Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall,” now streaming on Netflix, is an epic Western with a difference.
The all-star cast features Jonathan Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, Regina King, and Delroy Lindo — an all-Black principal cast leading their way through the West. Nat Love (Majors) seeks revenge on the man who killed his parents, but also finds love along the way.
The filmmaker turned to “Jojo Rabbit” cinematographer Mihai Malaimare to shoot the film and rather than use traditional imagery, find a new way to present the town and its characters. Malaimare spoke with Variety about working with Samuel and lighting the epic adventure that sets the stage for a train robbery and grand shoot-out, with a chance of riding all the way to the Oscars.
Filming the Towns
“We knew we would have to deal with three different towns. Jeymes, our production designer Martin Whist and I talked about our tools and what we could do to make each one interesting and yet different.
I remember Jeymes saying he wanted Redwood City to be like a photograph printed on high glossy paper with a lot of color saturation. We went heavy with street lights and practicals.
“When we were lighting the saloon, we struggled a bit. The immediate thought was to fill it with smoke, but when we spoke about it, we realized it would dull the colors down and create an image that wasn’t the approach we were after.
“In the scene where Idris is sitting at the table, everything there is so great. I told Jeymes, and it was a tough decision, that we should keep the smoke out because we wouldn’t be able to get that glossy look we were after. We gained so much more color vibrancy and contrast by not using smoke.
“Douglastown was different and like a mining town with barrels, mud and water on the ground, by doing Redwood City with so many streetlights, I ended up using more lights than I have ever used to bring out the colors of that town and make it feel like a prosperous town.
Maysville was all-white and such a contrast in comparison because it had white pebbles and white horses. I hate to shy away from pure black or pure white. I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was challenging to light, but it’s still one of my favorite sets. That place before was a small Western town with wood buildings and it came to life as soon as they painted it.
“For the last scene, the barn was not on location and it was regular wood and wood paneling. Martin couldn’t paint it, so we had this idea to make it a textile place. So, he brought in all these fabrics and started hanging them. All of a sudden, that place became so colorful and looked like it was part of Redwood.
We ended up cutting holes in the ceiling to create more skylights that could light the scene more. Again, light brings color saturation.”
The Train Robbery
“We wanted to do something new, but I remember Jeymes saying, ‘We have to have a train robbery.’ There were a lot of ideas that we had from the beginning and it was great on paper, but the main problem was how do we get to do it and how to accomplish what we wanted?
“The scene was shot over seven days. The train was in Colorado, near the border of New Mexico, so it was pretty far away, and we were got there, we were snowed out. We treated our train cars like a standing set but without having the advantage of it. We couldn’t move walls or ceilings, and that restriction meant you couldn’t take any shortcuts. It was a tight space and it became crowded, but it forces you into treating the space for what it is.”
“We storyboarded that scene because we realized when you have so many characters in a tight place, it was about how we wanted to cover them. That scene was about teamwork because it had so many elements. Jeymes had so many ideas about the split scene. We decided to have tight shots and macro shots of the gun. We tried to do as many crazy things as possible. We had a motorized slider screwed on the ceiling that could follow them from one space to another and capture that higher angle. We had a Steadicam in place, and we also incorporated that split-screen into the scene as Jeymes wanted.”
My Favorite Shot
“The cable camera when Nat Love arrives in Redwood and starts in the Mayor’s office behind Rufus and goes through the window to Nat’s close-up is my favorite shot. It was so interesting. I love the POV shots through the rifle. Often when you do that, you create the circle and crosshairs in post-production.
“I was talking to Jeymes about the POV shots through the scope. If you look through a scope, you never see black around it. I remember telling him we could shoot through an actual scope. Our prop master brought in a bunch of scopes, and we ended up using the actual scopes that were on the sharpshooter’s rifle with a special lens, and it ended up creating a beautiful image.”