Roger Deakins says working with the Coens on 'Barton Fink' changed his whole outlook

Posted by · 8:12 am · December 23rd, 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.

Save for a pair necessary detours with the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki and Bruno Delbonnel, Joel and Ethan Coen have utilized Roger Deakins' skills behind the camera for every single directorial outing since 1991's “Barton Fink.” That's 11 movies, with a 12th – “Hail, Caesar!” – currently in production. For Deakins, that first collaboration nearly 25 years ago was a professional awakening.

“I think their approach to filmmaking, and my experience with them then and since, has affected the way I work and the way I see things, definitely,” Deakins says. “I think some of it is also experience. That was like the second time, third time I had worked in America. You've got to put it in context of who I was and what I had, the tools I had.”

A sui generis blend of old Hollywood style and noir elements, “Barton Fink” is a singular accomplishment. Until that time, the Coens had worked with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who of course went on to a directorial career making movies like “Men in Black.” But there was a definite aesthetic shift with this film, stylization and formalism being dialed up a notch. And it was all so compelling as to win the coveted trifecta at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor (John Turturro), Best Director and the Palme d'Or

Barton Fink

“They're notorious for storyboarding everything and being so specific about what they want,” Deakins says. “And my world was documentaries. I mean, I did sort of verité documentaries, which is just following a real situation, covering it and cutting it in my head while it was shooting, you know? And then to approach it the other way, which they do, which is to work everything out very tightly beforehand and just shoot only the things that you really want, it's a different approach. To combine those two approaches, I think that's probably what changed the way I saw things.”

Of course, Deakins had beautiful designs to capture, from Richard Hornung's costumes to Dennis Gassner's detailed sets. But the tone set forth by the filmmaker siblings on “Barton Fink” was just its own thing. It's an unsettling film to watch sometimes, often leaving you unsure of how to feel.

“Well, I think that's their brilliance, really,” Deakins says. “You find yourself laughing and then you go, 'Oh, I don't know. I really shouldn't be laughing at this. This is rather sort of sick!'”

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

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