Jesse James opens with a train robbery that takes place in a wooded area that seems to be lit almost entirely by a light on the front of the train and lanterns held by the characters. How did you approach that sequence?
Roger Deakins (Cinematographer): We shot that in Edmonton in this preserved town where they had a little loop railway and a small train. Andrew actually wanted to ship in a much bigger train, but the cost was prohibitive. We kept trying to reassure him that we could do things photographically that would give the train more of a presence. Andrew kept calling it ‘Thomas the Tank Engine,’ and when you saw it in broad daylight, it did look pretty puny! Now, though, he thinks it looks great.
When you’re dealing with that kind of period situation, the first thing you think of is the technical challenge of lighting everything. The train robbery had to look as if it were really lit just with lanterns. Of course, if you look closely at the shots, they’re totally unrealistic because there’s much too much light! Nevertheless, our approach worked pretty well. Andrew kept pushing for darkness, and, of course, if you haven’t worked with a director before, you wonder what he means by ‘dark.’ In this wooded area where the James gang was waiting to ambush the train, I’d positioned some lights on Condors to rake through the trees so you’d get some sense of the trees before the train came. But about an hour before we started shooting, I decided to turn them off, and instead we just pumped some atmosphere into the area. Luckily there wasn’t much of a wind, so we could maintain a low level of smoke hanging in the air and just let the light on the front of the train provide the general ambience. We shot the arrival of the train without any rehearsal, but it worked out just great. The only light in the whole scene is coming from either the train or the lanterns the outlaws are holding. The lanterns were dummied with 300- or 500-watt bulbs. Sometimes I’d keep the flame and put the bulbs behind the flame, dimmed way down. We positioned little pieces of foil between the bulb and the flame so all the camera would see was the little flame. At other times during the robbery, we just had bulbs in the lanterns — two bulbs side by side, dimmed down and sometimes flickering very gently. To augment the lanterns for close-up shots, I occasionally used a warmed-up Tweenie bounced off a gold stippled reflector.
The light on the front of the train stretched credibility, really. They did have lights on the front of trains back then, but they wouldn’t have been as strong as the 5K Par we used! We also had some gag lights underneath the train — little bare bulbs dimmed down — to light the steam and create the effect of this fiery red glow beneath the train. We had a special-effects rig on the train that would create sparks as it started braking. There’s one shot where the train is coming toward you and seems to hit the camera and carry it down the tracks; on the tracks, we set up a camera-platform rig with a big, soft buffer, and the train actually hit the platform and started pushing it along. In that particular shot, you can really see the warm glow of the bulbs underneath the engine. We also positioned a little silver reflector that caught some of the bounce from the 5K on the train, just to create some reflected light that would reveal the front of the train — otherwise, there was nothing else to illuminate it. We had a steam generator on the train so that when it stopped, we got this big cloud of steam that Jesse disappears into. (via)