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Director series-Walter Hill/Broken Trail

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Writer, director and producer Walter Hill revisits the western genre in his first made-for-television movie, the two-part, four-hour epic Broken Trail, airing on AMC June 25 and 26. Hill, an avid John Wayne fan, casts Robert Duvall alongside Thomas Haden Church in this tale of the waning days of the Old West, where a veteran rancher and his nephew set out on an arduous horse drive from Oregon to Wyoming, picking up various waifs and strays along the way. The pair find themselves chaperoning five Chinese girls, who they save from a life of forced prostitution.Hill’s directing credits range from action-packed thrillers such as Last Man Standing, Southern Comfort and Johnny Handsome to buddy comedies (Brewster’s Millions, 48 Hrs., Another 48 Hrs., Red Heat), but it’s his westerns—particularly the classic trilogy of The Long Riders, Geronimo and Wild Bill—for which he’s best known. More recently he helmed the pilot of HBO’s gritty TV western Deadwood, winning a best director Emmy and a DGA award.It is this pedigree that he brings to Broken Trail, along with a seasoned crew whose consideration for authenticity of both period and culture invokes an atmosphere of dust, sweat, gunpowder and campfire smoke.Below the Line: You’re clearly drawn to westerns. What is it that drew you to this story?Walter Hill: Westerns are elemental, but at the same time I thought the combination of the horse drive and these two guys trying to pull off this physical feat and facing financial catastrophe if they weren’t able to do it, and then having fate and fortune present itself to them through the Chinese girls and the moral questions that presented, was a really good situation for a drama. Also I was looking to do a western that wasn’t such a blood-and-thunder thing. We managed to have some blood and thunder, but at the same time I think this is much more a character-driven piece.BTL: You’ve directed for both film and television. What are some of the challenges with bringing a filmic medium like westerns to the TV, and how did you meet those challenges in Broken Trail?Hill: I think I probably failed that task! I was determined to shoot it big and wide and I disregarded the idea that because you’re making a TV show you shoot everything close. I respect that there is a physical fact that you are making something for a much smaller screen than the initial audience would experience on a feature. However, I thought this, given the nature of the story, demanded that I shoot big and wide as much as I could. I tried to give it a film look.BTL: Robert Duvall is an actor you’ve cast time and again. Do you have crew members you like to use over again?Hill: Lloyd Ahern, the cameraman. He and I have worked together as a cameraman and director for about 15 years. I’ve actually known him since he was a second assistant cameraman and I was an apprentice assistant director in the mid ’60s. The second unit director, Allan Graf, who’s also a stunt coordinator, I’ve worked with many times. He did splendid work with the herd on second unit. He deserves a lot of credit. And the film editor Freeman Davies has worked with me since The Warriors. Obviously I think they do a good job. And they seem to be able to put up with me!BTL: What were you and your DP going for in terms of look?Hill: We wanted to shoot it big. We decided not to try too much desaturation, but to let the country speak for itself. We did use some antique filters to give it a bit of a period look. We shot with wider-angle lenses than I have for other things.BTL: Did he have to shoot in a specific way to create the impression of 500 horses?Hill: That’s mostly the staging. Our herd was 150 horses. There are a couple of CGI shots: some of the wide shots near the rivers, where you have a very, very wide shot and you see a tremendous amount of horses. You cannot have gigantic wide shots and 150 horses that look like 500.BTL: You shot the entire film in Alberta, Canada. How did you make Alberta stand in for the American West?Hill: Fortunately if you go west of Calgary you get into the Canadian Rockies. If you go east you get into flat prairie. And down toward Drumheller it dries out and gives you yet another look. The real trick I think is not finding something that looks beautiful, it’s creating the illusion of a trek. We were trying to find different looks within an acceptable area. And It all had to be within a practical drive from Calgary.BTL: What were the challenges with shooting far from a production center like LA?Hill: Just weather. Even though we started in late August and finished in October, we ran into a lot of weather—snow and rain; it was a cool summer and fall out there, even by their standards. [Costume designer] Wendy Partridge gave me a very warm coat. The assumption that the director was a softy from Los Angeles was entirely correct.BTL: The costumes in Broken Trail are outstanding. And, with the Chinese girls as well, it wasn’t your ordinary western. How did Wendy achieve authenticity?Hill: We were trying to… make it look real without making it look too theatrical. There’s nothing in the show that in some way couldn’t be found in some period photograph. Westerns are so often defined by hats; and what you constantly see in westerns are these blocking and curling of the brims in a way that is totally correct for now but totally incorrect for 75 or 100 years ago, when they didn’t have this rodeo curl. So she was overjoyed to hear me talk about that. We got along great.BTL: Similarly your production designer Ken Rempel went to some lengths to make the mining town Cariboo authentic, even going so far as using period tools in his construction.Hill: He had been highly recommended to me; he did a terrific job. There was a town that existed that was spread out and in a state of dilapidation, and Ken pulled a lot of the buildings down into a gulch and added a lot of temped dwellings. Anything that would give it a more rough-hewn edge, and that would make it more authentic you should always try. You don’t want to see any modern nail heads, for example. It’s all details; every shot is an accumulation of details and a film becomes an accumulation of shots. He did a splendid job.BTL: Your makeup artist Manlio Rocchetti, interestingly, worked on Brokeback Mountain, another recent Western shot in Canada.Hill: And he worked on Geronimo with me. He’s done all of Bob (Duvall)’s things. They’re very close. He’s very good; he’s a real artist. Manlio ran the hair and makeup department and he picked the teams. I trust him to do his thing.BTL: Describe your collaboration with your editor Freeman Davies?Hill: He and I have now worked together for years and I think the first thing is there’s a kind of shorthand between us. He tends to know how I like to do things. I think he makes it better. He takes the material and turns it into something better than it ought to be.BTL: How did you cope with having 150 horses throughout the shoot?Hill: We used the Bews Brothers: head wrangler Dusty Bews and his brother Guy Bews, who’s a stunt coordinator. They’re professional wranglers, who work on a variety of films. They live in that area, and they were responsible for the cast horses and for gathering and building our herd. It was amazing how predictive they could be about horse behavior. That saved a lot of time in the staging.BTL: The music by David Mansfield and Van Dyke Parks is terrific. What was your directive to them?Hill: David and Van Dyke are old friends and they wanted to work together. Bob had worked with David and I had worked with Van Dyke before. We wanted it to be spare, we didn’t want it to overpower the drama.BTL: With so much shot outdoors, what were some of the challenges presented to the production sound mixer, Michael Playfair?Hill: Any time you’re outside and shooting big, you’re not going to get the mics. So he had to use body mi
cs. Because I was shooting so wide with multiple cameras, you couldn’t fishbowl in. I don’t like to loop much, and Duvall doesn’t like to loop much, so the pressure was on him. There was very little looping; it came out great. It was a terrific shoot.The American Cinematheque presents a tribute to Walter HIll at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, June 15–17, to include the LA premier of Broken Trail and screenings of other Hill films. The director will appear in person. See www.americancinematheque.com for details.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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