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Roger Deakins Talks Creating Tension and Finding Realism in ‘Sicario’

Written by on September 24, 2015 

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There are few — if any — cinematographers in Hollywood that create images as memorable as the ones Roger Deakins consistently produces. A longtime collaborator with the Coen brothers, as well as photographing such films as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Skyfall, and Kundun, he’s now found a new fruitful partnership with director Denis Villeneuve. After working on Prisoners — and before Blade Runner 2 — they’ve re-teamed for Sicario.

I got the chance to speak with Deakins this week about his latest feature, which is now in limited release and expands wide on October 2nd. We discussed conveying certain themes via the cinematography, his biggest inspiration, Villeneuve’s strengths on set and in the editing room, conveying tension without action, Enemy, his thoughts on a Sicario sequel, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.

The Film Stage: The film pretty much opens in broad daylight and then gets darker and darker as it proceeds. There’s almost a cross-over to complete darkness in that beautiful shot with the soldiers before they enter the tunnel. Can you talk about that gradual transition from light to darkness, if that was discussed?

Roger Deakins: Ah, I can’t remember. It was definitely in the script as such. Yeah, I would say that Taylor [Sheridan] builds into it, whether consciously or not. [Laughs]

You seem to shoot the characters in that way. Josh Brolin has a more comedic character and he’s often shot in bright lighting while Benicio del Toro’s character seems to be in the shadows.

Yeah, Benicio is at certain points, particularly the end scene in the kitchen. He’s not always in the dark, but yes, he’s more mysterious. He’s in the car, he’s usually darker than Emily [Blunt] is, for instance. Basically, the film is playing from Kate’s [Emily Blunt] point of view until the aftermath of the operation in the tunnel when it becomes Alejandro’s [Benicio del Toro] point of view. Yeah.

I was reading your forum — which is a great resource — and there was a comment a few weeks ago where this film was potentially going to be shot in all handheld. It seems just as visceral with this composed framing, but can you talk about those early discussions?

Yeah, it’s funny because we had a very similar discussion when I first worked with Denis on Prisoners. We talked about the look of the film and how naturalistic we wanted to make it and whether handheld added a certain sort immediacy and pseudo-reality to the piece, but somehow neither of us felt it was right. I’ve shot a couple of films totally handheld, but neither Prisoners nor Sicario felt like that was it. Then as we discussed it, I’ve mentioned the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, who I really love. He didn’t use handheld cameras and his films still feel very real. I thought there was a parallel with some of his films with Sicario.

Yeah, certainly. I was going to ask about that specifically. Denis said when he was editing he didn’t want to use temp music. He wanted to eek out the most tension just through the images first and foremost.

Yeah.

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With your shots, you can tell if you are getting the maximum amount of tension out of each shot, but do you have discussions on set about editing? Or are you more focused on a shot-by-shot basis trying to get the most tension out of a certain set-up?

Yeah, we’re aware of it and we talk about it sometimes. We talk about how long you’re going to hold a shot and I don’t know if we specifically talked about the tension in that shot where they get out of the SUV before they go into the tunnel and all those soldiers and Emily and that are disappearing in to the darkness. I don’t think we had that conversation on set, but you obviously hold that shot until the characters have disappeared. I think one of Denis’ many strengths in editing is that he held a shot like that after everybody disappeared. So it just became a shot of twilight and everybody had gone and somehow that really increased the tension. It ratcheted up the tension.

I mean, we were certainly looking for shots that told the story without a lot of cutting. Again, going back to Jean-Pierre Melville. His action scenes were not really action scenes in the sense of a modern film where you cover a scene from a lot of objective angles and cut it together very fast. That’s kind of a device, really. I think the way, for instance, Denis had portrayed the action both in this film and in Prisoners was much more realistic in the sense that things happen very brutally fast — not always on screen, but when it happens, it’s there and gone. It’s like you’re left wondering, “Oh my God, what just happened? Did I see it? Did I miss it,” you know?

Yeah.

That’s so much more real than an extended sort of cutting of a piece of action.

Certainly, that’s great. Expanding on that a bit, there’s a shot after the border patrol shoot-out where they are returning to base and it’s Emily Blunt’s and Josh Brolin’s characters and they have a heated conversation.

Yeah, yeah.

As an audience member, you’re expecting to go in on a close-up, but I love how you keep it as a wide shot. Can you talk about that decision and not giving into expectations?

Well, you should ask Denis, but I did think that was a decision on set. We worked out those two shots of the convoy coming back to base. The two matching shots: there’s a tracking shot and then the next shot is the one where you’re talking about, where they kind of come right up to the camera and stop. We shot that shot and just played out the action and as far as I remember that dialogue of Josh and Emily just kind of happened in the frame as we let the shot run. So I suppose in a way it was as much a rehearsal as anything, but Denis just said, “Well, that works great. We don’t need to cover it.” Because I said, “Do we want to cover it? What should we do?” He said, “No, I don’t want to cover it. Why waste the time? We’ve got other things to do and I think that works really well.” So I think he’s really great at just making those on-the-spot decisions. I don’t think he had thought that prior to us shooting the scene. It was just something that he felt when he saw it, he knew it worked.

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