People often find happiness when they achieve their initial successes in their professional lives. But as they mature and adapt to the new circumstances in their careers, their objectives understandably change, and lead them down a different path to diverse ambitions. That’s certainly the case with the filmmaker and characters behind the new Western, ‘Forsaken,’ which Momentum Pictures distributed in theaters and on VOD and iTunes this past weekend.
Accomplished TV director Jon Cassar has stated that as much as he has enjoyed helming and producing television series, he’s happy to have finally realized his dream of directing his first feature film with ‘Forsaken.’ The drama, which he also executive produced and was written by Brad Mirman, features a relatable protagonist who thrived on succeeding in his dangerous profession of being a gunfighter. While his father, who serves as a reverend, understandably wants to shield his son from further danger and help him transition into his new safer life, the Western’s main character is naturally drawn back to his former profession when their town is threatened.
Set in 1872, ‘Forsaken’ follows John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) as he retires from his job as a gunfighter. He returns to his hometown of Fowler, Wyoming, in hope of repairing his relationship with his estranged father, Reverend Clayton (Donald Sutherland). However, he soon learns that the town is in turmoil, as the railroad will be coming through the area. In order to expand the railroad, unscrupulous land baron James McCurdy (Brian Cox) leads a criminal gang in terrorizing ranchers who refuse to sell their land.
The former gunfighter also has to contend with having left behind his former sweetheart, Mary-Alice Watson (Demi Moore), who’s now married to another man, but is still in love with John Henry. While grappling with his past choices and mistakes, John Henry realizes he’s the only one who can stop the the gang from harming anymore of his neighbors and loved ones. However, his father understandably doesn’t want him to return to a life of violence, but his objection puts Fowler’s safety and future in jeopardy.
Cassar generously took the time recently to talk about directing and executive producing ‘Forsaken’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how when he was serving as a director and producer on ’24,’ Kiefer approached him with the idea to make the drama together, as they were both interested in shooting a Western film. Cassar also noted that he appreciated the cast’s enthusiasm to star in the drama, as they positively responded to Mirman’s script. Their commitment to the independent film was also partially a result of the fact Kiefer had a prior relationship with all of the actors.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new western, ‘Forsaken,’ which follows gunfighter John Henry Clayton as he retires and returns to his hometown of Fowler, Wyoming in hope of repairing his relationship with his estranged father, Reverend Clayton. However, he soon learns that the town is in turmoil. How did you become involved in the project, and what was it about the script that convinced you to become involved?
(JC): Well, it came about because Kiefer and I were working on a little show together for a few years called ’24’-maybe you’ve heard of it! Making this type of film was one of the things we discussed between lighting setups on the show. We talked about making our dream project, and we both said, “It would be great to do a Western together.” That’s really how the movie came about; the project was really initiated by Kiefer. But we worked together for almost seven years on ’24,’ so we already had a good working relationship.
Kiefer then had the script commissioned to Brad Mirman, who was someone he had already worked with on a previous project. So Brad put the script together for this film. Kiefer also wanted to work with his father for the first time on this film, because they had never worked together before. So he decided he wanted the story to be about a father and son. The script Brad put together was wonderful-it was not only a classic Western, it was also a touching father and son story. So I loved it right away.
SY: ‘Forsaken’ features a diverse cast, including Kiefer and Donald Sutherland, who you just mentioned, as well as Brian Cox, Demi Moore and Greg Ellis. How did you decide which actors you wanted to work with on the drama?
JC: Well, there wasn’t a studio involved on the project, as it’s an independent movie that was put together by Canadian producers. When you do that, you have the freedom to virtually choose anyone you want.
Since Kiefer and I have both been in the business for a long time, we decided that we were going to work with people we liked and who we have worked with before. That was true for both the crew and actors. Kiefer had a prior relationship with all of those actors. So we didn’t go through auditions or agents to find the cast. It was just him approaching people and saying, “We have this part in this movie. Would you like to join us?”
They all reacted really well to the script. Demi Moore loved the idea of this woman being the backbone of this community. We talked about how her character was an example of the women who went out West and built these little towns. Brian Cox is someone who Kiefer has known for a long time, and is a friend of his. Greg Ellis, who goes by Jonny Rees now, and Michael Wincott are also both friends of Kiefer.
SY: Once the actors were cast in the western, were you able to have any rehearsal time with them, in order to build their characters’ backstories and relationships?
JC: No, we actually didn’t have any rehearsal time with most of the cast, and that’s always one of the unfortunate things about making small films with a limited budget. So we just had the time to work together on the set and block scenes as we were getting ready to shoot.
But what was great was that I did have Donald and Kiefer for a day, and we worked with the writer, Brad. We went over all of their scenes together. They weren’t giving full performances, but they got to read the words, and made sure they were right. Working with the two of them like that was really beneficial. It made them really comfortable, since they have never worked together before, even though they are father and son. So we had a shorthand together when we got to the scenes they were in together.
SY: What was the process of working with the actors on their characters’ physicality and stunts while you were filming?
JC: Well, you always try to give the characters as much backstory as possible. Every single one of the actors also did their own research for their roles, especially with the accents and speech.
On this film, I had Chris Hargadon working on the wardrobe. I also worked with Ken Rempel, who was my production designer. We would show the actors whatever we came up with for them, including the sets. I walked Donald and Kiefer through their family home, and made sure they were comfortable with it. At one point, Donald said, “I would like a chair by the fireplace, because I think the reverend would sit and read the scriptures there.”
So we tried to make them feel comfortable in the story’s time period, from their clothes to their weapons. We did that in the beginning of the filmmaking process, well before we began shooting. So by the time the actors got to the set, there was a comfort level already in place with the time period and props.
SY: Speaking of the western’s costume designer, Chris Hargadon, what was the process of working with him to create the characters’ looks that you wanted to include in the film?
JC: Well, it was all about relying on people who knew best, and in this case, it was Chris Hargadon. He’s a really experienced costume designer. He already had a stock of clothing in Calgary, where we shot the film, which helped. The stock is really for the extras, and he only designed and built the wardrobe for the lead actors.
We did a ton of research for the lead characters’ costumes. Chris sent me a lot of pictures of clothing that could influence the leads’ outfits. The look that Donald had as the reverend was identical to a reverend from that time period. There’s something so dominant about that look, and Donald loved it right away when he saw it. So it was really about doing the research first. Luckily there were pictures back then, but the cameras were just starting to be manufactured. We also found drawings of the clothing from that time period.
But my concern was creating the unique looks for all of the cowboys. Even if you see a picture of the gang, you’ll see that they all have a distinctive look about them. No one has the same hat or vest; they all have a slight different look, so you won’t mix them up as you’re watching the film as an audience member.
SY: Also speaking of shooting the drama in Calgary, what was the process of filming at the CL Ranch there and making the set look like it fit into the story’s time period of 1872?
JC: Well, since we’re a small film that has a small budget, we couldn’t build sets at all. So we had to find a Western town that was already built, and fit the look of our story. The one that we found in Calgary was originally built for another movie years ago, and it’s been continuously used for productions ever since. It was great because not only did it have one street, it had two. That’s pretty unusual for such a small town.
The interiors were in pretty good shape, but we did fix them up a bit, so that we could make them fit into the story for our movie. So all the sets you see are really part of that town.
All the farmhouses for all the different characters, including Mary-Alice and the reverend, were all on the same property. So being able to primarily film on one space, and not have to worry about moving our trucks and equipment, was helpful from an independent standpoint.
The only thing we had to move was for the second unit for the opening of the film, when there’s a montage of Kiefer riding through the Rocky Mountains. We just went about an hour west from where we originally were. But the film was mainly shot in the one location.
SY: Besides directing ‘Forsaken,’ you also served as one of the drama’s executive producers. Why did you decide to also produce the film? How did your directorial and producing duties influence each other, especially since you filmed it independently, like you mentioned earlier?
JC: Well, what it means to produce a film you also direct is that you’re part of the decision-making process. If you check out our producers, it’s a very long list. (laughs) Some of the producers are just on the list because they put money into the film, but they didn’t have any involvement in the decision-making process. I would say about three quarters of the producers you see on the list are included because they just invested money in the film.
In my case, I was included on the producer’s list because I was a part of the decision-making process. If you’re also a producer on a film you direct, you became a part of the decision-making process with the actors on some of the bigger decisions. If you’re only directing a film, you sometimes aren’t involved in making those bigger decisions.
SY: Momentum Pictures released the western in theaters and VOD on February 19. Why do you think the On Demand platform is so beneficial for independent films like this one?
JC: Well, I think it’s something we’re all getting used to as filmmakers. The theatrical and VOD releases became a savior for independent films. On smaller films like this one, it can actually be more beneficial to have a VOD release over a theatrical distribution. Being released on VOD means that more people will see the film. That’s nice, because this is a movie that we all worked very hard on, and we’re all very proud of it.
But I am happy that this film did receive a theatrical release, even though it is a small one. This is a wide-screen movie that should to be seen on the big screen.
SY: ‘Forsaken’ had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. What was your experience of bringing the western to the film festival, particularly premiering it in Canada, where you shot the drama? How did audiences react to the drama?
JC: Well, I must say that going on the film festival circuit was a dream come true. There couldn’t be anything more exciting than premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. We weren’t just one of the films that played at the festival; we were one of the Gala films, and the festival only selects a handful of Galas.
We had a Gala screening in a theater that holds over 1,000 people. We had a big red carpet, and all of the actors attended. So it was really fun, and one of the highlights of this whole experiences. We also received some positive responses and reviews from the audience, which was really wonderful. As a filmmaker, I don’t think you can dream of having anything more perfect happening to your movie.
Written by: Karen Benardello