Nominated nine times in 16 years, there are few cinematographers working in the last two decades who are as decorated as Roger Deakins. Starting out in the 1960s and ‘70s as a documentary filmmaker and moving into cinematography on music videos, he made a not unfamiliar transition into feature photography, but his career changed dramatically in 1991 when he partnered up with Joel and Ethan Coen for Barton Fink, the first of their now eleven collaborations. The latest film they worked on together, True Grit, was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including one honoring Deakins photography; on the eve of the ceremony, Boxoffice caught up with the director of photography via telephone to discuss his work on the film, his ongoing collaboration with the Coen brothers, and his feelings about the evolution of the industry in both technical and geographic terms.
This film has a sort of classicism to its approach - it's not really a revisionist western. How did that affect your work shooting the film?
Well, really, I think the pitch and the feel of the film came from the book and the guys' script. I must say that I did see it a little bit more in a classical sense as more of a traditional western, but yeah, it wasn't like I said, "I'm going to shoot it like such and such a movie." I can't think of anything I thought about, I guess maybe Guns in the Afternoon [Ride the High Country] or other early Peckinpah movies. But that was about it, really.
What was sort of the aesthetic mandate for the way that you and the Coen brothers wanted to shoot the movie?
You don't sort of come and say, we want it to look like such and such; it's quite an organic thing, really. The boys do a storyboard, and it was a very obvious thing from the book and the script that it is this story, this reflection of an older woman's reflection on this event that happened in her childhood, when she was young. It's a very much a story told from that young girl's perspective, and I think that's probably - although I don't think we ever talked about it - I think that's probably why it's quite simply told. I mean, the story is very simple, it's kind of purist in that sense, isn't it? There's not a lot of flourishes.
How much discussion is there between you and the Coens? Is your working relationship comfortable enough that you know intuitively what they want, or do they rely on you to translate their ideas into something concrete?
No, their ideas are very concrete. But I think it is quite a collaboration, really - a sort of organic process that starts with general discussions; usually that takes place when we're scouting for locations early on, and then it usually just evolves. Yeah, it mainly happens when we're scouting; you talk about a particular scene and they'll say why they think a particular location will work for it. And then you visit a location and you walk through it, and you say, how can we stage it and how will this work, and does this look like what we're after. Other people put in suggestions, and it kind of gradually evolves, but in terms of the actual style of the film, that really is in the script from the start - not the visual style, but the feel of it.
Where does the division of labor come between you and your directors?
Every director is different. The boys are very exceptional in the sense that they do storyboard everything, but the boards can be quite fluid; they really are, "this is what we need to make the thing work?" And then, it can vary depending on the day or the blocking or whatever, but quite often it's actually you are translating those boards, because they have a sort of editing rhythm and style and feel in their heads when they drew the boards up. With other directors, you do it on the day, or other directors will leave the way a film is shot entirely up to me, the way shots are constructed or the scene is broken down. I might do the whole thing. It just depends on the way the director likes to work and where they're coming from. That's what's so interesting - it's always very, very different.
With Joel and Ethan, it's very much discussing the film and the locations and the feel of it, or sometimes talking through the storyboards, or sometimes I'll work with them on the storyboards. And then, in certain sequences, actually maybe working on more than other, like Blackie's journey; that stuff was kind of quite complicated, because we didn't really until quite late come to the sort of feel of what that would be. The challenge of doing it just because we didn't have all of the time and money in the world in how we wanted to do it, but also how the idea of it being this girl's memory, and so it could be this much more simplistic sort of picture book, almost slightly unreal, slightly stagy interpretation of the story for that particular sequence. So it sort of evolves.
How easily have you found that necessity and design have come together? The Blackie's journey sequence does have that dreamlike quality; does it take a lot of planning to make sure that it comes out the way you wanted it to?
Yeah, and a lot of testing. There's a lot of different things - there's so many elements in just that sequence, for instance; the technical challenge was getting shots of a horse's head when it's galloping at full speed in the middle of the night. In the day as well, but in the middle of the night, it's pretty difficult, but especially when the horse is black, so just how we did that technically was a big challenge. But then the other thing was that we didn't have enough time and enough money to do Jeff and Hailey on the horse riding through the night, so all of their shots had to be done on stage. So we had to figure out how we were going to make that in a very cheap way. And then all of the shooting, we had to break down what shots we actually needed on location, and what we could do on a stage, and just breaking those shots down and what had to be green screen and which could be done against black with falling snow, for instance. So that was a bit of a puzzle, that whole sequence.
But then it was also finding the style of the film - the style of that part of the film - and one of the first images we shot because we weren't sure how it would work was the horse falling dead in the big wide shot. We shot it at first on this kind of flat plane with a big bluff in the background, a big, huge rock face, and the shot was quite good, really, but it was like a week after we shot it, Joel said, "you know, this whole sequence is something that's got to be more simple - I think that shot is too interesting. There's just too much going on in it." He just wanted a feeling of sort of emptiness and the horse and nothing else, and I think that decision kind of nailed what that scene was going to be.
There were people who felt like that style was very jarring in the context of the rest of the movie's naturalism. Is it difficult to be able to fit all of these ideas together, whether they're utilized because of creative or budgetary impulses, and make sure they seem cohesive?
Well, it was intentional. I wish maybe we'd had a few more days, a bit more time, et cetera, so we could have done it better probably, but then I could say that about the entire movie. So the general idea of it is kind of where we got to what we intended.
Are there still plenty of great vistas out there to shoot, or is it harder to find good locations that are camera ready?
Well, No Country wasn't so hard because it was much more about the towns, and humans' encroachment didn't matter, but it was very, very hard to find locations for True Grit. I mean, first I scouted with the boys up in Utah and we found some great locations very high up, and because they knew they had to shoot this film starting in March, Utah was just not a practical place to be just because of the amount of snow and when it melts and the spring and how much mud you would get - it was just not going to be a practical place to shoot. So we went back to New Mexico, not just because of the tax breaks and stuff, but because it was the most straightforward place to do it where we could be guaranteed to get some sort of snow, and the right look - if winter would last, we would get the bare trees. But in terms of getting large vistas, no, it's very hard to find. We drove, I think the farthest location was 140 miles from Santa Fe, which was our base, and it's very hard to find those vistas. But computer graphics helps out - paint out a few roads. There are a few places in the film where we basically took out a road in the background with cars going by. But you have to do it - there's no going around it, really.
3D has become a big phenomenon in the last couple of years, and I know you were a visual consultant on How to Train Your Dragon. Do you have any particular opinions about it being a new tool for filmmakers, or is it more trouble than it's worth?
On How to Train Your Dragon, it was integral to the whole process; I mean, every film that, I say we do because I more or less work there [at Dreamworks] at times is going to be 3D, so it's always kind of taken into account in the way shots are worked out and the camera movements are worked out. With 3D it's hard to cut as quickly in 3D as you do in 2D, so that's a restraint it gives you, but in terms of camera movement and how you use 3D to accentuate some piece of action, that's kind of good. But I wouldn't have liked to see True Grit in 3D; I think that would have been awful (laughs).
I think it has its places; I mean, I would probably love to do a 3D version of a film like, not 2001, but a film of that order, to put an audience in that kind of world, in space or something and to give them the feeling of that floating world and that sense of weightlessness, I think in 3D would be really great. I think it's got its uses, but it's depending on what the story is that you're telling, and to tell a regular character-driven piece in 3D just because, well, I don't know why you would do it, really. It doesn't fit to me. I like watching a movie as an animated painting, like if I go into an art gallery or wherever and stare at a painting, and in the same way, I like to view a movie like it's sort of a window into another world.
How much has technology affected what you do? I'm sure you're as careful as ever, but when you have a digital intermediate or other ways to adjust certain qualities of the images you capture, do you feel like that's a benefit or it creates shortcuts that may undermine the integrity of the image you might have previously created only in-camera?
I have this argument with myself every day (laughs). On one hand, I'm kind of a complete purist and I wish everything was still shot in black and white; on the other hand, the technology just opens up so many possibilities. Like, simple things like the hanging man in the cottonwood forest, to have a 13-year-old girl climb a 30-odd foot tree, I mean, she didn't climb that without harnesses and wires and the whole rest of it, so before the technology came about where you could paint those wires out and stuff, you couldn't have shot the scene like that. I mean, all of those shots which are in the tree, there's wire removal. Part of me says, that's cheating, but on the other hand, it's such a great scene because we were able to do that. Which is better - not having done the scene, or doing it and having cheated?
The DI, the DI doesn't change what I do on set, but I think it makes it easier to smooth things out afterwards; for instance, we were shooting the final gun battle in the meadow and the camp overlooking it, and that was I don't know, two or three weeks of shooting maybe, with a break in the middle because it rained. And it was winter, so the sun's kind of low, so in the morning it's low in the East and at night it's low in the west, and you've got to make some kind of continuity for that because it's supposed to happen within a couple of hours. So I wouldn't have done anything different if I were processing it photochemically, but I think the fact that I had digital possibilities just to tweak the contrast and put the odd thing in the background just to finesse the match, is that a bad thing? No, I think that's great.