‘Empire of Light’ cinematographer Roger Deakins: ‘You’re trying to create a reality that all fits together as a whole’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“I loved it,” remembers cinematographer Roger Deakins about reading writer-director Sam Mendes‘ script for “Empire of Light.” It was markedly different from the film he expected they would make together following their Oscar-winning collaboration on “1917.” “So it was quite a surprise to read it. The setting is very similar to where I grew up.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Deakins above.

Partly inspired by Mendes’ upbringing, “Empire of Light” tells the story of Hilary Small (played by Olivia Colman), a manager at a movie theater in a seaside town in England who struggles with mental illness. It’s an intimate character study and “probably a little more conventional” in its process than their previous collaborations like “Jarhead,” which was shot handheld; “Skyfall,” which was like a “jigsaw puzzle”; or “1917,” whose shots had to be meticulously planned before filming. For “Empire of Light,” “you talk through the script, you figure out locations, you have to work to a budget and a schedule … And then you talk about scenes, you talk about maybe staging it in such and such a way, but until you’ve got the actors on the set, you can’t really lock anything down.”

He adds, “Whatever film you’re doing, whether it’s ‘Skyfall,’ or ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘No Country for Old Men,’ you’re trying to create a reality that all fits together as a whole. You want to make it feel to the audience that that is a real place.” His approach was to “do small things” with the cinematography rather than “paint a huge brushstroke and make a big statement.” So “the cinema interior, the lobby wanted to be this warm, inviting place,” but when Hilary is at her most distraught, he “wanted the light to be a bit harsher … but I never want to do anything that’s bashing the audience on the head.”

Ultimately, “I hope people see the film, he says. “And I hope it brings them to the cinema.” As for any accolades that come the film’s way, “The only thing that really matters is the work … and you just hope you’re contributing to movie-making. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life and hope to continue to.”

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