TORONTO — “The Prince of Darkness” was the nickname of cinematographer legend Gordon Willis, but Roger Deakins, too, has shown a kingly command of shadows.
Recall the sleek Shanghai skyscraper scene of “Skyfall,” the desperate moonlit horse ride of “True Grit,” or the early dawn dog chase of “No Country for Old Men.” In Denis Villeneuve’s drug war thriller “Sicario,” Deakins adds to his nighttime reel with a memorable border tunnel pursuit, seen through night vision and infrared perspectives.
“Sicario,” which expands nationwide Friday, could be the film that finally rights one of cinema’s greatest wrongs, and lands the 66-year-old British cinematographer his first Oscar. Deakins has been nominated 12 times and is generally acknowledged as one of the movies’ greatest visual minds.
The regular director of photography for the Coen brothers, Deakins is less likely to speak of an impressive shot than about how the photography is always in the service of character, script and circumstances. “Sicario,” his second film with the Quebecois director Villeneuve following “Prisoners,” has its grim darkness, but much of it — like a shootout in bumper-to-bumper traffic — takes place under the harsh desert light of the Mexican border.
He and Villeneuve, who may collaborate again on a planned “Blade Runner” sequel, recently spoke about making “Sicario,” for which Deakins drew inspiration from the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Villeneuve was coming from wrapping his next film, “Story of Your Life,” and Deakins from a short holiday at home where he spent 14-hour days on his boat fishing. “It’s a bit harsher than working on a movie,” he chuckled.
What makes the two of you fit well together?
Villeneuve: It’s strange. It’s like two totally different animals that can communicate together. We are from totally different backgrounds. … just shot with Bradford Young. … As much as I loved working with Bradford, I realized how much I learned working with Roger. I was saying to myself, ‘It’s the only movie I’ve made with two cinematographers.’ Because I always had you in my mind saying, ‘Don’t put the camera there. Don’t do that. Move faster.’
Deakins: Nag, nag, nag.
Villeneuve: People are always asking what is your biggest influence from other filmmakers? It’s always Roger for me. Honestly, it’s a massive privilege for me. I’m missing you a lot, sir.
Deakins: I’m missing you, too. We did hit it off straight away, didn’t we? The first time we met we seemed to hit it off. We’re both very honest with each other, which is good. Denis has got such a sensitive take on the script, on the subject, such a personal point of view.
What was your approach to shooting in the desert?
Villeneuve: There was the idea to embrace nature, to inspire ourselves from the desert, to work with the brutality of the sun. We were working with a tight schedule and I was aware Roger would have to shoot sometimes in bad light, not having the luxury to shoot in perfect light. I remember saying should we try to embrace that, to have actors with shadows, to have silhouettes in the sun. There was a photographer that Roger loves, Alex Webb, that was an inspiration in the color of Mexico.
Deakins: That script on “Prisoners,” it could have become so melodramatic. But it was a matter of stripping it down and getting to the sense of it. To me, the whole film ends up being about: How far do you go? What is right? To me, ‘Sicario’ relates to so much more than just drug trafficking. It relates to Guantanamo Bay and the whole bit.
Villeneuve: We really insisted, Roger and I, to shoot in Mexico. We didn’t want to recreate the Mexican culture in the United States — we thought that would be impossible. Luckily, we were able through time and a lot of meetings to convince them.
Deakins: A LOT of meetings.
Villeneuve: I remember Roger (slams hand on the table): “What are we talking about? We’re talking about Mexico. Let’s shoot in Mexico!”
Deakins: You can talk so much, but in the end, you have to say, “No, there’s nothing else we can do. It’s in the script.”
Was it challenging to shoot in low-light situations like the tunnel scene?
Deakins: Nightmare to shoot. Endless days in prep, endless nights staying awake wondering: “How the hell am I going to do that?” That’s part of the fun, isn’t it? I love the challenge. What I love about filmmaking, there’s the intellectual challenge, but there’s also a technical challenge which is much more methodical, seeing how you’re going to do something. Nuts and bolts. I love the combination of those things. One’s artsy-fartsy, the other’s down to Earth.
Villeneuve: You need to bring some challenge to the man! Otherwise he gets bored.