Rodrigo Prieto spent the past couple years living in completely different worlds. The Mexico City-born cinematographer spent the majority of 2021 in Oklahoma, working on Martin Scorsese's historical epic Killers of the Flower Moon. "And then after this tremendous experience, I go off and shoot Barbie in London!" he exclaims. "That was a huge transition. And after Barbie, I went on to direct a movie called Pedro Páramo, which you'll see is even more different."
"But those transitions between different genres and different types of movies are an opportunity I've been blessed to have in my career," Prieto says, "because it stretches my experience as a cinematographer, but also as a person."
Killers of the Flower Moon marks the director and director of photography's fourth film together. (The only cinematographers who have shot more Scorsese films are the late Michael Ballhaus, who shot seven, and Robert Richardson, who has shot seven so far.) Prieto received Oscar nominations for his work on 2016's Silence and 2019's The Irishman, on top of a previous nomination for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain.
Killers of the Flower Moon is as ambitious as any of their collaborations thus far, a sweeping Western crime drama set amidst the spate of Osage nation murders in the 1920s. Scorsese regulars Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio star as William Hale and Ernest Burkhart, respectively; the former is the one who orchestrates a conspiracy to kill off the Native people, the latter is the one who marries an Osage woman called Mollie (Lily Gladstone) in order to inherit her wealth.
"In the case of cinema, filmmakers try to express something that maybe they can't explain with words," Prieto tells A.frame. "And if there is anybody that's a master at those words, in terms of the language of cinema, it's Scorsese. He uses the camera to express ideas that maybe he doesn't even know what exactly they mean. But we create these shots — he creates these shots and I execute them — that really say things."
At the 96th Oscars, Prieto received his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, amongst Killers of the Flower Moon's 10 total nominations. He was in Mexico City in post-production on Pedro Páramo when the nominations were announced.
"I always say it's a bizarre experience for me to even be working with my idol, Martin Scorsese. Just getting to work with him and come up with ideas and shots and collaborate together is surreal," Prieto says. "On top of that, to then be nominated for an Oscar? It's like, 'What's going on? What did I do to deserve this?' It's just very, very beautiful, and really exciting."
A.frame: You've now worked with Scorsese on many projects over many years. What do you think it is about your relationship as director and cinematographer that works so well?
I admire him so much and I like him so much that it's just a joy to work with him. Ever since the day I met him, he helped me feel at ease. I love cinema, obviously — this is what I do — and I love movies, but I'm nowhere near his expertise as a cinephile. So, it could easily be something that would really intimidate me if he were asking me all the time, 'Have you seen this movie? Have you seen that movie?' And he doesn't. He sometimes recommends movies, and that's amazing. So, that's my part of it. And I really enjoy listening to him describe the shots, for example, that he wants to do. It's one of my favorite things working with Scorsese, is when he explains the shot list to me. I just imagine it immediately, then I memorize it and it becomes ingrained in my brain. I think that pleasure it gives me maybe translates to him. He can see that I'm so happy to be there, and I really make an effort with every director I work with, but I try to understand his mind as much as possible and translate his ideas through my filter of my own experience and my own ideas onto the screen. So, it is just a joy.
When you think back to The Wolf of Wall Street and through to this film, has the way you collaborated with one another changed at all?
It's evolved in the sense that, more and more, I know what he likes and what he doesn't like. Like I said, he shot lists everything beforehand, and then I have the Bible, I call it, and it's an annotated script that I use to set up the shots. Many times, I'm setting up a shot on my own while he's with the actors and I'm with the stand-ins and my crew setting it up, and then I'll present it to him and he'll like it or not. And I think that the batting average is better as the years go by, because I know that a certain lens or a certain angle will be something that he'll respond to.
The way he describes things, and this is one of the things I find exciting, isn't technical. He'll never tell me, 'Oh, I think we'll do this dolly shot or a Technocrane with a 28 millimeter...' None of that. He'll describe the speed of a shot, the feeling of it, and also why — why the cameras is static, or why he wants a medium shot or a close-up, or why it pulls back or pushes in. He describes the reason behind it. I then have to figure out how to achieve that technically. And that's exciting.
When it came to Killers of the Flower Moon, what were those early conversations like as you were discovering the look, and the textures, and the color palette of this film?
It was something that kept evolving. In pre-production, the script kept changing, so the same thing happened with our visual ideas. We spent a long time in pre-production talking about the beginnings of photography, because we're in the beginning of the 20th century when photography, and particularly color photography, was in its infancy. So, I experimented with the idea of pinhole photography for the scene in the very beginning, the ceremony with a pipe and all that, but that didn't quite work. I tested it, but it felt a little too stylized.
And then we decided we should photograph the Osage ceremonies as naturalistic as possible in terms of the look. So, all those scenes, we shot on film, and the film negative has amazing color depth — more than any digital camera, really — so the colors are as naturalistic as possible. That's how we represented the Osage world, and that came from research and getting deeper and deeper into the Osage culture and understanding their connection to nature. Conversely, we started talking about how do we photograph Ernest and Hale in their world? In this case, I thought we should represent the European perspective with the beginning of color photography, which is Autochrome. That's based on something that we'd already started on The Irishman, which is [the idea that] the way we remember things that happened is through still photography. On The Irishman, I emulated Kodachrome and Ektachrome, that sort of things. The first two thirds of the movie, everything that's Ernest and Hale and the descendants of the European settlers, was represented as Autochrome.
Scorsese said, 'But then what?' We needed to advance the look of the film as the drama is advancing, and he asked me, literally, 'How do we evolve that?' So, then I proposed the idea that at the moment that Mollie's sister house explodes, and things really start unraveling, and Ernest's feelings of guilt and confusion get deeper and deeper, we switch to a look up table that's ENR, that desaturates the overall colors and adds contrast. The feel of the film from that moment on becomes much harsher, and the lighting evolved into that. That's where we settled.
But in the beginning, we talked about tinting and toning, for example, as an idea, which is something that was done in the black-and-white era on film. Scorsese brought the idea and said, 'Let's experiment with this.' Again, I tested it, but it was a little too stylized. But still, there was that freedom of experimentation. And some things did seep into the movie, like Petzval lenses, which distort the edges of frame. I tested those to see where we would use them, and it was more of an instinctual thing. So, it was that process that kept evolving.
As you're having those discussions, are you referencing other films — maybe especially in this case, any Western films?
Strangely not. I can't remember really any specific reference to other movies, except for this tint and tone idea, as I said. We looked at clips of Nanook of the North, this black-and-white documentary that had that technique. I remember he did reference The Trial by Orson Welles. Not the whole movie, but he referenced a moment where there are these eyes looking through some slats, and that was his inspiration for the children looking through the gaps in the bark lodge in the beginning of the movie. Those are the only two references that I can remember.
But one thing that's really beautiful is, when we're in prep, but even when we're filming and I go to his trailer to discuss a shot or whatever it might be, there's always a movie playing on his TV. So, for Scorsese, the presence of cinema is not something to do maybe twice a week in a screening room or in a cinema; it's something constant in his life. There's always old movies playing, and he'll know about them. He'll describe the director and the cinematographer and an anecdote. It really is quite something.
Was there one sequence or something you knew you'd get to do on this film that you hadn't done before that was particularly exciting for you?
Every sequence, always, there's something that I hadn't done before. I think one of the scarier ones was trying to figure out precisely the explosion in Mollie's sister's house and the aftermath of everything around that. It was just technically challenging. But the house itself and the ruins was something that I was pretty scared of. It's not a soundstage, and being a big night exterior, what's the light source? Is it the fire from the house? How should that feel? And in fact, there's a shot where Ernest sees Mollie's sister's body, and Scorsese wanted that shot to have a subtle feeling of something religious to it. Her position is very unnatural — her body isn't splayed out with an arm twisted or any of that, she's seemingly very peaceful — but how do you create a religious image?
So, I did something very simple, and I don't think it's very noticeable, but indeed we didn't want it to be. I had a condor lift with a Leko, which is a theatrical light that you can use to pinpoint a very specific area to light, and I had that on her face. So, she has this frontal light that's totally unnatural. Everything else is firelight, which I created with big frames with silver lame, and big lights at 10Ks with gels on them. The grips would be moving them, and that would create this kinetic firelight. But that shot, specifically, was just strange and hard to figure out how to give Scorsese what he was imagining. But it did create a feeling, I think, of some sort of religious moment. It's those sort of things that are challenges that Marty suddenly shoves onto you and you think, 'Okay, let's see how I figure that out.'
And you figured it out.
Scorsese is no stranger to making cameos in his movies, but this is the first one you shot where he has a proper role in the movie. Are the days where he's in front of the camera any different for you? Are those any more intimidating?
You know what it is? I sometimes feel a little bit more alone, because I don't have Scorsese to go to and say, 'Hey, what do you think?' Now he's there, not back here. But it's fun. Silence was the first. There's a moment he briefly appears as a Dutch trader. He's in a wig and costume, and you barely see him. I like it, but it is strange still. I've done whole movies where the actor is the director — Ben Affleck in Argo, Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman. But I just think it's fun.
At this point in your career, do you feel like you're still learning on every job?
No, I think I know everything. [Laughs] I'm joking! Oh my god, yes. I still get very nervous on every film, every day. And I've noticed that with a master like Scorsese, he's nervous every day. He gets to set, and he's nervous. You don't know what's going to happen. I'm actually so grateful that there's so many people, so many technicians that know what they're doing and I can rely a little bit on that, because I'm not very technically savvy. I use technology and I use the techniques of cinematography, but especially now with digital cameras and digital, there's so many acronyms. Everything has an acronym, and I can't learn them all! Fortunately, there are people that'll know that, 'Oh, yeah, the PCK goes under the POK with the 22K.'
I just know what I'm trying to do and, more or less, the way I want it to look, and there's someone who will know the technology that'll help me get there. And I learn from all of them every day — from my camera assistant, my gaffers, my key grips, and the color timers. I'm always learning, and that's part of what I love about cinematography and filmmaking in general. There won't be a moment where you know it all. You're always learning, and that's part of the fun of it.
What has it been like to watch both Barbie and Killers of the Flower Moon have the reception that they have had over the past year?
It's certainly been great. They're two movies that I'm very proud of. I'm always proud of the movies I participate in, but these two definitely seem more culturally important than usual. Barbie was a movie that you really wouldn’t expect to be such a momentous film, but it feels like there's a before Barbie and after Barbie in terms of cinema history — and hopefully socially, as well. It's having a real impact on how we perceive being a man, woman, and everything in between, and hopefully teaching us all how to be more understanding and tolerant. And Killers of the Flower Moon is an incredible story that hasn't been told and has actually been actively hidden for decades. To be part of bringing its story to the public forum in such an impactful way is an honor.
I'm really happy that the Osage community allowed us to tell their story, learn from them, and actually bring them in and incorporate them into the filmmaking process. They helped us out not only with research, but also by participating in each department. In our camera crew, we had an assistant who was a descendant of someone who actually experienced the Reign of Terror depicted in the film. That was a really big honor, and it still is. Sometimes, I pinch myself over my luck getting to work on such important films. I just tried to do my part, and I hope that the cinematography of those films helps propel them into the minds of viewers. Hopefully, the images within them aren't just interesting images, but ones that will remain in the public consciousness and help move the needle socially.
By John Boone, with additional reporting by Alex Welch
This article was originally published on Oct. 19, 2023 and has been updated throughout.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Cinematography category for an interview.