Double Passions for Roger Deakins: “Byways”, “Empire of Light”

What does one of the world’s most in-demand cinematographers do to unwind when he’s not scouting, planning, or shooting a film? Of course he takes still pictures.

“Just me and my camera. I’m not under any stress or deadlines or anything,” says two-time Oscar winner and 15-time nominee Roger Deakins.

“That’s my excuse for being out there and watching the world go by. As a teenager, I toyed with the idea of ​​becoming a photojournalist, then switched to National Film School and documentary filmmaking. But yeah, when I wander around I take a camera with me and it’s just relaxation. I mean I love pictures.”

Deakins’ two current projects are as personal as can be – one for him: a book of his black and white stills from 50 years of Byways; the other for collector-author Sam Mendes and his new film Empire of Light.

A man and a woman watch fireworks from a rooftop in the film "realm of light."

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, starring two-time Oscar winner Roger Deakins.

(searchlight images)

“Byways” captures the world with a largely improvised eye. In contrast to the laborious process of coordinating film sets, these recordings are often made on the spur of the moment.

“It’s more the instinct of the moment than it is with a movie in general,” says Deakins. “With movies, you still have to be instinctive and reactive to what actors are doing and what else is happening that day. But that’s pretty much just me walking around.”

Roughly the first third of Byways is a time capsule of life in a rural town in the early ’70s, a commission Deakins had while working for an arts center in northern England. There are men with tractors, people with sheep, dogs with jobs, a determined guy with dried bushes on his back reminiscent of the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. There are shots of an old-fashioned English fairground that Deakins says is no longer found, with children on carousels in the front and signs in the back asking patrons to “box” or “stripteaze.”

Exhibiting at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, he says of this print: “I remember when my brother took me to the fairgrounds where I grew up in Torquay; They could go in and join the boxing – they would call out someone from the audience to come up and try to outsmart their captain. There was a bearded lady, there was the sheep with the two heads and strip shows.”

The photographer says there is no conscious theme or sequencing for the rest of the collection, despite the title, the wide variety of locations (Melbourne, Australia; Budapest, Hungary; Albuquerque, NM; and Romania, below) and the unregulated Shooting considers movement through time, it can’t help but feel like a uniquely curated travelogue. Instead of famous landmarks, his souvenirs are moments, some ironic, some intimate. There is no Eiffel Tower.

A bare, empty playground in Berlin with chimneys behind.

“Empty Playground”, a photo from 2007, taken in a Berlin neighborhood, from the book “Byways” by Roger Deakins.

(Roger Deakins)

His postcard of Berlin is not the Brandenburg Gate, but an empty playground with holes cut in the wall forming an alarming face, with what appears to be a tank turret in the foreground and chimneys in the background. The face could scream.

For a picture taken during a storm, Deakins clicked the shutter away and hoped for – and miraculously got – the ideal desert expanse of lightning strike – this one bisecting the building in the middle of the frame (during filming of Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario”).

But even for a photo he’s been waiting for literally months for, of a bare tree leaning over a cliff path, there’s a certain quality of chance.

“I live about four miles [from there], and I jogged that cliff path. I spent a long time looking at this tree and waiting for winter when it was bare. Sometimes they cut down the fern and everything else; This was once when the tree was opened. I did quite a few when the tree was exposed like this with different skies, but there’s something about that boring, empty sky and the light hitting the water that makes things a lot easier.”

A stark black and white image of a bare tree on a cliff by the sea, from the book by Roger Deakins "side streets."

‘Windblown Tree’, Dartmouth, 2015 – from ‘Byways’, acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins’ photo book spanning 50 years of still photography.

(Roger Deakins)

In another image, a “Jolly Roger” sign is in the foreground next to a dock; a British flag flies directly behind it. But in the background, much smaller, is the detail Deakins has been waiting for – a girl sitting almost horizontally on a swing. “The dad just wasn’t in the picture…I loved the idea that she’s on the run and it’s just one element in the picture. Some people don’t even notice it, which is a shame.”

Then there’s the “guy that throws a stick off the boardwalk and the dog jumps after it,” he says of a photo he took from below, which drastically exaggerated the height. As he got into position and waited for it to happen again, just as the dog jumped off and snapped at Deakins, “the dog watched [Deakins’ wife] James and I The dog is looking at the camera.”

Deakins’ other current project is the latest in his long collaboration with Mendes, Empire of Light. Drawing on the events and people of Mendes’ life, the film represents his only credit to date as a solo writer (his only other screenplay, which he shared with Krysty Wilson-Cairns for 1917, for which Deakins won his second Academy Award).

“A lot of that is very much related to his growing up,” says Deakins. “I think he was a little more insecure about the script and the execution. We always talked about a script and went through it. But I felt like there was more of that in Empire than the other films. He really used me as a sounding board for his script ideas.”

A middle-aged woman looks warmly at a young man in the film "realm of light."

Olivia Colman’s Hilary in Empire of Light is inspired by writer-director Sam Mendes’ mother. The film is the latest collaboration between Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

(searchlight images)

Though many of the images in Byways capture coastal cities like the one set in Empire, many of them British, Deakins says he didn’t use them for the film’s visual vocabulary — there’s a bifurcation between the two media for him: “I don’t really connect the film work with my stills work at all. Obviously I have some kind of compositional sense, but that’s it. [Still photography] is just something much more personal.”

The filmmakers worked to make the theater, which is the main setting of Empire, “a welcoming space in contrast to the outside. That’s exactly what Sam said when we first discussed the script: that it’s important that it feels warm and is a sanctuary for Hilary. There were her friends. And he talked about it getting warmer as the film progressed.”

The film’s look is characterized by changes in temperature – the cool sea air as winter approaches; the cozy hideaway of the cinema; the even more secret arbor where the lovers meet (contrasted with the cheap sterility of the film’s other loveless entanglement); and most importantly, the drastic changes in Hilary’s moods. Mendes has acknowledged that the character, played with heartbreaking subtlety and abandon by Olivia Colman, is inspired by his mother and her struggles with mental illness.

Deakins says: “The moment social services showed up with the police and broke into the home and took her away I think was tough on Sam, to be honest because that’s something he’s been through a number of times with his mum. ”

Showcasing some of the film’s most expressive lights, this scene conveys Hilary’s dark emotional state and raging paranoia.

“We talked about doing something that is [harsher] without being incredible. We just thought, “Well, she’s been messing around in the apartment, why don’t we just take a shade off her table lamp and use a bare pole?” If she leans over, she gets angry and leans in [fellow theater worker and lover] Stephen, then this really bright light comes on your face and it almost blinds you. It’s just a handy lightbulb.

“If you look really closely, you can see a bit of tape on the bulb that faces the camera because it would blind the lens, and I hate lens flare. They do little things to make it work, but it’s basically lit by a mere bulb. Double Passions for Roger Deakins: “Byways”, “Empire of Light”

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