Based on an original story by Donald E. Stewart, Hostiles is director Scott Cooper’s follow-up to Black Mass, Crazy Heart, and Out of the Furnace. Set in 1892, the film tells the tale of Army Captain J. Blocker (Christian Bale) who journeys from New Mexico to Montana to escort a dying Native American war chief (Wes Studi). Bale’s brute military officer is the product of the US Government’s conditioning to hate and kill, but the journey forces Blocker to band together with fellow frontier travelers as he makes the perilous trip.
Bringing his film to screen at the Middleburg Festival, Cooper tells us that Virginia has special meaning for him as he was born and raised there. Festival founder Sheila Johnson said of the Hostiles screening, “I fought for this one. I really wanted this at the festival.”
Cooper and I talk about his insistence on hiring actual Native Americans, instead of others who can pass. “We have such an unforgivable past of doing that in American Westerns. I would never cast someone who isn’t right ethnically,” he says. Hostiles is an intense watch with a brutal slaughter from the get-go. Cooper talked about why that scene was emotionally challenging for him. Have a read of our conversation below.
The opening of the film sees the brutal killing of Rosalee Quaid’s children and husband. Then you cut to Christian Bale’s character and his reaction. Walk me through that opening and what we’re seeing.
It was important to set a tone for the rest of the film. My opening shot shows this handmade cabin in a very idyllic almost majestic setting and it represents the American ideal of manifest destiny which is quickly shattered. What we understand about this character played by Rosamund Pike is that she represents the best of us, our indomitable spirit to overcome great tragedy, loss, and grief. She continues, we all have a different faith, and she has a particular faith that helps her overcome this great tragedy but it also shows how inhospitable the American West was.
Then the film introduces us to this world in a group of men that have been indoctrinated by the US government to hate. People who don’t see the way they see, believe the way they believe and look the way they look. It was important for me to say to the viewer this is what this film is going to be for better or for worse.
There are two scenes I want to talk about. The first is Christian Bale burying a solider. We see him in silence, but you see him screaming, and later you show us the same thign happen with Rosamund Pike. What was the significance behind that?
For Christian Bale’s character, here’s a man who’s been trained not to show any outward emotion. He’s a captain, a leader and he’s faced great hardship. Only when he is faced with what he’s faced with at the beginning of the film is he able to go out with no one watching and express himself with rage, anger, grief, and sorrow. We meet a new widow and we understand the great loss and the tragedy that she has experienced and how these two people who are shaped by grief and tragedy and how they can potentially come together as one.
It’s not until we take this journey of the soul with them that they do become one and that they’re both quite damaged. Did you like the scene when she was burying her children?
It killed me.
That isn’t acting by the way. No, that’s primal. That doesn’t come from RADA and the actor’s studio. It comes from a place of deep humanity that very few people can access.
You mentioned the challenges of shooting on location. How did you find the perfect location?
I wanted, along with Donald Graham Burt who is an incredible production designer, to find a location that helped to tell the narrative. We opened the film in vast desert landscapes. That speaks about the isolation with which Christian and his men live every day. As the narrative progresses it shows how insignificant man is to nature and how subordinate to nature we are.
As the journey becomes physically arduous, the journey of the soul becomes a much more difficult and arduous journey. In each location Donald and I selected places to show the mental state of the characters as well as the narrative and how each would show a shard of life and a shard of a fractured psyche in this majestic landscape. It also showed how such tragic of events can take place in the most gorgeous of locations.
What was the toughest scene emotionally for you to shoot?
Shooting that opening with my daughters. Christian is like an uncle to them, and my DP has known them since they were little. Seeing my daughters play those moments were very difficult as a father. It wasn’t as technically difficult, but definitely emotional.
Rosalie burying her family was difficult for the actors to watch her go to those places. It was all non-verbal and coming from this place of tragedy and grief. That was difficult as a filmmaker to watch.
Shooting those on an emotional level was very difficult. Shooting a Wes Studi who’s taking his final breath and that profile with the majesty of the American West. That was done at 12,000 feet above sea level. That was technically difficult just in getting Wes and the camera there.
The final shootout where there’s a great deal of loss and a young Cheyenne boy loses his entire family and essentially his ties to his culture, emotionally that was difficult.
What did you and Max Richter talk about with the music for the film? You also have a lot of silence.
I’m generally not a fan of music that will lead us in an emotional direction. What that’s telling viewers is that it’s not working through character or through dialogue or through the camera. I try to have my score along with Max Richter really try to underscore what the psychology is of the scene and of the characters and building themes that will repeat later and have more emotional resonance once you hear them.
Trying to give the images and the viewer space so they aren’t bombarded by music and told how to feel in a certain moment. If the actors aren’t doing it, if the camera isn’t doing it, and the mise en scène isn’t doing it, I have Max there to support the emotional texture and hue. I can’t speak highly enough of his music. So often the scores that get recognized are those that are emotionally resonant in an obvious manner.
I have to talk about your casting. You did something great by casting actual Native Americans. You didn’t cast Latinos.
Jazz, are you kidding? We have such an unforgivable past of doing that in American Westerns. I would never cast someone who isn’t right ethnically. I cast Zoe Saldana as a Latina, I cast Forest Whitaker as an African American cop. Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Tanaya Beatty are all incredible. For them to be able to tell their story was very important to me and I made a distinct choice to tell the story from Christian Bale’s point of view. I would leave that to a Native American filmmaker to tell that story. I tried to tell it in a way that resonated for the Cherokee, Comanche and Cheyenne culture. Without having people that really represent that, why make a film? Quite frankly it’s a slap in the face to see, as we so often we saw, Caucasian actors playing Native American and there’s no bigger insult than that. We’ve already got our dark and unforgivable past of genocide in this country much less casting white Americans to do that. I would never do that.
What was the reaction from the Native American community?
To have the support of the Northern Cheyenne community has never been more heartening. I had many advisors on the set and they helped the actors learn the customs and the language, the mannerisms of the era. They’ve seen the movie and could not have embraced it more.
There will be people who will criticize the film for not telling the story from the Cheyenne point of view but for those who are in the film and those who I have shown the film to, they could not have been more supportive. I hope it can show young Cheyenne just how incredible the culture is because there are young Native Americans who are losing their identity.
How did your background as an actor help you as a director?
It’s everything because I revere actors. So often, actors only serve their impediments to get their stories to the screen, but for me, because I’m a performance director, actors, ever since the Greeks help tell human stories. I feel that’s my obligation to tell human stories.
Actors mean so much to me. It takes so much artistic courage to help lend voice to the human experience and to bare your soul in front of millions of people. I think actors are among the most humanistic people I know. They’re the most deeply thoughtful I know who have helped me become a better filmmaker.
Your cinematography is stunning and you mentioned earlier that you love the theatrical experience and what it offers. How do you feel about the rise of the streaming platforms as a filmmaker?
I find we are in a very difficult situation at the moment. It’s cutting through the clutter to get people off their sofas and into that common experience. It’s becoming difficult. I firmly believe that the very best way to show cinema is to show it in the darkness of the theater. I understand that some of these streaming services allow people to see films on a much wider basis and it appears that it’s becoming the norm. For me, who’s been shaped by cinema, my worldview was shaped in a cinema in the dark, watching filmmakers transport me to places I’ve never been to before. You will not get that at home. You get distracted by dogs, kids, phones, even when you turn your head the ambiance is different. There is nothing like the immersive experience of seeing a film in the cinema. Until I stop making film, that’s the way I hope my films are seen.
You mentioned last night that you’re working on something exciting.
I’m working on the story of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr by James Earl Ray and the rise of the demagogue who gave people permission to enact their bigotry and hate. It’s called Hellhound on His Trail. I’m just starting the casting process.
Hostiles is released on December 22. The film screened at the Middleburg Film Festival and will be shown at this year’s AFI Fest