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Director/Cinematographer Matthew Heineman on Shooting Sundance Award-Winning Doc Cartel Land

Cartel Land

A tense, cinematically-styled verite documentary about the Mexican drug wars, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land was one of the big winners at Sundance this year, nabbing both the Directing and Cinematography Awards. Strikingly, both positions were filled by the same person: Matthew Heineman, who also produced and edited. (For Cartel Land, Heineman shares the d.p. credit with Matt Porwoll.) Below, the multi-hyphenate talks about why, for him, shooting isn’t entirely about the image; why being his own d.p. calmed him down during the tenser moments of production; and the benefits of capturing a flat image through Canon Log.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Heineman: I directed/produced the film, so I figured I would be a cheap hire.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Heineman: There were a number of different shooting styles we employed, from lit interviews to drone shots to timelapses to camera mounts. But at its heart, it’s a verite film shot mainly in run-and-gun situations. As much as possible, my goal was to make the doc feel like a narrative film — the setting, the situations, the characters were all very cinematic, so I tried to capture it in this way.

For our interviews (which were shot by Matt Porwoll operating from the side of the C300 with me asking questions directly behind the camera), I wanted our subjects to look into the lens for two reasons. First, I wanted it to play like the rest of the film: intimate and without my presence. Second, in some sense, the film is a complex morality tale, and I wanted the interviews to feel like testimonials – like it was their version of the truth.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Heineman: I was in shootouts on the streets of Michoacán, Mexico and in Breaking Bad-like meth labs in the middle of the dark, desert night. Utilizing small crews or shooting by myself, my goal was to be there to capture in real time each chapter of the rapidly shifting stories, with the camera in the action, not observing it from the outside. It was a wild adventure and a grueling film to make.

And nothing ever went according to plan! We had to be flexible and ready for anything while still trying to retain a consistent visual style. In certain situations, that’s why it was helpful to have Porwoll operating a second camera, but for most of the more intimate or verité moments, I preferred to shoot alone.

Having no experience shooting in risky situations, it was frightening being in these environments. Being behind the camera actually calmed me down, because I was forced to focus on framing, on exposing, on focus. As is often the case with directing/shooting at the same time (or doing so alone), I was also constantly thinking about how a rapidly evolving scene fit into the larger story, what angles or moments or shots would I need to be able to capture to edit it. When I’m shooting, I feel half of my brain is in the moment and the other half is thinking about how I would edit it months later.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Heineman: We mainly shot Cartel Land with the Canon C300. The camera was dropped, smashed, hit by guns, in dust storms, pelted by torrential rain and it never, ever failed. Given the situations we were in, I kept the camera very small: body, lens, Schoep’s CMIT 5 Shotgun Microphone, and a Diety Miera viewfinder (which was a must given the bright sunshine we were constantly shooting in).

For 98% of the film, we used two lenses: the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 and Canon 24-105mm f4. We also traveled with the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x extender for b-roll. For some specialty shots, we used the Canon 7D (timelapse and car mounting), the Canon 1DC (drone), and the Astroscope adapter for night vision.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Heineman: The majority of the film is run-and-gun verité, so we didn’t use lights. We only lit our main interviews, but in a way to keep the image as natural as possible. Since we had to keep ourselves small and mobile, our entire lighting package consisted of a Litepanels 1×1, Flexfill and small pieces of diffusion. We worked a lot with natural light and materials we found on location to help control/augment the lighting we had. Since we were shooting in Canon Log, we had a lot of information to work with. The Litepanels 1×1 gave us just enough additional punch for what we needed.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Heineman: There’s a scene in Cartel Land in which I’m crammed in the back of a jeep in Michoacán, Mexico. A member of the Autodefensas (citizens who rose up to fight back against the villainous Knights Templar drug cartel) was interrogating a suspected cartel member, constantly jamming his pistol into the man’s head, threatening him, intimidating him to get more information. Not only was it disturbing to witness, but I could barely move, as I was jammed in the middle seat, sandwiched between two other armed men. It was an hour-long take, while the car was speeding through curvy city streets. Throughout this scene, which turned out to be an important turning point in the film, I was constantly thinking about how I would edit it and what angles I would need to cover the scene.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Heineman: We shot the film in Canon Log on the C300 to maximize the amount of information in the image and save us from having to do a lot of lighting in the interviews. Since we were doing most of our shooting in the desert and in high-contrast environments, we knew we were going to rely on the flatness of the Log image to retain detail.

While shooting the film, we used the “View Assist” function in the viewfinder to give us a more natural image to base our exposure off of. This is basically Canon’s version of a Rec709 LUT applied to the viewfinder. This gave us a decent idea what the film would look like in the grade, as well as protecting our image by slightly underexposing it.

For the DI, we worked with an incredibly talented colorist Seth Ricart. Our goal was to accentuate the cinematic look of the film, but we also wanted the film to reflect the tone of the desert and of Mexico. We added a bit of contrast and warmed the image slightly, while still retaining a natural feel. The images are so powerful on their own, we didn’t want to distract the viewer with a “look.” But having a flat image to work off of certainly saved us in a few situations.

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