Roger Deakins, Keeping An Eye On The Small Things The noted cinematographer has shaped the visual vocabulary of films including The Shawshank Redemption and every Coen Brothers picture since 1991's Barton Fink. He talks to Melissa Block about the joys of the simple image — and takes us through two of his favorite scenes.
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Roger Deakins, Keeping An Eye On The Small Things

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Roger Deakins, Keeping An Eye On The Small Things

Roger Deakins, Keeping An Eye On The Small Things

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.


I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in California.

And Robert, I'm going to list some movie titles. These are movies that I bet you've seen.


BLOCK: "No Country for Old Men."

SIEGEL: Saw it.

BLOCK: Okay. "A Beautiful Mind" about the schizophrenic math genius.

SIEGEL: Saw it. The book was better.

BLOCK: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "Fargo," both directed by the Coen brothers.

SIEGEL: Saw them both.

BLOCK: "Shawshank Redemption," remember the prison movies with Tim Robbins?

SIEGEL: Absolutely, many times, yes.

BLOCK: One thing connecting all of these movies, Robert, dozens more movies, too, they were all shot by one cinematographer named Roger Deakins. He's been nominated for eight Oscars now. Roger Deakins lives in Santa Monica, and the other day, I met him at his house, it's a beautiful arts and crafts style house that he helped design, and I went there, of course, to talk about movie-making. But, first, we looked at some black and white still pictures that he has framed on the wall. They're pictures he's taken, many of them on the English coast, where he's from, in Devon. There's an old couple licking ice cream cones, a happy dog in mid-jump on the beach.

Mr. ROGER DEAKINS (Cinematographer): I love light 'cause it changes every second. And, you know, I spent most of my childhood in boats and fishing and stuff from dawn to dusk and skipping school and just going fishing. And that's all about the light and the weather, you know, so I'm sure that did have an influence.

BLOCK: And as the California light dissolved into a sunset, we sat down to watch an intricate, intense scene from "No Country for Old Men," another one of the Coen brothers' movies. It's the middle of the night, a motel with crime scene tape stretched outside Room 114, cut to an inside shot. The psychopath, played by Javier Bardem, is gripping a gun, a sliver of his face barely illuminated by a dim crescent of light. Then, cut back outside. The sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, walks up cautiously. His shadow looms on the door.

Mr. DEAKINS: To me, this was one of the most successful scenes and it was just something that I think that's fabulous, the close-up of the hole where the lock was. He gets his gun out, and then he pushes the door open and he stands there and he's backlit, shot with a headlight you can see of the car. And then you reverse, and he pans the room, and we cheated it so it's thought that both the headlights hit his silhouette, and you've got this really fractured, odd image. And…

BLOCK: His shadow on the wall.

Mr. DEAKINS: And that was just something that we came up with at the time and thought, well, we've got to use that. You know, I love light. When you see something like that, you go, whoa, you get kind of high, really, I suppose. If that makes sense. It's the little things in my life, you see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: When you're - before you start filming, and you're working with the directors, thinking it through ahead of time, walk us through how that works. What are you doing? How much are you laying out?

Mr. DEAKINS: Well, you know, it's - what's really interesting and stimulating about my job is that every experience with a director is different. So, working with Joel and Ethan, things - there's a long prep time usually.

BLOCK: The Coen brothers.

Mr. DEAKINS: Yeah, sorry, the Coen brothers, yeah. Basically the whole film is storyboarded. I mean, drawings are done of the way they want the images to cut together and the feeling of the movie all the way through. And, you know, the antithesis of that is when - the first film I did with Sam Mendes was "Jarhead" about the Iraqi war.

Basically, he said I want this to be really spontaneous. I want to shoot it hand-held, and I want just to be able to shoot rehearsals. And sometimes we would go in and shoot even before the action was staged with the actors, you know. And then, together we would work with the actors and develop the scene so that - in an organic way with the camera.

BLOCK: If you're working, say, with the Coen brothers and everything is very carefully, meticulously laid out ahead of time, where does serendipity fit in there?

Mr. DEAKINS: Well, Conrad Hall is a great - I mean, the greatest cinematographer, but he always called it the happy accident that always happens on a set that sometimes you'll see something. Something will happen, and you'll realize you can do something visually either with the lighting or the way you move the camera that you couldn't have done on the page in the script and the words. And, you know, that happens a lot.

I mean, it's usually - we might do a scene in one shot instead of covering it in five, you know. Most people think, well, if you storyboard it, it's just a mechanical way of filmmaking, but I don't see it as that, not with them, anyway. I'm sure with some people it is and especially, you know, mostly storyboards are done for big, special effects films where, you know, it's really important to have the special effects all worked out so everybody knows what little element of the shot they have to do. And there's probably not so much freedom that way. Of course, now there's more freedom because with digital technology, actually, that's changing as well, you know.

BLOCK: You can fix things, you mean, re-invent things.

Mr. DEAKINS: Fix things in post. It's one of the worst expressions to come into the industry. But on the other hand, again, take a film like "Jarhead," which we shot it all hand-held in the desert, but in the background there's mountains, and Sam didn't want anything - no mountains. He wanted this flat, kind of surreal landscape, emptiness, the horizon going into nothing. So, all the mountains were taken out digitally afterwards. But if it's used correctly, it's a fantastic technique.

BLOCK: Well, that's the danger, I suppose. I mean, just fix it in post, I can tell by the way you say it, you hate it. It's (unintelligible) to you, right?

Mr. DEAKINS: Yes, absolutely.

BLOCK: Why? Explain why.

Mr. DEAKINS: Well, you can be on the set and suddenly it's used too freely and there's certain things you can't fix in post. There's certain things that would no longer look organic if you did it in post, really. You know, it's one thing removing a mountain in the background of a shot, it's another thing adding 15,000 people and, you know, changing somebody's face. You know, that kind of manipulation, I think, gives itself away eventually.

BLOCK: Can you see it when you watch a movie? Can you pick it out?

Mr. DEAKINS: Mostly, yes, but then it's interesting because sometimes, you know, on the film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" again, with the Coen brothers, there's a scene where they hit this cow, right? And they run over this cow. And we had the Society of Protection for Animals, right, ring us up and said, you killed a cow. And they had to go down to the effects house, and the effects guys had to show them through the stages of how they had animated this cow to look like it had been run over by a car.

BLOCK: Now cow was hurt in the making of this movie.

Mr. DEAKINS: No. But they said that at the end, I think, didn't they: No cow was hurt in the making of this movie. So sometimes it, you know, for most people - me, I look at - if I really studied it, I thought, well, I'd see an edge there, the shadow's not quite the same on the cow as it is to the tree over there or whatever. You know, it doesn't seem to be in quite the same space, but you know, often you really have to look at it hard.

BLOCK: But other times you can really, if you're watching somebody else's movie, if it looks phony, if it looks manipulated, you might be able to tell.

Mr. DEAKINS: Yes. And then that's, I think, that's what I mean. That's when you lose an audience. And, you know, I mean, that's the whole discussion about camera style and lighting and how much the imagery and the photography and the effects really are there to serve a story.

There's nothing worse than an ostentatious shot in my head or some lighting that draws attention to itself, and you might go: Oh, wow, that's spectacular. Oh, that's a spectacular shot, you know, a big crane move or something. But it's not necessarily right for the film because it - you jump out, you think about the surface and you're not, you know, you're not - you don't stay in there with the characters and the story.

BLOCK: Well, Roger Deakins, thanks for spending time with us.

Mr. DEAKINS: Thank you. It was my pleasure. It's great.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Cinematographer Roger Deakins. His most recent movie with the Coen brothers is "A Serious Man." You can watch and listen as Deakins narrates how he shot a scene from "The Shawshank Redemption" at

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