By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Sikelia Productions and Apple Studios.
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By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Sikelia Productions and Apple Studios.
Ill fortune may be the best way to describe the fate of the Osage Nation when oil was discovered on their Oklahoma reservation and, subsequently, they began to die under mysterious circumstances. The newly-formed Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI) discovered a murderous conspiracy masterminded by cattleman William Hale to gain control of the Osage headrights, then seize their wealth from the profits from the resources extracted from the land. The nefarious true story was the subject of the book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann and has been adapted into an epic historical crime drama by renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) on the behalf of Appian Way, Sikelia Productions, Imperative Entertainment and Apple Studios. “It’s a picture that explores what love is, what it could be and what all of us are capable of,” Scorsese states. “One can become complicit without even realizing, and when do you realize, do you change?”
Characters and scenes drove the editorial process. “Whole scenes are interwoven, so ultimately it creates a whirlpool midway through or maybe an hour into the film,” Scorsese explains. “If the film is speaking to you, then you’re stuck in it, like the characters are stuck and can’t get out.” Even with the rising body count, there is restraint in depicting the violence. “Marty was conscious of the continuing pain that the Osage feel about this horrible time,” notes Thelma Schoonmaker, who established a life-long creative partnership with the filmmaker when she restored his student film while attending a six-week film course at NYU and has subsequently won Oscars for editing Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. “Almost all of the killings are in a wide shot, and they worked incredibly well.” The unique narrative structure of Killers of the Flower Moon was partially caused by the script being originally much larger. “You’re being jerked from one scene or time frame to another, and that was the result of the cutting down, but also deliberate after awhile,” Schoonmaker reveals. “We realized that we could do that, and it pulls you along in the film.”
“What I was trying for mainly was giving a real impression of being out there on those prairies. And yet I found that we still needed visual effects to give a sense of scale and place that one can see in a shot where the car is going down the road at the beginning of the film. The camera booms up and you see the prairie on left and right, but then slowly oil rigs start to appear, and visual effects helped us to create a real sense of the oil encroaching on nature.”
Visual effects have become a more significant cinematic tool for Scorsese ever since depicting Potala Palace in Kundun and was central in being able to de-age characters in The Irishman. “We rely heavily on the visual effects editor because I will go into the room and say, ‘Can you take this person out of the shot?’ Or, ‘Can you remove or change the color of this?’” Schoonmaker remarks. “It’s wonderful to be able to do that and have it done for us quickly. Marty required a certain double image in one frame of two children’s faces in the first scene of the film and [VFX Editor] Red Charyszyn was able to create that beautifully, and that’s actually in the film now.” Even though an effort was made to shoot in the actual locations such as the doctor’s office of the Shoun brothers and the Masonic lodge where the meetings take place, visual effects were still needed. “The art department did a great job of restoring the actual towns that we were shooting in, but they could only go so far,” Charyszyn states. “We were going to be more involved because we were talking about putting oil derricks everywhere, making the town properly period, and so many cows!”
“What I was trying for mainly was giving a real impression of being out there on those prairies,” Scorsese remarks. “And yet I found that we still needed visual effects to give a sense of scale and place that one can see in a shot where the car is going down the road at the beginning of the film. The camera booms up and you see the prairie on left and right, but then slowly oil rigs start to appear, and visual effects helped us to create a real sense of the oil encroaching on nature.” ILM was the sole vendor and responsible for approximately 700 shots, which were supervised by Pablo Helman, who previously worked on Silence, Rolling Thunder Revue and The Irishman. “Generally, we did the oil rigs, enhanced the train, and there were shots where we had hundreds and hundreds of cows. We tried to shoot cows, but the temperature was like 96 degrees, so at 8:30 a.m. you have 350 cows and by 11 a.m. you have 11. They all go to the shade! You can’t move them. That’s it. We shot mainly in Pawhuska for Fairfax. There were only three or four blocks that were art-directed, and the rest was completely CG.”
A practical oil derrick was built and scanned. “We went in doing the previs, shot the shot, then I took it in and did postvis on it,” Helman states. “I said, ‘What if at the beginning we see something but don’t know what it is, but it’s an oil rig.’ Then we start seeing all of the oil rigs. Marty said, ‘That’s great. Let’s do that.’ We went back and forth with placing a certain number of rigs because he wanted to reveal it little by little until the end.”
A hat and blood were added digitally for the scene when the car crashes into the tree. “He didn’t have a hat and blood when we shot it. They edited the movie, and Marty said, ‘I don’t have any way to know who this character is, but he does wear a hat all of the time.’” The car was actually constructed from two different takes. “The first time, the hood broke. We did it again and it did the right thing, but Marty liked the performance of the first one, so we had to split it.”
Black-and-white newsreel footage transitions into color when Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives on the train at Osage Nation for the first time. “The last shot of an Osage pilot standing in front of a plane is actual newsreel footage from the family of the current Chief of the Osage, Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear,” Schoonmaker reveals. “We had to decide how much grain to then use as we go into the train from that actual footage.” Adjustments were made incrementally with the final version sent to ILM to copy exactly. “Marty was particular about how the saturation had to come up,” Charyszyn recalls. “But then also I thought it was going to be mathematically diametrical to the grain lessening, but he wanted the impact of the color coming in to reach you and be so subtle.”
“This is using visual effects as a tool to tell the story in a completely invisible way. The whole movie is a piece of art. There are no compromises.”
—Pablo Helman, VFX Supervisor
While driving home from the set in Oklahoma, Scorsese witnessed local farmers burning off their fields, which led to some surreal, hellish imagery appearing when it is revealed that Ernest Burkhart is poisoning his Osage wife, Mollie (Lilly Gladstone), under the orders of his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). “We began to encounter areas that were burning all around us, and at a certain point it became like we were in the middle of a volcano,” Scorsese notes. “It’s almost like when you hear the term ‘fever dream’. What does that feel like when you’re having a fever of that kind? How do you see things? Mollie is in the fever, and so is Ernest.” Dancers were hired to create weird background figures. “The footage [by Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto] was stunning already,” Schoonmaker states. “One guy almost looks like someone on the cross.” The fire was practically achieved by a newcomer to Scorsese’s inner circle. “We created a foreground fire, which was the lower one with the guys walking around it, and there are a bunch of little spot fires,” reveals Brandon K. McLaughlin, Special Effects Coordinator. “We produced that by burying 60 to 70 bars in the ground. It was 250 feet long. Then the background ones were bars laying on the ground because we were never going to go back that far. I was blown away by how awesome it came out.”
It was a learning curve for McLaughlin. “The opening sequence of the movie with the pool of bubbling oil – that happened in reality,” explains McLaughlin, who used a product from Blair Adhesives that is a combination of Methocel, water and food coloring as a nontoxic substitute for oil. “But Marty kept saying that he wanted this geyser to come up from the ground. Oil doesn’t do that. Everyone kept bumping on that because Marty had said he wanted to keep it as true to the story as possible from the get-go. I finally asked him, ‘Is it an artistic piece that you’re putting together or is this something you’re going to want to shoot and have physically come out of the ground, like we dig a hole, put a nozzle in, bury our line, and you see it come from the ground?’ When Marty told me that’s what he wanted, then it made perfect sense.” Giant, starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, was a cinematic reference. “There is this wonderful scene where oil erupts from the ground and covers him [James Dean] with oil,” Scorsese states. “I start with what’s there, and if it isn’t there, what would I like to be there which will give it a natural appearance; then, if the scene calls for it, to introduce elements that can be somewhat unrealistic but appear to the mind as an image that you would observe.”
Executing the bank vault explosion was a blast for McLaughlin. “I got giddy because the script simply said, ‘Asa Kirby comes in, puts too much pyro in this vault door and it blows up. We had the liberty to run with it. The door was built out of steel and I used a rapid accelerator, which is a 4:1 pulley system with a pneumatic ram. You pull the shives apart and multiple how much pressure you need to pull ‘x’ amount at what weight. I wanted it to dance across the floor. We made some changes because there were a couple of things on the door that would break, so we made those materials stiffer and heavier. Then, behind the door we put all of the pyro, the fire, sparks and money. We also had a shotgun mortar with pyro and sand in it. You use it as a fist for the most part. You can’t see it because it happens so fast. For the money, we had drop baskets overhead out of camera. We hit the pyro events on the latches, the doors would open and the money would fall down.”
Originally, the owl, which is a symbol of impending death, was going to be digital. “But we found an owl that did what it was supposed to do,” Helman remarks. “Another thing that we did that was interesting and invisible was people getting sick. How do you do that? You have a three-and-a-half-hour movie, and you’re telling the story of somebody getting sicker and sicker and dying. It’s difficult to do with makeup because you’re always shooting out of continuity. You have to be careful. We’re doing takes and takes of stuff. It’s difficult to keep track of it. It is a lot easier to go with a base makeup and then go in post.” A combination of things was done digitally. “It’s getting under the eyes darker, being gaunt there, doing some warping or some 3D work where you take some swelling, or sometimes you make them swell more or sweat. We did some research as to what cyanide and poison does.” The book on Osage culture had to be altered digitally in order to be narratively relevant. “We didn’t have the right book, so a lot of the pages were replaced. There was a piece of art that we produced that was researched, period correct and had to bend appropriately. De Niro says to DiCaprio, ‘Can you spot the wolves?’ The drawing in the book didn’t have the wolves visible and Marty needed to see them, so we had to replace it digitally.”
With much being made of Scorsese’s two muses, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, sharing the screen together, the real star is Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie. “She represents all of the Native American Nations in her phenomenal performance and dignity,” Schoonmaker declares. “I would say that the death of the mother and the ancestors coming to take her away is one of the most beautiful things that Marty has ever done. It’s so simple.” Helman points out that the general complaint about visual effects does not apply to Killers of the Flower Moon. “This is using visual effects as a tool to tell the story in a completely invisible way.
The whole movie is a piece of art. There are no compromises.” McLaughlin was pleased with the end result. “I thought Marty did a great job. I hope that people walk away from it going, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe that this truly happened.’” Whenever Scorsese was in doubt, he went back to the relationship between Mollie and Ernest and stayed with them as long as possible. McLaughlin notes, “I love the scene at the table at the beginning when Leo and Lily have their first dinner together, which ends with the rainstorm. There is something in their faces, an electricity and warmth at the same time that is so sweet and moving. And then her teaching him how to sit still. ‘Just sit still and let the power of Wah-Kon-Tah’s storm float over us.’ That’s like saying, ‘Let’s live here in life.’”