When cinematographer Rachel Morrison approached “Mudbound,” there was so much she didn’t want to do. She and director Dee Rees didn’t want to romanticize the postwar South, nor indulge the myth of “The Greatest Generation” in golden hues of a traditional period film.
Instead, building from the harsh realities of 1940s Mississippi racism, they found warmth in shared humanity, weaving a story that features six different protagonists from two very different farming families. A gritty, realistic look would be as inappropriate for “Mudbound” as what Morrison refers to as the “tea-stained” period film they were desperate to avoid.
“What I think makes ‘Mudbound’ great is there’s a beauty in its honesty, even when it’s muddy and everybody is dirty,” said Virgil Williams, who adapted the screenplay with Rees. “What Rachel did was provide a visual window through which that beauty could be seen by the audience.”
That sounds lovely, but executing it against unpredictable southern summer weather and within the confines of real-life sharecropper homes was another matter. Here’s how Morrison met those artistic and technical challenges while she created one of the best-shot films of 2017.
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Rees and Morrison wanted to build a visual language that presented the contrast between the American Dream and its reality. Key to this process was referencing some of Morrison’s favorite WPA photography by greats like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, which captured the life of farmers during the era. Rees found that the images’ candor perfectly fit her vision for the film.
“One of the things that was amazing about the photography of the time is all these people were unified by the circumstances, so you feel this community surrounding having nothing,” said Morrison. “It’s equal part landscape and individual faces, each face telling an amazing story. It gave us something to aspire to.”
While Morrison would pull some color saturation to give the film a slightly period look, the black-and-white photographs’ deep blacks and contrasts confirmed for Morrison that she would avoid the desaturated, milky-black look that has become so popular.
“My lighting tends to use contrast as a reflection of the stakes in the scene,” Morrison said. “The higher the stakes, the more I feel I can get away with an exaggerated contrast. It always feels to me like when you desaturate things too much — so trendy these days, too, every movie I see is underexposed — you are working at a handicap. Black is so integral to contrast and to conflict.”
Using old lenses gave a softness around the edges and helped reference a sense of past and taking off the sharpness of the digital cinematography. “[Rachel] was able to get this old glass, these old Panavision c-series lenses,” said Rees. “It’s about making it feel a little washed out, a little warm, but something that felt very real.”
Photo Courtesy of MACRO
Since the story centered on the characters’ connection to the landscape, there were many opportunities for striking imagery. However, Morrison had to guard against letting the beauty overwhelm the harshness.
“If the movie had looked like a Terrence Malick film I wouldn’t have served the narrative,” said Morrison. Still, she admitted: “The DP in me couldn’t believe every time we took a meal break right before sunset.”
Treacherous rain made Morrison’s existence miserable: Throughout production, unpredictable weather switched from sunny to torrential downpour and back to sun. She used large overhead frames filled with a shower curtain-like material to help shape the light. It gave the images a somewhat-harsh highlight, but still took the edge off unforgiving overhead light.
“It wasn’t about overpowering the elements, but working with them,” said Morrison.
The “Mudbound” narrative also balances scope with intimacy and relationships, often played out in the two families’ sharecropper homes. Rees insisted these had to be the real thing; nothing would be recreated or built on a stage.
“There’s something so inspiring about being in real locations, where you can feel the tactile qualities from the layer of paint that has been chipping off and the hundreds of years that have been lived in the space,” said Morrison. “But it’s a compromise. You get a lot less flexibility.”
When shooting real interiors, cinematographers usually balance interior and exterior light by adding neutral density gels to the windows, or using window treatments. For the sharecropper homes, this wasn’t an option: There were few windows. Even when Morrison motivated candlelight for an evening scene, the houses were so small and the ceilings so low that she had trouble finding a place to add a light to supplement the flames.
“It was the most lighting I’ve ever done to make something look unlit,” said Morrison. “The one thing I could do was put more openings — doors, window — in the structures. We put a couple of holes in the ceiling in both of them. Never to feel like there was a skylight, but to have somewhere I could put some fill light.”
Following the lead of Rees and production designer David Bomba, Morrison created a very different look and feel for the two families’ homes.
“Dee wanted [the Jacksons’ home] to feel like it was almost these three-dimensional images on wood,” said Morrison. “There’s just so much warmth to that color palette, whereas [for] the McAllans, it felt so much more vapid and cool. There was a disconnect, even though the family is altogether.”
However, collaboration under such restrictions requires some improvisation. “I usually find that locations are worth the compromise,” said Morrison. “You get a lot less flexibility, but you also get a lot of awesome ideas and you are forced into these happy accidents. There’s nowhere to put the camera, so you put it down low and it suddenly it turns into a great shot.”
No woman has ever received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography before. Rehashing the previous DPs who have been passed over, or talking about why it is so important in 2017 the Academy finally recognize the work of a woman cinematographer, is disrespectful of the Morrison’s work in “Mudbound,” which is quite simply one of the five best photographed films this year.