And yet, Deakins’s nimble camera also loves actors, or at least certain actors, like Jones and Brad Pitt, who meet his high expectations. Deakins began his career as a documentary filmmaker, and he continues to exercise the photojournalist’s habit of patient, alert observation with spellbinding results.
After more than two decades behind the camera, Deakins has his pick of work—up next is Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, starring Nicole Kidman—and his taste runs to the ambitious, nuanced material that Hollywood likes to shepherd toward Academy consideration. “I wouldn’t be very interested in doing a James Bond movie,” he says. “I like doing films that have something to say about people and situations.”
Deakins is, one might say, the cineaste’s cinematographer. He’s constantly in demand and—despite his reputation as a touchy perfectionist—widely admired in the industry. Early award-season commendations suggest that this might be Deakins’s year: He’s received five Oscar nominations, and there’s talk of a sixth for No Country. His résumé stretches back to the Eighties, when he made his name with the cult classic Sid & Nancy, about Sex Pistols singer Sid Vicious and his doomed junkie girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. In addition to the nine films he’s made with the Coens, he’s also worked with Martin Scorsese (Kundun), John Sayles (Passion Fish), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Michael Apted (Thunderheart), Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Village).
“It’s an extraordinary list of movies,” says Sam Mendes, who first approached Deakins for American Beauty (scheduling conflicts meant the job went to Conrad Hall, who won the cinematography Oscar for it in 2000) before securing him for Jarhead and the upcoming Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in their first post-Titanic reunion. “It’s one of the great absurdities that he hasn’t won an Academy Award.”
Deakins could hardly be less Hollywood: Mendes affectionately calls him “the least ingratiating person I know.” In fact, when not on a set, Deakins and his wife, James, often retreat to their house overlooking the English Channel, not far from his boyhood home in Torquay. “You can go down to the pub, and the people are talking about what the mackerel fishing season is like or the weather and the tides,” says Deakins. “There’s no thought of films. It’s just rural people. It’s a great counterbalance.”
As a boy, Deakins began watching movies at Torquay’s local “film society.” His father, a building contractor, raised Roger and his brother after their mother died young, and Deakins recalls that much of his childhood was spent ditching school to fish and ramble through the countryside. “Where I grew up was very much about landscape and big skies,” he recalls. “It had incredible, changeable weather.