Big Sky Country
Tommy Lee Jones approached the technical aspects of The Homesman by drawing on
influences as diverse as 20th-century minimalist master, Donald Judd; a self
taught frontier photographer, and the big sky and wide-open vistas of
northeastern New Mexico, uncovering uncommon beauty in the vast, seemingly blank
expanses of the plains.
"Northeastern New Mexico stands in very well for Nebraska," Jones says. "That
was critical because the landscape itself is a very important character in our
movie. My vision of the film was minimalist because of the landscape, which
mostly consists of a line that divides heaven and earth. The line is usually
straight, which creates an emotional environment as much as a natural one."
Jones worked with an accomplished creative team that includes production
designer Merideth Boswell, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, costume designer
Lahly Poore and composer Marco Beltrami. "If you want to recreate 1850s
Nebraska, you start by hiring a superb production designer, a superb property
master, a superb composer and a superb costume designer," says Michael
Fitzgerald. "You let them do all the research and then you say yes to a lot of
what they come up with."
is Boswell's seventh film with Jones and she says she knows his priorities well.
"Tommy is smart and tough, which can make him intimidating, because he knows
what he wants," says Bosworth. "The first thing he told me was not to do
anything wrong, which was fine because we're really in synch. I know him well
enough to know that his aesthetic is specific and austere, so we didn't have to
talk a lot."
Jones' confidence in her ability to bring his vision to life is obvious. "Merideth
is the best production designer I've ever met," says the director. "She designed
the simplest of things, like a wagon rolling across 19th-century Nebraska. When
we put a lens on it, it was always beautiful as well as very functional."
To Bosworth, Jones' reference to minimalism meant that he wanted to emphasize
sparseness, both in the natural settings and the manmade elements. "He talked to
me about the geometry of emotion," she says. "Think about the way a lone figure
standing in an empty field evokes something specific. Early on he showed me a
piece by the Chinese artist Ai Wei-wei-a two-foot tall teahouse made of tea
sitting on a field of tea. It's an icon of a house. You can see it reflected in
Mary Bee's home and barn."
Bosworth and Jones also looked to the photographs of Solomon Butcher, who spent
40 years documenting the solitary settlements and primitive sod huts of Great
Plains settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "The research was
gut-punching," says Bosworth. "They had so little and they often shed the few
possessions they had on the way. One image that particularly touched me was of a
woman who had hung a plain wooden box next to her sod hut, hoping a songbird
would nest there."
The photographs were instrumental in creating the specifically Midwestern
setting for the story. "This is not about gunslingers and cowboys," says
Bosworth. "It's the story of what really happened to women on the frontier and
the courage it took to survive there."
Costumer Lahly Poore took that aesthetic and infused it into the well-worn garb
of Mary Bee and her neighbors. "Her costumes are perfectly appropriate and
specific to 1855," says Jones. "She achieved beautiful work with a small
But it wasn't just Poore's knowledge of the era that won her the job, says
Bosworth. "She is one of the real talents working in costume design today. We
spoke with a number of people who were extremely well-versed in the period
details, but she came in and talked about the costumes in terms of the
characters. That nailed it."
During the five-week journey from Mary Bee's homestead outside the small town of
Loop to the gentler geography of Iowa, subtle changes take shape. "We planned a
shooting schedule that served the geography of the travel," says Bosworth. "It
doesn't always look the same. The terrain changes to serve the story from open
In the film's final scenes, Historic Westville, Georgia, stands in for Iowa. A
"living museum," Westville is made up of authentic buildings from the 1850s that
were transported to a site near Lumpkin, Georgia, and reassembled. "The move to
Georgia was effortless," says Michael Fitzgerald. "We did it in a day and a
half-we brought most of the animals, the horses, the mules, the wagons, the
camera equipment, the grip equipment. So everything was moved 2,000 miles in a
day and a half."
Westville proved an oasis for the film crew after the rigors of New Mexico.
"Everyone immediately relaxed after the dusty blankness," says Bosworth. "Even
the wagons, which we had built by an Amish concern, seemed to breathe a sigh of
relief. In New Mexico, it was so dry and cold that the wood would shrink. Once
we got it to Georgia, it seemed to blossom again."
The weather during the shoot was a challenge on many levels. "The spring in New
Mexico is notorious for wind and extremely changeable weather," says Fitzgerald.
"We contended with everything you can contend with. That was very, very good for
the visuals, but a complication for everything else."
For cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, that meant he and his crew had to operate
the cameras while wearing goggles and protective gear. "The dust that blew up
got in our eyes and into the cameras. We had to make sure the lights and cameras
stayed in place. There was extreme cold and the unpredictable snow flurries
meant constant changes, so we had to be very flexible and nimble. It was a
struggle, but we just embraced it."
Initially Jones and Prieto considered shooting The Homesman in black and white,
but after much conversation and extensive testing, they chose to go with color.
"Eventually we decided that the subtleties of color in the landscape were
important," says Prieto. "It emphasizes the austere beauty of the early American
setting to offset what is in many ways a harrowing story."
They also debated the advantages of digital versus film and decided to use a
combination. "Ultimately it came down to texture," says Prieto. "We had intended
to use digital, but the image was too pristine. Tommy responded to the texture
of film because he wanted the audience to settle into the visual language of the
classic western, which we felt was associated with film grain, and then come to
recognize that the story is something quite unusual. It was only for the
low-light, nighttime scenes that we used digital-the Sony F-55-and simulated the
grain in post."
Jones insisted on the same minimalist aesthetic for the cinematography that he
had for the production design. "Every shot is designed to emphasize the
immensity of the landscape," Prieto explains. "We are working with just horizon
and sky, land and wagon. Tommy referenced the placement of the horizon by
deliberately placing the sky in relation to the ground. We always shot the wagon
flat on, so it was just a box and a line, which helped make the composition
complex and full."
Jones' instructions to composer Marco Beltrami were typically succinct. "He told
me to be creative and find an authentic source of inspiration for the music,"
says Beltrami. "That period was a spare time in American music. The themes we
developed drew on the simple folk tunes of the time and are orchestrated to
reflect the austere nature of the landscapes and lives of the characters."
Beltrami wanted to evoke the loneliness and desolation the homesteaders lived
with daily. "These women are driven insane by the life that surrounds them," he
says. "The ever-present wind on the plains seemed like a manifestation of that
solitude and was a source of inspiration for me."
In order to create that feeling, Beltrami and his partner Buck Sanders created
what they call a wind piano. "We explored many different ways to capture the
sound we were looking for," says Beltrami. "The wind piano was one of the most
effective. It is an ordinary piano that we put up on the hill by my studio in
Malibu. The piano wires were attached to water tanks 175 feet up a hill that
would resonate when the wind blew through. It was like we were drawing out the
essence of the wind. That became a signature sound in the score."
Usually, Beltrami says, he prefers to work in his studio, where controlled
conditions create a warm beautiful sound. "But that would have worked against
the sense of the movie," he explains. "So we recorded a small ensemble of
strings and percussion outside. There were no walls for the sound to bounce off.
The sound is very dissipated. It was difficult to work that way, but the
environmental noises bring the right feel."
Beltrami and Jones are admirers of the work of audio archivist Tony Schwartz and
borrowed his technique of using the natural noise of the environment to build
musical compositions. "The landscape itself contains harmonic elements and we
used that as inspiration," he says. "We worked with simple pieces of wood hit
together or rattles as well as traditional orchestral instruments."
Working with Jones was a singular and inspiring experience for the composer. "He
is open to experimentation and really creative work, and he is extremely
Bosworth agrees, adding, "People often say that their latest movie was one from
the heart. Well, this was the best experience I could ever hope for. It was the
hardest shoot I've ever been on. We had to rebuild the hotel set in
60-mile-an-hour winds. It was so cold that paint froze in the cans overnight. I
drove 211 miles to the set every day. It was brutal, but Tommy was enthusiastic
from beginning to end, and that made us all want to work.
"So often you enjoy either the process or the product," she continues. "When I
saw the finished picture, I was so emotional. When we were on the set, everyone
could see something special was happening. I didn't want it to end."
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