Filmmaking: <I>The Ballad of Lefty Brown</I>
Issue: December 1, 2017

Filmmaking: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

A24’s new Western film The Ballad of Lefty Brown stars Bill Pullman as a cowboy’s sidekick, set on avenging the death of his long-time partner. The story explores themes of loyalty, friendship, betrayal and the pursuit of justice. Jared Moshe wrote the script and knew from the beginning that he would direct it as a film. Shot on location in a Montana over the course of 20 days, the film also stars Jim Caviezel, Peter Fonda, Kathy Baker, Tommy Flanagan, and Joe Anderson.

“I always have a vision of how I want it to feel and the emotion that I want it to evoke,” says Moshe (pictured, below) of his film work. “It should feel very grounded, intimate and epic,” he says of The Ballad of Lefty Brown. “It should be shot in a period of transition.”

David McFarland served as director of photography, shooting on Super 35. “I had not worked with him before,” notes Moshe, adding that the two “really clicked” upon their initial discussions.

“David is a DP who knows how to craft incredible imagery, but also do that in the service of character and story, which I think is a really rare talent. We knew things would go wrong. It’s a western. There are going to be storms and clouds — you just never know because you are shooting outdoors. You have to be very nimble, and David and I had that really good short hand in that we knew what we wanted to achieve so we could be nimble together.”

Shooting on film “was a little more expensive, but not significantly more,” Moshe adds. “You have to make your choices as a filmmaker where you want to spend money. I think a western should be shot on film, so I told my financing producers: ‘I will explore digital more if you can go spend the next couple of weeks watching westerns and find one that was shot digitally and feels right to you.’ They came back after two weeks and said, ‘You’re right. We are going to shoot this on film.’ Westerns have a look and feel that we know. We’ve been exposed to it for generations. It’s in our DNA.”

Having to send dailies to Los Angeles for processing made it tough for Moshe to review material. Slow Internet exacerbated the challenge of reviewing material. As such, he relied on editor Terel Gibson, who was working out of Fancy Film ( in Silverlake, CA, to alert him of any potential problems. 

“I really had to trust my editor,” says the director. “He was very good at communicating that stuff.” 

Moshe adds that DP McFarland also kept in touch with the dailies colorist at Fotokem, which would alert the team to any problems, such as focus issues, as the scans were being created.

After production wrapped, Moshe worked closely with editor Gibson on the cut. 

“I work really closely with the editor,” he notes. “The way I shoot is: I really try to figure out how things cut together in my head. The film cuts a certain way and I need to be in the room to do that.”

As the same time, Moshe allowed Gibson to put together a first assembly, which incorporated his own ideas.  

“He comes up with some really great ideas and thoughts,” says Moshe of Gibson. “Then, I come in and we re-craft it from there and talk through ideas. I’ll walk out and let him take some cracks at scenes while I am not there, and at times we’ll collaborate together. We create a really safe environment. Rather than argue over whether we should do something, we’ll say, ‘That’s interesting. Let’s try it and see if it works?’”

Gibson cut the film on an Avid system. The feature incorporates original music by composer H. Scott Salinas. 

“[We] go way back,” says Moshe of his relationship with the composer. “We have a really great way of talking about music and sound.”

Moshe says in this case, it was important to create a theme for Lefty that could expand and contract as necessary. In some instances, the music is just a single piano with a rough edge. At other times, Lefty’s theme is performed by a full orchestra. 

“It allowed us to augment Lefty’s arch and emotionally connect,” notes the director of the music.

One of his favorite scenes in the film comes when Lefty is trying to distract Jeremiah from the pain of having been shot by telling him a story. The scene was filmed at night with a moving camera in a space that had a number of acoustical challenges. 

“It doesn’t seem that hard to shoot, but when you are doing such minimal lighting with camera movement, it is a really tough job for the camera department to get that right and get the focus. Every time I watch that scene, I just love what we did.”

Looking back, Moshe says he is extremely proud of the final results. 

“When you are a filmmaker, there is always something you want to do differently, or had more time…But I am really happy with it and proud of what we did. We made this movie in 20 days. It was an insane shoot and we made something I think everyone on this film is real proud of.”

The Ballad of Lefty Brown opened in theaters on December 15th and is also available via VOD.