Roger Deakins Was ‘Frustrated’ Filming ‘Dinky’ Train for Iconic ‘Assassination of Jesse James’ Robbery Scene
Roger Deakins wasn’t onboard with how “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” train sequence was turning out.
The Oscar-winning cinematographer reflected on the iconic scene from the 2007 film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, namely calling out how “frustrated” he was over the “dinky” train used for historical purposes on set. The sequence in question involves Jesse James (Pitt) staging an elaborate robbery of a train during the first act of the Andrew Dominik film.
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“I’ve got to say, Andrew and I got kind of frustrated because we couldn’t really find a train line that we liked and we couldn’t find a period train to the scale that Andrew wanted,” Deakins said during a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y. “We ended up shooting in Edmonton [in Alberta, Canada] on a museum line and luckily it goes through this little wooded area, but the train was really dinky. Andrew was absolutely frustrated at it.”
Deakins admitted that the shot design for the film itself “evolved” after the storyboarding process once locations were being scouted.
“A lot of things you do, you kind of make do with what you have,” Deakins said. “Part of the challenge was to make that train feel like a massive creature coming out of the darkness. The darkness hides a lot.”
He added, “I would never say I was happy with it afterwards. I was always kind of unhappy with it because it wasn’t as big as we wanted.”
The “1917” cinematographer noted that filmmaking is all about “compromise” and that sometimes he can’t even watch one of his films until “five years later” if it happens to be playing on TV.
Yet for “The Assassination of Jesse James,” there was more than just the language of cinema that had to be translated between him and director Dominik.
“You talk about somebody, a director, that’s so passionate and has something in his mind. To be quite honest, the hard thing with Andrew is trying to find what that was in his mind and do something in terms of what he was after,” Deakins said. “It’s so much about the poetry of the images and the sound.”
Deakins previously campaigned for the extended cut of “Jesse James” to be released. Director Dominik confirmed in April 2022 that there is a “better version” of the film that is about 15 minutes longer than the theatrical cut.
IndieWire recently named “The Assassination of Jesse James” the best cinematography of the 21st century, tied alongside cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s vision for Terence Malik film “The Tree of Life.” Both films star Brad Pitt. IndieWire’s Jim Hemphill wrote of “The Assassination of Jesse James” that Deakins commissioned custom-built lenses to illicit the feeling of portrait photographs from the era. “The combination of these lenses with Deakins’ elegant shooting through doorways, windows, and other frames within frames gives ‘Jesse James’ an involving sense of voyeurism,” Hemphill penned.
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