Ed Harris Exclusive Interview – APPALOOSA

     September 15, 2008

Written by Monika Bartyzel

One of my favourite films from TIFF this year was Ed Harris’ second stint in the directorial chair, Appaloosa. The film focuses on two peacekeepers in the Old West (Harris and Viggo Mortensen) who are hired by the residents of Appaloosa to stop Randall Bragg’s (Jeremy Irons) fear-led hold on the town. While the film contains all of the requisites of a classic western (read my review here), it’s also a great tale of friendship and camaraderie fuelled by stellar performances from both leads. (And I’m not using stellar lightly – Mortensen’s performance was so good that it ripped me out of my indifference to his work and made me a big fan.)

Getting the chance to talk to the uber-talented Harris last week was, well, icing on the cake. It’s no wonder that he has found so much success in his work – he is an intense but laid back man drawn to his passion while also seeming quite grounded. The talk was brief, but what follows is a look into the process of the 4-time Oscar nominee.

Collider: I’ve read that you first read Robert B. Parker’s novel during a horseback riding trip. What motivated you to pick up the novel, and what drew you to it?

Ed Harris: Well I just brought the book with me. I bought it in a book store in Santa Monica, I think, and started reading it. I just fell in love with these characters and the relationship between these two guys.

Did being out on horseback while you read it influence the decision?

Ed Harris: I don’t know … it just was coincidental. I like to ride and they don’t make a lot of westerns these days. I had done a cable film Riders of the Purple Sage, that I produced with my wife Amy in ’96, I think it was. I’ve always loved the genre, but really, it was just the relationship of these two guys. They could have been athletes, cops, or whatever, and I probably still would have been drawn to it. But it was a happy coincidence that it happened to take place in the West in 1882, and that they were lawmen and get to ride and be in the open country. I love the country. I think it’s really nice. It was a great shoot actually…

You mention Purple Sage, a western, which was you first step behind the camera…

Ed Harris: No, Pollock was the first film I directed.

Right, but produced…

Ed Harris: Produced, yeah. Well, that was the first time that I generated something of my own. That was something that I had read and really wanted to do. We couldn’t get that made as a film, but we got a decent deal from TNT at the time.

Once you knew that you wanted to adapt the novel, how did you go about getting Appaloosa made?

Ed Harris: Well, first of all, I found out right away that the book was available, the rights to the novel. I contacted Robert Parker, who was kind enough to give us the go-ahead to write the script. He didn’t ask for any option money, he just said: ‘I respect your work, and I’m really glad that you want to make a film of this book so good luck. We’ll work out the finances later.’ So my friend, Robert Knott, who is a really good buddy and a wonderful writer who has never really had anything produced before, I asked him if he wanted to do this with me, and he said yeah. We started writing the script in January of ’06 I think it was, and you know, February, March, April, May – 4 or 5 months or so we were pounding out the script.

Is there anything that you felt you needed to flush out for the screen?

Ed Harris: Well, we tried to identify the whole, tried to articulate a little bit more. In the book, I think the Bragg character does get a Presidential pardon, but there’s no set-up for that. I did a little research, and Chester Arthur was the President at the time, and he had been the head of the New York Port Authority, about 20 years prior to being President. I thought maybe this guy Bragg could have had some sort of association with him back then. It’s just a minor thing, but at least you realize that the President is a former associate of his, and when he does get the pardon, it’s not coming out of left field. And we changed the Whitfield character. He was initially one of the deputies that didn’t get shot in the beginning. Just little things like that. It’s very loyal to the book, and 85% of the dialogue is probably right out of the book.

Appaloosa is an entirely different film than Pollock. Did the previous film help prepare you for this one, or was it an entirely new experience?

Ed Harris: Pollock was such a unique kind of thing for me. It was really something that I got obsessed with and worked on for many, many years to get done. I ended up putting, actually, a lot of my own money into Pollock, to get it finished and all. I didn’t want to do that [again]. I learned a lot and I had a very strong producer, line producer, in Ginger Sledge, who was really great. We were very prepared. Every item was … we knew how much money we had and how much we needed to get the production values. A lot of times, you’ll budget a film so that you can get it financed, and the budget is unrealistic. If you’re responsible for overages, which I was in Pollock, then you get nailed. We couldn’t afford to go into this without knowing we could do it for the money allotted. We were pretty well organized, and had a very good, constructive pre-production period, so we were pretty much ready to go.

Viggo was your first choice for Everett Hitch?

Ed Harris: Yeah. I’d worked with Viggo on History of Violence, and I really enjoyed working with him, and really liked getting to know him. So I showed him the book after I’d read it … actually, according to Viggo, I gave it to him when we were here at the Toronto Film Festival for History of Violence, and I said: ‘I’ve got this book I want you to read.’ And he liked it. He committed once I got the script written, which certainly helped me get it financed, and we had a really good shoot. I just knew that these two guys … there had to be something going on between these two guys that was unspoken. There had to be a mutual respect and an unspoken appreciation for one another. I just felt that Viggo would get that, and that we could make that happen together.

One of the best things about this film is the fact that these men aren’t affected by the typical ups and downs.

Ed Harris: It’s a pretty solid friendship.

Does this rapport come from a personal relationship with Viggo?

Ed Harris: No. In our personal lives, we don’t really share that much. It’s really been kind of a working relationship. That, of course, becomes more intimate when you’re spending time with somebody. I really love Viggo, and think he’s wonderful, but it’s not like we get together and do stuff when we’re not working. Plus, he’s a really busy guy – he’s got a LOT of things going on. He’s got this publishing company, he’s a photographer, poet… And I just get back to my family and hang out.

And how did you go about casting Jeremy Irons as Bragg?

Ed Harris: I really wanted Bragg to be a good counterpoint to Cole, particularly, and I thought it would be fun to have somebody who culturally a little bit different, more sophisticated. I’d always admired Jeremy’s work; he’s a great actor. I’d never worked with him. I thought it would be a really cool and interesting choice. He’s really a smart guy, and I just wanted Bragg to not be a physical threat, as much as an intellectual one. So it worked out.

When it comes to Allison French, Diane Lane was originally attached. How did Renee Zellweger end up in the role?

Ed Harris: I had talked to Diane early on, and she said she was interested in doing it. By the time we got serious, she backed out. I was trying to think of another actress that I wanted to work with, and Renee was suggested. I never worked with Renee, never met her, but I always found her work intriguing. She really responded to the script, and the character. She felt challenged by it, but excited by it, and was willing to put up with me. She knew Viggo was cast, so I was really happy that she wanted to do it. We really had fun working. Renee is really fun to work with because she just has really great energy, and she’s very creative and imaginative and unafraid.

While this is a western, it feels more like a buddy film thrown back in time. Was it a challenge to balance the mirth and banter with the Old West ways?

Ed Harris: The challenge to me was to keep the film moving, and yet still have it take its time. There were not that many distractions back then. There wasn’t phone, there wasn’t computer, there wasn’t light, and there wasn’t any electricity in this town. You’re just living your life, and there are moments when nothing is really going on, and there’s silence. There’s a way of being that’s much more relaxed compared to the present world that we live in. I really wanted to make sure we felt that. The story is structured the way that it is in the film, so I was really concentrating on trying to tell the story, hoping that the rhythm of the story and the beats and the difference between the humor, the violence, the tension, and the relationships would feel harmonious as we were putting it together in the cut room. I love the editing process. I worked with a gal named Kathryn Himoff, who I did Pollock with, and we work really well together. You just keep trying stuff, and try to zero in on what’s happening in every scene and focus it. It was fun.

It’s funny that Cole is such a big reader, and insists on using these big words he can’t remember…

Ed Harris: Trying to improve himself, yeah. Some of that is in the novel, but we added a bit. We probably added four of those things – the “sequestered” thing and “arduous,” that he asks in the back of the train. There were a couple others… ‘I don’t like those kind of dis… dis… disparaging?’ ‘Yeah, disparaging.’ Yeah, so we put some of those things in there. I really thought that was an interesting aspect of his character. And it also says a lot about their relationship, because Viggo’s always right on top of it, he knows what I’m after, and he’s there to help me out.

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