Even for a master cinematographer like Roger Deakins, Sicario was a tricky project to pull off—a logistical puzzle with many moving pieces, including aerial and night-vision footage and highly choreographed action sequences. For the most part, Deakins weathered the demanding shoot by being extremely methodical, as is his nature. Collaborating with director Denis Villeneuve for a second time, after 2013’s Prisoners, the pair had developed a shorthand that facilitated this process, which today earned him a nomination for the cinematographers’ top feature film honor at the ASC Awards — his 14th. Here, Deakins discusses the building of tension through images, his M.O. as a cinematographer, storyboarding, and the value of a great editor.
Sicario is incredibly tense for the majority of its runtime. What were your early discussions with director Denis Villeneuve like, in terms of how you would create that effect?
I had worked with Denis on Prisoners. We spent a long time talking through the scenes and just like any film, really, it gradually evolves as you look at locations. Patrice (Vermette), the designer, came with a lot of references, and Denis as well—things he’d seen or photographs or stuff out of magazines. And I did the same. Obviously, the idea of building the tension was one of the main things: how to give the film a sort of energy and really bring you into the world of these characters as quickly as possible. Denis is a very visual director. He’s very into using the medium. He’s trying to create something more than what is on the page and, as you say, it’s very tense and it’s very deliberately building that tension. Sometimes we were building that by an image of the dust in the sunlight—you know, the dust particles. There’s so much tension in that. We built tension by holding a shot a lot longer than somebody else might—you’re watching the shot and you’re wondering what’s going to happen now. It’s that kind of thing.
Your goal as a cinematographer, historically, is to never allow the image to overtake the film, or to exist only for style’s sake. Did that challenge play a part in this production?
I was worried about that. When we were prepping in Albuquerque we realized that we were getting this monsoon season late in the summer that we didn’t expect. So you’re getting these amazing cloud formations and skies and we didn’t really visualize it like that. We thought it would be a bold blue sky, but we decided to embrace it. We didn’t have much choice. I worried a little bit that that it was going to be too much. But then we wanted the landscape to be a character. That was part of it. I didn’t want anything to be a pretty sunset for the sake of a pretty sunset.
The film features plenty of aerial footage. What did you hope to achieve with that and what was the process of shooting that footage?
Basically it was an aerial cinematographer and a pilot. They basically had one day to shoot. We storyboarded a certain number of aerials. Obviously, we needed aerials of the tunnel. We needed aerials of Manuel’s house. We needed the border, and we needed the plane stuff—with the jet taking off—to go with that sequence. Denis went on the helicopter one weekend on a Sunday and they shot a lot of different imagery. A number of those shots were just things that Denis found as they were flying. They flew from Albuquerque down to El Paso to shoot stuff on the border, and it was responding to actual things that they found. Some of those weren’t scouted beforehand. That’s quite often what you do in a film like that. Denis had done the same thing on Prisoners—just images that mean something by themselves, that link one thing with another.
A number of scenes in the film seem like they necessitated a lot of choreography. One scene that comes to mind is the convoy across the border. How do you approach shooting scenes like these?
We had storyboarded that sequence in preproduction, and that whole sequence was the hardest to bring off. We had to convince production that we needed to go to Mexico to shoot it—that we couldn’t re-create it anywhere in the United States. Eventually, just before the shoot, we went down to Mexico City and scouted Vera Cruz. Production was very supportive when they realized that that’s what we had to do, because that’s what was demanded in the script. If you didn’t have the feeling of Kate (Macer, Emily Blunt’s character) going into this world that she was totally unfamiliar with then you didn’t really have a film, because that was so much a part of her character development.
Basically, we prepped the hell out of it and we storyboarded exactly what we wanted and scouted Mexico City. Patrice had picked a number of locations in Mexico City, and we went there with our storyboards and said, “OK, we’re going to do this here, this here…” That was very meticulously worked out, but I’ve got to say, some of it, we just made up when we were there, so a lot of it was on a wing and a prayer. We knew what we wanted from the scene, and we knew especially all the interior angles, like when they go under the bridge and see the hanging bodies. We knew exactly what shots we wanted and how we were going to do it. We really went through it and then made a plan of how to shoot it on the day.
You’ve had a lengthy career and as that career has gone on technology has evolved rapidly, allowing you to do things on one film that you might not have been able to on prior ones. Is the opportunity to work with new technology—for example, in the night vision sequence—exciting for you?
The big problem with that scene was that you read it on the page and the script describes this team going through the desert at night and finding the tunnel and you think, “Well OK, but what do we see?” I’ve done night scenes, like in No Country (for Old Men) and True Grit—the big night exteriors in the deserts—and I think, “Well, I’m not going to do that again.” The audience is going to see everything, but we’re saying that the main characters have to use these night vision systems to be able to see what they’re doing. That doesn’t make any sense, so that was my one big issue I took to Denis. He said, “Well that’s fine. We’re just going to play it from that point of view. There’s no question about that. But maybe we just need one or two shots to say this is a really dark night and you’re objective.” We shot a couple shots, but the only one that’s in the sequence now is when you see the first SWAT member going into the tunnel entrance, which we shot on stage. It’s this really dark silhouette, and so you still get the sense that actually this is a dark night. You know you can’t see if you don’t have a special device. So, yeah, the technology’s there for you to use but it’s really the conceptualization of how you visualize the sequence without taking the audience out of the movie, and to me, making it a fake moonlight and shooting a scene where you could see everything at night would have just taken the audience out of it.
What’s it like for you, being the fourth person in the room while filming really intense, emotional scenes—for example, the scene at the end of the film when Benicio Del Toro’s character is forcing Emily Blunt to sign a non-disclosure agreement?
That scene, again, was one that we had storyboarded prior to doing it, and then Denis obviously wanted to rehearse it with the actors. He wasn’t quite comfortable with where the scene was on the page, so they rehearsed it. And obviously Benicio and Emily brought their own interpretations to that scene, and then I was watching some of the last rehearsals as they really got to develop it. I always ask the director who he wants to star (in the scene), and he said he wanted to star on Emily. I operate the camera all the time, and that’s partly why I love operation: because I’m the first person to see this. I’m the first person to see what the audience is going to see in a performance and I’ve always loved that.
What do you view as your role in helping the performers or the director navigate that tension?
It’s hard. You have to create the space for the actors to do what they do because if you don’t have that performance… To me, that was the crucial scene that said so much about the whole movie and so much about our relationship with our government and what they do, because Emily is, basically, the audience.
Editor Joe Walker did an amazing job on the film. What’s it like for you to hand the film off to the editor after putting so much of yourself into it?
The thing is, I think, in every stage in making a film, it is those creative moments that come in the shooting and the performances and then in the editing that are ways of taking it further and using the medium. Denis and I can shoot a scene, and we have it worked out and know exactly how it’s going to be cut, and then somebody comes in, like Joe, from the outside, with this slightly different take. And he said, “Well, we’ll do that, but what if we take this shot and move it here?” And then it suddenly takes on something else. It’s that complexity and that working with the script, the scene, and adjusting the position of all the things together. That’s Joe’s strength and the strength of any great editor.
Sicario is your second film with Denis and you’re early in the process of your next collaboration with him, the untitled Blade Runner project that has everyone very excited. How was the shorthand between you evolved over the course of three films?
When you get to know somebody and become friends, you can be a little bit more open and maybe a little bit more abrupt about something. I don’t know. We’ve been storyboarding for the last couple of weeks and scouting already for this film that shoots next summer. I’m glad to say we’re going to do a lot prep. It’s good. It’s just a much more familiar, relaxed and open conversation we can have, and a really good one, I think. Well, it is for me, anyways.
To see a video highlighting some of Deakins’ work in Sicario, click play below: