We love Roger Deakins. His career has been one phenomenal film after another.
His visual work is always stunning, but his ability to make great movies and use that skill set in service of great stories of all variety is what continues to impress us all.
With 1917, Deakins takes it up a notch, which is hard to imagine because who knew there was another notch he could get to?
I was also fortunate to get to speak with him about 1917 and bring him a few questions from our NFS community. What's amazing about Roger Deakins goes beyond his talent though. In this interview, you'll find he is incredibly dedicated to fulfilling the vision of the story he's working on. He's quick to share credit or give it to his collaborators. He's happy to provide insights, yet always with humility.
He's a reminder that how you carry yourself and treat others will be reflected in the quality of work you do.
[Editor's note: This interview does contain mild spoilers]
No Film School: I saw the film yesterday, I'm blown away by it. I'm thrilled that we can talk to you about it.
Roger Deakins: It was great to work on that script, that story with Sam[Mendes], but I mean also it's a wonderful challenge to do it in that particular style in that way.
NFS: Yeah. My first question: How did you pre-visualize something like 1917? What was that process like?
Deakins: Well, we spent a long time talking, just talking over the script and just talking about ideas, and we worked with a storyboard artist, and I spent a long time sketching ideas really.
We had sketched ideas for the whole film. But then, we started really rehearsing with George [MacKay] and Dean [Chapman], and we went into a farm field with stakes and we marked out the trenches, we marked out the walk down to the farmhouse and we marked everything out and then rehearsed with the actors. We did it to get a sense of the time and how long between each piece of the action, how long to walk with a particular piece of dialogue. And just in that way like you would do on any film, we were figuring out how we were going to shoot this.
It was like a blocking rehearsal, but we were doing it in pre-production so that by the time we came to shoot, we had a schematic, which actually ended up being much more valuable than the storyboards.
We had a schematic of every set of where the camera was going to be relative to the actors and the action. I had also shot all of that on a little Sony handheld point-and-shoot camera. And so I had still frames of certain moments within each shot that I printed out with a schematic, so I could talk this through with the grips and the operators depending on who was doing the shot.
Credit: Universal Pictures
NFS: One of the things that you've mentioned, and this is something that comes up all the time, we hear a lot of filmmakers talk about it, but this is an amazing instance of it working: the focus on story over technique, or whatever tools are being used. It's so hard though with a movie that's a oner, right, to not call attention to that.
Deakins: Well actually, it kind of was similar to doing Jarhead, which was the first time I worked with Sam. We basically shot Jarhead, everything actually in the war zone, handheld. And we had a certain approach to it that, you always wanted to be connected to the characters and sometimes one of us would make a suggestion for a shot and the other one would go, "No, that's not quite right. It doesn't fit."
Our point of view, the way we want the audience to see this, might be too ostentatious or something. It was a bit like that, very similar talking through 1917.
Where was the camera going to be? What was it going to do? The only time the camera really becomes separated from the action is [Editors note: Mild Spoiler] when Scofield (George MacKay) gets knocked out. after he wakes up and the camera then leaves him and goes through the window and sees this burning town with a flare going over. And that felt like the right moment to do something like that. And we both went, "Yeah, that's a good idea."
NFS: That one that's just phenomenal, when you see the flares happening in the city, it almost looked like The Third Man at times.
Deakins: Well, that did come to mind, I must say, The Third Man.
NFS: In the planning?
Deakins: Well, you think of things, I mean, we talked about it being a bit "Noir-ish", but the idea was that... was it a dream? Do you know what I mean? How long had he been knocked out? Was this his imagination? So, we want a kind of nightmarish quality to it and obviously you think film noir and lots of shadows. And the flares obviously lent that lighting pattern of the shadows. So we modeled the set very specifically so when the flares went over we'd have these big tall structures that would cast these really good shadows and that shadow would move across the shot.
NFS: Was that the most difficult sequence in the sense that it had so much complex lighting going on?
Deakins: Everything is its own sort of difficult for different reasons. I mean, in terms of a larger technical challenge and obviously in terms of lighting and effects team doing the flares, yes. They were all on wires and they all had to be timed to last a certain length and they had to be a certain brightness so that I could shoot under them, and a certain color. Some flares are very blue, we didn't want that, we wanted this slightly kind of warm look to them. So yeah, I mean just working out technically, the lighting rig for the burning church was colossal but I wouldn't say it was more difficult than actually doing the scene in the basement with the girl. Because actually staging that and doing the camera move was actually really, really difficult. The lighting of that was actually really difficult because I mean, the technique you're using is that it was not being lit by the fire.
NFS: It was a very low light scene and it's like a dance between the camera and the actors. Was it a much different kind of experience where the whole crew has to work in tandem that way? Is there a different sense of stress about a performance?
Deakins: Well there is because you're doing a shot that might be eight or nine minutes long. I think the longest was eight and a half or nine minutes. But you're doing something complex. Say Scofield's run down the front line towards the end [of the film]. I mean, the camera starts off mounted on a 50-foot techno crane when he's down in the trench, it brings him up over the trench. Then the grips take it off, it's on a stabilized head obviously, they take it off this one crane walk backward with George, put it on another crane that's mounted onto a vehicle and then track for like a quarter of a mile or more with George. And then at the end, it booms out and goes down into the trench with him.
You do a shot like that and there were like 13 grips involved, there was Brian, the camera car driver who had to keep it all in sync.
So at the end when we got that, and it was really good, everybody's on such a high because it's such a huge collaborative effort to do that. And it was great to see because in the end, the grips and George would all be high-fiving each other and it was really quite a wonderful, great atmosphere.
NFS: I just wondered during some of the scenes where the performances are so powerful and raw and the times I would think afterward, wow, that must've been so hard from a crew standpoint to try and make sure the precision-
Deakins: The trick with that though is that you really need to rehearse it technically with a camera a lot so that when the actors are actually doing it, you have the best chance of getting the shot. You know what I mean? You don't want the actors to do their best performance and not get it. We did a lot of rehearsals, so I mean, a lot of days the sun was out and we were waiting for clouds so that we could shoot, so we would rehearse. Not with the actors doing a full performance, but just rehearse to get the feel of the camera, know exactly when the camera was going to move in front of them or when it was going to boom up. I mean, that was the trick.
NFS: You mentioned the sky, the clouds, the natural light. How much of a challenge was it to work with that? And was the location, so much of it is exterior, how did that work with the schedule and what kind of challenges did it present?
Deakins: We were very lucky. It was the biggest challenge. I mean, that caused me the most anxiety. I mean, I had like six weather apps I think I was looking at constantly, and I was watching the radar on them or just figuring when tiny bits of clouds were going to come. So I had to judge... if you're doing a shot that's five or six minutes long or the longest one in the farmyard that's like eight or nine minutes, and it has to be cloudy for that whole time, you don't want to start shooting in a cloud that's not going to last. Then have the actors do it halfway and the sun come out and then that's no good. So I've got to be honest, that was really stressful, saying, "I'm sorry I don't want to shoot yet, I don't want to shoot yet." And just holding out until I knew that we had cloud cover that was going to last.
"...we were very, very lucky. Very, very lucky."
NFS: Did you ever have one where you miscalculated or sun broke and you had to say, "No, we're going to have to stop and start again."
Deakins: I think we had one of two, but by and large I really played it a bit safe I guess. I mean, on some days we didn't shoot at all, we just rehearsed because the sun was out all day. But the problem, the whole feel of the script, was meant to start in the late day, and go through into the evening.
Well, there's no way you could shoot with the high sun because it just would not sell that idea of it being the late day. So people realized that that's the way we had to shoot it. But it's one thing to agree that that's what you've got to do, but another when you've got days of sunlight and suddenly you think, "Oh my God, the schedule is going to get blown."
It's another thing to stick to your guns and only shoot with a cloud cover. But I mean, we were very, very lucky. Very, very lucky.
NFS: Did you find that you broke up the script in terms of how you were going to shoot these oners? When you were planning it out, were there places where you'd wished a shot had extended a little longer?
Deakins: Mainly it was where Sam felt it could be broken down in terms of performance, for one. And also in terms of location, because obviously when you're inside the German tunnel, you're on set. So that led to a major place where you're going to break it down. But then other times we felt like going down to the farmhouse, we felt, why can't we keep that going? So some of the things we kept going as far as we could. Now and again, I had to say to Sam, "Can we break it here?" Because it's on a certain piece of equipment and the operator's carrying it for like six minutes and he does more than 20 takes, he needs a break. I mean, it just was physically really demanding, especially on Charlie Resick who is doing our Trinity work.
It's quite a heavy machine and doing those very long takes where one moment, you've got to be very still and then you've got to be running with the thing. For instance, in the woods with the singing soldier, we wanted that as one take from Schofield coming through the trees all the way around the soldier, until we see him running out towards the front line. We wanted that in the flow as one take just because of the whole song. But I mean, you couldn't do that many times, the operator just physically couldn't.
NFS: How far is that distance? I mean, in my mind that seems like a great distance to cover.
Deakins: Well it's not only that, I mean it is quite a long distance to cover, but the thing is the operator is going through so many different movements with his body. I mean, at one moment he's doing a quite fast move and then he's coming around, the cameras jibbing down, so he's got to jib it down, then he's got to move in very, very slowly and still towards Scofield as he's sitting there. And then when Scofield gets up and starts running towards the front line as it were, out of the forest, he's got to run with him. Physically that is incredibly demanding.
Sam Mendes directing George MacKay in '1917'
NFS: So where did you put the cut in there? I can't recall seeing it.
Deakins: Well, that was all one shot. That was the thing. We didn't want to cut it. So we said, "Okay, we're going to go for this," and thankfully Charlie said, "Yeah, I can do that." I mean you have to be careful. You can't blow the operator out and not have him available the next day.
NFS: How in a sequence like that you make a lens decision that will work for the entire duration of the take? In general, was that also difficult in terms of planning and decision... Because it comes around, it's a wide shot, it's a closeup at the end on him.
Deakins: Early on I shot a lot of tests with the LF, large-format Alexa, with different lens sizes and I wanted to shoot everything on 40mm because it has the slightly shallow focus of a 40 mil, but obviously you're in the larger format. So it's equivalent to, I don't know, like between a 32 and a 35 if you've been on a regular format Alexa. So we basically settled for a 40 mil. There are some scenes like in the German bunker we did on a 35, and there are some little scenes, the scene we did on the river, that's on a 47, but our basic lens for the whole shoot was a 40.
"Everything I do as simple as possible, that might be the connecting piece."
NFS: Because it was very versatile?
Deakins: Yes and it adds the feeling I wanted. The feeling of the images. I suppose there were some images I saw in researching the first world war. A mid-shot of the soldiers and just the feeling of the background falling off. I just wanted that kind of quality really.
NFS: In terms of research, what did you look at first? Did you look at any other World War I films? Or did you just really focus on actual footage and shots?
Deakins: More on actual footage. I'm a bit of a World War I buff really I suppose, and my wife and I had gone and seen a lot of the battlegrounds. Actually with some friends once, we went and traveled the whole of the front line in France one time when we were on holiday, just because it's so fascinating.
But I mean mostly what we did, is look at all the research and there are some old films of the war.
NFS: Including They Shall Not Grow Old ?
Deakins: Peter Jackson's film, yeah. But there's actually a lot more than that. I mean the still photography from the time is fantastic. And then, of course, the paintings from the war are kind of amazing. They all have a feel, they all add to the sort of feel that you want to bring to it.
NFS: It makes sense that all those little inspirations come into play.
Deakins: I don't know how they influence you directly, but it's all great to have in your mind as background.
NFS: For a war film, there are conflicts happening around the edges of the frame that we don't see. And yet you feel the constant threat of sudden danger because you're in this intimate visual state. What is it like going into a massive war movie and knowing that so much of it would be faces in personal and contained physical space, as opposed to the, what we assume, sort of like the epic, the big battle scenes.
Deakins: Yes. I think there are a few things on that. The film is a very intimate story of these two guys. The camera style is much more about their experience, so you're not cutting away to anything else. And sometimes it's more dramatic, but you don't see that stuff, as you say. You feel their concern, their anxiety because what is around them, especially when you open up and you're in that trench, you don't see what's above the trench. Sam was very, very specific that we never wanted to see what's outside the trench, we're stuck in that narrow mud tunnel. Once we get in it, that's it. Until we go over the top into "no man's land."
Early on Sam said, "Let's make it misty. Let's make the whole world just disappear." So what is actually out there? And there's something really kind of haunting about that, that you don't see what's out there. You just see little details. You just see little details of the bodies and the dead horses and the rats. It's not like a great big... I suppose in a way I feel if you actually showed what the reality was, what the real reality was, nobody would go in the cinema. I'm serious. If you look at even the photographs that were taken, which must've been far less horrific than what actually was there considering the photographer had to go and do it, you couldn't show some of that stuff. It's just so horrendous.
"I suppose in a way I feel if you actually showed what the reality was, what the real reality was, nobody would go in the cinema."
NFS: The feeling when they first come over that trench, exactly as you describe it. You have no idea what's waiting.
Deakins: It's just so weird. I think especially for an audience that wasn't brought up knowing about the first and second world wars, to come and see that. The wire and the dead horses and the fog.
NFS: It's beautiful, it's haunting and it's more disturbing on a human level, I think, the way you depicted it. The framing in 1917, it's almost hard to wrap your mind how you managed to keep framing and reframing properly. Did those pre-visuals, those shots you did walking around in rehearsals with the point-and-shoot, help you get a sense of how each frame was going to work?
Deakins: Absolutely. I mean there were key moments and keyframes that, as far as I was concerned, we had to get to. I'd say that to the grips and the operators, whether it was Pete on the steady cam or Charlie on the Trinity or Gary [Gary Hymns, Key Grip] and Malcolm [Malcolm McGilchrist, Grip] running around with the stabilized head. They all had these images in their head, in their mind, we had these frames and I said, "That's where you need to be to get this shot."
NFS: Hearing you talk about it, that the way you were working with them would have mirrored the way Sam Mendes would have been working with the actors in that there are these beats to hit. Is that correct?
Deakins: Absolutely. We all were in sync. The beats that the actors were hitting were the beats that the camera was doing. We were all in the same sort of circle. That's what was so wonderful about it, really. But you always are, I mean any shot you do in a film, it's the same thing. It's just the complexity of sustaining it over such a long period. And not having the option of, "Oh well I need a cutaway for a reaction shot here or I need a detail there." The fact that you have to have that all combined in one flowing shot.
NFS: I just am thinking of towards the end there's a handshake that happens in the frame in a specific manner, and I just imagine how everything had to get to that point.
Deakins: Interesting you mention that last shot, which is quite a long complex shot. There's a lot of dialogue in it and performance and it had to be a very particular light. The shot that's in the movie is take one.
NFS: That's amazing. When did that happen in the shooting schedule?
Deakins: We'd shot a fair amount in continuity, so it was quite late. I mean, it wasn't the last thing because after that we went to do the river work and the stuff at Shepparton. But it was quite late in the schedule.
NFS: I love how there's a mirror of the opening frame and the final frame.
Deakins: We found that. Originally, that last scene was written to be by a stream, behind the battlefield in some sort of bucolic landscape. And then when we were scouting on Salisbury Plain, we found what we wanted, the opening where we wanted them sitting under the trees. And then just away from that, there was this other tree, this singular tree and we went, "Oh wait a minute." It was such a bold image that we both thought that is it, that is the sort of bookend. The tree, like we see him at the start, but now he's by himself...
NFS: So that bookend happened in a scout essentially? The discovery of that.
Deakins: The tree did. The idea of it being that tree. We saw it and just said, "Well, we got to use that tree."
"...there was this other tree, this singular tree and we went, "Oh wait a minute." It was such a bold image that we both thought that is it, that is the sort of bookend."
NFS: Is there anything about having shot 1917 that you wished had worked out differently?
Deakins: There's a great, great deal, yes. There's a great deal I think I could've got better or we all could have got better but that's the same with any film. You just kind of go over in your mind and it's: "I did a certain thing, wish I'd done that instead." but that is how you progress.
NFS: We took some questions from the No Film School community and this is one of them that we wanted to ask: Of all the work you've done, are there any things where you look back and think, I can't believe we pulled that off?
Deakins: Well, everyone is a challenge in its own way, I mean some of the scenes that we did, the nighttime oil firework we did on Jarhead, always comes to my mind in that it was quite difficult, but often it's a small film where you don't have budget or much time in the schedule and you make things work. That gives as much satisfaction as when you've got enough money to do something big.
NFS: Another question from our community: You've worked across genre with so many great filmmakers and done so much great work. And is there a genre or a type of project you have yet to do that you'd love to do, that you are longing to try?
Deakins: Oh yeah, quite a lot really.
NFS: That's exciting to hear!
Deakins: A lot, a lot. There are so many stories out there. I would love to do a contemporary crime thriller, I'd love to do more science fiction. But I mean, reality-based science fiction, if that makes any sense. I love Blade Runner because what Philip Dick wrote is what I'm talking about.
NFS: Speaking of Blade Runner 2049, there is a distinct stamp on the films you shoot and they're recognizable as your work and yet they all serve such different visions and stories. Is there a conscious effort to create your look?
Deakins: I think it's a sensibility. Maybe it's just taste or something, the sense of the frame, sense of the way you move the camera. Something must carry across because I work with very different directors actually. A sensibility and taste really. Everything I do as simple as possible, that might be the connecting piece.
NFS: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. Just one final question, if you could give any sort of advice or insight to could pass on to aspiring filmmaking at all levels what would it be?
Deakins: I always say stick to your own feelings really. People ask me, "How do I do it? How do I get to do what you do?" But that's the whole point is not trying to do what I do, try to do what you do, you know what I mean? Find your own way of seeing if that's not too pretentious.
"...the whole point is not trying to do what I do, try to do what you do."
NFS: That makes sense. Yeah. I mean, There are, of course, a lot of people who would love to do it the way you do it.
Deakins: I'd love to do it the way Emmanuel Lubezki does it, or Conrad Hall used to do it. I would love to do that, but I can't. I can only do it the way I do it. And you have to evolve your own way of seeing and doing it then create things that satisfy you for your own sake, not trying to mimic somebody else.