Making a Western in 31 Days: Jon Cassar on Forsaken
Director Jon Cassar breathes new life into the Western genre while honoring its traditions in Forsaken, a beautiful, haunting piece of work that will be released day and date on February 19. In a story reminiscent of Shane and Pale Rider, Kiefer Sutherland plays John Henry Clayton, a reformed gunslinger drawn back into action when he returns to his hometown and finds it under siege by an unscrupulous land grabber (Brian Cox). While sparring with Cox’s hired guns (led by Michael Wincott in a rich, thrillingly entertaining performance), Clayton also reconnects with an old love who has moved on (Demi Moore) and attempts to patch things up with his estranged father (Donald Sutherland). The result is a film that’s visceral and contemplative in equal measures, with varied tones expertly calibrated by Cassar. The movie’s combination of kinetic action and somber reflection places it squarely in the tradition of genre classics like The Searchers and Unforgiven, but it stands on its own largely thanks to a pair of iconic performances by the Sutherlands. They’re both as good as they’ve ever been – subtle, complex, and powerful. Kiefer Sutherland’s aching melancholy in his scenes with Moore is positively exquisite, topped only by the devastating effects of the senior Sutherland’s final scenes. I discussed their performances, the film’s debt to the Western genre, and the challenge of turning a 195-minute assembly into a film less than half that length with Cassar a week before the film’s release.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the origins of the project. How did Forsaken come to you?
Jon Cassar: I directed and produced on Kiefer’s TV series 24 for six years. Kiefer and I spent a lot of time working together, and one of the things you do when you have down time is that you talk about the future and your dream projects. So while waiting for a lighting setup one night we started talking about how much fun it would be to do a Western together. I have a theory that every actor wants to play a cowboy sometime in his career and every director wants to do a western. Kiefer had already done a couple, and more impressively had won championships in rodeo calf roping. He is a real cowboy. So for years we talked about this Western and then finally Kiefer put the story together and enlisted writer Brad Mirman, who he had worked with before, to write the script. Kiefer was also motivated to craft a film that he could do with his father Donald, so the story was about a father and son, to be played on screen by a father and son – although Kiefer and Donald had starred in a few of the same films, they had never been in a scene together. Brad wrote not only a wonderfully classic Western, he was able to write this beautifully sad story of a father and son that have grown apart and the difficulties they experience as they both try to mend their fractured relationship. After the first read I was in.
Filmmaker: That classic Western style is one of the things I responded to – it reminded me a lot of something like Shane or Unforgiven. Were there any specific Western films you had in mind as models or influences?
Cassar: In fact those are the two exact films that came to mind in crafting the tone of Forsaken – Shane and Unforgiven. I grew up with the classic Westerns of the ’50s and ’60s, and I was never a big fan of how they became modernized from the mid-’70s onward. I loved Unforgiven because it was a throwback to the early Westerns even though it was made in 1992. What those early Westerns had was a simplicity in terms of the storytelling and characters. A straightforward story that was usually predictable yet somehow always satisfying to the audience. The characters were clearly either good or evil – in fact the early Westerns even dressed their characters in black and white hats to make sure the audience knew who was who. So in using that as model, the challenge became how to tell an entertaining story when your audience already knows who the bad guys are and that eventually the good guys will beat them. In Forsaken, much like in Shane and Unforgiven, you know that the hero is going to eventually pick up his guns again and save the day. I realized then that I had to craft great characters and make sure that the audience gets to know them right away and then either cheer for them if they’re good or hope they get what they deserve if they’re bad. Although I did stray from the classic Western in the final gunfight and the audiences have responded well to the departure.
Filmmaker: It has a real emotional purity to it.
Cassar: Well, one reason making a Western is satisfying is that all the noise of technology is stripped away from your story and the characters have to look into each other’s eyes when they have something to say. Hell, you even can look into the eyes of your mode of transportation, your horse. The lack of technology makes the storytelling more human.
Filmmaker: The actors bring a lot of humanity to the piece throughout – from the leads down to the supporting roles, everyone feels very carefully cast, and everyone is playing a fully realized character. Tell me about casting the film.
Cassar: One of the great things about working on Forsaken with Kiefer is that we didn’t have a studio dictating our cast and crew. We wanted this project to be a friends and family affair. We wanted the cast and crew to be people we had already worked with and liked. So our approach to the casting was the same way. Kiefer had worked with all the leads in the film and they were his friends. So it was really just a matter of asking them. I met with Demi and we talked about who her character was and how these western women were the backbone of those early settlements. That their strength was everything, that they weren’t glamorous and frivolous, they were hard working, tough contributors to the building of the West. She responded to the character and was very excited to play Mary Ellen. Brian Cox is one of the best character actors of our time, and I think he proved it again in this wonderfully evil role. He brought a much needed sense of humor to the film. Michael Wincott is someone I’ve admired for years. He inhabits every character he plays and his voice is one of the best in the business. The most difficult thing with Michael was getting the wardrobe right, but once we did (thanks to my wonderful designer Chris Hardagon), then Gentleman Dave was born. Michael would walk around all day in his wardrobe, up and down the street, in and out of the saloon. Hat tipped low, gloves on, gun in holster. He virtually became Dave right before our eyes.
Filmmaker: What kind of environment do you try to create as a director to enable the actors to do their best work? I was particularly affected by those incredibly intimate and emotional scenes between the Sutherlands.
Cassar: When I shoot I create a comfortable, safe place for the actor; I make sure that I give them the space to create – it’s essential. I have a very strong idea of how I want the scene to go, but I’m completely open to what an actor brings to the table. Then I make sure that they are as happy as I am with a performance before we move on to another scene. I never let them feel the pressure of time, that’s for me to worry about – an actor should never feel the crunch of the schedule. I also make sure I tell the actor all the shots that I’ve got planned and the shot size so an actor can adjust their performance to the shot. For example, in the emotional confession scene in the church I set up two cameras in a way that there was no additional coverage for when Kiefer breaks down and confides to his father. We didn’t rehearse it and I made sure Kiefer knew that this was the only shot I had planned, and he could put it all out there on take one. Which he did, of course. We only did two takes and what you see in the film is take one. The other big emotional scene was the angry dinner conversation about God, and in that case it was really just a matter of letting two veteran actors do their thing. As a director I give small notes to help the actors and reinforcement when I like what’s happening. I really try to create the atmosphere where they can do their best work.
Filmmaker: Did you have a rehearsal period?
Cassar: We had no rehearsal time outside of rehearsing on set before we shot the scenes. However, before we were into full production I did spend an afternoon with Kiefer and Donald and the writer, going over all their scenes together. The actors were never at full performance, but they read it and with the writer present we were able to streamline, or add to the dialogue. It was a very helpful exercise and I’m happy we did it.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot, and how much did you have to build and how much was preexisting?
Cassar: We didn’t have the money to build a town from scratch, so we had to find an existing one. We shot in a small Western town set just outside Calgary, Alberta. It was a town that was built many years ago and has hosted many films and television series – in fact, the Klondike mini-series was moving out as we were moving in. The location had all the farmhouses we needed and the beautiful rolling hills, meadows and distant mountains, all on the same property. It was perfect for us. We only moved from that area once, with a second unit that shot the opening sequence of Kiefer riding through the Rocky Mountains. We did that in Banff on a deserted ski resort where much of The Revenant and the snow sequence from Inception were shot.
We did, however, have to do a lot of work on the interiors, making sure they were dressed properly and felt lived in. My production designer Ken Rempel did an amazing job. One of the things I always wanted to do with Forsaken was make sure that even when you were inside you always had a sense of and could see the outside, which means not building sets in a studio. When characters came through a door or you saw through a window, I wanted the audience to feel the land. It was a big part of who these people were – in fact in our story the land itself is the point of conflict. The scenes in the saloon were the biggest challenge, because it had so many windows and swinging doors; even though a scene could be between two people talking at the bar, outside the whole town was moving. Horses, carriages, children, all going about their business as quietly as they could to not ruin the taping of the actors’ lines.
Filmmaker: The visual design is extremely elegant. What kind of overriding philosophy did you and director of photography Rene Ohashi have about the lighting and camerawork?
Cassar: Our main concern was to develop a look and shooting style that didn’t conflict with the simple storytelling. I don’t like drawing attention to camera movement, especially in such a character-based film. So the camera movement was very economical, it was motivated by character movement; I tried to keep the camera from telling the audience too much about the characters’ emotions. I left that to the actors. We also wanted the beauty of the land to contrast against the violence brought on by the people that were trying to tame it. That meant scheduling certain scenes at a certain time of day. We were very aware of where the sun was and I made a real effort to block the exterior scenes so we had back light. This not only makes your scenes and actors look good, but it’s faster to set up because you’re not trying to keep the hard sunlight from front or top lighting, which always looks bad. We wanted the palette to feel real, we didn’t want to exaggerate the color, and worked very closely with Chris (costumes) and Ken (production designer) in this regard. We shot digitally, which we were both comfortable doing, and it also helped the budget.
The most important thing for us was making sure we shot and framed for widescreen in the 2:35 aspect ratio. My A camera operator, Michael Carella, and I designed compositions that helped reinforce the relationships in the film, keeping characters very close or wide apart depending on what state their relationship was in, and then using the widescreen to emphasize the beauty of the land and show its dominance of man. You’ll notice our hero is seen for the first time in the first shot in the film appearing very small amongst the mountains and then in the final shot our hero is riding away from the camera, becoming very small in the landscape once again.
Filmmaker: How long was your shoot? Did you feel it was enough time to achieve what you intended?
Cassar: Our shoot was thirty days first unit, one day second unit, which is a very tight schedule for a Western. I never feel like I have enough time. I like to get as many shots as I can. I prefer more shots than I do more takes. I want the material for when you get into the edit suite, so I’ll keep shooting until you make me stop. In saying that, I don’t like to do overtime – it’s too hard on everybody involved, including me. A regular shooting day is twelve hours, and that’s hard enough without adding hours on top of that. But I always felt that I was getting what I needed to tell the story, and that’s because we had a top-notch crew and cast who kept the setup time tight and the performance takes to a minimum. I think the biggest surprise or bonus was how well we dodged the bad weather and always seemed to be inside when it was raining. The film had good karma right from day one, and sometimes as intangible as that is, it does make a difference.
Filmmaker: How did the movie evolve during editing?
Cassar: The original editor’s cut of the film was over 3 hours and 15 minutes; that’s using every single frame we shot. The final run time on the film is 1 hour 24 minutes. I left over an hour and half on the cutting room floor – not an easy thing to do. The original script had a B storyline with a young couple played by Landon Liboiron and Siobhan Williams, two incredibly talented young actors who truly did a great job for me. Their relationship paralleled that of John Henry and his lost love Mary Alice: Landon played a young gunslinger who ran with the bad guys and glorified the life of a gunslinger, when our hero was doing the opposite. When the film got to the producers’ cut which Kiefer, as a producer, had a hand in, we decided to just reduce the film to all the scenes that involved the father-son relationship and started adding back all the other scenes that supported that relationship, and left everything else on the floor. The film took on a whole new life; it became laser focused on the core relationship and never let the audience stray from that. We also cut out an opening action scene that showed John Henry and the gunfight that changed his life. It was a wonderful scene but it took away from the mystery of why he put his guns away. The only shots that remain are the 3 haunting images that open the film, which are just a hint at what happened without tipping our hand.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish by talking about the differences between directing for network TV and directing independent film. What are the pros and cons of both, both from a business/financing point of view and an artistic one, or do you not see the jobs that differently?
Cassar: At their core I find that they are very similar – working with the crew and the actors to tell an entertaining story is exactly the same. On a feature, especially an independent one, the director has more creative freedom, whereas TV is much more of a producer/writer medium. Another significant difference is how much time you have in a day to shoot. To shoot two hours of television you have 16 days and I had 30 days here – but you have to factor in that you have more scenes in a feature than you would have in a television show. The shots can be more complex and the lighting usually takes longer. There are more discussions with actors who are finding new characters, not just playing the same ones they have been for years, as happens in TV. In my particular case with Forsaken you’re dealing with horses and wagons and period, which is slower because of the constant attention to detail you have to have.
The big difference for me is when it comes to post production. In TV a director will have three to four days to turn in his director’s cut; on a small feature you can have from eight to ten weeks. Which means you have the ability to try different versions of scenes, you can play with scene order, you can walk away from it for a couple of days and watch it again with fresh eyes. You see your film so many times you really start to know what is important to keep and what isn’t. You have a much better sense of pace. And finally you get to do test screenings with people in the business first and then regular audiences as you get closer to a final product. These screenings usually end with a survey where you can ask the audience questions you may still have about your film. This is very helpful.