INTERVIEW: Jenny Eagan, Max Richter, and Tom Cross Discuss Scott Cooper and ‘Hostiles’

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There is no film genre more American than the western. The western has been part of film history since the beginning. One of the earliest films was “The Great Train Robbery,” from 1903. Other tales of the Old West followed, reaching a crescendo in the 1960s.

In the decades since then, the popularity of the western has slipped. Occasionally one will come along that strikes at the right time, reminding the public of their nostalgic longing for a supposedly simpler time.

But then a film like Scott Cooper‘s latest emerges. And, just like that, “Hostiles” proves there are still many good and important stories to tell. The film tells the story of Captain Joseph Blocker, (Christian Bale) a long-time Army captain assigned to escort a Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) —and long-time enemy— to his tribal land in Montana. Along the dangerous route, they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman who lost everything in an attack by hostile Apaches. The film also stars Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet, Jonathan Majors, and Ben Foster.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with costume designer Jenny Eagan, composer Max Richter, and editor Tom Cross about their work on “Hostiles,” and collaborating with Scott Cooper.

The first thing that was so evident in each conversation was their genuine excitement about the film. Jenny Eagan’s first words to me were, “I’m really excited about this film and to talk about it is such a pleasure!”

Tom Cross said, “One of the things that made it easy to work with Scott is we’re really into the same things. We like a lot of the same movies. I’ve always wanted to do a western and Scott loves westerns, so it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Eagan also said of Cooper, “He’s so inspired and inspiring.”

Of course, Eagan and Cross were involved in the project long before principal photography. But composer Max Richter joined later. He explained, “Scott had been listening to my work while they were shooting and early in the edit. They had pieces of my work in there as sort of temp[orary] score. I think he was just sort of quite focused on having me involved.”

Jenny Eagan has designed costumes for television (“True Detective”) and film (“Beasts of No Nation”). Her work on “Olive Kitteridge” earned her a Primetime Emmy nomination. In developing the costuming for a film set in the wilderness in 1892, Eagan did a lot of research. She discussed both her own research for the specific time period, in regards to both Army life and the Native Americans:

“We have a lot of research and history on the Civil War and the Spanish American War, but this fell right in between and it was a little different. There was a lot happening that wasn’t as well documented as the Civil War and the Spanish American War. It’s right in between. So understanding that the United States and the Army took a better stance on cleaning up the Army and making things more strict than the Civil War. And so the uniforms changed, and they changed again before the Spanish American War, so there was a really fine line in that time.

“And what was interesting to me was by…the end of the century was the Native Americans had traded a lot of their goods for western clothing and had started wearing western clothing for reasons of trade and comfort and ease and usefulness. That was the time. Studying the Native American culture at that time was fascinating.

From there, Eagan explained how her research and creations were further adapted by the actors:

“I gave them the guidelines, but no one knows what happened in New Mexico when they were building camps. I can’t tell you what happened. But I gave them all the tools and told them the rules and they did what was comfortable to them. Because I think any man or woman in the middle of battle or war or something like that, you have to make yourself comfortable in your abilities to do what you need to do. They each, in turn, found their own specific character within that. Like one character who has been in 20 years and doesn’t follow the rules vs [Timothée] Chalamet’s character who’s been in 2 years and follows ALL the rules. So I give them the tools, but then they have their instincts on living that character and building that character. They’ve been living that. I haven’t. I’m an outsider. I’ll protect you in that, but I allow them to embrace themselves and feel comfortable. And usually, their instincts are always right.”

Tom Cross won an Academy Award for his editorial achievement on “Whiplash.” He was nominated again for “La La Land” in 2016. He enjoyed his work editing “Hostiles,” and shared the directive Cooper gave him:

“Scott basically came to me and said, ‘I want to be invisible in this.’ He wanted the film to rest on the story and the performances. Some directors really want their mark on it, but Scott didn’t.”

He further elaborated on the overall tone Cooper wanted to achieve:

“There are times when you have these really violent action scenes and we didn’t want it to be like the swashbuckling old westerns. We wanted it to feel natural. So there are times when we focus really close up on the actor. In that opening scene with Rosalie when the Comanches are attacking her family, we felt it was much more powerful to stay on her, rather than to take attention away and put it on the people attacking her.

“We did that in a lot of other ways too. When we first meet Yellowhawk and his family, it’s from far away. We want to establish the distance between him and Blocker. We wanted the audience to first feel the weight through Blocker and Rosalie. And that is bookended in the end of the film with the distant shot of the hostiles that are, now, the white man.”

The opening scene of “Hostiles” features a brutal attack on a homesteading family. Cross discussed editing the scene and why it was so vital to start the film this attack:

“We knew it had to really set the stage for the story we wanted to tell. It had to be brutal in order to really feel anything for Blocker and Rosalie. To understand their point of view. The opening was tough. I mean, I’ve got little kids, Scott’s got–his daughters are the ones being, you know… so it was rough. And we had to watch it over and over and over. But we knew that we had to get it right. We needed it to feel brutal so that when Blocker confronts Yellowhawk, you feel where he’s coming from. With everything that happens on the way, you can feel empathy for both sides. When you’re telling a story like this, it’s easy to look back and make a call. But we need to understand both points of view.”

While Cross and Eagan focused on the details of character and action, composer Max Richter had an entirely different task. The Emmy-nominated composer of “The Leftovers” and “Miss Sloane” explained how he ultimately decided on a direction for this film’s original score:

“Obviously there’s a story to be told, which is a human, emotional story. These characters are plunked down in the middle of nowhere. They might as well be on Mars. They’re in this terra incognita and it’s very remote. There’s a strong psychological story or several, really. That, for me, is kind of a thematic world. Everyone has their language. Blocker’s music is thematic and it’s all about a kind of inexorable descent. He has this melodic line that just goes down, down, down. Blocker as a man is trying to avoid that. He’s a man being pulled down by fate and he’s trying to find some way not to go down.

“Rosalie has this language which is really about a kind of a naive language, reflecting on the presence or absence of her children. I wanted her music to be sort of childlike in a way…It’s like a tiny requiem. Very simple. And that is really about her situation. It’s about the loss she suffers at the beginning of the film and how that carries through.

Richter also discussed one other aspect of “Hostiles” he found particularly inspiring, musically speaking:

“The other thing that struck me about the film when I first saw it was the presence of the earth, of the landscape. That seemed to me a really powerful voice in the film. So I worked to try and make a palate of sounds to get the landscape to speak to us. Sort of a ‘voice of the desert’ sound. I used some sort of avant-garde orchestral techniques to try to make this kind of raw color, which is the voice of the landscape, which is a huge character in the film, actually. It was sort of an experimental process.”

In summarizing his overall view of the film, Richter said:

“I saw the story of ‘Hostiles’ as really one of transcending violence. I mean, that’s really what it’s about. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately it’s about human beings finding a way forward. That was where I wanted the music to go with the film. That whole last sequence, the music is very much doing that.”

Jenny Eagan capped things off perfectly with her final thoughts:

“I just want people to see it so bad! I don’t self-promote EVER, but there’s just something about this film that I want people to go see it and I want them to see it in a theater.”

“Hostiles” is distributed by Entertainment Studios. It is currently in limited release and will expand nationwide on January 19.

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

ANIMATED SHORT | DOCUMENTARY SHORT | LIVE ACTION SHORT |