Paper Moon

Watching the 1973 movie Paper Moon is like seeing Walker Evans photographs come to life. Set in Kansas in 1935, it’s a road movie that follows its two characters across a series of marvellous landscapes and towns. It was shot by Laszlo Kovacs, a cinematographer celebrated for his location work (Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show) which always conjures up memories of how particular places feel. You suspect that Kovacs, director Peter Bogdanovich, and production designer Polly Platt, were looking at Farm Security photographs, work by Evans, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange and others. The compositions in the movie look like still photographs.


There is a particular period look to the movie, a combination of carefully chosen locations in Kansas and Missouri, wide angle lenses, deep focus and filters. “Orson Welles and Peter were very close friends” Kovacs said, “and I got to meet my ‘god’ while we were preparing our film. I’d been testing black & white film with various filters but still hadn’t found the right look. Orson said, ‘Use red filters, my boy.’ And I did, because although the filters reduced the film speed and meant I had to use big arc-lights to achieve the deep-focus look Peter wanted, the red filters created incredibly beautiful, dramatic skies and gave us exactly the expressionistic look we were after.”



Kovacs and Bogdanovich wanted to evoke the look of a certain American cinema of around 1940, films like Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. “We wanted to evoke the classic black & white Hollywood tradition pioneered by cinematographers like Arthur Miller, John Alton and Gregg Toland. ‘Citizen Kane’ was our biggest influence.”

Production still from Citizen Kane, 1941

Bogdanovich wanted deep focus throughout the film to give it a greater sense of reality. This decision, combined with Kovacs’ use of red filters, meant that each scene needed vast amounts of light. Deep focus requires the smallest aperture to achieve maximum depth of field in the scene. But a red filter could cut down three stops of light meaning an effective ISO of 30 with the Kodak Double X film that they used. Huge arc lights were needed to replace the light lost through the filters and to provide enough exposure for the small apertures. The co-star Ryan O’Neal complained to Kovacs about the heat they generated.

Deep focus was used as a narrative tool in these two reverse-angle shots. The stillness and isolation of the main character, the nine year old girl played by Tatum O’Neal, is contrasted with two happily playing girls seen through the back window in the second shot.


The elegance of the filmmaking can be seen in the café confrontation scene, between Addie and Moses (Tatum and Ryan O’Neal). Three master shots progress from …

an exterior view through the window of the café, showing the two characters at a table. (Note the reflections of the street and a cinema opposite – showing a John Ford film!) …


…to an interior reverse angle of the two, tracking in…



…to a further reverse angle, a viewpoint into the café interior. The point of view, between the window and the table, is impossible but it doesn’t seem to matter.


Paper Moon is an example of a film that has has been heavily influenced in its visual style, by the history of (still) photography, in this case Walker Evans and the FSA photographers of the 1930s. A further example of a photography-influenced film is Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas which looks like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore photographs come to life. This idea is worth further research.





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