Filed in: Director Series

Ed Harris Takes the Reins With Appaloosa

October 8, 2008 10:34 | By

Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris takes his second turn at directing with Appaloosa, an atmospheric western set in 1882. The story follows two lawmen, played by Harris and Viggo Mortensen, who hire out their policing services to small towns whenever unsavory characters threaten the peace. The latest troublemaker is rancher Randall Bragg (played by Jeremy Irons), who has murdered a former sheriff and his deputies to protect a pair of lawbreaking ranch hands. Matters are further complicated when an attractive widow (Renee Zellweger) arrives in town.

Below the Line: How did you attract such a great cast and get this project off the ground?

Ed Harris: The script is based on a Robert Parker novel that I read in the summer of ’05. I liked the relationship between these two guys. Before I even finished it, I called my agent about the rights. I worked with Viggo on A History of Violence and showed him the novel. When the script was finished, he liked it a lot. Viggo is a good-looking guy. He’s great with horses. He’s a fine actor and I got along with him. You have to believe that these guys have been together for a dozen years or so. I knew we could create that relationship. He was the only guy I thought of for the part.

I thought Jeremy [Irons] would be interesting as Bragg. I didn’t want someone that you would look at and say, “Bad guy.” I didn’t want him to be a physical threat. I wanted him to be an intellectual counterpoint to Cole [Ed Harris’ character]. There were so many immigrants around the west at that time, it didn’t bother me that he was English. I thought it was a good thing.

I’m not sure there has ever been a woman like Alli in a western before. I met Renée in North Carolina when she was working with George Clooney on a movie. She was totally up for doing it. I didn’t want this character to be the calculating, black widow kind of woman. Renée’s very unique to me. I love her sense of humor. I think she is very sexy, but she doesn’t really put that out there. I thought it was more interesting that this woman did not wear her sexuality on her sleeve, but would still resort to sexual means to survive.

BTL: Have you worked with cinematographer Dean Semler before?

Harris: No, I hadn’t. I sent him the script to see if he was interested. I didn’t think we could afford him, but he read and liked the script. He came to meet me when I was working at Universal and he was totally up for it. We spent a lot of time in preproduction looking at locations and were prepared. We knew, almost scene by scene, the basic way we wanted to approach things. We shot anamorphic and had a little trouble with the lenses, which were 15, 20 years old. We had to reshoot some things. It was kind of a pain in the butt, to tell you the truth, but we finally got it.

BTL: I understand you did a digital intermediate at Efilm.

Harris: We took time to do a DI and some CGI work. We cut on Avid, but I didn’t see it on film until it was cut. We watched some film dailies in the beginning, but if I do this again, I’ve got to work out a better system. It’s pointless to be looking at this stuff on HD when it’s being shot on film because it is not representative of what you’re doing, at least not to me. I would fight for that next time.

BTL: What’s your history with Kathryn Himoff, your editor?

Harris: We worked together on Pollock. I love working with her. She’s great. For four or five months we were sitting in each other’s pockets eight and nine hours a day.

BTL: What is it about her editing that makes you want to work with her?

Harris: She has a great sense of rhythm and pacing, and a good sense of humor, which for this film is very important because there is a lot of humor in the movie. She’s good at cutting a scene so that the humor plays and the silence works. She’s very good with music, although we were not cutting to music. She introduced me to a lot of interesting music in the temp. We have our own kind of language. We don’t agree all the time, but we have a way of working that works out. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s like being married. You keep communicating. She’s attuned to my way of looking at things and my sensibilities, which I think are similar to hers. She’s very sensitive, smart and experienced. I learn from her and I think she learns from me.

BTL: How did your composer, Jeff Beal become involved?

Harris: We initially worked with another composer, who was writing some great stuff, but not necessarily writing to the picture, which got a bit frustrating, so I decided to work with Jeff. We also worked together on Pollock. He’s a great collaborator, which I like because it’s very difficult to talk about music when you’re scoring a film. He’s willing to try things. You try to describe what you’re looking for emotionally though the music, or what you want it to do with the film. Ultimately we reach a point where he knows what I’m talking about. He is capable of writing anything. Yes, there are a lot of different sounds in it, but the score is very cohesive. Initially there was a lot of guitar and banjo. Jeff’s a great trumpet player, so I thought it would be great to have some brass in there. I like what the brass does to the score. It gives it stature.

I’m really happy with the music. There’s not a ton of it. I don’t like films with wall-to-wall score. A lot of this film is about silence, being in this landscape when there isn’t a whole hell of a lot going on. Not allowing that silence to be present would be foolish to me. I like the way the music was spotted. The cues work where they are. Jeff records in his own studio. He brings in musicians at different times so they are on different tracks. When I’m on the mixing stage, I can work with his music, obviously with his permission. For instance, there is a scene where Alli is walking down the stairs after she’s been with Bragg. It’s very quiet with a few piano notes. There was a lot of other sound going on during that cue, but on the mixing stage we took everything out and let the piano play.

BTL: Obviously with a western, a large part of creating the world is setting the scene. Was the town a set in New Mexico?

Harris: Agnieszka Holland introduced me to Waldemar Kalinowski, the production designer. She made three films with him and I really respect her. Waldemar was very excited about doing the film. We looked at existing sets. Our set, on the Ford ranch outside of Santa Fe, is owned by designer Tom Ford. It’s on 25,000 acres. Originally built for Silverado, it was used for other things, burnt down and was rebuilt. We brought in trees, moved buildings around, took some down, built a few things, put the water tank in, added the windmill, and changed the look of the train station. Waldemar was great, very detailed. Every build had a very specific purpose, whether it was the telegraph office, the bank, the barber shop or the livery. Even the extras knew what their jobs were in terms of who they were in the town. I really liked the details of the design, the textures from the wallpaper to the upholstery, the objects that were around like the oil lamps, the colors of the buildings. We worked really hard on all that.

The people working with Waldemar, the art director [Steve Arnold] and the set decorator [Linda Lee Sutton] did a great job. They scoured the area to find great stuff for set dressing. The furniture was all very specific. It was a great shoot. The attitude was great. Everyone wanted to work on this film. We didn’t have a ton of money, but we had enough to do it if we were smart. There was not a sour apple in the bunch. It was hard work, but it was really good work and a good time.

BTL: From the acting side, those kinds of details, along with costume design, must help you inhabit your character.

Harris: It was really important, especially the hats. You have to find the right hat for everybody. I’d worked with David Robinson who also did the costumes for Pollock. I immediately called him, because he was the one I wanted. He was excited about it. We had some good help from Luster Bayless. He gave us a good deal. David built a lot of things.

BTL: So westerns are all about the hats and the guns?

Harris: Pretty much. Keith Walters, our prop master and a gun fellow, is as much a historian as he is a prop man. All the weaponry was very accurate. It was great stuff to work with.

Rex Peterson, a wrangler, is really great with horses and a safety-first kind of guy. He brought some great horses from California and we used a lot of stock from New Mexico. The tack for the horses, such as the saddles, the bridles, etcetera, that was a combination of Rex and Keith Walters. It was easy to delegate responsibility because I trust all these people. I knew they were top-notch and knew what they were doing. I wasn’t always putting in my two-cents, but it was nice to know that these people were really going above and beyond what they needed to do.

BTL: It has to be difficult being both in front of the camera and behind.

Harris: I also did it on Pollock. It’s a snowball effect. I cowrote the script and was totally involved with preproduction. By the time we were filming, I was so involved with all aspects of the production, hopping back and forth in front of camera and behind wasn’t so difficult. But when you’re in front of the camera you can’t check the monitor after every take or you’ll never shoot the thing, so there are things that get by you. Then, when you’re in the cutting room, you’re going, “Oh my God, what’s that guy doing in the background?” You can’t be on top of it all. You do what you gotta do. It’s your vision. It’s not about control so much as it is about specificity and the ability to see what your vision is. People say, “What was your vision for this.” I don’t know. I’ll show it to you when I’m done. It’s a process of discovery.