Shooting A Western With ‘In A Valley Of Violence’ Cinematographer Eric Robbins
Despite a seemingly endless stream of articles that periodically declare the Western genre has once again risen from the dead, the truth is that the Western has never actually died. While the days of John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne might be over, audiences continue to be treated to fantastic Westerns. Just in the last couple of years, we’ve received films such as The Salvation, Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, and Slow West. There’s no shortage of modern filmmakers who are continuing to explore the themes of the American Western, and now we can add auteur Ti West to that list of filmmakers. West’s newest movie, In A Valley Of Violence, tells a gruesome tale of revenge, which sees Ethan Hawke’s Paul pitted against a small town of objectionable fools and out-of-touch misfits. Instrumental in establishing the gruesome and intimate tone of the film, is cinematographer Eric Robbins.
When discussing the look of the film, Robbins credited a number of influences and techniques that allowed him to encapsulate the spirit of the Western genre. Among the most important decisions that Robbins made or contributed to, were the choices to provide a simple lighting design and to match the look of the classic Western while also incorporating a uniquely Ti West feel.
First up on Robbins’s platter was the need to come together with West to create the look of their first Western. Robbins and West had most recently collaborated on a feature film for 2013’s The Sacrament, a horror film that was told from a first-person perspective, and that was all about capturing the tension in the moment. While the pair had successfully achieved the look they wanted on that film, a Western such as In A Valley of Violence called for a perspective that was in radical opposition to that of a first-person horror. The pair had to pivot away from their work on The Sacrament in order to strike a cinematic point of view that was more fitting for the scale of a classic Western.
To achieve that change of pace, Robbins and West dug deep into their cinephile roots. In A Valley of Violence pulls visual references from a number of touchstone Spaghetti Western films, allowing moviegoers to feel a spark of the familiar, but West and Robbins also made sure to give the film plenty of their own spirit to achieve a look that would be uniquely theirs. So, while In A Valley of Violence does contain those Sergio Leone homages, at the core of this film West finds a way to place his own unique twist on the genre. The horror of violence is the preeminent focus for a vast duration of the revenge flick, and the ability to capture that tone, which drastically deviates from that of many classic Westerns, was no easy task. So while filmmakers like Leone had a huge influence on Robbins and West, to drive home the pure brutality of the ensuing struggle between the characters, movies such as David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises were more apt references at times.
Aside from those prominent movies, one of the more important, and wholly unique influences on Robbins’s cinematography was the artwork of the time. Thomas Hart Benton, in particular, was a painter who Robbins cited as having a tremendous influence on how he viewed the Old West. Benton’s oil paintings were an avenue for Robbins to perfect his lensing, with Benton’s images showing vaguely distorted characters in classic American landscapes that allowed Robbins to get a better feel for the way in which Americans in the west would carry themselves. With the lack of widespread photography during In A Valley of Violence‘s 1860s, Benton’s artwork was the closest that Robbins could get to seeing a fully colored image of that world.
The influence of the time period didn’t stop with lensing though. One of the foremost creative decisions that a cinematographer and filmmaker can make is the choice for whether or not to shoot their movie on film. For Robbins, it only made sense for the story of In A Valley Of Violence to be told through that medium.
For Robbins, shooting on film was something that was inherently necessary to properly capture a movie like In A Valley of Violence. The genre and time period both necessitate the use of film to truly bring you into that moment. And besides, in the opinions of both Robbins and West, film simply looks the best anyways.
We don’t really know what things looked like back then to a certain degree. We know what they look like in paintings, we don’t actually have exact replication, at least in full color. So for some reason, having watched movies now for a hundred years, and film was the predominant medium for a hundred years, I think there’s something subconsciously natural about watching period things on film.
Film just has a certain glue to it. The plains are married together in a way that is very natural, so the roll off of what’s in-focus and out of focus is just so smooth. And I like the color space. It’s just beautiful, natural transitions in its use. It feels like oil paints to me. It just has that transition in it.
Robbins’s description of his love for film — and his explanation for what makes it so special — meshes perfectly with his use of oil paintings as a visual reference. So, while Robbins does believe that film is the best method for shooting a movie, this particular scenario beckoned for him to use the medium even more than usual. And speaking technically, film made more sense for bringing In A Valley of Violence to life as well. Film captures the look of the period in a way that digital simply can’t, providing an image that is more native to the time, and a visual that is more comparable to the oil paintings that define how many people know the old west.Keeping in tune with the homages to the old films of Sergio Leone, Robbins also sought to capture the look of Spaghetti Westerns through his lighting. He maintained the fairly simple approach of his cinematographic predecessors, while also trying to achieve a balance of beautiful and comedic feel that could pull out a hard edge at times.
My goal was to allow the camera to be Spaghetti Western-ish, and I wanted to light a little broader than normally and give the actors space to work within so that they can get physical. You have a big ambiance to work with since it’s a desert and it’s the middle of the summer, so outside I was trying to keep it minimal. The general approach was to be soft, directional, and to try to add a little more comedy and a little more beauty.
In terms of framing his shots, Robbins and West made a concentrated effort to create a look that would stand out in modern cinema. With In A Valley of Violence, Robbins shot close-ups in such a way that a unique spacing was created between where the character’s eyes were, and where the top of the frame was. This way, the scene had a little bit more room to breathe and allowed the actors to have more space to work with.
While Robbins thought that some might criticize the look of the movie for being too simplistic, to many eyes In A Valley of Violence captures a tone that looks right at home alongside classic Westerns, and confidently intertwines a unique cinematic feel. Ti West’s latest creation is an excellent film, and Robbins’s work in developing a strong visual look is no small part of the reason why.
Ti was doing comps for the lens that were different from what you would see in a modern film. For the close-ups, the spacing between the eyes and the top of the frame is a little more old school. With the effort to constantly be aware of that and to get there, I think the movie has its own look that’s fitting to the tone since it’s drawing from various types of genres even though it’s a Western.
You can check out the trailer for In A Valley of Violence below, and if you’ve enjoyed learning about cinematography, you can read up on some of DLD’s past interviews with people like Manuel Billeter of Luke Cage and Paul Cameron of Westworld to continue exploring the subject.