How An iPad App Helped Tommy Lee Jones Film The Homesman

The Homesman

The Homesman is Tommy Lee Jones’s fourth film as a director. It is set in the frontier as a woman (Hilary Swank) takes a job transporting three women for mental care, and hires a man she saves from hanging (Jones) to help her along the way. Jones combined 35mm film and digital cameras to get the right look of The Homesman.

“We tested a lot of cameras,” during a Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival. “About half of them were film cameras. Half of them were digital cameras. We found choosing the right stock for the right lighting conditions in daylight, you get much better results. If you have low lighting conditions, for example sundown or nighttime shooting, or you want day for night, digital cameras are much more usable and manipulatable in post production. We used a lot of film and a considerable amount of digital work as well. It’s also useful if you’re shooting green screens or plates, computer painting, you don’t want to do too much of that. You just want to shoot it, but digital cameras are very, very useful.”

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto helped Jones capture the authentic look of the land on location in Durango, Mexico. “All you have to do is get out and look around you in Northeastern Mexico and the colors are there,” Jones said. “What you want to do is be as faithful to them as you possibly can, and all the vibrance and all the changes they go through in the course of the day. You just want to be there on time to observe it and record it correctly.”

What really made The Homesman a modern movie is that Jones and Prieto used an iPad app to predict lighting conditions well in advance of their production. ““You take a picture with an iPad looking thing and it’ll give you a GPS coordinate for yourself, the time of day, what time the sun rose that morning, what time it set that evening. You can change the day and it’ll tell you what it’ll look like six weeks from now and where the sun will be. If you’re counting on the sun bouncing off the water over there. We could spend all day long every day planning for what the light is going to do.”

While asking Jones questions after the film, moderator Leonard Maltin commented that it’s too bad the classic westerns didn’t have such technology to plan their shoots. “Yeah, that’s too bad,” Jones joked. “Lucky us.”

Jones can be a man of few words when asked questions he may think are obvious. So when asked about starring in the movie he directed, he made light of it. “For me, I work cheap and I don’t have to do a lot of explaining. I already know the lines, because I wrote it. You said producer, writer, director, actor. Having any three of those jobs makes the fourth one really easy.”

As well, when it came to directing Swank, Jones was modest about his contribution to her performance. “I need to say cut. I’m the only one that can say that, so I’m sure that’s what she’s looking for. We talked about moments sometimes weeks in advance. If you’re on movie sets, especially if you’re out in an extremely remote location, there’s a lot of time. Ideas come, they go, sometimes we won’t even share it with someone. That’s pretty much a lot of the way you communicate. I have an idea about something we’re doing three weeks from now, that one little moment. It was not intensive, but it was a constant process.”

The Homesman is out November 14.

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