Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ASC, AMC, talks about his work on "The Homesman", directed by Tommy Lee Jones

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For The Homesman, his second film as a director, American actor Tommy Lee Jones enjoyed being in the great outdoors that are so dear to his heart. We remember his film Three Burials, which won Best Screenplay in 2005. This new Western offers Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, another opportunity to film the American West. (FR)
Rodrigo Prieto et Tommy Lee Jones sur le tournage de "The Homesman" - DR
Rodrigo Prieto et Tommy Lee Jones sur le tournage de "The Homesman"

The first images of the film give off an impression of great stability... a pervasive horizon, characters firmly rooted in the earth...

Rodrigo Prieto : There is a simplicity in the story that needed to be felt in the imagery. Few characters, a “road movie” in a certain sense, and a minimalism that Tommy Lee had in mind from the beginning. The sky, a horizontal landscape, a buggy. That’s about it !
It offers an extremely simple and stripped down visual canvas for a complex and emotional story..

Did you exchange visual references with Tommy Lee Jones ?

RP : What I do in general on each film is a visuals search. For this film we discussed the work of Donald Judd, who was one of the leading theorists of minimalism. His work with cubes lined up in the landscape of Marfa, Texas was, for example, a very good starting point for the visual philosophy of our movie.
I also showed Tommy Lee Jones photos by Ichiro Kojima and Josef Koudelka. Even though these are black and white images, due to the way they captured material, natural light in hostile environments. Land, snow, rain... All these elements were central to the script, with characters who find themselves at the mercy of nature.

Did working on the elements like that complicate the project ?

RP : It is above all a great outdoors film. Two months of advance work were required for preparation and filming in the area around Santa Fe, New Mexico, for forty-three days. It is in these real natural conditions that the film was actually shot. We had snow, rain, cold and heat…
But what was most difficult for me to handle was the wind and the constant changes of light that come with it. Not only was it impossible for me to take out frames or reflectors without the possibility of their flying away, but the equipment in general was pushed to its physical limits. I think these difficulties come through in the film... You can see the wind and the rain striking the actors’ faces... This is also what makes the strength of films shot in nature.

Fire also seems to be one of the important elements in the film, no ?

RP : Yes there are a lot of night scenes outside and we wanted campfires to be the main sources of lighting..., with lots of contrasts and flickering. In the flashbacks, I also used candles and oil lamps indoors. For these shots, or about 20% of the film, I decided to shoot in digital, with a Sony F55 camera. Its nominal sensitivity of 1,250 ISO allowed us to sometimes film with just a candle or oil lamp.

So the film isn’t entirely shot in digital ?

RP : Of course, we asked ourselves the question. From a budgetary point of view, the cost projections between digital and film were very close on this project. We did a series of preliminary tests between the different cameras under consideration for this production. The Sony F65, the RED, and the Alexa, as well as the 35mm film under different conditions (outdoor, night, day...).
 Tommy Lee found that 35mm was a better fit for his vision of the film. I think he wanted to stay with an image that is more familiar for a Western, to progressively lead the spectator into a film that is resolutely different than John Wayne’s duels in the setting sun…

2014 is the first year in the history of the Cannes Film Festival where there won’t be a single film screened from actual film stock… What is your feeling on this issue ?

RP : I love the texture of film. There is no doubt about the aesthetic quality of digital screenings, but I remain committed to shooting films on film stock. Like many other DoPs, I look for new ways to create digital images, but most of the time, I am unable to produce the image that I had in my head. This does not stop me from mixing both digital and silver-process film, as in this film or in The Wolf of Wall Street, for example. Until The Homesman, I hadn’t yet encountered any problem getting the film developed and inserting it into the digital chain of production. But it is true that the economic model is changing, due to the disappearance of actual film reels from movie theatres. For example, for the Super 16, this is becoming a real issue even in Hollywood. I am telling you this because I am preparing a pilot for a new HBO series on the world of rock ’n roll, and the director and I might not be able to film using 16mm as we would like...

You mentioned that you tested using the F65 and yet you chose its little sister, the F55… why ?

RP : When we first carried out the tests, the F55 was just a prototype... But a short time before shooting, it was released and I was able to redo a couple of tests that convinced me that it was the one. I think that it was its 16-bits colour sampling that did it for me, especially when compared to other digital cameras.
As there were a lot of scenes shot with a shoulder-held camera or with the Steadicam, the issue of weight and bulk were of the utmost importance. In any case, even though it is true that the F65 gives excellent results, we didn’t need its ultra high definition for those shots.

What lenses did you use ?

RP : The film was shot in spherical lenses, Super 35 with Master Primes. The importance of wide shots, for example the detail on every blade of grass, seemed to me to be paramount. And they’re really very sharp lenses.
As usual, for shots between long focal lengths, we used Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm zoom lenses, as well as a Fujinon 18-85mm zoom to save time on some “set ups” and on the B camera.

You were discussing the night scenes in very low light. But you still relit those shots ?

RP : For most scenes shot using the light of campfires, the characters are actually lit by the fire or by off-screen gas lamps. It was rather for the backgrounds that I used projectors so that everything wouldn’t be in total darkness. Using this technique, you keep the brutal fading of the light in the medium shots because the characters are actually close to the fire. The backgrounds, on the other hand, can be kept exactly at the perfect level.

For this I had a sort of ambience lighting made out of sixty tungsten bulbs installed on a random electronic dimmer system. They measure about 1.20 by 2.40 meters and are very useful for faking fire while keeping the bulbs low enough to make sure the colour temperature is synchronized with the fire. Sometimes I use them for faces for aesthetic reasons.
I also shot scenes inside using only the light of a kerosene lamp. You’ll see, it’s during a flashback when Hillary Swank discovers a corpse. The combination between an F55 and 1.4 Master Primes worked great here, and I think that this was the first time I didn’t work with the props person to fake lamplight.

What kind of director is Tommy Lee Jones ?

RP : Tommy Lee is a very well-educated person. He studied literature at Harvard and is extremely demanding when it comes to the meaning of words. For example it is out of the question on set for the actors to improvise or change a line of dialogue ! His will to be faithful to the text, to the project as written, is combined with strong direction as to the visuals, whether it be light, costumes or scenery. Although on set he is more or less busy dealing with his double role as actor and director, he was very involved with colour timing at Efilm in order to finalize the “look” of his film.

You yourself have just directed a short film that is available on the Internet… Is this the beginning of a new vocation ?

RP : Lightness is a short film that I had the opportunity to direct after I replied to a call for projects on the Internet. The production was funded by non-profits, and the theme I have chosen is that of anorexia, with my own daughter who wrote the screenplay. It was a family project that ended up being shot with Elle Faning.
I loved this experience, which is, from a narrative point of view, closer to an advertisement than to the feature films I make as a DoP. We’ll see if I have the opportunity to direct other things later, but I remain most of all passionate about my profession...

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)