The Horse Whisperer: About The Production

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Principal photography began on location in Saratoga Springs, New York, with the filming of the accident sequence which opens the story. The Upstate New York location was one of the few places in the region where snow still clung to the ground, yet truckloads of ice still needed to be brought in to make more snow for the tricky scenes where a truck skids around a corner, careening into two young girls on horseback.

The production also filmed in Washington County for scenes set in the MacLean country house, and at a horse farm near Ballston Spa. Since the Roosevelt Baths in Saratoga Spa State Park were undergoing restoration, the location's temporary vacancy provided an opportunity for the production to capture scenes in the hospital where Grace is taken after the accident.

From there, the company moved to the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan for scenes in the MacLean family apartment. The Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue was used as the exterior of Grace's school. Annie MacLean's office was actually the office of Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair magazine.

The majority of the story takes place in the West, and the selection of the location for the fictitious Double Divide Ranch was one of the most crucial decisions for the filmmakers to make. Producers Robert Redford and Patrick Markey knew the Montana area well from their production of "A River Runs Through It." The nature of the area supports both some of the finest trout fishing in the country, and at the same time, acres of horse and cattle ranches.

"Montana serendipitously ended up being the location that we chose after a very extensive search," says Patrick Markey. "We looked at three hundred ranches around the West, continuing to narrow it down until we chose the ranch owned by Keith and Marie Engle. Obviously, the spectacular landscapes of Montana offer visual elements that can't be denied, or compared."

Markey, who has had a home in the Livingston area for several years, has taken time to learn just such an appreciation. "There are places in the Rockies that are more post card beautiful," Markey says. "When you see them, it's very apparent why people would go there. Montana presents itself in a different way. Its beauty is actually deeper than that. There is such a ruggedness to it and a humbling power to its beauty. You just have to be in it for a bit to understand."

The principal location chosen was the working cattle ranch of the Engle family which is located about an hour from Livingston, Montana, where the cast and crew were based. While the daily life of the ranch continued throughout production, each day it seemed as though a small occupying army moved in with trucks, lights, trailers, a large catering tent, and a lot of city folk unfamiliar yet fascinated by the way of life they saw unfolding around them.

"With today's filmmaking technology, there are all kinds of ways you can make anything look good with filters and optical treatments and so forth," says Robert Redford, discussing his approach to the cinematography with director of photography Robert Richardson, A.S.C. "The truth is that the real West is pretty powerful and quite beautiful just the way it is. I was more interested in trying to show it in a way that would make you feel it changing, to let the clouds come and go and color a scene accordingly.

"The visual style of the film played a huge role in the making of 'The Horse Whisperer,'" continues Redford. "The visual aspect is very important to me because I was an artist, yet I didn't want to put it out there and brandish it or headline it. You want to make it sort of seamless in a way that the audience will be able to experience something and feel it, rather than feeling urged to comment on it. Robert Richardson and I spent a fair amount of time up front discussing the concept of the use of light and the compression as well. The film actually has a one-eight-five matte when it starts, and it opens to a two-thirty-five as it makes the transition to the West. As the seasons change and the space opens to the West, we included more light and color."

"There is something about the combination of the drama of scale from the plains and the mountains that is unique to Montana," begins production designer Jon Hutman while discussing the visual aspects of production design and the choice of locations. "For the opening of the film, we wanted to synthesize the East coast environment into something very spare and structured and minimal, in order to very succinctly define where Annie and Grace were journeying from. But as they made the transition, we were looking for a life-altering sense of space that would be initially overwhelming to these characters. The environment in Montana wasn't just a backdrop for the story, it embodied the power of Tom Booker and also the power of the land and place, which is also what the story is about.

"The Engle's ranch is a real working ranch that has been in their family for a couple of generations," Hutman continues. "We chose it because of the river and the mountains and the vistas, and there is a look and a feeling of reality to that ranch. The land also has wonderfully varied qualities that allowed us to incorporate other nearby locations to create the complete environment."

The filmmakers and production designer Jon Hutman chose to create and build their own ranch house for the Booker family as well as the adjacent Creek House, both along a river. "In the story, there is a specific physical connection between the two buildings," Hutman explains. "Building our own house also meant that we could make the rooms big enough to shoot in. It was like having the best of a real house with the best of a set. And constructing it on location allowed us to the freedom to incorporate the environment into the shots as we wished."

Hutman came to his design of the Ranch House after scouting over 100 actual ranch houses as possible locations for the film. "We knew that we wanted just a very simple, classic ranch house," continues Hutman. "To me, one of the more important qualities for this house had more to do with the set dressing ... what I think of as showing 'the rings of the family tree.' We wanted to convey the quality or sense that several generations of the Booker family had lived in this house over a period of time, to give the environment a reality and weight and a rich history. So you see that there are original cabinets and then others remodeled in the '50s or '60s. The fireplace has a wood-burning stove inside it because that is just a more efficient update. For Tom Booker's room, we wanted to create a place that had an ascetic spareness without making him monk-like."

In addition to the ranch house and Creek House, Hutman and his crew also built a picnic area along the river, and two round pens for work with the horses. An existing barn and small corral were used for the branding scene, a sequence that allowed horseman and accomplished ropers Buck Brannaman, Curt and Tammy Pate, Ty Hillman, Mike Boyle, Rex Peterson and the company's wranglers to ride and rope on film.

Another of Hutman's challenges was the recreation of the Little Bighorn Battlefield monument as a stop along Annie and Grace's drive to Montana. Hutman's version was built not far from Livingston in an area much like that of the rolling terrain of the actual monument which is far to the southeast on the Crow Indian Reservation.

Costume designer Judy L. Ruskin also seasoned her designs with the flavor of the authenticity of the Double Divide environment. "The approach was in how to represent an American ranch in the contemporary West," says Ruskin. "The ranchers wear predominantly American-made clothing from Levis, Wrangler, Woolrich and Carhart, with Justin Boots and hats by Bailey. I believe that people working on ranches try to support American products, so that credibility is seen through the wardrobe.

"Don Edwards plays ranch hand Smokey and his clothing is very similar to everyone else's, but his style is very much his own," Ruskin notes. "He makes his own ranch-hand crease, the way he's been wearing it for years. And the way he buttons up his shirts is very proper and old-fashioned and charming."

Ruskin worked in conjunction with Calvin Klein and his top designers such as Tim Gardiner to create a custom-made wardrobe for Annie MacLean, Kristin Scott Thomas' character. "For the New York sequences that begin the story we used a different color palette with somber winter colors to express the tone of the story. Scarlett Johansson's character, Grace, dresses in clothes that reflect the evolution she goes through. Initially you see her expressing her individuality and her spirit for life, and then she protects and covers herself as she is adjusting. As she gains more confidence, she begins to express herself again."

Bernie Pollack has designed Robert Redford's wardrobe for over 20 films since 1965, including the westerns "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Electric Horseman." "In 'The Horse Whisperer,' Tom Booker is pure, a man of the soil, but he's got another dimension to him in that he's a real healer," says Pollack. "For Tom Booker, I wanted to incorporate some distinctive style, but I was also careful to stay true to the essence of Booker's code as a rancher, a healer, and an intentionally simple man."

Pollack had much of Tom Booker's horse-work clothing tailored to the style he defined for the character and had most of the accessories custom-made. Redford's hats were made by physicist turned hat-maker John Morris of the Rocky Mountain Hat Company in Bozeman. Morris also makes hats for technical advisor Buck Brannaman.

Master saddle-maker Chas. Weldon of Billings, Montana, created saddles, chaps and hand-tooled belts finished with sterling silver buckles from the historic studio of Edward H. Bohlin. Weldon has been making tack, custom saddles and chaps for Buck Brannaman for 17 years.

"When Buck became involved in the movie and the need for custom tack arose, he had the production company contact me," says Weldon. "I don't usually have time to make chaps much, but for this movie I ended up doing a lot of zippered shotgun chaps, tooled belts and tooled spur straps." Weldon's shop is a one-man operation, and the usual waiting list for a Weldon saddle is three to five years. He and Brannaman designed a special saddle tree that is the foundation of the unique Vaquero-style roping saddle that Redford uses in "The Horse Whisperer."

* * *

Following the New York portion of filming and a brief hiatus to allow the snow to melt in the West, production resumed with the company moving to Park and Sweet Grass Counties in Montana in early June. The run-off of melting snow was still substantial, and the crew faced flooded sets and soggy ground for several weeks, keeping an eye on the high water in the neighboring rivers which were swollen above flood stage from the immense snowpack left behind by the winter of 1997.

"We were essentially chasing the seasons for most of the shooting schedule," says producer Patrick Markey. "Although it was one of the wettest summers on record in Montana, in a way, the weather served us very well. We were able to hold that lush green look that signaled the beginning of spring throughout our shoot, when it usually only lasts a month." The production did have to contend with some ground flooding and with thunder and lightning and accompanying winds that were strong enough to knock down tents. Yet, producers Redford and Markey credit their excellent crew with the determination to press on through all circumstances.

"Director of photography Bob Richardson is a real leader on set," notes Markey of the production's cinematographer. "He is a marvelous cameraman and artist with so much energy for the filmmaking process. He keeps everyone focused and on their toes and he attracts a top-notch team around him as well."

Robert Redford was extremely dedicated to realizing his vision for this film with an accurate presentation of horses and horse handling. Unlike many films with horses which center on racing, "The Horse Whisperer" is as much about the animals as characters, and about their relationship with people, as it is about the human characters it portrays.

Producer Patrick Markey notes, "We wanted to approach horse training in the right way, just as we did with fly fishing in 'A River Runs Through It,' so that when people who knew something about horses would go to see the movie, they would come away saying 'You know, those guys did a pretty good job with that horse work.' And for both films, we really sought out the best people we could find to instruct us and guide us, and to make sure we had our methodology correct."

The extremes of action required by the story demanded that the horses be well-trained and familiar with the surrounding chaos of the filmmaking process. Renowned Hollywood trainer Rex Peterson brought his brilliant trick quarter horse High Tower, to play Pilgrim as he goes through the traumatizing accident and its savage result. Peterson considers his horses to be actors in the films in which they appear. He had a total of five horses, each trained to do specific tasks, to accomplish what director Redford needed for the complicated scenes, and to make certain the horses had enough time to rest when they needed it.

Head Wrangler Mike Boyle was responsible for the entire remuda (supply of mounts) and making certain there were enough doubles for High Tower. "I'm a Hollywood wrangler and I believe that you use professional people and professional livestock," says Mike Boyle. "High Tower was the foundation of the whole picture for us because of the things we had to do. All the rest of the horses have been great too, but I do believe High Tower is one of the greatest trick horses in Hollywood, and maybe one of the greatest of all time."

When it comes to the sequence for Pilgrim's accident, it is strictly the magic and illusion of filmmaking that will leave audiences thinking they have seen a harrowing crash. A representative of the American Humane Association (A.H.A.) was on the set every day that animals worked, both in New York and in Montana.

"The filmmakers for 'The Horse Whisperer' made the two most important decisions that you can make to protect animals that are appearing in motion pictures," says Gini Barrett, Western Regional Director of the A.H.A. who also visited the ranch set for several days. "They hired well-trained animals, and they gave the animal actors and the trainers adequate time for preparation. That sets the foundation for everything that follows."

The black horse in the accident scene, the one called "Gulliver" in the film, is Rex's horse Justin&emdash;also known as Docs Keeping Time. He is the same horse who played the title role in the relatively recent film version of "Black Beauty."

While portraying Tom Booker, Robert Redford rides five different horses during the course of the film. "Redford could ride anything that we brought in," notes head wrangler Mike Boyle. "Some of the other actors needed a little brushing up. I think Scarlett Johansson started out pretty scared, but she's one of those people who doesn't say she's scared or show fear. And she made a two hundred per cent change and improvement. She got to where I could put her on any horse on the set and she could just lope off and have fun."

At one point in the story, Tom Booker says, "I help horses with people problems." It is a revealing point of perspective for a healer of damaged horses, and is all part of the art of what some refer to as "natural horsemanship." With Robert Redford and the other filmmakers' desire for authenticity of representation, they asked Buck Brannaman to work with the production as technical advisor.

As close to being a real horse whisperer as they come, Brannaman was a key model for the Tom Booker character in Nicholas Evans' novel. Brannaman is a horseman who conducts over 40 clinics a year all over America and in Australia, and has been starting horses for over 15 years, usually working with over 2,000 a year. His unique methods of dealing with young colts and troubled older animals has earned him international recognition.

"When we started doing research, Buck's name kept coming to the top of the list," notes producer Patrick Markey. "He is the third in a line of horse trainers who use this particular methodology. Eighty-year-old Tom Dorrance was the grandfather of the movement followed by Ray Hunt, now in his sixties, who mentored Buck. Buck is the forty-year-old heir apparent to this training approach.

"Buck is all about establishing a very intimate and trusting relationship with the animal and then never violating that trust," says Markey, who, along with Redford, attended several of Brannaman's seminars. "He shows the owner of the animal how to get the best results from their horse by having the horse trust them, as opposed to being afraid of them. Without sounding too new-agey, people tend to pass on whatever is troubling them to their horse. The horse acts up as a result of them transferring this baggage. Buck shows them how to deal with that stuff themselves and how not to put it onto the horse. He unlocks those secrets from people's psyches all the time.

"I am thankful to have had Buck with us," Markey continues, speaking about Brannaman's continuous role with the production as technical advisor. "I just know that as long as he was right there, off camera, things were going to be done the best way possible."

Markey also noted that Brannaman became very savvy about film over the period of the summer. "Buck and his number one man, Curt Pate, started suggesting shots and ways of covering scenes," says Markey. "They saw different approaches to using the camera around horses, that sometimes ended up being more effective than what we had chosen to do, and they didn't know anything about our business before starting production."

Brannaman, who grew up in a foster home near Norris, Montana, says he always wanted to be a cowboy. Inspired by his loving foster father, who Buck called "the real deal," he began riding at a very young age, and began performing trick roping with his brother when he was 6 years old. Eventually he met Ray Hunt, who became Brannaman's mentor.

"My day job is that I ranch a little bit on the side," says Brannaman. "But for real, I teach people how to work with their horses. I do colt-starting horsemanship clinics, work with problem horses, much the same as with the story in the movie, only I usually have to do it all in a weekend.

"What I have in mind when I'm working with a horse is to consider how the horse got into the situation he's in," Brannaman explains. "If he's troubled or scared or worried or upset, I try to understand what got him there. Sometimes they just start out that way. Sometimes it's a result of poor handling. But if you can understand what got the horse in trouble, and you think of it from the horse's point of view, the solution is there as well. Every horse is an individual, just like every human. You really have to understand them from the inside, and then the outside kind of takes care of itself."

Yet Brannaman resists the term Horse Whisperer. "Because of the popularity of the book, and now with the film coming out, it's hard to find someone who isn't a horse whisperer these days. I'm not offended by the term, but the way I see it, if I went around telling people that's what I was, I'd be a phony anyway. So I'll leave the labels to everyone else. I don't think I need that."

Brannaman lives with his wife Mary and their daughters Riata, Lauren and Kristin, near Sheridan, Wyoming, and has a full schedule of clinics throughout the year all over the country. In spite of that schedule, producers Redford and Markey prevailed in their efforts to bring him on board as technical advisor. "I felt like they were really interested in doing it right," says Brannaman. "I know this was maybe my only opportunity, and the horses' opportunity as well, to have fine horsemanship represented. They were so interested in it happening right that I really couldn't resist the temptation to help them tell the story. Movie audiences are very sophisticated, and a lot of horse people know good from bad. And I think it worked out well."

Make-up is also required at times for animal actors in films, just as it is for human actors. Since several animals might double for one horse character, minor color corrections are sometimes used to match the socks and blazes of the animals for consistency. In the story, Grace's horse Pilgrim goes through a horrendous and nearly fatal accident, incurring debilitating and horrible wounds. To achieve the illusion of this effect, makeup artists Gary Liddiard and his son Dennis Liddiard used state-of-the-art techniques and artistry.

"During the accident, Pilgrim gets big gashes on his nose, in his chest and all over his body," explains Dennis Liddiard. "We started by taking big plaster impressions of the horse, and then we built some prosthetic pieces with the simulated gashes in them that we then fit onto the horse. We made several prosthetic pieces to show the various stages of healing. The additional challenge was that we had to create these prosthetics for as many as six different horses, because different horses were trained to do different stunts for various scenes in the film.

"There was also a branding sequence in the film," continues Gary Liddiard, who has been Robert Redford's chief makeup artist since 'Jeremiah Johnson,' and who has been working with his son Dennis for almost a decade. "We didn't actually brand calves while making the film. The wranglers caught the calves and then we got to shave the brand patterns while they were squirming all over the place. It doesn't hurt or harm the animals, but I will say it was as much work as anything else a make-up artist does."

The Liddiards also created the prosthetic pieces for Scarlett Johansson, whose character Grace MacLean loses part of her leg in the riding accident. Gary Liddiard worked with Novaco, a company that makes prosthetic legs for real amputees. They took impressions of Johansson's leg and built a shell that fit over it. In preparation for her role, Johansson met with real amputees and was intrigued and amazed at the versatility of sports and lifestyles that amputees pursue and succeed in.

"I was amazed at the technology for prosthetics that exists today," says Johansson. "I met a boy who showed me how he works with his leg and how to walk up and down stairs. I watched videos and read books about different people's stories and it was amazing to me how amputees play baseball and ride horses and go swimming and dancing, and are very, very good at what they do." As Grace MacLean, Scarlett Johansson does attend the barn dance that is held at the Double Divide Ranch.

The young singer who is performing with the band at the dance is newcomer Allison Moorer, who sings her own composition "A Soft Place to Fall." "Allison is one heck of a songwriter," notes music supervisor John Bissell. "When we listened to Allison's demo, she wasn't yet signed to a label. Finding her was one of the most serendipitous moments you can imagine."

Finding the source music that would best suit the barn dance scene was only a small part of the work that Bissell did in his approach to creating the soundtrack songs with producers Robert Redford and Patrick Markey. "We began by asking Redford about what musical feeling he wanted with the Western music," says Bissell. "And Patrick Markey had a very strong love for this type of music to begin with."

"The approach to music on this film presented some intriguing opportunities and problems," observes Robert Redford. "Since it has a big look and an epic quality, it would seem to automatically suggest that you put a big score over it. Even though I've been affected by them sometimes, I have never been interested in scores that would lead you as opposed to being a part of the experience. I was intrigued by the idea of introducing Western songs to the film because there's a purity to it that seemed fitting."

"I've always loved the purity of Western music," says Markey, who notes that his musical influences came from the forms of pure country music which have roots in the transplanted Scottish and Irish culture of Appalachia. "Indigenous western music is about ranching and living in the wide open spaces. It's about wrangling cows for a living and the difficulty of that life, and at the same time the tremendous intrinsic rewards that come from that life.

"For the soundtrack, we wanted to create a special album as a tribute to Western music," Markey continues. "Along with established icons of Western music, we wanted to invite other artists to participate by crossing over into the Western realm ... specifically seeking musicians who have a love for the purity and honesty of Western music and who embody that in their work. Don Edwards, who co-stars in the film as Smokey, has this incredible reverence and knowledge of Western music, and he is carrying on the tradition of the singing cowboys lament as the ranching lifestyle disappears."

"A lot of people don't understand that Country music, at one point in time, meant country, meaning rural," explains Don Edwards. "It was string band music. Western music, on the other hand, is not necessarily about cowboys. It's about the West and about the lifestyle. It talks about these traditional values. We don't necessarily sing about dysfunctional relationships. We talk about the outdoors and nature and things like that. Cowboy music was basically the folk music of the cowboy. They were narrative ballads, like poetry set to music of old Celtic tunes, generally from Scotland or Ireland where the bulk of it came from.

"Western music was written music," says Edwards, continuing his explanation of the difference in the genres. "The music that the filmmakers decided to focus on for the soundtrack is very much akin to the subject matter of the movie. They are both rooted in the culture of the West and its traditions and the values. I didn't think that modern Country music would have fit with this project. So when they came to me with their idea for asking some artists to crossover into the Western realm, I said 'Well hey, I'm all for this.'"

In addition to the soundtrack songs that Bissell worked to coordinate, film composer Thomas Newman collaborated with the filmmakers to compose his original score for the film.

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