Even for someone who has done dozens of set visits at this point, the chance to visit a Western shooting on location is a rare thing.
I know a filmmaker who is a big fan of Westerns. You could argue that most of his movies are Westerns, only disguised as other things. I asked him one time why he didn’t just make a Western finally, especially with the movie star he frequently works with, since that would be… you know… awesome.
“The horses. I hate the horses.”
The thing about shooting a Western is that you make a commitment. If you’re going to do it right, you have to really go for it. You have to build the world as carefully as you would a sci-fi film or a fantasy film… you have to consider your work as something with texture… and my favorite Westerns are the ones that feel lived in… worn. Leone did amazing work in that regard, and that’s one of the reasons I sort of revere him. I think he understood how much dirt and distress affected the reality of a Western, and what a balance it is. He pushed it just enough to make it mythic, more so each time he made a movie. When he started, I think his style was a result of budget. In the end, the budget was the result of his style. And that’s because it got more pronounced. Leone made the commitment. He knew what he wanted to create.
Jonah Hex is a character who has been around in one form or another since the early ’70s, and basically, he’s the Man With No Face. He’s the archetypical Western hero, and he happens to have a crazy scar that covers half of the available real estate above his neck. He’s taken on many forms and been reinvented several times over his life span as a DC Comics mainstay. His most recent successful run, helmed by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, was obviously on the mind of Jimmy Hayward when we arrived on-set.
You know how I know? Because he told us. Emphatically.
Before we get to him, though, just getting to the set was an adventure. Heck, just getting to New Orleans was an adventure.
Just before leaving for New Orleans, Warner Bros contacted me privately to explain that Megan Fox would not be on set the day we were there because… and I quote… “she is intimidated by your raw magnetism and respects the sanctity of your marriage.” I told them I understood.
I am sure her schedule on another film had nothing to do with it. Almost certain.
Believe what you will.
Once we were there, our hotel was in downtown New Orleans, and the location was a swamp. A real New Orleans swamp, about 45 minutes outside of New Orleans. On a hot and sticky night. This was the sort of location where there were guys whose job was just to watch the water for alligators drawn by the light.
And to get to that location, they put us on a bus. And then they put a young actor named John Gallagher Jr. on the bus with us. Since there weren’t a lot of Broadway nerds on the bus, no one realized he’d already won a Tony for “Spring Awakening,” and he was gracious enough not to bring it up himself. Right now, he’s on Broadway again in the Green Day musical “American Idiot” getting amazing reviews, but in “Jonah Hex,” he’s a Second Lieutenant working under Will Arnett, who was picked up after Gallagher.
We headed out to the location, giving us time to chat with Arnett and Gallgher together. Arnett struck me as a guy who knows that because of some of the great extreme comedy character work he’s done, people think of him a certain way, and he was very careful to act in a way that went totally contrary to the image of him. He was serious about the character he’s playing, who is the Army Captain who presses Jonah Hex into service in the first place.
Stopping John Malkovich. Quentin Turnbull. The Joker to Jonah’s Batman. He’s the big bad guy who gave Jonah that scar. He’s the guy who took Jonah’s family. He punked him out and left him for dead. Which is almost never a good idea in Westerns. If I were in a Western, I would think twice before slaughtering someone’s family and leaving them for dead. Seems like an invitation for trouble. Sure enough, Turnbull is on the radar of the military, and they recruit Jonah to help them stop him.
See, he’s got a boat.
And he’s got a plan.
I can tell you about the boat.
I probably shouldn’t tell you about the plan.
First, though, the bus ride. Will Arnett and Gallagher talked about their scenes with Brolin, and about the production in general. Any attempt to pump Arnett for “Arrested Development” movie information was understandably futile. Keep in mind, this was a year ago, last May. Look how much has happened on the film since then. Like every other cast member, he seemed upbeat about people’s continued interest.
Once we go to the set, Arnett and Gallagher were taken away to start getting ready for their scenes later in the night, and we were taken to meet Jimmy Hayward. Hayward was a Pixar animator on the first two “Toy Story” films and both “Bug’s Life” and “Monsters Inc,” Wanting to direct and not seeing an open slot at the studio for years in the future, Hayward left to go to Blue Sky Studios, where he was able to make “Horton Hears A Who,” which somewhat redeemed the idea of Dr. Seuss on film after the sheer nightmare machine of “Cat In The Hat.” Hayward’s movie was broad, but it hit most of the Seuss beats right, and the designs were cool and interesting. And it was a hit.
So now Hayward’s making the jump to live-action. From the moment we met Hayward and started talking to him, he struck me as a guy who had done his homework, and who really wanted to turn this opportunity into a sneak surprise hit. He had something to prove, and not just on his own behalf, but on the behalf of Jonah Hex. He talked about the full history of the character and the various ideas that he’d wanted to play with from each different writer’s take.
What went unspoken during our time on-set was the switch in directors, since Hayward wasn’t the first guy in the chair. Originally, it was supposed to be the guys who made “Crank” and “Crank 2,” Neveldine and Taylor. But when Josh Brolin came onboard as Jonah Hex, suddenly it was his project, not theirs, and they evidently didn’t click with Brolin. From what we saw when he walked over to join us chatting with Hayward, Brolin is a relaxed but focused presence on-set.
Oh, wait… the first thing we saw when he walked up to us on the set was the face.
Jonah Hex is disfigured, like a man who melted halfway and then stopped, and the prosthetic they put on Brolin was profound. He told us right away that he would most likely be drooling in front of us because it’s a near-constant part of wearing the make-up. It’s so dramatic that it doesn’t look real. I can’t imagine what would do that to a cheek, even having seen the brand that Turnbull uses to do it to Hex. It’s startling, but it’s not particularly gross because it’s so exaggerated.
Broiln has, of course, been on a roll in the last few years in films like “Milk” and “No Country For Old Men” and “W.,” doing the most serious and demanding work of his career, and what became crystal clear within moments of talking to him was that he wanted to have fun, and “Jonah Hex” struck him as fun. That may have been before he put the make-up on, but even so, he has been in this business long enough to know that the wonderful run of work he’s done translated into new opportunities for him, including his very own potential franchise.
After Brolin walked away, we took a look around the set for the night, which really was built on the shore of a river somewhere at the back end of nothing. It was a giant Ironclad, Turnbull’s war ship, and the work by production designer Tom Meyer was amazing. We walked the entire thing, top to bottom, and every detail was exact. I grew up in the South, and whether you want to or not, you become an expert on the Civil War when you’re raised in the South. The period work on everything we saw was impressive, stylized but accurate. The weapons, the clothing, the provisions stored below on Turnbull’s ship… all accurate.
And yet what we saw play out as Jonah spied on Turnbull’s rallying speech to his troops was pulp cartoon, and that’s exactly what Hayward says he’s making. Talking to John Malkovich between takes, he made it clear that he was pitching this somewhere fun, not someplace completely terrifying. Everyone we spoke with was careful to de-emphasize the idea of the supernatural in the film, but in the first trailer, you can see what role the supernatural plays. Jonah can speak to the dead, and he uses that ability several times in the film.
Because we showed up early in the production, there was no footage to show us, so you’ve actually seen more at this point than we did that night. What I took away from the few hours we were there (aside from about 4700 mosquito bites) was the sense that everyone there felt like they were getting away with something by making a Western, like they’d snuck one over on the studio. “Tell ’em it’s a comic book. They love comic books. And tell ’em it’s supernatural. But for god’s sake… don’t tell them it’s a Western.”
Well, it is. Unabashedly. Horses and all.
And on June 18, 2010, we’ll see if “Jonah Hex” works.
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