Acclaimed Actor Scripts, Directs & Stars in Western Showdown

“I don’t kill people for a living,” granite-hard peacekeeper Virgil Cole feels compelled to point out when he applies for the job of town-tamer in an intelligent but wild ’n’ woolly Southwestern burg in 1882. “I enforce the law. Killing is sometimes a…”

The thought is lost, left to flap in the wind while he waits for the word. It won’t come. His eyes dart desperately to his number-two man (for wont of a better word, deputy), Everett Hitch. “Byproduct,” Hitch suggests. “Byproduct,” Cole repeats, relieved.

Cole is constantly reaching for the highfalutin word that exceeds his grasp, and his reliable backup is forever filling in the blank and finishing the sentence for him. This little comical “byproduct” speaks volumes for their fierce friendship, which, as our tale begins, has been forged in a good dozen years of gunfighting and peacekeeping.

This enduring relationship has more or less leapt from the pages of Robert B. Parker’s popular novel onto the screen in Warner Bros.’ $20 million shoot-’em-up, both titled Appaloosa (not a remake of Marlon Brando’s 1966 Mexican horse-chase, The Appaloosa.) Appaloosa is the name of a place in the Old West territory of New Mexico—the latest locale where Cole, as Hitch understates it, “gets hired to settle things down in towns that need settling.”

Ed Harris wears four different hats for this film, the most conspicuous being Cole’s cowboy hat with the rounded crown. He is also one of the film’s producers—quite fittingly, since he’s the instigator and prime mover for this celluloid sagebrusher.

“In 2005, I went on a horseback-riding trip with my family to Ireland, and I took the book with me,” he recalls. “I just happened to pick it up. It looked good. I liked the cover. And I’d read a bunch of Parker before.” (Primarily a crime novelist, Parker is best-known for his Spenser books, which prompted the ABC TV series “Spenser: For Hire,” and his Jesse Stone mysteries, which were the basis for four CBS telefilms.)

“When I started reading the book, I was immediately struck by this relationship between Cole and Hitch—Parker’s dialogue and the kind of unspoken appreciation and affection that these guys had for one another, the respect and humor and loyalty and unspoken understanding that existed between two lawmen who’ve spent the last 12 years of their lives watching each other’s backs in life-or-death situations.

“It just jumped off the page. Even before I finished the book—in fact, after reading the first couple of scenes between them, I called up my agent and asked him to find out if the book was available. I’d not made a film in nine years, and I was up for it.”

Harris made his directing debut with Pollock, an anguished portrayal of the out-of-control abstract expressionist, and directed himself to a Best Actor shot at the Oscar—his other Oscar nominations were for support (in Apollo 13, The Truman Show and The Hours)—and he also directed Marcia Gay Harden to the Oscar for her truly supporting performance of Jackson Pollock’s wife and caretaker, Lee Krasner.

Should there be a supporting Oscar in Appaloosa, it would go to Viggo Mortensen’s strong and silent and ever-present Hitch, Cole’s walking dictionary and a good man to have on your side in a showdown. Harris says he was the only choice for the role.

The two actors met adversarially (in the extreme!) in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence—Harris as a menacing mobster versus Mortensen as a former hitman-gone-good—and they resolved their differences in a protracted front-lawn shootout.

“I just worked on that picture a couple of weeks,” says Harris of the performance that the National Society of Film Critics called the Best Supporting Actor work of 2005, “but I liked working with Viggo a lot—and Mr. Cronenberg.

“It was actually around that time that I showed Viggo this book and, basically, asked him, ‘If I get a good screenplay written for this thing, will you do it with me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ So I wrote the script with my partner, Robert Knott, in January of ’06.”

By the time the script reached Mortensen, he was inundated in flicks (including one, Eastern Promises, that got him in the Oscar running). “Viggo was doing tons of things, but we worked out a shooting schedule. He’s a man of his word. He showed up a couple of days before filming, ready to go, and we began in October of ’07.”

Truth to tell, and now it can be told, it’s not Harris’ first time out as a screenwriter. “I worked a lot on Pollock. I didn’t get any credit, but I pretty much rewrote the whole thing.” Knott assisted and played a small role in that film, as he does in this one.

You’d think a $20 million western would be harder to pull off than a modest indie—but no, says Harris. “It was quite the opposite. Pollock was really a tough shoot, just in terms of the schedule—we worked really long hours—and I was pumping a lot of my own money into it. Even though Appaloosa had exteriors and we were out in the country, we were just better organized and probably had a better production crew.”

Harris corralled a couple of solid-gold Oscar-winners for the heroine and villain slots: Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons. “Heroine” is not exactly the right handle for Allie French, a survivalist who manages to touch some kind of sexual base with all four of the major male characters. At one brazen point, she tries to drive a spike between Cole and Hitch, but Cole recognizes the truth (not so much from what Allie says as from what Hitch is). Feminine guile proves no match for the code of the West.

“Renée really liked her character,” says her director and chief suitor. “She’s not explained. It’s a tough character, not the most sympathetic in the world in terms of how she behaves, but Cole believes there’s a part of her that will hopefully get over these wayward ways. The point is, he has never met anybody like her, and he loves her, and that’s enough for him. He says, ‘I’m not going to leave her,’ and he doesn’t.”

Irons, looking downright scruffy and keeping the British accent under wraps for the most part, is Randall Bragg, the local ranch lord responsible for sending Cole’s immediate predecessor as city marshal six feet under. Manfully, and with Hitch riding shotgun (or, more precisely, an eight-gauge “punt gun”), the newly designated city marshal marches Bragg from outhouse to hoosegow. The problem rapidly becomes getting him the rest of the way to justice, with his unruly ranchhands roiling and shootin’ it up outside jail and along the rails to a higher court.

Appaloosa’s character-driven story takes its own sweet time, and some considerable local color, before it corners its principals in an iconic main-drag shoot. It’s not The End per se, just impossible odds that have well-served Rio Bravo and My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and at least two 3:10 to Yumas.

These are among Harris’ favorite westerns, and it’s an honor and homage for him to reference fragments of them in Appaloosa. Somehow, his personal favorites couldn’t be shoehorned into the production; these would be “One-Eyed Jacks, [The Man Who Shot] Liberty Valance, The Ox-Bow Incident maybe, Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, some of the old Budd Boetticher things with Randolph Scott…”

Obviously a discerning and somewhat expert mind is at work here. He dirt-kicks the notion that he’s a latent Student of the West, “but I looked at a lot of these films again that I had seen. I just like the genre. I really do, and I kinda was hoping that Appaloosa would be more in a classic vein than some hyped-up modern version.”

Another reason Harris passes on the Student of the West title is that he’s not—now—all that avid a reader of western dime-novels. “Early on, I read a bunch of Zane Grey novels. In fact, in 1996 I did a movie for TNT based on Grey’s most famous yarn, Riders of the Purple Sage.” His wife [Amy Madigan] co-starred and co-produced. It’s his one and only foray into the western genre until Appaloosa happened along.

Bob L. Harris, dad of the director, also can be found fleetingly in Riders of the Purple Sage. And in Pollock. And in A Flash of Green. His role in Appaloosa—Judge Elias Callison—is his biggest and best in his son’s films so far. The director “is so proud of him I can hardly stand it. He’s done a lot of theatre in the Chicago area. I thought he did a great job. It was easy directing him. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a pro.”

The frantic race back and forth, in front of and then behind the camera, simultaneously acting and directing, was less of a lark. “I did have the experience directing myself with Pollock, with the help of Candy Trebuco, so I asked her back. She’s an acting coach that I never really worked with as a coach per se. We had a theatre group, and we’d do classes together. She just really has a good eye. I had her along to keep eye on what I was doing, so I could have some sounding boards and I didn’t have to think about it while I was doing it.

“Switching back and forth is something I wanted to do, so I did it. I think if I make another film, I’ll probably have a smaller role—if I act in it at all. There are things that do get by you when you’re acting. Y’know, you can’t go back to the monitor and look at every damn shot—you’d never get the film made—so there are certain things, whether it’s performance or camera angle or something in the background that does not jive, you’re not totally aware of when you’re on the other side of the camera.”

Still, Harris admits, “I’d like to direct again. I really enjoy the process. I enjoy being the one who’s ultimately calling the shots. I really love the editing room. I have a great editor [Kathryn Himoff, who also worked on Pollock].”

A definite possibility is looming from one of the usual suspects—Robert B. Parker himself. “He has done two sequels to Appaloosa—one has already come out, called Resolution, and there’s another yet to be published called Brimstone. So Cole and Hitch get back together again—another town, another place. I’d combine the books.

“Right now, everything’s totally a crapshoot, but if Appaloosa is successful—hey! I’d do a sequel in a heartbeat,” Harris promises, with a P.S. “If I can get it financed.”

It’s a big if these days. Grade-A westerns have gone thataway, victims of these overly technological times, Harris supposes. “I think there are a whole bunch of reasons. Time changes and the whole way people live these days—just the computer and the special effects that you can do. To see people who are just dealing with each other, and there’s not a bunch of CGI or anything—it’s just about human beings in a certain place and time. People pay money to see other things.”