THE TRISTAN NIGHT AWAY – by Fred Schruers
Free to emote as his vampire Louis could not, Brad Pitt ignites tears, strife and passion on the rain-plagued set of Legends of the Fall. Well, what else would you expect from an epic tragedy about three brothers who fall for the same woman?
We’ve had a lot of dying and crying on this one Pitt tells Fred Schruers in Canada.
Tucked away behind a set of plywood walls, on a bed in the middle of a curling rink west of Calgary, Brad Pitt is making love. He’s got Toad The Wet Spocket’s Fear playing on the ghetto blaster, and Elizabethan beauty Julia Ormond in his arms. A hushed and diffident skeleton crew is looking on. Blue-gelled moonlight spills across the rumpled linen and director Edward Zwick, in his ninth week of shooting Legends of the Fall, hunches nearby, exuding sensitivity and carefully trammelled elation. This, after all, is his second try to get this sequence right. As the crew rapidly changes a wall, leaving the cinematic lovers and the camera in their original spots, Zwick dashes out for a quick word with his producer (and longtime thirtysomething collaborator) Marshall Herskovitz. One more shot and we’ve got it, he says. This is the second reshoot in two days (he’ll see the results of yesterday’s tortured jailhouse scene tonight), and the eyes that have lately been glowering out of his black nimbus of hair and beard are finally smiling.
There have been enormous obstacles keeping these two characters apart, says Herskovitz about Pitt’s Tristan and Ormond’s Susannah, the central pair of Legends of the Fall’s numerous couplings. So there’s an enormous hunger in this scene which really has to play itself out. As so often happens in a film, you get one moment to establish that passion, and everything else follows from that. The vulgar blaaatt of a bell and the whirl of a red-domed lamp signal that it’s time for the passion to recommence.
Soon afterwards, rangy limbs flung against the front seat of a car as he lights up a cigarette, Pitt ponders the process of shooting a Hollywwood sex scene: It’s not the most romantic setting, you know? Very anti-erection, if I can say that.
Though this is a staple opinion of most actors flesh from engaging in filmed bed scenes, he winces at the tape recorder’s red eye winking in the dark. My poor mom!… So you throw a little music on, and you try to forget about all the people staring at you. I got that, actually, from Ridley, because he let us play music during that Geena Davis scene. (Even most people who never saw Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise know that Pitt’s iron-abbed J.D. sexually enlightens David’s Thelma.) Pitt chortles over the goofiness of the stiffie question: It’s one of those things: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Sorry, I did… or sorry, I didn’t.
Brad Pitt has to be the aw-shucksingest screen heartthrob in recent memory. He might have a CAA agent, a full-time publicist and a canny sense of what may work in his career, but the bouts of self-deprecation and befuddlement seem genuine enough under the interview microscope. Would a truly calculating celebrity move into a country house with his female co-star for reasons purely practical and platonic? At first the one-time journalism major failed to foresee how his temporary domestic arrangement with British newcomer Ormond (Nostradamus, The Baby Of Macon) might titillate the local media. When he was tailed home by an inquisitive reporter from a Calgary newspaper, he walked down his driveway to discuss matters. Don’t do this, he told the tail, I’ll give you an interview later if you’ll lay off. Older and wiser, Pitt regrets the impression conveyed: We fed them that story, right? We knew that was coming. Sooner or later. A palms-up gesture. It was completely convenience. It’s been nice.
In the blowing mist that blankets the two-lane road to Pitt’s remote rental abode, an overloaded lorry, going fast and extending a foot into the wrong lane, roars past the car we’re riding in. I got hit by an 18-wheeler once, Pitt observes. Not much left of the car. Took the roof with it. Just turned into us and took us with him. No one was even hurt. It was just kind of like once we had a roof and now we don’t.
If the basic tenet of Pitt’s philosophy is shit happens, the attraction of the Legends story may have been that both in Jim Harrison’s 81-page novella and in the film’s screenplay, a whole heap of it happens. A lot of elements – western, war, love triangle, family, killings – right? It’s bold, it’s big, like a great bottle of wine or something. Harrison’s story takes the Ludlow family through a half century of history in which love does as much damage as the more usual forms of violence. Colonel William Ludlow, played with typical verve by Anthony Hopkins, is the patriarch who quits the US Cavalry in disgust over the government’s treatment of Indians and then builds a ranch on an isolated tract in the foothills of the Montanta Rockies. Though his wife soon retreats to Boston, he stays to raise his three sons there: Aidan Quinn’s Alfred is the eldest and seemingly most solid; Henry Thomas Samuel is the all-too-fervent youngest; and Pitt’s Tristan is the middle brother, magnetic, unknowable and haunted. When the zealously idealistic Samuel insists on volunteering to fight the Germans in World War One, Alfred protectively enlists with him; so does Tristan, partly because he feels guilty about his attraction to Samuel’s youngest fiancée, Susannah (Ormond).
For many, Julia Ormond may constitute the surprise of the film. The apparently platonic symbiosis Pitt and Ormond have achieved offscreen makes an interesting, counterweight to their fictional, cinematic story, in which a love that neither can ignore or put aside tears apart their own lives and the lives of those dearest to them. For those watching Ormond gallop across a field on horseback or Pitt shuffling onto the set for a bordello scene, deschabille in no shirt and loosened pyjama bottoms, the pair’s apparent restraint off set seems all the more remarkable. Julia, says the actor with simple chivalry, has this kind of timeless class I haven’t seen anywhere else.
To make the studio, TriStar, comfortable with the casting of a relative unknown in the film’s pivotal role, Zwick mandated a screen test that Ormond hastily shot in London with an actor friend. By that time, Pitt and Zwick had partnered up, and not just aesthetically. One way we got this movie made, says Zwick, was for me to defer a significant part of my salary and for Brad to become my partner, doing that for himself as well. With Pitt scaling back his rapidly escalating price, Zwick was able to pursue Hopkins, who’d told his agent a while back that he was in the mood to finally do a western. In December 1992, TriStar launched the $30 million production. I think, frankly, it was Brad’s involvement that encouraged them, says Zwick, and Tony’s that cemented it.
As Zwick busied himself in preproduction – living the kind of director’s existence in which each day brings so many decisions that, as he says, I open a menu and try to think about what to order for dinner and I’m ready to burst into tears – Herskovitz attended to the psychological care of the cast. Marshall said something to me in the beginning that kind of grooved things for me, recalls Pitt. What you see on the page is a guy gutting animals, a guy who’s scalped people, who breaks horses, all this stuff. But because of all that stuff, you can let him feel all the more, right?
Marshall said, You have the luxury here to feel as much as you want.
With that theory in place, Pitt was ready to take on a role that requires him to go from savage to tender and back several times. Though his own time constraints caused the shooting schedule to juggle the story’s continuity even more wildly than is typical, Pitt felt ready – but an unavoidable lurch in that schedule set him and Zwick up for an explosive disagreement.
Scene 202, nestled deep in the story’s third act, is described in the script merely as INT JAIL CELL/Susannah visits Tristan in jail It’s designed as a teary one-on-one between Tristan (behind bars and despondent) and Susannah (now married to Alfred and tormented by her love for Tristan), in which the characters face the impasse that fate and tragic errors have brought them to. Despite the scene’s climactic importance in the story, rainy days meant it had to be filmed during the first week of shooting. At that point, the jail scene wasn’t right, wasn’t written right, didn’t fit in, says Pitt. When we shot it, I said, This is a mistake. Zwick however, insisted on trying to pull it off.
Perhaps two well-schooled British actors would have simply muddled through, and indeed, Ormond’s pragmatic view of the shooting schedule was that you have to be quite careful finding your stepping-stones, because it’s all out of order. In any event, Pitt and Zwick’s heated exchange over the scene apparently turned sufficiently harsh that the crew opted to abandon the immediate vicinity. Tales emerged of furniture being tossed. If a chair or a stool was thrown, says one source who should know, it certainly wasn’t thrown at anybody. Ultimately, the cameras rolled, but when they finished Zwick told Herskovitz they’d have to find time to reshoot the scene.
Brad has to internalise an enormous amount to express a scene’s truthfulness, says Zwick, speaking with the tactfulness of a man who has ended up good mates with his star. And the explorations he’d asked to make in this part are difficult. Sometimes when I’m directing, I feel like an interpreter at the United Nations – you know, the esteemed representative from Botswana has to be made knowable to the assistant undersecretary from Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps… Later he adds, Sure, we went at it, and that too is part of the process. And certainly by the next morning we were contrite and desperately eager to make it up, not hold onto it, and go on to the next thing.
Pitt having arrived home without interference from large lorries, opens a beer and leans back in his chair. Yeah, Ed and I had a tough day that day, which is good. It’s good if two people care. Cause at the end you’re going to come up with something good – and that was the result in the jail scene we got now. This time, it was written right, it was done right.
Zwick shared his confidence, Pitt recalls. He came around the corner and went – Pitt mimes a triumphant home-run gesture – and that was it. I didn’t say a word. There was all this press that came out that we were not getting along, these rumours in Hollywood that it’s not going right. You know, this is a gamble, and even TriStar’s gambling on me, putting me in this kind of movie. So people want to hear it’s going bad. I find myself having to defend Ed, cause these rumours are going around. But that hasn’t been the case; it’s been pretty easygoing.
Any disagreements you have are fine, Pitt adds quietly. It’s that passion you respect.
The work Pitt and Ormond do in the jailhouse scene, and in the film’s frequent other emotional twists and turns, will be what makes or breaks Legends for audiences. Ormond, playing someone approaching madness, shows considerable craft while Pitt, heartbroken three times over but still somehow untouchable, meets her halfway. We’ve had a lot of dying and crying on this one, he says.
Pitt also lobbied for Quinn to play Alfred, which he saw as probably the toughest part in the movie. It could have easily gone wimpy. We needed somebody who’d be equal to Tristan, bring nobility and strength to the role, and sexiness, of all things, and that’s Aidan. Somebody give this guy an Oscar. I mean, it’s time.
For his part, Quinn believes Pitt comes of age in a scene at a graveyard that figures heavily in the film: I happened onto some dailies that were on tape and saw him at the grave, and he was just devastating. Brad’s got a very traditional, manly kind of persona, so to see that man fighting the emotion and not winning was just so powerful, watching it spill out.
Both Quinn and Pitt are chuffed to be working with a pretty fair country actor names Sir Anthony Hopkins. Here’s a man who’s been through everything and back, says Quinn, who has this wonderful, joyous spirit. The first week I met him on the set was a particularly difficult week, everybody tired, long hours, and he came on the set and was hugging everyone, talking about how happy he is to be here.
By day 59 of an arduous and rain-plagued shoot, an enervated Hopkins seems ever so quietly ready to eat somebody’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti. Unavoidably, due to Pitt’s stop date, he has spent a fair amount of time on hold, lurking near the set and waiting to be called to play the Ludlow patriarch at who-knows-what-stage of the character’s many decades of history. Dressed in Ludlow’s buffalo robe, a shock of white hair jutting horizontally outward, he eschews full-out grumpiness with a king’s restraint. His scenes have been all out of continuity. We’re all over the place. That’s what you do when you do a film. It doesn’t matter.
Not far away, a technician readies a shotgun Hopkins is to use in the climactic scene. I play a hard man, but I’m not so keen on guns, the actor admits distractedly. I think you ought to be very responsible and calm around guns. How hard is it for Hopkins to portray Ludlow after the character has suffered a crippling stroke? I just come on, twist my face about it a bit, let the arm go limp, let the right leg go limp, and do it. (This analysis later draws a bemused look from Zwick, who knows Hopkins has studied the topic intensively.)
What I’m trying for is to avoid the pomposity of acting, the self-importance of it all. When I was doing Hannibal Lecter, people kept saying, How do you come out of a part like that? Just get in the car and go home.
After today’s gunplay, Hopkins can do exactly that, and he’s finally called to the set to shoot the film’s hearteningly conclusive climax. Zwick positions himself on a crane that will hoist the camera up and away from the scene. The bad guys are arrayed around a 1925 Ford in front of the Ludlow homestead, and the ranch’s extended family is facing off with them. Pitt notices that his costume lacks the spurs he wore in the scene’s front end weeks ago. Are we gonna see his feet? asks Zwick, watching the late-afternoon sun of Pitt’s next-to-last-day about to tuck itself behind a nearby mountain. An aide relays the message, Spurs travelling, and the capstone of the scene, with its freight of family reconciliation, plays out in handsome amber-orange sunbeams. A throttled Yesss! comes out of Zwick. In the afterglow, hugs are given, with the farewells hurried along by exhaustion and the evening chill. This has been a good deal, says Pitt. It’s been the hardest thing I tried to tackle, and as I look back, finishing up, it’s been good – to work hard.
The night has truly arrived now, as headlights swing incongruosly across the ancient-looking ranch house behind Pitt. It appears that what’s left of Tristan’s wardrobe, and more than a little bit of the character’s psyche, will go off into the night with him. This story was one of the only ones where I’ve ever said, I’m the guy for this one. I’ve always felt there was someone else who could do a little better. But not on this one: this story I felt like I knew from the beginning to the end. I knew the stops and I knew the turns. This one meant more. When Pitt turns to go, he picks a route that’s just a few yards out of reach of the headlight beams raking across the outskirts of the set, and in seconds he has disappeared up the muddy road.