How Roger Deakins Mastered Shooting in the Dark for 'Sicario'

The Oscar-nominated cinematographer embraced silhouettes and shadows for a tense tunnel sequence.
Courtesy of Lionsgate
A drug agent silhouetted against the night sky in 'Sicario'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Aharsh light shines across the parched desert setting of Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, which tracks American operatives battling drug dealers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Visually, it's a stark contrast to the director's previous film, 2013's Prisoners, which was all damp and dark. But for both, Villeneuve turned to the celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, 66, who has amassed 12 Oscar nominations (including one for Prisoners).

Seeking to bring authenticity and tension to the $30 million thril­ler, which Lionsgate released in September and which has grossed $79 million worldwide to date, Villeneuve knew the movie required "bursts of strong violence but a lot of waiting, apprehension. That why I thought I must convince Roger to do the movie — Roger has that strength to create strong images that you can stretch in the editing room and they don't lose their power."

Emily Blunt, as an FBI agent, in the tunnel shoot-out.

Filming in Mexico City and Albuquerque, N.M., Villeneuve says he wanted "the light to be as natural as possible. Instead of fighting it, let's embrace it. Let's create silhouettes in the desert, let's embrace shadow in the faces — let's create tension with that."

But one crucial sequence leading to a tunnel shoot-out proved an exception, since it takes place in near darkness. Recalls Deakins, who shot the film with an ARRI Alexa digital camera: "It was two exteriors, and the interior of the tunnel was a set onstage. The pro­blem with that sequence was that it was written as though you're seeing it happen objectively: You start with people getting out of their SUV on a hilltop at twilight and they walk down the hill into blackness, and then it's written as though you see them objectively going about their work, going to this tunnel."

Deakins was afraid the sequence wouldn't make visual sense. "You lit the night exterior so that you could create an image the audience could see, but why did that make sense, because they were working in blackness?" he says. "The only image you could really see was what they see through their night-vision system."

The solution the filmmakers devised was to adopt the char­acters' point-of-view by shooting the sequence as seen through their thermal imaging camera and night-vision goggles. Deakins incorporated a thermal camera made by Flir, which is used for scientific studies: "Denis thought Alejandro (played by Benicio Del Toro) could have the thermal imagery, with the other members of the team having a regular night-vision system. We structured the whole film as though it's subjective except this one scene where the SWAT leader is coming into the tunnel. We shot that at the entrance to the set and made it look like there was absolutely no light; it's just a sil­houette against the dark sky. So you don't break the idea that night is black."