Roger Deakins on His True Grit Oscar Nod and the End of Film: 'Next Year Will Be It'
The startling beauty of Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-nominated True Grit -- and in most Coen brothers films, for that matter -- owes to frequent collaborator and award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's lensed all but one of their films since 1991's Barton Fink. But as much as the nostalgic Western serves as a throwback to simpler times, simpler heroes (and heroines), and a yearning to stick to one's principles in the face of obsolescence, True Grit could also mark a wistful point in Deakins career -- his last film shot on film.
Following his ninth career Academy Award nomination, Movieline revisited the True Grit shoot with Deakins, learned which scene was almost shot with CG, and heard the legendary DP (and recent digital convert) predict the imminent death of film.
Congratulations! Where were you when you heard the news?
I think I was in bed because I'd been on a night shoot, something like that. My wife told me. I think I was getting up because I had a late call that day.
Is it still as exciting as your first Oscar nomination?
It's great. I'm so pleased the film is getting the kind of recognition I think it deserves. I mean, that's what's so good about people getting nominated; the recognition for the film. Nothing changes, you know. The film is the film but it's rewarded when it gets more publicity and more people see it.
You've worked for a very long time with Joel and Ethan Coen. When they came to you with True Grit, was it a no-brainer that you'd be on board?
Oh, yeah. They said that they were writing the script and I hadn't read the original novel, so I went and read the book. I'd seen the original movie, but that didn't really relate to what we were doing. So I went back to the novel, read it for the first time. What an opportunity, but it's always an opportunity working with them because they're always going to do something different and imaginative. It's such a pleasure working with people who have such a love of the medium.
What sort of descriptors came into play when you first began discussing the stylistic approach with Joel and Ethan?
[Laughs] It's funny -- I don't know, we don't really have conversations. It's never like that. It starts very slowly. I read the script, we usually meet up to scout locations -- that's usually the first time I'm with them talking about the film -- and it sort of evolves. You look at locations and ask, how can these scenes be staged in this particular look, you discuss the feel of the locations they are after and the mood. It just gradually evolves. And for me, it's not really until you see Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper, the characters in the costumes and makeup and everything, it's not finalized, what it's going to look like.
True Grit takes a much more straightforward visual approach from your recent Westerns, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men. How would you describe the difference in approach?
So much comes from the script. The script for Jesse James reflected the book of the same title; it's very much a tone poem and meditation on the West and this particular character, and that the world is basically passing him by. It's much more a poem in a way than a linear narrative. No Country is a meditation, too, but probably on the nature of evil. It's much more of a brutal, stark, nihilistic view, you could say. So that fuels the imagery. And True Grit is probably more traditional, it's much more of a straight linear narrative. Joel likened it to, on the one hand, a teenage girl's adventure story, but also like the trials of Job, really. The poor girl -- how could it get any worse? So the three films have very different starting points, and the way the visuals evolve very much come from those starting points.
There's a wonderfully nostalgic visual quality to True Grit that we don't really see attempted anymore. Was that particularly difficult to capture in 2010, when filmmaking techniques had advanced and filmmaking sensibilities have progressed so much?
I think what's really cool is that the film has been so successful and it does have that kind of mood. Someone said it's more like a classic Western but it does have a melancholy feel to it. It's more complex, probably more than a lot of the traditional Westerns and it's not a straightforward action movie, for sure. So it's quite reassuring that it's been so successful, and maybe that will open up more opportunities for films that are more complex, in a way.
A scene that stands out for its simplicity and retro feel is the sequence in which Rooster rides through the night with the snake-bitten Mattie. Was that borne more of necessity or was it a stylistic choice?.
It was borne out of necessity but it was also fueled by Joel and Ethan's desire to make it a very simple, kind of picture-book sequence. It was this girl's memory, and it's also like a fever dream. So they deliberately wanted it to be stylized, it was an aesthetic choice on their part, as much as anything. But on the other hand, it's true; no way could we have shot all of it at night, exteriors, with a 13-year-old girl riding a horse at night. So we had to do it in a much smaller, straightforward approach.
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