Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins on the funny reason he began working with Coens, 'disaster' of 'Shawshank' release and more

The "rock star" cinematographer and 16-time Oscar nominee shares stories from his celebrated career.

Roger Deakins (Getty Images)
Roger Deakins has been called "the preeminent cinematographer of our time." (Photo: Getty Images)

Most casual moviegoers would be hard-pressed to name Hollywood’s most popular cinematographers.

Even hardcore film buffs probably can’t name that many. But ask any of them who the most renowned cinematographer is this day and age, and you’ll get one name over and over and over: Roger Deakins.

The 73-year-old England native has been called “the preeminent cinematographer of our time.” He also became the first cinematographer ever to be knighted.

The “rock star” cinematographer has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards, winning twice in more recent years for the stunning visuals of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049 and Sam Mendes’s “one-shot” World War I battle thriller 1917 (2019).

Deakins had stacked up a remarkable 13 nominations (beginning with IMDb’s long-running top-rated movie of all time, 1994’s Shawshank Redemption), with cinephiles clamoring for him to break through before he finally triumphed for Blade Runner.

“It was funny, one director I worked with said, ‘That's a shame now because they won't be talking about you so much. Because now that you’ve won, they’ll move on,’” Deakins muses in our new Cinematographer’s Reel interview. (Oh yeah, he’s also the first cinematographer to inspire a career retrospective, a la our Role Recall and Director’s Reel series, on Yahoo Entertainment).

Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight)
Olivia Colman in Empire of Light. (Photo: Searchlight Pictures)

Deakins is an Oscar nominee again this year for Empire of Light (now available on Blu-ray and DVD), Mendes’s personal drama about a woman with mental health issues (Olivia Colman) who manages a movie theater in a coastal English town in the early 1980s.

“What drew me to it was the story of this kind of lonely lady that suffers from schizophrenia,” Deakins says. “I used to work in documentaries and with a friend Jon Sanders I'd made a couple of films about mental health issues. I found that really interesting, and also to know that it was actually something that was very close to Sam cause it was based on his life.”

Deakins shared insights from several of his most seminal films below:

1984 (1984)

“It was quite a moment for me, really, in my life and my certainly my career. It was the first major film I shot with a lot of studio work, and with some very big name actors. John Hurt and Richard Burton, not the least of them. So that was a very significant film for me… I still regard it as one of the most powerful films I worked on.

“[Director Michael Radford] wanted to shoot the film in black and white, but he couldn't get financed to do it that way. So in order to get the closest we could to a black and white, we worked for many months to develop this bleach bypass process. It was a system that had existed. Kazuo Miyagawa, who was a Japanese cameraman who'd shot a number of films with [Akira] Kurasawa and [Kenji] Mizoguchi, he had a process. He never told anybody how he did it, but it was called “silver tint.” But it was obviously something to do with the silver retention in the processing.”

Barton Fink (1991)

“Obviously I'd seen [Coen Brothers'] previous films, but to that point, they'd only done a couple of films. I met them in Notting Hill, actually. They were over in England, I forget for what now. And we met in a cafe in Notting Hill and just sort of hit it off, really. It was only years later that I found out that they were looking for an English cameraman cause they wanted somebody non-union [laughs]. And they figured if that had somebody from Europe, [they could skirt American union guidelines] cause they were shooting this film in L.A., non-union, which is kind of funny. But I never found that out until years later.

“They're very prepared. They're quite intense. People ask me if it's a lot of fun on a Coen Brothers set. It is, but it's not all jokes. It's not that funny. They're just very focused and very concentrated on the work. And that's what I remember about it most. Very nice, very pleasant, very focused and very prepared. I was probably the most nervous person on the set, but they didn't seem nervous at all.”

Shawshank Redemption (1994)

“That was kind of a difficult shoot, really. It wasn't a huge budget and it was tricky to get what we wanted. It was a combination of this one great location, an existing prison that had just been closed down a couple of years ago, and the cell block, which was a set built in a warehouse. And to combine those kind of things together, it's always difficult.

“But nobody ever expected the film to stay in people's conscience for so long. I mean, especially after it's released in the cinemas when it didn't do anything at all… It's so weird [it became so popular] because nobody went to go and see it in the cinema. I mean, like, nobody. That was a disaster [laughs].”

Fargo (1996)

“What was interesting about that film was that Joel and Ethan [Coen] and I had just worked on Hudsucker Proxy together, which I thought was a wonderful film, but it was not very successful at the box office. So Joel and Ethan had this small project up in Minnesota that they wanted to do, and they weren't sure if I would want to do it cause it was so low budget. I always remember that. I said, ‘Well, you must be mad. Why wouldn't I want to do it?’ They wanted to shoot it, not like a documentary, but as though it was a true story. So it was a docudrama in a way. And so we shot it very minimally, really. You know, real locations for the most part, natural light. And it was a joy. Really cold, but a joy [laughs].

The Village (2004)

“M. Night Shyamalan and I hadn't worked together. And I remember spending some weeks with him in Pennsylvania, just sort of story boarding the whole film, just talking it through and story boarding it. I loved the concept of that film because it's set in a period, but in the original script, you didn't know when it was set. It was this community living in a kind of very remote place, but you had no idea what the timeframe was. And I thought that was very interesting. [It becomes] more apparent in the film what time the timeframe is, but I still find it a very interesting film.”

No Country for Old Men (2007)

“I remember Joel and Ethan saying, just a passing comment one day, I forget what we were working on, that they were gonna be writing a script of the novel No Country for Old Men. And the first thing I said was, ‘Well, are you gonna direct it?’ And they said, ‘We don't know, really.’ And I said, ‘Dammit, I'll never talk to you again if you don't direct it and ask me to shoot it.’ Because I knew the novel and I thought it was a wonderful piece of work.

“And it was great. I've been very lucky… The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit and No Country for Old Men are three of my favorite films, partly cause they're Westerns and I love Westerns, but they're each very different in their way as Westerns. And I've been so, so lucky to work on three films like that. If there'd only been those three films in my whole career, I'd be quite happy [laughs].”

Skyfall (2012)

“I was not [a big James Bond fan], I wouldn't rush out to see Bond movies. But what was very much that conversation with Sam Mendes when he approached me about the film was he said, ‘It's a character study of an aging spy.’ Yes, it's set in this world of James Bond and the previous movies, but we treated it very much like its own film. I mean, we shot it in the same way. Part of my hesitation is, I don't really like working on films where there's a huge number of cameras and equipment. I like to operate and I basically like to shoot one camera as much as possible, in films that are about characters. Basically that's what we did on on Skyfall… Obviously it's a really complicated film and there were lots of locations and moves and everything else and big sets. But when it came down to it, it was a character study.”

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

“We didn’t use [the original as visual reference point], and that was the point. It was really the same conversation [Denis Villeneuve] and I had that Sam and I had had before Skyfall. Denis said, ‘Yeah, it's Blade Runner and obviously it has references to the original film, but visually [we wanted to do something different]. I mean, Denis is not Ridley Scott, and I'm not [Blade Runner cinematographer] Jordan Cronenweth. He said, ‘We are basically making a standalone film, and it has references to the other movie because of the characters and stuff.’ But the world he wanted to create was kind of quite different, really. I mean, I loved the original Blade Runner. And I thought it was a brilliant piece of cinematography. But we're all different. I, I didn't relate to Denny's script in any way, um, that referenced the original film at all, frankly."

1917 (2019)

“It said it on the front page of the script that: ‘This is imagined in real time as a single shot.’ And Sam [Mendes] had never mentioned that to me when he said he was gonna send me a script. My wife [script supervisor James Ellis Deakins] and I looked at each other and said, ‘Really?’ And then we read it and realized, ‘Oh, OK, that kind of makes sense.’ But [it wasn’t the technical part that excited me]. I honestly didn't think about that. And when Sam and I started talking about it, he said, ‘What we gotta think about is where we wanna put the audience. What do we do with the camera? Don't think about it technically, cause that way’s death. Just where do we wanna put the camera? How are we gonna stage the action? What kind of surrounding do we need? So we basically talked and talked it through and gradually created this one long story storyboarded shot. And then Sam said, ‘OK, now you've gotta figure out how you're gonna move the camera.’ And then it becomes a technical challenge, and that's something else. I love cinematography cause it is creative. I put a lot of myself into it creatively.”

Empire of Light is now on DVD and Blu-ray. Buy it on Amazon.

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