The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Q&A With Deakins
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Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC explores the existential perils of the American West in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men.

Edited by Stephen Pizzello and Rachael K. Bosley

Unit Photography by Kimberly French (Jesse James) and Richard Foreman, SMPSP (No Country)

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC is not one to rest on his laurels. The five-time Academy Award nominee has two films currently in theaters (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and In the Valley of Elah), one opening next month (No Country for Old Men), and another in postproduction (Revolutionary Road). When AC recently paid a visit to his Santa Monica home, he came straight from the airport, dropped his duffel bag in the foyer, and, despite having worked long hours on Revolutionary Road, proceeded to engage us in a lively and detailed discussion for two hours. After that, he drove to Hollywood with his wife, James, to attend a memorial service for his late colleague Laszlo Kovacs, ASC. The next day the couple flew to Germany, where Deakins began prepping his next feature, The Reader.

What follows are Deakins’ thoughts about his first two forays into the Western genre: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James, a widescreen Western that takes maximum visual advantage of its period setting, and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, a more contemporary story that reconfigures familiar Western motifs to build drama and suspense. Jesse James stars Brad Pitt as the famous outlaw, an American icon who seems destined to meet with a tragic end at the hands of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), an ardent admirer keen to make a name for himself. Based on Ron Hansen’s historical novel, the film combines a stately pace with stunning cinematography, resulting in an evocative, foreboding tone. No Country, on the other hand, is a hard-hitting drama from Joel and Ethan Coen, who removed their tongues from their cheeks to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel about an existential showdown between laconic cowpoke Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles onto a bag of drug money, and sociopathic hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who tracks Moss with relentless resolve.

American Cinematographer: Are you a fan of Westerns?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: Oh, yeah. I felt No Country was the nearest a contemporary film might come to a Peckinpah Western. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of my favorite films, along with The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Those movies are much more than the sum of their stories. They address many different themes, and I feel Jesse James and No Country are in that same vein.

There are also a few shots in Jesse James that call to mind the films of John Ford — frames within the widescreen frame that highlight specific visual elements.

Deakins: Andrew Dominik and I talked about that a lot, so I was always looking for those opportunities — tracking through doorways and using windows and other scenic elements to break up the wide frame. There are also a number of shots where we dolly past a character. I always used a dolly for those shots, because in general I don’t like to use zoom lenses unless there’s a very specific reason for it.

You shot both pictures in Super 35mm. Why did you choose that over anamorphic?

Deakins: I prefer Super 35 because it allows you to use short focal-length lenses. I also like the scale of that format — the intimacy — and the texture of the film grain. In some cases I find anamorphic to be almost too clean, too grain-free and pristine.

Jesse James is a traditional period Western and No Country is set in the contemporary West, but the films seem to address similar themes.

Deakins: That’s interesting, actually. Andrew Dominik is a really meticulous guy, and he did a lot of research for Jesse James, which is based on a fantastic novel by Ron Hansen that’s full of detail and really sets you in that world. Andrew was always saying, ‘We’re basically making a Victorian Western.’ The West of Jesse James was not like most movies you see about that era. Times were changing, and things were becoming much more modern. No Country is thematically similar in some ways because it’s also about the changing of the West. Sheriff Bell [played by Tommy Lee Jones] is kind of lost because the criminal world has changed so much beyond his imagination — he can’t understand it anymore. I think there’s a really good parallel between James and Bell, because neither can really function in the modern world. They’re aging, they’re thinking about death, and they’re struggling to understand what’s going on around them.

Jesse James was your first project with Dominik, whereas you’ve worked with the Coens many times. How different were your working relationships with the directors?

Deakins: Very different. I’ve had a very long relationship with the Coens, so after prep we don’t really have to talk that much about day-to-day stuff. If we discuss anything, it’s the order of the shots rather than the shots themselves. Once we set the camera up, either Joel or Ethan will offer his suggestions, but we basically already know how we’re going to cover the scene. They storyboard everything, and they’re very precise. As a result, I feel their films have a sort of picture-book style of presentation.

Andrew, on the other hand, spends a lot of time considering things before, during and after we shoot them. He really ponders and agonizes. [Laughs.] It was a much more intense way of getting to the point you want, and it was more about being instinctual on the day. That said, we did do a lot of planning for certain key shots.

What were your main locations?

Deakins: On Jesse James we shot mainly in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. The scouting was pretty intensive because the movie had a lot of variety in terms of locations. We also needed snow for certain scenes, and during the shoot we were always adjusting our schedule to accommodate that. We were after a very particular look, and some of these locations were miles and miles apart. For some of our city streets, the only places that really worked in Calgary and Edmonton were these historic towns that looked a bit like Disneyland pavilions. Those suited our purpose for certain interiors and small exteriors, but Andrew really wanted to create a sense of modern Victorian streets, and we had to go to Winnipeg for that. We also built a town up in the Rockies that stood in for Creede, Colorado, at the end of the film. It was tricky trying to find all of these locations in places that weren’t necessarily ideal.

No Country was difficult in another way. We shot mostly around Santa Fe, New Mexico, not because the story was set there but because of the tax breaks. We used the little town of Las Vegas, which is east of Santa Fe, for most of the night scenes in town, but it was a struggle to find locations that would match places like Eagle Pass, Texas. We shot in Marfa, Texas, for a week just to establish a sense of the landscape. We really had to scratch around to find the right locations, because Santa Fe does not look like Texas.

Jesse James opens with a train robbery that takes place in a wooded area that seems to be lit almost entirely by a light on the front of the train and lanterns held by the characters. How did you approach that sequence?

Deakins: We shot that in Edmonton in this preserved town where they had a little loop railway and a small train. Andrew actually wanted to ship in a much bigger train, but the cost was prohibitive. We kept trying to reassure him that we could do things photographically that would give the train more of a presence. Andrew kept calling it ‘Thomas the Tank Engine,’ and when you saw it in broad daylight, it did look pretty puny! Now, though, he thinks it looks great.


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