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A western? Yeah, old-school too

`Seraphim Falls' director David Von Ancken takes veteran actors, an elemental struggle and a beautiful backdrop, then drops the chitchat.

January 29, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

A simple story told directly, "Seraphim Falls" is the kind of picture that one would naturally assume comes along several times a year. And likely did, if the year was sometime in the 1940s or '50s and directors such as Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann were still active.

The feature debut of longtime television director David Von Ancken, who cowrote the script with Abby Everett Jaques, "Seraphim Falls" tells the story of one man pursuing another from mountain peaks to desert valleys in the period just after the Civil War. The film mixes the natural vistas of "Jeremiah Johnson" with the allegorical poetry of "The Proposition."

There is something stately and elegant in Von Ancken's decision not only to drop the viewer right into the action, reserving the unfolding of back story for later, but also to pare dialogue to a minimum, allowing stars Pierce Brosnan (the hunted) and Liam Neeson (the hunter) to express themselves mainly through looks and gestures rather than words.

"This whole thing is an experiment in behavioral storytelling," says Von Ancken. "I think if you're going to make a western today, which is unusual, you might as well go the next step and make a western which is similar to the classic westerns with very little dialogue. And that's really hitting two no-nos.

"To me, if you have the right actors, actors who are capable of real behavioral emotion, the less they say, the quieter they are, the more an audience member can pull out of the movie."

Landscape artistry

Though the film features supporting turns by such familiar faces as Anjelica Huston, Michael Wincott, Tom Noonan and Wes Studi, the third character is really the landscape. Shot mostly in New Mexico (a perilous white-water rapids-and-waterfall sequence was done in Oregon), the film moves through a variety of topographies that come to reflect and represent the mental and emotional terrain of the characters as well.

Neeson recalls Von Ancken's emphasis on the environment of the film. "David kept reminding us these men were quarreling over life-and-death issues, very important issues, and here's this other extraordinary character, this landscape. Those mountains are still going to be standing there when we fade away, and you feel that texture in being there."

The New Mexico locations may have been grandly picturesque, but they also presented a variety of challenges. Just to get the cast and crew to the top of the mountain, outside Taos at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, required riding a ski lift, snowmobiling to another ski lift and then hiking a short distance.

The journey from script to screen, Von Ancken says, was a relatively brief one. The total time from the glimmer of an idea in a notebook to the start of shooting was about four years, and once he finished the script it took less than a year. He still marvels at the transformation of what he saw in his head into a cinematic reality.

"I wrote most of this in my apartment in New York," says Von Ancken. "And you write something, a waterfall or a box canyon or a desert, and then, careful what you wish for, you have people come along and say, 'Go find it.' "

Shot by cinematographer John Toll, an Oscar winner for his work on "Legends of the Fall" and "Braveheart," "Seraphim Falls" has a grandeur and scale, an Ansel Adams sense of monumentality, that makes the production look far richer than it actually was. Von Ancken says the film was made for "not much," less than $20 million.

"Every time you came out on set," Brosnan says of working with Toll, "you were walking into a beautifully balanced composition, a piece of cinematic landscape that brought to mind the classic westerns of John Ford and Monument Valley."

Both Brosnan and Neeson spent more time than usual on set, in no small part because there was nowhere else to go. For Brosnan, readjusting to "the world of being a working actor again" following his time on the James Bond mega-productions was both a surprise and a joy.

Pain and authenticity

Recalling what it took simply to get to work every day, Brosnan says, "The set was two hours away, which meant you were getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning -- long, long days, up way before sunrise to capture the first light of day.

"And then, as you'd watch the sun dip slowly, you'd say, 'Good, on to the cold beers and the warm whiskey.' "

For the actors, the thinner air at that altitude -- more than two miles -- made everything more difficult, as even their costumes, which included bearskin coats that weighed more than 40 pounds, added to the exertion.

"That really was brutal," recalls Neeson. "Just sitting on a horse. Even the smallest thing is a monumental effort."

The film's rugged beauty wouldn't mean much if it weren't for the thematics of the film, which takes the two men from revenge to redemption. Both men struggle to find some release and relief from the pain they have inflicted on others and endured themselves.

As the film patiently doles out more information on what binds these two together, it becomes apparent that though they once fought on opposite sides of a war, they find themselves trying to put their shared experiences behind them.

"One of the most important things to me was keeping an authenticity to pain," says Von Ancken, "keeping the physical trials real. Pierce gets shot in the first few frames, and he bleeds the rest of the movie. And it hurts the rest of the movie."

Raw and elemental, "Seraphim Falls" provides a stage for two actors of great maturity and depth. Von Ancken realizes that, given his cast and locations, sometimes much of the work was being done for him.

"Take a timeless character," he says, "a chased man, a hunter, and put them in front of that landscape, the rest is kind of gravy. You had to be careful how you placed them -- not physically but emotionally -- and then you let them do what they do."

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