Q&A: Roger Deakins on cinema’s past and future

Roger Deakins
This image released by Searchlight Pictures shows Roger Deakins on the set of “Empire Of Light.”
(Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures via AP)

The first photograph Roger Deakins ever took, in 1969 Bournemouth, England, shows a man and a woman quietly eating lunch on a bench outside a ladies room. A sign reads: “Keep it to yourself.”

Deakins has taken countless images since that first snap. He’s photographed “Fargo,” “Kundun” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” He’s shot “No Country for Old Men,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Skyfall.” He’s been nominated for 15 Oscars and won two. He’s been knighted.

But if given the chance, he’d take that first black-and-white shot exactly the same way.

“I would take the same photograph now with the same situation, the same frame, the same lens,” Deakins says, chuckling. “I don’t think my eye has changed much at all.”

For decades, Deakins’ eye has been one of the keenest in movies. It’s not easy to pinpoint what makes a film’s cinematography identifiably Deakins’ work and yet it’s obvious. Something about how seamlessly the images connect. A sometimes wry perspective. “I try to find a bit of humor,” he said in a recent interview from outside London.

Deakins’ latest is Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” starring Olivia Colman and Michael Ward as workers at a 1980s shoreline cinema in the south of England. The film, currently in theaters, returns Deakins to the coastal setting that he knew growing up in the English county of Devon and that deeply influenced him as a cinematographer and occasional still photographer. Deakins recently published some of his early photos in the stunning collection “Byways.”

Deakins and his wife and collaborator, James Deakins, also maintain one of the most essential podcasts on moviemaking. In each episode of “Team Deakins,” they interview craftspeople, offering a window into the behind-the-scenes arts of filmmaking.

Deakins, a widely revered master of the form, has built an empire of light of his own. On a recent fall day, the 73-year-old, reflected on his life in image-making, his concern for the future of filmmaking and why “Byways” and the podcast shouldn’t be taken as a new backward-looking impulse.

“When people come up to you and gush over your career and stuff, there are moments like that where you go, ‘I suppose I have done a lot,'” Deakins says. “But I don’t really think about it. You just go from project to project, year to year, and just see how things go. That’s how I live my life, really.”

Remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

AP: Cinematography is a hard-to-define art sometimes compared to painting or described as a grammar. To you, cinematography is…

Deakins: A visual interpretation of a story. To aid the director in a visual interpretation of a story, really. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Where does directing end and cinematography begin? Where does production design begin and end? Wardrobe, costume, acting. The lines change depending on the combination of characters involved. It’s what’s always been so interesting, really, about doing movies. It can even change project to project with the same people.

AP: Is the solitary nature of still-photography part of its appeal to you?

Deakins: It is, frankly. I find working on movies as a cinematographer really stressful. And it doesn’t get any less stressful the more experience I get, which is strange, really. I find more and more just wandering around with a still camera a great relaxation, really, because I don’t have any great pressure but my own pressure, I suppose.

AP: When you go out shooting, do you take a lot of pictures?

Deakins: I went out the other day for about five hours wandering around the coastline and I took one shot. (Laughs) Which is OK. It’s quite good if a get a shot. No, I don’t take very many. I enjoy the experience of just looking around and walking. The camera is kind of an excuse to do that, in a way.

AP: There are images in “Byways” not so distant from some of the coastal scenes of “Empire of Light.”

Deakins: Well, yeah. I grew up in Torquay and we have a place in Devon. I’ve lived by the coast all my life. We mainly live in L.A., but in Santa Monica so we’re only a few blocks from the beach. I don’t think I could live far from the ocean. I find it hard shooting in New Mexico or something for four months. Where’s the sea? I like that sense of the beyond, I suppose.

AP: Is it true you once studied meteorology?

Deakins: I did, yeah, as a kid. When I went to art college, in the first year you had to do some other discipline as well as art. I took some meteorology courses. Mainly meteorology came because I spent a lot of my time as a kid fishing. In fact, I was fishing today out in my boat. Of course that’s very weather-dependent. It’s all connected.

AP: You’ve surely spent many hours on film productions waiting for the weather to change. Do you have a good sense for it?

Deakins: Yeah, I do pretty well. Especially down here in Dedham because I’ve lived here most of my life. Nowadays, you can just log on to the Met Office surface pressure charts. If you can read them, you know what’s coming. It’s kind of amazing. I never had those when I was a teenager going fishing. We had to use whether the seaweed was wet or dry. My granny used to hang seaweed in the back of the house. When it was wet, it was going to rain.

AP: Directors must often turn to you to ask when the sun is coming out.

Deakins: Yeah, that’s one of the big pressures on a set, especially when you’re shooting a lot of exteriors. Like on “1917,” that was a huge pressure because we didn’t want to shoot anything in the sun. Sam would say to me, “It’s not your responsibility, Rog. You can’t control the weather.” I said, “But, yeah, everyone’s looking at me.”

AP: You’ve said you wished you could have made a film with John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo”). Is there a style of moviemaking that doesn’t exist anymore that you wish you could have been a part of?

Deakins: I do see films moving in a direction of everything’s got to be so naturalistic and softly lit. I used to love film noir and black-and-white cinematography, especially people like James Wong Howe or Ossie Morris, their use of light. I think that’s kind of changed. There’s not that stylization and I think there’s a place for that. Of course, there’s a place for total naturalism. And I should talk because I do quite a lot of naturalism. But I think we are losing that whole range of ways of creating a world through cinema.

AP: “Empire of Light” seems to be participating in a dialogue about movies’ shifting place in culture. Do you ever fear for the future of the medium?

Deakins: I have for a while. My heroes when I was starting out, when I was a teenager and first turned on to movies, were Jean-Pierre Melville and (Andrei) Tarkovsky and Peter Watkins. They’re people that were telling stories in different ways. They weren’t linear narratives. It wasn’t a series of talking heads. Especially with Tarkovsky, there’s a structure to his movies that is a kind of visual poetry. But it’s more than poetry because it’s visuals and it’s sounds and it’s a whole bunch of things. I can’t talk about it, but it leaves me emotionally drained watching “Stalker.” You can’t put your finger on it, and that, to me, is real film. (Michelangelo) Antonioni could do it and (Luchino) Visconti did it. I don’t see much of that now. I see a lot of talking heads and linear narrative storytelling and, frankly, it bores the hell out of me.

AP: You’ve been thinking this way for a while?

Deakins: I’ve been very lucky. Some of the films I’ve done like “The Assassination of Jesse James” with Andrew Dominik or “Kundun” with Martin Scorsese. There’s something about those movie that’s more than just a story. They’re attempting to do something that’s pure cinema. I don’t see so much of that. The films that are being made, some of them are great. But I don’t see that range.

AP: Why do you think that shift happened?

Deakins: I don’t know. There’s also the kind of action films as well. It’s becoming a very narrow vision. I don’t know. Maybe because it’s easy. It guaranteed they’re going to make money on those kind of films. But I don’t see producers and studios taking chances now so much. For me, the best year of cinema ever was 1969. You had “Army of Shadows.” You had “The Wild Bunch.” You had “Z.” I mean, it was an amazing number of films that one year, and you think the equivalent hasn’t happened since. And they were all so different. One of (Sergio) Leone’s films came out that year, as well. The difference in stylistic approach in the same genre, you don’t see that now. To Leone, film is like opera or something. It shouldn’t work but it does. It’s so over-the-top it’s just absolutely awesome. I watch “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or “Once Upon a Time in the West” quite regularly because they’re so moving.

AP: Your father had a construction business. What did he make of you pursuing filmmaking?

Deakins: For a long time, he thought I would be ending up going back to the company and taking it over from him. It wasn’t until many, many years later that he came to L.A. for one time. It just happened to be the premiere of “Kundun.” It was at that he said, “Now I really understand why you do it.”