Roger Deakins looks back on 1997's 'Kundun,' his only Scorsese collaboration to date

Posted by · 11:39 am · December 25th, 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.

A month like this bears reminding of the fact that external political pressure on Hollywood isn't exactly a new thing. Take a case like Martin Scorsese's Dalai Lama drama “Kundun,” which became a hot button issue in 1997 with China threatening Disney's business interests in the country for moving forward with a release. One wonders if lingering dissent is what has kept the film from a high definition home video release. But underneath all of that was a work of art, of course, and the only Scorsese/Roger Deakins collaboration to date.

“I think I said to you before, that was a very specific project,” Deakins says. “I think he asked me because of my documentary experience. Because 'Kundun' was a film where we were basically working with non-actors. So I think he just wanted that somebody that could react to them and fade into the background, maybe. It was a very particular film.”

The film was shot over a 103-day period in Morocco – the most exotic location Deakins can remember tackling over his 30-year tenure – with a pick-up day at an upstate New York Buddhist temple to boot. It was originally supposed to be 75 days but things went long. It also features an interesting – not so much staple Deakins shot, but certainly an image he's come back to in a few other films: characters watching something projected. It pops up in “Barton Fink,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Jarhead,” for example.


“It's a great shot, isn't it,” Deakins says. “And I love it in 'Citizen Kane.' 'Sunset Boulevard' was probably where it was done better than anywhere else.”

It's used to rather penetrating effect in “Kundun,” however. As the Dalai's older brother asserts that Tibet must fight, images of the battle scene from Laurence Olivier's “Henry V” flicker across his face.

“It is unlike anything else he's done,” Deakins says of Scorsese's film. “I love that film. I loved the experience. I'd be surprised if he asked me again, because he's also got a couple of regular people he works with. On the other hand maybe he will. I don't know.”

Fingers crossed.

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

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