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JT Mollner and Matthew Irving Capture Classic, 1970s Western Look in Outlaws and Angels

  • June 29, 2016

The western is the most iconic of American film genres and director JT Mollner's Outlaws and Angels is a provocative and playful new addition to the revered tradition, which hits the silver screen in July.   

"We wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a film print that had just been pulled out of the vault and dusted off," says Mollner about his latest work, which captures a classic, 1970s genre look. "It's got the dreamy and imperfect qualities that made the old westerns look so beautiful."

From John Ford ( The Searchers ) to Sam Peckinpah ( The Wild Bunch ), the western was Hollywood's most popular genre from the early 20th century to the 1960s. More recently, a number of excellent westerns have emerged, including The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino), True Grit (Cohen Brothers), and The Proposition (Australian-born John Hillcoat).  

. Francesca Eastwood as the fierce heroine Florence Tildon

At Outlaw and Angels ' sold-out premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it was applauded for breaking new ground while being an ode to the classic genre. Starring Luke Wilson, Chad Michael Murray, Teri Polo and Francesca Eastwood, the film tells the story of three cold-blooded bank robbers who invade the home of a frontier family to hide out for the night. The family appears to be innocent on the surface, but a dangerous game of cat and mouse emerges, including role reversals, temptation and, finally, revenge.

Director JT Mollner and Cinematographer Matthew Irving on location in New Mexico.

Cinematographer Matthew Irving ( Waitress , Sins of our Youth ) was introduced to Mollner by Outlaws and Angels ' line producer Mykel Denis. Irving had worked with Denis on three previous features. "Right away it was clear we had very similar tastes, cinematically speaking," reveals Irving about his first meeting with Mollner. "We loved the same films and appreciated the same styles. We were already on 'the same page' before we'd ever met in person … which makes for a great collaboration."

From the beginning, they wanted Outlaws and Angels to look as if the film had been discovered in a 1973 time capsule.  Says Irving about the process to achieve that goal, "There's a certain magic that only happens with film. Unlike digital pixels in perfect alignment, film grain swirls through the celluloid image like brush strokes on a canvas.  We wanted Outlaws and Angels to have the same living, breathing aesthetic we fell in love with in all the movies that have inspired us." 

James Grayford, Teri Polo (Ada Tildon), JT Mollner, Steven Michael Quezada (Alonzo), and Luke Wilson (Josiah)

The duo's primary visual influence for the film was the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, on Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), particularly his warm, firelight interiors and cool, day exteriors. "JT and I were adamant that every splash of light should be motivated," explains Irving, "but the masterfully-lit night interiors of McCabe made us see how we could cheat a pool of light here and there and still get away with it as long as there was sufficient darkness around the light."

To accomplish this, Mollner knew that they had to shoot on film or he would not shoot it at all. "We considered 16mm but later decided on 2-perf 35mm, because we knew we could still get the grain but have the epic widescreen presentation," Mollner says.

Irving shot Outlaws and Angels on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, using the stock for the entire film, including day exteriors, due to its larger grain structure. "We wanted our movie to be as gritty and grainy as possible, to emulate the '70s look," he explains. "But even with the fastest stock currently available, the grain structure is much finer than what we were trying to achieve." Irving and Mollner were able to obtain the vintage look they were after by rating the 500-speed stock at 1,000 ASA, or even 1,250.

Irving and team shot the film using two Panaflex Platinums, plus a Lightweight for Steadicam and an ARRI 435 for high-speed work. For lenses, they used a set of Zeiss Super Speeds with the 14mm and 17mm being their "go-to" lenses for wide vistas. They also selected an older 25-250mm Cooke zoom. All of their camera equipment came from Panavision Woodland Hills.

"Our excellent camera crew was shockingly young for an all-film show, led by 1st AC Grant MacAllister, 2nd AC Jannis Schelenz and Loader Arlen Cooke," adds the director of photography. "They were extremely well-trained and capable and it gave me real hope for the future of our industry that this young crew still 'knows their stuff' in the celluloid realm."

Irving notes that his "old-school" approach to lighting is to make it as cinematic and beautiful as possible, but always motivated. He used classic Fresnels for hard cross light in the wide shots and Chimeras and 4x4 frames (Opal, 250 or 216) to soften close-ups and wrap around the actors' faces. "I'm loving the ARRI M-Series HMIs that provide a lot of light without a lot of wattage," Irving reveals. "For example, an ARRI M18 can give me as much punch as a traditional 4K and I can run it off a tiny putt-putt. But in general, my truck is filled with the classics: Mickeys, Mighties, Juniors, Babies, Tweenies …"

The film was scanned at 2K at FotoKem and color grading was done at Tunnel Post in Santa Monica with colorist Taylor Mahony. "We wanted the film to appear as though it had been finished photo chemically, so we baked most of the look into the photography and used only the most basic digital tools in post," Irving describes. "For example, we avoided the modern tendency toward vignetting (darkening the edges of the frame) and used a very minimal amount of windows."

Irving feels there are many subjective advantages to shooting film. "DPs and post houses are coming up with impressive algorithms and grain patterns that can be applied to pristine digital footage in post to emulate the feel of 35mm film," he says, "but nothing quite captures the organic, painterly quality of the real thing. As a technician, I'm quite content with the 'state of the art' of digital capture - latitude, bit depth, resolution; all the numbers are headed to the right place … but as an audience member, I still miss the grain: the actual silver halide building blocks of the image, swirling around from frame to frame."

"[Digital] may feel like an advantage for some filmmakers, but to see it honestly is to understand that the workflow will always be taken more seriously by the crew and the final image will always look superior," Mollner concludes.