So, how does a graduate in Jewish history from Hebrew University end up shooting a $60 million western for Billy Bob Thornton?
“I know it almost sounds ridiculous,” notes cinematographer Barry Markowitz about Thornton’s “All The Pretty Horses,” “but here I was, a child of Holocaust survivors, plotting out shots with Matt Damon riding a horse across the open range.
“There’s a catch to it, though. Billy Bob kept reminding us, ‘This ain’t a Western, this ain’t a Western.’ He made this movie against the grain of your typical Western, so if you’re expecting some macho stuff, along comes something with tender feelings. It kept us on our toes.”
Markowitz, though, had a large comfort zone to work in, since “Pretty Horses” marks his third consecutive film with Thornton, starting with “Sling Blade” and continuing with the still-unreleased “Daddy & Them.” Although Thornton remains loyal to the crew he built with “Sling Blade” (including Markowitz and set designer Clark Hunter), it took some convincing of top brass at Sony to keep the team together for the infinitely more expensive “Pretty Horses.”
“Billy Bob, Harvey Weinstein and (co-producer and distributor) Miramax really stood up for me and the crew, even though I had never worked in anamorphic (widescreen process) before,” says Markowitz. “It was just a matter of doing my homework, which meant talking with Haskell Wexler and Jack Green, who are anamorphic masters.
“The challenge is that depth of field is halved, so you have to recalculate your exposure formulas. I found the best stock for getting daytime exposures at 11 and 16 was the Kodak 79, and it bumps up your flexibility for depth of field. I always kept in mind the idea that Billy Bob and I had of capturing these vistas, keeping the horizon, producing the effect of Chinese scroll paintings, where figures are dwarfed in the landscape.”
Working as an associate producer on a documentary about Jewish immigrants lured Markowitz into filmmaking, beginning with the humble task of cleaning filters in rental houses, then moving up to loader, then assistant d.p., and ultimately collaborating with Wexler, noted Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown and Robert Duvall on both “Angelo, My Love” and as d.p. on “The Apostle.”
“From Garrett, I learned the invaluable lesson that you’ll make mistakes, but as you make fewer each time, you get better.”