Martin Scorsese and Rodrigo Prieto are still figuring out how everything came together for Killers of the Flower Moon. This much is clear as the longtime collaborators sit down together for an in-depth conversation about a handful of crucial, striking images from their film, each captured with an extraordinary level of both meticulous planning and spontaneous invention—a combination Prieto has come to learn is essential over his decade of working with Scorsese. Some evoke a feeling the filmmakers hadn’t even realized while shooting on set; others could be described to a tee on Scorsese’s shot list, only for the richness of a location or the power of a performance to alter their impact entirely.
Over its nearly three-and-a-half-hour run time, Killers unfurls an epic story of greed and betrayal in its examination of Osage life in Oklahoma circa 1920, and the mass murders of the Indigenous community at the hands of their white neighbors. Centering their script on the tortured romance between simple-minded war veteran Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is white, and his razor-sharp new bride Mollie (Lily Gladstone), who is Osage, Scorsese and his cowriter Eric Roth intimately depict the stakes of a grand crime as horror upon horror is inflicted upon Mollie’s family—with Ernest’s uncle, the relentless William Hale (Robert De Niro), orchestrating it all in the hunt for oil money.
Oscar-nominated for Scorsese’s most recent films, Silence and The Irishman, Prieto (who was also the cinematographer for Barbie this year) settled on a layered color palette for Killers. He weaved between a naturalistic and vibrant template for scenes focused on the Osage community, and hauntingly muted tones whenever the action shifted toward Ernest and Hale. The movie’s back half, in line with an acceleration of pace, turns violent and brutal in its imagery, viscerally capturing the mood that leads into the story’s tragic conclusion. Prieto and Scorsese picked out five scenes to discuss with Vanity Fair along those lines, in their attempt to depict a propulsive drama that gets at the dark heart of the American story.
Mollie’s family has been systematically murdered over the film’s first half, a process that culminates in the death of her last remaining sister, Reta (JaNae Collins). Her house is blown up in an attack organized by Ernest on the orders of his uncle. Here, we see the explosion only from Ernest’s horrified, if still complicit, perspective.
Martin Scorsese: You can see on his face here is that character who’s denying what subconsciously he knows is inevitable. The reckless danger, the reckless murder. Blowing up this house in the middle of a town, basically. It’s not out in the wilderness somewhere; it’s right in the center of town. That’s his sister-in-law in there. It hits home in a way. You could see it in Leo’s eyes: What is he doing? It’s the first time he begins to really doubt his uncle and everything that he’s in, but he doesn’t have enough courage. He doesn’t have any courage at all. He deludes himself into thinking this has got to be the end. It can’t go any further. It just can’t go any further. But here he is beginning to realize it may not stop.
Rodrigo Prieto: The lighting is a combination of incandescent light from light bulbs and firelight. So that was pretty dramatic. One thing that I found interesting is that, then when he starts walking in and we see the sister, Reta, the camera moves up, and we discover her in this position that’s very peaceful. Marty asked me to make it feel a little bit religious or like a statue of some sort in the church—this special light on her that’s not very realistic. From this moment on in the movie, things became a little more surreal, including the fire, and harsher, harder.
Scorsese: The image of the sister comes actually from David Grann, the description in the book that witnesses said that she looked like she was resting until they lifted her head. Therefore, when I said resting, she looks like an effigy of a saint in a way. In a way. I’m not saying she was, just that it has a peacefulness to it. A person at rest—and then you see the brutality when they try to lift her. So that was a very special moment. This is what he sees.
Prieto: When we were prepping, the whole idea behind the script kept evolving. At one moment, I think we thought that we’d see the explosion. There was talk about making a miniature, and we could do it in visual effects to make it explode.
Scorsese: Then I realized, No, maybe the explosion would be better in the bedroom. You see the results that we see, the effect of the explosions. Then we just follow Ernest out a few doors down and there it is.
Prieto: To see them peaceful in their bed and they’re lying together, they’re spooning, and then suddenly, boom—every time I see the movie with an audience, everybody jumps, I’m sure more so than if we’d seen the explosion itself. Then we have the shot in the living room when Ernest comes down and the chaos that’s happening, the Steadicam is circling again, this mobile camera. It really captures that feeling of confusion.
Ernest then returns to the Fairfax house to deliver the terrible news to his wife, Mollie. He finds her and the family hiding in the basement—a location that was not originally scripted or even planned on the day, but suggested by Lily Gladstone herself.
Prieto: The design in Marty’s shot list was we see this from Ernest’s perspective, as we come into this place, right?
Scorsese: Yes. The mother and the children are holding together. The nanny and the maid, they’re all holding together. I realized: How could they be in the living room? The place just exploded next door. Where would they be? I think Lily said, “Well, check the storm cellar.”
Prieto: That’s exactly it.
Scorsese: I said, “Storm cellar?” “Because there are tornadoes here, so there’s got to be one,” she said. So we looked down and said, “This would be great if the camera comes to the house and then opens the door.” Of course, we had to shoot that day and we hadn’t prepared. Rodrigo hadn’t prepared. [Laughs]
Coming through the house with the Steadicam moving through, when you hear the baby crying—the baby was crying. That’s all real track. Then the baby is quiet. After Mollie screams, everybody freezes. That’s what actually happened.
Prieto: It became such an emotionally powerful moment. One thing that I admire very much from Marty is being open to what happens right there. Lily said, “This is what I think I would do.” Then he says, “Let’s go.” It created this moment. Even this image—it’s not only the performances that are incredible, but also just the image of this family. It’s something that I’ve learned working with Marty, just being open.
Scorsese: The angle was the thing. When we opened the door and we saw the stairs going down, “It’s perfect.” It’s about the terror, and you see it.
Arguably the most stunning cinematographic sequence in the film comes when Hale burns the land around his farm to collect insurance money. We observe both Hale and Ernest taking in the hellscape, and see the workers stoking the flames, through the flames—an ingenious, mesmerizing bit of camerawork that reaches for the Biblical.
Scorsese: When I first read the original script, I felt that this moment had to be a conflagration of all the emotions and the corruption created by these people, particularly this man. He’s scheduled this burning of the fields. But the look on De Niro’s face, it looks as if he’s going to be consumed by it—and eventually he is, in a way.
I wanted it to be a feeling of a Walpurgisnacht, The Witches’ Sabbath, with him seeing figures dancing around flames, a medieval figure of death that takes everybody by hand and dances them away. You have that in The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s movie. The point being that they’re all celebrated—the figures are almost worshiping these flames, hence it has a kind of Biblical effect I had hoped for.
Prieto: What’s interesting for me is that these are things that I intuitively thought, what you’re explaining, but when we were shooting it, we didn’t actually discuss this. I was amazed by this choreography. That wasn’t just people just standing around, it was choreographed.
Scorsese: It’s choreographed by Michael Arnold, who was also our [intimacy coordinator] on set. I said I wanted it to look like dancing demons almost. Suddenly someone would just burst open their arms; another would just hang onto his shovel, with his shoulders and arms almost like a scarecrow; another would fall to the ground.
Now, in reality, I didn’t see the people this way. As far as the idea, I first saw this at night being driven back from a location back to our house we’re staying in. I saw these fields being burned, which is apparently a common thing that happens at a certain time of year. I was in this SUV and I’m a New Yorker; I never saw anything quite like it. It felt to me we were on another planet. The two gentlemen with me, we didn’t say a word until we were in the middle of it, and one of them said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” You could imagine the distortion that one would have, looking through these flames or driving through at night and these dark, dark, dark roads—that are barely roads in some cases.
Prieto: I remember you mentioned what you saw—definitely, that was an inspiration. Simply placing all the fires was very technical. Where do we put the bigger fire to create the silhouette, and where do we put a fire to create distortion? All these elements that we had to put in place. And we didn’t see this happening until we were actually filming. To me, it was unexpected, the level of distortion that happened. We placed a thing in front of the lens and had a little bit of distortion happening. But then the second layer of fire created this really bizarre, watery almost—
Scorsese: —almost like an impressionist painting. I was stunned by it. The longer the lenses got, the better it got. Then if the horse went by, it was totally surreal. The flame bar we had in front of the camera—we would take advantage of the ripples from the flames, not the flames themselves, which is something I did way back in a fight scene in Raging Bull. The second time Jake LaMotta fights with Sugar Ray Robinson is done with long lenses with heat bars. I always love that effect; you can pull the heat bar away, you can have a little bit of the rippling, you can have a great deal of it, it looks like you’re underwater almost. You really feel the intensity of this environment and it’s unsettling.
Prieto: I remember being mesmerized. The choreography kept going on and Marty would be like, “Okay, now try this. Now try that.” We also used the flame bars in front of the lens for this shot, the close-up on Bob. So you see that effect, and you also see it on a bed shot. It’s also present when Ernest goes out of his house in Fairfax way over there, and he also sees this glow of the fire. That’s the effect I expected, which is more subtle. But this, with a superlong lens, came the second layer of big fire beside our little flame bar—the big fire in between—which created this thing when we moved the focus to the distortion itself.
Scorsese: That’s the best part of it. Like mirages in the desert, in a way. People see them coming out of what looks like water and actually it’s just a mirage. These people are emerging. But being out like this in places like that, these things, under the right circumstances, this can be very much a perception.
Prieto: And we were doing this wide shot simultaneously. So the long lens was seeing those figures in the background. That fire that’s sort of closer to the camera, we don’t see it on the tighter lens. What we see is heat from it. That’s what I didn’t expect and it became pretty magical and bizarre.
Scorsese: That was a moment. It was quite a moment when we discovered it. “Let’s go longer. Let’s see if we can get longer lenses. This is wild.”
A key character in David Grann’s book, FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) arrives in Oklahoma with assistants to investigate the mounting crimes, kick-starting the breakneck final act and introducing yet another distinctive color palette for Prieto—one that, in a nighttime scene like this, needed to be exactingly captured.
Scorsese: The look of the FBI scenes was certainly different from the rest. How did we go about that? I think it got cooler, in a way.
Prieto: Yeah, that’s right. There is a moment in the film that doesn’t exactly coincide with the FBI, but when there’s this big explosion where Bill and Rita’s house blows up. From then on we added contrast and also reduced color saturation. But in addition to that, with color timing, we went cooler for certain scenes and particularly the FBI scenes. This one I was terrified of. The script called for this meeting at night in an oil field; of course, one of the most difficult things to reproduce with cinematography is moonlight, because it doesn’t light only one part of a field. It lights everything. That’s why this scene was tricky. What we ended up doing was shooting the wide shot, like this one, at dusk where you get the silhouette of the barrack and then the guys are lit by the headlights of the car. That was really good.
Scorsese: We had one [oil] derrick there, and ultimately we added a number in CGI. The bureau investigation lent itself to a tough edge representation of color—almost a black-and-white feel. Just the way they’re dressed. That’s not a cliché because it’s the official law coming in. I’ve seen that in other instances in certain films. An old film that we’re restoring now called Law and Order directed by Edward L. Cahn, which was one of the first films based on the Wyatt Earp–Clanton fight at the OK Corral—Walter Huston plays the Earp character named Frame Johnson, Harry Carey plays the Doc Holliday character, and they’re dressed like ministers. Immediately, it creates a silhouette, an obviously black-and-white contrast. It dictated how we’d have to deal with the rest of the frame whenever they were in the frame.
Prieto: The scary part is it’s an instant really—this happens at a moment and it’s gone. The one oil derrick, that’s the real one, then all the others are CG. But the second thing is that all the rest of the shots, we actually photographed that full night. What we did in the end was add the dusk with the visual effects, the bluish sky behind the actors, for the other shots. Then it starts getting darker and darker in the background. But that was visual effects.
Scorsese: But then you could control that, you see. Here you couldn’t control it. We had to get it right for this, right at this moment of dusk so that you could at least get a sense of some detail. That was toward the end of the shooting too. There were the coyotes at night that were howling out there. That was beautiful.
Mollie is diabetic, and receives insulin treatment set up by Ernest—but as her family dies off and the reality of poisonings in her community becomes clear, she becomes intensely aware of the threats surrounding her. The shots here signify the moments before and after Ernest enters her room with doctors. “This is where Mollie is entertaining the dreadful thoughts that pretty much everyone around her is out to do her harm—except Ernest,” Scorsese says.
Scorsese: This is the actual building—this is not on a soundstage—that was created and designed by Jack Fisk. We don’t know who’s coming up the steps. We just see her and then we hear the voices coming up. Her husband comes in with the two doctors; then she refuses to be administered the shot. From her husband, she’ll take it, but not from them. This is the beginning of her awareness of the palpable danger that even in her bedroom, when that door opens, she could be murdered.
Prieto: For this scene, you mentioned you wanted to create this tension, have these shots designed where—from her point of view—we’d see a shadow of the people coming up.
Scorsese: Yeah, and you don’t know who it is. The audience does know it’s the doctors. She just hears these voice murmurs and sees little shadows coming up. What’s going to happen? What is she afraid of?
Prieto: This is a practical set, even though it was built, so you can’t really remove walls. There were two windows that were placed in a position that was really hard for me to light the bed in a dramatic way. I suggested this idea to make it dusk instead of daytime [as was scripted]. The scene called for daytime, so it was a big pivot and everybody agreed. But that’s the atmosphere you get on it. Combination of the light from the oil lamp and some of this bluish light from the nightfall. We had to change that because of the drama. When Marty was describing the shadows, all these things that—
Scorsese: —well, you wouldn’t see in daytime.
Prieto: Exactly. So it was pretty complicated to light, but I’m very happy with the scene because I think we were able to capture her feeling. The way she’s framed too—I didn’t realize until after, but she’s framed very often right in the center.
Scorsese: She’s like a soldier protecting everything. She’s getting ready. It was also rather tricky in that I didn’t want the obvious shadows coming up and frightening her, but just enough to have her point of view and know that this is definitely something wrong, it’s here in my house coming into my bedroom. Just enough.
Scorsese: The structure of the room, the design of the room, the ceilings, the expressionistic lines—those are actual attics that exist in those houses. It allowed us to play the scene at times in a two-shot rather than cutting back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. For a lot of the scene, especially when he sits on the bed and braces her and then tells her he’s going to protect her—and he means it, of course—he’s in total denial. We took close-ups there, but his convincing of her, the way he convinces her just from the love in his eyes, is what I believe in the two-shot. So we let it play all the way at this angle.
Half the scene is spoken in Osage without subtitles, because you don’t need them. You really don’t need them. You could tell that she’s saying, “I don’t want these guys in the room.” He is understandably saying, “What am I supposed to do?” He says, “This is real medicine they’re giving you.” I was thinking as we were shooting, myself and Leo and Lily and everybody, we weren’t even sure that was real medicine that they were giving her. But he believes it. Ernest believes it. He’s got this conviction that this is going to help her. Leo and Lily were able to do something very subtle, with many different layers.
Prieto: A lot of the Osage really wasn’t scripted that way. Also, Lily really learned the language, so she brought a lot of that to the table.
Scorsese: Leo’s character, Ernest, had learned the language, so he wanted to learn it. Then Bob’s character knew the language, and Bob learned a lot of Osage. I said, “Wait a minute, everybody. All right, everybody calm down!” [Laughs]
Prieto: I remember this shot. We were right up against the corner of this place. The camera was touching the wall, with barely enough space. But just seeing their performances was startling and amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.