Appaloosa: Viggo Mortensen's New Western

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Viggo Mortensen is on a roll. In what's easily the best year of his already rich career, he's starring in three high-profile widely divergent pictures: Appaloosa, a Western directed by friend and co-star Ed Harris, the drama Good, and the apocalyptic thriller The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-prize winning novel.

The first to be released is Appaloosa, which Ed Harris co-adapted to the big screen with Robert Knott, based on Robert B. Parker's 2005 novel of the same title.

At the core, Appaloosa is a classic buddy movie, centering on the camaraderie of two men who think they know each other well. The story explores how Hitch and Virgil Cole's friendship deals with unexpected situations, examining the potential for good and bad in each character.

Expressive Friendship

"We explored the ways friendship could be expressed on screen through both the silence and banter between Cole and Hitch - how each of them played such an integral role in supporting each other along the way, how they dealt with the fear of death or lack thereof, and how they understood each other's needs," remarks Knott, who also serves as a producer on the project.

In Appaloosa, Virgil Cole is an expert gunman who is committed to his trade as a man of the law. Harris says that his first and only choice for the role of Everett Hitch was Viggo Mortensen, with whom he had shared the screen in A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg.

Viggo's Sense of Loyalty

"I had just finished reading Appaloosa when we shot A History of Violence, and I gave it to Viggo and told him that I really wanted to make it into a film with him in it," recalls Harris. "One of the greatest things about Viggo is his sense of loyalty. He's a man of his word. Once he committed to the project, he was completely on board."

Viggo's Take on Violence in the West

"It's not a revisionist Western," states Viggo Mortensen. "It's not a movie about 1882 seen through our eyes as much as it is a picture that's without judgment of people as they seem to have behaved back then. The standards of behavior were very different. In some ways, there were higher standards of politeness and chivalry, but in other ways, people were much more direct and brutal towards each other. Neither Ed nor I, as the central male characters, are trying to justify the violence that comes with our jobs in this story, or to make our characters seem more heroic than they are."

Seeing Eye-to-Eye

"We see eye to eye," says Mortensen of his experience working with Harris. Mortensen was also drawn to the subtlety in the dialogue and the friendship between two lawmen in the Old West. "I think Cole trusts Hitch more than anyone else in the world, specifically because Hitch is very honest with him, even when it's difficult to bring certain things to Cole's attention," says the actor. "That is my definition of a good friend: somebody who is brave enough to tell you the truth even when it's not what you want to hear."

"Hitch is the reason that Cole's still alive," says Harris. "The two met in a standoff between Cole and another gunslinger." It was Cole and Hitch who lived to tell about it. "Hitch was originally trained at West Point, but he gave up the life of a soldier and wandered West. Then he met Cole, who was looking for a right-hand man in his peacekeeping business. Hitch saved Cole's life, and Cole, in return, has given Hitch a life."

While they have spent the last 12 years bringing peace to lawless towns, everything changed in Appaloosa, "in part because it was time for things to change, but mostly because of the influence of Allison French," Mortensen suggests.

Renee Zellweger plays the role of Allison French, a beguiling widow who arrives in Appaloosa and immediately draws the attention of Cole and then Hitch. Together, the couple meet the young widow in a restaurant, but have very different impressions of the enigmatic newcomer. "Cole has never met anyone quite like Allie, so he becomes instantly fascinated," says Harris.

Viggo on Zellweger's Allie

Mortensen notes, "Hitch thinks that she's a bit too forward; a bit too inquisitive for his taste. As soon as she starts asking all these questions, Hitch becomes a little wary of her. But Cole is immediately taken with her. Cole is someone who's so dedicated to serving the law that he's somewhat of a workaholic," continues Mortensen. "So despite Hitch's skepticism about Allie, he thinks it's nice to see Cole let loose a little and have some fun. But as Cole and Allie's relationship gets more serious, it becomes problematic. She seems to be too much of a distraction. And distractions can be dangerous for lawmen."

Another powerful character in Appaloosa is the local rancher Randall Bragg, who has gotten used to being above the law. Played by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune). "Bragg is a man who has a lot of connections and he's out West trying to make his fortune by taking over the local copper mines around Appaloosa," says the British actor. "In the course of taking over this area, he allows his men to run riot in town."

Viggo on Jeremy Irons' Bragg

Mortensen says, "It was a very interesting time. I looked into Southwestern history and the history of outlaws and lawmen, and there often appears to have been a very thin line between them. In fact, Cole and Hitch are not that far removed from the 'outlaws' that they're up against. There's not much difference between them in some moments; they both have displays of temper and violence."

After co-writing the screenplay with Robert Knott for Appaloosa, Ed Harris began to envision the fictional town in which the story takes place to be in New Mexico or Arizona. The filmmaker considered filming in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas before finally deciding on northern New Mexico.

Appaloosa is director of photography Dean Semler's seventh film shot in New Mexico. "Santa Fe is ideal for shooting Westerns. You've got such a variety of landscapes," Semler says, referring to the state's picturesque offerings of tabletop mesas, sandstone buttes, high desert chaparral, alpine terrain and river basins.

Appaloosa was filmed from late September to early December 2007 in and around Santa Fe. Various locations included the multi-hued sandstone cliffs of Abiquiu and alongside the Chama River, where the autumn cottonwoods were turning golden. The town of Appaloosa was constructed on designer Tom Ford's Cerro Pelon Ranch in Galisteo. The scene where Bragg's men chase Cole and Hitch was filmed crossing the Rio Grande River near Algodones. While most of the film was shot in New Mexico, the production chose to shoot one climactic shootout in Austin, Texas, which doubled for the fictional town of Rio Seco.

Costume Designer David Robinson

Outfitting the characters in Appaloosa was the task of costume designer David Robinson, who scoured old photographs and Western antiques in his research. Robinson found similarities among men's fashion in the day and reasoned that the similarities stemmed from the practicalities of the situation. "For instance, you wear a bandana to keep your neck from chafing, and you'd wear a vest because it gives you that extra layer," the designer offers.

Viggo's Costumes

In creating the costumes for Virgil Cole, says Robinson, "Cole has a classic style. He's often seen in a Prince Albert-style blazer jacket in charcoal gray along with black pants and striped period shirt. He's very no-nonsense. And everything is well-kept.

"Hitch is more down-to-earth. His colors are browns and greens," continues Robinson. "He's very practical, so when something rips, he just sews it up. He has a leather saddle strap that's been added to his jacket so his gun belt won't wear on his jacket."

Stunts and Horses

Several dozen horses were used in the filming of Appaloosa, mostly large, sturdy quarter horses, along with some appendix horses and mules. Head wrangler Rex Peterson studied old Frederic Remington paintings to research the horse tack of the 1880s. "The horses are being ridden with fancy period silver bits and bridles," says Peterson. "The American Indians are riding with plainer saddles and bridles."

Harris and Mortensen did their own riding, mounted on large, solid-colored bays and sorrels. "They're both excellent riders," says Peterson.

Hard Stuff

The steep mountainsides in the Abiquiu area demanded careful planning and intense focus for all involved. Viggo Mortensen recalls, "We did all the hardest stuff in the first week, climbing up steep hillsides with rocky terrain. Rex selected two very impressive steeds for Cole and Hitch to ride because when they first come into town, they want to make an impression. They come in on horses that are much bigger than the other ones in town."

"The image of Cole and Hitch riding into town in this fashion is classic Western iconography," offers executive producer Michael London. "They're two characters who set out to right a wrong. It sounds like a simple and obvious task, but they ultimately discover the nuances and complexities of the situation that make their jobs impossible to accomplish without compromising something along the way."
Last edited: 8 September 2008 16:16:15
© Emanuel Levy.