"I wanted to make a primal, elemental chase film," says director/writer David Von Ancken. "It had to have authentic and specific action elements to it, but I also wanted it to be an actor and emotionally driven movie. It's an entertaining chase movie, but it's also about finding out what's important and when to let go of things so you don't destroy yourself."
David Von Ancken researched the script for about six months before writing the screenplay with Abby Everett Jaques. To propel the epic chase and primal battle between Carver and Gideon, they needed to have the right catalyst and for that, they set "Seraphim Falls" during the post Civil War period.
"Why would there be a chase? How do you drive something like that? It would have to be an atrocity to compel one man to be so driven by hate in his relentless pursuit against another," says Mr. Von Ancken. "I needed the setting to be a time when the Transcontinental Railroad was being made, when the West was not tamed." The Civil War period and the Western genre provided the historical background for the film's story.
"To me, the best Westerns have a mythic nature to them," he continues. "Anytime you take two men and strip down what drives them to the primal essentials, you have a myth. What we did in this movie was take them into the wild. Once you get into nothingness, you're left with the person you're looking at - yourself, and there's a mythic quality to that."
"We looked at the Western as American myths," says co-writer Abby Everett Jaques. "'Seraphim Falls' was really inspired by that: the primal, universal power of the landscape and the way it strips away everything but the truth of men's souls. We wanted to show it as a world where scarcity rules and everything you get costs you something, and where there's nowhere to hide from your enemies or yourself. David (Von Ancken) and I loved the way this world allowed a kind of searing action that was deeply psychological instead of just gratuitous."
There is an underlying anti-war theme in "Seraphim Falls" focusing on the destructiveness of war upon the individual. For Mr. Von Ancken, it was on some level, a reflection of what's happening in our present world with the wars we are and have been engaged in, and the futility of such conflicts when you step back and look at them.
"On either side of the conflict in the Civil War or in the war in Iraq for that matter, the individuals who are at play ultimately are not responsible for the reason they're there. In 'Seraphim Falls,' individuals can perpetuate horrible acts on each other whether it's by circumstance, coincidence or accident and still be good people. It's really the construct of men - their wills coming together and fighting. And at the end of the day, when you take that away from them, they're just two people out there who probably could get along."
"Ultimately, Carver and Gideon are both good men. One is on the North, one is on the South and either could be the other. The only thing that separates them is circumstance. They are both halves of the same individual," he concludes.
Adding to this, Ms. Jaques sees the story of 'Seraphim Falls" as one about the persistence of blood. "Our modern world is tragically filled with examples of how shedding blood, no matter how righteously, leads only to more bloodshed. Once the killing starts, it breeds more killing, inexorably. If you succumb to that, you are destroyed. Whether you were in the right to begin with makes no difference. Violence destroys and creates an endless cycle of destruction, and the only way to be free is to break that cycle. As long as you cling to an idea of revenge or retribution you are a prisoner of the past, a captive of the very thing you are trying to avenge."
In writing the screenplay, Mr. Von Ancken and Ms. Jaques gave a great deal of thought to the types of actors they envisioned playing the lead roles of Carver and Gideon. The screenplay was sparse on dialogue with the story forwarded through the actions of the actors rather than through words. "There is a soulfulness to certain actors that this script needed because what I was going for in telling the story was essentially little dialogue, stripping away the white noise of conversation. Carver and Gideon are not talkative individuals as characters," says Mr. Von Ancken.
The writer/director found his perfect lead casting in "Seraphim Falls" with Liam Neeson as "Carver," the former Confederate Army colonel determined to complete one last mission: to hunt down and kill the man he holds responsible for a past atrocity in "Seraphim Falls", Georgia that forever changed his life; and Pierce Brosnan as "Gideon," the former Union Army Captain who is the object of Gideon's unrelenting wrath and pursuit.
"Liam was my first choice as Carver from the time I finished writing the screenplay," says Mr. Von Ancken. "We did not write it with any specific actor in mind, but when we were finished, both Abby and I felt he was the best actor to play Carver. Liam is a mythic, iconic figure as a man and also is an incredibly sympathetic and empathetic actor who is embraced by his audiences. As a person and character, you just want to reach out and feel what he's feeling. I wanted to go against that in casting him as Carver, to go against the character that audiences might expect him to play. You take an empathetic individual like Liam and put him in a role like Carver who is a driven vector of wrath, and immediately it's much more interesting."
Producer David Flynn, who managed David Von Ancken and met him at the time of the director's award-winning film, "Bullet to the Brain," set up a meeting with Liam Neeson, and he and Mr. Von Ancken flew to New York to meet the actor. "David and I knew which role we were going to offer him," said Mr. Flynn. "When we sat down with Liam, he said he always wanted to make a movie about revenge. Growing up in Northern Ireland, he had seen a lot of people live with that emotion and always felt a script would come to him in the form of a Western. We asked him what role he saw himself in, and he immediately said 'Carver.'"
"I was always keen on making a Western sometime in my professional life," said Mr. Neeson. "I loved the Western genre from a very early age and have fond memories of sitting in my home in the north of Ireland on rainy Sunday afternoons watching black and white Westerns, usually John Ford Westerns, with my dad, mom and sisters. They got into my blood stream and stayed there."
"When I read the script to 'Seraphim Falls,' I found it to be a real page-turner," he continues. "Carver has gone through the Civil War, an incredible war, when 623,000 Americans lost their lives. He was a colonel, led his soldiers into battle on many an occasion, and has seen war up-close and personal. He's on a quest for revenge for something that has happened to his family. There's something about the nature of that revenge and obsession with hatred that it's almost to the point of killing him. I equate it in a way to Ahab in "Moby Dick"'."
"Carver and Gideon are two men literally stripped down to the essentials of what make them tick as human beings," continues Mr. Neeson. "Ultimately, they reach a point where vengeance is not the answer, and it takes a huge gesture on the part of your soul to forgive someone and then move on. My hometown was very close to Belfast and I grew up amid all the troubles and civil strife there. I remember a story in the Belfast Telegraph about a mother who lost two sons who were blown up by an IRA bomb. She was interviewed after the court verdict convicting and imprisoning the killers and said, 'I know justice has been served but it still doesn't fill the void I feel.' That always stuck with me and I've been thinking about it a lot while shooting this film. There's something about a void of grief that you can feel and I can only imagine it. But I certainly grew up in a situation where I knew people who lost people to violence, kindred sons and daughters, and I tapped into that for myself in doing this Western."
Soon after Liam Neeson was on board, Pierce Brosnan joined the project as Gideon, a casting choice that will give audiences added admiration for the actor's remarkable talent and range and in a role on which audiences might not expect.
Like Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan has had a deep longing to appear in a western. Mr Brosnan says that his fascination with the old west goes back to his childhood days when he would stand in line to see the latest western at his local cinema at home in Ireland. "There are murky memories of black and white movies at the Palace Cinema in Navan," recalls Mr Brosnan. "But I suppose Clint Eastwood in the "Man With No Name" movies..."A Fistful Of Dollars", "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" had the biggest wallop for me as a cinema goer. By then of course the western had moved on from the guy in the white hat and the guy in the black hat and the hats never fell off. The John Ford/John Wayne movies like The Searchers also made an impression."
With this love for the genre it is no surprise to hear Mr Brosnan admit that making a western has always been at the top of his list." I have always wanted to do one and who better to do one with than to be opposite someone like Liam Neeson," he says. "Liam was of the same cloth as I was; we both wanted to do westerns. We had both been brought up on them in our Celtic backgrounds. And the piece written by David Von Ancken had a real elegance to it. It had something to say for itself. In some respects it is an anti-war film. Then you throw into the mix John Toll and Santa Fe, New Mexico....those were all the great ingredients for wanting to do it."
"It was a creative decision between David (Von Ancken) and myself to go to Pierce," recalls Mr. Flynn. "I called his agent and offered him the script. Three days later, David was on a plane flying to Hawaii to meet him. What attracted us the most to Pierce playing the part of Gideon is that we have never seen him in a role like this. David and I were very excited about the idea of casting someone you wouldn't normally visualize in this role."
"I remember first seeing Pierce on television and watching him transform into the Bond character. There's always a control to the characters that he has played," says Mr. Von Ancken. "It's not a coincidence that he was so believable and great as James Bond because he's a very physical actor and very controlled. Yet when you get close to him, his eyes belie the fact that there's something seething going on underneath. I knew he was Gideon from the moment I met him."
"I haven't seen Pierce in anything like this role before," continues Mr. Von Ancken. "He's a very primal actor, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to really let loose. Pierce's performance in "The Matador" opened the door to a new era in his career and in "Seraphim Falls", we took the door off its hinges. It's much more fascinating and interesting to me to watch Liam as controlled, seemingly evil and irrepressibly angry and to watch Pierce let go than the other way around. When I explained it to each of these gentlemen, they actually agreed," concludes the director.
The screenplay complete and commitments received from Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, David Flynn and David Von Ancken brought the project to Bruce Davey at Icon Productions for Mr. Von Ancken to direct.
"I had offers for the script but wanted to direct it myself," said Mr. Von Ancken. "I was offered a lot of money for the screenplay at one point with the proviso that I would not direct. I decided not to take that route. I felt very fortunate that an Oscar® winning producer such as Bruce Davey saw the energy we would put behind 'Seraphim Falls' to make it both a high impact action movie and one that actually says something."
David Flynn had a pre-existing relationship with Icon having worked on the company's Oscar® winning Best Picture "Braveheart" when he came over from Dublin. "David and I met with Bruce and he committed to making the film with David at the helm. And he never wavered from that point. He read the script and it really struck him. Bruce liked the actors we assembled and stepped up to provide the financing to make the movie." Soon thereafter, Stan Wlodowski was brought on board to be executive producer.
"I had done another film a couple of years ago for Icon Productions and Bruce Davey called me asking if I was available. As soon as I read the script, I knew it was something I wanted to work on and with Icon, which is a great company to work with. They give filmmakers a lot of freedom and latitude to make movies the way they want to make them."
FILMING A WESTERN
Filming of "Seraphim Falls" began in October 2005 shooting almost entirely on locations throughout New Mexico. In addition to the film being a different project for both actors, it also presented some challenges: very physical acting in natural settings and limited dialogue - a challenge that both actors met with remarkable results.
Says Mr. Von Ancken, "Liam and Pierce both have the ability to say a lot without ever opening their mouths. With there not being a lot of dialogue in this film, both actors are remarkably expressive with their bodies and with their eyes. Even the way they breathe -- the pain and the forces of nature are the vocabulary through which they communicate to each other. They force themselves through that crucible, and it's a crucible out there. We have made it consciously like that."
"I think they were both interested in this project because there are very few words," he continues. "For an actor, even a great actor, that can be a challenge because you don't have the comfort of everything being prepared for you. I love dialogue, but in this case, the dialogue is the wind, the rocks and the freezing cold; it is their breath, twenty-five levels of how they're suffering, and how they're straining and pushing themselves."
"Movies come from silent screen and that's the power of pictures. Sound comes secondary to me," says Mr. Neeson. One has to trust that as an actor -- you are enough on your horse with this huge mountain range behind you and just concentrate on the thought your character is supposed to have in that moment, not think of anything else and just let the camera see that. I know with certain actors and actresses that can be very scary because they rely on the voice and they rely on communicating through dialogue. With "Seraphim Falls," there's very sparse dialogue which is good. I'm a big believer in a picture telling a thousand words."
"Seraphim Falls" demanded a great deal of physical and behavioral acting from the actors especially filming in the winter in outdoor locations many times at freezing temperatures. "These guys are acting with nothing around them -- just themselves and their will," says Mr. Von Ancken. "And their wills are coming together as opposing forces."
Being back in the saddle for "Seraphim Falls" was a happy choice for Pierce Brosnan who is an accomplished horseman." I used to ride a lot and so I have always been fond of the horses. But needless to say I had not been up on a horse in about 10 years," he admits with a chuckle. "But the horses were magnificent and the cowboys were just the best. All the animals were well cared for and responsive. So once I was in the saddle and comfortable it was just like old times and of course the prairie out there is a great place to ride."
The horse riding for "Seraphim Falls" was not without incident, however, as Mr Brosnan reveals. "The first day we were out we were up at a full gallop. There was a party of six of us and we were taking a full bend when I could see, just out of the corner of my eye, this horse go down. It was Liam's stunt man and his horse had just hit a prairie dog hole and the horse went down and the rider went up in the air. That kind of rattled us all a little bit because accidents can happen. A really good horse person can still take a bad tumble."
Apart from the hours spent on horseback, "Seraphim Falls" was a very physical shoot. "We were in constant motion," says Mr Brosnan. "We started up in the snow and then down across the prairie and into the salt flats. It was bitter cold and in the opening sequence we go right into a waterfall when it was 37 degrees below. It was pretty intense! But doing a scene like that is all part of the craic. You have to be up for the game because you have read the script and you've signed on. So you do it. You just try not to whinge about it...there's always a good whiskey waiting at the other end, or maybe more than one whiskey."
Mr Von Ancken had informed his stars from the very beginning that filming would be arduous. "Part of my initial talks to both Liam and Pierce was that we're going to take you very far a field from the creature comforts of shooting indoors. We're going to support you and keep you warm off camera, but when you're out there, it's going to be you and the cold, you and the rocks, the water, nature and its elements," he continues. Hopefully that transfers into Carver and Gideon in those environs."
"It goes back to the question on why make a Western," he continues. "A Western is one of those few situations where you can find yourself outdoors for most of the movie. You take an actor, you put him out of doors and he becomes mythic. You put him in front of a cliff where he is actually cold, something actually is happening to him that's outside of the script and he will rise. Liam and Pierce consistently have risen to the levels of their environment - and we've taken them to big places in this film," concludes the director/writer.
Nature, as diverse and harsh as it can be in the film, plays an intrinsic role in the story of "Seraphim Falls," functioning like a Greek Chorus, commenting wordlessly and eternally on what these characters are doing. "As in any good Greek Chorus, it points out the foibles of men. And it does just that in this film. A drop of 40 degrees is worth a thousand words. Acting in zero degrees Fahrenheit is worth a thousand conversations with the actors - if they have bought into the concept of going on this adventure. These two guys bought into the concept - and it's been very rewarding."
"The elements of nature raise the bar for the actors and the actors raise the bar for the movie," he continues. "Being out there is uncomfortable. To me, when an actor is doing something besides what is scripted, it then becomes very interesting. Many times it's conscious. And at times, when you're out in the woods in the freezing cold, it's not at all conscious. Sometimes it's just surviving. Pierce lying naked in the snow - that is painful. In a wide shot, you can feel that; you don't have to be close because it's real. He's an actor doing a role but he's also a guy lying naked in the snow. It takes a certain kind of man and a certain type of actor to embrace this adventure."
Says Mr. Neeson, "It demands an amount of physical energy from the performers and I knew it was going to be a challenge -- a lot of horse riding, running about and firing guns. It's pretty physical stuff but I love doing that. It's good to flex those physical muscles."
"Liam and Pierce are very dedicated, talented, immensely watchable individuals," says Mr. Von Ancken. "They have come to this project with an incredible degree of devotion for no other reason than the project itself. Each of them feeds off the other because each realizes the other's commitment to the film. Their performances are concentrated and very authentic. They are absolutely focused, driven and committed. Working with them has been an absolute dream."
While it is David Von Ancken's first major feature film directorial effort, he was able to build a level of trust throughout the production not only with the crew but the actors, enabling them to explore the deep and primal emotions their characters would be experiencing.
"He trusts what you do and what you bring to the screen. He trusts that spirit that you have, and therefore I'm trusting it as well," says Mr. Neeson. "David loves talking about the script and we've had many discussions about the nature of revenge to the big themes of life - mortality, immortality, grief and hatred. I respect his script so much that if I wanted to change anything, even put in a word or take out a word, I would always feel obliged to talk to him about it first. He has thought about every semi colon, every period. He's made it very lean and stark. And as a director, he's very good and knows what he wants yet is very open to suggestions and ideas. I really enjoyed working with him a lot."
Pierce Brosnan was pleased to be teaming up with a relatively new film director like David Von Ancken. " I have worked with a few lads who are just out the gate...writer/directors...they are the best ones because they come with a very textured insightfulness into the material and the performances that they want," says Mr Brosnan. "David's script spoke volumes of the maturity of the writing and the balance of it. He had done a short film called Bullet In The Brain that I saw and that really flipped it for me. It was such a well founded piece. But you just roll the dice and then set sail with somebody and David acquitted himself really well. He was surrounded by fabulous people...from the art department to John Toll. So in that respect it was very good."
Complementing the cast of "Seraphim Falls" are other talented actors who each
bring a vivid portrayal of their characters: Academy Award® winning actress Anjelica Huston as "Madame Louise;" Michael Wincott, Ed Lauter, Robert Baker and John Robinson as Carver's posse hired to track down and kill Gideon, as well as Tom Noonan (who had starred in Mr. Von Ancken's "Bullet in the Brain") and Kevin J. O'Connor.
MAKING A WESTERN
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