Mandy Walker Recreates the Western Genre for Jane Got a Gun

  • January 22, 2015
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In Jane Got a Gun, a woman must turn to her former fiancé for help in defending her new family. The film, which stars Natalie Portman and Ewan MacGregor, gave Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS an opportunity to work in the Western genre, something many cinematographers dream of doing.

“There’s something unique and iconic about cowboys riding horses across the landscape, or tracking low angle on people confronting each other in a cowboy hat with a couple of guns,” she says. “I think all DPs would love to tackle the genre at some stage.”

Walker’s recent credits include John Curran’s Tracks, Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood and Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia. The latter brought Walker numerous awards nominations along with a Satellite Award from the International Press Academy. In 2008, she was honored as Cinematographer of the Year at the Hollywood Film Festival, and received the KODAK VISION Film Award from Women In Film.

While creating the look for Jane Got a Gun, Walker and director Gavin O’Connor referenced John Ford films, Once Upon a Time in the West, and more modern Westerns, like Unforgiven. They quickly decided that 35mm anamorphic film, and the widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio it delivers, was the right format for the project. The cameras and lenses were PANAVISION, with G Series glass. Walker says those lenses were the right choice for all the anamorphic artifacts and bokeh which the filmmakers loved, while the composition and camera movement were more “traditional Western.”

Jane Got a Gun was Walker’s 16th consecutive feature project shot on film. “What I said to Gavin straightaway was that we should go with film because it will give us the best resolution and the best range of contrast out in the harsh conditions,” she says. “I’m so familiar with shooting film that I felt very confident in giving the project the look that we wanted.”

Walker used a full array of KODAK Film stocks, depending on the conditions, including KODAK 500T Color Negative Film 5230, KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207, and KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203.

“I chose the 50D stock because I had used it extensively on Tracks, a film we shot in the desert in Australia,” she says. “We had harsh weather conditions the entire time, with really bright skies. We were shooting in the sun and the sunset, and that stock held up really well – it was beautiful.” (Tracks earned Walker a Gold prize at the 2014 Australian Cinematographer Society Awards.)

On Jane Got a Gun, Walker overexposed the entire film by two-thirds of a stop. “I gave myself latitude in the negative, and then I made sure that the exteriors were filled and the shadows didn’t get too contrasty,” she says. “We never filled with lights. We just had big bounces that were the color of the earth – we’d let dust get on them. I would always try to get a little bit of exposure in the shadows so that later, if we wanted to see the characters eyes or details in the shadows we could.”

Very tight close-ups shot on long lenses punctuate dramatic moments. Nighttime lighting emulated kerosene lanterns and firelight. In scenes with no motivated warmer light, Walker created a big moonlight effect. One important fire scene takes place outside a main house set. For these scenes, Walker set up stronger sources with orange and yellow gel and a flicker effect. CHIMERA Lighting Systems and paper lanterns were hidden around the house to softly augment the firelight on actors.

“It’s quite a dramatic and contrasty scene,” says Walker. “Outlaws come to the house and board it up, and there’s firelight coming through bullet holes. There are a lot of rich blacks in that scene.” In addition to the exposure latitude and resolution of film, Walker appreciated its flexibility on the Santa Fe, New Mexico, locations.

“Personally, I think it’s always faster shooting on film, because when you’re outside and you want to run and grab shots – a sunset shot for example – you immediately pick up the camera and a battery and you do it,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about booting up the camera, running cables and all the rest of that. For me, film is faster.”

Jane Got a Gun is slated for a 2015 release in the U.S. by The Weinstein Company and Relativity Media.