Lawless: Location Shooting, Color, Design
LAWLESS shot for 43 days around Peachtree City, Georgia, a suburb outside of Atlanta. The location proved to be a boon for the production for many reasons, including a broad spectrum of buildings dating back to the Prohibition era or earlier. Notes executive producer Dany Wolf, “Sadly, there has never been a huge economic rebound in most of the small towns in Georgia, so it was fairly easy for us to find buildings that existed from the late 20s, 30s. A lot of them were in good condition and a lot of them had been abandoned. We really had our choice of different properties.” The Cotton Pickin’ Fairgrounds, a rarely used facility in Gay, Georgia, became a kind of backlot for the production, offering a wealth of unrenovated period buildings.
Another notable location included the Red Oak Creek Bridge, the longest covered bridge in Georgia. Built in the 1840s by freed slave Horace King, it is still in use today and provided a stark backdrop for an operatic shoot out in the movie. The historic town of Haralson, Georgia became Rocky Mountain, Virginia, where an awestruck Jack first glimpses his idol Floyd Banner. Cricket’s Aunt Winnie’s home was an actual rickety wooden cabin that was so period-correct that it also contained a cache of clothing from the 1920s and 1930s. Costume designer Margot Wilson salvaged the garments and used them as wardrobe for some of the extras.
Production designer Chris Kennedy built the main set, Blackwater Station, a rambling wooden building where the Bondurants’ live and conduct business, legal and otherwise. He based his design on a photograph taken in the Virginia Mountains, showing an old barn that had been turned into a gas station. “I was quite taken by the notion of the transition from the old world to the new,” Kennedy explains. He imagined how the developments of the 19th and 20th Centuries would have changed the way Blackwater Station was used. “My idea was that this family has been living here for over 100 years, and initially the area was very remote. Then the road got put through, with some passing traffic, so they started a blacksmith shop and then it became an overnight inn. Then as automobiles became more common, it became a gas station and a general store. Of course the Bondurants run a moonshine operation, so it’s a front for all of that.”
Kennedy’s main color palette was muted earth tones, punctuated with occasional with pops of color. The goal was be true to the period as well as the story. “It’s all natural timber and earth tones; newspapers, which the Bondurants use as wallpaper, brings a little color. The idea was that we’re in a world that is really hand-made, from timber and found materials sourced from the location. The strong primary colors we see, whether in the form of a gas pump, a red sign or colored magazine pages stuck on a wall, those represent the civilized world on the outside,” Kennedy says.
Photography was key inspiration when it came to the look of the film. Given the film’s setting during the Great Depression, the photography of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a natural resource. But it wasn’t the well-known black and white images by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange that most influenced the filmmakers, says Hillcoat. “The real turning point for us came when we discovered a book called ‘Bound for Glory: America in Color,’ which features color photography from the Great Depression. Another key reference was the great Southern photographer William Eggleston and the organic types of colors he used – he is a master of color photography. Overall, the look of the film owes much more to photography than film.”
Colors Relevant in the Depression Era
They hewed closely to the colors that were prevalent at the time, whether in clothing, advertising or exterior paint. “It was a more limited palette simply because the manufacturing capacity didn’t exist,” Hillcoat explains. “So in advertising, there’s a technical reason that certain colors became more familiar, the same with the color of clothes. It was a more limited palette because of what they could print or dye,” Hillcoat notes.
Much of the color in several scenes, in fact, comes from Jessica Chastain’s Maggie. In vibrant crimsons, purples and turquoises, with her porcelain skin and red hair, she is an exotic bird who flies into the Bondurants’ lives. Says costume designer Margot Wilson, “Maggie was the flower who comes into the story, who introduces another world into the brothers’ lives. Jessica’s costumes were informed by her beautiful red hair, and we picked strong colors that were completely different than the boys’ colors. She was a wonderful canvas.”
Wilson created distinct looks for each of the brothers. “I wanted to set the Bondurant boys in a world of their own, as opposed to the gangsters or other bootleggers. So their colors were very earthy, quiet colors that worked with the landscape and the sets. I set their wardrobe in the late 1920s even though the film is set in the 1930s because they live in the country and they’re not the kind to follow fashion. Jack starts out in the backwoods but he is on a mission to make more money and improve himself. So his clothes change as he becomes closer to the gangsters of the time. Howard’s just Howard; He’s drunk and pretty much stays the same. I put Forrest in a cardigan; it has a quietness and an old feel about it that reflected Forrest’s stillness quite well.”
In his sharply tailored suits and ever-present gloves, Pearce’s villainous Rakes stands out like the intruder he is. Says Wilson, “Rakes is very self-conscious about what he wears and what he looks like. I wanted a very angular silhouette for Rakes, to make the separation clear. He is not from this world and he has come to destroy it.”
As Bertha, Wasikowska was costumed in the nondescript dresses, bonnets and aprons worn by the Dunkards. That finally changes when LaBeouf’s Jack gives her a yellow dress.
Remarks the actress, “Margot’s amazing. I always say the costumes are the last piece of the puzzle to figure out who your character is and it really gave me an idea of who the Dunkards are, how they lived. And the yellow dress was beautiful – I loved it. I would wear that dress myself in life.”
Hillcoat and his cinematographer Benoit Delhomme shot the film digitally, with the Alexa camera – a first for both of them. “Benoit and I jumped off a cliff together on this which is shooting with the Arri Alexa. There’s been this quick kind of shift and we had a choice of being one of the last to shoot on film or one of the first to shoot this new camera,” says Hillcoat. “The big turning point was that we had a lot of night scenes and a very tight schedule. We didn’t want to light it at night; we wanted to see the detail in the woods. The amazing thing about the Alexa – we did side by side tests – is that you have this incredible latitude between stops and you can film beyond what even our eyes can see. Plus it had a softer quality than the other digital cameras.”
Although the film is set in the 1930s, Hillcoat sees parallels between that era and this one, particularly in the Bondurants’ fierce independence and their distrust of the government, personified by the new “law,” Deputy Rakes. “There are many parallels – it was a time of immense unrest. There’s the economic Great Depression and whatever we have now. There were environmental upheavals; there were devastating dust storms, which we reference in the film. There was an incredible imbalance between the rich and the poor. I’d say the corruption and the helplessness of people trying to do the right thing and getting stomped on by greater, more powerful, cynical forces is even more pronounced now. The introduction of modern technology; now it’s the digital and Internet age but then it was the machine gun, the fast car. It was the beginning of the modern media, with the influence of the radio. Then, there was this crazy law called Prohibition, which is not unlike the insane situation with Mexico and the cartels – in terms of who is benefiting by outlawing certain substances, who is controlling it and who is making the money,” Hillcoat says.
One of the ways Hillcoat and Cave underscore the similarities between then and now is through the music. They mash-up genres and artists and periods and create a signature sound for film.
“The hills of Virginia were full of poor white AND black people. Which is why I think the music from that era is so rich – there’s this interesting cross-pollination between the blues and gospel of the African American people with the country music of that area, which was Scots Irish,” remarks Hillcoat. “So we have Ralph Stanley, a country bluegrass singer, singing ‘White Light, White Heat’ by the Velvet Underground, which is about drugs. We sort of looked at moonshine like meth is right now. We have Emmylou Harris sing ‘The Snake Song’ by Townes Van Zandt, which I thought was Forrest’s song. He’s kind of like a snake but it’s a love song – he’s got that contrast. We deliberately took musicians like 19
Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris to sing songs that aren’t standards from that era but have qualities that are reminiscent. It’s a dynamic, eclectic mix – old Nashville people combined with old punks. It’s got a raw, kinetic energy. Not unlike the Bondurants.”
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