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Roger Deakins is a ‘True Grit’ sure shot

When Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges’ gravel-voiced federal marshal in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit,” defends his tendency to shoot first and ask questions later in a courtroom scene, he is a figure engulfed in shadows. Slowly, a shaft of light streams through the courtroom’s giant windows, revealing Cogburn’s craggy, bearded face to the film’s protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), and the audience for the very first time.

The dramatic effect, announcing the movie’s larger-than-life antihero through light and darkness, is the work of Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins.

“True Grit” is the 11th film Deakins has shot for the Coens, including their 2008 best picture winner, “No Country for Old Men,” the 2001 black-and-white neo-noir “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and the Depression-era comedy “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“Their scripts are so visual,” Deakins said of the Coens. “You can envision the world; they conjure up this sense of time and place.”

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The Coens conceived the visually arid world of “True Grit,” but it was Deakins who had to realize it. The British cinematographer shot on difficult terrain, in the rugged landscapes of New Mexico and West Texas, and in low-light conditions, with more scenes taking place by campfire than by sunlight.

Deakins, 61, studied graphic design at England’s Bath School of Art and Design before finding work as a documentary cameraman. His first film for the Coens was 1991’s “Barton Fink,” and his first picture to gain wide renown for its photography was Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” in 1994.

In his films for the Coens, Deakins has done it all, including shooting through one of Minnesota’s coldest winters on record for “Fargo” and setting up the Busby Berkeley-esque bowling alley shots in “The Big Lebowski.”

In an era when no one makes westerns, Deakins has, somehow, filmed three of them — besides “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men,” he also shot Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

Deakins needn’t worry about getting typecast as a cinematographer for the tumbleweed genre, however. In 2010 he also shot the corporate downsizing drama “The Company Men” for director John Wells and consulted on the animated film “How to Train Your Dragon.” This year, “Rango,” the animated Gore Verbinski film he worked on, will hit theaters, and he’ll be filming his first movie in digital, the Amanda Seyfried-Justin Timberlake thriller “Now.”

“I don’t care if it’s two people in a bare room,” said Deakins. “I don’t care where it’s set. I like shooting varied material.”

One thing the busy cinematographer has not done yet is won an Oscar, despite eight nominations before the one for “True Grit” and despite winning two American Society of Cinematographers awards.

“Honestly, I’m just happy that I get to keep working,” Deakins said. “And that the boys [the Coens] keep asking me.”

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rebecca.keegan@latimes.com


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