Toronto Interview: Appaloosa Writer, Director, and Star Ed Harris
by Alex Billington
September 19, 2008
It was just last year, when I caught a double dose of Assassination of Jesse James and 3:10 to Yuma in one day, that I finally realized how enjoyable westerns could be. Since then I've been exploring the genre and was admittedly excited to hear about a new film called Appaloosa. Written, directed, and starring Ed Harris, the film follows two friends hired to clean up a town of its local vermin, an outlaw named Randall Bragg. A few weeks back after the world premiere in Toronto, I had the immense honor of interviewing Ed Harris, and talked with him about all aspects of Appaloosa and westerns. If you're curious to hear about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film and so much more, then this is an interview for you.
Appaloosa is based on a book of the same name written by Robert Parker. Ed Harris adapted the screenplay with Robert Knott and and stars in the film as Virgil Cole. In addition to Harris, Viggo Mortensen stars as Everett Hitch, Renée Zellweger as the love interest Allison French, and Jeremy Irons as the outlaw Randall Bragg. The film is an impressive feature that delves into an interesting story about two friends and what happens when they capture Bragg and try to bring him to trial. If you're into westerns, this is a film you shouldn't miss. If not, the film has its merits, but isn't one of the best this year.
So to kick this off, I'm curious how you got into this project. Did you read Robert Parker's book first?
Ed Harris: I just started reading this book and I just really got excited about this relationship with these two guys. It made me laugh. It made me feel good. Before I finished the book, I called my agent and said, "Is this thing available?" He found out that it was and I just kept after him because I just felt like it's something I wanted to do. It's hard to explain.
Harris: No. It's hard to explain why I wanted to do it. It just tickled me.
It's just one of those good feelings, right?
Harris: Yes. And another thing, coincidentally, it happened to be a western, which I really love the genre and I thought it would be really fun to ride and I got my six-shooter and-- you know…
With the two western films last year that did only okay in theaters, was there something you felt with Appaloosa that was really going to take the genre to the next level?
Harris: Yes. You know, in terms of the marketplace, it wasn't my-- It had nothing to do with anything. In other words, I just wanted to make this film. Now, when I talked about trying to get it financed, then yes, you run into "yes, but it's a western and they don't do so well. They don't sell well overseas." I said, "yes, but it's a really good story. You liked the script." Anyway, just keep pounding away until you get to people that believe you and put up the bucks.
Did you see yourself cast in the role of Virgil Cole originally, or did you think about writing and directing first?
Harris: Yes, pretty much. I thought about playing Cole, or else playing Hitch and getting somebody else to play Cole, but then I kind of said, "No, I want to play Cole and I want Viggo to do Hitch." He was kind enough to actually-- Well, not kind enough. He liked the material. Once we got the script written, he committed to doing it, which helped me get it set up ultimately.
You worked on Pollock before, right? You directed that?
Harris: Yes, we actually shot Pollock in 1999. So its been a while.
What did you bring from that film as a director then to this? What did you learn from that experience?
Harris: I think the biggest thing I learned was I really needed a strong line producer, first AD, production set and supervisor. I needed to be really organized and really on top it and surround myself with very professional, great hard-working people. Otherwise, I wasn't going to be able to shoot it because I had a lot to shoot in not a long time. It wasn't a luxurious budget. It was sufficient, but it was not a dime more than that.
Were you inspired by films like Butch Cassidy and other westerns like that?
Harris: Well, I think the relationship between Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy, between Duvall and Tommy Lee in Lonesome Dove, between Randolph Scott and McCrea in Ride the High Country, even Holden and Borgnine in The Wild Bunch, there's certain aspects of every one of those relationships that's part of these guys and a sense of-- there's a comfortability that goes on. It's one of the reasons I think people do enjoy those films because it feels comfortable. These two guys are comfortable with each other. They've been riding together for a dozen years and they are who they are and they're not trying to be anything else. They like each other. They don't like to talk about it, but there's an unspoken deep appreciation for one another, you know? I just thought Viggo and I could maybe pull that off.
Were you friends with Viggo previously?
Harris: We worked on A History of Violence together and I had enjoyed working with him a lot, but I wasn't-- First of all, Viggo's really busy. He has so many irons in the fire. He has his publishing company and all kinds of things that it's hard to keep track of. So, I hadn't really seen him other than working, but I got the book to him. I actually went to the festival here when we were here for History of Violence and I said, "check this book out." He responded to it. Anyway, one thing led to another and I'm really glad he did because I never was thinking of anybody else.
Was he your first choice then?
And you were talking about the dynamic between people. I think that really played out well in your film between you and Viggo.
Harris: Yes, well if it didn't, we wouldn't have a movie really. So I'm glad that it works. It's funny, you know. I mean, at this premiere last night, people were laughing at every single little thing that was worth laughing at. They really got it, the humor of it, which was kind of funny to listen to.
You worked that into the script then, those comedic moments?
Harris: Well, a lot of it is right from Parker's book. There was other stuff that we added here and there. I knew it was funny. I didn't know how people would respond, but it was actually-- last night, there were some laughs that actually covered up the next line or two.
Really? It sounds they really got into it then.
Harris: They did. It was fun.
I want to ask: since you've been an actor for so long, what have you learned from other directors over the years that have really shaped your philosophy and the way you work as a director now?
Harris: Well, it's hard to kind of, laundry list things like that; not that you're asking me to do that, but I think you pick up a lot of things from a lot of different people and it's more like an osmosis. It goes into you and you're not even aware of what you're learning in terms of specifics. I could start talking some technical stuff, I guess, but it's more about - I don't know. It's more of -- how do you want to be. In other words, do you want to be an asshole and scream at people, or do you want to treat people with respect and hire the kind of people that you want to get excited creatively and have them do great work that they're excited about and collaborate and get this thing on its feet? So, I don't really know how to answer the question.
That's fine. Were there any specific directors or anyone you've worked with over the years that has really inspired something specific in Appaloosa?
Harris: Well, I know that's what you're asking me. I think there's a director named Victor Nunez who I worked with a long time ago, 1983, during A Flash of Green -- he's an independent filmmaker out of Florida. He's a really fine filmmaker and Victor really likes to let things take place in the frame and to really see people in space and I really like that about his work. Peter Weir is so thorough in terms of every costume, every color, every prop, every placement of something on a table; all aspects of filmmaking he's got his hand on in terms of his awareness of what it takes to make the whole thing work, and also treats people with a great amount of respect and dignity. And then in terms of the actual filming of things; I don't know, working with actors. I mean, being an actor, I feel really comfortable working with actors, but every actor is different. You can't interact or work with them all the same way, but you just kind of pick that stuff up.
What is your favorite part of filmmaking?
Harris: Well, I enjoy the actual process of it. I enjoy working with film, with actors. I enjoy the visual aspect of it. I really like to see what's in a frame; I mean in terms of just visual, the composition of things. I thoroughly love the editing room. I find it to be really where the film ultimately is made and I work really well with Kathryn Himoff who is the editor that I've worked with on two films. So, all of it, but the whole process is something that I enjoy - I do. I've only done it a couple of times, but hopefully I'll do it again.
Are you pursuing another directing gig?
Harris: Well, it's not like I'm asking people to send me scripts to direct, but if I get something that I feel compelled to do, I'd like to do it.
And have you come across anything like that recently?
Harris: No. Well, I mean we just finished this like two weeks ago in terms of really finishing it; you know, the final print and all. So, this is on my-- we have another week or so of talking about it and then I'll hopefully take a break and see what's up.
Where did you shoot this?
Harris: Santa Fe. Well, in and around - do you know what I mean? Not really in-- we were based in Santa Fe, but we shot all around and then up north a bit on the river. It was really pretty.
I'm surprised that there's so much open land that you can still find nowadays in the west.
Harris: Well, yes. I mean we were shooting on like a 20,000 acre ranch for one thing. But yes, it's great to have a vista where you don't see anything. There were a couple sets where we had to take out roads-- visually, we had to take out a house or a car way in the distance glistening in the sunshine, which we did in post. But it really is beautiful country.
Definitely. If you can answer this, I'm curious what you're opinion is on the state of independent film and festivals like this is -- how important they are to the success of films nowadays.
Harris: Well, I don't know what I can say that's anything worthwhile. I mean, thank God that there is a venue for a lot of independent film in terms of festival circuits because otherwise, they're never going to get seen because the actual distribution system is so locked up by the big studios, other than the cities that care enough to have a really good art house and even then show only a select amount of independent films. I don't know what the statistics are, but there are hundreds of films made every year that nobody even knows about. So, I don't know what to say about the state of it. I'm glad that people still want to make independent films and now with some of these digital cameras, you can make something pretty inexpensively and it looks good. If you have something to say, tell the world. So that's kind of exciting. I imagine the internet will start opening things up for people too, to get some of their stuff out there.
Lastly, what are your all-time favorite films -- if you can name them? Not to put you on the spot…
Thanks to Ed Harris and everyone at Warner Brothers for setting up this interview in Toronto. Appaloosa hits limited theaters this weekend and will expand to more theaters over the next month. If you're into westerns, be sure to check it out!