Three markedly different films, released within three months of each other. That’s the artistic trifecta that cinematographer Roger Deakins pulled off last fall. For writer-director Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, the 58-year-old British-born cameraman turned a military dad’s search for his AWOL Iraq War-veteran son into a blanched vision of emotional desolation. For The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he helped Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik bring a supremely tactile physicality to Canadian landscapes framed as the American West. And for No Country for Old Men, he worked for the ninth time with writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen to place the story of a drug deal gone very, very wrong within a toxic, sun-blasted-by-day, neon-suffused-by-night south-Texas backdrop.
All that finely wrought work makes Deakins a likely Best Cinematography contender at the Oscars. (He may already have prospects for next year’s derby, too, since he’s got the prestigious-sounding December 2008 release Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and directed by Sam Mendes, in the can.) The D.P. has been nominated five times already — for The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun, O Brother Where Art Thou, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Whatever this year’s horse-race outcome might be, it’s definitely time for Roger Deakins’ close-up on EW.com.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s conceivable that you could be nominated for an Oscar this year, or even get twin nominations.
ROGER DEAKINS: Well, in my dreams!
The last time one cinematographer got nominated twice was back in 1972.
That was Robert Surtees. [He was up for Summer of ’42 and The Last Picture Show; he lost to Oswald Morris for Fiddler on the Roof.]
You had a shot at double dipping back in 2002 as well, when you got nominated for The Man Who Wasn’t There, but you didn’t get nominated for A Beautiful Mind, which won so many awards in other categories. Was that disappointing?
It’s funny. I was talking to Ron Howard the day after those nominations were announced, and he said, ”Oh, I’m really sorry you didn’t get nominated.” I said, ”What do you mean? I did get nominated!” I didn’t even think about [for which film]. It’s nice when it happens, but… I just want to keep shooting films, really.
You get to oversee the final look of your films, in conjunction with your directors. Is that typical or unusual?
I know some studios don’t want the cinematographer involved.
Why? That seems crazy, to exclude the person who shot the images.
It does seem a bit shortsighted, doesn’t it? And yet I’ve heard of cases where it’s happening. I’m aghast. I don’t get it. I guess they think cinematographers are going to get in there and be indulgent or something. Spend too much time, cost too much money. But it’s crucial that the cinematographer be there. All these [post-production] technologies are so powerful. The personality of the imagery gets diffused if there’s been a hundred different people working on it. They may all be doing wonderful work, but it won’t be one overall viewpoint, which I think gives a film a particular personality.
In the Valley of Elah is so bleached-out and desolate looking. Did that require some special film or lighting scheme, or did you produce that effect afterwards?
That really was all done in post-production. I just shot it dead clean and simple. I did a first pass on Elah. I desaturated it quite a bit, and then sent it out so Paul Haggis could see it. He gave his notes, and he said, ”Go further, go further!” I thought, what? So I took it further. I came to L.A. and saw it with him, and he suggested actually adding some grain into it, so we did that as well.
NEXT PAGE: Deakins discusses his work on The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men — and why he’s the last guy you should go to if you need to borrow a spare zoom lens