"You know, I really love my job," Roger Deakins said upon winning his first Oscar. "One of the reasons I really love it is the people that I work with, both in front of the camera and behind the camera."
The legendary cinematographer is known for his collaborations with the directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Sam Mendes, and Denis Villeneuve. After 13 nominations for Best Cinematography — for such films as The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Fargo (1996), No Country for Old Men (2007), and Skyfall (2012) — Deakins took home the Oscar in 2018 for his work on Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, and then, he won again in 2020 for Mendes' 1917. "It's such wonderful work — it's a celebration of movies — so, win or lose, it's not really any different," he shares now.
Deakins is earning newfound recognition with the publication of Byways, a book compiling his black-and-white still photography. The earliest photos are from his youth in and around the seaside town of Devon in the 1960s, where he first developed his love of photography, with recent shots taken between his time on various movie sets. To now share them with the world, Deakins says is "very much more personal" than his work as a cinematographer. ("I mean, there's only one person to blame!") He's also felt the response that much more acutely, as evidenced by a recent run-in following an exhibition in Poland.
"I was wandering through Katowice with my camera the other day. It was raining, and I had a hood up and everything. I felt I was not recognizable. This woman, she must have been in her 60s, can't imagine somebody that would recognize me, but she came up and said, 'Roger, I just came from your exhibition,'" Deakins shares. "She described her favorite pictures, and that meant more to me than anything, really, because it was personal. And I don't know who she was, just somebody on the street, but you live for moments like that."
His latest film is, in some ways, a lifetime in the making. Empire of Light, from director and first-time solo writer Sam Mendes, is set at a shoreline cinema in the south of England, a setting that Deakins could personally relate to. Olivia Colman stars as Hilary, a middle-aged theater manager at the Empire, who finds herself brought back to life by the arrival of a new employee (Micheal Ward). In conversation with A.frame, Deakins discusses Empire of Light, his passion for photography, and why he's still learning as a cinematographer after 50 years in the game.
A.frame: How long after 1917 did Sam bring you Empire of Light?
My God, all time's gone strange after COVID, but it was a while. And I wasn't expecting that script. He had talked about another project that he was working on when we finished production on 1917, so I wasn't expecting Empire of Light at all. The other script was very, very different. My timeframes are messed up, but Empire of Light was the next thing I did after 1917, with sort of nothing but lockdown between the two. I remember we came back from England, from the BAFTAs, that year for 1917, we arrived at LA airport and there were all these people coming from the Far East and they had masks on. There were people walking around in hazmat suits. We didn't really know what was going on, and then, that was it.
1917 was such a technical marvel of cinematography. I can't imagine anything more challenging than that film. What appealed to you about Empire of Light and the opportunities you'd have as DP on it?
What appealed to me was his story. It's always about the story and the characters; it's not about the technical challenge. I mean, each film has its own technical challenges. Yeah, you could say 1917 was a technical challenge, but the way of figuring out what the shot was — how to create that one-shot feel, and where you wanted the camera relative to what was happening at each moment — very much came from my time in the documentary world. I wouldn't say it was easier, but in the actual shooting of it, it ended up being quite a bit more straightforward than shooting Empire of Light. Because once we'd rehearsed the shot and built the set, everything was worked out on 1917 before we actually shot anything. So, the actual shooting was quite simple, really.
It was tense, because there were long takes. And you obviously get stressed when you get to a seven-minute take. You're hoping it doesn't go wrong, because you know you can't cut around it like on a normal film. Empire of Light has the more conventional challenges, but you are dealing with locations, you're dealing with light, you're dealing with what actors you have, and how the schedule can be manipulated depending on the weather or whatever. And then, you're dealing with a real town, a real location, so somebody's got to control the whole street and all the pedestrians. There's a lot of challenges that we didn't have on 1917. I wouldn't say one was harder than the other, but they were different.
When you came onto Empire of Light, did Sam have clear ideas of how he wants the film to look? Or is the visual style something you discover and evolve together?
He had an idea and I had an idea, and we just talked things through and whittled it down to what you see. We did have wild conversations about the style. At one point — we always do this — it was like, 'Well, what if we shot this handheld? What if it was completely handheld and documentary in style?' You have a conversation that includes those extremes, because you want to be open to any possible option to figure out which is the one you feel is best. In the end, you whittle it down. It's funny, it goes from, 'Well, you could do it all handheld' to 'But why should we move the camera?' It's so much about the characters, and especially Hilary's character, that the camera style is more... I was going to say 'mannered,' but that's not the right word. It's less intrusive. You want to be completely anonymous.
This is your fifth collaboration with Sam. What do you think it is about your relationship as director and director of photography that works so well?
I don't know really. You have relationships with some people that work and some people don't. He's very collaborative. I love that he involves me in the whole process. We talk script a lot, which I like. It's not like, "This is what we are going to shoot." He involves me in the whole visualizing the script, even before pre-production actually starts. I like that. I like that collaborative approach he has, and I like the fact that each story that I've worked with him on has been a very different challenge. The first one I shot for him, Jarhead, was a great experience. And I think it's a really good film, frankly. It got a bit lost, but I really like that film. He surprised me because I knew Conrad Hall, who had shot his previous films, and Conrad always said how Sam likes to be prepared and storyboard and it'd be quite precise. And then on Jarhead, the first thing he said to me was, "I want to shoot the whole film handheld like a documentary." I'm going, "Oh wow." It's totally unexpected. But actually when I thought about it, that's great because that's what I've been doing for seven or eight years anyway! I love those different challenges.
How is the collaboration with Sam different from the Coens, and different from Denis?
Surprisingly, not so much, really. They're different characters. There are slightly different needs and everything, but their methods are fairly similar. It depends on the project. I would spend a lot of time with Denis, especially on Blade Runner, we spent months and months talking about it and sketching ideas and stuff. But that's no different than working with Sam on 1917. But the Coen brothers are much more... What's the word? The way they prepare, it is much more precise. It's much more thought out previous to shooting. You can still change it on the day, but there's a very distinct approach. Even if the storyboards aren't exact, everything is storyboarded. We did that for 1917, but with Sam, we've never storyboarded to that degree. But the Coen Brothers absolutely storyboard everything.
Something I found remarkable is that in Byways, you speak about your love of the south of England and sleeping on the beach to take photos in the early morning light. There's a photo in the book of a woman at a bus stop that could almost be a still from Empire of Light. Did you bring any of your photography work into Empire of Light as references for Sam?
No, no, no, no. No, no, no. Definitely not. Though, the book was on sale in the bookshop in Margate when we were shooting, which was kind of funny. But no. That's completely separate. I think that Byways and what I do with my still camera is completely separate. Obviously, there's a connection, because the way I frame things is definitely connected. But that's it. Byways is something totally different from what I do in movies.
Byways begins with you writing, "I am not a still photographer and I won't pretend to be." Why was that important for you to announce up top?
Because I'm not a still photographer. It's basically just my sketches over the years, if you like. It's my sketchbook. It's not meant to be anything more than that, really. It was very much a sort of personal project. I've taken photographs over the years, and I just thought it would just be nice to put them together. And I don't really like the internet so much. I like having something hard copy, so that's where it came from.
Photography is just you and your camera. You don't have a director and crew, so how do you know when a photo is successful? For you, when do you know if it's a keeper?
I usually know when I'm taking it. I don't take many photographs. I usually see something and just know it, and I either manage to get the right moment or not. It's a personal thing, isn't it? It's a knee-jerk reaction to something I see. I spend a lot of my time when I'm not working on films just walking around, just exploring, and I carry my camera with me and sometimes I see something that catches my eye. That's it. It's as simple as that really.
You began as a photographer and then worked in documentary, and then from documentary into narrative filmmaking. Do you feel like one has informed the other, that elements of your approach to photography and documentary have melded into your approach to your cinematography work?
Oh yeah, very much. I don't think I was ever really a photographer, I got to say. I was at art college when I discovered photography. And a friend of mine was talking about the National Film School, which was just opening up in London. I thought documentary filmmaking would be a good thing to explore, so I applied. But I didn't get in. And as luck would have it, this art center in North Devon asked me to spend a year photographing rural life. They were trying to start a kind of historical record of country life. So, I did that for a year and then reapplied to National Film School. Documentary was an extension of that work, I suppose. And the kind of documentaries I did were not structured. You were put in a situation, and you created the film as you go along. So, you build an instinct for where to put yourself and what's important to film and what's not.
I mean, I went with a journalist and sound recordist to film with the guerillas fighting for independence in Eritrea. And these were the days before digital. So, you go in with 70 rolls of film, and I didn't have an assistant so you're carrying everything that you're going to need. You're hitching rides on the back of a lorry to get into Eritrea from Sudan. It was that kind of documentary. You're finding the film when you are there. And I think that sort of approach is very informative and you learn to think quite quickly and to figure out what is the shot. That's kind of similar to the approach on a film set, when the directors block-in with the actors in the morning at the beginning of the day. You have a rehearsal and you just figure what's the best way to reflect this scene in front of you.
As a cinematographer, do you still feel like you're learning on every job?
Oh, hell yeah. I always feel challenged. I've always been pretty picky, I suppose, about the projects I do. And I've been lucky, obviously, working with people like Sam and Joel and Ethan and Denis. But yeah, I'm kind of choosy about what I do and I like to be challenged, so I'm always learning.
What did you learn or what was a challenge you had to overcome making Empire of Light?
Just on a pure technical level, it was the first time I used almost exclusively LED lights. It's the first time I'd used a Fresnel lamp that was an LED and not a regular tungsten source. And it was the first time I've lit a set completely with LED bulbs and strip unit, which we had to do because the interior of that lobby was built on location. You're seeing the exterior and the interior [at the same time], and you're trying to balance them in daylight. If you'd to lit the lobby conventionally with tungsten sources, it would've been incredibly hot. But if you tried to change the intensity with a dimmer, you would've changed the color. But now doing it with LEDs, it's a very simple thing. You can dim an LED up and down and it won't change color. You can balance it to the daylight outside, the intensity, without the color shift. So, a simple little thing like that, I learned that. It was the first time I'd done it really extensively.
Even this far into your career, you're still picking up a new trick to add to your cinematographer bag.
Well, the technology is changing so fast. I don't like to get stuck in the technology, but you have to know it. For instance, our schedule on Empire was going to change. Because of the weather and whatever — the actors, COVID — it's going to change. You knew that. So, we needed a Steadicam the whole time. But to have a Steadicam and an operator would've been very expensive for the whole shoot, so we took this Maxima head, which is a kind of gimbal-stabilized head that you walk with, but it stabilizes the camera. It was a system we'd looked into when we were prepping 1917. But for Empire of Light, it was perfect, because we could have it with us all the time. It wasn't hugely expensive. So, that's what you learn, those sort of things.
You have to understand the technology to be able to do that and to have the flexibility then of Sam or I saying, "We want to do a tracking shot here with Hilary walking down the seafront, but we got to do it today and not next week when we had a Steadicam booked." We had the equipment with us all the time, so you have all of those things to play with.
Technology aside, when you look back at your early work, how do you think you've changed as a cinematographer?
I've kind of been so inside it, I don't know if I could really say, really. We were doing new transfers of 1984 and a couple of other things not that long ago, and I look at them and think, "Yeah, I would've lit that differently now, but would've it been right?" I think my lighting is more subtle now than it used to be, and I understand technology more than I did back then. But in terms of composition or choice of shots, I don't think I've changed that much, really.
By John Boone