James Ransone and Josh Peck head the cast of director Anthony O’Brien’s drama about survival in the wilderness.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st Century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
Now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Redbox and other platforms: The Timber, director Anthony O’Brien’s brutally violent yet beautifully photographed drama set in the snowy wilds of Northwest Canada, circa 1898, during the Yukon Gold Rush.
James Ransone (Treme) and Josh Peck (The Mindy Project) star as Wyatt and Samuel, brothers driven by harsh circumstances to desperate measures. In order to raise money to avoid foreclosure, they set out in the frozen wilderness to collect the reward for a fearsome fugitive — who just happens to be their father. It’s a dirty job, in a place where life is cheap, rough and often foreshortened. “He’s a murderer, Samuel,” Wyatt reminds his brother. But Samuel, mindful of where they are and what goes on there, responds: “Well, who ain’t?”
Wyatt and Samuel cross paths with dangerous characters and witness various forms of savagery — everything from prospectors driven to cannibalism to an isolated mining site where dozens have been enslaved to dig for gold — as they search for the father who abandoned them years earlier. The longer they search, they more they learn about things they never wanted to contemplate. “I used to think it was gold that turned men bad,” Wyatt says. “Now I think they was that way to begin with.”
And the worst of those men might be their long-lost father.
When Anthony O’Brien spoke with C&I shortly before his film’s 2015 theatrical release, the filmmaker freely acknowledged he was influenced by several westerns — including Jeremiah Johnson and Unforgiven — while filming The Timber on frigid locations in Romania (which credibly doubled for the Yukon). Here are some other highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: So how does one go about filming in the Wild West of Romania?
Anthony O’Brien: Well, “Not easily” would be the first answer to that. The journey to there and the journey while we were there were both pretty extraordinary. Once we were there, the average shooting temperature was about minus-36. We spent about 15 days up at a hostel called the Hotel Pestera — and in Romanian, Pestera means cave. It did not have electricity, it was run on ethane and butane, and did not have the modern comforts for my actors, either. Television, internet — all of these things my actors were without while they were shooting this. Which I think made it a pretty fabulously authentic experience for them — being able to remove themselves from their modern Los Angeles lives, and really dive into what we were doing out there, which was shooting a film by ourselves in the wilderness.
C&I: Just how wild was that wilderness?
O’Brien: [Laughs.] The whole cast and crew were hundreds of miles into the Carpathian Mountains, between Ukraine and Romania. We’re just out there on our own. No star wagons. No fancy trucks. No trucks at all, just snowmobiles carrying gear up trails, us just climbing mountaintops and carrying what we can on our shoulders and back, and actors with the heating pads for their hands. That's about all the comfort they got. No fresh fruit bowls. No fancy cuisine for anybody. It was a very exciting experience.
It actually snowed eight feet in the first six days we were shooting. I experienced an avalanche with my director of photography, Phil Parmet, on our first day. And at 4 o’clock in the morning, as we were driving to the location, we saw the ambulance that was supposed to be on set. It was in the ditch on its side. As were coming to the set, we saw our camera van was stuck in the middle of a river that we thought was frozen, but apparently not. We had to rip the seat belts out of our vehicles. And then the park rangers in the Carpathian Mountains connected about 5 Nissan Pathfinders to the camera van using those seat belts as the tow ropes, and pulled the camera van out. All of that happened just on our first day.
C&I: And on top of everything else — you were working with horses.
O’Brien: We had these really, really talented stunt horse teams. And let me tell you: The horses were treated the best out of everybody. They had heated wagons. They were all the same stunt horses that were used on Hatfields & McCoys, Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton’s project.
C&I: What was there about this particular time and setting — 1898, during the Yukon Gold Rush — that sparked your imagination as a storyteller?
O’Brien: I have to say the first thing that drew me to it was actually a movie that doesn't take place in this time period in particular, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The snow sequences in that film — there was something so new to me about seeing those costumes, seeing those larger than life furs, this heavy snow mixed with this very, very highly emotional filmmaking. It was sort of reminiscent of something like my favorite western, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
Also, I’m from the Northwest. I’m from Seattle. And Seattle’s history, being what it is, begins with people selling jeans and pickaxes to those that went up for the gold rush. Add to that: My writing partner, Colin Ossiander, is an Alaska native who still lives up there in Chugiak. We decided to do some exploration, some historical research about the Gold Rush era. And I came up with this book called Magnificence and Misery. It was written by a Philadelphia reporter, who’s one of the few people that actually went to the Klondike to do some actual reporting. His stories were just unbelievable. And I was inspired by that. Every sequence in the film, as fantastical as it seems, is based in reality, is based in something that people were doing. Even the cannibals in caves, who set road traps to catch people, to gut them, to take all their gear. All these things were happening, and there are accounts of it. There’s actual historical evidence of this, all in the University of Washington library.
C&I: How difficult was it for you to cast your two lead characters?
O’Brien: When it came to James Ransone, that was an easier choice for me because I was a huge fan of his work in Generation Kill and The Wire. Especially in The Wire, where he played Ziggy Sobotka, this scrawny, whiny, loudmouth screw-up who can't find his way. I loved that. And I thought, “God, what if you put a character like that in a western as the lead? What if you took a guy who was lost, who was a mess, and you had him be your leader as opposed to a Clint Eastwood, really be antithesis of the Clint Eastwood? Where would take you and how would that feel?” I just thought, “If he could carry that level of power in an urban drama, then let’s put a cowboy hat on him and see what he wants to do.” I met with him at a Coffee Bean in Los Angeles, and he seem very excited. He worked very hard and pushed very hard to be a part of this movie.
Josh was a different experience. Josh had no social media presence at the time of casting, and was not thrown at me hard. He just very humbly came into the audition process, and sat in the waiting room, and came in and read his lines like any actor. And he just really wowed me. The audition was the scene where he gets cut from the rope and falls down and talks about he just pissed his pants, and he wants to go back to his family, and, “What the hell am I doing out here?” He really brought it in that audition room and really impressed me.
I already had James in mind and thought, “Well jeez, they both have black hair, they look like they could be brothers. This could really work.” Josh is just one of those really special guys. He’s just a consummate professional. He’s the type of guy that at 4 o’clock in the morning when some stranger comes by — a Romanian production assistant, or a craftsperson comes offering him some coffee — he'll take 10 minutes to talk with them, and take a photo and hang out. He always has five minutes for everybody. He always has a kind word for people. Once we got to production, it was such a joy being able to rely on his positivity and his energy and his focus.
I do have to say, both Josh and James were so prepared. Throughout the entire film, not once did they call out for a line. They’re frozen. Their feet are cracking and bleeding because it’s so cold. There’s a million things to distract them. There's a million things on their mind, and not once did they call out for a line on the snow. They were totally focused and ready. It was a huge, great experience to work with them.