Brokeback Mountain, the critically acclaimed film about a bottled-up and ultimately tragic gay love affair between two cowboys, represented a decided change of pace for cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC. Known more for his gritty and sometimes flamboyant style in films like Amores perros, 21 Grams, Frida, 8 Mile and Alexander, the Mexican-born DP brought an understated and pellucid naturalism to Mountain. For his achievement, he is one of five cinematographers nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers for its award for best work on a 2005 feature film. Prieto discussed his experience on the film with Below the Line writer Jack Egan.Below the Line: How did the collaboration with Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee come about?Rodrigo Prieto: I was still finishing Alexander for Oliver Stone when Ang called me and described the project and asked if I would be interested. I was still in the middle of shooting battles, so reading the script struck me as something really different from what I was doing. I was personally attracted to it as something very moving that I would like to tell visually. I told Ang immediately I wanted to do it, even though it meant jumping right on it from the shoot of Alexander and going directly to Alberta, Canada.BTL: How did you and Ang come up with the visual style for the movie.Prieto: Ang really liked Amores perros and 21 Grams, and he knew their director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. But when we met, Ang said he wanted a different style than I had been doing in the past few movies. I had been doing a lot of handheld. Alexander was pretty intense imagery and 21 Grams was very rough-edged. He wanted something very serene and limpid—that was his word.I liked the fact that he didn’t hire me to do what I’d been doing in the last few movies. It’s very important for me not to be typecast. He also was aware that I do a very naturalistic style. That was the approach here, but even more trying to step back and be even more invisible. The first thing we talked about was how the characters were rather still, not so eloquent with words, living at a slower pace—like their life on Brokeback Mountain. We felt we needed to be simple with the photography as well. So we decided there would be no shots with dollies, no handheld, no crane—just tripod. We broke the rule a couple of times. But for the most part we really made an effort to simplify things.BTL: On this film you shot in situations with very little light. For example, that first episode where Ennis has passed out by the fire which has gone out and Jack invites him into the tent. How did you work that out?Prieto: When I go through a script, there’s always one scene that I read and wonder, okay, how am I going to shoot and light that scene? That was the one. We had no fire, and just the light from the moon. We didn’t have a big budget and we weren’t going to be able to afford big lighting setups. And also moonlight is very hard to make believable at times. The location we picked was far from accessible roads, so no cranes or lighting were close by. In the end we were able to put a light on a crane very far in the distance with a gel to give a slight blue-green tint. The interior of the tent we shot on a stage. It was a very intimate scene for the actors. It had to feel true. My main objective was when you see the movie to not get distracted by the lighting but to feel that you are there. BTL: What about your selection of film stocks.Prieto: For Brokeback, I was using a fine grade stock, 50 ASA, daylight balance stock. The only filters I was using was polarizers—basically no color filtration. I was trying to get a very pristine image, avoiding this feeling of a filter, an artificial image. For the towns, Signal and Riverton, we were trying to get a touch grayer. I used 250 ASA, a little grainier, a little more contrasty. In Texas, I used a 500 ASA that’s an older film stock, so it’s more saturated. Texas had to have more color.BTL: There’s a scene where Jack goes to Mexico and picks up a hustler for a one-nighter. You played that role. Was that your debut as an actor?Prieto: Everyone kept joking as we were preparing the movie that I’d play that role, but… I considered it a joke. It was the last day of shooting. A street was dressed as if it were Mexico. I started lighting, and Ang came up to me, “Rodrigo we need a favor. The person that we cast we shot on video and it just doesn’t work.” The next thing I knew I was in makeup and they were putting this silly shirt on me and cutting my hair. Then I came out and continued to do the lighting when Ang said, “Come on, it’s time to roll.” I was hoping no one would know it was me.BTL: You didn’t use a digital intermediate on Brokeback, but in preproduction did you discuss the possibility of using digital color correction?Prieto: We did talk about it. Ang wasn’t particularly keen about it. He felt that a digital intermediate made it look a little bit sleek or artificial. I didn’t agree with that. As long as you don’t play with contrast, it looks just like the negative. What I like about it is that it’s interactive. If you want to put a point of red, you’re having it before your eyes, as opposed to telling your timer it should be a little greener and, then a day or two later, seeing what that turns out to be. But it made sense for this movie not to do a DI, again for simplicity’s sake. I felt it was a basic movie, and it really didn’t need that much enhancement. BTL: You operate. Prieto: About 90 percent of the time I did the operating. It’s something I grew up with. In Mexico I would operate the camera all the time. To me it is very hard to separate the process of the lighting and the framing. [We used one camera] most of the time.BTL: What was the toughest sequence to get just right.Prieto: Probably that moonlit scene with the tent exterior. Also, the Fourth of July sequence with the fireworks. We attempted it twice and it rained and it was a mess. BTL: A lot of times the two main characters are wearing cowboy hats, partially hiding their faces.Prieto: Yes the hats sometimes caused some problems. We used them to create shadows. I had to find ways of getting light in there without the viewer noticing it. That fine balance where you want to see detail, you want to see their expressions, but you never want to feel that it’s lit. I would work with the stand-ins to find the exact spot to put a bounce. As much as possible I tried not to use electrical light. The cowboy hats added to the atmosphere and to the interest of the faces, half in the shadow. Their faces are also like landscapes in a way. They change, and age, and get bruised. Our makeup person, Manlio Rocchetti, did a great job.BTL: What’s next for you?Prieto: I just finished Babel, again for Alejandro Inarritu. We shot in Morocco, Mexico and Japan. It’s kind of the third in a trilogy with Amores perros and 21 Grams. It has a similar theme where one incident affects different lives. Lately I’ve been taking a break, but I’ve been looking at some scripts.
Written by Jack Egan