The Horse Whisperer: About The Story

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"The term 'horse whispering' is a kind of euphemism for a state of being, a relationship between a human and a horse," says director, producer and star Robert Redford. "It is simply a way to be with horses that sends a message of understanding and compassion. Instead of beating a horse into submission, or using punishment as a tool, it's a way of developing trust and understanding. If you want the horse to do something, you begin by letting the horse know that it's okay to be a horse, not your version of what you think you need. It's about understanding who you are and respecting your place with one another. To have that kind of acceptance requires a certain degree of spirituality.

"For me personally, the most important things in approaching a film are having a good story, and having one that is character driven, rather than being driven by technology or effects or by outer forces," says Redford, speaking about his attraction to the project. "The elements of this story that interested me most were healing and consciousness. It was the issue of consciousness that interested me particularly with the character of Annie.

"Annie MacLean has an impressive and courageous energy, and I think that is a very attractive quality in a character," Redford continues. "Yet hers is a rather blind energy because it's coming from a place that she doesn't fully understand ... it is sort of an unconscious and undirected energy. That's a great place to begin with a character who is moving towards vulnerability and compassion and sensitivity. She doesn't understand herself initially, and I think in her case it was because there was no real center. There was something at the core that was missing that she needed to find. That's where consciousness comes into the character. She was driven by what was missing."

"It is very rewarding to have worked with Robert Redford for a number of years," says producer Patrick Markey, who recently produced "A River Runs Through It" with Redford. "I have come to appreciate how he cares so much about the stories that he tells. There aren't a lot of people in our business who feel that kind of connection and commitment so intensely."

Speaking about Redford's attraction to the project, Markey notes, "The story is set in a place that he obviously is very fond of ... The West, the inter-mountain West. And he wanted the chance to portray this ranching family and the values they hold dear as their lives are being somewhat invaded by this proto-typical east coast family."

"This film provided me with the opportunity to show the west not only as it used to be as a way of life, but as it still is in very, very small pockets," notes Redford. "The times we live in are changing so quickly and we mostly have a very synthetic existence. It's almost an anomaly to find real ranch life anymore, or to see it as a way of life where ranchers live in accordance with nature, reaping what they live on, crop by crop and season by season. It was interesting for me to focus on a family that still lives the way they lived 100 years ago, where they farm or ranch the land and yield a crop that sustains them. It was appealing to capture that realistically, not just in seeing technically how they do it, but as much about their behavior, their lifestyle and the ethic and philosophy of that way of life."

"There's a profound sense of family in this movie," says Patrick Markey. "There is a hint of healing and redemption that takes place and I think it comes from the Booker family and the way they are solidly rooted to the world of their ranch."

The origin of the story for the screenplay adaptation, and the novel upon which it was based, began with British author Nicholas Evans.

"I had heard about horse whisperers about two years before I actually got down to writing the book," recalls Evans. "While I was in the southwest of England staying with some friends, I met a blacksmith who mentioned that he had seen a horse whisperer once, and my ears perked up. I knew a bit about horses, but I had never heard this term before. He told me of a horse that had been stabled somewhere for a year while its owners were away. Although the horse had gone away a very friendly, easy, and loving kind of creature, when it came back it was tormented, traumatized, and a wreck. Then a guy was called in and, in the course of an afternoon, he transformed the animal into what it had been in the first place. I was intrigued and started to do research and I found out that this work is a phenomenon that goes back centuries.

"I was very moved by the story but I realized that it wasn't just about horses," Evans continues. "The story I wanted to tell was about a human who, like the horse, had become clouded and lost in the world, and how the love and care of another human being could, in certain situations, bring that other creature back from an abyss.

"I have always had a great love for the American West and I knew that is where I wanted to set the story," notes Evans. "In England, anything to do with horses is kind of oriented by class structure, and for this piece the characters of Tom Booker and Annie MacLean needed to be of equal stature."

Evans traveled throughout America doing research and meeting several modern day horse trainers who are renowned for their magic with horses, although most shun the moniker of "whisperers." Returning to England, he eventually sat down to write his book. After finishing only half of it, Evans was surprised by the extraordinary reception it received at a book fair in Frankfurt, and by its subsequent skyrocketing rise to the bestseller lists around the world.

"There is something about the story that connects with people across many different cultures and in many different countries," notes Evans. "I believe the story is about people feeling separated within themselves, and coming to understand themselves and being healed and unclouded. And central to the story is this character of Tom Booker, who is centered and connected. He isn't constantly looking into the future and worrying about what is going to happen, nor looking into the past and having regrets. He is a kind of healer and shaman who is brought in to solve a set of problems and heal wounded people."

The Horse Whisperer, was published by Delacorte Press in September, 1995, with a first printing of 600,000. The book immediately hit the New York Times Bestsellers List, quickly reaching number one. It was on the hardcover best seller list for a total of 37 weeks. The book has been published in 36 languages, and reached #1 status in 16 countries outside the U.S. Evan's novel has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, about five million in the United States alone (one million hardcover). The Dell mass market paperback edition was published in October, 1996.

Robert Redford and executive producer Rachel Pfeffer became interested in the story while the novel was still a work-in-progress, and they acquired the film rights. The screenplay adaptation based on Evans' novel was then written by screenwriters Eric Roth, who won the Academy Award® for his adaptation of Forrest Gump, and by Richard LaGravenese, who was nominated for an Academy Award® for his original screenplay of "The Fisher King."

"When you're making a film from the story of a book, there are two choices," says Robert Redford. "You can either replicate on film what is there in the book, or you can make it your own. I think if you're an artist it is inescapable to want to make it your own. Nicholas Evans respected that. It was something that I wanted to confront right off the bat and I think it was one of the reasons we got off on the right foot. I felt that there was a real connection when we talked about what it was we had in common in terms of how we saw the piece."

This is the first film that Robert Redford has directed and produced in which he has also appeared as star, and the multiple roles obviously presented a complex challenge. "Redford considered hiring another director for the project," notes producer Patrick Markey. "Yet he realized he was very connected to the material so he decided to act as well as direct. It is a difficult task to try to do either of those jobs well, let alone simultaneously with producing. It was certainly a huge challenge, but he had the vision and the passion of his convictions to carry him through."

"I have never been attracted to the idea of acting and directing at the same time, and I've resisted it until now," explains Redford. "It requires a certain ability to stand outside of yourself and watch yourself, and for me that's neither comfortable nor enjoyable. As an actor, I believe the craft is all about inhabiting the space that you're in, giving yourself up to the moment, and to the person that you're with or the situation that you're in. To me, focusing on that and being in that is what acting is.

"Directing is appealing in a different way," Redford continues. "Directing was closer to what I had done, and to what I started out to be in my life, which was an artist. You look at a scene and your own view of things widens to accommodate detail and peripheral situations. I didn't feel that it would be comfortable for me to have to widen the lens when I was acting with someone. And I was right. It wasn't easy.

"Directing ensemble scenes is very appealing to me, and acting in them is appealing to me," Redford says. "When you're working with good actors ... as all the actors in this film are ... then it's a joy. It's a joy to recognize that you alone aren't going to make that work, but rather that there are rhythms and energies coming together much like pieces of an orchestra do, and that the symphony comes from playing in that ensemble.

"I felt it would be comfortable to play Tom Booker because I understood a lot about him," says Robert Redford. "He is appealing because of what he does, how he does it and what he stands for in his own particular life ethic. He was an absolute product of the land and the West. I felt I could bring a lot of my own experience to that character."

"I think the role of Tom Booker is one that Redford has been cut out to play all his life," says producer Patrick Markey, who has had a long-standing association with Redford. "Tom Booker is a contemporary mythic western character. He's a man of few words, with a calm assuredness about everything he does."

"I think that people want to believe that a man like Tom Booker exists in the world," says Robert Redford. "I think in our culture, we've lost most of our heroes. Our mythology is getting away from us.

"I believe the term 'hero' is relative, depending on who you're talking to and how and what they think it means," notes Redford. "I think that heroes touch something higher and they bring it back as a gift to the people, and then they are usually destroyed for it. To me, that's the history of heroism going back to mythology.

"Tom Booker is a hero because he heals and he saves the soul of something," Redford continues. "I think most healers would be considered in some way heroic. But it doesn't mean that they are perfect or that they themselves are not in need of some kind of healing. In my own interpretation of heroism, one of the things that interests me is that it always comes with some sacrifice. He enters the world and gets bruised and hurt like anyone else. He has a gift that he didn't ask for. It's just there and he uses it. And it takes him to a place where he has choices to make. I find that more interesting than the cowboy in the white hat who shoots ten people, blows on his barrel, moves on and plays cards. I don't buy that."

Casting has always been one of Robert Redford's special gifts as a director. The ensemble nature of this production gave him an opportunity to involve an outstanding group of actors in featured and leading roles. "We were so blessed with this cast because there was not a missing link in the bunch," notes Patrick Markey.

"To me, one of the intriguing aspects about the character of Annie MacLean is the nature of her business in journalism," says Robert Redford. "She is a magazine editor which gives her the ability to kind of bop into any place in the world, go right to the heart of a situation and presume to understand it completely. It is a kind of arrogance to take charge of something. Or try to. Or to get to the top of it. Or try to. But in truth, it was also part of who she was because she was making up for something missing. The fact that she struggles and fails, that she has to accept that she doesn't know certain things and then has to relax and give up and give over, was one of the appealing things for me about her character."

Speaking about the casting of the starring role of Annie MacLean, Markey adds, "Kristin Scott Thomas is finally being recognized as the wonderful actress that she is, having achieved such acclaim from her performance in 'The English Patient.' And in this film, she presents a perfect and enigmatic foil for Redford's character."

"Initially, I think Annie refuses to believe in the impact that Grace's accident could have on her life and on Grace's life," says Kristin Scott Thomas, speaking about her character. "Annie has always been used to being in complete control. It has been her driving force, to gain control and get to the top. As the story goes on, and especially when she gets to Montana, little by little she kind of surrenders and starts to move with life. It's in making this trip and working with Tom Booker, and in watching the horse getting healed, that she begins to accept the evidence of what her life is made of and to deal with it in a different way.

"In Montana, there is so much space and a kind of rarity of people," Kristin observes. "There are so few people there, that relationships tend to be more precise and more concentrated and more direct. Certainly in New York, people appear to have a reputation of being direct and up front and aggressive. In the West, I think that people also get to the heart of things, and in a more human way.

"It is really an extraordinary luxury for an actress to be able to take a character and have her change completely within a film," says Kristin, speaking about her attraction to the role of Annie MacLean. "I think it's a very optimistic film, and a really great family film that parents and children can share. It deals with serious circumstances and serious matters, but there is the hope that we can manage to get ourselves out of the most severe situations and come out smiling. I'm very excited about taking my kids to see it because I think it's the best film that I'm in that they will be able to see."

Speaking about working with her on-screen daughter played by Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Scott Thomas says, "Scarlett is a very young actress, but she's not inexperienced. She's born to be on a movie set. It's extraordinary. And I thought we worked well as a mother and daughter. There was definitely a chemistry there which was a relief, because it's not at all easy to play a mother. And I shouldn't think it's very easy to play a daughter either. It's a very intimate relationship that is difficult to cheat on.

"Working with actors like Sam Neill and Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper and all the others was great, because, like the filmmakers, they weren't flashy," adds Kristin Scott Thomas. "It was all very simple and to the point, much like the film. It was just direct and unvain, which is what I liked about it. Working with people like this, and with the cinematographer Robert Richardson, it makes you feel very safe. You know the film is going to look beautiful, and I think that the imagery in the film is as important as the story itself."

"When you're working with an actor, the joy comes when you ask almost anything of them and they say 'Let's go for that ... Let's try that,'" says director Robert Redford. "You give them a challenge and a good actor will love it. And Kristin loves to act. She is an actor through and through."

"Redford is really great, and a wonderful director," praises Kristin Scott Thomas, speaking about her director and co-star. "I don't know how he did both things ... he just switched hats. It was a completely different experience for me, because he makes you do things that you wouldn't dare do with any other director. He encourages you to really show feelings without the fear of being indiscreet. He made me a braver actor."

"Redford is a wonderful director to work with for a great many reasons," agrees Sam Neill, cast as Annie's husband, Robert MacLean. "I personally like the kind of detail and precision that he works with. He is always ready with new ideas and is very receptive to the collaborative spirit as well. And he is always looking for the contrary, you know, the position that is not a cliché, which I really respect. He is interested in character and people and in all the oddities that are embodied in people. I suspect that probably has a lot to do with being an actor himself.

"There are a lot of people in this film that I admire very, very much," Neill says, speaking of his attraction to the film. "And Robert Redford, I think, is really one of the preeminent directors of our time."

Starring in the film as Robert MacLean, Sam Neill plays a lawyer who is devastated by his daughter's accident, and who discovers he is in danger of losing his family. "The best drama often has to do with terrible things happening to pretty ordinary people," Neill observes. "I think that Robert MacLean finds reserves in himself as a result of these terrible incidents and this terrible accident that happens in the beginning of the story, and I think he deals with them with a particular intelligence and with an absolute sense of commitment and loyalty.

"I think one of the central themes in the film is that of a kind of injury or wounding, or even mutilation, and then a healing," continues Neill. "And wounds can heal. From Robert MacLean's point of view, the possible loss of his family, and even the absence of his family is, almost metaphorically, like having a limb taken away from him. It is painful and brutal and disabling.

"Every family has its own dynamics," says Neill. "In the MacLean family, the father and mother have different relationships with their daughter. Grace is going through a period of her adolescence when the relationship with her mother is changing. Annie has this kind of fierce intelligence and an unwillingness to compromise. A successful life often involves more compromise than we'd like to admit, and I think Robert MacLean is able to do that."

"Sam Neill really anchors the character of Robert MacLean," says producer Patrick Markey. "As the apparently uncaring successful businessman, Robert MacLean could be the sort of guy you would dismiss in an instant. But Sam is such a marvelous actor and he gives that character a great deal of resonance. You have empathy for this guy who doesn't quite know what to do in these difficult circumstances. It was so important to cast an actor who could bring that kind of gravity to the role."

Markey has praise as well for Dianne Wiest, the two-time Academy Award®-winner who is cast as Diane Booker, Tom's sister-in-law and the contented ranch wife who sees the arrival of Annie and Grace as a serious threat to the emotional balance of her own family. "Whatever Dianne does, she breathes such life into it," says Markey. "Her performance is so interesting and multi-layered, and she gives the Double Divide ranch a compelling matriarchal presence and sense of solidity."

"I felt that what might be fun for Dianne would be the challenge of assuming a role that may not be familiar or comfortable to her," notes Robert Redford of his casting of Dianne Wiest. "Dianne is an extraordinary actor and I knew she would go there, and she did. She was a joy to work with."

"At the beginning of production, I asked Robert Redford what he would recommend that I read," recalls Wiest. "My only impressions of the West had come from movies."

Wiest received several books, among them The Solace of the Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich and Riding the White Horse Home by Teresa Jordan, as well as another by photographer and ranch woman Barbara van Cleve. "These are remarkable books about remarkable women," Wiest says. "When I went out to the location, Bob Redford suggested that I meet with Marie Engle who, along with her husband Keith, operate the ranch where we filmed." He said he felt that Marie was 'The real thing.'"

"The Engle family was really a model for the Booker family in the film," notes Robert Redford of the real-life ranchers on whose property most of the filming took place. "The Engles embody everything about the Bookers. They actually live on a ranch in a pretty remote area. They live hand to mouth and season to season. Their whole livelihood is dependent on what they're able to yield in a season from their crop and their stock, and their behavior and their lifestyle and mannerisms are all tied to that."

"It was amazing meeting Marie. She embodied all the ranch women I had just been reading about. She is a woman of great knowledge, kindness, and beauty," says Dianne Wiest. "The depth of her feeling for her property, and the work that she does daily with her husband were extraordinary to me ... it's work that is so, so hard and which they do with such devotion and such love.

"I learned so much from Marie," Wiest continues. "I didn't understand how someone could be so devoted to the land, and not look at it with a sense of ownership. I know they see the beauty in the land, but they are also part of it all their lives and for generations. They work and make their life from it. I was really stunned by it all, and by the incredible nurturing in the men. You think of cowboys as being rough. But they birth the calves, they doctor the calves, and they do it with as much tenderness as any woman.

"I felt so grateful and so much richer for being a part of this life," notes Wiest. "And what privilege to work with Robert Redford and the rest of the cast. The film opened my eyes to a new world and it will remain with me."

Co-starring as Grace MacLean is Scarlett Johansson, who was 12-years-old when the film began shooting and turned 13 in November, 1997. "When I was three, I used to tell my Mom I had a fire in my brain to act," says Johansson of her unusually early choice of careers. As Grace MacLean, Johansson was faced with the challenging role as the cheerful young girl who loses a leg in a terrible accident. Losing her spirit as well, she then has to try to work through a complex and troubled relationship with her mother.

"The role of Grace MacLean is a great part for a young actor because Grace is so central to the story," says Robert Redford. "Her condition and her situation dramatically drives the whole piece. I felt that the character should be urban. There's a lot of attitude in urban kids and they tend to appear smarter than others, and certainly more sophisticated and edgier and a little more cynical.

"When the story begins, the relationship between the mother and daughter is particularly dysfunctional," continues Redford, discussing the interaction between Annie and her daughter Grace MacLean. "Yet they are both cut very closely from the same cloth. Parents sometimes get the angriest with their kids when they show signs of being just like them. Parents don't want to look at that, so they get mad at the kids like it's their fault."

"I think the film is about a group of people who are healing throughout the story, and kind of renewing themselves," says Johansson. "Grace is a very sensitive character. She's very smart and very fragile. She's from New York and very quick, but you have to be careful not to take her sarcastic humor as being mean. When she gets out West in Montana, the difference for her is that it's hard to hide things."

Chris Cooper co-stars as Frank Booker, Tom's brother and Diane's husband. "A little more than 20 years ago I had a small cattle ranch in Kansas, two sections where we ran Hereford cattle," says Cooper, comparing his personal experience with that of his character. "My father and I didn't do as much work with horses, but we dealt a lot with cattle, so it came back to mind as being second hand. And there were a lot of similarities to the characters who were cast in this film with the people that I knew at that time. It had a comfortable, healthy feeling.

"When I first went to New York it literally took me two weeks to step out of my apartment," says Cooper of his arrival on the East coast, prior to his starring roles in Broadway and off-Broadway productions. "I think that goes hand in hand with the armor that you put on yourself to survive in urban life. It has its own reality. When I went from the city out to the location, it was a huge release, but it had its own reality too. You can't pit one against the other. They're totally different existences."

"One thing I didn't want to get into with the film was pitting the West against the East," notes director Robert Redford. "I am a westerner in heart and nature, but there is a lot I find attractive about living in a sharp, tough, urban area. It sort of rounds out your own existence and development."

Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones plays the role of Liz Hammond, the Connecticut veterinarian who finds Pilgrim after the accident, and seeing his nearly fatal injuries recommends to Annie that the horse be put down.

"I think Liz begins as a foil for Annie," says Cherry Jones of her character's relationship with Annie MacLean. "As a vet, Liz has the desire to do the right thing by the horse and destroy it. Yet, she begins to appreciate the way Annie is making the connection between Grace and the animal, so it is with a certain hopefulness that she sends them off on their way to Montana.

"In my career, I had never really wanted to go from stage to screen because it's such a completely different technique," says Jones, who is one of the most acclaimed actresses on the New York stage. "But as I've grown older in the theater, I think my work has simplified, and suddenly I'm fascinated by the simplicity of film and what you can do with the tiniest moments. It's that simplicity which fascinates me now.

"I also had my first film stunt in this film," relates Jones with excitement. "I had to appear to bop the distraught horse Pilgrim in the shoulder with a hypodermic needle, and then to be thrown into the river. I was very macho in the way I threw myself into that river and I was really trying to give it my all. Bob Redford came up and gave me a pat on the back afterwards, and I said, 'God, that was so much fun.' He said 'It's fun doing your own stunts, isn't it?' And I was so tickled that I was talking about stunts with Robert Redford.

"Robert Redford is a masterful storyteller," says Jones with glowing praise for her director. "The common denominator in all of his films is a tremendous sense of purpose and a beautiful fullness of character. There is a generosity of spirit in the telling of his films which hearkens back to the best films of the heyday of American filmmaking. And I witnessed it the very first day he came to my trailer. Each day before each scene, he made it very clear how we fit into the story on that given day, and in helping us to understand we were then free. That's great directing. It was something I never expected from a film director but, because he's an actor, he understands the importance of helping us understand the world."

Western music legend Don Edwards, who lives in Weatherford, Texas, plays the role of Smokey, the Bookers' number one ranch hand. Edwards, who also sings in the film, has appeared in several television shows, but "The Horse Whisperer" is his first feature.

"The character that I play in this movie is a cowhand by the name of Smokey," says Don Edwards. "Tom Booker is really his mentor. I think this character is somewhat akin to the way I am in life. I'm kind of a quiet guy and I'm not real outgoing as such. I've been around ranches and cowboys even though I don't consider myself a cowboy because I don't draw my wages that way.

"I think my character believes in the very same things that Tom Booker believes in, and so we're quite compatible in that sense," continues Edwards. "We have these very traditional values and are kind of purists, as such. You know, just like in real life, I'm a total traditionalist and a purist with my music.

"When they came to me for the part of Smokey, I had no idea that there would be music incorporated, especially my own, being this traditional type of Western music that I do," says Edwards, who had to reschedule numerous concert dates to accommodate "The Horse Whisperer" filming schedule. "I've been in this business, singing and doing my music, for almost 40 years as a profession, and to get a chance to work with somebody like Robert Redford ... well that is just the epitome of where you could go. I had never given acting a thought, not that I was being a smart aleck or anything, it was just too beyond my belief. I'm just a cowboy folk singer, you know, but that's what they wanted. It was amazing to me, and it still is to this day. To have worked in a picture of this magnitude, it was quite a thrill."

Eleven-year-old Ty Hillman, who comes from Sterling, Colorado, made his acting and motion picture debut as young Joe Booker, the son of Frank and Diane, and Tom's nephew. Located through the Colorado Junior Rodeo Association, Hillman was a good horseback rider and was familiar with ranch life. "We brand every year just like the Bookers do, and the riding and roping ... I do all that stuff," Hillman says, who also turned out to be a natural on camera.

Close in age to Grace, young Joe befriends her. "He kind of gets her out of her shell," says Hillman of his character's relationship with Grace. "He likes her, and I think that's the way I understand him."

Already an experienced calf-roper, Hillman spent hours during his off-camera time learning how to trick rope from legendary horseman Buck Brannaman and stuntman Cliff McLaughlin. "Being in a movie was pretty cool," Hillman adds. "Everyone was real nice, and Robert Redford made it really fun. I'd like to be in movies when I get older. I don't know if I will, but I hope I do."

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