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How to Make a Gorgeous Western: Lenser Prieto and Composer Beltrami on ‘The Homesman’

How to Make a Gorgeous Western: Lenser Prieto and Composer Beltrami on 'The Homesman'

Shooting “The Homesman” was a uniquely atmospheric experiment for cinematographer Prieto (“Argo,” Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Silence”). Using Czech and Japanese photographers Josef Koudelka and Ichiro Kojima as inspiration for conveying textured interiors and harsh weather conditions, the first thing that Prieto did was test with both digital and film cameras. Although Jones conceived and budgeted for digital, they agreed that daytime should be shot on film and nighttime digitally, playing to the strengths of both formats. This isn’t surprising since Prieto is a frequent hybrid lenser.

READ: Why Hilary Swank Breaks Your Heart in ‘The Homesman’

“The result with the Sony F-55 for low light levels was convenient and beautiful to shoot with candles and oil lamps,” Prieto recalls. “But, on the other hand, we preferred the texture of a film negative for the rest of the movie. And a big part of it was the feeling that film negative gave us. Tommy Lee thought digital was too clean and too contemporary for our interpretation of the Western.

“He had in mind minimalist artist Donald Judd and was keen on the simplicity of composition with land, sky, and the wagon: How we play with flat horizon of Nebraska shot in New Mexico and how much of our widescreen frame, focusing on what the day gave us in terms of weather. He also liked Josef Albers’ theory of color [constantly changing in relation to surrounding colors]. For Tommy Lee, juxtaposing blue sky and golden grass were important.”

Continuity of light was a struggle, as was the wind for the crew, who wore goggles and used protective gear for the camera.  Whenever they had to bounce frames for sunlight, the wind would tear them down. Dust, too, was a constant impediment.

The cinematographer used some tricks along the way. For a hotel burning, he wanted to create top soft light but with wind it would’ve been impractical. So they designed a 20×20 frame with cables across it with a string of hundreds of light bulbs. Another trick: for a scene on a barge, he went with light sources on the boat and hid all sorts of bulbs behind the beams where they placed oil lamps and powered them with batteries inside of boxes.

For the score, Beltrami (“Snowpiercer”) and associate Buck Sanders went rogue. They created instruments (including an Aeolian wind piano tethered to a water tank) and experimented with recording techniques in their Malibu studio and the nearby Santa Monica mountains to make the wind an integral part of the musical experience.

“Tommy Lee encouraged me to find something unique, the original concept being that a studio room where everything’s been engineered to sound good might not be appropriate for such an austere movie setting,” remembers Beltrami, who has worked twice before with the director. “The original images of the landscape inspired the direction that Buck and I did in terms of a sonic landscape. It was great to manipulate the wind as a musical element. It worked dramatically as opposed to just a static sound effect.

“Buck messed around with Aeolian harps tuning the Santa Ana winds. We looked at taking an old piano and attaching strings to it and and placing it on top of a hill. You could play the piano normally but when the wind blew, it created some bizarre sounds. Wind was key because that’s what drove the women insane.”

During one scene when Swank gets lost and runs around in circles, Beltrami avoided any warmth and made the sound dissipate into the air.

In a way, it recalls the odd sounds Ennio Morricone achieved in his spaghetti Westerns with Sergio Leone. Which is fitting because Morricione is the reason Beltrami became a film composer in the first place.

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