It’s a perfect Friday morning in Santa Monica, and the grapefruit trees hang heavy in a side-yard garden off Main Street: the very cliché of California beach-town quaint. Inside a shingled bungalow, morning papers from both coasts are laid on the kitchen counter, all of them open to rave reviews of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, No Country for Old Men—perhaps the most violent, suspenseful and grimly beautiful film of 2007—which will open later that day. What’s unusual about the reviews is that a crew member, director of photography Roger Deakins, is consistently singled out for his contributions to the film. (“His work is a marvel,” writes Pulitzer Prize laureate Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal.) Deakins himself would likely be uncomfortable with, if not outright embarrassed by, such talk. His clothes—a plain, masculine uniform of jeans, a white oxford shirt and boots—suggest practicality, thrift and an aesthetic preference for form over adornment.
As he now sits folded into a low chair in his cheery, Pottery Barn–perfect living room, Deakins seems cramped indoors, as if the open landscape of his youth would more comfortably suit his lanky frame.
At 58, Deakins has a handsome face that has worn well, like good cabinetry, and a shock of Clinton-esque silver hair long enough to suggest a youthful rebellious streak never entirely outgrown. His pleasant accent—after he somewhat reluctantly unlocks his jaw—bears traces of his rural upbringing in maritime Devon, England.
“When I get buzzed is when I’m looking through the camera and Tommy Lee Jones is doing those scenes,” Deakins says, noting one moment late in No Country when Jones and Barry Corbin sit in a shack and, excavating their burdened souls, seem to live as if the camera doesn’t exist. “It’s like I get a tingle going up my spine, even now. I can’t really get interested in just shooting something to make pretty photographs. I love the interaction of the camera with an actor who’s creating a character. That to me is the most special thing.”
No Country and the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford show a master in full command of his mature style: It’s work that rises to the level of cinematic art without devolving into fey artiness. (The strong initial box office showing of No Country demonstrates that his cinematography can grip both a mainstream audience and the critics.) If he doesn’t exactly have a signature style, Deakins invariably creates a sense of place so immediate that it transforms landscape from an inert background into an active narrative force, almost like a character in its own right. Long horizons are his forte—before his recent work in the American West, he’d worked in Africa and Tibet—and Deakins’s wide-lens establishing shots have a formal rigor that evokes photographer Stephen Shore’s landmark color pictures of Seventies roadside America.