When Roger Deakins won his first Oscar in 2018 for shooting Blade Runner 2049, film fans rejoiced. More than just rewarding his work on the Denis Villeneuve-helmed sequel, the Academy Award was recognition of a man who is a legend in his field, whose craft and accomplishments have shaped an understanding of what cinematography can achieve in a film. His contributions can never truly be measured, but it’s undeniable that Deakins’s work is invaluable. To talk about the last three decades of cinematography is to talk about Roger Deakins first and foremost.
This year, Deakins’ incredible work can be seen in John Crowley’s The Goldfinch and 1917, his fourth collaboration with Sam Mendes. Ahead of The Goldfinch‘s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was honored to sit down with Deakins to discuss the new film, his Oscar-winning work on Blade Runner 2049, his feelings about working with practical effects, and more. Read on for the full conversation.
Regarding The Goldfinch, when you’re on a project such as this that has such a big scope, when you’re reading the script or when you’re first approaching it, do you have a specific thought process or a plan right away?
No, I don’t. I read the script to see if it grabs me, to see if I get emotionally involved, to see if it’s something I want to spend five months of my life doing. I’ve gotta be connected to it emotionally before I start thinking about anything else. And obviously I have ideas and I imagine looks and feelings in my head, but especially when I haven’t worked with somebody before, like with John [Crowley], I don’t want to get ahead of myself. You’ve gotta take your cue from the director.
When you were reading it, was there a specific moment that jumped out or do you take the whole thing in and then start planning?
I take the whole thing in before the details. It’s like if I go to a movie, I watch it for the story unless it’s really boring and then I tend to watch the grain or the lighting. But usually, if I like a film I’ll go back and watch it a second time and then study how it’s done.
Do you find yourself watching films and think, “I wish I could have done this a different way”?
I usually watch the films I like and think, “I wish I could have done it,” but I don’t know how I would have done it differently. The films I really love, I think, are a collaboration between a director and a cinematographer and everybody else on a crew, and it comes together to create something special.
You’ve spoken a lot about your collaborative efforts and the team you have working with you. How do you think that informs the process after years of working with the same people?
It makes it much quicker. It makes for a calmer, quieter set. I’ve worked with my camera assistant Andy Harris now for 30 years. And I work with basically the same grip crew. Generally, the more you work with people, the more it becomes shorthand and you get to know each other’s sensibilities. So Andy will know where I feel the focus should go and when it should drop, things like that.
Do you develop that shorthand with directors as well?
Yeah, I think you develop a relationship of trust. I’m not sure that it’s a shorthand, but I think every project has its own ambition and you’re raising the bar. I’m not sure if the shorthand makes it easier because you still have to confront the demon that is making this big film.
When you come to a film like Skyfall or Blade Runner 2049, how much do you look to other films in the series to pull inspiration from?
In the case of Bond, the series put me off doing it more than anything. I didn’t want to be doing something that was part of a franchise. But when talking with Sam [Mendes], it was obvious he was making a film for itself; it stood as its own film. We looked at action sequences, but not from any other Bond movies. We looked at action sequences to see what we liked and what we didn’t like, but I don’t think we tried to mimic anything. The same with Denis [Villeneuve]. It’s a follow up from the original, but it’s a different film. I can’t light like [Blade Runner DP] Jordan Cronenweth. I could never do that in a million years. I light like I do. So, it was like, “We’re making our movie.” We’re not paying homage to something that’s been done before.
So you like to come in and find your own style?
Yeah, I once went to an interview with a director and the first thing out of his mouth was, “I really want this film to look like Shawshank Redemption.” I thought, “Well, that’s putting the cart before the horse. Why do you want anything to look like that?” Because it’s not Shawshank Redemption. The script was totally different, so it’s ridiculous. I’m not interested. But then I was asked by Tim Robbins to do Dead Man Walking and we had just done Shawshank together and he said, “You might not want to do this film. It’s not like Shawshank.” And I said, “Great! If I had come in and you had said you wanted it to look like Shawshank, I’d have walked out the door.”
You’ve spoken about the merits you’ve found working with digital cameras. Did you find that there was an adjustment period in working with digital over film?
I didn’t really. I did this film, In Time, with Andrew Niccol and we chose digital because it was science fiction and we wanted it to feel grain-free and slightly synthetic. I actually found that it didn’t look synthetic. It looked grain-free but very filmic to me. Initially, we had thought of only filming a few sequences on digital but then we decided to shoot the whole film on digital. After the Alexa camera came out, that was the tipping point where there’s just so many advantages to using digital. I like a clean, crisp image because that’s the way I see the world. I don’t like taking lenses off and playing with images and distorting it or adding lens flares. I think that’s why I tend toward digital capture. I mean, I love film, I love the smell and the texture of working with film, but now I think that’s mainly nostalgia.
Just thinking about image distortion, there is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
[Laughing] I knew you were gonna say that!
I mean, it’s legendary! That train robbery sequence is incredible! It’s such a breathtaking film. When you were filming that, how did you approach it with Andrew Dominik?
We storyboarded that and talked about it a lot. But that sequence was an interesting case where he said, “It can be really dark! You can really go dark on this!” And I thought, “We’re in a forest, there’s a railway line, and there’s Brad Pitt; how much do you want to see? You never know what they really mean by “Go dark!” and there’s no monitor to see it because it’s film. So I put up a couple of lights towards the edge of the trees and it wasn’t until we were shooting that I got the effects guys to put some smoke in and I thought the smoke was really laying softly and I thought, “This is gonna work.” I asked the gaffer to turn the lights out and he said “I don’t know if the producers will like this if you don’t use the lights we put up.” So, I said, “Okay, just aim them away and we’ll call it ambiance.”
So, we shot it like that and Andrew was really happy that it was dark, but the atmosphere allowed you to see the trees and the silhouettes and the whole thing came to life as the train approached. But you wouldn’t have had that without the atmosphere and I just had a hunch that it would work out like that.
Just speaking of working with effects there, how do you feel about practical effects over CG?
Oh, it’s a no brainer. It doesn’t matter how good the CG is, if you’re trying to put it in a foregrounded area, it’s never gonna look the same.
Is that frustrating? Are you ever asked to do that?
I’m never gonna do that. We had this whole discussion on Blade Runner but Denis was adamant that we were going to build sets. There are some effects in the background, certain things, but even the sequence on the bridge, she’s there! We shot that and played it back on a big LED screen, that was all there. Of course, it wasn’t three dimensional so we had to add that, but the basic reference for the color palette and the way the light was reacting, that was all there. I think that’s the crucial thing.
I’m not against CG. There’s so much you can do, like if you need a thousand extras in the background. But to have the immediate, foregrounded environment is really important. Frankly, I don’t want to work on a film where you have the actors up against a green screen. I don’t find that interesting.
Is there a concern that that’s a direction film is heading into?
I think there’s enough of the kind of films out there that I love doing and that keeps me busy. But I have turned down a lot that’s been totally CG-based.
After all the years you’ve been working and your incredible accomplishments, is approaching a new film still a challenge?
Oh, hell yeah. Absolutely. But then I think, you make it a challenge, don’t you? You push yourself. The only person who can judge your work is yourself because you know how you could have done in the circumstances. You push yourself with little things that maybe audiences don’t see, shadows and things like that. You try to achieve perfection. You’re never gonna get there, but if you stop wanting to do that, then why do it at all?
Thankfully Roger Deakins hasn’t stopped trying to achieve perfection. The Goldfinch is in theaters now and 1917 will be released December 25, 2019.