadian plains that there would be more
opportunities, but it was still quite restrictive what we could shoot.
There’s been a story about No Country for Old Men that you guys were shooting at one point, and There Will Be Blood were testing their oil derrick explosions. Did that happen?
We were shooting, and I knew Steve
Cremin, the effects guy, and we got him on his cell phone (laughs)
“You’re blowing up your oil rig in the back of our shot!” It was funny,
we were doing a pre-production week of shooting, and they were up there
blowing up a derrick.
At least you figured it out quickly.
Yeah, I knew they were there, and I knew who was there, so… this town is quite small really.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from shooting True Grit? Do you have a favorite moment?
I don’t know about anecdote, the first
day of shooting was the most memorable in a way, and it was a sign of
the way the whole shoot would go, because we turned up on location and
there was like two feet of snow, and all the trucks were snowed in.
There was nothing we could do on that location because we didn’t want
snow at that location. So we had to dig out a couple of snake beds, and
put equipment on it, and drive – I think we drove about 140 miles – to
this other location where we wanted snow on the ground. And managed to
save the day by shooting this scene, but it was quite worrying that
morning, standing at seven in the morning in this foot of snow as far as
you could see. Two feet of it, and you’re thinking “what the hell are
we going to do?”
Was it a tough shoot?
Yeah it was, we had some very tough
days, and you know all that night work was tough. It was quite a
physically demanding shoot. The locations were a long distance from our
base, so there was a lot of driving at the beginning and end of day, and
it was a tough shoot, actually. But even more satisfying in a way
because if you achieve something you make the day.
Do you like night shooting normally?
That sort of night shooting is always
hard. The hardest thing for a cinematographer is “how do you do light
when there isn’t supposed to be a moon?” How do you light it, how do you
work in it? It’s a big logistic and aesthetic challenge.
To tie it all back in, it strikes me one of those compromises, how do you make it work?
It’s a balance, a balance between the
money you have, the rigging you have, the number of lights you can
afford, how much of the action you need to show the audience, it’s a lot
of things you have to think about. How many shots you have to do every
night, you know, I tend to light in such a way that I can be quite
flexible. Most of that night work, I created a big pseudo soft-light
effect that basically allowed me to shot a number of different angles
without changing the light source, just because we really didn’t have
that much time to do it.
In a situation like that – we were talking about digital
tinkering – do you go a little hotter, or a little brighter with the
thought that you can grade down?
That’s the thing. On film you always
think “well how far am I going?” I always give it a little more exposure
than I want in the final image, but on the other hand you give it too
much and you can’t bring it back to where you really want it to be, or
change the contrast or anything else. So that’s tricky, you’re always
taking a bit of a chance. It’s funny, I might have shot those sequences
with a digital camera had a digital camera been available at the time.
It’s a faster camera, so it would have given me more latitude.
So you think you’ll shoot your next Coen Brothers film digitally?
That’s interesting, because they’ve got
a project they want to look like a 16mm Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker
type of documentary, so we’re not sure. We talked about shooting it on
film, but the other option is to shoot it digitally and make it look
like old 16mm film afterwards. I don’t know.
You mentioned D.A. Pennebaker, do the Coens ever throw at you movies they feel it should feel like?
No, the only time was The Man Who Wasn’t There they mentioned the Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt,
but that wasn’t because of the look of the film in terms of lighting or
anything else or the camera movement, it was just the feel of that
community. The small-town feel of that community. They liked the mood
Hitchcock had created in Shadow of a Doubt is part of what they wanted to create in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Have you ever had directors throw titles at you like that?
Well, you’re sitting, talking about the
look of a film, and which way to go with a particular scene, and you
might throw around film titles, and you might say “what about such and
such?” I think it’s always a good way of referencing what you’re talking
about but never, never, have thought about copying something in that sense. Just more about the sensibility of the film. And the overall feel of it.
Are there any films you go back to for inspiration?
Oh, millions. Most of them directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, I must say.
Really, you’re a huge Melville fan?
Oh my god, I swear by Melville.
Oh god, oh god yeah.
I think he’s one of the great filmmakers, but probably one of the most underrated, and unknown really.
I’ve tracked down the one where they go to New York (Two Men in Manhattan)… He’s absolutely one of my favorites… and seeing Army of Shadows on the big screen…
Yeah, it’s one of the great movies of all time.
And at the time, it was just treated like crap because it
bothered to feature De Gaulle, it’s amazing.. Were you a big fan when
you started, were you watching Second Breath?
I remembered seeing Army of Shadows
when it first came out in England. I think I was at Art College, and
there was a cinema in this small town in Wilshire that showed art films
and European films, and I think that’s where I first saw it.
Oh, Le Samourai, yeah.
(I start giggling, and yes, like a schoolgirl)
The Red Circle is one of my
favorites. I was talking to someone about that the other night because
it’s such a brilliant… I don’t know, but the tension he manages to build
up. It’s just great stuff.
There’s a shot of the pool table in Le Cercle Rogue
that is one of my favorite shots of all time. That’s great to hear that
you’re a huge Melville fan, because he’s one of the greats.
And with that, I thanked Deakins repeatedly for his time.