Festival de Cannes 2015

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC, discusses his work on Denis Villeneuve’s film “Sicario”

A gentleman of cinematography

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Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC, is not just a legendary cameraman. He is a cinema aficionado who constantly pursues his visual research with great simplicity and enthusiasm. Although he hasn’t been awarded a golden statue in his over thirty-year-long career (despite his twelve nominations !), his close collaboration with the Cohen brothers has had a lasting impact on multiple generations of cameramen. After working with Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners two years ago, he is worked alongside him again on Sicario, one of the favorites to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year.
Denis Villeneuve, viseur en mains, et Roger Deakins sur le tournage de "Sicario" - DR
Denis Villeneuve, viseur en mains, et Roger Deakins sur le tournage de "Sicario"

Roger, you seem to have incredible luck in always attracting the most talented young directors to work with you !

Roger Deakins : I met Denis Villeneuve at a reception organized by the Oscar’s Academy for the directors of the films nominated for best foreign film. It was truly a coincidence because I was asked to introduce Dennis, whose films I adored, but with whom I had never worked before ! A few months later, I learned that he was preparing a movie in the United States (Prisoners) and, via my agent, I offered my services. I think that that chance meeting at the Academy was one of the reasons we began working together… So it was a spot of luck, yes !

Do you see any commonalities between the two movies ?

RD : Sicario is a sort of multi-character chess game. In that way, I think that the two films share a rather similar structure. Our challenge was to give each character a clear identity, whilst linking them together inside of a coherent story. We hoped to allow each viewer to slowly discover all of the layers of the screenplay. In terms of its overall ambience, while Prisoners was an icy, wintry film, Sicario is radically solar, with a very brilliant and colour-saturated image.

Denis Villeneuve et Roger Deakins sur le tournage de "Prisonners" - DR
Denis Villeneuve et Roger Deakins sur le tournage de "Prisonners"

Where did you shoot the film ?

RD : Mostly in the region of Albuquerque [New Mexico, USA], as well as in Mexico, in order to capture on the screen everything that was supposed to take place just on the other side of the border in Juarez. It’s funny, because sometimes we filmed at locations that had been used as sets for Breaking Bad… But the coincidence stops there.
One of my main sources of inspiration for this film was the work of Alex Webb, who has often filmed young Mexicans along the US-Mexico border. They are photos taken from life, but they are incredibly complex in terms of their composition, so that you sometimes really ask yourself how he could have done it ! I was inspired by them, not only in terms of colours, but also from his compositions and the depth that he includes in a single image.

Did Denis give you precise instructions ?

RD : During my discussions with him, we went through all of the options that were available to us in terms of camera and technique in order to shoot the film… Finally, I realized that one of the most noticeable influences on our choices of camera placement, framing, and lighting was the style of Jean-Pierre Melville. He’s able to attain a sort of simple yet stylish realism…
I’m also suddenly reminded of that marvellous interrogation scene in The Army of Shadows when the resistant is attached to his chair, and they’re calmly telling him how he’s about to be executed… It’s simplicity is chilling. There is no visible lighting or camera effect. I think that we tried to stick with that spirit in filming Sicario, with an economy of means that in English we refer to with the expression “less is more”.

Were there a lot of scenes filmed on location ?

RD : Almost all of the scenes in this film were shot out-of-doors or on location. We were really lucky with the weather, because we had splendid cloudy skies that we used in certain places. But we also shot a few scenes in studio, on very well-equipped sets in Albuquerque itself. Such as the house that was raided by special forces in the beginning of the film. Otherwise, a lot of scenes were shot out-of-doors at night-time in very low lighting…, each scene involved very different shooting conditions.

Is there a scene that is particularly memorable to you ?

RD : The whole part where Emilie Blunt is crossing the Mexican border with the FBI to go look for the dealer who is incarcerated there was very important to me. I had to show on the screen the third-world chaos that was Juarez back, with all of its urban violence. Transposing the seething, colourful, almost suffocating aspect of the city, whilst contrasting it with the completely desert landscape of the American side… There, again, Alex Webb helped me to transcribe that sensation. You know, when I was a younger man, I remember that I was much more attracted to photography than to the cinema. That is also where I get my admiration for the work of photographers and their liberty…

What were your technical choices ?

RD : Denis and I decided to stick with more-or-less the same configuration that we used on our previous project : an Arri Alexa camera, that I’m beginning to get used to working with, just as he is. The only small difference was that this time, I tested storing the images in “Open Gate” mode, which means saving the entirety of the surface of the digital sensor. That gives the image a bit higher quality, and I think that the colours come out deeper, too.
I especially felt the difference on the wide shots of scenery, which played an important role in the film, and that I did as much as I could with during colour timing in order to enhance the details and the colours. Amongst the exotic details of the film, there is a scene entirely shot in thermal vision with equipment supplied by the FLIR corporation. Especially the law enforcement scene in the traffickers tunnel which worked really well.

What about your choice of lenses ?

RD : In fact, I like filming out-of-doors daylight scenes with a very closed aperture. It seems more natural to me than playing with neutral greys and a shallow depth of field. But at night-time, I’ve often used the Master Prime series at full aperture (1,4) which gives a vaguer and more abstract feel to the image.

You are a member of that generation of cameramen who have made the shift from silver-process film to digital film without any problem… Has anything changed for you ?

RD : It’s true that I haven’t worked with traditional film stock on my last few projects… But this year, there was the filming of Hail Caesar, the latest Cohen brothers film that we decided to shoot in 35mm. The film was shot in Los Angeles during winter 2014-2015 and that is set in Hollywood in the early 1950s. That’s when I realized what it meant to not be able to shoot in such low-light conditions !
Especially since sometimes we had to recreate images in the style of the cinema of that period, at a time when film didn’t go above 64 ASA and you had to light entire sets using 5.6 or 8 apertures. It was a big technological shock going from an outside night shot using FLIR cameras where the moon can be recreated with a 1000W Fresnel reflected off of a 4x4 frame hung from the end of a crane.

There are some memorable scenes in some of your films that remain indelibly etched in the minds of movie lovers… I am thinking of the night-time finale of Skyfall lit only by the fire of the Bond family mansion. How do you conceive of this type of visual challenge at the scale of a feature-length film ?

RD : A visual tour-de-force is always a big risk for the cinematographer of a film. I think that everything has to be as coherent as possible… If a scene or a shot becomes ostentatious or stands out from the ambience of the rest of the movie, you’ve done something wrong. When I filmed the climax of Skyfall, I was merely taking inspiration from what I had previously done on the war movie Jarhead, where the final scene was lit by the fire of an oil well in Kuwait. It was a logical choice for me, because of the way the scene was written, and I didn’t have any intention of showing off some technical prowess.
Again, I would cite the influence of Jean-Pierre Melville’s art, who was capable of encapsulating an entire scene of The Army of Shadows in a master shot without causing the viewer to wonder when the cut is going to happen. Everything is organized within the shot, in the way the actors are directed, in the lighting, so that that sensation of reality, of naturalism, takes over. That’s true class ! The shot works because the viewer is literally inside the story.

What do you bring to the image during digital colour timing ?

RD : I sometimes hear certain cinematographers or colour timers explain that you can really create the film’s “look” using digital colour timing. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The visual identity of a film is created when it is shot, period. Sicario, like most of the films I have done, didn’t take more than seven days of work in the colour timing room. But those seven days are spent entirely with the colour timer, so that copy after copy, we obtain the final version. Overall, five days for the first version shown to Denis, then two days spent making the final corrections. A very simple, very direct step, where the few manipulations made to the image are essentially reduced to fixing the inaccuracies of colour that inevitably occur in modern outdoor daylight shooting conditions.

In your opinion, what are the upcoming trends and technological advances in cinematography ?

RD : Even if all I’ve been saying to you about my passion for Jean-Pierre Melville’s classicism might seem a bit old-fashioned, in fact, I am someone who is very interested in technology and its future developments ! In my opinion, the major breakthrough that I see coming to sets has to do with the miniaturization of cameras, of gyro-stabilized equipment, and the sophistication of drones… I think that, when you see a film like Birdman, you’ve got the proof that a new way of shooting movies is coming.
Of course, all movies don’t need such complicated setups, but it’s in that direction that I think things are going to evolve, a bit like what the Steadicam brought to the cinema in the early 1970s. Whatever the case may be, I am going to make a confession : I am very thankful for the arrival of featherweight digital cameras, because at my age, I would have been forced into retirement if I had had to continue working with an Ari 535 on my shoulder !

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)