Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has collaborated with Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, Spike Lee, Cameron Crowe, Oliver Stone, Ang Lee and Alejandro González Iñárritu, among other directors, and has helped to create the look of films such as “Argo,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “21 Grams,” “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Babel” (to name just a few).
Prieto’s latest project is Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman,” which premiered in competition at Cannes earlier this year and hits theaters November 7. This weekend, the film, which stars Jones, Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep, will screen at the Savannah Film Festival presented by SCAD, with Prieto in attendance. Indiewire recently spoke to Prieto about his creative process, his thoughts on westerns and what it was like collaborating with Tommy Lee Jones.
Some might classify “The Homesman” as a western, but obviously, it’s unlike other westerns. Did you look back at classic Hollywood westerns when you were preparing to work on this? Or did you purposely try to reinvent the look of the western?
We actually didn’t reference any classic westerns. We purposely tried to avoid that and make it look different.
How did the story and the genre help to determine how you shot it?
When we were deciding how to shoot the film, originally we were going to do it with a digital camera. But I did a few tests on different locations with the digital camera and a film camera as well. But when Tommy Lee saw the digital image of the landscapes, it didn’t feel like a western. So he said that he wanted the audience—in a big theater—to see this first image and think “Oh, we’re gonna watch a western.” And settle into that. And then, surprise them. Then you realize this is not a classic western at all. He twists the genre around that way.
In the end, we shot it maybe 85 percent on film negative. And we did a few scenes with the digital cameras, which were the low light night scenes. And that’s the advantage of digital cameras—that we were able to shoot some of these scenes with candlelight or oil lamps or fire at night. So we did a hybrid. Most of the movie is film though.
Do you have any personal preference about working with film or digitally?
It’s more about the texture that fuels the story. For each different project or scene, I try to find what color, what texture, what will work. And definitely the format you shoot affects that. Digital has a certain look to it. Let’s say it’s more clean. It doesn’t have the movement of the film grain. It doesn’t have that sensation that film gives you. And there’s certain things that digital cameras can do, with a shutter for example. On a film camera you can’t go with a wider shutter than 180 degrees. So, I used that on “The Wolf of Wall Street” for certain scenes. I used the shutter nearly 360 degrees to blow the images. I like both. I like the depth of film. I love the film grain. It’s something that I do gravitate to, but I also appreciate the benefits of digital for certain things.
So ideally, you’d like to have both options.
Right now is an interesting moment because I do have the opportunity to choose one or the other. Or both. And I have been mixing both digital and film on all my latest films. Unfortunately, film seems to be more and more difficult to be able to shoot on because of the labs that are closing. So that’s a sad development, but hopefully film will continue. Hopefully there will still be some labs and you will have the chance to shoot that way. My next movie with Scorsese is “Silence,” and we are planning to shoot on film, for example. So, film is not dead.
Getting back to westerns again, are you a fan of the genre? Did you grow up looking at old westerns?
Actually, not at all. It’s not a genre that I like too much, frankly. I had been offered a western before and there was one western I remember being offered and I told the director that I just don’t like this genre. So I didn’t do it. But “Brokeback Mountain” is a type of western. And now “The Homesman.” The classic “High Noon” type of western— for some reason that’s a genre that I never responded to growing up. I’m from Mexico and I guess it wasn’t a big thing in Mexico City, so I never got into it. But I do appreciate the opportunity to shoot it. Period movies are something I really enjoy and this story of “The Homesman”… As soon as I read the script I knew that I had to do it. I loved the story.
You’ve worked with so many directors and two of them are also actors—Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck. Do you think that working with an actor-turned-director is a different experience?
Well, I guess the main difference is that technically when you are shooting and reviewing the scenes on the video—sometimes that takes a little extra time, because the director is on camera. So you’re not seeing anybody’s performance. So you have to go see the video. That would probably be the only difference because both Tommy Lee and Ben Affleck are directors. They really understand the medium and they know exactly how to choose and dissect through cinema. Not only with the performance and all of that, but they really—both of them—understand sound, editing, cinematography. They really are capable directors. So I never felt like, “These are actors and I have to guide them through the technical aspects.” Not at all. With both of them, it was very clear the type of lenses they wanted to use, the style, these things. And Tommy Lee was very specific and very keen to shoot this in a very minimalist way. So he was very interested as well in the use of color and composition. He knew the style he was after and it was really fun and interesting to come up with the way we were shooting this movie with Tommy Lee.
At what point do you start to picture what a film will look like? And at what point do you discuss that with the director?
It depends. Every director is different. Sometimes it’s a longer process of trying to little-by-little figure it out and look at reference images and things like that. In the case of “The Homesman,” from the very beginning, the very day I met Tommy Lee, we started talking about minimalism and I even said, “Why don’t we shoot this on black and white?” and he said “No, for me color is very important.” He even mentioned Josef Albers in terms of theories of color and color combination. From the very beginning he had a pretty clear idea of some of the style of the movie, but then of course when we started actually preparing for the movie and being location in New Mexico, I showed him a lot of reference images, photography in particular. He had his own images as well. And that was what we used as a basis for being more specific about things we wanted.
Whose idea was it to shoot “The Homesman” in wide screen?
Tommy Lee had that notion from even before I was involved. I remember he showed some location photos that he shot that first day we met and they were cropped for wide screen. Also because most of our story happens in Nebraska, although we shot it in New Mexico, the flat landscape lent itself to wide screen simply because of the composition—we were playing with how much sky or ground could fit in the frame. And then the wagon. So it’s a very simple element. The composition is simple. So wide screen worked really well just looking at location photos. It worked very well with our scenery.
What was the biggest challenge of shooting “The Homesman”? Technically or otherwise.
I would say time. We had a relatively short schedule so just figuring out how to fit everything we needed to do—shooting at the proper time of day became sometimes difficult because we had to sometimes shoot a certain amount a day. That was the challenge. But also weather. It was both a curse and a blessing. We are obviously at the mercy of it and New Mexico has wildly changing weather, at least at that time we were shooting. It could snow or it could be very windy. We had a lot of wind so we had the challenge to keep the equipment in place, which was tricky. I would say weather also gave the movie a specific texture and feel that’s really good for the story. The wind on the people. It’s really hard to work in those conditions. Also, all the time we were dealing with dust on the cameras and all that, but the actors are in it as well. So you feel it. And they’re feeling it as well. I think that comes through in the movie.
When you take on a project do you start thinking of it in terms of images? In terms of light? In terms of color? What usually comes to you first?
Actually, my first approach is story. When I first read the script I try not to even think of any images. It’s inevitable because obviously I’m a cinematographer and images come naturally to me. But I try to just focus on the story and the characters and the emotions. And then, on the second reading when I discuss with the director I start bringing images to mind and thinking how this is going to work. Also, I try to keep myself open to what the director has in mind. I try to just listen if the director has any specific ideas. That’s my starting point. Then I start looking for visual references and I start shooting tests. Then I shoot camera tests to design how to technically achieve it.
What is your preferred way of collaborating with a director?
I certainly like to participate as much as possible in every part of the process. And I do like being part of the shot lists and deciding the cinematic language. If we’ll start the scene with a close-up or a wide shot. All these things are very important and how they impact the story. So I think that it’s something some directors do on their own and they prefer to do shot lists or storyboards or whatever and others do invite me to participate in that process. I’m comfortable either way. Whatever the director feels comfortable with. Whatever method they like and are used to. But I do enjoy to sit down and imagine the whole movie with the director before we start shooting. It’s something that’s fun for me and I really enjoy it.
Aside from “Likeness,” what has been the most personal project that you’ve worked on?
For me as a cinematographer what’s really satisfying and important to me is that movies are personal to the director. That’s when a movie works emotionally. Then I get involved and get really into it. I try to work on projects that are movies that matter, that are important to the director. But I do get very involved, emotional. “Amores Perros,” I was really crying on camera. “21 Grams” as well.
I remember breaking down and crying and feeling the emotions of the characters. I think that every project ends up being personal for me. Certainly, “The Homesman” was that way too. All the characters are very different to me and their culture and everything. You think, “What do I have to do with Mary Bee?” For me, her struggle and what she is going through is also personal for me. I feel for her. I think that’s not only important for the director, but as a cinematographer I try to bring the connection with the story and with the emotion of the characters to the look of it. I try to make images and cinematography that are subjective and hopefully represent the feelings of the characters.
What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer?
I never know what to say about that. I would say that what’s important—or at least my path—was to keep shooting stuff. Think of what you are shooting at the moment or even if you’re not shooting. Even if you’re loading film, or helping out on the camera department, really live that moment to its fullest. For me, shooting “The Homesman” or any movies I’ve done feels exactly as exciting as when I was shooting my first student movie. I still see that time from film school as a wonderful, amazing time. It’s not better now because I work with big movies. No. It’s great that I can keep doing that, keeping shooting movies the same way and collaborate with directors in the same way that I collaborated with my fellow students in Mexico City film school. I feel the same way. I think the main thing would be to live the project you’re shooting. Live that to its fullest and enjoy it. Don’t think about trying to make it.