Cinematographer David Gallego, ADFC, discusses his work on "War Pony", by Gina Gammel and Riley Keough

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Producer Gina Gammel and actress Riley Keough decided to shoot their first feature film as co-directors in the heart of Pine Ridge Native American reservation, in South Dakota. War Pony is a film featuring non-professional actors, which describes the daily lives of several young people belonging to the Lakota tribe. This is also a deep dive into the lives of marginalized Americans, who live in mobile homes, and whose lives are severely impacted by drug trafficking. David Gallego, ADFC, a cinematographer originally from Columbia (I Am Not a Witch, by Rungano Nyoni, noticed at Cannes in 2017) took on this political and emotional film. (FR)

War Pony follows the intertwined destinies of two young Lakota boys living on the Pine Ridge Native American reservation. Bill, age 23, is trying to make ends meet. Whether it be siphoning gas, making deliveries, or raising poodles, he’s determined to blaze his own trail towards the "American Dream". 12-year-old Matho is eager to become a man. Desperate to gain the approval of his young father, Matho makes a series of impulsive decisions that turn his life upside down and leave him unable to face the harsh realities of the world. Bound to one another in their common quest for belonging in a society that is hostile to them, Bill and Matho attempt to chart their own path to adulthood.

How did you end up on this film ?

David Gallego : It was thanks to Birds of Passage, a film that I had shot in 2018 and which had been selected at Cannes (a Colombian film set in the 1970s about an agricultural family who begin to get engaged in the drug trade when they begin to grow cannabis). I believe that the directors noticed it, and we were put into contact by the producers. There was already a poetic aspect to this film, yet it remained very realistic, which they liked. The way we related to the native population on the Columbian film also had points in common with what was in stake in the "Pine Ridge" project, and I admit that I was immediately thrilled by the screenplay which seemed to me to be very original, with very strong characters. Understanding the inhabitants of this reservation, their way of life and their traditions, was really one of the prerequisites for filming this story. And it was also extremely exciting because it was my first film shot in the USA.

David Gallego, à gauche
David Gallego, à gauche

What did reading the screenplay evoke for you in terms of images ?

DG : This might sound weird to you, but the first image I had in mind was that of a tree. A large tree, whose structure and architecture are largely buried underground. It is often said that a tree’s roots must be as voluminous as its branches, without which the tree cannot live. To me, the Lakotas are like this tree. Even if you don’t see it at first sight, their roots and their traditions are absolutely necessary for them to continue living in a world that objectively is totally removed from them.
The opening sequence of the film, with the old man and the sort of ritual ceremony at sunset, is exactly the symbol of this attachment to tradition. When I mentioned this vision of the tree to Gina and Riley, I think they immediately understood that we were on the same wavelength.

How did shooting go ?  

DG : We shot for fifty-six days, which is quite a long time for this kind of film. But you have to take into account the context of the reservation and of our interpreters. Everything could be going very well, and then suddenly no one would show up on the set, only to reappear the next day or the day after ! You had to be quite flexible and understanding. In addition, we could not be housed on site in the reservation, because there is not even the most basic infrastructure that could be used to house a film crew. So, we had a good hour’s drive to get there each day, which slowed down the pace of production. You had to know how to take your time, grasp the essence of the place, its rules, and remain as honest as possible with the inhabitants, in order to bring home a film that – above all – resembles them.

How Gina and Riley divide their work on the set ?

DG : Riley was the one who initially met the people of Pine Ridge and brought up this idea of ​​doing a fiction with them, shot in the heart of the reservation, involving them, even in the writing and the development of their characters. Gina co-wrote the screenplay, but she’s more of the on-set architect, constantly in the rhythm of the story, in the pure story, and in preparation. As for Riley, she is more in the accuracy of the actors’ performance and in directing the scene. Translating the two girls’ feelings into shots and light was very motivating. Especially when you know that War Pony is their first film. It is also a very psychological job to translate their desires, their vision. The numerous conversations we had in preparation were very useful in enabling me to see things more clearly.

Did they provide you with any references ?

DG : No, no references... We talked about the film as such, apart from perhaps a “non-reference”, in this case American Honey, by Andrea Arnold, in which Riley had played one of the roles, and from which she resolutely wanted to distance herself stylistically. By choosing few shots with a handheld camera, for example. As the actors were somewhat free to act according to their wishes, we didn’t want to add the movement of a handheld camera to that freedom. The idea was rather to put the camera in the right place, adapting to them, and to move the camera on its head if necessary. With no light on the tripod to avoid any constraint.

Did you know about this reservation or the Plains Indians beforehand ?

DG : No, I had never set foot in South Dakota ! Back home in Colombia, the native tribes live in the jungle. It’s a very different landscape and as a way of life. But you can identify commonalities, such as their relationship to nature or to certain totem animals... So, I learned a lot from observing this community, how they lived in their environment. For example, they usually live in mobile homes. These are very simple spaces, like long containers, filled with a multitude of things. Very quickly, I made the decision, on the daytime shots, to only rely on the light coming from outside, in order to create depth in these very simple spaces. I wanted to show their space, their residences, and connect them to the outside. Most locations, like the house of the woman who takes in our young protagonist and enlists him in her team of drug dealers, were filmed as they are. Only a few minor prop changes were made for setting and script purposes. These houses are mostly shelters, refuges. And it was necessary to show them as such with their welcoming feeling, even though, in this particular case, the young boy quickly realizes he’s ended up in the wrong place... There is also the scene where Bill, the young father, talks with his ex, who is also the mother of his little boy, whom he attempts to take better care of in the film. They are both standing in the entrance of the mobile home, and I played the opposition between them by deliberately leaving her face in the dark. He tries to win her back ; she represents hope in the film. But in this scene, we realize that she doesn’t love him anymore… She’s there without really being there. The scene was kept as it was shot during editing, and I believe that it’s clear how important the natural lighting is in this scene, in association with the set, as I mentioned.

There’s also that meal scene with three characters, when Bill visits the turkey farmer and his wife... Again, you made a very radical choice of sunset light from the side.

DG : I was really feeling the heat on that particular scene ! The location was like a veranda, with a long row of bay windows looking outside. And, of course, I had very few spots, and a very small crew of three people (two electricians, one grip). We took the risk of making the most of the natural light, with the evening and this beautiful setting sun. Naturally, things didn’t quite go to plan, and we fell behind schedule as the sun set mid-scene. Given the importance of the image of the windows facing outside, it was really impossible to go further that day. We said to ourselves that we were going to continue the scene the next day and get the shots that we were missing. But, cloudy weather came in overnight, and hopelessly gray weather awaited us the next morning. I had to do with what I had on hand, using almost all of the strong lights that I had in order to try to reconstruct the contrast to the best of my ability in the close-up shots. The backgrounds were then connected with layers during color timing. Anyway, I think the scene turned out very well. The well-to-do couple were the only roles performed by professional actors. I especially remember the actress who took on the character with a lot of humor. They represent the other side of the coin, and suddenly bring a certain ambiguity back into the film. They are people who try to pass as empathetic, but they are totally devoid of it deep down, as we realize later.

Why the 2.40:1 aspect ratio ?

DG : From the first location scouting, the directors and I began discussing the aspect ratio. And I remember telling them that to understand these people, this very unique context, you had to show the landscape that surrounds them on screen, and show how much this landscape regulates their lives. Even though the story is resolutely centered on the characters, constraining the space of the frame would, in my opinion, have done the film a disservice. That’s why we opted for 2.40, after a few screen tests. As a result of our discussions with Panavision Los Angeles, we opted for a digital image, but avoided at all costs an overly well-defined and overly sharp image. This is where Panavision’s large aperture spherical series (the one from the 1970s) came into play. These lenses have both a certain softness while yet respecting the scale of the landscape.

And yet, you almost never do wide shots to situate the landscape, for example at sunset, like in Westerns... Except maybe the very first sequence of the film.

DG : Yes, this kind of shot was never really considered. I do remember that we filmed more shots with the shaman who opens the film. Originally, he was a sort of recurring character who would leave the badlands and then regularly would be seen in the reservation, where the story is mainly set. These apparitions rather took on the form of a ghost or a spirit. But, in editing, these shots were removed and only what was really necessary for the story was retained. He remains as an icon that opens the film, and I think it works well like that. His presence is, in the end, much stronger with this editorial decision. The presence of the bison, in a way, replaces him symbolically, and this also works very well.

Did you rework the image during color grading, especially the contrast ?

DG : I like what these lenses did to the blacks in the film. You must have noticed that the blacks are not very deep, and that they "live" in a certain way. I relate that to the way we watch films nowadays. In the end, the majority of viewers will discover this film on their television set or on their tablet... and the notion of total darkness, of very deep blacks, seems to me almost out of context in this case. Unless you are actually in ideal conditions, like in Cannes, you never manage to have perfect blacks, and I think you have to integrate this into the way you make images. And it’s true that this slightly retro wide-aperture series has the particularity of giving slightly milky blacks. So, it’s something that I absolutely did not try to disturb during color grading, on the contrary !

(Interview by François Reumont, for the AFC, translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)