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Westward High

[whitespace] The Hi-Lo Country Director Stephen Frears describes the highs and lows of making 'The Hi-Lo Country.'

By Richard von Busack

An Englishman has just made the biggest and best Western in years. The Hi-Lo Country is a film that has been almost 40 years in development. Since Max Evans' 1961 novel of the same title was published, filmmakers as disparate as Sam Peckinpah and George Axelrod (the playwright/director who wrote The Seven Year Itch) have sought to turn it into a movie.

Set in northern New Mexico in the late 1940s, the film depicts the postwar lives of two cowboys, both veterans, who find their opportunities dwindling. Both men are in love with the same woman, the married Mona (Patricia Arquette). Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson) is Mona's lover, but her wandering eye still catches Pete (Billy Crudup), the narrator.

Big Boy is the last of the mythic cowboys, and Harrelson plays him as if he were a foot taller than anyone else in the picture. The film offers the almost extinct delights of the Western: the cattle drives and big skies, fist fights and poker games. But Frears is too smart to portray Big Boy's life without hinting at its limits.

Before Harrelson ever played a cowboy, he played a psycho or two. With his sudden violence and carelessness, Harrelson's Big Boy reminds us that both types--cowboy and lunatic--are known for their ability to blend thought, word and deed into a single action. You can love Big Boy, but you might not want to be in the same bar with him.

Frears has a background in British television ("If you ask David Thomson, it's all been downhill for me since then," Frears comments, reminding me that the eminent critic believes that Frears' best work was on BBC. Thomson prefers Milos Forman's Valmont to Frears' take on the same material, Dangerous Liaisons, but I can't agree.)

The years since Frears' 1988 Dangerous Liaisons have included 1993's The Snapper--the best of three adaptations of the novels of Irish writer Roddy Doyle--The Grifters and a few financial failures, including Hero (1992) and 1996's Mary Riley.

Frears: I ran into the guy who runs Universal yesterday. I said, 'I've heard that you've just been sacked and are going to rejoin the human race.'

Metro: I grew up in L.A. I know you can make a fortune there, and the point of having that fortune is that you can use it to get out of Los Angeles entirely.

Frears: Well, I have a good time, so fuck 'em all.

Metro: Why did it take so long to make a movie out of The Hi-Lo Country?

Frears: I can only tell anecdotes. Sam [Peckinpah] wrote a first draft, set it on the Mexican border in 1924. I mean it's a very anecdotal book. I think other people were more distracted by the richness, the picaresqueness of the book--keeping this bit, or that character. Walon [Green, the scriptwriter] took out all of the other stuff and got to the heart of the book.

Metro: Have any of Max Evans' other books been filmed?

Frears: Burt Kennedy made The Rounders into a movie in 1965, a Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda Western. George Axelrod, back when he was successful, wanted to make The Hi-Lo Country into a Western with Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. It wasn't a commercial enough cast. (Laughs).

Metro: It's strange to think of Axelord directing a Western.

Frears: (Emphatically.) It's a really good book, and he was a very intelligent man.

Metro: Had you always wanted to make a Western?

Frears: No. It's exhausting. I read the book. I said, I can see this is rather good, but I don't know how you can make this. If you find me some old-timers--and they said, well, Walon Green can write this. Well, he wrote the first draft of The Wild Bunch, and he wrote a very good first draft of The Hi-Lo Country, and that just sucks you in. Then you discover you wanted to make a Western all your life.

You read, "They drive the cattle." You think, well, I've got to do a cattle drive. It sort of creeps up on you, and you start to put it together in your head. So it wasn't really about wanting to make the film. I knew a lot about seeing Westerns. And then I suddenly realized that I'd better go out and learn all of this stuff.

Metro: Barbara De Fina, the co-producer of The Hi-Lo Country, said that she wanted to make the film as much of an independent film as possible. Is there much resistance from the studios to the idea of making a Western?

Frears: It's like making a film about Martians. When you look at cowboys in these extraordinary costumes and at their rituals ... and, eh, life ain't like that anymore. And you can see that kids don't have cowboys as their heroes.

Metro: There's something about the Vietnam War that broke the genre in half.

Frears: I thought it was just the frontier struggle came to an end. The metaphor came to an end, but maybe Vietnam was it.

Metro: Are there actually a lot of people left who know about the old techniques, about getting the cattle in line for the camera and so forth?

Frears: Yes and no. What I found is that I didn't find anyone who knew how to make a Western. Maybe Sam Elliott did. [Elliott plays the villain, a cowboy devil to go with his cowboy angel in The Big Lebowski.] Sam sort of looked after me, very protectively. I went and talked to Harry Carey Jr.--he'd actually been to the Oracle [namely, director John Ford]; he'd stood on the mountain, as it were.

Metro: What sort of advice did Carey give you?

Frears: (A little cross.) He didn't particularly advise me on anything. What you had to discover was what the world was like when they made those films. His book is very, very good: The Company of Heroes. It's about making seven films with John Ford. You know his father, the old silent-film actor Harry Carey Sr., had this ranch in Southern California where all the cowboy stars practiced their riding. What I can now see, when I watch a classic Western is ... clearly there's a lot of Westerns about robbing banks, shooting and all of that stuff. But that isn't what John Ford was doing. He learned about films from doing that but made much more. He was really using this matter for a metaphor because he had such feeling for those people and their way of life.

Metro: The bull-riding sequence was flabbergasting. How did you get that? The traditional way that's done is with the closeup of the bull, instead of the long shot you used to show that the rodeo wasn't faked.

Frears: They proposed a mechanical bull. Well, that's pretty dull. Eventually, I went to these rodeo guys and using a system of moral blackmail, I got them do something dangerous. Rodeo guys know how to get hit by animals. It's part of the show. They came in that morning, and they knew they were going to get hit, and they weren't scared. They knew that what I wanted--wanted not in some sort of sadistic way, was just to give the whole thing some sort of tension and some sort of drama. I wasn't in the business of getting people badly hurt. The bull did far more than what we hoped for. Nobody was hurt, but they got hit. It looked absolutely astonishing.

Metro: How did you direct Woody Harrelson?

Frears: I told him he was playing John Wayne. Really, it was a struggle with Woody. He's a wonderful man, but he's quite self-conscious. That took time to work out. He's not like Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino, who like showing off their souls. Of course, he was playing a reticent man, who didn't show his feelings.

Metro: The feeling some viewers have about John Wayne is a sort of broken-heartedness. Those of a certain age watched Wayne change from a lovable hero to a reactionary bigot in the 1970s.

Frears: Well, Godard made this wonderful remark about "How can I love Wayne and dislike his politics so much?" When I think of him, about Wayne, I think about him in Stagecoach. You know the characters he played which were, of course, flawed. He was very young when he did Red River. You remember the story about John Ford saying, "I didn't know the son of a bitch could act."

I had faith in my actors, I trusted them. The truth is that it was always clear that you had to get to a high level emotionally with this film, a high moral plane. I was trying to make an epic, a film that began really small, and came to a big conclusion.

Metro: I didn't expect this film to have such grand scope.

Frears: That was all the plan. I knew that really we could achieve it through intensity of feeling.

Metro: Seeing this kind of mythic heroism is, to use a degraded word, inspirational.

Frears: Yeah, that was always there from the beginning.

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Web extra to the January 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro.

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