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“Scorsese is Always Open to the Energy of the Moment”: DP Rodrigo Prieto on Killers of the Flower Moon

A man in a backwards baseball cap stands next to a 35mm film production camera.Rodrigo Prieto on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon

Adapted from David Grann’s best-selling book, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is based on real-life crimes against the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma. In the film, Scorsese continues his collaboration with several key artists: actors Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC. This also marks the final film for Scorsese and musician Robbie Robertson, who died this past August.

Prieto worked with Scorsese on three previous films: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman, and Silence. He built a career in his native Mexico, earning international acclaim with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros, for which he won the Golden Frog at Camerimage. Since then he has worked with directors ranging from Ang Lee and Oliver Stone to Julie Taymor and most recently Greta Gerwig on Barbie. He has been nominated for three Oscars.

Prieto shot Killers primarily on 35mm film using Arricam LT and ST cameras with Panavision T-series anamorphic lenses as well as Petzval anamorphic lenses. He used a Sony CineAlta Venice for digital scenes. Hand-cranked newsreel footage was taken on Scorsese’s own 1917 Bell and Howell. 

Prieto spoke with Filmmaker via Zoom.

Filmmaker: This is a large-scale period drama of real-life incidents. How do you prepare for a project this complicated?

Rodrigo Prieto: Part of the focus of the film is storytelling itself, how things are seen. That’s why we include newsreels in the opening, why there is a radio show telling the story of the Osage at the end.

For Killers, I wanted to expand on an idea in The Irishman of using still photography as the basis for certain scenes. So, the characters in the film, descendants of European settlers, would be remembered in the way still photography of the time looked.  To achieve that, I started researching color and the techniques to create color on film. I found Autochrome, invented by the Lumière brothers, appealing, so we created a lookup table [LUT] for the beginning of the film that would emulate Autochrome. Scenes with Ernest Burkhart [Leonardo DiCaprio] and William King Hale [Robert De Niro] and their families all have that Autochrome look.

For the Osage, their worldview is not really based on photography, but on their connection to nature. So the scenes with the rituals of the Osage, where the white people aren’t involved, the look of that is just as naturalistic as possible in terms of the color reproduction. The research then evolved into trying to understand the Osage vision of the universe, both their physical and spiritual worlds. Their culture is oral, not written. So, an important part of the research was talking, sitting with them at dinners. It was a beautiful part of the process.

I learned about how the position of the sun was an important element in their rituals. That’s why when Mollie [Lily Gladstone] is praying at sunrise, we see the sun in the frame. At the bearing of the pipe ritual in the beginning of the movie, we have this hot spot lighting the person who’s leading the ceremony. Later, in the lodge where the 25 original families are meeting, I created a circle of sunlight in the middle of the room. Even Lizzie’s [Tantoo Cardinal] burial takes place at noon, a very specific choice for the Osage. Burials occur when the sun is in its zenith.

The rest is just researching the time. We filmed in many of the actual locations in Oklahoma where the story took place, so it was a question of understanding what it looked like back then.

Filmmaker: Were you trying to show how the Osage see things? For example, when you show an owl in various scenes, is that how they would see the moment? Or is it an interpretation of how their spiritual world exists in reality?

Prieto: That’s our interpretation. It was how we thought it could be as powerful as possible. For example, when the owl appears, we cleared all the furniture from the room. I gave it a LUT that was very high contrast. We wanted it to feel surreal, but at the same time present. There was an owl trainer close to the camera. We didn’t expect the owl to suddenly fly all the way to the camera, but fortunately Trevor Loomis, the focus puller, was ready. That was amazing.

Other moments, a lot just depended on instinct. When Lizzie dies, her body’s in this open air structure. She opens her eyes, and there are her ancestors. The look changes dramatically. It’s suddenly very colorful. The first part of the scene had the Autochrome LUT, and when the ancestors appear we were just going to return to the normal color film LUT, the naturalistic look. But I tested a three-strip Technicolor LUT on that scene, because I knew we would need something for the radio show at the end of the film. We loved the way the very saturated colors looked with the ancestors. Again, it was instinctual, but very compelling.

Filmmaker: At the screening I attended, Scorsese spoke about catching some scenes on the spur of the moment. How do you prepare for that?

Prieto: In general, I approach my work with as much flexibility as possible. I knew from the get-go that the script was evolving constantly. Some scenes were written right on the day. Scorsese does a very specific shot list for the script. That becomes a kind of bible we follow. But things come up that we have to figure out on the spot. 

Filmmaker: Like the scene between DiCaprio and De Niro in the jail that was written the night before?

Prieto: Towards the end of the film, the lighting evolves into a much more dramatic style. I was going for a harsher look. In the jail we literally lit each cell with China hats. We put these 300-watt mushroom bulbs in them to make them more directional, and used little magnets to tilt them in one direction or another. That’s how we lit that scene. The shadows on the eyes were so deep. That was tricky. I had to find ways to hide the highlights so we could see the eyes.

There’s another scene that changed on the spot, the dinner with Molly and Ernest at the beginning of their relationship. There’s a storm, and they’re sitting, and she tells Ernest to be still. That wasn’t in the script. Scorsese heard from the Osage about that experience, to sit and listen while the storm is happening. So, he incorporated it into this scene maybe three days before we shot it. The grip department had already tented the windows, because we were shooting in daytime on a set built on location. Suddenly we have to make the tents bigger, because we had to add rain rigs outside the windows and lighting to see the rain. These technical complications are not easy, but I like the energy of challenges. This new thing is happening in the story—let’s solve it.

Filmmaker: There’s a moment in the Osage lodge where Yancy Redcorn and Everett Waller are talking to the original 25 families that Scorsese said was completely unscripted.

Prieto: We filmed the speech that was written, then turned the cameras around to film Hale, Ernest and Mollie reacting to it. Suddenly Everett starts improvising this speech, just speaking from his heart. Scorsese says, “Roll the cameras, roll the cameras.” We panned around, but there were lighting units behind him. We weren’t ready to film him. I went to Scorsese in the video tent and told him we’re rolling, but there were lights behind him, he was standing, it was all wrong. What we did was stop, reposition the cameras and reshoot his speech. We just let him go, you know? He was speaking from his heart. It was very, very powerful. When he finished, we went back to shoot Mollie and the others. 

Scorsese is always open to the energy of the moment. Things may seem haphazard, but somehow I think that there’s something pent-up that needs to be expressed. The Osage told us that for many years this time of terror was too traumatic for them to discuss. But with David Grann’s book and now this movie, maybe it’s a kind of healing for all of us. It’s important for our country to look at these things and acknowledge our history.

Filmmaker: The treatment of indigenous peoples is this country’s original sin. In a story with so many crimes, I’m wondering how you portray evil visually. Not necessarily through action, but in landscapes. I’m thinking about the scene where Henry Roan [William Belleau] is shot in a car on a deserted road.

Prieto: That scene was very first thing we shot in the movie. The reason is that we wanted to capture a barren, wintery landscape, and it was already spring. We shot it in pre-production. We did want it to feel, yes, barren and sad. We had to put the camera on a scaffold to get that exact angle with the road leading down. We put little patches of snow down that kept melting. I do think landscape can be expressive, depending on how you frame it, where you see it from, what time of day it is. In a movie with so many exteriors, the presence of the land in Oklahoma is very important.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about how you move the camera. There are a couple of very complicated oners, but I’m not interested in how you did them as much as why.

Prieto: Scorsese moves the camera to create an energy for the audience. Or sometimes he doesn’t move it at all. There’s always a reason—he doesn’t do specific camera movements just to show off.

On one long take, we start on Byron [Scott Shepherd], who is on his bed outside on the porch. He gets up and we follow him into the house. This is literally showing the layout of the house to viewers so they can understand where the rooms are, but also to feel energy of this mixing of cultures. These whites and Osage are living in a European-style house. We move around to see the energy of the place, how they had white maids working for the Osage. We end up on Mollie’s mother Lizzie, who is not happy. The shot is like a sentence; it’s designed to help you understand all these things that are happening as you are moving through the house.

Filmmaker: There’s another long take when Reta’s [Janae Collins] house explodes.

Prieto: Scorsese decided not to show the explosion to viewers. He wanted them to feel it with the characters in Mollie’s house. That’s why we show them going to sleep in the bedroom. Then the windows break and you see them respond to the bomb. We shot that in an airport hangar we converted into a sort of studio. When they go down the stairs, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with the kids, we shot that part on location in Fairfax. The camera has this energy and this chaos, this confusion, that I think puts us in the moment. To me it makes you feel like you’re there and you don’t know where to go and you don’t know where to look. You’re just swirling.

Filmmaker: How did you shoot the moment during Mollie’s wedding scene where you pull back from Hale and rise to the sky?

Prieto: Again, the energy of the camera move. Scorsese was very keen on starting on De Niro’s back. He described it as a medium shot on Hale’s back; the camera pulls back, we see the revelers and the dancing.

We did it on a 50-foot Technocrane, but that didn’t give us enough. So, we put the crane on tracks to pull it back. The shot was a combination of the arm retracting and a dolly back. By the end of the shot you could see the dolly’s tracks, so we shot a plate without the tracks and with dancers in that position. Then [visual effects supervisor] Pablo Helman and the visual effects team made a composite. So it’s not a drone, it’s a Technocrane helped by visual effects.

We did use drones, for example the very wide shot of the train arriving at Fairfax. Jack Fisk built that train station on location at Pawhuska. So, there’s a drone shot to start, then a Technocrane where we see the train stopping. Then we get a closer crane shot that swoops in on Ernest.

It’s something that Scorsese does so beautifully. This is a place where our story’s going to happen, and this is the character we’re focusing on. This is the person we’re going follow. These three shots basically show us that this will be an epic movie—the story of a town and its people, seen through the eyes of this character. The way Scorsese constructs sentences from shots I find amazing.

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