Roger Deakins: “If you aren’t nervous, you aren’t doing it right”

We speak to Roger Deakins, cinematographer extraordinaire, on his new photography book, Byways.

Dog jumping on a beach

We speak to Roger Deakins, cinematographer extraordinaire, on his photography book, Byways.

The cinematographer is the master of light. This is perhaps surprising – it’s easy to imagine their primary role as deciding on the lens, the position of the camera, the speed of shutter and even the blocking of the characters, but no: the cinematographer is the master of light. And in both his photography and his videography, the control of light that Roger Deakins possesses is peerless.

Using the word legend to describe Deakins is not done flippantly. In his nearly 45 year career the cinematographer has worked on a number of superb films, winning two Oscars. He has been the Director of Photography for most of the films by the Coen Brothers: Fargo, True Grit, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men.

He was the Director of Photography for the number one IMDb film: The Shawshank Redemption. He has worked frequently with trusted collaborators. Denis Villeneuve on Sicario, Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049, and Sam Mendes on Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall, and 1917. These names are vastly impressive, but perhaps a little redundant in both attempting to explain the man behind the ‘career’, and also perhaps a little misleading on the nature of this interview, which is demonstrably about his photography.

Though I’m coaxed towards asking more about his photography than his film work, the two are so inextricable that the conversation ends up landing in a terrain not far away from either.

Alburquerque, New Mexico, 2014

Roger Deakins was born in Torquay in South Devon, very near to where he still keeps a flat and boat. He attended art college, originally studying photography, where he was taught by the legendary street photographer Roger Mayne who he idolises. After filming a nine-month circumglobal trip on a yacht as an entrant of the Whitbread Round the World Race, he was hired to film two documentaries in Africa. His first, Zimbabwe, was a clandestine documentation of the Rhodesian Bush War, while his second, Eritrea – Behind Enemy Lines, depicted the Eritrean War of Independence. After several years of music documentaries, television series and the odd feature film, he found wider appreciation with 1984’s 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton as the titular characters in George Orwell’s novel.

He is striking to speak to, still consumed by photography and film, kind, and reflective about the craft of his profession – but the conflict at the heart of his work is never too far from the surface. For Deakins’ work has often entailed studies of the darkest, the worst and the most depraved characters in cinema. Some are morally dubious such as Benicio del Toro’s revenge-thirsty Alejandro in Sicario, or Brad Pitt’s Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But many are downright unforgivable, perhaps best embodied by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

The crux of this particular cinematographer’s career is how to reconcile phenomenal beauty – be it a sunrise, mountain range, the point of view of a bowling ball – with ugly, murderous, twisted characters. 

“It’s a balance isn’t it? I would hate to think that I just create pretty images without being true to the story in the situation… It’s a difficult one. I remember having conversations with dear Conrad Hall [one of the most influential DoPs in history] about just that, where he would say he wanted to show what was ugly in the world and he wanted to show despair. And it was a conundrum about how to do that in cinema.”

Skyfall, 2012, dir. Sam Mendes

The images in his films are so ubiquitous in wider culture that seeing his photography is like a secret revealed, a glance into a keyhole of an artist’s personality. For the photography in Byways is intensely personal. There is no orchestra of crew following his instruction, and crucially, not one of the photos in the book is composed or controlled.

There is also a definite surrealism to the photos. This is a theme that rarely leaves his photography, even though the book spans from the late 1960s to last year. “I think my sense of irony or the absurd is still the same as it ever was really…getting the photographs together for the book and seeing photographs I took in 1970, the sensibility seems very similar to what I do now.”

There is another anomaly in the spirit of these photographs. Though he – repeatedly – stresses that the photos are “just little things that catch my eye … little sketches, ideas” and “that’s all there is too it really”, the images say otherwise. The photography is masterful, and the films he has worked on are often decrypted and discussed by fans to the nth degree.

He has previously stated he dislikes analysing his work. Perhaps this is because intellectualising the material reduces the visceral thought or reaction that led to its creation, thereby removing the spirituality of the stills: the instinctiveness of experience.

This gull is confused by a new addition to the sea front, Paignton, 2015

“I don’t think I’ve worked with a director that’s actually spoken outwardly about the sort of psychological basis for the way they want to shoot or the way we’re going to shoot it. I’ve never, or rarely, had that kind of conversation. Usually, it’s much more – I think – it’s much more of an emotional reaction to something.” 

It’s odd that questions of a philosophical nature have not taken chairs at discussions during pre-production of Deakins’ films. It makes you wonder whether it comes down to the directors who he chooses to work with: are they feelers rather than thinkers? 

“I mean, was it John Huston who said about filming, ‘you shoot with your gut, not with your head.’ It’s an emotional reaction. Feel something and hopefully that feeling is translated through what you do. That’s how I feel anyway.”

This lack of, or rather denial of, analysis is something that pierces through our conversation. He recalls attending a lecture given by Andrei Tarkovsky in Piccadilly where it “was amazing what he was saying, but I couldn’t understand it…I mean, I could get small moments…I could sense his passion for what he did and he approached it in a very analytical way, but I find his work is emotional. I find like Mirror or Solaris, you have an emotional reaction to it.”

Blade Runner 2049, 2017, dir. Denis Villeneuve

Many filmmakers speak of Tarkovsky having that effect on them: an ineffably mysterious emotional reaction. “When you take a photograph or you work on a film, you’re creating an image that means something to you and hopefully will mean something to the viewer. But it’s not something that you can write about on a page … there’s something as intangible about a good still photograph as there is a good movie. That’s what makes the medium so wonderful. You know, it’s not something you kind of put down on the page.”

There is one photograph in Byways of a dog leaping from a sea wall to the sand beneath him. It is one of such complete singularity – unique, with the intangible quality Deakins describes.

I liked the dog’s second jump as it looked at the camera, Teignmouth, 2000

The dog looks directly at the photographer in a surprising contortion. The dog and the waves breaking behind him are the only discernible things not built or controlled by humans. It’s composition is reminiscent of a photo by Edward S. Curtis, A Paiute Fishing with a Gaff-hook, from around 1924, and this Deakins photograph feels similar to Curtis’ scope. It is an art of positioning – deliberate or not – of the human and animal natures in landscapes that envelop them completely but out of their immediate control. 

Recall, for example, the photography of 2010’s True Grit. At the most positive level of natural interaction we have a shot of a horse and rider going from left to right of shot, the land almost a cross section of the screen – the land carries the animals. At the worst, we have a man hanging from a tree in a clearing of the branches. The wood is used to support his weight, yes, but that weight is a dead one.

And then you have the geographical variations. Whether curving in the Furious Forties of the Southern Ocean, swerving icebergs and swells and squalls. Or roaring down the road to El Dorado beneath the Wagnerian skies of New Mexico. Or just pointing his head and camera down to a plate of fags on a Torquay deck chair. These are images bound together by the hurtling simplicity of the composition.

The photos in the entirely black and white book only need a source of light to come alive. The only crucial ingredient is the sun, the light of which is “something I’m very aware of, and something I connect with”. That’s not to say the photography is sun-drenched – often it’s the opposite – but it’s the use of light and dark that transforms trees overhanging water, or a diving board to nowhere in particular, or light refracting through clouds, into dramatic, clashing creations. Deakins mastering the light.

Some of the films Deakins has worked on are swollen with budgets, mammoth crews and old-fashioned lighting rigs to put modern LEDs to shame. But he exercises almost total control over his craft, the extent of his oversight, for example, meaning a single-camera setup for the Blade Runner 2049 set. He had rejected a studio line producer’s request for a nine unit-camera setup, firmly believing said technique would yield sloppy camerawork. Or, for example, on Jarhead.

He brought side by side comparisons to a studio head to push for a “2k to 4k transfer, ​​because a 2k image doesn’t actually capture the grain, or the grain isn’t sharp. And I wanted [Jarhead] to have really, really tight, sharp grain structure and I was exposing and pushing the film deliberately to get a grain.”

Before the children take over, Weston-super-Mare, 2019

“There’s a hell of a lot of prep in a movie … mostly with how you translate a script into visual. But I mean the outcome, or the essence of what it is, I think, is your emotional response to it, to the idea, to the script, to the story, to the character.” He feels he has not done his job properly if people note a particular shot they liked in his films, for the shot must be part of the ensemble – aid, not detract from the story of the film.

Deakins has a slight suspicion of new technology, for the sake of using new technology. It would be wrong to imply he is old-fashioned, as one of the first to work on a digital finish of a film and one of the first to start shooting with a digital camera. A novelty seen increasingly on sets that one cannot see Deakins employing is an LED wall system, like the one used in recent series such as The Mandalorian.

These allow filmmakers almost total control over lighting conditions, but “there’s something kind of wonderful about old fashioned lights, the quality of light they give is different to an LED. Emotionally it feels like that to me. LEDs do not have such a deep rendition of all the colours that are possible that you actually see, you know what I mean? They have spikes of red, green, blue, but they’re not the same. And sometimes I feel that you have all this technology and it just overcomplicates what you’re doing. I’m all for great simplicity.”

Sicario, 2015, dir. Denis Villeneuve

Deakins has written a couple of scripts, and there is one particular story that he would love to make a film of. Hearing that the chance of his science fiction script “ever getting financed are negligible” by such a maven of the genre is perhaps one to deter the less thick skinned of filmmakers. Others of his projects were never realised, including a film with Joel and Ethan Coen named To The White Sea, based on a novel by James Dickey, that they had extensively scouted for in Japan.

“That was probably the biggest disappointment in my work life – not getting that film done. I would still love to see that film made and work on it.”

Deakins recalls an anecdote of working with Richard Burton on 1984. He was a young cinematographer with a unique mix of stress and admiration that came with being one of the principal crew members for the great actor, in what would become his final role. It makes you wonder if that same potent mixture of emotions affects younger camera crew members that now work with Deakins.

The lady wondered why I took this photograph, Weston-super-Mare, 2004

But as the first day of filming ended, Burton said that he had “never been so nervous on a film set, having seen all such young faces. But what I took from that was, if, whoever you are you care about what you’re doing – you’re going to be nervous. That’s what I took from that. He was nervous, I was nervous, everybody was nervous. And you get over it by being part of a team working on something to the same end. That’s what’s wonderful about filmmaking.”

This camaraderie is what Deakins has repeatedly said took him to film and not still photography. 

“I did dream about being [Don] McCullin or Roger Mayne, but I’m not that person to work totally in isolation… You want the set to be a welcoming place for everybody that’s on it, you know? Everyone is equal…” And perhaps in anticipation of the response – namely that his role is among the top three on set – “…everybody’s got their own role. It’s almost like a perfect socialist situation where everybody’s using that talent to work and work for the common good.

“If you care about what you do, you’re going to be nervous about it. I’m nervous going back to work now.”

His next film, a continued collaboration with Sam Mendes, shoots in England. The assumption is that Deakins loves the travel, the faraway climes, the remote environments. Does he ever feel like a stranger back in England?

“No. It’s in my mind always, which is why I love it so much. Even though we’re not here as much as I’d like to be, it’s just there. There. It’s kind of reassuring. A little flat down in Devon, for when the world is going to pop.”

He laughs.

Find Byways here.

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