I first saw Lawless in Cannes earlier this year and was greatly impressed by the film, in particular how technically solid it was (you can read my full review here). So, when I was given the opportunity to speak to its director, John Hillcoat, I took the chance to get into some of the specifics of how he made the film.

Read on for details on how Lawless was made and for John Hillcoat’s thoughts on digital filmmaking.

John Hillcoat and Tom Hardy in Lawless


It’s certainly storyboarding as opposed to pre-visualisation, although storyboards are a form of pre-visualisation. What I do is work with the DP in rehearsal. When I rehearse with the actors. I love rehearsing, it’s weirdly the greatest weakness of the entire American film industry because they don’t have enough prep, they just throw money at problems. It’s kind of like holding back, holding back and then the gates swing open. And then it’s a rush.

The more time with your actors the more you get to know and the more time you get to discuss what you don’t have time for on set, so you can try and answer as many things as possible. And also with storyboards you get to pre-visualise the whole film. I do that with the DP and the storyboard artist, who is like a stenographer who is just drawing as we talk it out. It’s a great tool for other departments, especially for action scenes where people need to see connections and where the coverage is.

I like to storyboard everything but as a kind of preparation tool, but then throw it away on the shoot. I probably keep about twenty or thirty percent because having pre-designed it, certain things tend to stick but then I don’t want to be stuck with it because locations and the actors will throw up things and you want that. You don’t want to close that door.

Speaking to DPs prior to shooting on digital.

I spoke to a lot of DPs. Roger Deakins had just moved into being converted by digital. Harris Savides is one of the greatest ever DPs, especially working with minimal light and Benoit Delhomme who did The Proposition with me, is wonderful. My DP with me for a long time, he did some digital work that he showed me. It was really the low light stuff that tipped me into using it.

Shooting Lawless digitally.

We were one of four films in the world to use the Alexa ArriRaw camera. It was new at the time, this was going back a year and a half ago, and what they now know is incredible. I learnt a lot, put it that way. I’ve yet to see this Keanu Reeves Side by Side documentary but my big discovery is that we’ve all jumped the gun, it’s happened too quick. Film is better. It’s got more depth, richness, texture. The problem with digital is that there’s too much information, there’s more there than our eyes actually see, so it gives a flat plasticity to everything whereas film  is richer, organic. It’s almost like the difference between flat beer and a nice glass of rich red wine. Full body.

However, it’s rapidly picking up and Alexa, I think, is much closer to film quality than any of the other digital film cameras. I’ve had this long discussion with Fincher about it, who I think is probably the pioneer of digital cinema. To me Zodiac was the first great cinematic digital film that had the qualities of cinema.

What was the huge advantage [on Lawless] was we were shooting rural countryside at night and there’s very little light. With film you need all these trucks, lights and equipment and it always looks artificial. It’s [digital] beautiful when you capture low light, the highlights and the lowlights are still too far apart and I personally think it needs longer lenses to help diffuse and soften. I added stuff to it and when I went back to the DI to film it’s more effective. I wanted the 35mm print version [for Cannes] and it’s so much better, so much richer.

The effect on set of shooting digitally.

There is a focus and an intensity on set where when it’s film. You don’t know, you can’t see exactly what you’re getting, you have to make a leap of faith. There’s a complacency [with digital], I’m talking subtle, and everyone is looking at monitors and you can just go again and go again and go again. There’s not quite, in a way, the discipline of shooting film. I think that is a real loss. I’m going to try and do what Gus Van Sant has just done, where you throw away the monitors because now everyone’s got a monitor. Actors are looking at monitors, every department is looking at monitors and it’s right in front of you.

There is something to be said for doing a series where the actors will want to just go again and again and actually not have the distraction of having to reload each time. But I think then you weigh up the pros and cons, the advantage of that versus the added focus and sense of jumping off a cliff together that film gives you.

 The post-production, working with the producers on the film and changes in the editing process.

The main thing always seems to be about two things, always. Pace and the ending, it’s always the same. We took an extra year on that ending, on the epilogue. What happens to Tom Hardy’s character, Forrest, is the key and we wanted to preserve it. So we won that in the end.

With ensembles it’s really tricky, we had a three hour film that we had boil down to under two. It’s trying to get the right balance and I deliberately wanted a faster, richer film with more mood changes than my prior work. To find those moments took some work, in terms of the humour and romance versus the bursts of brutality etc.

Lawless is out in UK cinemas now (and our review is here).