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How I Shot That: Director and DP Matthew Heineman on Shooting ‘Cartel Land’ in a Virtual War Zone

How I Shot That: Director and DP Matthew Heineman on Shooting 'Cartel Land' in a Virtual War Zone

Shooting “Cartel Land,” Heineman found himself in the middle of a 21st-century Western as he filmed vigilantes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border fighting violent Mexican drug cartels.

What camera and lens did you use?
 We mainly shot “Cartel Land” with the Canon C300. The camera was dropped, smashed, hit by guns, in dust storms, torrential rain and it never, ever failed.

For 98% of the film, we used two lenses: the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 and Canon 24-105mm f4. We also traveled with the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x extender for b-roll. For some specialty shots, we used the Canon 7D (timelapse and car mounting), the Canon 1DC (drone) and the Astroscope adapter for night vision. 

This was the most difficult shot on my movie — and this is how I pulled it off: There’s a scene in “Cartel Land” in which I’m crammed in the back of a jeep in Michoacán, Mexico. A member of the Autodefensas (citizens who rose up to fight back against the villainous Knights Templar drug cartel) was interrogating a suspected cartel member, constantly jamming his pistol into the man’s forehead, threatening him, intimidating him for more information. Not only was it frightening and disturbing, but I could barely move as I was jammed in the middle seat, sandwiched by two other armed men. It was an hour-long take, while the car was speeding through curvy city streets. Throughout this scene, which turned out to be an important turning point in the film, I was constantly thinking about how I would edit it and what angles I would need to cover the scene.

This is my favorite cinematographer, and why: Wolfgang Held—He’s had an amazing career spanning both fiction and non-fiction. He has such a cinematic and beautiful way in which he moves his camera.

What’s the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? Or is it necessary?)  I never went to film school (and don’t believe you need to), so I’m probably not the best person to answer this question.

Do you think the shift from film to digital is good? bad? (or just is?) I  think it’s fantastic. It has allowed more films, especially docs, to be made. It’s allowed stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told to see the light of day. It’s allowed people (like me with my first doc OUR TIME) to buy a cheap camera, experiment, learn and make films.

What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? Sundance is incredible and has been very important for my career as a filmmaker, but it’s also not the only route to success. There are a ton of great movies that don’t get in and go on and do wonderfully. So, I would say shoot films that move you, that inspire you, that challenge you, and let the documentary gods decide where the films go.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received? “If you end up with the story you started with, you weren’t listening along the way.”

What’s the worst advice? “That’s not possible.”

Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrate cinematography at Canon 
Creative Studio on Main Street. Read the entire series here.

READ MORE: Domestic Warfare Will Generate Controversy at this Year’s Sundance

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