Killers of the Flower Moon, which follows a string of Osage murders in 1920, had budget constraints that improved one crucial scene.
When Martin Scorsese's newest film landed, critics had strong reactions to it. Some called it an "unflinching, honest, sweeping, intelligent, and necessary” film while others noted that it might be one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “most complex” roles yet.
While the film sits at a 93% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not performing too well at the box office. Across three weekends, the movie only grossed $120 million globally against a $200 million budget.
Even with a lackluster performance, there’s plenty to appreciate about what Killers of the Flower Moon accomplished.
How Killers of the Flower Moon's Budget Helped the Film
In an exclusive interview with The Direct’s Russ Milheim, Killers of the Flower Moon SFX supervisor Brandon McLaughlin talked about his work on the movie and how budget constraints improved one key scene.
One of the most bombastic moments in the film is when a house explodes, killing Mollie Burkhart’s sister.
McLaughlin noted how “the original script did state that you do see it [explode],” but due to budget constraints, they decided to have it happen off-screen:
“The original script did state that you do see it. You do see the explosion, and the house explodes. I brought up the money factor. You always have to weigh, are you spending the money that you're going to spend to do that, are you getting the production value out of it? Do you really need to spend that much money for a heartbeat of a second in a film?... Because you're talking $275,000, something like that, to build a house and blow it up.”
While the idea sounded like a good time for the SFX supervisor, they instead chose to “[sell] the explosion… By blowing the windows in Molly and Earnest’s bedroom:”
“I'll be the first one to say, 'Yeah, let's do it.' But being in being in my position, you also have to weigh the cost of everything too... you have to make sure that you spend the money properly. So we came up with the idea of selling the explosion, or the magnitude of the explosion, by blowing the windows in Molly and Earnest's bedroom while they were sleeping, which I thought actually sold pretty well.”
He revealed that for the real-life events, “five gallons of nitroglycerin” went off that “blew windows out like a mile and a half away:”
“It was five gallons of nitroglycerin; that's what he set off in reality on the day. And it blew windows out like a mile and a half away from you from where that house blew up. It was radical. But we did all the fires. We did the smoke and everything when Earnest runs down the street, and he comes up to it and everything else. And I felt that looked great. I thought Jack [Fisk] did a great job dressing the set, and the fires really add to it.... I didn't think that blowing a house up would have made that much more of a difference. Other than yes, of course, it would have been fun.”
For some, Killers of the Flower Moon isn't a movie that requires much SFX work. So what was McLaughlin’s job like?
The SFX artist stated that “it’s a collaboration with a lot of people,” which includes lots of production meetings:
“It's a collaboration with a lot of people. It's sitting down with the director, having conversations about how he wants the script to portray to the audience... It's all in the beginning meetings, that we all sit down in production meetings, just to kind of get an idea of how we want this to flow.”
He shared how one of the things that caused a notable amount of backlash from audiences was “the oil coming out of the ground” in the film’s introduction:
“One of the biggest things that came up that a lot of people got hung up on in the film itself was the opening sequence, the oil coming out of the ground. A lot of people--they jerked, they bumped on it because oil just doesn't come out of the ground. Right?”
In order to make it a reality, McLaughlin consulted with Martin Scorsese often:
“So to bring it to reality, I had to get the question out to [Martin Scorsese] and ask him, 'What do you actually see this as [for] your audience?' Because all the script said was the Indians were dancing around the oil coming out of the ground. Well, oil just doesn't do that in reality."
He explained that it's up to him to find the middle ground between reality and what the director wants audiences to see:
"... So my battle most of the time, and my position is, there's reality on this side. And then there's what the director wants to actually show the audience and use to tell his story. So you have to find that happy medium, sometimes between the two of them. But once we have the conversation, it's pretty easy to come up with what you're trying to show.”
McLaughlin declared that he has “to get down to the nitty-gritty” of each little part of production:
“So that's like one little part. You do that, what I just described, with every aspect of the film. So you make sure that you're on the same page with the director. Even though it says the house is painted pink, he might want it like hot pink, and it's glowing with lights and everything else. You have to get down to the nitty-gritty and the nuts and bolts of how he wants it to be projected on the screen so that the audience can take that ride with him.”
While Killers of the Flower Moon is over three and a half hours long, the movie still ended up trimming footage to get to its final size.
The SFX supervisor revealed that they did actually “shoot the oil up through the dirt:”
“The oil dirt. We actually did shoot the oil up through the dirt. That didn't make it, which was pretty cool. Pretty, pretty awesome to watch… Everything else that we did for the film made it. Which is a rarity because there's a lot of films that I've done where you do these big, massive sequences and cost hundreds of 1000s of dollars to build these sets, or, you know."
McLaughlin recalled his work on another film, News of the World, where he did tons of work on an actual tank—which never made it into the final product:
"I did a tank for 'News of the World,' and not one bit of the tank made it into the movie. And it was like three weeks of shooting and like two months to build it and filter and all that kind of stuff. But in 'Killers,' everything that we did in front of camera made it.”
There was another small moment that didn't make the cut: the brief interaction toward the end of the movie after both Earnest and Hale are arrested. Funnily enough, that same sequence is also one of McLaughlin’s favorite moments on set.
He said how talking with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and physically showing them how to do the action of the scene was “kind of comical:”
“Talking with [them]... The one scene that we were going to do was Hale was going to reach out of his jail cell and grab Earnest and slam his head into the bars of the jail cell. So the conversation between both those actors and myself, and showing them, putting my head into the bars, was kind of comical because you don't see the characters. They're not their characters. They're just real people. You know, they're Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.”
McLaughlin admitted how sometimes the actors you work with are “not people you’d like to sit down and have conversations with,” but that wasn't the case here:
“And they're like, 'Oh, yeah, I mean, I could do that. No problem here.' It's just that it's funny because sometimes you get with actors that are there, they do a phenomenal job as an actor, but there are good people on the other end. Sometimes, you work with actors where you don't really want to talk to them at a bar after a show. They're not people you'd like to sit down and have conversations with.”
Among all the SFX work on the film, how much of it focused on getting the movie’s shooting locations period appropriate? According to McLaughlin, “That all came from [Martin Scorsese]:”
“That all came from [Martin Scorsese]. That was one of his biggest stances on the film. We are doing everything to a tee. We are doing it where this all happened, where this took place. We shot in the towns that had happened in. That's why we did it in Oklahoma. He wanted to do it as real as he could possibly make it. That all came from him. That didn't have anything to do with me. I just had to go to the location and go, 'Okay, how am I doing this?'”
But out of everything on his plate, what would McLaughlin consider to be the most challenging part of the job? “The logistics:”
“That's a tough one. I've been in the business a while. I've come across a lot of stuff. I would have to say... the logistics would have to be the most challenging aspect of this film. You have to take into consideration that a movie being done in Los Angeles or being done in New Mexico or being done in Philadelphia, where there's been several films for multiple years--There's a base, there's rental equipment, there's effects equipment you can rent. There's all kinds of other stuff that are there strictly for the movie industry.”
Elaborating, he explained how isolated the town they shot in was. This led to him having to consistently factor in how long it would take for supplies and equipment to reach them during production:
“We were in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The closest town was Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is 45 minutes away. There's not a lot of films that go through that area. In fact, the entire state of Oklahoma and half of the equipment rental from New Mexico was all on our show at that time... I needed to factor in how long it was gonna take for it to be transported from LA to Oklahoma and have it in time to be able to do testing and show [Martin Scorsese] and make sure everything was okay, and still give myself enough time to make changes... So the logistics of it.”
Before concluding, McLaughlin reiterated that where they were filming, he “[couldn’t] just got down the street and get new oil,” which applied to many other things the production might need:
“It's not like I can just go down the street and get new oil. I would have to make sure I had a week of turnaround to be able to get it, and in movies, that's a lot of time. So, logistically, I would say that was a pain in the butt. And most of the sets were about an hour away from each other. So, trying to balance from set to set to set to set to set. You could only do two in a day. Because you know, you're gonna spend a couple of hours at a set, and then you got an hour drive to the next set. You spend a couple of hours there. And by that time, it's five o'clock at night, and it's time to go home.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in theaters worldwide.