Story by W. H. Bourne
Photos courtesy of Free State of Jones and STX Entertainment
Louisiana Film & Video Magazine had the opportunity to speak with writer/director/producer Gary Ross about his work here last year on Free State of Jones.
“Unlike a lot of people who shoot in Louisiana, this story was set, literally, about 150 miles from where we ended up shooting it. Between swamps and the woods and everything Louisiana had to offer, it was great. There was an amazing crew base, which we found the local crews to be as good as anybody I worked with in Los Angeles, and also the deep, deep pool of casting talent you have there, especially for a movie set in the South,” explains Ross. “I really enjoyed this process so much, and I loved being in Louisiana. And I’m not just saying that because you’re a Louisiana magazine.”
“I had a great, local casting director (Dawn Jefferson) along with Debra Zane who was great. Then, also, Brent Caballero, who cast a lot of the extras, was terrific. It’s an amazing pool of actors. I was just very happy with what the resources were,” adds Ross. “We also had a lot of great people come down from Mississippi to be in the film, to be extras, so that was a nice thing.”
Ross continues, “The biggest challenge we fought was around the weather. We had a tornado one day… We had no rain cover… Even though we had a lot of money, around $50 million, there were budget challenges. We were very tight leashed. That’s not a lot of money for a big, period, war epic so to do this movie for $50 million was difficult, but I think we achieved it.”
Location scouting was extensive. Ross notes, “The hardest part was finding a hill near New Orleans. The construction of that battle sequence is based on men coming over the ridge of the hill. We had to scout. There’s, literally, one hill in a couple hundred miles.”
As far as finding the right swamp, Ross had a multitude of choices. He recalls, “We found one estuary which was privately owned, by a doctor, down the river from New Orleans… It was a great, beautiful estuary, and we shot a lot of stuff there. But, we also shot a tremendous amount in Chicot State Park, which is just an amazing looking swamp. You know, it’s so funny, because when I scouted (the location), there was no duckweed. When we went to shoot, they said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to want to shoot in Chicot. It’s all covered in duckweed.’ There was this green stuff on the surface, and I looked at these pictures and thought, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen; I wouldn’t want to shoot without it!’ I was so fortunate there was duckweed at the time… I found it (Chicot) a really fantastic place to shoot.”
“You know, working in the swamp, I love that stuff,” says Ross. “The last few movies I’ve made have all been outside. I hate being inside, so I really, really, liked it! It’s one of the things that is very exhilarating. Getting out of the city, away from the soundstage, getting away from movie making, into the trees, dragging the equipment around in the mud, I enjoy that! Maybe I’m crazy but I really did like this. Honest to God, it’s better than being on a soundstage. Tough is the 25th day on a soundstage! You walk in; it’s dark and everyone’s lounging around around the craft service table; you trip over the cables; I kinda like being outside.”
Of course the cast and crew of Free State of Jones did have to contend with swamp-centric issues. “Termites,” exclaims Ross. “In one particular place, you almost couldn’t breathe from the hours of 6 to 8, and then they would just disappear. We had a while where we were just, literally, inundated with termites. Then, for people like me, who weren’t as vigilant as we should be, we all had chiggers pretty badly, but it was worth the price.”
Free State of Jones uses all of its outdoor locations to paint a stunning, visual picture. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (Theory of Everything, 1408) did a fantastic job of keeping the scenes filled with numerous extras and epic battles intimate.
“I watched Barry Lyndon during the prep,” admits Ross, “as much for the Napoleonic battle scenes as anything else. The way Kubrick was able to stage the tension of what seemed like a suicidal march forward, the regimentation of that… The biggest thing I took from Kubrick was the decision not to shoot widescreen on what people consider to be a war epic… When you attain the width (for widescreen), you’re giving up height; when you’re shooting in the swamp, I wanted the larger frame of 1:1.85, not the current widescreen… From a cinematic point of view, that’s the most heretical thing I did, but I’m really glad I did it.”
“We shot (Free State of Jones) on the Alexa. On Hunger Games, I think, I shot a million and a half feet of film. On this it’s digital but the equivalent would be two and a half million feet of film. There was just a lot that got shot on this movie. It was a big, big, undertaking, but I felt in it every day, I felt exhilarated every day, and I think we arrived at a very good way of getting the story done.”
“The cinematography in the movie, which is, I think, the best I’ve done makes it come alive,” adds Ross. “One of the reasons I think the cinematography does work is that we created a very real environment. A lot of that is my production designer Philip Messina, as well. I also really enjoyed working with Juliet Welfling, my editor.”
Ross continues, “The changes to the film credits didn’t affect us, but I understand it’s shifting a lot of stuff to Atlanta, which I think is too bad, because New Orleans can be a wonderful center for filmmaking. It’s certainly a very practical place for us to spend some time. I spent six months in Louisiana, and I loved every minute of it. I made lifelong friends. New Orleans is a sophisticated, exciting, wonderful place to be; I loved living in the city. I think it’s just too bad that, for reasons I don’t even know, for how small the shift in the cap was, you’ve lost so much more business than you’ve saved in reducing with the cap, which was obviously done for political reasons. I think a lot of business is leaving the state now, way more than the money you’re saving by lowering the cap. It was a really wonderful experience, and I hope you all get your rebates (tax credits) sorted out so it can continue.”
“Being down there, in Louisiana, being part of it,” muses Ross, “I loved New Orleans; it’s one of my favorite cities in the country. I will be back!”
STX’s Free State of Jones opens nationwide on June 24, 2016.