What you should know about Roger Deakins: a panoply of eccentric biographical data re: the cinephile’s cinematographer by Sarah Ball. This article originally appeared at Vanity Fair.
He is the snowy Beatles mop behind the lens of an award-winning list—‘Fargo,’ ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ ‘No Country for Old Men,’ ‘A Beautiful Mind’—and has worked with moviedom’s greats: Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Edward Zwick, and, in a near-25-year partnership, the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan have collaborated with the Devon-born Deakins on 11 of their films, more than half their oeuvre, beginning with 1991’s acclaimed ‘Barton Fink.’ But even with Deakins’s trophy collection—three BAFTAs, his field’s highest lifetime-achievement award, the first C.B.E. ever given to a cinematographer—he has not yet won an Academy Award, despite 10 previous nominations, including two in 2008, for ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ by the Coward Robert Ford. This year, he earned an 11th nod, for ‘Prisoners.’ Here, the constellation of the man in his own, gently Zen reflections.
- HE HAS a genteel, finely boned face, bearing a resemblance to a younger Dick Van Dyke, but he wears a rancher’s uniform every single day: blue jeans, a white shirt, and a pair of genuine farmhand boots bought in rural Mississippi while filming ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ He has half a dozen pairs now and wears them in freezing weather and in the Australian summer, snow or sand, “even when I’m out on my boat fishing.”
- HIS BELT buckle, adorned with Persian scrollwork and in the service of hoisting his jeans for 40 straight years, “was brought back by a drug dealer from Afghanistan.” This is all he offers on the matter.
- HE IS abidingly comfortable with silence.
- HE IS given to pocketing unusual rocks but declares a general dislike of “things.”
- HE FEARS living too far from the ocean. He and his wife, James, toggle between a Santa Monica home (mostly) and a little apartment (sometimes) on the top floor of an old house on the Devon coast.
- HE IS the occasional target of Coen pranks. He and James once left a thank-you gift for Joel and his wife, Frances McDormand—a card and a lovely art book, all wrapped up. Ethan surreptitiously intercepted it, swapping in a used porn paperback. The card, he left as it was: “We thought you would like this!” It would be a few awkward encounters before the truth was revealed.
- O.K., ONE more Coen prank: the pair once decreed on a day’s call sheet that everyone come to the set dressed in the Deakins uniform—the jeans, white shirt, and boots. Roger, deep in his work, failed to notice until day’s end that the entire crew matched him.
- HIS FIRST brush with fame was as a little boy, when he made the local paper for catching a very large bass.
- HE RUNS between 6 and 10 miles at a time, always outdoors, and mostly by water.
- HE STARTED out as a still photographer, shooting farmers in North Devon before film school, after which Africa-documentary-making took him, circuitously, to Hollywood. His three Leica still cameras (the M8, the M9, and a special black-and-white) remain among his most treasured possessions.
- HE IS known for naturalism and light in film, and he brings his work home. When he and an architect were first mapping out his California house, he obsessed over the location and light-imbuing properties of every single window, chasing the shadowy daylight feeling of an Edwardian London apartment. Construction started while he was away shooting in Canada, so James would send him home movies of the progress. “She got annoyed because I started criticizing her on the camera operating,” he says. “People pan too much!”
- HE HAS a rich, booming, quarter-note laugh, wherein each Ha! hangs for a savoring beat.
- HE RESERVES skepticism for weather apps. On set, “yesterday about five people all had their sort of radar—all with different weather apps out—and every one had a different answer to what was going to happen.” He amusedly pines for a simpler method, like his grandfather’s: hanging seaweed outside the back door. If it becomes damp and pliant, brace for rain.
- THE TRUE north of his humor sensibilities is Monty Python. His father, a building contractor, worked for a time on a hotel in the English holiday town of Torquay, where John Cleese and the Pythons once bunked while filming. It later became the basis for Fawlty Towers: “The guy my dad was working for was just like [Basil Fawlty],” he says. “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
- AND OF elusive awards, his only ambition is “to express myself” on movies he can’t even imagine yet. “It sounds pretentious,” he says, “but it’s day-to-day life”—not things on a mantel—that “gives your existence meaning.” Actually, it doesn’t sound pretentious at all.
Roger Deakins in Cinematographer Style: “Lenses are really important to me,” after which we get an in-depth discussion on working with the Coen Brothers and how to shoot with the audience in mind. A great conversationalist, how can one not listen to this man speak about film?
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