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HOSTILES

About The Production
How do you tell the story that takes place in 1892 in the United States but could just as easily be Kandahar or Baghdad? In Scott Cooper's frontier epic, violence is indiscriminate and the line between enemy and ally and victor and victim is blurred beyond recognition. In this universe, a disparate group of people, some vehemently opposed to the existence of the other, are forced together to fight external forces that are bent on their destruction.

Cooper had been sent an early manuscript written by the late screenwriter Donald Stewart, (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), and was taken with the depth of the story. "I've always wanted to make a Western," he says, "but I wanted to make it on my terms and I wanted it to have real relevance as to what's happening in America today with race and culture. We all know what maltreatment we afforded Native Americans and you can see that currently with people of color. You can see it happening with the LGBTQ community. It was speaking to issues that are universal."

He wrote the script for Christian Bale, a close friend who also starred in his film Out of the Furnace. When Bale first read the piece he was struck by the enduring human elements of the story and some details resonated quite deeply. "It could have happened anywhere in American history," he says. "I viewed Fort Berringer like it was Abu Ghraib. The conditions were inhumane for the prisoners and the jailers were not trained to be prison guards. They were trained for combat."

Cooper used Stewart's original draft as a blueprint, working diligently for months to shape the story so it would reflect a timeless ethos. He studiously avoided the pitfalls of a period piece by staying away from the well-used tropes of a traditional Western.

He also collaborated with his Black Mass producer John Lesher to bring the script to life. "We talked a lot about what it was really about and how much we wanted to try to tell the story in this milieu," Lesher remembers. "Scott is the perfect person to do it too. He has a deep understanding of the locale and the history of the era. He's also a bit of a Renaissance man in his own right, which allowed him to create these fully formed, very complex characters."

According to Lesher, a significant step toward getting Hostiles made was by joining forces with producer Ken Kao. "My reaction when I read the script was how powerful it was and how relevant it was to today's social and political climate," marvels Kao. "In this world we are very much separated from one another, so in some ways this is a zeitgeist film."

Kao supported the team's vision, enabling them to get the resources they needed to make the film in the most authentic way possible, which included shooting on location in New Mexico and Colorado and working with a dream team of consultants to ensure the cultural and historical integrity of the film.

An Accurate Portrayal of Native People

To achieve a truthfulness and depth in the representation of the Native American characters, Cooper worked with acclaimed filmmaker Chris Eyre, (Smoke Signals, Skins), and the academic Dr. Joely Proudfit. Their organization, The Native Networkers, connects creatives from film and television with resources that foster accuracy in the depiction of Native and Indigenous peoples.

The extent of the cultural support made an indelible impression on Cooper. "The consultants on this film have been extraordinary and have taught me things that my research never could have," he says. "They were on set every day to help the actors with language, with gestures, with rituals. Their work was of the utmost importance and it was deeply gratifying for all of us."

A significant amount of Hostiles' dialogue is spoken in the rarely heard Northern Cheyenne dialect. Eyre was tasked with finding sources that not only spoke fluently and could also teach the language, and have knowledge of how native speakers would have sounded at the end of the 19th century.

"The biggest request that Scott and Christian had is that we, as Cheyenne consultants, get it right," says Eyre. "Just because you're a native person doesn't mean you'll know all things native. I was able to bring Chief Phillip Whiteman and Donald Shoulder Blade to the project. To hear the language spoken in the right dialect and in a respectful way by Christian and Wes and Rosamund, is something great to see on screen. It's just a victory that millions of people will get to hear this rare language."

Chief Phillip Whiteman, Cheyenne consultant, worked closely with Bale, who at first struggled mightily to get the words out. "It's bloody difficult," Bale laughs, "but it's wonderful. Speaking the language correctly is also allowing me to understand a bit of the Cheyenne belief system. I've been so surprised because it seems impossible but there's such a natural flow to it."

Cooper is also mindful in his interpretation of the renegade Comanche warriors who slaughter Rosalee Quaid's family and stalk Blocker's party. He teases out a bit of lost history to give us a greater sense of this group's violent acts. While the film takes place in 1892, by 1872 nearly all Comanche had been forcibly relocated and registered by name by the U.S. military. The warriors shown in Hostiles were one of several little known bands who managed to remain free for two more decades. They wrought vengeance across the plains of the Southwest straight through 1890s, when they finally disappeared.

William Voelker, the film's Comanche consultant, is impressed with the way the filmmakers honor and give careful consideration to the behavior, language, dress and horsemanship of these controversial characters. By having a sense of their history, the wrongs done them reverberate even as they lay waste. "There's never been much attention given to those Comanche who never acquiesced and submitted to the government," he says. "And while I'm proud of everyone's willingness and openness to make every effort to get things accurate, the one thing that I found a little funny in the beginning, was that Scott was apologetic about the Comanche being perceived as ruthless. We don't try to candy-coat our history. The people were bloodthirsty. We lost everything, and we were very angry at losing our freedom."

The Look of 1892

The filmmakers selected locations in New Mexico and Colorado for their rough beauty and evocative visual grammar. This is a world in flux between modernity and the Old West. It still has wild spaces but is on the verge of disappearing forever. Scott Cooper set out to explore the push/pull of that dynamic and how it relates to the emotional evolution of his characters. He brought together a like-minded team that includes cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, Black Mass), Academy Award-winning production designer Donald Graham Burt (Gone Girl, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and costume designer Jenny Eagan (Beasts Of No Nation, Our Brand Is Crisis).

After three films together, Masanobu Takayanagi and Cooper work in shorthand. "Masa and I discussed the language of the film, and it's really such a joy because when you work with someone as closely as I do Masa," says Cooper. "We share sensibilities and can evoke this world because we both have the same story in mind."

Takayanagi creates intensity by using the extreme, sumptuous contrasts of the New Mexican light and is able to frame critical moments that signal the difficulty of the characters' journey.

In concert with Takayanagi, Donald Graham established a color palette that draws upon that contrasting light. Burt eschews most color, retaining a near black and white esthetic that's accented with warm sepia tones. "He cares so much about authenticity," says Cooper. "It was very important that the palette conjure the era but also remind us of how simple yet difficult life was. The period details resonate but then recede as the characters come to the fore."

Burt's meticulous research is never more evident than in his differentiation of the military forts that Blocker traverses from New Mexico to Montana. Each stop is another step forward in the turning of the century. Fort Berringer, a place that exemplifies the frontier in retreat, is deliberately rundown and is constructed out of 70,000 aged adobe bricks, while Fort Winslow is nearly a suburb, with places to shop and a spacious commander's quarters that came complete with a living room and dining room.

Burt is also deeply also sensitive to character building, which manifests in the way he considers each set. Blocker's rough-hewn apartment at Fort Berringer is dark, simple and stark, clearly mirroring the character's mindset at the start of the film, while the Quaid homestead, warm and cheery on the inside, is surrounded by desolate country, a foreshadowing of what's to come and a message that they're not welcome on the prairie.

Costume designer Jenny Eagan helped create the era and provide clues to the characters' inner lives through the clothes she sourced and designed. "What she does so well is not only evoke a certain era," enthuses Cooper, "but she understands that costumes come through character and that clothing affects their development throughout the story. She really knows how to fit each actor so they can move fully in the role."

All these characters have in one way or another been stripped of their identity. The cavalry men are limited by regulations, status and income; the Cheyenne are at the mercy of their military captors; and Rosalee Quaid is beholden to her rescuers. As a result, Eagan has to build clues into each outfit that convey who the wearer really is.

The cavalry uniforms pose a unique challenge. "What was interesting in terms of uniforms," Eagan adds, "is you can find Civil War uniforms but nobody's really told the story of this time period. There were military regulations but the pieces don't exist. We have to make them all from the ground up and then make sure they each give a sense of the character's background and follow their story arc."

Most fascinating and difficult to parse is the Cheyenne clothing of the era, largely because it's no longer traditional, nor is it completely Westernized. While it is historically accurate to show the cultures converging, it's also true that the military repressed the Cheyenne way of life. "They just wanted to strip them of their identity more or less and westernize them as much as possible," Eagan says, mentioning a moment in the film where Yellow Hawk and his family are dressed in traditional finery for a photo op and then forced to take it off when the camera is gone.

Eagan also creates a specific color palette for Rosalee Quaid. For the very brief time she's seen at her homestead, she and her children are bathed in gentle pinks. Rosalee's all-consuming grief is later illustrated by her purchase of a maroon suit. "The pink becomes maroon, and it's almost like the maroon is a bruise," reflects Eagan, "as if it's an injury to the pink of her heart."

Captain Joseph Blocker, Chief Yellow Hawk and Rosalee Quaid

Scott Cooper and Christian Bale worked together to build Captain Joseph Blocker. "We took him from a blueprint and each and every day enriched him and gave him life and blood," enthuses Cooper. "Christian really inhabited this character with the type of coarseness and toughness that one might expect of a man who has been shaped by the American Southwest."

Bale develops a rich emotional landscape for Blocker, a man who's absorbed the trauma of decades of battle and is now warped by it. As a result, the character's struggle, with a darkness that is likely PTSD, is palpable. "He's had this rock-solid conviction in the righteousness of what he's doing and then everything is pulled out from under him," says Bale. "How does someone like that turn around and start to question everything that he's believed in?"

Blocker recognizes that he's a pawn in a game, and he's tired of playing. When confronted with escorting Yellow Hawk, the man responsible for killing many of his men, he balks, only to be threatened with a court martial and the loss of his pension if he doesn't conform. This is how he's repaid for a lifetime of slaughter in the service of the nation.

As the journey becomes increasingly fraught, Blocker discovers that the Cheyenne are akin to his own men: It doesn't matter if they like or dislike one another; they have to trust each other if they're going to live. It's a realization that sparks his painful awakening.

"It's so difficult for him to stop the fight," Bale observes. "Especially when he's lost so many loved ones. But at the same time, he's beginning to understand that the Cheyenne have lost everything. Yellow Hawk has no tribe. Blocker is able to edge his way back to civilization because he discovers his humanity."

Cooper wrote the character of Yellow Hawk with Wes Studi in mind, and Lesher and Kao were also determined to cast him. "Wes is one of our great actors," expresses Cooper, "and if we didn't have him, I don't know if I'd have made the movie. He was that important to telling this story. I think he's remarkable in the role. He commands the tremendous power and pathos that Yellow Hawk requires."

Yellow Hawk's trajectory is tragic. His people have been slaughtered or dispersed and when we first meet him, he's spent seven years of his life, along with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson, chained in a cell at Fort Berringer. His release is not joyful. He's dying of cancer and the way home is dangerous. If they do make it to the Cheyenne burial ground in Montana, there's even more loss. Blocker's orders are to take the surviving family members to the reservation - not give them their freedom. Studi, an actor of remarkable emotional range, creates a thoughtful character that is not defined by historical suffering. His Yellow Hawk may be pragmatic, but he's also deeply soulful and retains his dignity in the face of near constant humiliation.

Determined to have the end of his choosing - at home and with his family - Yellow Hawk realizes he has to reconcile with a man he reviles. "The political ploy that starts this actually serves Yellow Hawk's purpose but his relationship with Blocker is very complicated" says Studi. "They had fought for years, the U.S. Army and the Cheyenne, over land and resources, much as we see soldiers fighting over corporate interests to this day. The change comes when he and Blocker realize that what they've been doing has not been of their own volition. It's all been to the advantage of someone else, somewhere else. That said, they're not going to bond," he continues. "It's not that kind of world, but they will fight together to survive."

The filmmakers searched for an actress who would be able to create a nuanced portrait of Rosalee Quaid, a woman who, according to Lesher, "could portray this archetype of manifest destiny, someone who embodies the dream of bringing civilization west." Cooper, Lesher and Kao found their pioneer in acclaimed British actress, Rosamund Pike. "She has such a high emotional IQ," Cooper raves. She's the actress who always wants to take the character from one stage to something completely unexpected. She's thinking at every moment of how she'll relate to something that's six, eight or ten minutes down the narrative."

The film begins at the Quaid homestead, where Rosalee and her family appear happy and safe. Their idle is interrupted by a Comanche war party and the woman who represents the taming of the West, becomes the sole survivor of a massacre. When the cavalry and Cheyenne find her, Pike's Rosalee is nearly catatonic, her clothes are torn apart and she's unable to relinquish the dead infant in her arms. In a number of small moments, each member of the rescue party participates in clothing the woman, burying her family and convincing her to move on with them. It's their first collective act and she becomes the linchpin in the developing relationship between the Yellow Hawk's family, Blocker and his men.

When Pike read the script, she was taken with Cooper's vivid description of Rosalee's journey. "I didn't think of this as a genre film," she says. "This is very much an existential movie for me. The story is quite simple and yet there's so much. The human landscape of it is vast. There's tremendous interplay between these characters. They've all seen such darkness and it's affected them in different ways."

The Supporting Cast

Surrounding the triangle of Bale, Studi and Pike in Hostiles is a supporting cast featuring veteran and rising actors. Yellow Hawk's family includes Adam Beach as his son, Black Hawk; Q'orianka Kilcher as his daughter-in-law, Elk Woman; Xavier Horsechief as grandson, Little Bear; and Tanaya Beatty as his wife, Living Woman. Blocker's men include Jonathan Majors as Corp. Henry Woodson, a Buffalo Soldier whose father fought with Blocker during the Civil War; Rory Cochrane as Master Sgt. Thomas Metz, a longtime cohort of the Captain; Jesse Plemons as Lt. Rudy Kidder, a by-the-book West Point grad; and Timothee Chalamet as Pvt. Phillipe Dejardin, a teenage recruit and recent immigrant from France.

Blocker later collects Sgt. Charles Wills, who's played by Ben Foster, for transport from one prison fort to another. Wills is Blocker's sinister doppelganger, a veteran cavalryman who's gone over the edge but instead of containing his rage, a la Blocker, he's casually murdered a family of imprisoned Native women and children - a crime he's likely to hang for. To help keep Wills contained, Blocker is joined by Corp. Tommy Thomas, played by Paul Anderson and Sgt. Paul Malloy, who's played by the musician Ryan Bingham.

Two of the key roles are the well-known actors Adam Beach, (Suicide Squad, Flags of Our Fathers), and Ben Foster, (3:10 to Yuma, Hell or High Water).

Beach says that one of reasons he took the part was because it was an opportunity to tell the story of native people's journey across America. "There's such a fantasy and romanticism about America when it was growing into what it is now," he says, "but the reality is different." He feels the character of Black Hawk personifies the idea that one can remain open and free under the most difficult circumstances. "Somebody always screws it up," Beach continues, "but continuing to find the way to where you belong and coexisting with different kinds of people happens and it's an ongoing process."

Cooper had long wanted to work with Foster. "In writing the part, I could see Ben bringing this very troubled man to life," he says, "and it's something to behold because the role has so many traps. He could have been a maniac, but Ben takes the opposite tact. He makes him a mirror image of Blocker and shows there's a very fine line between someone who's enacted a great deal of cruelty as part of the job and someone who continues to do so of his own volition."

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