Joining the Lifetime Achievement Award party for Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC at the ASC Awards banquet in February will be Deakins’ latest collaborator—writer/director/producer John Wells. Wells, of course, is best known for creating television’s ER for NBC and TNT’s Southland. But he also recently launched his feature film-directing career with Deakins’ help—the Boston-based, recession drama The Company Men. It is the second Deakins-shot film to come out in recent months, on the heels of his ASC and Academy Award-nominated work on the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. (That work, of course, represents the ninth Oscar nomination in Deakins’ illustrious career and the third straight year he’s either been nominated or co-nominated for both ASC and Oscar honors on at least one film.)
You can read all about Deakins’ career and his work on True Grit in the January 2011 issue of American Cinematographer. (article link) But Wells sums that career up as well as anyone—“Roger is very good at what he does.”
“Any time you can collaborate with someone who is a master, you are lucky and get a chance to learn something,” Wells adds. “I was intimately familiar with his work and had admired him for a long time. What he does with light and the camera, the simplicity of it, and the lack of artifice in his work—I love that. As a film director, getting him to shoot my film meant starting at the top. Believe me, it’s a tremendous luxury to have someone like Roger Deakins by your side when directing your first film.”
Wells lured Deakins the old-fashioned way—he sent his script to Deakins’ agent, with a presumption he wouldn’t even consider the modestly budgeted film at a particularly busy time in Deakins’ career. “When they told me Roger wanted to come in and meet me, I didn’t believe them,” Wells adds. “But he came, we had a great meeting, and that was that.”
Deakins actually shot The Company Men almost two years ago, while simultaneously consulting on an animated film for DreamWorks Animation, and then transitioning into True Grit. Subsequently, he has continued to become more involved in providing expertise to the emerging disciplines of virtual camera and virtual light with more consulting work for DreamWorks, even while shooting (at press time) his first digital feature with Arri’s Alexa camera on Andrew Niccol’s upcoming film, Now.
“I didn’t shoot (The Company Men and True Grit) back to back exactly, but I worked on animation in-between,” Deakins says. “It’s not hard to transition in my mind (between projects). The way you work is different from director to director anyway. That’s even true in animation. On one film, I’m working on using motion capture and a camera room to create shots in a virtual world. On another film (Gore Verbinski’s Rango), the director prefers to storyboard everything, and that’s how his shots are done. So, on that project, I have been consulting on how they are lighting it, rather than setting up shots. I enjoy working on animated films, actually. It’s not as personal as live action because so many more people are involved. But, it is similar in the sense that you are using a camera of a kind for framing and motion, and lighting to help tell a story.”
Still, live action remains Deakins’ true cinematic love. But Company Men was certainly different from his work with the Coen Brothers in the sense that it was a much simpler, straightforward character piece, on a modest budget, with few visual effects or what he calls “camera trickery.” The movie details the consequences of unemployment in the midst of the recession on three colleagues (played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper) in Boston’s shipbuilding industry. The entire movie was shot in 40 days in and around Boston. That schedule, the budget, and his director’s feature film experience were all modest, but those realities only made the project more attractive to Deakins.
“To me, the attraction is always the script,” he says. “If you only have a limited amount of money to work with on a film worth doing, then so be it—just do your best. Whatever the budget, your ambitions are larger than what you can achieve anyway. But I will say it was an advantage working with John Wells, given his television experience. He’s particularly adaptable. I’ve actually worked with a lot of first-time directors, not that I really consider him a first-time director given the fact that he has done some of the most sophisticated TV work out there. I find it refreshing. If someone has a passion for their project and a vision for what they want, then it doesn’t matter to me if they have done 100 films or never done a film.”
Deakins’ interaction with Wells revolved almost exclusively around creative questions, while Wells left virtually all technical decisions to Deakins.
“Any time I work with someone for the first time, I like to have quite a bit of prep,” Deakins says. “So we talked the film over a lot and spent a great deal of time looking at locations. In the end, it’s a character piece with nothing about how it is photographed out of the ordinary at all. The photography is very quiet and matter of fact, and I felt my role was to give the actors space to do their jobs, while being as economical and in the background as possible. That’s as important to the job as anything clever you might do with cinematography or lighting.”
Still, Wells suggests that any film featuring Deakins as cinematographer has a major advantage because Deakins the camera operator comes with the package.
“That’s an extraordinary advantage,” Wells says. “(As director), you have this enormous sense of confidence that the person whose eye is actually in the lens is the same person you have had all those conversations with throughout the entire process. Normally, you don’t have your operator with you to discuss every shot during prep. With Roger, you get both, and that’s a great luxury.”
The experience with Deakins was so positive for Wells that he says he “really wants to work with him again,” adding that “if we do, it will probably with a digital camera from what he’s telling me about (the Alexa camera).”
Indeed, at press time, Deakins was still in production on Now, becoming intimately familiar with Alexa. Like many around the industry, he’s duly impressed.
“To me, Alexa is the first [digital] camera that succeeds in getting an image that is not exactly film, but does something that film cannot do,” he says. “It has better color space than film, more latitude, and basically, it’s faster and incredible in low light. This film [Now] has lots of night exterior work, low light levels, a low budget, and we are working fast and furious on it, and [Alexa] is holding up fantastically well.”
And Deakins continues diving further into the digital world with his ongoing work as a “visual consultant” on animated films—a piece of his career that launched with WALL-E in 2008. He has now signed up for three more upcoming DreamWorks films.
Combined, these recent developments contribute more chapters to the ongoing saga of a cinematographer on the cusp of a Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers while at the height of his powers. That’s an honor Deakins deeply appreciates, but at the same time, finds “weird” when you consider he doesn’t believe he’s anywhere close to the end of the road.
“I’m very busy, but I enjoy it,” he says. “When I’m done with Now, I’ll probably spend some time just working on animation, and then see what happens later this year.”