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Gary Ross and Benoît Delhomme Conceive an Organic Look for Free State of Jones

Based on a true story, Free State of Jones depicts the Civil War-era struggle of farmer-turned-Confederate deserter Newton Knight leading an armed rebellion of local farmers and freed slaves to secede Jones County, Mississippi, from the Confederacy. Directed by Gary Ross, the film stars Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell. To shoot the movie, Ross tapped cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, AFC whose penchant for naturalistic photography on Lawless and other features such as A Most Wanted Man, The Proposition, Shanghai and The Theory of Everything caught the director's eye. Here, Delhomme shares more about his experience filming in Louisiana and working with Panavision New Orleans:

PANAVISION: Knowing the time period in which Free State of Jones takes place, how would you describe the film’s look you designed for director Gary Ross?

DELHOMME: At our first meeting, Gary told me he really liked my work on Lawless (2012), which reassured me a lot. When I arrived to prep in New Orleans, Gary explained his ideas very precisely. He had kept this film on his mind for years, and wanted it to look very real, nearly like a National Geographic documentary in a way. He also told me he wanted to reduce the camera movements to a minimum and prioritize the use of simple pans on a tripod rather than using tracks and implementing as little Steadicam as possible.

What led you to choose Panavision as your source for equipment and service?

My first inclination was to shoot with anamorphic lenses. I still consider the range of anamorphic lenses from Panavision as the very best in the market. Gary was tempted at first, but changed his mind very late in prep. He decided he wanted to shoot 1.85 and spherical to keep that idea of documentary style. He was afraid that anamorphic would create too much of a ‘cinema look.’

You often shot with multiple ARRI Alexa XT cameras while in some remote locations. How well was Panavision New Orleans able to accommodate your equipment needs and support?

They were incredible. The film became bigger every day in terms of the crew and the number of cameras we were using. I have no idea how they made it, but we never missed anything.

You used older Super Speed and Ultra Speed lenses, as well as Primo Primes. Which situations called for what type of lens?

Well, when Gary stopped the anamorphic options, I thought about using Panavision's vintage, or legacy, lenses. I am a huge fan of the Ultra Speeds and of the Super Speeds. I wanted to shoot all with primes, but I quickly realized that, with Gary, I needed to be covered with zooms, too, so I ended up with the whole range of Primo zooms. I had to mix together vintage, Primos and zooms of all sorts!

Did you have “go-to” lenses?

My favorite lenses were clearly the vintage series we had. I did use them a lot for the night shoots, often wide open thanks to my A camera 1st AC, Chad Rivetti, who was such an exceptional focus puller. The 50mm T1 is one of my favorite lenses; I did a lot a very intense close-ups of Matthew McConaughey while operating the camera myself handheld.

The different lenses have differing optical qualities, so did that factor into your aesthetic?

Yes, of course, but on this film, because of the schedule and the size of the crew, I had to compromise a lot. I had to relax and accept mixing the lenses all together to make the days. I was confident it would all come together and be fine in the DI.

With the wide-ranging latitude of the outdoors, how did you approach having different skin tonalities often in the same frame?

I am so used to the Alexa that I was confident I was getting enough latitude to play with at the DI stage. With the locations we had, the constant mud and swamps and especially the way Gary worked, it was nearly impossible to think about setting up big lights on exterior days. So, I kind of went ‘Terrence Malick’ style.

What about for night scenes lit with firelight and candlelight in terms of supplemental lighting, camera settings and lens choice?

Gary wanted to stay true to the real fire or real candlelight. I had to hide very tiny fill lights and go full on with the documentary style, using the fire as the main source and sometimes one candle only! Some of the vintage lenses open to T1, so I could shoot in any situation really.

How did Panavision help you handle the rigors of remote, location shooting?

The mud was the main issue all over the shoot. The swamps, too. Production had to build quite long roads to access many of the sets. But technically, we never had any big trouble. My New Orleans crew knew these conditions very well and they were very good in communicating with Panavision to get the right gear on each set. Chad (Rivetti) dealt with Panavision on an everyday basis, and they never missed anything to make the day.

What was your favorite and/or most challenging scene to shoot and how did you accomplish it?

When you shoot a movie with 90 percent of the scenes being exteriors, especially in New Orleans, the real pleasure for a DP comes when you shoot inside because you can suddenly control the light! Because Gary didn’t like to see real lights, I took the challenge to never bring one light inside an interior set so he could shoot with the same freedom that he was shooting with outside. I did ask the riggers to build tents for every set and lit all from outside of the windows, with no exception. All the day interiors are my favorite scenes, with a preference for the interior of the church when a seminal scene occurs.