Cinematographer Roger Deakins (‘Empire of Light’) on his latest collaboration with Sam Mendes, being his own camera operator, and the movie that makes him cry
Empire of Light may be the title of Roger Deakins’ latest collaboration with Sam Mendes, but it’s also a fitting descriptor for his dazzling body of work. His precision, command over the camera, and ability to create meaning for a character through lighting make him the greatest working cinematographer.
While Deakins doesn’t want the shots he creates to overwhelm the audience, it’s impossible not to admire his style of photography. From his naturalistic, playful collaborations with the Coen Brothers to his visionary work with Denis Villeneuve, Deakins has created some of the most memorable images in cinema history that constantly work to enhance our understanding of the character in the frame. On Empire of Light, Deakins joins Sam Mendes (their fifth collaboration) to create a complex, sumptuous world for Hilary (Olivia Colman), a woman who works at an English seaside moviehouse in the 1980s. The warmth of Deakins’ lighting pulls the viewer directly into the cinema and delicately enhances Hilary’s complicated story.
I was thrilled to speak with Deakins for an enlightening conversation about his career as a still photographer and cinematographer, collaborating with Mendes on Empire of Light, and how he pulls off some of his most beguiling cinematic magic tricks.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’m so excited to hear more about your incredible body of work and your latest film, Empire of Light.
Roger Deakins: Thank you very much.
SC: Your book BYWAYS includes your personal still photographs of the Devon coast where you grew up. I specifically love the shots of the dog leaping in the air.
RD: Oh yeah yeah (laughs), that was in a place called Teignmouth. It’s about 20 minutes from where we live in Devon, actually. We were just there last week.
SC: That’s great. Did your background in still photography, specifically in a coastal town, inspire you when you were shooting Empire of Light, given the film’s setting?
RD: Not really, but I did enjoy the idea of being in Margate. I love the seaside, especially the English seaside. In 1981, I was shooting documentaries in Africa quite a bit, so I was very far away from the seaside when this film was set. But there are similarities to when I was growing up. In the late ‘60s, when I was a teenager, there were rockers, fights on the streets, and the whole bit, though.
SC: And you’ve collaborated with Sam Mendes quite a few times before, recently with 1917. What is your collaborative process like with him?
RD: Well, it’s different from film to film in a way, you know?
SC: Of course.
RD: 1917 was a very specific project because of the nature of the one-shot. So we spent a lot of time just talking about what that shot would be, you know? Because we had to work it out before the sets were constructed or designed. But I’ve had a similar kind of collaboration with Denis Villeneuve. I love that time when you’re talking through a script and swapping ideas, which happened on Empire of Light. My wife and I were over in England, and on our days, I’d meet with Sam, and we would just talk through the script. We would talk about ideas, where we could shoot it, and maybe even what scenes were important and what things could change.
I love starting early on and just talking in general about a script. I think you gradually get into the discussion about the visual language. I mean, in this case, on Empire of Light, is it hand-held? Is it black and white? Is it color? You have all the options, and then you gradually whittle it down. In this case, we went further and further towards a camera that’s very still and very quiet, and actually, it’s just about the characters moving in the frame more than anything else.
SC: You even do that in some of your larger-scale works like Blade Runner 2049 and Skyfall. It’s still all about the character, and that’s certainly the case with Empire of Light.
RD: Yeah, I think it’s important when the camera is somewhat invisible. I think it’s a danger that the camera, technology, and fancy work can sort of swamp a film—especially something as delicate as Empire of Light. You know, the subtlety of Olivia’s performance, for instance, and the nature of the story. You can easily overwhelm it if you’re not careful.
It’s funny, another thing about 1917–you know the camera is always moving. It’s a kind of ostentatious thing in a way, but that was the trick. It still had to feel connected to the character; that’s in the story. And it was kind of refreshing or reassuring when a number of people who saw the film said to me afterward that they didn’t realize it was one shot until the end of the movie. And you think, oh, that’s great because you try to do something that allows them into the story without drawing attention to itself.
SC: Do you think being your own camera operator, then, allows you to go even further in connecting with the characters and your actors?
RD: That was probably more true in the early days when there weren’t monitors, playback, and all the rest of it. When I was shooting a film like 1984, that was a huge moment in my life and career. I was working on an Orwell that was a major, major story, but also with Richard Burton and John Hurt. To be there behind the camera and watching those performances was really quite an amazing experience. But I still feel that watching Olivia perform some of those scenes. I had that feeling, but it isn’t quite the same because I’m not the only person seeing it. Now there are fifty people watching monitors around the corner. But I was the first person that ever saw Richard Burton play those scenes in 1984. You know what I mean? (laughs).
SC: Oh, that’s incredible. I also want to ask you about some of the shots of the interior spaces in this film. The way that you light that cinema makes the room feel magical. You really feel the pull to that theater. How did you create that effect with the light?
RD: Yeah, I mean, that was the thing. I wanted it to be a warm, inviting, safe place for Hilary. The big decision was how we would do it because the exterior of the main location was Dreamland, this cinema in Margate that didn’t have a lobby that fit in the script. But there was an empty lot three doors away, so Mark (Tildesley) designed a set that filled in the empty lot so we could use that exterior as though it was the location looking out. It all matched very well. But the trick was balancing the interior and the exterior and getting the right warmth on the interior relative to the exterior. Being on a set on a stage would’ve been a lot easier, but as it was, it took a lot of prep and a lot of designing with Mark and Kam (Man), the set dresser designing lights that fit in and designing spaces for the softened lights. Most of that is lit with the practicals that were designed into the set. You spend a lot of time playing with ideas, sketching things out, and working with the art department to figure out how the set will kind of light itself. I wouldn’t say that was the only light we used, but it was basically about controlling those lights. They were all LEDs, and they were all on a big dimmer system. So, certain rows were in certain places where I could brighten one area and darken another depending on the camera angle. It’s lighting with all of the built-in practicals.
And because they’re LEDs, which obviously didn’t exist in 1981, they’re not period. But you want to try to make it feel like it was a period place. So it was important to use the LEDs to look like conventional sources. The advantage of LEDs is that you can dim them up and down, and they don’t change color unless you want them to. So, yeah, a lot of technical things go into a set like that to get that balance between the interior and exterior color and the balance intensity-wise.
SC: Definitely. There’s a fantastic shot in the theater too when we see up into the projection booth and the characters are framed in those windows.
RD: Yeah, and that worked quite well because that was a set. That was a set shot in a warehouse in an airport. We were using art projectors on the set because they had to be the real thing, and in the screening room, we had a digital projector. The trick with that set was to get a smaller screen that looked like the far-away screen and to get the reflections in the glass, so it really felt tied in. We wanted to tie the two locations together, you know?
SC: That’s really neat. And you frame characters in doorways frequently in the film too. There’s a great shot of Hilary exiting a door where you really play with shadows.
RD: Oh yeah it’s always nice cutting a frame down especially when you’re shooting 2.39. It’s really nice to close it down at times.
SC: Yeah, and going back to the colors that were used in the film. Did you have specific ideas about the color palette that you shared with the costume design or production design teams about the complete look of the film?
RD: We had discussions, and I was aware of what was being designed for the costumes, but I didn’t have any input. I didn’t really want to have any input, though. But, yeah, the color of the walls, and the carpets…you put in your ideas, but it all seemed to fit together anyway. I mean, I was obsessed with the curtain in Hilary’s apartment. I was not just obsessed with the color but also the density because I wanted more than just solid curtains. But on the other hand, we were on a set, so I didn’t have an exterior. So, it’s a balance between the lighting, but you’re also on a set and don’t want the audience to realize you’re on a set.
SC: Did you have any other details around sets or props that you wanted to be very specific based on how you wanted to shoot them?
RD: Yeah, and with the curtains, sometimes you’re in that apartment without any other light on. And then there are some night scenes where the practical lamps in that room were very important. (laughs) Poor Kam, our set dresser must’ve gotten at least sixty different varieties of lights so I could choose which ones I liked for that set. But you know, they obviously had to fit the design of that set. They had to work for the kind of light I was trying to get as well. I’m obsessive about going through all of these things during prep. They might seem like little things, but when Hilary is having a breakdown and going on about the doctor and the teacher, I wanted a hard light. I wanted something a bit harsher. So I got a bare bulb on an ordinary table lamp, so when Hilary leans in, it all becomes quite harsh and over-the-top. You’re going for specific looks, and you want a particular prop.
SC: At the end of the film, we see Olivia Colman’s character Hilary weeping to that beautiful shot from Hal Ashby’s film Being There. Do you have a particular shot from a film that makes you emotional like that?
RD: There are a lot of films…how long have you got?
SC: (Laughs) all day.
RD: (Laughs) Well, the thing about that Hal Ashby scene is that it’s so moving because it’s not literal. There’s something about the mood, music, composition, and character. There’s something that you can’t really explain. Some of my favorite films are like that, whether it’s L’Avventura or Stalker or something like that. Some films move you, and you don’t know why. It’s like the songs of Leonard Cohen, sometimes I can’t understand why, but they make me cry. I mean not because I’m sad necessarily but because they move me.
SC: Right. It makes you ask these unanswerable questions about why you feel the way that you’re feeling.
RD: Yeah, and there’s a great shot in Once Upon a Time in the West, right?
RD: Claudia Cardinale gets off the train. She doesn’t know where she’s going; she hires this guy in a car, the camera starts on the platform, and it cranes up, and you see Monument Valley in the distance. The music comes up, and it’s so over-the-top, but it’s very hard not to cry. And why would you cry at a shot like that? It’s just magic. That’s pure cinema, you know?
SC: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.
RD: Of course. It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.
Empire of Light is currently in select theaters from Searchlight Pictures.