If you’re going to shoot a classic Western, you’ve got to go big, and going big means shooting widescreen.
Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) and DP Arthur Reinhart were of the same mind when it came to capturing the scope of the old west, and they insisted upon the format when they signed on to make Texas Rising, a miniseries for the History network.
“Widescreen was developed for Westerns because Westerns are about landscapes, so we really fought very hard for it,” Joffé says.
History, which had a big hit in 2012 with its Hatfields & McCoys, another miniseries DPd by Reinhart, agreed widescreen was the way to go, and those who tuned in to the premiere of Texas Rising, which tells the story of how the Texas revolution unfolded after the destruction of the Alamo, witnessed the result—the miniseries is full of breathtaking landscapes that make it feel like a Western made for the big screen. (Actually, the first episode of Texas Rising was screened in theaters across the country before it was seen on television.)
Produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios and Thinkfactory Media for History, the 10-hour miniseries, which debuted on Memorial day and will air in four more installments May 26, June 1, June 8 and June 15, stars Bill Paxton in the role of General Sam Houston, the leader of the Texas Rangers, and Olivier Martinez as Mexican General Santa Anna.
Here, Joffé talks to Co.Create about composing scenes for the widescreen format, turning his cast into expert horsemen and committing to the staggering task of directing every minute of Texas Rising.
Co.Create: I have read that Texas Rising was shot in CinemaScope, but is that accurate? Did you use the old CinemaScope lenses that directors used back in the day to shoot Westerns?
Roland Joffé: Well, it’s more modern. Basically, this is not quite CinemaScope. It’s widescreen—CinemaScope is even wider. We used Leica lenses, and we used Reds with 6K resolution, which gives us tremendous definition. The key thing, really, is the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s that aspect ratio that gives you the dynamic, and the frame that’s just so beautiful. It really has an effect. People feel it because you have room for the landscapes as well as the people. It means you have to compose very carefully, but I think it gives you a quite different feeling.
As a viewer, it does feel as though you are out there traversing Texas with the Rangers, though you shot those beautiful landscapes in Mexico, right?
Yeah, in Durango. That’s awesome what you’re saying because we wanted people to feel they were in the place, to just feel, “My God, I’m not sitting in my sitting room. I’ve gone where this is happening.” I think that’s what the TV experience has to be now. So many people have home theaters, and it’s about time television started giving them home theater experience for real.
My real hope is that other people will see this—other studios, and other people in television—and say, “You know what? We should have done this years ago. This is the wave of the future. This is what we’re going to be doing.”
When that happens, that’s going to enlarge and enliven the television experience for everybody, and because I love cinema, I want television to be able to deliver a cinema experience.
What do you have to consider when you are composing scenes that will be shot in widescreen?
There are many things, really, but basically, when you use widescreen well, you have to know how to compose within the frame. In other words, you have to be able to move the camera, but at the same time, the actors have to be moving inside the frame itself, and that’s what draws you into the picture.
So you don’t need lots of close-ups because the camera itself is moving, and as people move inside the frame, the emphasis is shifting, so rather than the kind of basic thing of, “Here, I cut from close-up to close-up,” you’re allowing people to shift in the frame, and that subliminally is conveying their relationship in a much richer way. It allows the audience to be engaged visually and emotionally.
And then you have to think in terms of depth. In widescreen, you can’t only compose for the foreground. You have to compose for the three layers—the foreground, middle ground and background. They all have to be active, but they all have to be active so that they’re emphasizing the foreground, or they’re commenting on the foreground, or they’re helping the foreground in some way.
You have to find composition inside the frame that makes the frame seem alive and vivid.
I assume you had to sit down well in advance of the shoot and carefully storyboard every scene.
I did. I do my own storyboards, and sometimes my drawing is a little rough, so I’ll get a storyboard artist for some help. But, basically, I do my own storyboards.
And with a thing this complicated, with all the battles, I have to spend two or three days on each location [before the shoot], and what I do is, I mark out all the shots with posts, which we banged into the ground with little red flags flying on them with the scene number, and then I knew exactly where a scene was, how the scene would fit together, how the whole thing would fit.
When you’re there on the day, and you’ve got 400 horsemen, and then the horses, and soldiers charging, and muskets and guns that need to be reloaded, you have to get it right. You don’t have time to improvise. You have to have that plan unfolding.
Did all of the actors do their own horseback riding in the big fight scenes?
We had to legally have stuntmen do some of the more difficult stunts, but the actors are doing as much as we legally could ask them to do and as much as they felt comfortable to do. I would say 90% of the riding you’re seeing is them, and in the big battles, where people are charging on horses, it’s 99% them.
You must have put the cast through intensive horseback-riding training before you shot the miniseries.
Oh, yes. People were pretty much on horseback every day. When they weren’t shooting, they were on horseback. They were also practicing with the weapons. They’ve got blanks in them, of course, but at the same time you need to know what the horse will do when you’re firing the blank. You have to know where to fire. You fire too close to the horse’s head, and the horse will panic and rear. So all of that has to be thought through.
It is correct to say that you spent five months shooting Texas Rising?
Pretty much, yes. I think we shot for about 120 days. I shot all the episodes, which is a rarity in television. But I think that’s much better because everyone is listening to one voice, and there’s one coherent feel. I think it’s much better that you have one vision from the producer and one director. You get something much more exciting.
That’s a lot of work for one director. Why did you commit to shooting the whole thing?
Leslie Greif [who also produced Hatfields & McCoys] was a wonderful producer. I couldn’t walk away. I just couldn’t. You know, once I’ve started something, my feeling is you have to complete it, and I think it’s also much more economical, and I think you get a clearer vision—the actors know where their notes are coming from, and wardrobe and hair and make-up have one vision. So does the cameraman.
Were you a big fan of the classic American Western before you shot Texas Rising?
Yes, I was. When I was a kid, I watched an enormous number of Western movies. Nearly every Saturday morning, they played a Western movie at my local cinema, and I’d always go and see those. There’s something uniquely powerful about Westerns because they’re always about two key things—they’re about character and geography, or character and landscape you could say. And the landscape is always a character. It was in those landscapes that human beings found out who they are because of the rawness and roughness of the landscape and what the landscape contains. Westerns are great mythical stories, in a way, about how as a human being one deals with life and its struggles different ways. It’s really about the formation of character. That’s what all good Westerns are, and I think that’s wonderfully powerful stuff.