Meet a costume designer, a couple of horse wranglers, and the young director shaping modern Western movies.
Every year, C&I produces a comprehensive list of the best there is out West: our favorite movies, shows, screen stars — you name it. This year, we focused on people and have rounded up the innovators, influencers, and fascinating figures who make up the many faces of the modern West. Here, the movie makers operating behind the camera in some of our favorite new westerns.
Making the costumes that make the characters
Costume designer | Los Angeles
As a Los Angeles Times story headline declared, “Clothes may make the person, but costumes make the character — just ask any actor.” Ask any actor who has worked with costume designer Jenny Eagan, and you’ll find proof of the point.
It’s been a bit more than a decade since Eagan was the assistant costume designer on No Country for Old Men. She next made her mark with the costumes she assisted with for the 2010 remake of True Grit; the following year, she worked on Cowboys & Aliens. Her recent credits, nominations, and awards include the films Widows and Beasts of No Nation and the series Maniac, True Detective, and Olive Kitteridge. But her breakthrough western came in 2017, when she was the costume designer on Hostiles, creating the look and mood for Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, and the rest of the cast portraying the hazardous frontier during the early 1890s.
Set in 1892, Hostiles required a fair bit of research, imagination, and collaboration to re-create the time period and to accurately portray the characters’ difficult trek across the West from New Mexico to Montana through threat-filled “hostile” territory. “There is a history on the Civil War and the Spanish American War,” Eagan explains, “but not so much on the early 1890s. The time period of the film fell between the wars. I was visiting a whole new world, and it was exciting to decide what worked and what didn’t.”
To accomplish that, Eagan welcomed input from the actors on their costumes. “Allowing that freedom makes it possible for the actors to dig deeper into their characters,” Eagan says. “During our initial meeting I was very nervous, but as the shoot progressed, Christian was very specific about how he wanted his cavalry uniform to look, from the tying of his scarf to the position of his belt.”
— Wendy Wilkinson
Todd and Tonia Forsberg
Getting the talent ready to ride
Horse wranglers and livestock providers for film and television, Forsberg Ranch and Company | Fillmore, California
If you’ve been a lover of modern and historical westerns over the last 15-plus years, it’s a good bet you’ve seen the livestock that Todd and Tonia Forsberg provide for projects on both the big and small screen. Both come from rodeo families, so starting a business that had to do with horses was natural.
The two have served as livestock coordinators, stunt performers, and horse wranglers and provided free-range Liberty Dancing horses to sets across the country, including the HBO series Deadwood, the new Deadwood movie, Jane Got a Gun, and Woman Walks Ahead.
If you’ve been a lover of modern and historical westerns over the last 15-plus years, it’s a good bet you’ve seen the livestock that Todd and Tonia Forsberg provide for projects on both the big and small screen.
Although Todd and Tonia have been honing their craft for almost 20 years, their experiences on Woman Walks Ahead in particular left indelible impressions. For Tonia, it was the work she did with Jessica Chastain: “Jessica was amazing and really good with the horses, not afraid of them at all and didn’t need to keep her distance.”
For Todd, it was the challenges the film presented. “The entire film was shot in New Mexico, and when the unit production manager called me, she said, ‘You have just six weeks to find and train all the horses and get the actors ready to ride.’ As tough as it was, Woman Walks Ahead was probably one of most rewarding projects we’ve ever been involved with.”
— Wendy Wilkinson
East taking West to the silver screen
Writer-director | Ojai, California
Chloé Zhao began 2018 by winning the inaugural Bonnie Award — a prize for midcareer female filmmakers that comes with a $50,000 grant — at the Independent Spirit Awards and ended it with the National Society of Film Critics voting her indie drama The Rider as the year’s Best Picture.
In between those two milestones, Zhao attracted rave reviews and appreciative audiences for The Rider, her stylistically audacious and emotionally wrenching drama-documentary hybrid about Brady Jandreau (played, in a bold stroke of casting, by Brady Jandreau), a Lakota cowboy and rodeo competitor who’s forced to consider the potentially fatal consequences of pursuing his career after a bucking horse stomps on his head during a mishap at the 2016 PRCA rodeo in Fargo, North Dakota.
Zhao — a Chinese-born, New York-, London-, and Massachusetts-educated filmmaker who now resides in Ojai, California — met Jandreau while filming Songs My Brothers Taught Me, her acclaimed 2015 debut feature about the relationship between Lakota Sioux siblings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She drew heavily on what she learned during that experience, and what she discovered about Jandreau’s true grit, to accurately portray life on and around the reservation in The Rider.
“The people there have a very strong connection to the land and the animals,” Zhao told C&I last year, “and it’s not a cliché, New Age thing. It’s very bone-deep in these people. So much so that they just can’t pick up and leave and work in the city. The young people, I think, struggle a lot with that identity. They’re on Facebook, they’re on Instagram. But at the same time, when they get out of their house, it’s the most beautiful place on earth.”
Taking advantage of the heat afforded a newly in-demand director, Zhao — who turned 37 in March — has accepted an offer to direct an upcoming Marvel Comics blockbuster: The Eternals, based on the Jack Kirby-created superhero team franchise. But C&I readers may be more interested in her next film: Nomadland, a contemporary drama starring Frances McDormand (Fargo; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Fern, a woman in her 60s who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling, modern-day nomad. Based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, Zhao’s latest effort as writer-director is not yet scheduled for release by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
“As I fell in love with the American West,” Zhao said in a Fox Searchlight press release, “it was impossible not to become fascinated with the roads that lead to the many adventures beyond the horizon. I’m very fortunate to be able to hit the road with a talented team and collaborate with a cast of professional and nonprofessional actors who are deeply giving and inspiring. I can’t wait to share their stories and what we’ve discovered along the way.”
Zhao hopes to return again to the West sometime soon for another project on her agenda: an Amazon Studios-produced biographical drama about the legendary Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal to hunt outlaws west of the Mississippi River.
“I’m looking for a way to tell the story that spans 50 years of this extraordinary man’s life,” she told C&I, “from escaping slavery during the pre-Civil War period to living in the Indian Territory, and then becoming a deputy marshal there.
“I want to look at history from a different perspective and explore how the Old West is a place where people from very different backgrounds came together and formed relationships. Even though they had issues and conflicts, they still built the Old West together.”
— Joe Leydon
Photography:Claire Folger/Courtesy Murtha Skouras Agency, courtesy Sony Picture Classics
From the May/June 2019 issue.