As far as Jared Moshé is concerned, the western is at the core of American storytelling. “I think the western is the myth of America — we need more of them.
So for his directorial debut, Dead Man’s Burden, the award-winning producer created a story that depicts the harsh realities of Western life, both in his self-penned story, as well as in the spectacular beauty of the landscapes, as filmed by cinematographer Robert Hauer. “I wanted to capture the dichotomy inherent in the land,” Moshé explains. “The land represented a blank canvas where you could re-create your life. But it’s also a giant moat that isolated people. It needed to be so beautiful that someone loved it so much they would be willing to die for it, but desolate and isolating enough that somebody would be willing to kill to leave it.
The story centers around Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs), who returns a few years after the end of the Civil War to his family homestead in rural New Mexico, now inhabited by his sister, Martha (Clare Bowen) and her husband, Heck (David Call), who had presumed Wade dead. With their father and the rest of the family deceased, the two struggle, as Martha attempts to sell the property and leave to build a life in civilization.
Moshé and Hauer first became acquainted at the Cannes Film Festival, introduced by a mutual colleague. Jared had a great indie script — and he was set on shooting film,” Hauer recalls. Adds Moshé, “Rob and I had a very similar aesthetic, and we wanted the visuals to augment the story we were telling.
The two sought to tell the narrative in the visual language of classic westerns, such as High Noon, The Searchers, Unforgiven and others. “We talked about embracing the harshness,” Moshé notes, “letting the light come in and be crisp and hard, and embrace what that actually means without beautifying the images.
The director and cinematographer took particular inspiration from Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns,” particularly Once Upon a Time in the West. “That film does a great job at capturing the mythology and grandeur of that world,” says Moshé. He and Hauer would sometimes even refer to the film when framing shots just in terms of how the camera would move, using wide angles to capture the details of the faces, and the details of the world, in the same frame.
Doing that, of course, meant shooting widescreen — in this case, 2-perf 35mm. “Film was a no-brainer,” says the director. “The tropes of the western are so well-known that people can recite them. If you violate those basic rules, you will alienate your audience. On that fundamental level, I had to shoot this on film.
The two filmmakers did consider capturing on a high-definition digital format, but, Moshé says, “It would have looked like video. It would have felt weird to the audience.” Hauer agrees. “The digital imaging sensor was just too clean for us. And we didn’t want to try to add grain in post. Film has a beautiful texture, and gave us what was naturally there, 2-perf specifically.” Moshé adds that film also captured a sense of depth in a way HD couldn’t, which was something especially important in shooting the landscapes alongside the actors.
The choice of 2-perf widescreen was also another tip of the hat to classic westerns like Leone’s. “We knew we really wanted to be able to capture that wide landscape around the characters, to make them feel like they’re part of a world, one that is dominating them,” the director says.
“Film has a beautiful texture, and gave us what was naturally there, 2-perf specifically.”
Hauer had shot 4-perf anamorphic before, but knew that his director wanted the feel of the grain seen in the classics he referenced. “It was one of the first things Jared said to me. He liked seeing that grain structure on screen. He didn’t want an image that lacked any texture.” The two shot test footage to push through a DI, eventually finding John Dowdell at New York’s Goldcrest Post to bring out what they were looking for. “Goldcrest gave us a great scan and captured the grain and the details, the organic nature of film, which is what we wanted.
The film was shot on a single PANAVISION PLATINUM 2-perf camera with a PANAFLEX G2 as a backup. Hauer acted as the sole operator, supported by a local crew out of New Mexico, headed by 1st AC Chris Flurry. “The crew did a great job — especially at being able to keep the gate clean, which was no small feat in the environment we were working — and they worked so fast. They were amazing.
The PLATINUM was outfitted with a set of PANAVISION UltraSpeed MKII Lenses, as well as a “Panavised” COOKE 24-250mm T4.0 zoom lens. “The 40mm UltraSpeed had a warmth we really liked,” Hauer says, “and the COOKE zoom, besides using it as a long telephoto, had a warmth, a ‘creaminess’ which worked well for us.
Hauer, for the most part, shot on KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. “We tested some different stocks, but the 5207 [Film] had the best rendering of grain, and I knew that I could utilize it for most every time of day — from early morning to early evening.” KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 was used to capture just a few night interior and exterior shots lit by kerosene lamps.
The 5207 Film also captured the warmth of image seen throughout almost the entire film. “In the area of New Mexico where we shot, the landscapes are pretty epic, and the color of that environment is naturally quite warm,” Hauer explains. “All those warm tones are inherently on our emulsion. We embraced that warmth.” The cinematographer worked closely with gaffer Phillip Matarrese and key grip Juergen Heinemann, utilizing 6K HMI Par light sources bounced off unbleached muslin, adding any final tweaks in the DI with Dowdell. “We also sometimes just used that muslin to reflect in the natural ambience the sun itself was giving us, to carry the feel of the desert floor,” a tip Hauer had gotten from Robert Elswit, ASC at a recent Sundance lab. “If you want the look of sunlight, nothing beats the real thing!”
The film was shot in and around Abiquiu, New Mexico, home to famed painter Georgia O’Keeffe. “It really makes the job of a cinematographer much easier when the locations are so appropriate and stunning,” says Hauer.
Most of the filming was centered around a stark cabin which portrays the McCurry homestead, one found at the end of a rough two-mile dirt road with no electricity and little cell phone access. “When it rained, the road would turn to thick clay,” recalls Moshé. “It was a rough existence there during our 18-day shoot. Making the film there was really like living in a western.