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Memories and Minutiae: How ‘The Goldfinch’ Cinematographer Roger Deakins Framed a Beautiful Emotional Journey


While being honored with the TIFF Variety Artisan Award at the inaugural Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala, British cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE (No Country for Old Men) took the time to talk about The Goldfinch. “It was great working with [director] John Crowley. He’s Irish so we have a similar sense of humor,” remarks Deakins. “We talked about when you have a traumatic memory from childhood, you tend to remember things in small bits of minutiae. It’s the odd little things that are interesting and symbolize the event rather than a great big action shot.”

In The Goldfinch, an explosion in an art gallery kills Theo’s [played by Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort] mother and in turn haunts him for the rest of his life. “It all came from the idea of details,” states Deakins. “Even the explosion was just this detail of people running past this doorway and suddenly a huge cloud appears around them. We storyboarded that scene and gradually whittled it down, and it became narrower and narrower. It was more about these specific details. Part of it, as well, is that practically you’re not going to do a big action scene on a film with this kind of budget. Firstly, it was a character study and was really about Theo’s memory. It wasn’t about showing the audience all of this stuff. What was Theo remembering? Where was his head? That’s where we were coming from.”

Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the set of ‘The Goldfinch’

A reoccurring image is Theo’s mother walking away and fading into the distance. “We did a lot of tests before we started shooting; playing with focus because sometimes it’s counterintuitive,” notes Deakins. “Sometimes you think you’ve got on a longer lens, so you can put things out of focus more, but it doesn’t really work like that. Sometimes you’re better on a slightly wider lens and it’s a more interesting effect. We did that, especially to get that shot of the mother walking away. Then we tested costumes as to how she would disappear. She’s got dark hair and a white coat. The white coat was specific in the novel. I was for shooting her with a dark coat. Then we shot her with red and green coats. We shot a whole bunch. With a dark coat you have this amorphous image of a full figure disappearing, but that was different from when it was a white coat and just her hair. The hair did something wonderful when that went out of focus, and everything else became white around it. That’s how we ended up going. It was truer to the book. John liked the strangeness of that.”

“I shot mainly with a single ALEXA Studio because I like the viewfinder and open gate,” remarks Deakins. “I have been using ARRI Master Primes since they came out a few years ago. This film I wasn’t going much out of what I call my normal eye range, which is 27mm, 32mm, 35mm, 40mm, and 50mm. Maybe we did a few shots on a 65mm and 75mm. Maybe we did a couple of shots wider, but not very much. I would say that most of the film was shot on 32mm, 35mm, and 40mm. As I’m sitting here talking to you, I’m seeing it on that kind of lens.” Teenage Theo and his friend Boris [Aneurin Barnard] jump into a pool with the camera going below the surface with them. “The underwater rig [for the pool scene] wasn’t anything particular. We’ve done a lot of that over a number of films.”

Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker

LED lights were a useful tool on set. “We lit the set of the Metropolitan Museum with [ARRI] SkyPanels,” reveals Deakins. “There were about 90 of them. There were four or five different gallery rooms interconnected so we made big ceiling panels, put in SkyPanels and designed the ceiling around the lights. That’s a perfect place to use something like a SkyPanel because it’s a big soft source. You can change the color. When Theo is going around the gallery with his mother, which is the end of the movie, I could shift the color and intensity. The aftermath of the explosion is where I needed to change the balance of the panel within the frame. When the camera was looking a certain way, I had to make more backlight than front light. In other places LEDs are not so efficient. The color sensitivity is not quite as rich. LED technology is coming on. I’m using them more and more but not exclusively.”

The crowded urban atmosphere of New York City contrasts with the desolate desert setting of Las Vegas. “That was crucial,” notes Deakins. “It’s more about reflecting the character and Theo’s relationship with the environment. The whole point about the Las Vegas sequence where Theo goes to live with his father, is that it’s this empty hostile environment but is actually a modern house. It has all of the amenities like a swimming pool. That’s wonderful. A nice school. But it’s absolutely bleak in his mind. It was important to pick the right location and then shoot it in the most hostile light that we could shoot in.”

Director John Crowley on set with DP Roger Deakins

‘The Goldfinch’, a stolen piece of artwork by Carel Fabritius, is pivotal to the story. “People say that the painting has to be this magical thing. Well, it’s a beautiful painting of a bird,” Deakins explains. “It’s quite historically interesting because Carel Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt, but it’s nothing like a Rembrandt. It’s much more like a Matisse. It’s really not about the painting. The painting is the last thing that Theo’s got connecting him to this mother. He can’t let the painting go because he can’t let his mother go. Until Theo lets that go his life is trapped. He’s trapped by that painting like the bird is trapped in the picture.”

Almost everything was shot on location. “We built the Met and Hobie’s [Jeffrey Wright] basement of the antique shop, but otherwise we were on location,” remarks Deakins. “It was all small rooms with a lot of them being hard to service. If you’re shooting in New York on a third-floor flat, there is usually a tiny elevator that is often not working anyway. Everybody has to carry all of the gear up these stairs. It’s really hard. That was the biggest challenge, frankly. Just practically. The Barbour apartment, which was five weeks out of the schedule, was originally going to be on location somewhere where it was meant to be, like Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue. It’s just not possible. Thankfully, we ended up finding a house upstate [partly because I insisted] that was a practical thing we could control. We could light and get a full day’s work. You weren’t relying on daylight. We were shooting in winter and there’s no way you’re going to get a full day’s work. Some days in winter you won’t get any day’s work because there wouldn’t be enough daylight. It’s things like that. It’s the nuts and bolts of it that I find to be the most challenging on a film like that.”

Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures a shot of actress Nicole Kidman

There are limitations. “As cinematographer you can’t say, ‘I have to have this,’” states Deakins. “You know that there’s only a certain amount of money. You have to figure out what is crucial and what’s not. The other thing was the hotel room in Amsterdam. Initially, production thought that would be a set shot in New York with a backing. I talked to John about this. I thought, ‘No way.’ Because it was such a crucial thing. Really, our only view of Amsterdam was out that window. The most important thing about it was Theo is in this room, stuck, and there’s the world out there. The light changes, it gets dark and starts snowing. On a set you’re not going to believe it. I don’t care how good you do it. [Production designer] K.K. Barrett [Her] found this wonderful location that he dressed as a hotel room. Right at the end when Boris is walking up and down the canal with the overdosed Theo in the snow. Where are you going to shoot that and the café in the last scene? It’s Amsterdam. The whole story works so much better and stronger for that.”

“I don’t do much in the DI other than balancing shots within a scene or sometimes making a harder cut with a change between one or the other, or softening the cut,” remarks Deakins. “You make these subtle changes in density and saturation. I try to do things in-camera because the editor and director are sitting with that when they’re cutting. I want them to be sitting with something that is as close as to what I imagined it can be. I remember working on Kundun and right at the end we did the final timing of the film. When seeing the third shot in the movie where the boy looks up, Martin Scorsese said, ‘That looked green in the cutting copy and now it’s blue-grey.’ It was funny because that was the only comment that he made on the whole film. I said, ‘Marty, I always wanted to get that reprinted because it was too green.’ He said, ‘It’s no big deal. I just got used to it.’ He didn’t make anything of it because he was quite happy with the overall look.”

Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) with Theo (Ansel Elgort)

The film’s visual effects were not extensive. “Some of the car work we did a poor man’s process, shot plates, and put it in the background,” states Deakins. “We didn’t use green screen because I don’t find that naturalistic. You can’t get the light where you need to put it. These days you don’t have to use green screen, especially with digital cameras. You have so much information.” Deakins, a native of Torquay, United Kingdom, has been collaborating with some of his crew members for over 30 years. “My first assistant, Andy Harris, I have worked with since Fargo. He’s the best in the world. Andy is crucial especially because I also operate. There’s a whole lot of pressure on him. Key grip Mitch Lillian I have also worked with since Fargo. The gaffer, Steve Ramsey, I have never worked with before. Steve is fantastic. We had a great time.”

There is not a particular scene that stands out for Deakins. “I hope that there isn’t a shout-out sequence because you have failed in a way,” he explains. “There shouldn’t be anything that stands out. If they watch it a second time, that’s fine. But if an audience is watching a film for the first time and suddenly think, ‘That’s a great crane shot.’ You think, ‘Oh dear, I shouldn’t have done that.’ Because you don’t want to take the audience out.”

Ansel Elgort as Theo

Deakins never rests on his laurels. “You commit a lot of your time to do something. If you care about it, then you push yourself to do it the best you can, especially on Blade Runner 2049,” he recalls, “My crew was there on weekends because we were pre-lighting and getting ready to shoot the week, the next week, and the week after. There was a lot of stuff to do on that film.”

The lack of theatrical reception given to The Shawshank Redemption, which resulted in Deakins’ first of 14 Oscar nominations, and ended up being resurrected by small screen viewers long before Netflix to become the top-rated movie on IMDb, was a source of frustration. “It was really weird because they released The Shawshank Redemption twice. The first time it only made $2 million. Then they re-released it about 10 weeks later and made nothing at all. Then suddenly it’s a whole year at the top of the VHS charts. That was nice because I was pissed that film did not do much at the cinema. I thought it was a good film. When we were shooting Shawshank people were asking, ‘Is this film going to be any good?’ I said to some of the actors sitting in a bar one night, ‘Stick with it. It’s going to be really good.’ I’m glad that Shawshank found an audience eventually.”


Images courtesy of Warner Bros.


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