Photographer Dan Winters talks about being on the set of the Disney movie The Alamo.
texasmonthly.com: The cover photo of Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid is a pretty powerful image. You do a lot of celebrity portraits. How was it different to photograph these people in character?
Dan Winters: This was unique because usually in a portrait situation, if it’s referencing a particular project that someone had worked on, it’s always well after they’ve already done the project. I find that actors in general don’t want to be distracted from what they’re doing during the production of something, so usually any kind of press stuff is done long afterward. In this case, we’d asked specifically to go onto the set and photograph all of the actors in costume, so getting them into character was not a problem at all. Texas Monthly art director Scott Dadich and I had talked about that, and the idea of juxtaposing these really heroic, legendary Texas characters with the idea of this facade of film production was kind of the intention all along. For the cover image, I think the biggest problem initially was that the publicity department at Disney was really reticent to allow us much access, thinking that it would be a distraction to the actors, which, oftentimes it is. Half the time it’s like pulling teeth to get the actors to do the movie-poster shoot when people are working, and I completely understand that. We had made it clear that we wanted to photograph everyone during production, in costume, as their characters. Billy Bob came in for the shoot and got into costume. Dennis was working that day, and Billy Bob had wrapped the day before.
texasmonthly.com: The portrait of Billy Bob by himself as Davy Crockett in the Paramount Theatre is really compelling. He’s not looking directly at the camera and he has this real aura of sadness about him. Is that something that was part of his character, or did you catch him at an off moment?
DW: I know that portrait of Davy Crockett that hangs in the Capitol and so did Billy Bob, and we had talked about a pose that was indicative of that. Also, I liked the idea that the poses felt very stoic and very much a part of that period because I was trying to capture the guys in character. We shot at the Paramount almost by default. I wanted to shoot at the Alamo set, but the problem was that they had completely wrapped everyone from the set, and the location that we were offered was either the Driskill Hotel or the Paramount. At the last minute, they said the Paramount was going to work the best, so rather than photograph him solely against the background that we took, we decided to pull back a little bit and show some of the theater, which they were actually using as part of the location. I think it brought a lot to it. In terms of his expression and his pose, he worked through a range and he was able to really nail it on the head. He required little direction with regards to how he wanted to present himself. We tried several things, but that one definitely stood out for me.
texasmonthly.com: You are a huge history buff, and I want to know what you thought about the re-creation of the Alamo in terms of the painstaking process of rebuilding it, with the costumes and the weapons. How accurate do you think they were?
DW: I thought they did an amazing job. The Alamo is shown oftentimes in historical depictions in its form of completion, with the roof and the facade completely finished, which wasn’t the case in 1836, when the battle took place. I love the fact that they were really thorough in terms of recreating the Alamo as it stood at the time and also the entire mission complex. I think a lot of people believe the Alamo is some structure that stands by itself, and the truth was that it was one of the buildings that happened to be the cathedral, or the chapel for that complex, and the complex had myriad buildings. They recreated that entire thing, and then also all the breastworks and reinforcements that the Texians constructed in order to defend it. It was beautiful.
It was really sad the last time I went back there to photograph John Lee Hancock, on the last day of production. The set was still standing, but it was such a vastly different experience compared with the first time when it was fully dressed, when all the cannons were in place. The last time we went, the paint was peeling off the walls, all of the props had been pulled, and there was a real disregard for the grounds in general.
texasmonthly.com: There are a couple of images in particular that are sure to catch the attention of the readers of the magazine: the photo of the dead Mexicans lined up and the man who looks like he has been executed. Were you given free reign to wander around and photograph what you wanted? Did you stumble upon those two images?
DW: Total free reign. When we got to the Alamo set the second time, they had photographed a bunch of battle sequences and the dead soldiers that you’re talking about were actually life-size latex dummies that were painstakingly detailed with human hair. There were several dummies still in place—some were outside and that one was actually laying inside the room where Jason Patric, who plays Bowie, is killed. The soldiers on the rack were being moved by the property department. They were all being pulled off and were going to be taken out to Bastrop for the Battle of San Jacinto.
texasmonthly.com: Was it exciting for you to be the only photographer allowed on the set?
DW: The set is about ten miles from my studio, so it was easy to go over there for a couple of hours. There were several occasions when I would be working on something else and the publicity director, who was instrumental in allowing us to get this whole thing done, would call and say, “Hey, I can have Jason Patric at three o’clock. Does that work for you today or tomorrow?” I could literally say, “Yeah, okay, at three. I’ll be there at one and I’ll set up.” I could run over there and shoot and come right back to what I was doing.
It was serendipitous the way the whole thing came together. The initial response to the magazine was, “Absolutely not. Disney will not allow photographers on the set; it’s not an option.” But I had worked with Billy Bob and I had worked with Dennis and I had known Jason for years, and it seemed like there was going to be a way to make it work. We put a call in to John Lee Hancock, and he got excited about it. I think it trickled from him downward. I think it’s a unique piece for photography.