The American Society of Cinematographers

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Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
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True Grit
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

Radford was among his early collaborators. One of their documentaries followed Van Morrison on tour through Ireland (Van Morrison in Ireland). “Roger’s camerawork was amazing,” the director says. “For the first concert in Belfast, we’d hired six cameramen, and they all missed the plane, so Roger literally shot the first half of the concert on his own, and every single foot of it was useful! ‘How to shoot a concert with one camera’ was what that lesson was about.”   

For Deakins, a turning point came on a documentary about schizophrenia that followed eight patients after their release from a London hospital. When one suffered a horrendous breakdown in her apartment, his partner wanted to keep filming, but Deakins instead put the camera down to assist the woman. After that, he stopped shooting documentaries. “I began to feel that what I was doing was very voyeuristic,” he recalls. “I questioned how much effect I was having, or whether it was just me trying to further my own career. I was quite conflicted. So when I got the chance to shoot dramas, I decided that was more me.”   

His first dramatic project was a TV miniseries called Wolcott, which came through a friend of a friend. Soon thereafter, Radford called. He was planning to direct his first theatrical feature, Another Time, Another Place, a love triangle set in Scotland during World War II, and he’d been impressed by Deakins’ work on the miniseries. “It was also an instinct that he was going to deliver,” says Radford, who adds with a laugh, “Then I had terrible second thoughts!    

I thought, ‘What am I doing? I know the guy, I’ve seen this TV series, but it doesn’t tell me anything, really, about what we’re going to do now.’ But in the end, the decision paid off in spades. The film worked very well, and not at all solely because of my direction, but because of Roger’s stunning photography — in Super 16mm! At that time, Super 16 was very marginal. You had about half a stop of variation on it, so Roger had to light very precisely, with a forest of little lights in these very tiny spaces. The film was a real success in Europe; it got a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes. It was really a big break for both of us.”   

“I never looked back after that,” says Deakins. He reteamed with Radford on 1984, an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel. “That was a big movie,” says Radford. “I remember driving with Roger to the set of the rally with 2,000 extras, six camera units, 25 assistants. It was just huge, and it was at night. As we drove onto the set, we looked at each other and said, ‘Yep, this is it.’ It was the big time, where we were going to show whether we’d got it or not.”    

Deakins was subsequently admitted to the British Society of Cinematographers, and 1984 won numerous awards for special effects, “but there were absolutely no special effects whatsoever,” Radford notes with amusement. “Everything was shot in-camera,” including the ubiquitous front-projection newsreels (“horrendously complicated”) and the menacing helicopters. Deakins achieved the film’s bold, unusual palette photochemically with the bleach-bypass process, the first time a cinematographer had used the technique.   

Radford and Deakins made one more film together, White Mischief. The director says he was always impressed by Deakins’ investment in the content of the film and his close observation of the actors. “Roger was a great foil,” says Radford. “You could always go to him and ask, ‘What did you think of that take?’ and his answer would address more than mechanics. You’d have a proper discussion.”    

Deakins worked steadily in England, including features with Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy), Terry Jones (Personal Services), Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday), James Deardon (Pascali’s Island) and Bob Rafelson (Mountains of the Moon). One film that helped Deakins clarify what he didn’t want to do was Air America, directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. The story was about a pilot recruited into a corrupt CIA airlift operation in Laos. “I thought we were going to make some sort of subversive, M.A.S.H.-style comedy, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Deakins. Rather, it wound up as a buddy film. “That film was a great opportunity, but it was a bit too big for its own good, really,” says the cinematographer. “At one point we had three crews working. Things get away from you, and you pile money into shooting stuff that’s never used. It made me decide that smaller, more contained movies were for me.”   

He put his London apartment on the market and bought a flat in Devon. “I just thought I’d get out of London and do things that I really wanted to do,” he says.  Then his agent received the script for Barton Fink, the Coens’ fourth film, about a pretentious New York playwright (John Turturro) who moves to Hollywood in 1941 to take a screenwriting job, winds up suffering writer’s block, and unknowingly befriends a serial killer (John Goodman), his gregarious next-door neighbor. Deakins’ agent recommended he turn the film down. “She said it was very strange, and that it seemed to be two different movies,” recalls Deakins. “But I’d heard of the Coen brothers by then, so I said, ‘Wait a minute!’”    

The Coens recall that they had been tracking Deakins for a while by the time their first cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, decided to move on to directing. Because Barton Fink would be a low-budget, nonunion production, they narrowed the field to foreign cinematographers. “We wanted someone with experience whose work we could look at,” says Joel Coen. “Of the people we were talking to, Roger had done the most by far and had the most impressive work.” Deakins had just come off Air America, so they called that film’s producers to inquire about him. The response was not enthusiastic. As Deakins relates, “They said, ‘He doesn’t like working with multiple cameras, he doesn’t like using a zoom lens, and he likes to operate,’ as though these were criticisms.” But this assessment was music to the Coens’ ears. And from their very first encounter, the match felt right. “We just seemed to be on the same wavelength,” says Deakins. “They’re very straightforward, unpretentious people.”   

Barton Fink established a work pattern that continues to this day. As screenwriters, the Coens use very visual language, so the film’s look is established in the script. The film is then storyboarded in its entirety with longtime storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson, a habit that originally sprang from the brothers’ budget-consciousness. “They still like to storyboard,” Deakins says. “It helps them focus on what’s really important in the scene, and it’s a good way of working.” The brothers involve Deakins in that process early on, usually as soon as they’ve drafted the first set of storyboards. “We use Roger as a sounding board for the movie in its entirety — he’s the third collaborator,” says Joel. Ethan adds, “After we do a draft [of the storyboards] ourselves, we’ll do another draft with Roger so we can talk about each scene and incorporate his ideas.”  

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