You think Leo’s Oscar has been a long time coming? Then you might want to put it in perspective.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins — the genius behind the camera on “No Country for Old Men,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “Kundun” — is up for his 13th Academy Award, for “Sicario,” and he’s never won. He was even nominated twice one year, in 2008. Alas, Robert Elswit won for “There Will Be Blood.” (Sound mixer Kevin O’Connell holds the record for nominations without a win, with 20.)
Deakins doesn’t seem to mind.
“How you can judge films that are so diverse and say one is better than another? I’ve never thought that made sense to me,” the amiable British-born nominee explained during a phone conversation about the evolution of his work, the best part of the Oscars and his favorite cinematographers.
(The following Q-and-A has been edited for length and clarity.)
Other than in the most obvious way — the switch from film to digital — are there a lot of ways your job has changed over the years?
The size of cameras has been reducing, and now with digital technology the cameras are getting even smaller. I was joking with Chivo [fellow nominee and “The Revenant" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] the other day that it’s great because the cameras get smaller as we’re getting older. We can still work handheld. It’s not such a struggle.
That’s the big change. Obviously digital technology is the biggest shift. And obviously now what you see on the screen is not always what was captured on the camera. It’s not all live action, a lot of it was digitally manipulated or actually digitally created completely. Sometimes it can actually be kind of frustrating because someone will come to me and they think a shot was digitally created when actually it was live action. Or I suppose sometimes they think something is live and actually it’s digital creation. But the blend between what’s live and what’s artificial has really closed over the last ten years.
Right. I was amazed by the number of people who watched “The Revenant” and thought the bear was real.
It’s marvelous that you can do that kind of scene, because obviously you couldn’t have done that scene with a real bear. Just like we couldn’t have shot on a real military base in “Sicario.” All the helicopters in “Sicario” are actually CG [computer generated]. You don’t realize it because we couldn’t have possibly done that, shot on a military base, which we scouted. We went around it. They let you look at it but you’re not allowed to shoot there. It’s fantastic you can create that kind of landscape on a relatively low budget film because you have that kind of technology.
Is there a recent example of something you shot that people thought was CG?
That silhouette shot in “Sicario.” Somebody said the other day, “Well that must have been CG.” Or the skies, when they’re on the rooftop looking into Juarez [during a huge firefight], people said well the sky must have been CG, which is done a lot. I’m not going to mention the films it’s been done on this year where the background skies have been put in digitally. If the audience doesn’t know which it is, does it really matter? In some sense it would be nice to be a purist and say everything was done in camera but that’s not the real world. It’s the final image that’s important.
You’ve been nominated 13 times, right? Have you gone to the ceremony every time?
I have, yeah. I guess it’s what you do, you know?
And you’re going this year?
Does it ever lose its luster because this has happened to you so many times? Or is it exciting every year when you hear that you’ve been nominated?
Well you use two words there that I don’t really relate to. I’m not that excited about it in the first place. And to lose its luster means it has luster in the first place, too. I mean, I’m not being dismissive. I work as a cinematographer because I love doing that and I love filmmaking. And you know, the Oscars are a celebration of filmmaking. Anything further than that doesn’t really make sense to me.
How you can judge not only people’s work, but how you can judge films that are so diverse and say one is better than another? I’ve never thought that made sense to me. And besides, the film directors that probably inspired me most over the years and the cinematographers that inspired me most when I was young — and still — they were never nominated anyway, so what’s it matter? Do you know what I mean? You just have to be realistic. It’s a celebration of movies. And that’s great.
Since you mentioned loving cinematographers that don’t get acknowledged, were there any under the radar this year that blew you away?
There’s a foreign film [nominee] “Embrace of the Serpent.” The cinematography on that film is extraordinary, and the cinematography on “Son of Saul.” There’s some great work out there, some great cinematography that doesn’t get nominated in that category. In the same way, there was a great Russian cinematographer Vadim Yusov [“Solaris," “Andre’s Childhood"]. He never got nominated for an Oscar! But then, nor did Kazuo Miyagawa [“Rashomon," “Yojimbo"], you know, the cinematographer who shot for Kurosawa. He probably produced more work than most cinematographers, frankly, and probably inspired most of us. So you can’t really judge.
So you don’t give much thought to whether you’ll win?
It’s wonderful. I’m not denying that. But you can’t take it too seriously.
Do you write a speech just in case?
No. I wrote one. Just once — the first time I was nominated.