EVEN IF YOU don't know the name Roger Deakins, if you're a movie lover, you know his work.
Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious singing "My Way" in "Sid and Nancy."
Steve Buscemi going into the wood-chipper in "Fargo."
Tim Robbins crawling out of a pipe in "The Shawshank Redemption."
All images courtesy of Deakins, the greatest cinematographer never to have won an Oscar (he's been nominated several times, twice in '08), although that may change next year after academy voters get a gander at "True Grit." (He also shot "Company Men," opening next month.)
Deakins is no Oscar hound, and he likes traveling under the radar. He once thought of raising his profile by becoming a director, until he tried it.
"I tried to put a project together for a few months before I realized the error of my ways," he said, laughing. "I love being on set, but all the other stuff . . . that's not for me."
Deakins likes anonymity, personally and artistically. The less you notice his technique, he says, the better he's done his job.
He came by that attitude 30 years ago in England, where he trained as a director of photography making documentaries, trying to capture reality with as few intrusive gestures as possible.
That work that got him hired by Alex Cox to shoot "Sid and Nancy," shot on the fly in some very fluid locations, including East L.A., where his training came in handy.
"Alex decided he wanted to shoot this scene on railroad tracks, and they were live trains going by, so we just did it. We didn't have permits or anything. There was a bicycle cop watching us the whole time. It's one of those things - if you look like you've got permission, you can get away with a lot."
Deakins went on to shoot Bob Rafelson's "Mountains of the Moon," then "Stormy Monday," then had a big Hollywood job with "Air America." It wasn't until 1990, though, that he met Joel and Ethan Coen, forming a creative partnership that has been a boon to all three, and to moviegoers everywhere.
"We hit it off straight away on 'Barton Fink,' it just clicked. We have a similar take on life, I guess, a similar sense of humor," he said.
Deakins, at home with the rough-and-tumble, make-it-up-as-you-go style of Cox and the documentaries, found the Coens worked in a completely different way, a way that he also liked.
"I've never worked with anyone who does such preparation, so much storyboarding. Everything is really precise, and worked out in advance. That doesn't mean they always shoot it the way they planned it, but they have a plan going in," he said.
Deakins developed the black-and-white look of "The Man Who Wasn't There," and spent three months working feverishly in darkrooms to figure out the right process to create the unique old-timey look of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," arrived at just days before production.
"They wanted the look of an old postcard. It wasn't easy. We had to figure out how to take the greens out of the image, but it finally worked."
The Coens' strict sense of visual control is often strongly felt by viewers, and has led some critics to say the brothers' exacting style can overwhelm their characters. If that was ever true, they seem to have grown out of it.
Deakins shot the Coens' Oscar-winner, "No Country For Old Men," a movie that found the brothers working with a lot more flexibility - ditto "True Grit."
"I think they're more relaxed. It's wrong to say they're more open to change, because they've always willing to change stuff, but they are much more comfortable working things out on location."
Deakins was nominated for his "No Country" work, and also that same year for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a lowlight masterpiece.
He'll probably be nominated again, but Deakins, ever humble, isn't fretting over it.
I told Deakins that in a couple of decades of interviewing filmmakers, this is the first time anyone had offered me a cinematographer. Was he a little insulted, on behalf of cinematographers everywhere?
"Not in the least," he said, laughing. "That's the business."