Interview: Forsaken director Jon Cassar
The reformed gunfighter unable to escape his past. The greedy land baron. The gentleman hired gun with his own code of ethics. In the 1950s, these were among the most familiar tropes of the Western genre, repeated ad infinitum in an era when oaters dominated prime time television and filmmakers such as John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, and Anthony Mann cranked out horse operas at the pace of one per year.
Those days are long gone, distant enough that the archetypes in a nostalgic Western such as Forsaken feel as welcomingly familiar as slipping on an old pair of boots. In Forsaken – now out on VOD and in select theaters – Kiefer Sutherland is the reluctant gunfighter, Brian Cox the greedy land baron, and Michael Wincott the genteel mercenary. Eager to leave behind his violent past and reconcile with his preacher father (Donald Sutherland), Kiefer’s John Henry Clayton heads home to Wyoming only to find the town’s farmers being forced off their land. Anyone who knows their Randolph Scotts from their Ben Johnsons can guess that Sutherland’s six-shooters won’t stay holstered for long.
Forsaken marks the feature film directorial debut of Jon Cassar following a 30-year career in television, highlighted by his Emmy-winning work as director and producer on Fox’s 24. Cassar spoke to Deep Fried Movies about making that leap.
Deep Fried Movies: Let’s start with your history with Westerns. Did you grow up a fan of the genre?
Cassar: Yes, I grew up on the Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s and (Forsaken) harkens back to those Westerns. I loved movies like Shane and The Magnificent Seven – really (the era of Westerns) before the Spaghetti Westerns. I like the Spaghetti Westerns for what they are, but they’re just not the kind of movie I wanted to make. So, yes, I am a fan and I think every director – and every actor probably – wants to do a western at some point in their career.
Deep Fried Movies: Forsaken reminded me of Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) with Gregory Peck. When preparing to shoot the film, did you create any sort of look book of images from that era for reference?
Cassar: Yeah, The Gunfighter, that’s a great one. People ask me about references all the time, but I don’t work that way. I’m a movie fanatic. I watch an average of a movie a day, that’s how crazy about movies I am, so there’s hundreds and hundreds of movies already in my head. So when I go to design what I want to do in a movie like Forsaken, I don’t actually sit down and go, “Let’s look at this movie and here’s some pictures from this movie.” I just remember a lot of it and know a look and a style that I want.
Deep Fried Movies: I’ve read that the genesis of Forsaken was you and Kiefer sitting around the set of 24 daydreaming. Tell me about those conversations.
Cassar: It did start on 24. Kiefer and I worked many years together and when you’re sitting around waiting for a lighting set-up or you’re waiting for something else (to be ready so you can shoot), you talk about what you’re going to do when the television show ends. And we always talked about doing a western. Kiefer’s a real cowboy. He actually has won rodeo belt buckles for calf roping. He’s the real deal. Kiefer had the script commissioned by (screenwriter) Brad Mirman, who he’d worked with before. Kiefer also wanted to connect this idea of making a Western with wanting to work with his father. I think Brad did a great job because not only did he write a classic Western, he also wrote this really touching father and son story and I think that’s what I connected to.
Deep Fried Movies: Much of the cast and crew have some previous connection to either you or Kiefer. Forsaken’s cinematographer Rene Ohashi is somebody you actually worked under as a camera operator back in the 1980s.
Cassar: That’s true. Rene and I go way back. He’s one of the best and you can see that in Forsaken. He did an absolutely beautiful job. We’ve worked together before so there was already a shorthand and that’s always great. We’re just simpatico. This was a real friends and family project.
Deep Fried Movies: Looking back at your resume, you moved up almost directly from being a camera/Steadicam operator to directing. There are many paths to the director’s chair, but leaping from operator without working as a cinematographer first seems like an unusual route.
Cassar: I made that transition because I was never interested in being a (director of photography). Being a DP is a very different job than being an operator. I think operating is actually much closer to directing because you’re working with the actors a lot – as you are as a DP – but I think an operator works with them even more. As an operator you’re right there and you’re talking to the director all day and (he or she) is in your ear all day talking about what they want. It took me many years to break into directing, but it’s always what I wanted to do.
Deep Fried Movies: Forsaken was shot near Calgary, Alberta, which has a tradition of hosting Westerns, the most famous being Unforgiven. The area was used all the way back in the 1950s on Otto Preminger’s River of No Return. What drew you to that locale?
Cassar: First of all, it was a Canadian production, so right away we were restricted to shooting in Canada, which was fine. A lot of people go to Canada to shoot because it’s so beautiful. In fact, a lot of The Revenant was shot very much in the area that we were shooting in and there were crew and cast members from my show that went right from Forsaken to The Revenant.
The big restriction for us was that, because we didn’t have the money, we weren’t able to build a town. So we had to find one that existed and (CL Western Town & Backlot) is really good. It’s one of the better (Western studio towns) that are still around. Some of them deteriorate really quickly, but (CL), because it’s used so often, was in pretty good shape. When I went to scout in the middle of the winter there was actually a show – this Discovery Channel miniseries Klondike – that was shooting there. When they were moving out, we were moving in. Not only was the (western town portion of the studio) great, but it had beautiful land around it – forests and meadows and rivers and all of that – and it also had all the farmhouses we needed. Everything you see in the movie was shot on that same piece of property except the opening montage of John Henry riding and that was shot in Banff at an abandoned ski resort. Inception was also shot on that same mountain range.
We had no studio and no money to build sets so all the interiors were real interiors. When you see the outside of the farmhouse, the inside of the farmhouse is the same place. It wasn’t in a studio somewhere. The same with the saloon and all the places you see in the town. Basically (the buildings in the town) are just shells – there’s nothing in them – so sometimes you have to put a floor in them and do a lot of fixing up before you can shoot.
Deep Fried Movies: You assembled an impressive cast for the film. I was particularly taken by the soul that Michael Wincott brought to his role. It has been a few years since I’ve seen him in anything. I’d forgotten how good he is.
Cassar: Yeah, he was fantastic. I’d never worked with Michael before, but he’s a really good friend of Kiefer’s. I don’t know if you remember, but in The Three Musketeers he’s the villain with the eye patch and (he and Kiefer) have a big swordfight. They go way back. In our test screenings, (the relationship between Sutherland and Wincott’s characters) was one of the favorite relationships for most audiences. Michael’s just great and that voice is unbelievable. He’s very particular about the roles he choses, but I’m hoping this movie gets him out there working more because I just think he’s so good.