'Killers of the Flower Moon' SFX Coordinator Breaks Down the Epic's Biggest Effects
Killers of the Flower Moon special effects coordinator Brandon K. McLaughlin sits down to chat with No Film School
Killers of the Flower Moon is traditional big-budget filmmaking at its finest. It is the type of film that feels almost rare these day, and when you catch a moment that sparks your interest (both as an audience member and as a filmmaker), you want to know more.
Killers was a film that took Martin Scorsese and his team half a decade to make, filming on location in Osage Nation in Oklahoma, working against the changing climates, burn seasons, and limited resources. Yet, none of this is present in the film largely thanks to special effects coordinator, Brandon K. McLaughlin.
McLaughlin is a filmmaker whose lengthy career has been marked by big-budget action films from Twister, The Hunger Games series, and the Yellowstone spinoff series 1889. He is a master at his job, and has wisdom that any aspiring or currently working special effects filmmaker should listen to.
In this interview, special effects coordinator Brandon K. McLaughlin discusses his work on the film Killers of the Flower Moon, collaborating with Martin Scorsese to pull of the film's best shots, and the logistically challenges of working in remote locations.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NFS: How did you join this project and what made you excited to be on such a big Western epic like Killers?
Brandon K. McLaughlin: It's the type of film that I like to be involved in. That's the type of film that I feel my talent and my department can amplify and add to the storyline. It's also the type that you get to be creative, doing something that... yeah, we're going to do oil. I've done four different oil derricks, but this one, we're not going to do it exactly like we did the last one. We want it to be a little bit different. It's just the challenge that was going to come with it.
That's the kind of thing that excites me, that drives me to work on films like that, where it's not just you're handed a script and you don't talk to anybody and just expect to flip a car or blow a house up or so on and so forth. Marty's very particular, and he knows exactly what he wants. If you can't pull through and give him what he wants, he'll let you know.
I'm not interested in the big blow-'em-up films. I'm more interested in telling stories. I'm more interested in telling a story that's closer to an art form than a movie, and it makes you sit there and think about what we just presented you and not the type of film where you go to just get away from average everyday life for two and a half hours. So that's my biggest drive. That's what drives me to those types of films.
NFS: What's beautiful, too, is that your work is really showcased on the screen. It's not just happening. It's a moment that matters in the story.
McLaughlin: And they're big moments. They're big moments. And if there weren't the... gags is what we call them, that we did, it wouldn't be the same story point.
NFS: Can you walk me through a little bit of your process of what the beginning of creating a gag. How does it go from the script to something that's actually tangible?
McLaughlin: In my department, in special effects, physical effects, there is pretty much a general way to do every gag. There's a general way to flip a car, but because you flipped a car and made it rotate once on one show, this show, they want you to make it flip twice. So it's just a matter of tweaking the pressure and making it a little bit different.
That being said, when you're handed a script and you're asked to break it down. You're never going to shoot the script in continuity, which means how you read the script isn't how you're going to shoot it. You never do it that way. You never go into production and physically shoot a movie that way. Usually, they're broken up to locations. You go to different locations.
Anyway, you read the script and you have an idea of what you're going to do to showcase what your effect is going to be for the specific scene in the movie. You jot that down. Once you have a good idea, you've read through the script, you have meetings with the producers and the UPM and the director, and you discuss it further. So, "This is what I was thinking," or you show a video, "Am I close? Is this what we're talking about?"
"Yeah, but you want to tweak it this way and you want to kind of do it this way." "No, I want to have it go this way." So that's how you would do it. That's how every effects guy would do it. Then, you tailor it to fit with what is being required by the director, how the director wants to tell the story. "I don't want white sparks, I want green sparks." They're still sparks, you still ignite them the same way, but we change them from white to green.
It's a lot of talk. It's a lot of meetings, a lot of talking just to make sure that you're on the right page. And with Marty, he knows exactly what he wants, which is great because you work with a lot of directors where they're like, "Well, I don't know. Show me a couple tests." Then, you end up spending a month testing the same gag. Right? Sometimes you kind of have to step in and put your foot in and go, "Hey, this is the way we should shoot this, and this is X, Y and Z, Y."
Martin Scorsese on the set of 'Killers of the Flower Moon
NFS: I love directors who know exactly what they see in their head and can translate it to the rest of the crew.
McLaughlin: It makes it so much easier. It makes it so much easier and much more pleasurable to work with because you're not guessing. I'm not guessing all the time, "Well, I hope he likes this." You're not walking into meetings going, "I don't know which one he's going to pick. I have no idea." Because usually you can feel it. Usually, you can read a script and you kind of have an idea of what to present to the director. There's lines in the script, there's dialogue before what happens, and there's dialogue after what happens, which gives you good detail of how it's supposed to play.
It's not just an explosion. It's an explosion, but we want two-by-fours to fly over here, and, "Oh my gosh, I went to the car and there was this in the car." If you read the script, it'll give you pretty much all the information that you need to start and throw some tests down. Once you throw tests down, you give them to the director or show them to the director, and you talk through them and go, "No, I can change that," or, "I can make that a little bit smaller," and then do another test and that usually nails it. Then, you start filming, and the test is what you do on the day.
NFS: Was there any moment in Killers of the Flower Moon, in the script, where you looked at it and you the creative freedom to create the gag that you wanted to see on screen?
McLaughlin: Believe it or not, I was excited about the rain at Hale's house. We do exterior rain on the windows when they're sitting down around the table. That was actually something that was decided the day before because the weather was going to be bad. I told [Martin], I said, "Let's just put rain on the windows. You'll never know that it's not raining outside, but it's dark and cloudy, and if it does rain, we can just continue shooting." You don't want to start shooting a scene and halfway through the day, all of a sudden it starts raining outside, then you have to re-shoot the scene.
Then the vault explosion. The vault explosion, I was excited about because it's not just your atypical explosion. I mean, it specifically says in the script that Ace Kirby does not know what he's doing. Then, he has no idea what he's doing pyro-wise.
That was fun because it was like, "OK, so how are we going to make this look from somebody who does know how to do pyrotechnics to somebody who doesn't know how to do pyrotechnics?" That was kind of fun. That was a fun little battle right there with myself because it was, "I don't know, geez, how would I do this?" So that was fun. That was fun. Then, working with Marty, being able to collaborate with somebody who has a great track record. He's got great films under his belt.
Being in the business, you have to love what you do. I love being a filmmaker. I just happen to love being a filmmaker from my end of the job, not a director, an actor, or anything else.
NFS: I could never know how to flip a car, so your insight is-
McLaughlin: It's actually pretty simple. Almost all the stuff we do is pretty simple. Once you see it, you're like, "Oh, okay, I get it. Well, yeah, why didn't I think of that?" But it's years and years and years of doing stuff. When I got in, we weren't flipping cars the way we do now. 28 years ago, we weren't flipping cars the same way. Technology's advanced, computers advance, and always there's new ways to do things.
'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Credit: Apple TV+/Paramount Pictures
NFS: Are there any moment on Killers that you use a new tech or anything to create a gag?
McLaughlin: No. There was a challenge that I was thrown that I had to design a fire suppression system because they were concerned about Molly's house, which was a set that we built. I had to do a 200-foot area around it so that fire wouldn't get to it because in Oklahoma, in June when we started shooting, they burn all the grass. It's everywhere. Everybody's ranch is burning grass and the producers and UPM and everybody was really concerned about losing the set that they had just spent a lot of money building. So they had asked me, "Can you put together a suppression system?" That was fun. That was challenging. It was something that I hadn't done before.
But you've done things that are kind of like it, so you have a starting point to go from, and then you just redesign it to fit within that ask or that need. That was interesting to do, but that was it. Everything else is atypical.
There's several ways to do effects, and it just depends on what fits the script the best and how they're going to film it. That's also a big key, too, because we play tricks on camera. If camera's looking at something specifically one way, then you can rig it a certain way. If the camera's going to look at somebody, if it's a profile shot, you can do a bullet hit a specific way. If it's a head-on shot, you have to do the bullet hit a different way, but it's the same bullet hit. It's still going to give you the same product. You just have to rig it differently.
NFS: Being with special effects, I assume that you have to work a bit with the VFX companies as well. What is that relationship like for you?
Brandon K. McLaughlin: Most of the time, it's pretty decent. Most of the time, the visual effects department is asking us to do as much as we can practically in front of camera because it looks better. And they'll tell you that, too. But a lot of the time, it comes down to time. It takes time for us to do things. I mean, there's no way to do a bullet hit faster. There's the way we do it. It takes about five minutes to do two takes. In visual effects, you've got all in post, you're done filming, so it doesn't matter. That's usually what is decided upon is that visual effects will do all of the bullet hits, but they have to remove wires from us sometimes. It's a hand in hand.
It's usually a trade-off, "Hey, what can you do? What's the cost of you doing it to the cost of me doing it? Do you have the time to do it?" "No." "OK, I'll do that." So it's kind of a give and take sometimes. Some visual effects guys like smoke. If they're going to add something to a scene, they don't care if they're smoke in there. Some visual effects guys can't stand it. It makes it difficult. So every time, if you haven't worked with somebody, there's questions that I hit them with right off the bat. If I know that there's going to be smoke in a set and I know that they're going to have to do a visual effect, well, that's one of the questions. "How do you feel about smoke? Do you want me to put it in for the scene? Do you not want me to put it in for the scene?" So we're hand in hand. We know each other quite well.
NFS: Then I'm curious, is the smoke for the train station, is that all practical as well?
McLaughlin: Every single bit of it.
NFS: It looks really great.
McLaughlin: Yeah, we had a boiler. Some of those scenes that you see, the train wasn't there. We had already lost the train and there were some pickup shots, so I just added steam in there so that we kind of blocked it. We blocked where the train was, and they just put a train behind the steam so that it wasn't a real train, in other words, to get away with it. So yeah, there's little tricks that the average moviegoer doesn't know. There's a lot. We do a lot. We do a lot. Not just blow stuff up. Everybody says that, too. "Oh my God, I'd love to be an effects guy. I want to blow everything up." I'm like, "That's not even a 1/16 of my job."
NFS: What would you say is 80% of your job? Would it be just controlling the sets?
McLaughlin: No, I'd say 80% of my job is logistics, making sure that we're going to go shoot the train, making sure the boiler's there, making sure we have water for the boiler, making sure we have propane for the boiler, making sure I've got the allocated guys to be on set. Being a coordinator that is coordinating the show, that's the biggest part of my job. The biggest part of effects itself is lending its hand to amplify the story. And if the story includes some pyrotechnics, then we do the pyrotechnics. But most of the time, we're not doing pyrotechnics.
'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Credit: Apple TV+/Paramount Pictures
NFS: For Killers, what do you believe the most challenging part of this entire production was for you?
McLaughlin: The oil for the opening sequence. All it said in the script was the oil was bubbling up from the ground and the Indians were dancing around it, and it was raining on top of them. OK, so what we've done in the past is there's a product that we use. I ordered the product. I did a bunch of tests. I put it through rain towers, and we shot it up with a fire hose, and we had people dancing around it. Marty was very specific on the droplet size on what was hitting, which you get into fluid dynamics and how are you going to push it through the rain bar? Are you going to use a different rain head? Are you going to push air through the hose to come out a specific way? I mean, he just opened a can of worms when he's like, "Well, I want the drips to look like a jelly bean."
And the color. The color was a big issue. When we went to go shoot it, it was back lit heavily by the sun. When you backlight that product, it looks more like Coca-Cola than it looks like oil. But oil's brown. And he wanted black. And nobody had said anything to me about that until we got to the day, and it was highly backlit. So I ended up having to keep a little bit of equipment behind because we were... the day we shot that was the last week of filming, and I had to hold back some equipment and order new product, black product. And we shot that a week after, a week into my wrap, cleaning up all my tools and sending them away. Then we went out there for one day and we re-shot that. Marty was in New York, and we were Zooming with him on our computer, showing him the takes. "Is this what you want? Does this look good?" So that was the most challenging part of that movie. Everything else was not a big deal compared to that.
NFS: It looks stunning, and it's one of the best shots in the film.McLaughlin: Thank you. That's exactly what Marty said when we got it. He said, "That's it. That's it. Oh, it's beautiful. Love it."
NFS: The highest praise you can get.
Brandon K. McLaughlin: It was that and it was the fire. When we did the fire at Hale's, he gave me a big handshake and he looked at me and he said, "I've never seen that in all my movie making. I've never seen what we just did." And you should have heard him in the tent. [Marty said,] "Oh my God. BK, that's amazing. That's great. Oh, keep rolling, keep rolling, keep rolling." He was jumping up and down. He was like, "Oh my God." It was fun. It's fun when somebody of his stature and you're standing next to him and he's just going nuts. He's just going nuts. He loves it. He loves it.
That made me feel pretty good. That was fun. And it wasn't planned. It was just one of those things where the smoke, the fire, the positioning of the background artists and the camera lens that they were using and the distance that they were using the camera from, it just made this weird, dreamy kind of a feel that we weren't going for that was not planned. We never talked about anything like that. It just so happened that's what happened with it. And it was awesome. I was looking at it going, "I've never seen that before." The camera guy was looking at me going... it was amazing. That was amazing. I've never seen that before. So that was fun. That was a fun day. Even though we had some equipment break on us that day too, and we made the company wait for about half an hour. It felt like crap, but whatever.
'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Credit: Apple TV+/Paramount Pictures
NFS: How do you control fires that are burning like that in such a large space like at Hale's house?
McLaughlin: Well, part of it's where we did it. We were in Oklahoma, high humidity, high water content in the ground, so you don't have too much of a concern of a flash fire or a brush fire, setting a brush fire. What we did was where we placed all of our fire bars to do that is we pre-burned everything. Because it was at night, you would never have seen, it was far away. You'd never get a feel for it. Then every single fire source has a valve to turn it on and off, and a guy. So there's somebody watching specifically that fire. So if a actor or background artist or an animal gets close to it, he can immediately shut it off and not injure anybody. Then, in and around that area, of course, you don't see it, but there are two water trucks with fire hoses on them just in case we had an issue, and then fire extinguishers placed throughout.
If you think about the scene in your mind, the backside of Hale's house, if you had seen the backside of Hale's house, it was three propane manifolds, six guys, tons of hoses running out. I mean, you would've looked at it and went, "Oh my God." That's what I mean by playing a trick on camera. Once I knew how [Marty] was going to shoot it, I knew where I could place all my propane regulators and the valves and manifolds and how we could plumb everything. But you can show up there and go, "OK, I don't know how he's going to shoot this, and I know what the scene reads, but place this, this, and this and this." That stuff doesn't move overnight. That's a week to move everything. It was big piece. We had a thousand gallons of propane out there. With my vaporizers, we had 600 feet of two-inch iron pipe ran. It was well over a thousand feet of hose. I mean, manifolds. So it's all a collaboration. Everything, from the top down.
NFS: Do you have any advice to anybody who would like to work with the special effects coordinator or be one in the future?
McLaughlin: I know a lot of people don't like doing this nowadays, it's like we're in the world of instant gratification. But I would do it the way I did it. If that's truly what you want to do and that's in your heart and you cannot do anything else, then become a PA. Start working with an effects department and wait for your opportunity to join the union. Once you join the union, you work on films and you keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and your ears open, and you learn and you learn, and you'll get to a point eventually, "Hey, why don't we do it this way?" Or so on and so forth. But that's how I came up. That's how I started. That's how I've got into this business. I would say to do it that way. I work with a lot of guys that are younger than me in their twenties. They just got in, and you'll talk to them before you hire them and go, "OK, so what are your qualifications? What can you do?" Being an effects guy, I have to know hydraulics. I have to know physics. I have to know fluid dynamics. I have to know wind. I have to know atmospheric weather patterns. I have to know fabrication. I have to know how to read a blueprint. I mean, the list goes on and on and on and on. Pyrotechnics. I have to be a machinist. So there's a lot that goes into it. You hire these guys nowadays, and they just say, "Well, I just want to be a welder, but I'm an effects guy." "Well, no, you're not an effects guy. Sorry. Because you don't know, I don't know, 90% of the things you're supposed to know. You just want to weld. You're just a fabricator."
That's what I would say is start from the bottom, sweeping the floors in the shop and learning with your eyes and your ears. I retain it better that way. There's no school you can go to. I've tried. There's little things here and there that you can get kind of a real basic course into it. Yeah, this is how we do this. But I would learn from the ground up.
NFS: What was your first project that you worked on that got you into the industry?
NFS: That was your first job? What was that experience like for you?
McLaughlin: I was 18 years old. It was a great experience. It was my first time ever leaving California. It was all shot in Oklahoma, was working with a bunch of great guys. We were doing a bunch of cool gags. I wasn't making any money, but I wasn't there to make money. I was there to learn. So I got bit by the bug. I got bit by the bug and I wanted more. I said I'd never go back. I'm saying it again, too.
NFS: Why is that?McLaughlin: It comes down to the logistics of trying to do a movie where there's no support, rigging all that fire and doing that fire when it's still a hundred degrees outside and 98% humidity gets hard. That's tough on the body to do that kind of stuff. It's really tough on the body. So that movie had to be done where it was done to make it come across the way that it did. And I understood that straight off the bat. Part of my job is to keep all the guys from killing each other because they're exhausted and hot and sweaty and everything else. But that's why I say I don't want to do movies like that anymore, because it's really difficult. It's really difficult.
Steel pipe, when I ordered all the pipe for the fire job, all had to come out of Oklahoma City. Being in Oklahoma City and working in the movie industry, I call them on a Monday expecting it in my hand on Tuesday. And they say, "Well, we'll get to it next week." So what do I do? I can't go to Marty and say, "Hey Marty, we got to push the schedule because I can't get pipe." So you have to factor all that in. So it's a lot of extra work for me, a lot of extra work for me.
NFS: What do you think the solution to something like that would be, if there is one?
McLaughlin: I don't think there's necessarily a solution. I think, which I do, when movies call you up and they say, "Hey, we want you to work and we're going to shoot here..." In fact, I do that. 1823, the TV show, they called me for that. One of the first things I said to them was, "Well, let's talk about logistics. Where can I have a shop? Because you're doing it in a town of 5,000 people, there's no shop. The closest Home Depot is two hours away. That's four hours. That means one trip to Home Depot a day. So we need to factor in the time. We need to factor in... I can't prep this film in one month, but I can do it in two months."
So you can kind of nip it off at the bud before you even get started. I started on a show this week actually, and it's all just research and development and getting budgets together and going through it and finding out what my resources are and everything else. Now is the time that I have discussions with them about it. The people I'm working for now I've worked with before, and they totally get it. I mean, they understand it, but sometimes you get on these shows where it's like, "Well, we have X and we need to do X," and they don't want to budge.
Look, there's a way to make a film on a dollar, but you have to do it this way and this way and this way. You can't have everything that you want for a dollar. Things cost money, so give and take. You got to figure it out. So as long as you're upfront with it, I think that's the only solution.
Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in theaters.