This story about Roger Deakins first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Roger Deakins remembers the moment he figured out what he was going to do for a living. It didn’t come as a child in Torquay, a seaside town on the coast of South West England, where he grew up surrounded by movies. “I think there were five or six cinemas within walking distance of where I lived,” he said. “And now there’s only two, which is a shame.”
It didn’t come in his teenage years, even though he gravitated toward film then, too. “I used to go to the cinema a lot, but what I remember most was when I was still at school and I joined a film club,” he said. “They just had a temporary screen and a 16mm projector, and they put up about 20 folding chairs. But they used to show all kinds of wonderful movies, like ‘Alphaville’ and ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ — all sorts of films that I would’ve never seen in a cinema down in Torquay.”
And it didn’t come when he went to art college, or when he went to work as a photographer, or even when he got into the newly-opened National Film School (on his second try, mind you). No, the key moment was after he got out of school.
“My whole thought was to be a documentary filmmaker, frankly,” said Deakins, speaking on Zoom from his cottage in Santa Monica a few days after finishing a European tour promoting his photography book “Byways.” “And it really wasn’t until I was on the set of 1984 and sitting with John Hurt and Richard Burton one lunchtime that I realized that I’d found my place, somehow.”
He shifted in his seat and laughed. “I actually was a cinematographer. And I felt, ‘Yeah, this is OK. This is me.’”
Roger Deakins is a cinematographer, all right. The 73-year-old’s career stretches from his early days shooting “1984” and “Sid and Nancy” to his work on “The Shawshank Redemption,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” along with long-running associations with the Coen brothers (12 films, including “Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski” and “No Country for Old Men”), Sam Mendes (five films, including “Skyfall” and “1917”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049”).
Along the way, Deakins has shot his way to two Academy Awards and 15 Oscar nominations, five wins and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers and a knighthood from the Queen of England.
And now he’s collaborated once more with Mendes for “Empire of Light,” which happens to deal with watching movies in a theater located in a town on the southern coast of England. The film is about a lot more than that, of course, and Deakins says he was attracted more by the mental-health struggles of lead character Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) than by the moviegoing theme.
But if you’re making a movie that deals partly with the power and glory of watching images on a big screen in a room full of people, you can’t do much better than to have Roger Deakins as the guy shooting your own images.
“Empire of Light,” which draws from Mendes’ childhood memories of a mother who battled mental illness, is the first Mendes-Deakins collaboration since the epic “1917,” a World War I film designed to look as if it was filmed in one single, uninterrupted shot.
“After ‘1917,’ Sam had been talking about a totally different project,” Deakins said. “So when this script came and was a much smaller, more personal story than the one he’d been talking about, it was quite a pleasant surprise.”
This is not to say that it was necessarily any easier than “1917”; it was just hard in a different way. “It’s deceptive,” he said. “‘1917’ was a big technical challenge, but we had a lot of prep time and we figured out exactly what the shot was before production started. Was ‘Empire of Light’ easier? Not really. We realized that as soon as we started looking for locations.”
The problem, he said, was that seaside theaters that were open in 1981, the era in which the film is set, simply don’t exist anymore. “It’s not that long ago, but all the cinemas on the seafront are gone,” he said. “There’s one in Worthing that’s quite nice, but it’s very small. The one that Sam had originally written about was in Brighton, but it’s now a casino and it’s right on the promenade, which would have been an absolute nightmare to control. We looked at places online and found a great one in North Yorkshire, but when I asked (production designer) Mark Tildesley about it, he said, ‘Oh yeah, it was knocked down last week.’”
They finally found an old theater in Margate, a seaside town in South East England. The cinema had been transformed into a bingo hall, but they were able to restore it and then build another lobby a few doors away with glass doors that could take advantage of the Margate light that had famously inspired J.M.W. Turner.
Then again, the light was a little more problematic for Deakins than it had been 150 years earlier for Turner. “The hardest thing was shooting inside the lobby and trying to get the right light outside so that you could balance the interior and the exterior,” he said. “On a sunny day, it was really hard to build up the light level in the lobby to get any information on the exterior. That was always something that one had to play with.”
Shooting the movie, though, gave Deakins a close-up look at another phenomenal performance by Colman. Observing great actors at close range is a longtime perk of his job that dated back to the days before digital filmmaking allowed everybody to look at monitors and see what the cameraman was seeing.
“I always operate the camera, and that’s partly why I love it,” he said. “It’s different now that you’ve got the video assist and everything else. But basically, I love looking through the camera, and it used to be I was the first person to be seeing a performance. That was always a thrill, and it’s still a thrill for me to be sitting there.”
So does he miss the days of film? “I do, but I don’t,” Deakins said. “Digital technology has opened up so many options. In general, capturing an image is slightly easier, and it’s certainly less stressful than waiting for the lab report the next day.
“But I do miss the simplicity of film, and I miss the fact that I’m there operating the camera, and it used to be the director was standing next to me and the camera with the actors. I miss the intimacy of that core group of people. It’s not like that now, and I think that’s a shame.”
Mendes has said that he conceived of “Empire of Light” during the pandemic, at a time when he was afraid theatrical moviegoing was going to disappear entirely. And Deakins, his longtime collaborator, has similar fears.
“I think it’s changed beyond repair, really,” he said with a frown. “You could say it’s because of COVID, but it was happening before COVID. What the audience wants, what people want as entertainment, has changed. The kind of films that are being made and the way they’re being made have changed beyond recognition.”
And while Deakins has made his share of hits — “Skyfall,” “True Grit,” “A Beautiful Mind” — don’t expect him to go looking for the next tentpole or franchise. “They don’t really interest me,” he said. “The kind of films I love, there are less and less of them. And I don’t think producers and studio people are willing to take the risk on a film that expands the cinematic language. I think we’ve regressed in that way.”