Under the Influence: Hank Bedford on Dixieland and William Eggleston

Under the Influence charts the often-mysterious ways that art begets art, calling upon moviemakers to write about one creative work that informed and inspired their own.

In this edition, writer-director Hank Bedford expresses his admiration for pioneering 20th-century color photographer William Eggleston. Bedford recreated Eggleston’s distinctive images of the American South in his feature Dixieland, a romantic crime thriller set in Mississippi and starring Chris Zylka and Riley Keough.


 

The first time that I imagined making Dixieland, I pictured the cinematography looking like a William Eggleston photograph.

William Eggleston is from Memphis. Most of his color photographs are shot in Tennessee and Mississippi. Originally I wanted to shoot Dixieland in Nashville, but when there was no tax incentive available for us there, we were drawn deeper into the South.

As soon as I saw Jackson, Mississippi I knew that it was a blessing that filming in Nashville did not work out. The local people we met were filled with so much life and joy and pain. The locations we discovered were incredibly vibrant with color and charm. Everywhere we went reminded me of Eggleston’s work: colorful Southerners and mundane moments.

Left: Untitled (1970-1973), by William Eggleston. Right: Riley Keough and Chris Zylka in Dixieland

Left: Untitled (1970-1973) by William Eggleston. Right: Riley Keough and Chris Zylka in Dixieland

On the page and in my mind, Dixieland was always sweaty, gritty and colorful—but I knew it had to be even more than that. It was important to me for it to have the dye-transfer print look of Eggleston’s work from the 1970s. The dye-transfer process is expensive but is unmatched in richness and depth. When this process is combined with thoughtful production design and bold colors, the results are astonishing. We tried to match the unique look that Eggleston made famous.

Very early on, my DP, Tobias Datum, and I had conversations about the Eggleston aesthetic. We tried to achieve this look by shooting on an ARRI Alexa with Panavision Super Speed lenses from the 1970s. This combination allowed us to shoot using mostly low, natural light. Dixieland’s look would have been impossible to achieve without a brilliant cinematographer. Tobi Datum brought a wealth of knowledge to Dixieland. He was willing to take risks and push the boundaries of traditional cinematography. I’m extremely proud of his work on the film.

Additionally, my sister Khaki Bedford was our still photographer. She studied at SCAD where I think she gained an appreciation for the unique beauty of the South. We used Khaki’s photos as references throughout the process. Her work is stunning.

Stills by Khaki Bedford, featuring Riley Keough

Stills by Khaki Bedford, featuring Riley Keough

Next, we made sure to use a bold color palette for production design, costumes and makeup. The pinks, blues, orange, and reds really pop on screen. When we color corrected the film, we pushed the saturation a little further so that we could get close to the look and feel of an Eggleston.

An Eggleston photograph feels very authentic and vérité. Nothing about his style seems manufactured. The people in his pictures seem like real people, wearing real clothes. The things that he photographs feel like real things.

Photograph by William Eggleston

Photograph by William Eggleston

This is difficult to achieve when you’re making a movie because you are working with actors and costumes and props. One thing we did was to interview real people from Jackson and Pearl, Mississippi, where we filmed. This really helped the actors become the characters they were playing, and I ended up loving the interviews so much that we included them in the film. We bought all of our costumes from local second-hand shops to keep the look and feel as genuine as possible. We decided to shoot the movie handheld to compliment the gritty atmosphere. Every single shot is handheld except for the last one of Rachel (Riley Keough) in her car.

One thing that has always impressed me about Eggleston is that he became an artist in an era where art galleries almost exclusively celebrated black-and-white photography. Eggleston popularized color photography and was rewarded with what is generally regarded as a watershed moment in the history of photography: when his color photographs were exhibited at MoMA in 1976.

Left: CITGO by William Eggleston; Right: a still from Dixieland

Left: CITGO by William Eggleston; Right: a still from Dixieland

The incredible thing about my whole Eggleston-inspired approach is that it allowed us to shoot Dixieland incredibly fast. I was able to get the look that I needed, and because we used very few lights and shot handheld, we were able to complete the principal photography of the film in just 18 days. MM

Dixieland opens in theaters December 11, 2015, courtesy of IFC Films. All William Eggleston photographs © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York. Top image of Faith Hill in Dixieland by Khaki Bedford.

Check out previous installments of Under the Influence here.

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