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Don't call Roger Deakins an artist
In Toronto for the premiere of The Goldfinch, the British cinematographer offers life lessons on vision, awards and luck

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Friday, September 13, 2019 – Page A16

You know a Roger Deakins shot even if you have no idea who Roger Deakins is.

Think of the vast snow-drenched emptiness of Fargo or the sunset cartel assault in Sicario or the neon-lit Shanghai fight scene in Skyfall. The British cinematographer has been shooting movies for almost four decades and has, through his repeat collaborations with such filmmakers as the Coen brothers and Denis Villeneuve, helped define the look of what we'll call the "Prestige Motion Picture." With Deakins's name attached, no matter how wobbly the script or thin the performances, the film's visuals are bound to transfix.

This Friday, Deakins's latest project, The Goldfinch, arrives in theatres - and while the adaptation of Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel disappoints in almost every other sense, it scores on an aesthetic level: You wouldn't think there'd be a new, interesting way to shoot the inside of, say, an airplane cabin, but Deakins, 70, excels in exposing details others would miss.

In Toronto this week for the world premiere of the film, as well as to receive the Variety Artisan Award at the inaugural TIFF Tribute Gala, Deakins spoke with The Globe and Mail about art, awards and luck.

You have 14 Oscar nominations, and one win, last year, to your name. And now you're accepting this TIFF award. But at this stage in your career, do you have much need for awards?

They're icing on the cake. It's doing the work that's important, and what's been important from the beginning. I don't want to be the one going up there, anyway. It was great to win an Oscar [for Blade Runner 2049], but also horrible. It's terrifying to find a thing to say, and you feel like such a fool. It's funny. A few years ago, Joel Coen said to me, "God, what does it feel like? How did it happen? We're part of the establishment now." We never really wanted to be.

So you consider yourself outside the mainstream?

I do feel terribly like an outsider.

I'm uncomfortable now, I'm uncomfortable at film festivals, I'm uncomfortable going to any meeting, actually. I'm only comfortable when I'm behind a camera and shooting.

How do you deal with the other side of the job, then, which is promotion obligations such as this?

I'm here to support a film I care about, it's as simple as that. It is nice going to festivals, don't get me wrong, just as it's nice going to the Oscars. I get to see friends I haven't seen for a while, like for the Blade Runner 2049 year, I ran into Gary Oldman, who I had only seen briefly once since I worked with him on Sid and Nancy all those years ago. But I still don't feel part of those events.

I've read that you don't consider yourself an artist, but a storyteller.

I don't know what art really is.

Not really. What is art? Is it a painting on a wall? I don't know.

Anything that somebody does to the best of their ability you could call art in some way. I think filmmaking is communication.

You're trying to provoke an emotional response in your audience in some way. I don't know if that's art or not. It's a funny word, "art."

On your personal website, you say "there are no rules." Not even basic technical ones?

I don't think there are. I think any photographer or cinematographer has to be true to their own vision, their own sense of composition, their own interpretation of what they see around them.

There are no rules, no. I think a lot of people who go on the website are in awe, that they think there's a process or a kind of magic. They think that if they just learn it ... you know what I mean? That there's some magic formula or secret to it. There's not. It's basically hard work.

Why did you start the website?

We were doing a Q&A one time and so many came up afterward, because they're shy during the actual session, to ask questions. I said, why not just do a website, and people can ask questions and then it becomes a forum, a discussion for everyone to get the benefit. At Q&As, I just want to be at home, and it's much easier to answer questions this way. Some go, "Oh my god, Roger is actually answering," and I go what's the big deal? Whatever you want. I'm not someone in an ivory tower. I was very lucky how I got into the business, so you have to be open to those questions, those moments.

What was the defining moment of luck for your career?

You could say it happened right at the beginning, when my dad would play cartoons for me with this old projector that he kept from the war. Or maybe he stole it. But he brought it back from Germany, and we watched cartoons on it, and from there, I joined the film society at school, and that all turned me on to movies. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn't want to carry on with my dad's business - he was a builder.

So I went to art college, and there's another crucial moment there, when a friend of mine said the [National Film and Television School] is opening up, and he was applying, so I did, too. Neither of us got in, but afterward I went for an interview with the principal and was told if I applied next year, they'd give me a place. So I got in, but my friend didn't. And that's what clinched it for me. I had no connections, and I was quite shy. I wasn't going to go to London and beat on doors. That moment changed things completely for me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Associated Graphic

Cinematographer Roger Deakins - seen with his wife, Isabella James Purefoy Ellis, at the world premiere of The Goldfinch at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday - says he still feels 'like an outsider' and never really wanted to be a part of the film-industry establishment.


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