If cinematographer Roger Deakins were a baseball player, the back of his baseball card would be crammed with Ruthian statistics. His batting average of picking successful projects would put him in any Hall of Fame, and his contributions in shaping the look and feel of those films are a big part of the reason they are branded on your movie-loving subconscious. The Shawshank Redemption. Dead Man Walking. Twelve movies with the Coen brothers, including Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. A Beautiful Mind. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Revolutionary Road. Skyfall!
Deakins (above, center) doesn’t have a specific look to his films, and he rarely repeats himself. His latest film, Sicario, looks unlike anything he’s done before. Deakins reunited again with director Denis Villeneuve after Prisoners for the new movie, which tells the gripping tale of a female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who teams up with some government agents (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) to crack the Mexican drug cartel causing problems on the U.S. side of the border.
There are scenes in the movie that literally take your breath away, and he beautifully frames all sorts of shots like a painter holding a brush. There are powerful closeups, complicated action sequences, and stunning night-vision set pieces. It would surprise no one if he receives another Oscar nomination for his work — it would be his 13th! — and his first win would be long overdue.
Deakins spoke to EW about making Sicario with Villeneuve and his plans to collaborate again on Blade Runner. There are MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS, so make sure you’ve seen Sicario before reading any further.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sicario doesn’t just have a specific look and mood that pulls in the audience. It has a texture. I don’t have a cinematography background, so how would you explain what you do?
ROGER DEAKINS: First, an enormous amount of the mood and the atmosphere of the film comes from the script and the director. And for me, I like working with Denis because we have a great collaboration and he’s really searching for something particular, something personal, to his particular view. So that’s where it starts from. And then it’s a very slow process. I like a lot of prep. I like to think about the script a lot. I like to talk through the script with a director, and Denis and I have long conversations about things. And we sit down and we start storyboarding scenes. Sometimes we use those storyboards, and sometimes we don’t. But what it gives me is a very clear idea of where he wants to go with something, and the elements of a scene that are really important to him. So you do a lot of prep, you look at locations and study set plans with the production designer Patrice Vermette, and it gradually builds. But! When you’ve done all that, a lot of it comes down to what happens on the day as well. A lot of it’s down to the way the actors play a scene, the kind of light, the weather. There are so many unpredictable elements.
I have this image in my head, and I’m sure it’s not literally true, but I imagine that at any given moment, there are five to seven A-list directors with ready-go scripts that are camped out in your driveway—
People think that, but it’s completely the reverse. Frankly, I’ve not read a script in three months, and that’s not an exaggeration.
But still, your batting average with projects is so high. Your resume is one that has taught me and an entire generation how to see film, how to appreciate film. So how do you choose your projects? Is there a checklist or do you just go with your gut?
You go with your gut, really, reading the script. It’s the same as a novel. Some novels I get through and some novels I fall in love with and read again the next week. I’m reading one now that I’ve read twice before. It’s that kind of connection with the material. Obviously, I mean, I’ve worked with Joel and Ethan [Coen] a number of times so I basically would trust them with whatever they want to do. And the same with Denis, although I’ve only done two with him now — I’m hopefully going to do Blade Runner with him later. But it’s the script. I have to connect with the script, sort of emotionally, really. Otherwise you’re just painting by number really, aren’t you?
Do you read a script as an audience member or as a cinematographer?
Oh, as a audience member. I rarely think [about the visuals] — I mean, obviously visuals come to your mind. You read a novel and you visualize it. But when I read a script, I don’t think about it in terms of its cinematography. I’m just reading it as a story. Maybe I have ideas before I meet with a director, but I don’t really want to have preconceived ideas. I want to hear what the director’s take is on the story and move from there.
What did you see in the Sicario script that got you excited?
You know, I’ve done quite a few Westerns. I’ve been really lucky. And I think I’ve done sort of Westerns from like the period of Jesse James right through to No Country for Old Men and Valley of Elah, and this seemed even more modern than that. This seemed right up to date. This is where we’ve got to, you know what I mean? And that was something that really excited me actually, doing something that was completely connected to the modern day. You know, I used to do documentaries when I first started, so it was kind of really like going back to that world for me.
I always put a lot of weight in a film’s first shot and first sequence. What can you tell me about how you and Denis worked on that, and what were some of the big decisions that had to be made?
It’s interesting because the scene that starts the film was not the original scene that was going to start the film in the script. Why the other scene went was because really you needed to start the film introducing Kate, Emily’s character. The other scene we’d shot introduced Alejandro [Benicio Del Toro] in a kind of teasing way. You didn’t know who he was and what he was doing, but he was up to no good in a way. But the film really was Kate’s. The perspective changes later and becomes Alejandro’s for awhile, but in terms of introducing her character, you wanted something with a lot of energy and a lot of suspense, and a lot of pace. The problem was how to do that. Obviously it’s not a big-budget movie, so you try to do it as economically as possible, in terms of cost of production but also in terms of screen time. We couldn’t have a long extended scene in that SWAT house. It wanted to be a very rapid, graphic introduction to this world.
The border scene really stands out, too, where they’re returning from Mexico with their prisoner and there’s a shootout. The POV’s go through cars, through windows. There are so many moving parts visually. How did all that come together?
That whole sequence, going into Mexico and coming back, that was the most difficult sequence logistically. When they go to Mexico, you see an aerial of the border, so that’s a shot of the real Bridge of the Americas between El Paso and Juarez. When they’re in Mexico in the vehicles, that’s all in Mexico City. We went there for a few days to shoot in Mexico City. The interior of the jail is actually in Albuquerque, where they take the guy out and stick him into the car. And the border on the way back is something that Patrice built on a parking lot in the middle of Albuquerque, because obviously you can’t shoot on any of those real border posts. We had the same problem on No Country for Old Men, so we ended up taking a bridge overpass and creating a border on that. For this, Patrice found this big open parking lot and basically built both sides, and the end where you see the bridge going into America and the background where you see Mexico in the distance, both of those are digital components. But 70 to 80 percent of the scene we could do in camera because the set really contained everything we needed. We had about 150 cars and all the extras, so basically the scene was there. And this was one scene we spent a long time storyboarding. We storyboarded the whole sequence, all the way from going to Mexico and coming back, because it was so logistically difficult. We changed a few things on the day, but I think we pretty well stuck to the storyboards on that one.
When you agree to work with director, in those initial conversations, does that entail a lot of listening to absorb the look that they’re trying to go for, or is it more collaborative about what the story requires?
It varies really. It depends on your relationship with a director, and many times it depends on the director’s preference. Some directors are very visual. And other directors frankly are not at all. I’ve had a director say, “Well, you know what you’re doing, so I’m really not going to be very involved in the visuals. I want to deal with the script and the actors.” Well, okay. So it very much depends. But the first conversation is usually quite general. You just gradually get into specifics, but it’s usually a general conversation about the kind of film. And yeah, obviously, I bring ideas. But I like initially to hear what the director’s approach is going to be, especially if I don’t know the director.
I know you’ve spoken at length about the underground scene, but the other scene that really jumped out at me was the climactic dinner scene. What went in to filming it?
The first thing with that was finding the right location. We found this newly built house in Albuquerque that really fit the bill. That dinner scene changed a little bit from the script. In a way, it’s quite simple. I think the simplicity of it is its strength. You don’t try to make it more dramatic than it actually is. Benicio comes in and sits down, and you’re just playing cross closeups. There’s nothing clever or fancy. It’s just very matter of fact. That’s the thing about the whole movie, in a way. It’s very matter of fact. This is the way it is. This is what happens. You’re not trying to make an action movie or a drama. This is it. You’re just showing it.
What was the original scene like: more confrontational?
No, it’s interesting. The original scene, Benicio lets the kids go, and then there’s a conversation between him and Fausto about whether he’s going to shoot him or the wife. Fausto betrays his wife and says, “Oh, kill her.” But it was kind of a long scene, and a lot of dialogue. And this character Alejandro, he’s got so much bitterness and he’s descended so far, that it just felt right to shoot the kids. Why would he let them go? [Laughs] We wanted to go as bleak as possible.
Yeah, it’s really brutal. But obviously, you’re not going to show that on camera. I think it’s very effective that way, the brutality. Because you don’t want the audience to lose contact with Alejandro and he does this incredibly brutal thing. But I think in a way — and although the audience hopefully recognizes this incredibly brutal thing that he’s done and that he’s descended into this world of horror — there’s still a sort of an understanding there in some strange way.
Is there a style or a genre that you’ve been dying to do that you worry people don’t immediately think of you for?
I’ve always wanted to do a science-fiction film, I mean, a proper science-fiction film, so I guess I’m going to get to do one. With a little bit of luck.
Do you already have images in your head of what that new Blade Runner world might look like?
When we were prepping Sicario, I had Jean-Pierre Melville in my head, but then I always have because he’s my favorite director of all time. And I had this photographer, Alex Webb, in my head before Sicario. With Blade Runner, no. Obviously the original movie is there, but how much we take from that, how much of the world is similar to that, you’ll have to find out.