Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World

Repeat business: It’s a hallmark in the long career of Dariusz Wolski. If the Polish-born cinematographer shoots one movie for you, there’s a decent chance he’ll be back for another. He’s lensed two movies for Tim Burton, Tony Scott and Alex Proyas; four alongside Gore Verbinski; and six for Ridley Scott.

Yet it’s a new collaboration with director Paul Greengrass—and a new genre, the Western—that earned Wolski his first Academy Award nomination after more than 30 years shooting features.

Wolski picked up the Oscar nod yesterday for News of the World, a post-Civil War tale of a traveling entertainer (Tom Hanks) tasked with transporting a young girl (Helena Zengel) across Texas to her only living family.

The film is currently available on VOD and hits physical media on March 23rd.

Filmmaker: While doing the press rounds for News of the World, Paul Greengrass has talked a lot about his childhood love of Westerns. Growing up in Poland in the 1960s, were American Westerns something you were interested in or even had access to?

Wolski: Paul and I are pretty much the same generation, so Westerns had a very strong impact on us both growing up. Because we were in Poland behind the Iron Curtain, when I had the chance to see a Western it was very, very special. 

Filmmaker: Were theaters playing contemporary Westerns like Leone and Peckinpah, or was it revivals of Hawks and Ford?

Wolski: It was old classics. I remember seeing Rio Bravo, High Noon and The Searchers, the big movies that played in American theaters. They were a very big influence on me. So were some of the great westerns from the 1970s, which were slightly overlooked like Little Big Man, which had a little bit more accurate historical perspective.

There was actually a very funny thing that happened when I was young. We had these big billboards for the movie theaters in Poland, and there was this great image of James Dean with a cowboy hat [advertising George Stevens’ Giant]. I thought, “This is going to be a great Western!” I was like 12 or something. Then I saw the movie and was like, “They’re just talking all the time. How boring is that?” Then, of course, later it became one of my favorite movies ever. But I just remember that disappointment after seeing Giant for the first time. (laughs)

Filmmaker: And isn’t that movie like 3 1/2 hours long?

Wolski: Yeah, on top of it. I was a 12-year-old, expecting a big shootout and the bad guys coming in on horses and Native Americans attacking a stagecoach. Then I was like, “What the hell is this?” And they had cars in Giant. I couldn’t understand it at all.

Filmmaker: Were there any particular films outside of The Searchers that Paul wanted you to revisit for News of the World?

Wolski: Paul actually mentioned something really, really out there when I talked to him originally. When we first talked about the style of the film and how much of it would be handheld, Paul mentioned this movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini called The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It’s a black and white film from the early ’60sshot handheld—not as a style, but probably because they didn’t have any money. It has these beautiful compositions in this very sparse Italian landscape. He threw that film at me completely out of the blue and I kind of said, “Hm, that’s interesting.” So, that was our starting point.

I like to call News of the World a movie about restraint. We didn’t want to use cranes and helicopters and camera cars. We wanted to keep things basic and try to find great compositions within the locations. There’s so many ways to skin a cat, but I think we found the right way to tell this story. It was funny, though, during prep in order for me to communicate with Paul – because he wasn’t there yet – I bought a tiny drone and started shooting locations and sending the footage to him so he could start thinking about how he wanted to stage things. His first response was, “I just don’t like to have the camera from that perspective.” And I said, “No, I get it. I just wanted to give you a sense of the space.” But then when we started shooting the movie he said, “I think maybe we should have some helicopter shots.” (laughs) We had a great relationship. Just teasing each other, throwing out ideas. There was definitely a mutual respect.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the camera and lenses you used for News of the World.

Wolski: I used the Alexa Mini LF, which I was very curious about. It had just come out so it was a little nerve-racking to get it on time. I think Tom Hanks’s and Paul Greengrass’s names helped a little bit in getting the cameras. (laughs) But we did get them last minute. It’s smaller than an Alexa 65 but larger than the normal Mini, so you have a little shallower depth of field. For lenses, I used short Angenieux zooms and Panavision 65 vintage primes, especially for nights to have [a faster] stop. The Panavision 65s are very fast and I like that they are not perfect. They’re pretty, but not perfect. That’s what I always look for.

Filmmaker: In the story, Hanks travels hundreds of miles across Texas, but in actuality you shot three of his stops in one place—the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch in New Mexico.

Wolski: Yeah, we created Dallas, Red River and Wichita Falls there. We changed the entrances, redressed it and tried to avoid shooting the same angles. Dallas was busier and was more carriages and horses, whereas Red River was more cows and tents. The last town that [Hanks] goes to is San Antonio, which is pretty much fully CG except the facade and then the interior of the church. There was really just one big wide shot of the city, so there was no reason to build it.

Filmmaker: Hanks performs readings from newspapers for crowds in those cities. How did you differentiate each performance?

Wolski: Well, the locations themselves did some of that work….

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