TORONTO – They play gun-fighting lawmen and long-time partners in “Appaloosa” – but actors Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen both laugh when asked who’s quicker on the draw.
“I’ve never seen anyone faster than Ed,” drawls Mortensen, echoing a line from the movie, in which he and Harris play lawmen cleaning up an 1880s New Mexico town (while dealing with the new girl in town – Renee Zellweger).
The pair reunited recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, which also launched their film, “A History of Violence,” in 2005. The pair met on that Oscar-nominated hit.
When Harris went looking for financing to direct a western based on a novel by Robert B. Parker (of “Spenser” fame), he found that backers were unwilling to take a risk on a tale of the Old West. But they quickly stepped up when he added Mortensen to the mix, with his international “Lord of the Rings” box-office magnetism.
Harris, 57, and Mortensen, 49, sat down together for a conversation about westerns – past and present – and why they’re so rare in Hollywood these days in Toronto where “Appaloosa,” which went wide in theaters last Friday, debuted to strong buzz.
Q: Westerns used to be the dominant genre in TV and movies. Which ones do you remember watching?
Harris: It was part of the culture when I was growing up. There were westerns on TV every night of the week: “Bat Masterson,” “Have Gun Will Travel.” “Gunsmoke” was on for something like 17 years.
Mortensen: I remember watching shows like “Bonanza” and “Rawhide” – I liked westerns. I liked that this film was like the old westerns.
Q: How about movies?
Harris: I like ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’ – John Wayne is really good in that.
Mortensen: My favorite John Wayne film is “Red River.” I think Montgomery Clift forced him to step it up.
Q: Were there films that influenced you in writing and directing this?
Harris: I looked at a ton of movies: a lot of John Ford, those Bud Boetticher films with Randolph Scott, Sam Peckinpah, Anthony Mann. Not to copy shots or angles but just to get into it and soak it up. It’s osmosis.
Q: It’s tricky to try to find a modern metaphor for the politics of the film, in the way that guns and power are used in the name of law.
Harris: Politically, I don’t want to shift it to modern day because then it becomes this right-wing fucking film.
Mortensen: Look at some of the older movies. Is “High Noon” about liberals coming to terms with McCarthyism? Or is it about standing up to the threat of communism? I guess it depends on your perspective.
Q: Which of the cowboy skills did you have to work at to get ready for this movie?
Harris: I spent a lot of time with the gun strapped to my leg; I wore it so it would be a part of me and so I could understand the mechanics. I got comfortable with being quick enough.
Mortensen: One thing you were right about – that my character would take the time to reload his pistol after a big shoot-out. You said it reflects part of their training, that it’s professional behavior. So I want to thank you for wildly insisting that I do something I didn’t want to do.
Harris: You’re welcome.
Q: Is it hard to get a western made these days?
Harris: Yeah, it is – at least one of this size, when you’re doing it with an independent company. The first thing they do is send the script overseas to find out how much they can sell it for. Based on that, we would have had about 60 percent of the budget we needed. It got a lot easier when Viggo said he was interested. I had read it and thought it would be fun to do. So I gave the book to Viggo when we were here in Toronto with “A History of Violence.” I didn’t coerce him but I pled – pled? pleaded? – with him. Because he was willing, I was able to get it done. I wasn’t trying to do anything new but I wound up with the newest thing of all: a western that’s actually good.
Q: Why do you think westerns aren’t as popular?
Mortensen: It all seems kind of quaint now when you watch it. Kids today can’t really relate. But if you punctuate it with dramatic moments and there’s something at stake, it becomes interactive, in a way. And that’s what works today – interactivity. If it’s done right, people don’t mind the period.
Harris: What you’re saying to the audience is, “Slow down. Take a breath.”
Mortensen: Of course, the percentage of good-to-bad westerns leans toward the bad because there were so many of them – and most of them are so horrible.
Harris: I don’t necessarily agree. Even when they were bad, they were fun.