Roger Deakins recalls 'The Man Who Wasn't There' and film noir favorites

Posted by · 11:17 am · December 19th, 2014

It seemed this year that if any artist was due for the retrospective treatment, it was “Unbroken” cinematographer Roger Deakins. While I of course did not address all of the 50-plus films he has shot throughout his illustrious career during a recent extended interview, I settled on a few in particular that I think represent a nice cross-section of his work. Each of them – “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Barton Fink,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Kundun,” “The Man Who Wasn't There” and “The Village” – will get their own space in the next few days.

2001 was an interesting year for Roger Deakins. With John Nash biopic “A Beautiful Mind” – the only time he's ever worked with director Ron Howard – he shot the year's Best Picture winner, while his on-going collaboration with the Coen brothers' yielded “The Man Who Wasn't There” and the chance to work on a cinematographer's dream: a film noir.

“You know, those two films really are, I suppose, the two sides of where I come from,” Deakins says. “I suppose I started doing more stylized stuff with the boys, with the Coen brothers, whereas Ron Howard asked me to do 'A Beautiful Mind,' I think, because he wanted that sort of documentary kind of feel. He wanted a feel of reality. And so it was great to have those two films in a short period together. It was very different approaches and different styles.”

Nevertheless, he says he won't likely work with Howard again if only because their approaches to cinematography are at odds with one another. “I remember the meeting I had with him,” Deakins recalls. “He's somebody that, as a director, likes shooting multiple cameras. And I said, you know, 'I don't know how this works because I don't like shooting with multiple cameras. I just don't work that way. I operate the camera myself.' And he said, 'Well, that's what I want on this film.'”

On the Coen picture, the struggle was dealing with originality versus emulation. Noir is obviously such a familiar, well-worn genre, it inevitably leads to certain signatures. And indeed, it's the only time Deakins can recall the filmmaker siblings mentioning another movie by way of reference: Alfred Hitchcock's “Shadow of a Doubt.”

“It wasn”t so much the photographic look of the film they were relating to than it was the sense of the small California town and the atmosphere of the town,” he explains. “We talked about it and it was like – it wasn't 'doing noir.' We wanted to do a modern film but it just happened to be this. We weren't trying to copy a film noir or anything. If it looks film noir it's just because I was playing with the lighting and what felt right at that moment. It's not like the film I'm doing with them now ['Hail, Caesar!']. There's definite elements in that film where I'm going to consciously recreate, if you like, film noir and other kinds of lighting that I wouldn't normally do. But for 'The Man Who Wasn't There,' I didn't have references or anything. It was nothing like saying, 'Oh, I'm going to do this kind of scene that we saw in 'Citizen Kane' or 'Sunset Boulevard.' It wasn't about that. I just approached it in the way I would any film, thinking, 'What should this scene feel like,' you know?”

The Man Who Wasn't There

One such example brings some of the heightened atmosphere to a head in the film, which, anyone who has seen it knows, goes into much more strikingly stylized territory than simply film noir.

“I remember the scene they were most particular about the lighting was when the character who's murdered in the film, when his wife comes to the doorway and talks about being taken by aliens or whatever it is,” he says. “They were very keen that that had a spooky kind of feeling about it and that the shadows of the trees should start moving and the wind should come up as she's talking. They wanted something really odd about it.”

As the film progresses, it's almost as if the Coens had certain '50s sci-fi tropes in the back of their minds. “I'm sure they did,” Deakins says. “I'm sure those things are there. I'm sure it was like thinking of a Michael Rennie film or something.”

And as for his favorite films of the genre? “I loved 'Kiss Me Deadly,' actually,” he says. “It's so great and unpretentious. I mean it's a fantastic movie. And 'Sunset Boulevard,' you know? And – I guess it's film noir – 'The Sweet Smell of Success,' I think, is one of the greatest movies of all time.”

Deakins went on to win his second American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award for the film, but unfortunately he was in Canada working on Ed Solomon's “Levity” and could not attend. Those who accepted the honor in his stead referred to him, fittingly, as “the man who wasn't there.”

Don't forget to read our “Unbroken”-centric interview with Deakins here.

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