We interview Roger Deakins: Devon’s movie maestro
PUBLISHED: 11:10 14 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:07 17 February 2020
He’s one of the greatest cinematographers of all time but at home in Devon, Roger Deakins likes to take a break from the limelight. We met up with him to talk movies, Hollywood and pasties...
If you've watched any decent films in the past three decades, chances are Roger Deakins helped to make them.
Widely regarded as one of the best cinematographers in the world today, the 70-year-old is known for his work on The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049 - among many others.
Nominated for 15 Academy Awards, Roger has spent a lifetime working with top directors, A-list stars and enjoys an almost cult-like following among film fans.
But Roger Deakins is Devon born and bred, which means this hugely respected figure of the movie world is also refreshingly down-to-earth.
Over a cup of tea in the Dart Marina Hotel, Roger talks about glamorous award ceremonies, travelling the world to film locations, as well as growing up in Torquay, fishing for mackerel and the merits of a good pasty.
"Devon is still my favourite place," says Roger, who lives in Kingswear and Santa Monica, California. "A lot of people always go back to their childhood home but Devon is particularly special to me. When my dad was alive and I was a kid, we had a little boat. I've just kept one all the time. I've got it in Torquay so when I get back, I immediately want to go out on it.
"We arrived here on Thursday and I went out on the boat on Friday. I was freezing my arse off but it was really great. I caught a few mackerel too!"
Roger and wife James, who started out as a script supervisor but now oversees the digital workflow of a film, say spending time in Devon is the perfect antidote to their hectic lives.
Before that, they worked on the Coen brothers' hit Hail, Caesar!
Despite being at the top of his game, Roger admits that every job is stressful and he can't afford to get complacent.
"You've got to shoot to a schedule, you've got to get the day done on time, then you put pressure on yourself because you're always challenging yourself," he says.
"Sometimes I like a film better when I'm doing it than when I watch it afterwards. I kind of go on set and think, this isn't too bad and then when it's all cut together I think: damn!
"But then maybe six months later I watch the movie and see that it's not so bad after all."
Roger is not one to boast, despite having every right to. The former Torquay Grammar School pupil began his career making features and documentaries before a call from filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen, followed by a series of big breaks, took him from one hit film to another.
His attention to detail and innovative style has won him the support and admiration of big Hollywood names, such as Angelina Jolie and Skyfall director Sam Mendes.
"I've done three films with Sam and it's always great," says Roger. "We spent a long time in prep just talking about the script and how we can get rid of dialogue and make it more dynamic or whatever."
Although many of Roger's fans are able to identify his lighting style and camera shots, he says being a good cinematographer is about making sure all of that goes largely unnoticed.
"When somebody tells you: 'Oh I loved that shot you did' or 'I love that sunset' I think: 'Oh no, I shouldn't have done it that way.
"If you're drawing attention to the surface of the movie then the viewer is being drawn out of the actual story."
So has he seen any good films lately?
"It's not a particularly wonderful time for movies," says Roger. "There are too many action, superhero movies, which I don't really like. Every now and then there'll be a great little movie," he adds, agreeing the Oscar winner Moonlight was a good example and it's in his current film circulation.
"But I don't see so many great movies coming out of Hollywood like there were in the 60s, 70s or 80s. You would look at them in those decades and they were pretty spectacular. They had something to say. They weren't just slam, bang, wallop, you know?"
We discuss whether TV is now better than the movies, the use of special effects, shooting on film compared to digital, Star Wars, whether Roger will work on another James Bond and award ceremonies ("fun but you can't take them seriously").
All around us, other people in the hotel's bar and restaurant are trying not to earwig but it's fascinating stuff about a world very far, far away from little old Devon.
"Ah, it's great being back here though," says Roger, adding that he is not somebody who will ever retire. "We like having the two lives: in Devon and America. One's a pretty nice change from the other."
Roger has a website at rogerdeakins.com where members can participate in a forum and ask Roger and other members questions about filmmaking, lighting, cameras, etc.
Roger regularly checks on and answers the questions personally. He also posts lighting diagrams of specific scenes with commentary on his lighting choices.
What is a cinematographer?
The cinematographer or Director of Production (DOP) is the person in charge of shooting the film (or television programme).
He or she works alongside the Director to help create the look and feel of a feature, everything from how a scene is lit to selecting what should be in the frame.
The cinematographer is in charge of the camera and lighting crews.
Roger's Devon life:
When he's back in Devon, Roger likes to go fishing or running.
"I ran the cliff path this morning and it was great - I saw one person," he says.
"I went from Kingswear to Scabbacombe."
The cinematographer also enjoys going out with his camera: "Now and again I take a still that I really like," he says. "I took one in Paignton two years ago and that's about the last one I took that I like.
"Sometimes it's an excuse. I wander on the moors with my camera. I don't take many photographs but it's my excuse for getting out."
What does a cinematographer like to watch?
"Some of the TV series have been brilliant. They can delve into the characters a bit more than you can in two hours."
Wolf Hall, BBC series about Thomas Cromwell. "I thought that was pretty extraordinary," says Roger.
"And The Killing, the Danish version."
Roger Deakins: an extraordinary career
Roger went to art college in Bath before taking a job at Beaford Arts in North Devon, where he helped create a photographic archive documenting rural life.
He then went to the National Film School.
Roger began his career making documentaries. One of his first feature films was 1984, starring Richard Burton and John Hurt.
"I have a very great fondness for that movie," says Roger. "I would love to do another version and I think it's a pretty good time to do it. Living in America right now, it's pretty pertinent."
In the years after, Roger went on to shoot The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, True Grit and Skyfall.
His latest work is 1917.
"1917" was one of two 2019 films Deakins shot, the other being John Crowley's adaptation of "The Goldfinch." Deakins has yet to announce a follow-up project. The film marked the latest collaboration between Mendes and Deakins after "Jarhead," "Revolutionary Road," and the James Bond adventure "Skyfall." Prior to winning the Oscar, Deakins picked up Best Cinematography honors from the Critic's Choice Awards, the BAFTA Film Awards, and the American Society of Cinematographers.