Ed Harris hitches onto westerns with Appaloosa

TORONTO—Ed Harris always wanted to direct a traditional western. And, as he says in a Toronto hotel room, it didn’t take him long to conclude that it would be easier for him, as the director of just one previous film, to make that traditional western than it would be to make something that was more technically creative.

“I watched a bunch of films, before we started shooting,” he says. “I had seen a lot of them before, but I started to look at them in a different way. One of my intentions as a director was not only to be authentic to the time it was set in but to the genre. I wasn’t trying to modernize anything or to film it in a way that would make it more exciting for everyone.

"I have only directed one other movie [Pollack], so I am not someone who is going to go whizzing a camera all over the place, and I didn’t want to do a lot of close-ups and not know where I was. I wanted to shoot kind of wide and just let things take place so the audience knows these characters. That is the way we [Harris and cowriter Robert Knott] wrote it and the way we envisioned it.”

In the film, Appaloosa, which opens October 3, Harris plays Virgil Cole, a tough sheriff-for-hire who is brought into the town of Appaloosa to take on a local rancher who has killed the veteran sheriff and all his deputies. He and his associate, Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), have cleaned up a lot of towns and usually keep their focus. This time, the flirtatious Allison French (Renée Zellweger) may prove to be their undoing.

Harris says that one of the attractions to the novel was his sense that although Cole and Hitch have worked together for years, their approach to the job is completely different. He says Hitch does the work because it’s the best job he can think of, and Cole is a man obsessed with the law. Although they think they know each other well, Cole’s attraction to Allison changes everything.

“When Hitch says that he never believed in being a lawman and that he chose it because it was the best way to be a gunman, Cole says, ”˜It means a hell of a lot to me,’ ” Harris explains. “He makes up some of his own laws, but there is a moral code that he lives by and that gives him purpose in his life. The problem for him is that he suddenly finds himself flipping over this woman and that affects everything.

"These are not domesticated men. They are travelling on horseback. They are itinerant lawmen, really, so they don’t have a real home. They have a bond between them in terms of trusting one another, but he has never been with a woman like this in his life. So things change and they have to take that on, and to me that was a key to telling a universal story about this relationship between these men.”