DP Roger Deakins Shoots Black and White in Color and Juggles Film Stocks on Two New Films

Though The Man Who Wasn't There is Roger Deakins' first feature film in black and white, the DP's years of experience as a still photographer meant the process was no mystery to him. “In many ways I'd rather shoot black and white, but obviously you can't get to do it much these days,” says the cinematographer, whose other major upcoming movie is Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, a more conventionally shot studio feature. But the British-born, LA-residing Deakins is accustomed to the opportunities provided by Man Who Wasn't There filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Creating a black-and-white evocation of the past in the midst of an all-color cinematic landscape is just the latest offbeat assignment.

The Man Who Wasn't There, a Best Director winner (for Joel Coen) at Cannes that USA Films is releasing in November, is Deakins' sixth collaboration with the brothers. Barton Fink, the first movie he shot for the idiosyncratic filmmakers, earned the DP awards from several critics' groups. For Fargo, the third, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the fifth, Deakins received Oscar nominations. “It's great working with them,” he says. “Every film they do demands a different kind of look, a different style.” O Brother, for example, was a Depression-era amalgam of hillbilly humor, folk music, and echoes of The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz; the cinematographer achieved its yellowed vintage look through the application of sophisticated digital coloring.

If the Coens are known for approaching each project as a stylistic exercise in genre, then The Man Who Wasn't There is their film noir. Set in small-town California in 1949, the movie is the story of Ed Crane, a passive, ineffectual barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who discovers that his party-gal wife (Frances McDormand) is carrying on with her boss (James Gandolfini). In James M. Cain fashion, blackmail, murder, and retribution follow, all to the accompaniment of Ed's pungent voiceover narration. Naturally, such a tale demanded to unfold in black and white. “The boys wrote it with black and white in mind,” says Deakins of the Coens. “They're very sure where they want to go — it's not like you're floundering around trying to find a style.”

THE RIGHT STOCK

But left to be determined was just how Deakins would achieve the film's look. “There were a number of issues,” he says. “I was a bit nervous about shooting on black-and-white negative, because of film speeds, basically. It wasn't a very high-budget production, and I didn't want to use a huge amount of light. I tested black-and-white stocks, and then I shot some 5277 color stock. I asked Beverly Wood at Deluxe to see if she could make a black-and-white print from the color negative, which you would think is easy, but it's not, actually.”

Wood uncovered a relatively obscure Kodak black-and-white print stock, 5269, which is mostly used for titles. “It's quite high-contrast,” Deakins says of the stock. “The way it's usually used, the contrast is too heavy. So we reduced the contrast by playing around with the development time and stuff, until we found something that we really liked. That gave us a print that I actually liked better than the black-and-white original.” The problem with shooting on a color negative, the DP points out, is that “you're wide open to someday seeing that film in color.” But what sealed the deal was a USA Films contractual stipulation to supply a color print for European video markets. “It's a very muted, desaturated color version, and it's not one I hope is ever going to be seen theatrically,” Deakins says.

Shooting on 5277, a low-contrast, 400ASA stock, he continues, “gave me the ability to shoot at lower light levels, which is what I like. It provided all the detail that was then carried onto this black-and-white title stock.” For major prints of the film, that is — since the process is quite expensive, some release prints will be on color stock struck from a black-and-white fine-grain intermediary.

Despite the filmmakers' determination to make The Man Who Wasn't There a 1940s genre throwback in terms of black and white, the lighting style does not mimic that of noir classics like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, which are characterized by direct light and hard shadows. “We tested it more noirish, but I said, why?” Deakins explains. “It's a modern film, we're not trying to imitate a film of that period — it just happens to be set then.” The DP says he was inspired equally by the foggy ambience of the 1942 film noir This Gun for Hire and by the softer look of a 1960s Nouvelle Vague work like Godard's Breathless. “There's variation in the movie, really,” he says. “There are some scenes that are lit very hard with direct light, and some that are lit much more pastel. I just didn't want to be tied into what you typically think of if you say film noir.”

Deakins went with a stylized noir look on certain scenes, like one involving Thornton, McDormand, and Tony Shalhoub in a jailhouse visiting room. “I used a 6k PAR for a harsh pattern of window light. It's direct, and it's just about the only light source, with a bit of smoke,” he says. “That was deliberately done to go with the dialogue: Tony Shalhoub is talking about the uncertainty principle. Also, some of the night scenes I lit very low — basically, pools of light.” On the other hand, at the end of the film, which finds one character on the way to the electric chair, “we wanted this feeling of a void you're going into, so we lit that very flat and very bright. We painted the walls white, and basically let it go, so the objects seemed to be hovering in space.”

LIGHTING IN BLACK AND WHITE

The cinematographer says his lighting package was more or less the same as if he had been shooting in color. “I knew we would have a color video version, so I did balance lights,” he says. “I couldn't just let the color temperatures go. It was the usual mixture, really. Most of the night exteriors are lit with HMIs, lit quite cool, and I didn't correct back very much.” One important set, Ed's barber shop, was filmed on the Paramount Studios backlot, and though the setting was exclusively a daytime one, Deakins says the lot configuration admitted little natural light. “I had a truss with 18ks on chain motors above the window on the outside,” he says. “And then I bounced the 18ks off big reflectors on cranes. The reflectors were either white, or silver-stipple if I needed to punch the light in a bit harder. On one or two occasions, I used a direct 18k, straight through the windows. But usually, you're bringing in the reflectors, right to the edge of the frame, to wrap the light around.”

The Cranes' California Craftsman bungalow exterior was found in Pasadena, with interiors matched in the studio. “Not that we floated any walls,” says Deakins. “You see, they write so specifically that you really need the rooms in the right order. You needed to see from the porch at night back to the kitchen, so part of one porch scene was shot on location, and part was shot in the studio to match.” The DP says that the use of black and white only emphasized the Coens' careful mise en scène. “Some of the shots are held for a very long time, so the compositions and lighting had to be quite graphic; when you're shooting in color, there are a lot of things going on to save you. In black and white, the flaws show — if the composition isn't quite right, or the balance of light in the frame is not quite right.”

GOING ON LOCATION

Shooting A Beautiful Mind, Deakins' first collaboration with Howard, was a very different experience for the DP. The movie, which Universal Pictures is releasing in December, is the true story of John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russell Crowe), a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician battling schizophrenia. “Ron is much more free-form than Joel,” says Deakins. “Not that much was really constructed beforehand; it was more getting the actors and blocking the scene on the set, and working things out as we went along. You're shooting much more seat-of-your-pants, which is kind of stimulating. The lighting for the most part is very simple — big, soft sources.”

Chief lighting technician Bill O'Leary (Deakins' usual gaffer, though on The Man Who Wasn't There he worked with Randy Woodside) rented an “enormous” Arri HMI and PAR package from New York's Camera Service Center for the East Coast-based production. “There were some big night scenes, but a lot of it was logistics,” the DP explains. “We were mainly on locations. One day you would be at a seminary in Manhattan, lighting a big library, and the next you're in New Jersey doing something equally big. They both needed to be rigged and ready to go. We shot the film in continuity as well, so a lot of the time you're going back to the same locations after three or four weeks, and back again three weeks after that. It became a big jigsaw puzzle.”

A Beautiful Mind was mainly shot on Kodak 5293 and 5279 stock, “but we did one interesting thing at the beginning,” Deakins says. “For the first quarter-hour or so of the movie, where the main character is at Princeton University in the late 40s, I shot on Fuji 420ASA stock, and pre-flashed it with a golden light, like a light coral. I wanted to warm up the shadows and flatten the look of it. I didn't want to go sepia, but I wanted something less saturated. The Fuji is just slightly flatter, and the flashing gave it a warmth; we'll print it a little warmer, probably.”

It's a technique that Deakins used on another recent project, Norman Jewison's HBO film of Donald Margulies' play Dinner with Friends. “That was the first time I did it,” says the DP. “I had tested flashing for a number of pictures but had never done it to any degree.” The sequence in question was a flashback set in summer on Martha's Vineyard, but “we were in a situation where we were shooting in winter in Malibu,” says Deakins. “We needed to treat it somehow. So I thought, ‘why don't I take it to an extreme?’ Some of the days were pretty gray and awful, so it really did overpower that.”

For his next project, Deakins was in Japan prepping the World War II drama To the White Sea for the Coens. Unfortunately, financing fell apart at the last minute. But the cinematographer is never idle for long — since his first feature as DP almost two decades ago, he has averaged two projects a year. In 2000, in addition to O Brother, he shot the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days, and in 1999, his credits included Anywhere but Here and Jewison's The Hurricane. Besides, after four unsuccessful Oscar bids (the others were for Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption and Martin Scorsese's Kundun), Deakins has to keep plugging forward for a win. “Joel and Ethan will do something next year, but I wouldn't mind trying to find something in the interim,” he says.

Contact the author at jcalhoun@primediabusiness.com.