On a flight to the Telluride Film Festival two years ago to premiere his film "Black Mass," director Scott Cooper looked out the window at the San Juan Mountains. Cooper turned to his producer, John Lesher, and told him that was where he wanted to shoot his next film, "Hostiles."
"I said, John that's the landscape below," Cooper recalled. "These San Juan Mountains as they're unfolding — I must shoot here. I have to shoot here, John, or I can't make the movie."
Though they didn't end up shooting at that exact location, they did shoot in an area of the Rocky Mountains fairly close by.
Cooper returns to Telluride this year with his new film, "Hostiles," which he wrote based on a manuscript by Donald Stewart. The late writer won the Academy Award for best screenplay for Costa-Gavras' "Missing," and is best known for writing screenplays based on Tom Clancy novels for the Jack Ryan films, including "The Hunt for Red October" and "Patriot Games."
"Hostiles" is set in 1892 and follows the journey of an Army captain (Christian Bale) who escorts a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. They're forced to band together to overcome the perilous journey, as well as the hostile Comanche tribes they encounter along the way.
When Cooper stopped by The Frame, he talked about his relationship to the Telluride Film Festival and how he worked with the Native American community to ensure authentic portrayals in the film.
On the importance of the Telluride Film Festival to Cooper:
Well, it means as much to me as any festival probably can. With "Crazy Heart," they invited the film and I was not able to take it. We were just in the process of doing some work on the film and I think it wasn't going to be ready in time. But I couldn't have been more excited because Telluride represents a safe haven for filmmakers. They have clearly incredible taste over the years of having the best films of the year. The festival is unlike any other in that it's very relaxed. The streets are filled with wandering filmmakers and fans alike ... just this general pervasive atmosphere where everybody loves film and everybody's really well versed in film. Quite honestly, I couldn't imagine a better setting to debut "Hostiles" than Telluride.
On working with the Native American community to ensure authentic portrayals and avoid the damaging stereotypes:
Through a great deal of conversation with Native Americans, a great deal of research — not only with Wes Studi and then on through Adam Beach, who's been in a number of Native American-themed films. But I spoke with a Cheyenne adviser. I spoke with a Comanche adviser. I wanted to make certain that I got all of the language right, all the customs, the morés right. I wanted to treat them with as much respect as I possibly could. So I tended to wear both a belt and suspenders at many times just to make certain that I was as truthful to the era as I possibly could be.
For instance, though [the film is] set in 1892, we know at that point most of the Comanche were well-settled on reservations. But according to my advisor, who is a full-blooded Comanche, there were many bands of rogue Comanche that were still out wreaking havoc among the landscape. And that was not in Donald Stewart's work, but I really felt it important to show different versions of Native American society.
On the themes of "Hostiles":
When I was working on the screenplay, we as a nation were clearly quite divided. I just didn't realize that in the two years since, we would be as divided as we are socially and politically, culturally and racially. It's quite vast, that divide. And I felt that I could take this story that's set 125 years in the past, 1892, and really discuss the themes of reconciliation — understanding the ways of others, inclusion, understanding that though we think we may know someone, we really don't. And until you walk a mile in someone's moccasins and someone's shoes, you don't really know them. It was important for me, hopefully in a subtle manner, to discuss those themes because each day we're living them and they grow in importance.
On writing "Hostiles" based on a manuscript by Donald Stewart:
Donald Stewart passed away in 1999 so I never had a chance to even meet him. But his widow reached out to my agent and said that she was a fan of my second film, "Out of the Furnace" ... I was really quite interested to hear what she had to say about that film because, generally, older people like "Crazy Heart." So I spoke with Ms. Stewart and she said, I found something. I'm moving [and] I found something that my husband was working on back in the early '90s. And I think you would really respond to it. And I said, Well, I'd love to read it.
So she sent it over and it was this spine of a story that I really responded to, which was a cavalry captain escorting a dying war chief home to his sacred burial territory in Montana. And from that I felt like I really wanted to make this story speak to the times in which we live — culturally, politically, racially ... But certainly my screenplay would never have existed if not for Donald Stewart. And I wanted to really honor his legacy and we've given him an executive producing credit.
On writing for specific actors in his films:
I had written "Crazy Heart" for Jeff Bridges and I had never met Jeff. And I'd written "Out of the Furnace" for Christian [Bale] and had never met Christian. And I did the same here. I wrote this part for Christian and I also wrote the dying chief for Wes Studi. And just through a stroke of luck was able to get these two.
To hear John Horn's full interview with Scott Cooper, click on the player above.