Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks team up again for a Western that is already taking its place among the classics.
The new Western from director Paul Greengrass skilfully recreates life in the frontier towns and untamed prairie of post-Civil War Texas while avoiding the more obvious tropes of the genre.
“No-one may notice but there are two staples of the western we don’t use,” says cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ASC. “I don’t use any crane shots and Paul decided to film without a single bar scene.
“We were scouting various towns in New Mexico for the movie and, of course, they all had a bar,” he continues. “We found one which had been used in a Coen Brothers’ movie, which was perfect, but Paul was adamant. He wouldn’t include any saloons. So, myself and the production designer redesigned the whole space and then shot the scene. It’s in the movie but you can’t tell it’s a bar.”
News of the World is adapted from the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles and scripted by Luke Davies and Greengrass. We pick up the story in 1870 with war veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travelling from town to town making a living reading new stories from the papers to eager audiences. He comes across an orphaned 10-year-old Johanna (Helena Zengel), who it transpires, has been raised by Native Americans. Kidd resolves to deliver her back to her aunt and uncle in a journey that involves considerable personal peril.
“Making a Western is a challenge because there have been so many of them and most are very picturesque,” Wolski says. “We didn’t want to lose that, but at the same time we wanted to add a contemporary look.”
Wolski: ‘A good documentary cameraman doesn’t shake the camera unless bombs are falling on his head’
This is the DP’s first film with Greengrass, and at first glance he is an unlikely collaborator. They first met in 2008 at Pinewood, when Wolski was lensing Sweeney Todd for Tim Burton and Greengrass was making The Bourne Ultimatum. The Polish cinematographer began his career working on BBC documentaries and rose to prominence with Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994). After shooting commercials for Tony and Ridley Scott, he shot Crimson Tide and The Fan for Tony Scott, made numerous blockbusters including Alien: Covenant, Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Martian in an ongoing relationship with Ridley Scott and he also shot three Pirates of the Caribbean films for director Gore Verbinski.
“I come from working with Tony, Ridley and Gore and from a very stylised, commercial and grand approach to cinema,” Wolski acknowledges. “Paul comes from a very documentary way of filmmaking. What intrigued us both, I think, is that News of the World was about combining our way of thinking to make this film.
“Although my movies are received as very visually stylised, the basic approach was always very naturalistic,” he continues. “You can create these incredible worlds but you can still treat it like it’s real. Even Pirates was shot for real in the Caribbean and Ridley’s movies are shot using real locations, real landscapes, albeit augmented and extended. I’m just fortunate to work with directors who are very responsive to capturing scenes spontaneously in a very short amount of time. That’s how you get the best light and the most interesting images.”
News of the World is also a departure for Greengrass, whose signature fast-cutting and constantly moving handheld camerawork on action thrillers like Green Zone and Captain Phillips might be considered less appropriate for the more sedate pace of a western. Nonetheless, most of the film is shot handheld with Wolski placing the audience as comrades around the campfire or jiggling aboard a horse and cart with Kidd.
“A good documentary cameraman doesn’t shake the camera unless bombs are falling on his head,” says Wolski who lensed with Alexa Mini LFs and Angénieux zooms. “I use a bit more Steadicam than Paul is used to. When I needed exposure, I put on Panavision vintage primes that you can open up pretty wide to capture the natural light.”
Wolski checked out Roger Deakins’ cinematography on The Assassination of Jesse James. “I didn’t think it was exactly what Paul would like but I tremendously admire Roger and wanted to see how he dealt with the western. For this film we needed to find the balance between being stylish and true to period yet contemporary.
Wolski: ‘When I needed exposure, I put on Panavision vintage primes that you can open up pretty wide to capture the natural light’
“I load all sorts of references in my mind and throw them away when I show up on set. I prefer to be responsive to what you find on set. We used a very basic pick-up truck to follow the horses. Our approach was to restrain ourselves from using lot of tools and equipment.”
Greengrass preferred to prep most of the movie at home in Henley, leaving Wolski to recce locations around Santa Fe.
“I bought a cheap drone and shot some footage of the terrain so he could better understand where he might stage a scene or when drawing a storyboard,” says Wolski. “His first comment was that he didn’t want the story shown from any other perspective than the human perspective. Of course, I said, the drone shots are just for a sense of space so you know what needs to be built or extended digitally. After a while he comes back to me and says, ‘You know, I like those overhead shots and think I’ll use them’. So, after we’d shot the film we went back and grabbed some aerials with a helicopter unit.”
To evoke the hardship of life lived in the saddle and battling against the elements of rain, wind and heat the film is shot using natural light. Interiors and exteriors of homesteads and the dark and dirty but bustling outpost towns are often lit with hurricane gas lamps.
“We had bit of a problem in that Universal Pictures [the film’s distributor] wouldn’t let us use real hurricanes as much as we’d like, because of health and safety. We had to make some of them electric which I’m not crazy about, but all the ones in scenes with actors are real.”
He adds: “You start with the real thing and see if you can get away with it. Thank goodness with digital technology you can push the limits of the available light.”
One startling shot early on in the film silhouettes a church against a darkening and pink sunset. “We were all set for a night shoot and had a big artificial moon light,” says Wolski. “As we were getting ready, I thought the cloud looked so beautiful it would be foolish not to turn the camera on. My motto is first roll and then think how you are going to use it.”
Wolski: ‘Universal Pictures wouldn’t let us use real hurricanes as much as we’d like, because of health and safety’
Wolski revisited a number of classic westerns, including John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers to which News of the World is a kind of modern revision.
There is even an echo of the most famous shot from The Searchers where John Wayne is shown framed by the silhouette of a door. This time its Hanks and there’s a similar dilemma – where do he and Johanna belong? The Searchers also shares with News a storyline of a young girl brought up by Native Americans but not its racist depiction which had Wayne’s anti-hero spit, “Livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive.”
“The relationship between Kidd and girl is the heart of our film,” Wolski says. “She is learning from him but at the time he is learning from her. From a Western perspective this girl was raised by savages but her spirituality is much deeper than his and that’s a beautiful transition.
“I always find it troubling how in the movies Native Americans are portrayed. In nearly all westerns they have been caricatured. In this film you see them only twice. One shows them in a CG comp at long distance at night, and the other is when they appear out of a sandstorm.
“We show Native Americans in a very dream-like and undefined way and for me I am very proud of it because it means nobody is trying to speak for them with some accent or broken English. They are beautifully ambiguous images. The first time you can barely see them and the next is like this exodus in the background. If there was a movie just about them it would be a different story.”
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Wolski’s favourite scene shows Kidd in his hotel room looking at a picture of his wife, and then outside the window at men scurrying in the rain. “It’s just three shots but we were able to turn all the lights off and truly light it with just a couple of hurricane lamps. That gives you the best satisfaction.
“I wish we’d done more,” he continues. “Basically, a movie like this requires another ten days of just going out with the camera and capturing what you see of the landscape and the light. We never had full time to do that, but I sent my A camera, Martin Schaer, to shoot second unit because he knows me and what I like to capture.
“The dream of every cameraman is to go and shoot like this but we are being replaced by CG,” he adds wistfully.
Perhaps in future films like this will be made by shooting the actors against video backgrounds displayed on LED screens.
“God forbid!” he says. “The whole Marvel industry is designed that way but how many Marvel movies can you stomach? Unfortunately, the young generation is growing up on video games, not knowing the difference between reality and real photography. I remember showing my 12-year-old son what I shot during the first Pirates of a night shot of a boat in the ocean. He couldn’t believe that something so spectacular was shot in the middle of the night on a real Caribbean island and not on green screen.”
Script and story
Editor William Goldenberg ACE, who made Greengrass’ last film 22 July, was on set for principal photography, having previously spent time with the director in London as the script took shape.
Goldenberg’s close collaboration with Greengrass paid dividends when editorial was cut short by COVID-19 lockdowns. “For the first time in my career, it was almost more important to be on location during production as it was to be with the director in post every day,” he says. “Paul was in London and I’m in Santa Monica and we were able to work online remarkably easily. We used Evercast, which enabled us to see each at the same time as he could see my Avid. I feel like I had another layer of knowledge about the story because of how much time I spent with him.”
At one point during the shoot, Marcus Mumford the lead singer of Mumford & Sons and a friend of Greengrass, was shown an edit in progress.
“It’s always a little unnerving showing a cut for the first time to a lot of different people when the director hasn’t even seen it,” Goldenberg says. “But Paul has no ego about his work.”
In a sense, News of the World is a road movie given that the story moves from location to location, almost without returning to one while the central character’s outlook changes en route.
Greengrass has spoken of wanting to make a film that deals with themes of healing and redemption and draws explicit parallels with Trump’s America: “Five years after the Civil War, America was bitterly divided, grappling with the sense of loss and searching for a unity that was as yet unfulfilled. The strange odyssey undertaken by Captain Kidd and Johanna reminds us that it is the actions of ordinary people, people on the margins who can show us the road to healing and redemption.”
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