Ed Harris took Old West self-sufficiency to heart with his latest film.
First, Harris secured the rights to Robert B. Parker’s Western novel “Appaloosa” and pitched it to buddy Viggo Mortensen, who agreed to co-star with him in the saga of two upright pals aiming to clean up a lawless town.
Then Harris co-wrote the screenplay, produced and directed the film and put in 10-hour days to help edit it.
Harris even followed the singing-cowboy trail, co-writing and crooning a rootsy song for the end credits.
Appropriately, Harris was on a horseback-riding trip with his family in Ireland in 2005 when he read Parker’s book. Harris said he had read some of Parker’s “Spenser” mysteries and picked up “Appaloosa” because it “had a cool cover and looked like a neat book.
“Then I just started reading this thing and was totally delighted with the relationship between these two guys,” Harris said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Appaloosa” premiered.
“I read the first couple scenes, literally, probably read 35 pages of the book or less and called my agent and said, ‘Find out if this is available,’ because it just tickled me.”
Challenging projectThe movie rights were open, and soon after, Harris passed the book on to Mortensen while they were promoting their film “A History of Violence” at the Toronto festival that same year. After Mortensen signed on, Harris got to work on the screenplay with his friend Robert Knott.
Harris stars as the close-lipped Virgil Cole, who arrives in Appaloosa as the new marshal along with longtime trail partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen). Bold, supremely capable and unshakably loyal, the two implement an iron-fisted rule over the town, taking on a gang led by a murderous rancher (Jeremy Irons).
Complicating matters is Virgil’s romance with a widow (Renee Zellweger), a woman prone to indiscretion and indelicate behavior.
“Appaloosa,” which has played two weekends in narrow release and expands to more theaters Friday, marks Harris’ return to directing after his acclaimed filmmaking debut “Pollock,” which earned him the third of his four acting Academy Award nominations and won the supporting actress Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden.
While “Pollock” was a labor of love shot on a tiny budget, “Appaloosa” was a much bigger production loaded with action and period design, a test of Harris’ filmmaking chops.
“It makes you trust yourself. It makes you be much more decisive than I am normally in life, because you can’t afford to hem and haw,” Harris said. “You’ve got to make decisions, and also, it’s great in terms of your relationships with people and delegating responsibility. ...
“The doing of it, it’s kind of thrilling. It’s a moment-to-moment proposition. I don’t really live like that on a normal day. I’m not that consumed. It’s fun. I like it. I couldn’t do it 365 days of the year, but basically, you dive in, you know some day you’re going to be done with it, and you just go for it.”
Harris began his career in theater and television before earning early big-screen acclaim as astronaut John Glenn in “The Right Stuff.” He has taken on occasional lead roles but mostly has built a film career in standout supporting gigs in such movies as “Apollo 13,” “The Truman Show,” “The Hours” and “Gone Baby Gone.”
Doing a lot with a littleIt was tough lining up the money for “Appaloosa,” because Westerns generally have been out of favor in Hollywood in recent decades. Westerns do not sell well overseas, where financial backers hope to recoup much of their investment, Harris said.
He ultimately managed to raise a modest budget of about $20 million for the production, which was largely shot in New Mexico.
Harris had to fight to keep in sequences aboard an old steam train that are pivotal to the action, along with a shootout that was filmed in Texas.
“I said, ‘If you start taking away these elements, the production value of this thing is not going to be what it’s supposed to be. It’s not going to have the visual impact it needs. It’s part of the story,”’ Harris said. “Anyway, we finally got it set up and going. It wasn’t a luxurious shoot by any means, but we did have the means to do it.”
Harris approaches filmmaking with workmanlike facility, his co-stars said.
“He’s generally pretty efficient,” Mortensen said. “He had to be because of the budget and wanting to put so much of it on the screen in terms of the production values.”
“He’s not a man of many words, you know. He shows up and says what he’s hoping for, sets it up and puts it to film,” Zellweger said. “Everything was just so comfortable and easy. Maybe that says more than any anecdote I might come up with. He’s confident and he’s pretty clear about he wants, and it just kind of falls into place.”
Making musicHarris did some musicals in his college acting days and has played guitar and piano, the latter for his 2006 turn as the composer in “Copying Beethoven.”
But the song he sings over the closing credits, “You’ll Never Leave My Heart,” came about as a bit of a fluke, Harris writing the lyrics and Jeff Beal, who did the movie’s musical score, coming up with the tune.
“I was up late one night just fooling around, you know. I showed it to him, he goes, ‘Let me try to write some music for it,”’ Harris said. “Anyway, it was fun. We had a good time recording it.”
Harris’ song is an earthy, angry romantic reproach sounding like something a lonely cowboy could have concocted around a campfire back in Old West times.
Preceding it over the end credits is a modern country-rock tune from Tom Petty and his band Mudcrutch, “Scare Easy.” Harris initially resisted the Petty song, finding the tone too contemporary for his 19th century tale.
“The first time I listened to it, I went, ‘No, this is not right,”’ Harris said. “But then I kept listening to it and we tried it over the credits, and it was like, ‘Yeah, man, the film’s over. ... Let’s rock.”’