Director Ti West and DP Eric Robbins make cinematic magic shooting 35mm for western In A Valley of Violence
October 20, 2016
Expansive, dust-covered, sun-soaked landscapes. A mysterious lonesome drifter with his adorable canine buddy. A matter-of-life-and-death score to be settled in a sleepy town of the Wild West. A first-rate ensemble cast that includes the likes of Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan, James Ransone, Burn Gorman, and YouTube sensation Jumpy, the dog. On paper, writer/director Ti West's ( The Innkeepers , The Sacrament ) accomplished and sharply conceived In A Valley of Violence screams a quintessential example of classical Western. On screen, it's so much more, partly thanks to the film's gorgeous cinematic grit and visual grain, made possible by shooting it on 35mm. Ti West, along with his long-time cinematographer Eric Robbins, captures the haunting magic of the genre with a commitment to shooting his low-budget project entirely on film; a dedication that pays off beautifully.
In A Valley of Violence follows Paul (Ethan Hawke), the aforementioned drifter, and his disarmingly loveable dog Abby (Jumpy) as they journey towards Mexico through desolate deserts of the West. When a shortcut brings them to the famously violent old mining town of Denton, tensions rise between Paul and a crew of bandits led by a menacing lad named Gilly (James Ransone), who happens to be the misbehaving son of the town's sheriff (John Travolta). The revenge-ridden story also includes Ellen (Karen Gillan) and Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) as two sisters in charge of managing the town's hotel. Mary-Anne, who detests Gilly and dreams of leaving Denton one day, rapidly develops a crush on Paul and helps him out in his quest of bringing down Gilly. Sporting panoramic shots of vast outdoors, intimate interiors and fire-lit nighttime scenery, In A Valley of Violence looks stunning end-to-end, and makes a firm case for the vital importance of film to heighten and highlight artistic intentions on screen with significant depth.
For Ti West, who shot all his previous movies on film, shooting In A Valley of Violence in any other format was unthinkable from the start. "When the idea came up to not shoot it on film, I quickly said no," recalls West. "I felt [Western is] one of the most cinematic American genres that exists, and if we shot it on video, it would look like the behind-the-scenes of a movie, or a History Channel reenactment. I just think of film as a superior format." His DP Robbins, who grew up with an obsession for Sam Peckinpah and the Sergio Leone westerns agrees that their movie wouldn't have looked right in any other format. The cinematographer, who has a "deep and long personal history with film" from the age of 16 when he started shooting Plus X and Tri X 16mm, explains his attachment to the format for In A Valley of Violence . "The motion signature would look fake, and the absence of grain would make it look fake [had we not shot on film]. The minimal amount of highlight retention and latitude would never do the landscapes and textures justice," Robbins explains. "There is a "Glue" in the planes of film that is visceral; it is not explainable in words," he continues. "It's the layers and thousands of interlocking layered grain that does this. It's alive, it reacts and it just is magic. Because we have watched westerns for 80 plus years, we know what looks right for this medium. So, if we did not have the motion signature film gives, Ti and I both felt like the movie would have looked like a hokey stage play." Robbins continues, "Actors look so much bigger than life when captured on celluloid. It is my job to make them look as great and appropriate as I can and film just does this every time. Skin tone on film looks extremely flattering, especially if characters are going through make up and if you have sfx work happening to them from violence."
West, whose film and vision was backed by Blumhouse Productions, speaks against the common misconception that film is more expensive than video, and asserts that there are feasible ways of accommodating film in a micro-budget production like this one. "Somehow, people have this idea that shooting film is incredibly difficult, risky and expensive. Nobody thought that a few years ago, and for decades before that. One day, they just started thinking that," West says. "If you compare it to a two-camera shoot with a DIT, and the amount of storage you need, it's not more expensive at all on a professional level." West indicates that the only relatively bigger expense was the shipping of dailies to LA via FedEx, and even those were perfectly affordable line items in their small budget. "All film was processed at Fotokem LA and the dailies colorist was Christian Soleta," says Robbins. "The DI was done at Cognition and the colorist was Michael Eaves. The entire crew did a wonderful job."
Robbins shot all of the interior and exterior daylight scenes on Kodak 250D, 5207. The film's only night sequence was shot on Kodak 500T (5219). He chose 250D to have some grain structure in the daylight scenes. He says he didn't shoot the whole film on 500T due to the balance 250D has between highlights vs. shadow details. "In a New Mexico, with a ton of hard light in the middle of the summer, I wanted to be able to look into the shadow. I wanted to see under the building overhangs and more importantly, I wanted maximum control to see the actors' expressions under their hats at high noon. 250D would inherently have this build," Robbins says, adding that he aimed to make the world of In A Valley of Violence feel more "filmic" and less artificial, making sure the "grain" would emulate the characters' emotional state amid "the dusty terrains and unkempt splintery wood that makes up the town of Denton."
The primary lenses Robbins used were a set of Panavision Standard Primes. "The lenses were hand picked out over the course of a couple months and were modified by Guy Mcvicker in the Panavision Hollywood office," indicates Robbins. "We had a Cooke 20-60 zoom which is the nicest example of this lens I have ever seen. It had such beautiful aberration to it and flared majestically. We had a plethora of zoom lenses. To work with standard primes, we had an older 24-275 primo zoom and 135-420 primo zoom that we used with a doubler. To differentiate the beginning of the movie with Paul roaming in the desert, we used a sharper Angenuix 25-250. For the night work, I used Panavision Speed Z lenses. We shot with Panavision Platinums and had a Panavision lightweight for our Steadicam work."
Robbins and West, who have done three movies together to date, watched High Plains Drifter and The Wild Bunch (one of Robbins' Top 10 films of all time) among others, to figure out the color cut of the film. "[This film] leans a little bit cooler, towards blue, which is not typical for action in the last 20 years or so," says West. "Everyone thinks that westerns are supposed to look like sepia. I don't think that and I don't like the way it looks. I much prefer colder color palettes and the more neutral spaghetti western color palettes. Eric and I talked about that a little bit, and then with Jade Healy (Production Designer), trying to have the set look like that dusty western," West emphasizes. Robbins adds, "We were greatly influenced by the look and feel of the Sergio Leone masterpieces, because of the color palette and the warped close ups. I just think the lensing in those films is outrageous and way ahead of its time. Ti and I were big fans of Sam Rami movies growing up. He may be one of the masters of camera direction. We really dug the camera movement in The Quick and the Dead , which surely had its impact. Structurally and tonally we also felt like High Planes Drifter was right on the money."
Robbins loves the discipline film brings on the set. He recognizes a change in behavior and indicates everyone assumes their "A" game. "You see less iPhones out and more people using their eyes to analyze the frame for issues." West gleefully recalls the day John Travolta gave him a fist bump, as soon as he realized they were shooting on 35mm. "We were doing the camera test. There was a moment, a pause, and he was like 'you're shooting on film? Really?' I said 'of course.' He was so taken aback and proud of it. He fist-bumped me, and it was one of our first interactions. I could tell that he was so happy. [He probably thought], 'this is a serious production.' I think it made everybody feel like we were doing something a little bigger, a little better. I feel the same way," concludes West.
West thinks those who have a curiosity about shooting on film shouldn't be afraid of it. "If you want to do that, all the equipment is there to do it. There's a lot of great people at Kodak, people that want to keep supporting film and they will help you out."
When asked about his favorite shot in the film, West gushes about a scene early on in the film, where Paul is standing on the edge of a cliff. "It has this weird purple sunset happening. Jumpy the dog walks by in the foreground and pulls the horse by his reins. That is my favorite." In response to the same question, Robbins goes interiors and also sings his love for Jumpy, who plays Abby. "My favorite scene from a photographic perspective is the sequence in Mary Anne's farmhouse. I loved the location; thought the house interior was absolutely perfectly done," says Robbins. He adds, "Every single frame that Abby is in is complete brilliance. Very few films have this level of dog performance. I hope the audience notices that Ti did not have to cut around his acting. The dog simply could hold takes and allow for long and involved shots. It is kind of insane. Watch Jumpy videos on the Internet, they will blow your mind."