Shooting Scott Cooper’s last two films—pitch-black backwoods thriller Out of the Furnace and gangster picture Black Mass—cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shifted visual gears once again with the director’s latest, the Christian Bale-starring Western, Hostiles, shooting out in the wilderness, with much of the film’s aesthetic dictated by nature itself.
Encountering lightning storms and other unexpected weather patterns which demanded flexibility and quick thinking on set, Masanobu faced perhaps his greatest lighting difficulties when it came to nighttime exteriors, illuminating the forest just enough without bringing attention to his work.
While no one of Cooper’s films is quite like the other, what unifies them all, per the DP, is the director’s attention to character. With Hostiles, the DP worked off of the intense, violent Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), and the terrain he inhabits—the sweeping vistas of 1882 America.
If film is an exercise in control, Hostiles became an exercise in relinquishing it, finding a way to work with what nature offered up on a given day.
The large majority of Hostiles takes place out in nature. It must have been daunting to conceptualize a film so reliant on natural exteriors.
Probably 80% of the movie was exteriors. The art department did a fantastic job building all the forts and sets for those scenes that happen in more civilized area, but then the rest of the movie was really out in nature, and that was something that was a great experience. How to light the forest, how to light the night with rain, fire—and there’s not many choices because there were no artificial lights other than lamps, or fire. [laughs] More than that, the challenge was, am I delivering the right emotions?
How did you prepare for this film?
Scott and I spent a lot of time together in pre-production. Almost every day once we got to Santa Fe, where the production office was, we probably spent a few hours together, just to go through every point and scene of the script. I don’t think we watched any movies together as a reference, but we talked about photography—Edward Curtis photography from back in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
The art department had a tremendous amount of research led by our brilliant production designer, Don Burt, that was displayed around the art department area. We also got motivated, or inspired, by real locations in nature, and I took some photos as we went.
What camera and lenses did you decide to work with, and why?
The main camera was the Panavision XL2, and the main lenses were G-series anamorphic, as well as T-series anamorphic lenses.
Scott and I went in open-minded, either digital or film. But as we started talking, we naturally fell in the direction of film. It probably wasn’t much of a discussion. I think film felt right to us. We actually had quite a talk about [whether to use] anamorphic or spherical lenses, but in the end, it was our gut feeling to go with anamorphic.
Probably coming from the journey of the character we were discussing, it somehow it felt right.
Is anamorphic the ideal format for capturing the sweeping vistas of a Western?
Yeah, there’s a little more negative area than the spherical film format. Even the 35mm anamorphic has a little bit more negative area there and slightly better quality. To us, it was more of a gut feeling, emotionally. The lenses have a different character from anamorphic to spherical. How the things go out of focus, and how the lenses are imperfect. Anamorphic lenses are probably more imperfect than some of the spherical lenses.
Was the majority of Hostiles shot with natural light?
We did try to go with a natural look, so that it doesn’t feel like it’s lit. But having said that, the challenge was the forest at night, in the rain.
Exactly—how do I do that without lighting it? I have to light it. So those things are really a challenge. The first couple days of filming, we had all these light troubles through the sky during the day—shadow changes and light changes. Suddenly it gets cloudy, lightning comes, and we get shut down. Throughout the day, it just kept changing, and I felt like, “You know what? I’ve got to just go with it. Why fight against it?”
Most of the day stuff, I don’t think I lit, to be honest with you. I probably had something that bounced the light back, but I don’t even think I set up a light for exterior day stuff. But night stuff was all lit.
Did this shoot feel like a process of discovery as you went along, being so beholden to nature?
I think so. It was really the nature of the schedule, terrain, and difficult places that we went to.
What exactly was the approach to lighting scenes at night without the audience feeling your hand behind them?
I tried to light the forest as evenly as possible. Because at night, you still see something, but you’re not quite sure. Fire was definitely motivation for the light source, and that was really the approach. I had to have a big construction cranes with big lights rigged above the forest to give an even cast of light—a very small amount of light, to be honest with you. We had this hint of light so that we see some detail of the forest.
We started from there, and where the fire happens, we can motivate the fire, then fill a little bit in with lights.
Generally, did you go through a lot of camera rehearsal?
Rehearsal with us was more like blocking—not like a camera rehearsal, because Scott loves to save the energy of the actors, and then when they are going at it, we are already filming. So not so many camera rehearsals, I would say, unless it was blocking and making sure we didn’t miss certain actions.
How did you handle those action sequences where your characters are racing on horseback?
We have a few shoot-out sequences throughout the movie. Scott, and me, and our 1st AD, and also our stunt coordinator, Doug [Coleman], we spent a lot of time in a room with miniature horses and miniature people that we kind of choreographed.
Based on that, Doug went out on his own, with his stunt team, and came back with some footage. They shot on GoPro video cameras and said, “This might be the action that could happen.” From there, we decided, “Okay, maybe this is an interesting angle, if that’s the action.” Really, it’s a process of little by little. Some of the scenes were also partly filmed by second unit, and their footage definitely adds to the sequence tremendously.
Did you need to bring in picture vehicles to keep pace with the horses?
Yeah, we had a couple of different things. We had an electronic golf cart thing, with a stabilized head with an arm on it. Also, if it was more action-packed, we had a nice suspension buggy with arm on a stabilized head. If you look at the movie, I think we minimized the dialogue sequences of them riding on the horses, so the time when they are on the horses is probably traveling journey sequences.
I imagine a lot of this was dictated by nature, but did you have any particular intentions when it came to color palette?
That was something where I don’t think I went out to shoot with a quite clear idea. I did some film tests, but the geography changes. It starts with really dry, brown, dusty area, it starts going into a greener forest, and then it goes up to a higher elevation. At the end, it goes to Montana where it’s a really gorgeous mountain.
So the color was really dictated, in my opinion, by geography and what the terrain offered. But actually, with my color timer, we did add a little bit of warmth to it in highlights that definitely enhanced the idea I just told you about, going from dusty browns to clearer, crisper terrain.
And I did use different film stocks, too. I started with grainier, contrastier stocks, and a different process, and then as the journey goes on, I started going to slower speed stocks with tighter grains.