The American Society of Cinematographers

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“John and I talked a lot about how important this scene was,” says Saint Ours. “I was looking forward to working with David Stevens, who inhabited the role with a breathtaking authenticity. X-unit gaffer Wes Sullivan had rigged the interior of the barn hideout with skirted China lanterns and raked an HMI through the slats of the wall, creating a beautiful, dramatic light. X-unit key grip Mike Seitz and I had ambitious plans for a complex tracking move to follow Jesse’s gang member who brings him the news of his brother’s killing, but a casting problem put us way behind schedule. In our race against the clock, I knew my best course of action was to create a space for a great actor to do his work, so I went with a static frame instead. The result is a moment of silence in a big action Western, where Stevens breathes in the pain of Jesse James, and lets it out slowly for us all to hear.” The scene was a perfect example of Saint Ours’ remarkable ingenuity and his ability to concoct imagery that’s in perfect harmony with both the story and the needs of the production.

Perhaps the most important challenge we faced while making The American West was telling the story of Native American leaders Sitting Bull (Moses Brings Plenty) and Crazy Horse (Will Strongheart) in an accurate and respectful way. Co-executive producer Shirley Escott and I talked incessantly about how incredibly important it was to all of us that we get this right, from scripting and casting all the way through shooting. And that meant we had to be sensitive and respectful to Native American culture. We had to be willing to listen.

The first time I talked to Larry Pourier, our amazing Native American consultant, I mentioned a scene in which Sitting Bull performs a Sundance ritual just before the Battle of Little Bighorn. There was an extended silence on the phone, and then Pourier told us that the Sundance was so sacred to the Lakota Indians that it can’t be filmed. So, instead, Graves and I worked with Pourier to find a way to abstractly visualize that part of the story while still respecting the Lakota way of life.  Using a combination of silhouette, slow motion, long lenses and selective focus, we were able to suggest the power and importance of the ritual without actually showing it.

On the last day of the shoot, something miraculous happened. “We were shooting on Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake in Utah,” Graves explains. “It’s one of the few places in the country that still has herds of wild buffalo, which is the most sacred animal to the Lakota way of life. Our dream was to shoot Sitting Bull riding through this herd of buffalo.”

However, since the Island is a protected wildlife preserve, we were only allowed to film in specified areas, and there was no guarantee that the buffalo would graze nearby on the day of the shoot. “When we arrived,” Graves continues, “we could see the buffalo in the distance, but they were nowhere near where we were shooting. We were disappointed, of course, but there was nothing we could do.”

As we set up the Chapman G3 remote stabilized head with a vibration isolator on an ATV-mounted Fisher Model 23 crane, Moses Brings Plenty — who dedicates much of his time to educating younger Lakota about the Lakota people’s traditional way of life — mounted his horse and rode into the field. “And that’s when the buffalo began to move toward us,” says Graves. “By the time we were ready to shoot, the buffalo were all around him — it felt like they embraced him. I think we were all emotional, witnessing this amazing connection between the actor and the animal that was so important to him. It was a great way to end the shoot.”

You’ll find scenes from The American West linked below.




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