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Scott Cooper’s ‘Hostiles’ Finds New Frontiers Outside the Studio System

“You think John Ford ever had to deal with this?” asks director Scott Cooper, gazing at a gnarly gray sky over northern New Mexico. A lightning strike was reported within six miles of the location shoot for his new movie, “Hostiles,” sparking an OSHA-mandated, 30-minute production stoppage. It’s just an occupational hazard that comes with shooting during monsoon season.

A period Western with nods to Ford classics like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “The Searchers,” the picture is filming here at Ghost Ranch — 21,000 acres of God’s country, 60 miles north of Santa Fe — where one-time resident Georgia O’Keeffe painted canvases with images of the mesa that towers in the distance. Though lightening strikes are unpredictable, one thing is certain: Cooper and his cast and crew are far from the artifice of Hollywood back lots.

“The dynamic weather patterns out here are stunning — the big sky, thunderhead clouds on one side and sort of Maxfield Parrish-style clouds on the other,” says the film’s star, Christian Bale, dressed in a cavalry uniform, his face tanned, his mustache fierce. “And there’s us all in these bloody woolen uniforms, losing weight. I’m sure our boots are just full of fat at the end of each day. It’s so much easier when you do it that way rather than on a soundstage.”

The Oscar-winning actor is portraying U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Blocker, a man tasked with transporting a dying Cheyenne elder (Wes Studi) to sacred territory in the north. The loathing the two men have for one another after decades of warring provides a platform to explore current racial tensions in the world at large, a hallmark of the Western genre.

Adam Hancher for Variety

“There’s ultimately an uplifting message about reconciliation and forgiveness — understanding the ways of others,” Cooper says. “I think right now we need to not only understand what’s happening with race, but how we can come together as a nation.”

“Western,” though, is almost a dirty word on the set. Terms like “frontier picture” are thrown around, and there are more than a few references to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” perhaps to shake off any stigma associated with a genre that doesn’t often perform well at the box office, particularly overseas. Recent examples include 2015’s “Jane Got a Gun,” which also shot here.

That said, another Western — Netflix’s limited series “Godless” — is filming here in tandem with “Hostiles.” And Rod Lurie’s TNT-backed Civil War drama “Monsters of God,” is scouting locations nearby. Sony and MGM’s upcoming release “The Magnificent Seven” recently shot here, too.

Studi, a 30-year veteran who has starred in his fair share of Westerns and lives in the area, is encouraged by the sudden uptick.  “It’s good for all the people coming into the business as Native Americans, as well as the cowboys, wranglers — it produces work for all of us,” he says. “Stunt people who don’t necessarily drive cars and jump out of buildings and things like that, they have a lot of work here.”

Richard B. Jewell, a retired USC film school professor who taught a regular course on Westerns, says that though the genre’s fortunes may be cyclical, there will always be an appetite for movies about the American West. “It seems to me that’s executive think — that this is some kind of prehistoric genre that nobody cares about anymore,” Jewell says. “But in its heyday, the Western traveled all over the globe and influenced filmmakers in every culture who ended up making their own, like the Italians or the Spanish or the Brazilians.”

After an exhilarating start to his directing career in the 2009 drama “Crazy Heart,” for which Jeff Bridges won the actor Oscar, Cooper, a former actor, is coming off a pair of releases that lacked the same luster: “Out of the Furnace,” which also starred Bale, was a box office bust that was critically dismissed. Last year’s Johnny Depp-starrer “Black Mass” was positioned for awards glory by Warner Bros., but ran out of steam midway through the season.

“When I was at Paramount, they would constantly say, ‘What is your next tentpole?’ Like you’re just supposed to order it up.”
John lesher, producer

Cooper nevertheless counts the creative freedom he enjoyed on those three productions as a blessing, and that kind of leeway also applied to “Hostiles.” The film has just one financier, Garmin GPS heir Ken Kao, who has fully or partially bankrolled auteurs including Terrence Malick and Gus Van Sant.

The movie, produced by John Lesher (who also backed “Black Mass”), is being made outside the studio system for $40 million without a domestic distributor in place — a risky proposition for any financier.

Lesher, a former agent and Oscar winner for 2015’s best picture champion “Birdman,” is very wary of the Hollywood status quo after having worked as a top executive at Paramount Pictures.

“When I was at Paramount, they would constantly say, ‘What is your next tentpole? When is that coming out?’ Like you’re just supposed to order it up,” he says. “That’s how they get into trouble with these movies that suck. If you’re just trying to churn out the sausage, someone else can do that just as well.”

At a time when the major studios increasingly function more like IP management companies, the role of patrons like Kao, Megan Ellison (daughter of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison), Molly Smith (daughter of FedEx CEO Frederick Smith), and Teddy Schwarzman (son of Blackstone Group founder Stephen A. Schwarzman) becomes increasingly important.

“It’s a real treasure trove — a handful of film lovers who are financing films that otherwise would probably never see the light of day,” Bale says. “I think many are looking at them as a salvation from the superhero films.”

But Kao cautions that he isn’t looking to badmouth the studios. “I can indulge in that, too,” he says. “But [this new way of doing things] is good for us, because a lot of material that would have been gobbled up and just sat in development is now available to independent filmmakers.”

Cooper checks the frame in one of the location’s few shaded pockets, a muscular 4-wheel drive golf cart outfitted with monitors and draped in black fabric. Effects consultant Jake Braver conveys details of how they’ll later insert soaring arrows into the shot for a sequence that will depict Comanches ambushing Blocker and his caravan, which today includes co-stars Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, and Rosamund Pike, among others.

Pike plays a frontier wife and mother who experiences a tragedy in the film’s opening scene. To close out the day, cameras will capture one of her most emotional moments, so between takes, she hurriedly jogs a wide loop to work up the breathlessness that will help sell her anger and pain.

An Oscar nominee for David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” Pike caught Cooper’s eye in another project: Ringan Ledwidge’s recent music video for Massive Attack’s “Voodoo in my Blood,” which features the actress writhing around on a subway platform, mesmerized by a mysterious orb. Her work there, and the connection she and Cooper made when they first met over a Skype session — her two children crawled all over her as she interviewed for the “Hostiles” role — are what sealed the director’s decision.

“You need to be able to play that horror,” Cooper says. “And her maternal instincts were incredible. I think she’s an unexpected choice.”

Now, in the wake of all the gunfire and screams of previous set-ups in the sequence, the crew goes largely quiet for Pike’s moment. “She photographs so beautifully,” one person whispers. When the emotion hits and she drops to the ground in a fetal position, another says, “Wow.”

Cooper pauses, making sure he’s squeezed every ounce out of the frame. Finally, as the magic-hour sun glints off the towering scenery, he sends the crew home with a “Cut.”

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