17 Feb 2008: Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins explains
According to the Los Angeles Times, Roger Deakins is ‘a native of a small fishing town in England called Torquay’. The 58-year-old is also one of the world’s most respected cinematographers. He made a name for himself with 1984 and has spent almost two decades working in America, during which time he has shot several films for the Coen brothers, including No Country For Old Men, for which he won a Bafta last week. Oscar-nominated five times, this may be the year Deakins takes a gold statuette back to Devon – he has been nominated twice for No Country and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He also shot the acclaimed thriller In the Valley of Elah last year.
How was it working with Richard Burton on 1984, his final film?
Everyone was nervous, but he was such a charming guy. At the end of the first day, we were summoned to meet him outside his trailer. We all thought we were in for it. He came out and said he just wanted to thank us for one of the nicest days he’d ever had on set; as soon as he’d seen how fresh-faced we all were, he’d been nervous, too. I was amazed.
Over the years, you must have become quite blasé about movie stars?
I’m certainly not in awe any more.
Yet… I was impressed by Brad Pitt on Jesse James. He turned up in character and make-up for a pre-shoot in a cornfield and he was Jesse James. He was fantastic.
Are you good at adapting to directors?
You have to be. It’s quite wonderful working with the Coen brothers because we’re good friends now and so the starting point is further on. They storyboard everything in advance and a specific number of shots have to be done each day. Paul Haggis is very into how a film looks – he wanted In the Valley of Elah to look very real, down and dirty – and we’d work out the shots with the actors right there on the day.
Joel Coen once said you are ‘one of the world’s best DOPs in terms of how he lights’. How did you learn your craft?
I wanted to be a painter when I was younger, so I went to Bath School of Art and Design and then got into the National Film School on the second attempt. I spent the 1970s and early 1980s shooting documentaries and rock videos. When I started making films, I realised I wanted to explore people, particularly the human face. I try to make images simple. I don’t like gloss. I always operate my own camera and my strength, I suppose, is composition and the way I move the camera. Lighting is just something I have to do.
Do you think you’ll get lucky at the Oscars next Sunday?
No, I know who’s going to win best cinematography, but I’m not telling you! I’m not sure how much awards really matter; does anyone remember who wins? Although it would be daft to say that I wouldn’t be pleased … I’m happy where I am: a kid from Torquay working on amazing films. I’m quite simple. I either want to be shooting films or be in Devon getting away from it all.
· The Oscars are next Sunday. The other cinematography nominees are The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Atonement and There Will Be Blood.