Roger Deakins’ legendary film career has seen him work with elite directors such as the Coen brothers, Sam Mendes and Denis Villeneuve. In between those repeated collaborations, he even found time for a one-off project with Martin Scorsese.
“Kundun,” Scorsese’s 1997 film about the 14th Dalai Lama, earned Deakins the third of his 16 Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (he went on to win awards for “Blade Runner 2049” and “1917” ). Appearing at a recent panel discussion at 92nd Street Y, Deakins spoke about the experience of working with Scorsese and why he thinks “Kundun” is the author’s masterpiece.
“I think Marty usually does storyboards, but in ‘Kundun’ he just annotated the script with his ideas, what the camera will do,” Deakins said. “He drew a long shot or a tracking shot with small stick figures. He gave us a copy and said, ‘This is the foundation we’re working on for ‘Kundun.” Marty has a more definite vision of what he wants. But it was really done with annotations of him in the script, so in terms of setting up the shot, I don’t have a lot of flexibility. The kind of technical input you have on something like ‘1917’ versus ‘Kundun’, which is shot much more simply… We had long conversations about the style. It’s total poetry, which is why I love the film. I think it’s (Scorsese’s) best film. I like its symmetry, its poetry.
Two of the defining themes of Scorsese’s career are his love of the moving image and his fascination with religion, so it’s fitting that Deakins chose a scene that combines them as one of his favorite movie moments.
“There’s also another scene in the film that drives me crazy,” she said. “It’s the young Dalai Lama who has a 16mm projection and he’s looking at a projection of the atomic bomb and it’s devastating. The juxtaposition of the two cultures and the beauty but this horror of what’s actually on screen. It’s interesting.”