Roger Deakins might be the most famous man working in film that you’ve never heard of.
The Coen brothers rarely make a movie without him — when he isn’t working for other directors such as Ron Howard, Paul Haggis, M. Night Shyamalan and Martin Scorsese. He’s garnered seven Oscar nominations for movies like 2008’s “No Country for Old Men” and “The Assassination of Jesse James,” as well as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Kundun.” This year might bring several more — and finally, a win — with the hotly tipped “Revolutionary Road,” “Doubt” and “The Reader.”
But the soft-spoken cinematographer demurs on the topic of awards and accolades. “I think you’re just there to service the film,” says the native of Devon, England, by phone from aboard his sailboat in Paignton Harbour. “It’s just trying to get the best look for the film without compromising the performance. Without performance, you’ve got nothing. I’m not in love with pretty cinematography.”
Such service is worthy of recognition, others have decided. This week Deakins was nominated by a jury of his peers, the American Society of Cinematographers, for his work on “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader” (which he worked on until delays forced him to hand the camera over to Chris Menges).
“Roger is one of the greatest cinematographers in the world,” says “The Reader” director Stephen Daldry. “Who would not want to work with him? He is one of the most gifted collaborators one could possibly hope to have on a set. His advice, guidance and help were invaluable.”
And, in a world where egos are always jostling for hierarchy, Deakins is refreshingly straightforward. “He’s a very modest guy and he’s a man of few words,” says “Doubt” director John Patrick Shanley.
In keeping with his unobtrusive style, Deakins values story over opportunities for flashy camera work. “I really tend to go towards the scripts that are about characters,” he says. That led him to join the emotional drama “Revolutionary Road,” directed by Sam Mendes, with whom he worked previously on 2005’s war flick “Jarhead.” Though much of “Road” was shot on the very constrained location of a suburban Connecticut house where he had to re-create abundant natural light, Deakins didn’t balk.
“I suppose, in a way, we wanted to make it have a prison feel,” he says of the tight space. “[Because] the lighting is changing so much during the day and yet we are shooting quite long sequences…the challenge is the consistency. In the end, you forget about the daylight and basically all the light viewers see is unnatural.”
Deakins tried hard to achieve what he describes as a “matter-of-fact” look for the movie. “It has a nice period feel without doing anything to make it look period,” he says. “We didn’t say, ‘Oh, this film is set in the Fifties so we’re going to light it in a particular way.’ We just shot it.”
Similarly, for “Doubt,” much of the project was filmed in the Bronx at a real-life convent. “I like locations because I like the sort of arbitrary things that happen when you are shooting,” says Deakins, who typically does four to six weeks of intensive prep before filming begins.
“He’s a very vibrant guy and he needs challenges all day long to deal with. He likes wrestling with them,” points out Shanley. “It makes him light up.”
The son of a construction worker and an actress, the 59-year-old Deakins grew up watching movies at the local film society but scarcely expected to wind up working in Hollywood. After graduating from Britain’s National Film School, he started shooting documentaries before moving on to music videos and to feature films. Then the famously particular Coen brothers came calling for 1991’s “Barton Fink.”
“My agent called up and said, ‘There’s this very odd project,’ and I said, ‘Who’s directing it?’ And he said, ‘The Coen brothers.’ So I said, ‘Hey, hey, yes, yes,’” he recalls. “We just hit it off.”
Since then, he has worked on 10 of the Coens’ films, including their next project, “A Serious Man,” out this year. “I always give them first priority,” he says.
And so, Oscar or no Oscar, Deakins seems genuinely content. “I have to pinch myself when I realize what I do for a living. I’m living the dream,” he says. “It’s not bad, not bad at all.”