DP Magnus Jønck approached Lean on Pete as a modern western, keeping the focus solely on character and de-romanticising the landscape. This is the second feature in our Special Issue on Lean on Pete, which is now available as an ebook here.
Lean on Pete may be set against the backdrop of the American west, but Magnus Jønck’s cinematography is surprisingly disinterested in lingering on those sweeping vistas. He visualises the story of 15-year-old Charley’s (Charlie Plummer) search for home with a constant focus on Charley himself. It’s all about how Charley relates to the landscape, which is at times both beautiful and daunting. He becomes a tiny figure swallowed up by an enormous desert, alone except for a stolen racehorse called Lean on Pete.
I talked to Jønck about how he approached de-romanticising the landscape and his process for working with writer-director Andrew Haigh’s meticulous blocking.
Seventh Row (7R): What did you work on with Andrew when you first joined the project?
MJ: Before I was hired, I met with Andrew over Skype, and we talked for one and a half hours. Then it was a three week prep [period] — not a lot for a movie like that. The script was very clear, so I didn’t feel the need to discuss every scene.
When I got to Oregon, we went straight to location on a recce, because there were so many locations to see. When writing the script, Andrew did massive research and had been to all these locations. He had a lot of stills that he showed me to get me into the background of the story and horse racing.
[Andrew] had blocked pretty much all the scenes, been on location, and been writing for the locations. That made it very easy to talk about each scene because he was so prepared. On location, we would maybe adjust the blocking a bit, but we pretty much kept a lot of Andrew’s blocking.
What we talked about more on location was light and how we could use the background. For instance, in Charley’s house, we didn’t want to burn out the windows. We wanted to see how the outside world worked. The background was a big part of the naturalism and the authenticity of the film.
7R: How did the stills Andrew gave you help with your prep?
MJ: Andrew is a very good stills photographer. Seeing what he sees, and where he puts himself when he takes a picture, helps me to get to know how Andrew would naturally frame things.
At Portland Meadows, he was there in the stalls during a race. Just seeing the stadium with all these people, you see where the light falls on their faces. You see all the colours, and that gives you a good starting point. You start deciding, “This is this colour”, building on what’s there already.
Authenticity is so important in this film, so it’s a really good reference to see how things are in real life. Maybe you don’t want to change it. Maybe you just want to keep it as it is.
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