If you were to make the case that Roger Deakins was not just the best living cinematographer (like I do) but perhaps one of the very best ever, you probably wouldn’t get much of an argument from serious cinephiles.
A 12-time nominee, Deakins is as overdue an Oscar win as we have in the industry. With nomination number 13 likely coming for his most recent work in Sicario (my review of which can be found here), I was given the chance to sit down with the man last week for an in person chat about his career. What follows, minus a ton of my gushing over him and praise for his dozen previously Academy Award nominated endeavors, is the highlights of an interview that covers the state of cinematography, digital vs film, and more.
On the perpetual conversation about if this is “the year” for him with “Sicario”:
Roger Deakins – Yeah, let’s not talk about that! (Laughs)
Discussing the use of technology in “Sicario”:
“Yeah, you know, the funny thing, I was thinking the other day, people don’t realize how much CGI there is in movies. I mean, without mentioning other people’s movies, I can say my own movies, I did something in a film called Jarhead, which I don’t think was done much at the time, which was I left all the lights in shot and we painted them out and made them into oil fires. But, putting the lights into the shot made the kind of way the light worked within the scene really naturalistic, so we just painted the light out and painted the flame in. I mean, that’s done all the time now, so I mean I have used technology, always used technology. Like, it’s funny, you know O’ Brother, Where Art Thou was the first DI (Digital intermediate). It’s not that I don’t use technology, it’s just that I don’t think people notice it, the way that I use it. Probably.”
On the night vision sequences, specifically:
“It’s funny, people think it’s kind of fresh, but it’s been used. I mean, I shot night vision in 1989 on a film. I mean, it’s been used for a long long time. I think, because it was an extended sequence and there was no way out of it, you were kind of trapped in this world, as seen through these two points of view, yeah.”
How he approaches a new project:
“I think it varies from project to project, really. You know, I mean some directors are much more visual than others, so you’d maybe bring more to the table with one director than you might with somebody else.”
On shooting action sequences in films like “Skyfall”:
“Well, it is traditionally (more of an editor’s medium than a cinematographer’s), but it’s funny, I saw somewhere, someone told me the other day that Sicario was nominated as Best Action Movie at some critics awards thing or something. That made me laugh, really. You know, it’s hardly an action film. But then, I remember last year Angie’s film Unbroken was nominated for Stunt Ensemble. Well, I couldn’t remember any stunt work in it myself, but I could be wrong! (Laughs) It is really funny.”
Discussing the recent trend towards awarding CGI driven cinematography:
“It has been, but I don’t know if the voters know it is or not. I think however you get to the final image, it’s anything, every technique is up for grabs. It’s the final image that matters.”
Talking about how various genres come in and out of popularity:
“I think it’ll change in terms of what films work, like Westerns come back sort of sequentially, but I don’t think it’ll change in the way that images are made. I think it’ll become much much more CGI orientated. It’s bound to.”
On digital vs film, in terms of what’s still getting made on film as the drive towards digital continues:
“The kind of irony of that also is that a lot of those filmmakers who insist on shooting film also actually do a huge amount of CG work on their films, so by the end, they don’t hardly look like film anyway! If you want to shoot film, just shoot film, don’t do any CG and let’s go back to building everything and doing everything in camera. They don’t do that though. It’s not done like that. I sometimes can’t tell! Sometimes I watch a film and I can’t tell if it’s shot digital or on film.
The last Coen Brothers picture we shot, Hail, Caesar!, we shot on film. The brothers wanted to shoot on film and it’s fine, I think it looks quite good, but I don’t know that it would look much different if it had been shot digitally. We did Skyfall on digital and then they went and did Spectre on film. I mean, I think that was Hoyte’s choice as much as Sam’s, but maybe it was more my choice to do Skyfall digitally than it was Sam’s?
I just want the subjects to look good, that’s all I care about.”
Talking about how he has less choice in terms of what projects he’s offered than you’d expect:
“I mean, people say that (that he can make whatever he wants), but the business doesn’t really work like that. I don’t really get offered a huge number of movies, and I can’t imagine any cinematographer does, because most directors have crews that they work with on a regular basis. I think it’s so much about relationships.”
On if there’s a style he’s thinking of for the upcoming “Blade Runner 2” and if there’s something he hasn’t done yet that he’s anxious to try:
“I mean, if I am I’m not going to talk about it. “Blade Runner” is close to something I haven’t done yet as anything that I’d like to do, since I haven’t done science fiction. I’ve been offered a few things, but in my book they haven’t really qualified as science fiction. A lot of science fantasy out there! I don’t really like to shoot a film unless I’d want to see it in the movies, so yeah, “Blade Runner” being the iconic piece of work that it was, the original, and the whole subject of “Blade Runner” being about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. It’s a kind of interesting subject, so that certainly fills one ambition that I’ve had.
I’ve been very lucky too, in other things that I’ve done. I never thought I’d get to do a western but I’ve shot like three now, so that’s pretty good! (Laughs) I’ve been very lucky, as you’ve said I’ve done a whole cross section of movies and genres. That’s part of the fun!”
Check out the official 2016 Oscar Predictions by Clayton Davis to see where Roger Deakins currently ranks!