DP John Matysiak Uses ARRI Alexa Mini in ‘Old Henry’


We recently spoke with Director of Photography, John Matyśiak, on his latest film Old Henry which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and went on to critical acclaim at TIFF. It is currently trending on Apple TV in the “Top Movies Chart”, Old Henry is available on VOD on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube. 

Matyśiak used the Arri Alexa Mini on location in Nashville where he captured awe-inducing landscapes and an ominous sky, alongside Blake Nelson’s scene-stealing performances. This is a neo-Western, which builds upon the charm of the classics.

PH: Hi John, how did you find yourself working in production? Was it a passion growing up? 

John Matyśiak: First off thank you for taking the time to include some of our story and our process of OLD HENRY.  Grateful to publications like yours who help bring awareness to independent films such as ours.  

I’ve  always had a passion for films, I grew up on Spielberg movies, I watched Kubrick films probably years before I should have been allowed to.  I do remember this time in high school when I was discovering these more independent films, “Dazed and Confused”, “Clerk”s, even “Kids” (the Larry Clark film) and through those films I began to have in interest in what does it take to make these films, particularly this idea of independent films.   I would read books on the making of Evil Dead, or Art Linson’s Pound of Flesh, the “Untouchables”.  I started doing these video projects at school, we didn’t have a video production class or anything at my school, but somehow I would convince my history teacher or English teacher or creating writing teacher that if I wrote a script and then made this video that that somehow was just as good as a research paper. The idea of going to film school to learn I suppose was a natural extension of the passion I had doing these projects with friends.  My parents were very anxious about the choice and at the same time extremely extremely supportive.  I spent my last summer at home before going to college interning at a big production company in Houston and by the end of the summer I was hired on a few commercials as a grip and a studio manager, and yes it took me prob a month to figure out how to use a C stand properly and then another month to actually be helpful with it on set. 

PH: Since your time in the industry, how have you evolved as a DP? Are there any specific lessons you’ve learned that stand out?  

John Matyśiak: That’s a good question.  I think as artists we are always evolving, just like with anything else in life, your tastes change, your style can change.  I sort of came up through indie films, I sort of just missed the era of the Roger Corman films, but I would imagine my experience with these low budget films was similar, I sort of worked my way up to shooting television movies over a a few years and then out of left field I took a shift towards shooting exclusively music videos and commercials, and the last few years essentially just commercials.  So with that my style has completely changed.  One of the things I enjoy about commercial and short form work is how quickly things do change and shift.  It constantly forces you to reinvent yourself as an artist. 

PH: Let’s talk about your latest film Old Henry. How did you get involved/hear about the film?

John Matyśiak: The director, Potsy Poncilroli and I met while working on a television series (Still the King).  We had always talked about wanting to do a film together.  He had been scouting for a different western at the time that was in development and stumbled across this house in the middle of no where, that backed up against a hill.  About a year later he sent me the script for OLD HENRY.  Come to find out that location actually inspired and fuel the story for OLD HENRY.

I immediately responded to the simplicity of the story, it wasn’t a western that took place in a town square, or a town saloon, some of things you’re used to seeing in a western. Was immediately drawn to what essentially is a story about a father and a son.

While it’s a character study on so many levels the script was extremely plot driven, certain things happen and as the chain of events begin to unfold and there is nothing to stop them it’s like a freight train .  There is something grounding with a story like that.  We weren’t waiting for characters to change to push the story in a different direction, they are who they are to a large degree and once things begin they don’t really stop until the ending and even in that it keeps going.

PH: How did you approach the film from a pre-production standpoint? Did you know what you wanted to achieve going into it?  

John Matyśiak: One of the earliest things I did in prep or once we really started talking about the script in detail was research the time period.  I tried to go through as many photographs as I could from the actual turn of the century, I wanted to get a feel for who these people were, what type of lives did they live.  I wanted to see past the image and get a sense for them as people.  Potsy and I would have these long lengthy conversations about what life would have been like and how high the stakes were at times.  In these images we found a sense of isolation in most of these images, a strength, a grit.  Some of my earliest conversations with Potsy I think we talked more about production design and wardrobe, and making it feel authentic.   We talked more about what type of film we wanted to make more than specific film references or even camera angles.  I was reintroduced to Andrew Wyeth (the American Painter) again.  I had been familiar with his work but this was a great resource as he was able to capture this hardness, this isolation and farm life so vividly, his characters all seem larger than life.   In terms of film references, I always enjoy watching films and sharing them with a director and other department heads. 

The thing I came away with watching the more modern westerns such as Assassination of Jesse James and Scott Cooper’s Hostiles was the texture that was created.  More than a feeling of timelessness I feel like we were trying to capture truth, and honesty within our world.  It’s a subtle world, where the details matter. I think in films and in our culture today to a large degree we have lost the importance of the details.  This film was about every detail.  To a large degree we wanted to be true to the genre, but at the same time we needed to be true to our story and what was going to service that the most.  We all had our ideas of what we wanted to see in our western.  

Prep was huge on this film, while we didn’t have a lot of it, we were all very efficient with the time.  Potsy and I spent two or three weeks shot listing the entire film, at the same time the art department, headed by Max Biscoe was building onto the existing structure of the house and we all were able to just have this on going dialogue as we prepped.  You could say it was all happening in real time since we only had about a month of on the ground prep before we started our camera tests and the actors arrived.  Even the actors arrived early to go through wrangler camp, gun safety, just to start getting used to the locations we were using.  

Potsy and I had very clear ideas of what the visual language and approach was going to be and as more department heads signed on and joined us it become about us all really working together towards that vision and adapting when we needed to.  Not being afraid of new ideas that serviced the story and those things just continued to elevate this idea of the movie that is “OLD HENRY”.

PH: You used the Arri Alexa Mini—why was that your go-to? What did it allow you to achieve visually? 

John Matyśiak: Our initial conversations were about how we really wanted to shoot the film on 35mm.  We discussed shooting 3 perf, 2 perf, etc.   While these conversations were going on, I was in post on some commercials where we had explored printing back to film after shooting digitally, there is a lab in Massachusetts, ColorLab, hey do an amazing job and are one of the only labs I’m aware of to offer this service, at least at the time. This was something we explored for OLD HENRY as well, but after shooting our camera tests and seeing how our combination of lenses, filtration were handing and registering the texture of the environment we felt really good about how the image was taking shape in front of the lens.  In the DI we stayed pretty true to our camera original.  Derek Hansen, was our Colorist, and Scotty Wright was our DIT.  Both of them worked tirelessly to ensure and maintain the texture of the image from production through post.  

We also tested a ton of vintage anamorphic lenses, but ended up deciding that Master Anamorphics seemed to give us everything we needed.

One of the other tools we used that was invaluable was a Movi pro, my camera operator Samuel Willey is one of the best gymbal operators I have ever worked with.  His ability to react within a take and maintain the frame we wanted under the harshest conditions I still don’t know how he did it. It was an invaluable tool that allowed us to shoot the entire film in 21 days.  

PH: What was it like shooting on location in Nashville? How were you able to utilize the landscapes and nature? 

John Matyśiak: We shot about an hour outside of Nashville, in Watertown, TN.  It was great. We had an entire 3,000 acre property to utilize.  In prep we spent days just riding around on 4x4s trying to figure out the geography of where things were going to happen.  I remember the first time we showed Tim Blake Nelson around the property, were standing up on a hill looking down at a valley and we were describing to him these large expansive vistas we were going to use to connect people and places together.  I believe he turned and said something along the lines of “we’re really going to give this movie some scope aren’t we”

It was a very challenging locations, there was one gravel road about a mile from base camp, one morning we arrived to set and part of it had been washed out, so was really a brutal location for the crew.  We had days that were 80 and sunny and days that were below freezing and raining, as well as snow that we had to deal with toward the end of the shoot.  I tend to think those conditions added to the overall grit of the film.  I was prob the only person onset that enjoyed when it was raining as that just kept adding to the texture of the environment and ultimately the film. 

PH: Did you have a favorite (or a few) sequences in the film? What were they? 

John Matyśiak: One of the sequences that was such a discovery based on the location was a shoot out that happens early on in the film, where someone even ends up crawling up the house and shooting up through the floors boards, then Henry (Tim Blake Nelson’s Character) has to go outside and try to get him out from under the house by blasting his shot gun almost blindly under the house.  This sequence Potsy came up with during our shot listing and scouting time together.  We would keep acting it out to each other and we just kept loving it more and more.  Every time a new department head would should I swear Potsy and I would go out of our way to physically act it out for them it was so much fun.  And when it came to time to shoot it, it did not disappoint. The lensing we decided to do and the shot design required just a massive amount of lighting for a shot that started on the back porch and went around to the front of the house, almost 270 degrees, which included lighting up a hill and the woods behind it prob a quarter to a half mile in the background.

Also just anything we shot in Henry’s room, became a favorite.  Our production designer and art director just gave us such an amazing palate to work with every time we put the camera up, it felt like we were capturing a painting.  We even moved a few key scenes into that room even though it was small just because we loved the texture and where the placement of the window was for lighting was just perfection.

PH: What challenges did you encounter? Were there some shots you had to reimagine? 

John Matyśiak: I feel like on a western, everyday is a challenge.  On almost every call sheet there were countless riders about gun safety, sfx safety, horse safety, covid safety the list would go on and one.  Every scene seemed to contain all of these things, even when we were shooting interior we would have horses placed outside, pigs, chickens, etc.  

One of the scenes that we had to reimagine was the final final ending shoot out between Tim Blake and Stephen Dorff.  Originally the script had them ending up in a creek in more of physical fight, we found out several days before the scene when we tested the water again and it came back that we couldn’t put actors in the water with all the rain and cows near by one can imagine.  Potsy, to his credit, spent so many hours trying to reimagine that best ending, we also were shooting this on our last day, so the entire film was building to this moment, and we felt like we had a movie here, he just wanted it to be the right ending, an ending that we earned.  I love what came out having to reimagine the ending, one of our favorite modern westerns we watched together was Open Range and deciding to just have our two larger than life characters in the woods, dodging each others bullets behind trees, reloading, counting bullets, it just felt right.  Maybe the ending found us instead of the other way around. To this day shooting that sequence under the time constraints that we had, because I think by the time that scene came up we only had about 3 hours left of light.  We shot it all in editor order so as to not get lost in the action as well for all of the practical sfx as well as the make-up sfx, it just had to be shot in order.  We were also using a single camera the entire time so it meant that we always were focused on one frame at a time.  Could not be more pleased with the results.  It was pure flawless execution on part of the entire crew to pull it off given the small window of time when the light was perfect.  We walked away leaving nothing on the table. 

PH: What’s next on the horizon for you? 

John Matyśiak: I’ve got two films coming out that I did immediately following OLD HENRY.  ACIDMAN and MEET CUTE both directed by Alex Lehman and am just beginning prep on a pretty mbitious biopic of George Foreman the Olympic Gold Medalist and two time Heavy Weight Boing Champion of the world, which is set up over at SONY to be released 2023.

PH: As a production professional, how do you consistently evolve and challenge yourself to enhance your craft? 

John Matyśiak: A commercial director I work with a lot has a great perspective on this, we are always talking about enhancing the process, work on the process, the work will follow, but really focus on making your process on each job more and more streamlined more and more efficient so the process doesn’t get in the way of what you are trying to say as as artist.  Some jobs don’t always have the luxury of prep but then that means those director scouts and those tech scouts become even more important to be efficient at.


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