America’s indigenous film genre is the Western, and its visual conventions are known the world over: The villain wears black, vast open landscapes serve as backdrop, trains and horses dominate, and towns are dusty and roughhewn. But three films in 2007 — Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma” and Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — not only take on the late 19th-century time period with authenticity but also add some post-modern twists in their bids to reinvigorate the oater.
“We all wanted to avoid stereotypical iconography from Westerns,” explains Andrew Menzies, production designer of “3:10 to Yuma.” “Jim (Mangold) wanted to make a contemporary movie set in the past.”
In order to create the look, Menzies and costume designer Arianne Phillips immersed themselves in period research, specifically the harsh, isolated conditions of frontier Arizona. Menzies avoided traditional maroons and burgundies, instead opting for a palette of earth tones. In building the town of Contention on New Mexico’s oft-filmed John Ford Ranch, he omitted Victoriana and fussy architectural details.
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“It’s a historic piece for the contemporary eye, and that’s my eye as a designer,” Phillips says. She approached the costumes from a period-correct sensibility, utilizing fabrics authentic to the time, such as monk’s cloth, cottons and heavy wools, with principals’ costumes hand-finished.
Hats took considerable attention, as the film relied heavily on close-ups; Phillips embraced hats as a way to define character. “Hats really fill the frame, and we discovered together that they could hinder or assist in many emotional and dramatic moments,” says the Oscar-nominated designer (“Walk the Line”).
Locating undeveloped vistas was a challenge for all three films. “3:10 to Yuma” shot in several national parks, which required many logistical concessions; “Jesse James” captured its version of Kansas, Colorado and Missouri circa 1881 in southern Alberta, Canada, and other Canadian and U.S. sites; and in “There Will Be Blood,” a West Texas ranch, complete with 18 miles of train track, served as California’s emerging oil country.
“I love getting my mind into times and places, trying not to make them so specific to a year, with a timeless quality to them,” explains “There Will Be Blood’s” production designer Jack Fisk. “We’re fortunate that the period is documented so well; I did my research, then abandoned it and sketched the sets from an intuitive feel,” Fisk says.
Chief among his design challenges: Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) oil derrick, which not only had to work and support the camera, lights and crew but also had to burn and fall convincingly. “It was a great way to get rid of a set,” Fisk says.
Patricia Norris, costume designer and co-production designer with Richard Hoover on “Jesse James,” argues that the film is not strictly a Western, as the action takes place in Kansas and Missouri’s burgeoning towns where the famed highwayman and his crew needed to blend in with the locals. “I love starting with nothing and building into something,” says the designer, who found the costumes’ heavyweight wools on the East Coast while Jesse James’ (Brad Pitt) signature coat came from her own vintage collection.
The design team constructed the seven homes on James’ dirt-covered street in Missouri as well as Creed, Colo. Imperfect, antique glass was used in the windows, which added a distorted light effect to interior scenes. Notes the designer, “It’s those kinds of details that make the film.”