How Roger Deakins Crossed New Borders with Sicario

Call it Prisoners on steroids. That’s because Sicario (referring to a Mexican hitman as well as Jewish zealots who revolted against the Romans) expands its dark psychological themes, pitting idealistic FBI agent Emily Blunt against lethal consultant Benicio Del Toro during a secret raid on Mexico’s most powerful drug lord. It’s the perfect backdrop for Roger Deakins to cross new aesthetic borders for his second collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve (they are currently prepping the Blade Runner sequel, which starts shooting next summer).

But unlike the bleached look of say, No Country for Old Men, Deakins embraced a more colorful landscape for Sicario, which is set on the Mexican border and is also very brutal. The look may be heightened to some extent but it’s still reality-based. “The landscape needed to be a character and it says something about what we humans were doing against this beautiful landscape,” he said.

“We discussed the look of the desert and imagined this bold, blue sky, and thought of empty frames but quite colorful. And yet we had a very active monsoon season in New Mexico that year. So we got these amazing sky formations and embraced what’s there — you don’t have any alternative.”

Villeneuve wanted to stress silhouettes and not fight the light in the landscape, and Deakins looked to photographer Alex Webb for inspiration: “I mentioned Webb’s work to Deni partly because in the ’80s he did a series on the border but I love his use of color and the complexity of his compositions that are extraordinary,” Deakins added.

But they had a lot less to work with than on Prisoners in terms of budget and schedule, compelling Deakins to be even more creative and economical. They shot in in Albuquerque and Mexico City (doubling for Juarez). Interiors were often yellow-orange to complement the landscape. “But once you crossed that border into Mexico there had to be a complete change from the look of the film on the American side [and it became very colorful].”

As always, though, it’s a jigsaw puzzle for Deakins in piecing everything together.  ”The hardest thing in a film is to try and make it seamless when you’re shooting in different locations and sets and weeks apart,” Deakins suggested.

The challenge of the opening FBI raid and the shocking discovery of mutilation and death was to grab the audience straight away. “We wanted this very tense opening sequence so we needed a series of very quick, graphic shots to get you into that sweat house and the horror of all those bodies in the wall,” Deakins explained.

“It was tricky to shoot the entrance into Mexico and collecting the guy from jail in isolation from the convoy. Then we had to shoot them coming back in the shootout before we went to Mexico. So it was kind of nervy, really, knowing what we would get in Mexico City. We went and scouted Mexico City during production and then when we went to shoot we went in early and a whole day looking at these locations and figuring out what we wanted to do. But it was very tight because we picked specific streets for specific shots and they were quite spread out across Mexico City. However, it took some doing to get permission to shoot the exterior of the jail we were using.”

Yet the most nerve racking challenge for Deakins was figuring out how to shoot the nighttime raid in the tunnels where the drugs were transported across the border. It was too dark to believably shoot  the objective shots with only the Alexa, so Deakins successfully tested a thermal imaging camera from FLIR used for scientific research. The result is one of the most fascinating night vision sequences in a movie, with two different looks achieved through separate vision systems (infrared for Del Toro’s POV and green image-enhancer for everyone else’s). Since the color image was too wonky-looking for the infrared, they stripped the color out.

Read the rest at TOH/Indiewire.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Clips, Crafts, How They Did It, Movies, Oscar, Tech

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