[Interview] Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures delicate beauty in ‘THE GOLDFINCH’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Cinematographer Roger Deakins is in a masterclass of his own. His name alone commands respect. But speaking with him, one would never get the impression he’s anything other than an affable, dedicated and humble collaborator. His work speaks volumes of his craft, creating gorgeous, character-driven, indelible imagery.

Now he’s applying his skills, capturing the tormented, guilt-stricken mindset of young man (Ansel Elgort) who lost his mother in a terrorist bombing in his teens (Oakes Fegley), in THE GOLDFINCH. Based on the best-selling novel by Donna Tartt and directed by John Crowely (BROOKLYN), the drama Deakins illuminates comes from within this character study.

What was it about this project that initially hooked you and what did you want to achieve with your work on this/

I’m drawn to the story, the characters. Not that many films are made these days with great characters and human stories. Meeting with John, who I hadn’t met prior to that. What I wanted to achieve was what John wanted to achieve.

Were there things you connected with John as collaborator?

The approach to the script. I don’t know how you quantify that really. Just a feeling, isn’t it?

Sure. You never know how the partnership is going to work in advance.

Yeah. We had a very similar take on the material and how to approach it. You just develop a relationship over time, talking through the script, scouting for locations and talking through things.

Did you read the book before you got the script?

I read the book initially and my agent said that there may be a film being put together. So I asked him if he’d put my name in the hat.

At that time, did you start visually contextualizing how you would set up Theo’s POV?

No. I read a script and I just gage if it’s something I emotionally relate to.

Did you take any cues from the color palette used in Carel Fabritius’s painting to paint your cinematic canvas?

No. The painting’s in the film, but it doesn’t relate to it in any other way. The important thing about the color palette in the film was distinguishing the three major locations and the scenes within the location. We discussed that kind of color palette approach to each scene – the New York scenes, the Amsterdam scenes and the Las Vegas scenes.

The Albuquerque (which substitutes for Las Vegas) scenes are in such stark contrast to the softer New York scenes. Las Vegas is bleached out. Amsterdam is a whole other – pardon the cliché – character within itself. How do you and John go about building that world so it remains consistent and focused on Theo’s psyche?

John and I just talked about the approach and the camera style. You don’t want to be too ostentatious. It’s really about focusing on Theo’s perspective on things. We were trying to put the camera in his world. It’s as simple as that really.

Did the explosion at the Met sequence present the greatest challenge for you here? Or was it something more innocuous?

The aftermath of the explosion I had done before and used a similar technique on JARHEAD and BLADE RUNNER 2049. About the angle of the light and the amount of atmosphere. That whole aftermath at the Met came from John’s idea that when Theo wakes up after the explosion, you’re in this vast void. Like anything, it becomes a technical challenge that you shoot tests and work out the parameters of what you need to do with what you have available.

Oakes Fegley in THE GOLDFINCH. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

What sort of things did you do to challenge yourself from a technical standpoint?

Obviously, I keep up with all the latest technology. But technology is just a tool. It’s not something that drives what you do. What you do comes from the script and the director’s interpretation of the script and how you each relate to the way the actors block the scene on the set. GOLDFINCH is very much a character piece. There’s no need for anything fancy or new. It’s not like that. It’s much more of a character study. There’s a danger in films that I see, all the time, in shots becoming too tricksy or ostentatious. People moving the camera for the sake of making a shot interesting. If the script works and the performance is good, then it’s inherently interesting and you just want to bring that out instead of doing something fancy. I’m a simple person. I really believe in simplicity. I like to whittle everything down to their most concise aspects.

Right. So that it’s not aesthetics for aesthetics sake.

Yeah. The whole of what we did in Albuquerque – the suburban Las Vegas section. That was a delicate balance where you don’t want to make it look too pretty. But on the other hand, it’s a kind of cliché of a suburban wasteland. It’s a delicate balance.

Oakes mentioned to me that he learned how to tell a character’s story visually within the frame from you. I’m curious where you developed that skill? Is that something that’s matured over time, if that makes sense? 

It does, but I’m not really the one to judge that, I guess. I don’t know. The techniques probably that I use now, and the technology, is very different from some of the technology from when I started out. I’m not sure my sensibility has changed much really. Yeah, I really don’t know [laughs]. I know when I get a script, I relate to a certain thing – certain stories, scripts and novels. I read certain history books and wouldn’t read others. It’s part of who you are.

What are some of the fallacies associated with shooting a drama like this versus a sci-fi, war or action film? Are the set-ups less difficult, or more, because there’s time for the eye to focus on the details?

I don’t often shoot action unless it’s integral to the story, that’s not action-driven. I’m not really into that. Sure, it’s something you need to do within a story, but I much rather prefer shooting a human face, or an actor who’s giving a great performance.

Are there some actors that you have an easy rapport with in terms of capturing their performances? 

You sort of judge every actor differently. Every actor works in a different way. You have to judge that when you first meet them. Some actors you have quite close conversation with during the shooting and others are very intense and you let them do their thing. Either way, part of your job is to create the space that they feel comfortable in and that the director feels comfortable for them to work in. I think that’s a major part of the cinematographer’s job and not often talked about.

Have you ever wanted to direct?

Yeah, but I think I’m better doing what I do. There’s less time between films. I like working.  I like being on set and being involved. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the people I’ve worked with and the projects I’ve worked on. A long time ago I thought of directing. Initially, in film school, I thought I was going to. But I’m doing what I know I was meant to do.

You’re very loyal to the directors you’ve worked with. Have you developed a shorthand with your stable of frequent collaborators like Sam Mendes, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and Denis Villeneuve?

Yeah. It’s nice to work with someone over a period of time because you do build up a certain amount of trust and you know each other’s strengths and you can move on from what you did last time. It’s equally wonderful working with someone like John, for the first time, and getting challenged in a different way with a slightly different focus that he has and how in depth he talks about characters. It’s wonderful to see someone else’s perspective as a director. I just worked with Sam Mendes again [on 1917]. But it’s not like shorthand. Hopefully, you trust each other more as you work together, but you also challenge each other more really – and that’s pretty nice.

THE GOLDFINCH opens on September 13.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.