Cinematographer Roger Deakins' Films Are Artistic Yet Unpretentious

Sep 13, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 6:39 pm
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The cinematographer Roger Deakins has shot some of the most evocative films of the past three decades, from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to "The Big Lebowski" to "Blade Runner 2049," for which he won an Oscar. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports that Deakins has two films out this year, starting with "The Goldfinch."

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The film is adapted from Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It follows 13-year-old Theo Decker, who loses his mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For years, Theo is haunted by the tragedy, and he holds onto a Dutch painting he plucked from the wreckage, the Goldfinch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOLDFINCH")

ANSEL ELGORT: (As Adult Theo Decker) The painting. The painting. All my fault.

DEL BARCO: Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses light and camera movements to interpret what in the book were Theo's fragmented memories - his mother's hand on his shoulder, the moment she walks away fading into white, Theo staggering in shock through the smoky remains of the bombed-out museum.

ROGER DEAKINS: The idea of this little kid getting up and just being this great, big landscape is there were some Andrei Tarkovsky Russian movie, you know what I mean? (Laughter) He's - great nowhere, because it much more about what was in his head.

DEL BARCO: Deakins operates the camera himself. He rigs his own lighting, goes location scouting, and helps stage the actors. Director John Crowley praises Deakins for having composed the film's artistic yet unpretentious images.

JOHN CROWLEY: He doesn't favor fancy effects, and he doesn't favor frames or shots that ever say look at me. And that's what I love about his work is that, you know, every frame does have the feeling of it - that it could be a painting or it could be a proper photograph, beautifully captured image. But it's always saying look at this, rather than look at me.

DEL BARCO: Deakins says he wanted to be a painter when he was growing up in a seaside resort town in England. He began as a still photographer, then shot music videos and documentaries around the world. As a filmmaker, he soon was in demand from top directors the Coen brothers, Sam Mendes and Denis Villeneuve. Deakins says he loves to collaborate with everyone on the set as he maps out each camera angle.

DEAKINS: It's one of the most enjoyable parts of working on a film, really.

K K BARRETT: I think Roger's a bit of a minimalist. His work is very effective and yet somewhat invisible.

DEL BARCO: Production designer K.K. Barrett says Deakins' artistic eye still shines through each project.

BARRETT: In "Blade Runner," he's a sculptor. In our film, which was more naturalistic, I would say he's obviously still a sculptor, but the light presence is there, like a emotional character.

DEL BARCO: For "The Goldfinch," that included shooting at dusk or under harsh street lights at a location meant to be the bleak outskirts of Las Vegas, as Theo and as Ukrainian-expat friend Boris wander around getting drunk and high.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOLDFINCH")

FINN WOLFHARD: (As Young Boris) You want to get drink?

OAKES FEGLEY: (As Young Theo Decker) What?

WOLFHARD: (As Young Boris) Drink. I have beer at my house.

OAKES: (As Young Theo Decker) Uh, OK.

DEL BARCO: The film follows Theo around New York and eventually to Amsterdam. In each location, Deakins filmed with as much natural light as possible.

DEAKINS: I want people to feel that yeah, that's real. That light's real. It's coming from somewhere real.

DEL BARCO: Deakins tailors his shooting style to each film, from the formal compositions of "The Goldfinch" to the handheld camera of "1917," his upcoming World War I picture.

DEAKINS: Photographically, they're as far apart as here and the moon. But I think it's choosing the right style and the feel for each individual project. And that's what's so great for me is going from - well, from "Blade Runner" to "Goldfinch" to "1917." It's like the three of the most different movies I've ever done, really. It's fun, you know?

DEL BARCO: Despite his success, Deakins remains low-key and humble, says director Crowley.

CROWLEY: You know, there is an irony that this sort of master of light is deeply uncomfortable when there's ever a bit of light shown on him. He actually almost had to be sent to the Oscars last year. We had to stop shooting for it, and he hates to stop shooting. And he came back the next day and was back on set as if he had just been down the road to buy some milk from the store.

DEL BARCO: Legendary yet unassuming, cinematographer Roger Deakins says he'd rather be with his trusty film crew working out the best camera angles and lighting to tell each new story. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.