With over 100 years of iconography that straddles fact and fiction, the western has a vast visual history to draw from. I approached the visuals by balancing the grand, iconic nature of the western with the brutal realities of the period so that the film fits into both cinematic history and the historical context of the post-Civil War era.
Wardrobe, props and production design were based on history, adding stylistic elements to define the characters and create the mythic narrative of the picture. The iconic cowboy hat didn't really come into style until the emergence of the dime novel a few years after the setting of Dead Man's Burden. What people wore before that - bowler hats, Civil War cavalry hats, or other period appropriate headwear - was used to bring history to the characters of Heck, Joe, Three Penny Hank, and Lane; while Wade, who broke with family tradition and wanted to avoid the past, wears the more famous wide-brimmed cowboy hat so familiar to the cinematic audience.
Similarly, I referenced the visual tropes of classic westerns in order to punctuate the film and create a subtext to the larger narrative. The violent opening scene echoes the final shots of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the deep zooms from Once Upon a Time in the West. When Wade's newly formed bond with his sister begins to rift, she keeps him out of the house, just as John Wayne could not return to his family home in The Searchers. Guns are more than mere tools; they are characters in the story. The Winchester '73 and Colt peacemaker have so cemented themselves on the popular imagination of the western, that people often forget there was actually a wide variety of firearms. The Civil War thrust arms technology into a new era while making these guns available to hundreds of thousands of men. And there was a variety. The type of gun a man carried could be a symbol for great military prowess, a reminder of violent killing, or just a simple sign of allegiance to North or South. Guns became an extension of character. Lastly, I consciously echo the paintings of Fredric Remington, who stylistically chose to emphasize the action of the characters rather than the vastness of the landscape to visually demonstrate that even though this is a family story, there are broader themes at play.
Modern westerns too often want to linger on beautiful vistas or gratuitous gunplay. While violence and the harsh landscape are important features to the genre, it is the action of the characters that has us watching. Dead Man's Burden is a classically cinematic western that transforms the vast expanses into a character in the story while keeping us focused on the action and the drama.