Roger Deakins, coming to light
The train robbery sequence that opens The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2006) is breathtaking. Jesse and his men stand in the woods as their target approaches, its light piercing through the trees temporarily illuminating their hooded faces before they slip back into darkness. Soon, the train slams headlong into the camera pushing it backwards before grinding to a halt, engulfed in steam. Carrying lanterns that create a warm, yellow glow, the men arm themselves and charge forth to board the train. It is a beautiful, elegant sequence and it’s exactly what cinematographer Roger Deakins does, film in and film out.
I remember going into film school with a very limited idea of what a cinematographer does, attributing, like most filmgoers, a film’s look solely to its director. And while it is true that the director dictates a film’s look, the cinematographer is the one responsible for executing it. They are, quite literally, the photographers of the film. For a director, having a brilliant, resourceful and creative cinematographer is integral. I made sure to make friends with the best one in our class.
Realizing that cinematography was quickly becoming a favorite subject (even surpassing directing, my chosen focus), I began scanning my favorite films for the credit I had largely ignored up until this point. Roger Deakins’ name came up often. He had been shooting films since the 1980s, mostly in the UK, but it wasn’t until 1990 when Deakins shot his first U.S. film, Mountains of the Moon (1990)—yeah, I’d never heard of it either—that things began to really take off.
He soon found himself in the company of Chicago playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet on 1991’s Homicide. Coming from a theater background, Mamet’s directing style is rather straightforward (The star of his films is the dialogue and storytelling), requiring only the basics in regards to camerawork and lighting. A nice job for cred, but any great artist needs to be challenged to truly grow, and for Deakins that challenge came in the form of the two-headed director; Joel and Ethan Coen.
My love of Deakins’ work grew out of my love for the Coen brothers and it is safe to say that they have influenced each other over the course of the 11 films they’ve worked on together. Up until they teamed up Deakins’ work had been good, but basic and without much flair. The Coens demanded much more from his camera work, having previously used eventual Men in black (1997) director Barry Sonnenfeld as their cinematographer, whose penchant for big, sweeping camera moves complimented their screwball style at the time.
Deakins’ first film with the Coen brothers was Barton Fink (1991), a surreal symbolist film about a New York playwright who, upon getting a gig writing for “the pictures” immediately develops writer’s block. Since the Coens almost never set a film in the present, Barton required a certain period feel. Deakins stuck with his normal source lighting techniques (using mostly on-camera light sources, sometimes enhanced off camera), but began using some of the trademark steadicam and dolly moves that would become staples for him. The Coens would eventually push him into more screwball territory with The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Lady Killers (2004).
In addition to experimenting with more dynamic camera work, Deakins also began to explore technology. And while his opinion of it remains that one must never lean on it (“We’ll fix it in post” is on record as his least favorite saying), it has allowed him to perform certain visual enhancements. The Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is an elegant black and white period piece that was actually shot on color film and, because it was shot while spring was in full bloom, O Brother‘s greens and yellows were de-saturated in post, giving them a dirtier, fall look.
If I don’t get away from the Coen brothers stuff now I never will (11 films, you remember?), so onward and upward.
Deakins’ classy visual style has made him something of a commodity in the industry. He has worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese (Kundun, 1997), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), Sam Mendes (Jarhead, 2005), M. Night Shyamalan (The Village, 2004) and, well, the Coen brothers. But some of his best work, in my opinion, was created alongside a few lesser known directors. Vadim Perelman’s The House of Sand and Fog (2003) contains some pretty haunting visuals. In particular I remember a chilling shot containing a few streetlights illuminating an early morning fog. The aforementioned Assassination of Jesse James, directed by Andrew Dominik, is a cinematographer’s dream, filled with stylized lenses, arty lighting and epic scenery.
Roger Deakins has been nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar 9 times. He has never won. In 2007 he was nominated for both The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men, but lost to another favorite cinematographer of mine, Robert Elswitt for There Will be Blood. The win is hard to argue with, but come on! Two noms in one year and the poor guy still can’t get a break! I digress.
I would never expect anyone to go see a film simply because a certain cinematographer shot it (I’ve done that, for the record. I sat through Gigli in its entirety because Robert Elswitt shot it. I’m not proud), but I’m reasonably certain I’m going to be checking out Roger Deakins’ next project, whatever it is, whomever it’s directed by. The man always manages to teach me something.